Friday, March 18, 2016

Keep Growing Wiser

The Hoot Owls was the first local radio program to become a hit, both in Portland and regionally.  The popular show made radio sales boom and proved that radio was a highly effective advertising platform.  It was broadcast on KGW radio from 1923 until 1933.

            March 30, 1923. Fifteen year old Melvin Blank, a student at Lincoln High School and part time newsboy on the streets of South Portland, stayed up late to listen to the Keep Growing Wiser Order of Hoot Owls on KGW radio.  The ninety minute variety show, which premiered in January 1923, aired from 10:30 to midnight on Fridays.  The sounds of the Hoot Owl “degree team” came tinnily through the headset of Mel’s homemade crystal radio set.  Few people had manufactured radios, but enough were making their own in 1923 that regular commercial broadcasting was already well established in Portland.  The Hoot Owls were the first hit radio show in Portland and within two years would be the first regional hit radio show with listeners as far away as San Francisco, Seattle and Calgary, Alberta.  The Hoot Owls, who all swore a membership pledge vowing to “scatter sunshine at night and scatter it good,” fulfilled this pledge by filling their variety program with ritualized zaniness, interesting performers of all kinds, funny, long winded stories and ethnic humor. The unrestrained hilarity inspired the young musician, who was on the verge of starting his career as a performer; Blank premiered as a singer on KGW radio in June, 1923.  Each weekly meeting of the Hoot Owls included a formal portion in which the “degree team” inducted new members.  On this particular night Mel Blank took the oath along with nearly 200 other regular listeners.  Four years later Blank joined the cast of the Hoot Owls as Grand Snicker.
I promise to sleep all day and hoot all night: I will hoot till the limb breaks and then get on a higher limb: to a brother owl in distress I will give at least two hoots, and I will scatter sunshine at night and scatter it good. I also promise to attend the meetings every Friday night at 10:30 o’clock Pacific Time. – The Hoot Owl Pledge

            The Hoot Owls was the brainchild of Charles F. Berg, a San Francisco retailer who settled in Portland in 1912 and owned the high-tone women’s shop in the lobby of the Portland Hotel.  Berg, who was also a powerful force in the Portland Ad Club, was interested in the potential for radio advertising and when he discovered that station KGW, owned by the Oregonian newspaper, was having trouble filling the airwaves late on Friday night, he was excited to run the experiment.  Berg, a committed Mason and a member of several fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Rotary Club, turned to his brothers, especially those with businesses to advertise, for help.  Late in January 1923, KGW and the Oregonian, announced the formation of the tongue-in-cheek order of Keep Growing Wiser (KGW) Hoot Owls.  They held their first formal meeting on January 29.  Everyone with a crystal set was listening and soon sales of radios and radio parts boomed as people equipped themselves to hear the Hoot Owls.
            The variety show mildly spoofed the growing popularity of fraternal groups such as the Masons and the Ku Klux Klan with their zany rituals.  Charles Berg presided as Grand Screech; changed from Grand Imperial Eagle which sounded too much like the KKK. His son Forest was Grand Squeek. Attorney Barnett “Barney” Goldstein gained local fame as a raconteur and humorist as Grand Schmoos. Frank Sardam, an insurance agent, may have been popular for the way he laughed as Grand Scream. Oregonian cartoonist Edward S. “Tige” Reynolds threw in his two cents and did the artwork. Dean Collins, of the Portland Telegram, and Cliff Engle of KGW made sure the show got excellent press as Grand Sonnet and Grand Scribe.  Much of the humor of this time is difficult for post-Americans to understand or to accept, the rest of it often seems “corny.”  But it was a completely new concept for the listeners who flocked to the program in droves, taking the pledge to attend every meeting.  The program’s first charity drive was an effort to give crystal radio sets to people confined at home from illness, injury or disability, known then as “shut-ins.”  The drive was very successful as Hoot Owl listeners bought new radio sets and donated their old crystal sets. Soon every identifiable shut-in in Portland had a crystal set and people started donating new manufactured radios to the program. 
Edward S. "Tige" Reynolds, the popular editorial cartoonist from the Oregonian served as Grand Sketch for the Hoot Owls and provided their artwork. Thanks to

for the wonderful images.
             The KGW Hoot Owls continued to broadcast on Friday nights until 1933, always remaining the number one show in the region.  The only program that rivaled the Hoot Owls was Amos & Andy, which premiered on KFEC in 1928.  The Hoot Owls often hosted popular musical acts and celebrity guests, such as President Warren Harding in 1923; Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, in 1924; Babe Ruth in 1926; and, Col. Charles Lindbergh in 1927.  The success of the Hoot Owls, which became a fixture of Friday nights for listeners all over the Pacific Northwest, proved that radio was a very effective advertising platform.  It boosted revenues for the Oregonian and encouraged other radio stations, such as Meier & Frank’s KFEC to start broadcasting in competition.  The Hoot Owls was not only one of the most successful broadcasts of radio’s first golden age, it helped launch the career of Mel Blanc, the first west coast radio star.
Mel Blank started his career on KGW radio while he was still a student at Lincoln High School in 1923 and went on to a brilliant career in radio/TV and immortality as the voice of Bugs Bunny and hundreds of other iconic characters.  He joined the cast of The Hoot Owls in 1927 and changed his name to Blanc when the show ended in 1933.
            Blanc, who altered his name from Blank in 1933, joined the cast of the Hoot Owls in 1927 and soon the young comic/musician was the most recognized entertainer in Portland.  The “man of a thousand voices,” who gained immortality as the voice of two generations of cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, moved on to his own show in 1933.  Blanc and his wife, Estelle starred in a KEX program, Cobwebs and Nuts, which continued the zany humor of the Hoot Owls, in the same time slot, but six nights a week.  Loyal Hoot Owls listeners transferred their allegiance to the new program and the focus on Blanc soon caught the attention of Warner Brother’s studio and his career was made. Blanc moved to Los Angeles in 1935 and had a brilliant career in radio before going on to voice work in animated films.
The iconic Amos & Andy debuted in Portland in 1928 on the Meier & Frank owned KFEC.  It was the only program that could get close to the ratings of The Hoot Owls between 1923 and 1933.

            Mel Blanc’s career was not the only legacy of the Hoot Owls. They were also instrumental in creating the Police Bureau’s Sunshine Division, a charity organization that still provides food, clothing and financial aid to Portland families in distress.  Grand Schmoos, Barney Goldstein, Police Captain Harry Circle and the one-hundred man Police Vigilantes (later known as the Police Reserve) began collecting and distributing charity in December, 1923 with support from the Hoot Owls program.  The radio program was highly effective in soliciting donations and the Sunshine Division was soon well established.  Although Ku Klux Klan membership was secret and can be very difficult to document, it has been reported that all of the members of the Police Vigilantes were members in good standing.  Captain Circle may have been a member, as were as many as seventy percent of the Police Bureau.  Barney Goldstein, although ineligible for Klan membership because he was Jewish, possibly was a member of the KKK auxiliary, The Knights of the Red Robe, which might have had black members as well. The influence of the KKK was strong in the early days of the Sunshine Division when only “white” Portlanders could expect help.  The Sunshine Division eventually dropped its racial requirements and nearly one hundred years later is still a major source of help for Portlanders in need.
Barnett K. "Barney" Goldstein was the Federal Prosecutor who arrested the leadership of the Pullman Porter's Bootlegging Ring in 1918.  The operation then became the centerpiece of Portland's city run bootlegging operation for the next decade. Goldstein was a popular candidate for office and served in the State Legislature.  He was Grand Schmoos of the Hoot Owls and gained renown as a comic story-teller and donut dunker.

            The cast of the Hoot Owls changed over the years, but Grand Screech Charles Berg remained the leader and the nucleus of the group for nearly its entire run.  Grand Schmoos, Barney Goldstein, prosecutor, defense attorney and perennial political candidate, was an important member of the Hoot Owls from its beginning.  He left the program in 1927, but remained active with the Sunshine Division, Police Reserve, the Elks and the Eagles.  He kept the spirit of the Hoot Owls alive long after the program left the air as the Master of Ceremonies of the Portland Breakfast Club (aka The Ham ‘n Eggers).  Many of the original members of the Hoot Owls joined Goldstein at the regular meetings of the club, where he gained renown as a “donut dunker,” with his own personal two-handed dunking technique.  Goldstein and his friends continued to “scatter sunshine” well into the 1960s.
            The death of Charles Berg in 1932 meant the end of the Hoot Owls.  Even with the return of Mel Blanc, after the first LA radio station to lure him from Portland went broke, couldn’t save the show.  Without Berg, the Hoot Owls seemed to lose heart and the program made its final broadcast on January 6, 1933.  Although they made a special broadcast in December, to support the Sunshine Division’s Christmas Drive, it was the end of the Hoot Owls and the end of an era in Portland.
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  1. Portugal is a Racist country that is not just living in the past but adopting Nazi-style tactics to promote anti-Spanish,
    anti-Brazilian, anti-black, anti-Angolan, anti-Mozambique etc. Racism and attitudes rather than focusing on the fact that
    it's economy is in total ruins. These Xenophobic tendensies arise in poor, uneducated and backward countries when tough
    economic times and sky-high unemployment rates hit hard. Granted, the low educational levels and 50% of the population
    living below the poverty line tend to speed up said processes.

    The extreme right Nazi party of Portugal known as the PNR (Partido Nacional Renovador) has bombarded the country's media
    and has commenced anti-Spanish, anti-black and anti everything else Xenophobic propaganda campaigns on You Tube. Amongst
    their favorite topics are gaining back former colonies such as Macao, East Timor, and even lands ceded by them via treaties
    to other countries such as Olivenza (which has been fully Spanish for hundreds of years) and the Islas Salvages that were
    stolen by them from Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

    There need to be mechanisms in place to combat this PNR threat that is prevalent in the poorest European Union country and
    there needs to be a will both from within the current government and the uneducated citizenry to stop this negative activity
    before the country spirals into a Freemason chaotic paradigm.

    Full Interpol investigations are underway to stop the many cadres who spend their time in cyber cafes promoting Xenophobic
    and Racist behaviours. Clinical psychologist Dr. Hermano Fuzeta has noted the following regarding the issue:

    " Given the deteriorated economic state, and the non existence of meaningful employment opportunities, the already ignorant
    Portuguese man slides back into the primitive state of Ignorance; that is genetically marked and more so pronounced in the
    Azores Islands where Xenophobic and delusional behaviour has been enjoyed for centuries. Moreover, reliving the past allows
    the diseased state of mind to feel powerful worthy, and able to cope with the culturally impoverished surroundings and
    reality of a sinking National identity "

  2. That's pretty interesting, Pedro. What does it have to do with this story?