by Ronald L. Smith
Here's the shrine to SMILIN' ED (complete with my colorized portrait above...I spare no expense on this website!)
"The Father of Froggy" was born in Atlantic City, Georgia. His father was a minister and the little smiler was singing in church at the age of three. He quickly learned how to play both drums and piano.
Ed was very athletic in his teens, and after attending William Jewel College, he did some prize fighting. He also was ready to fight for his country in World War I. He nearly didn't get out of the army alive.
No, it wasn't the Germans...it was an incident in Arkansas! According to an NBC press bio (issued during the television show era), "A troop train on which he was traveling was wrecked in Arkansas by a German sympathizer and Ed wound up in a river. When he was pulled out, an Army surgeon pronounced him dead, but a buddy finally revived Ed with artificial respiration."
After his Army service, Ed sang for various evangelists and got his first radio show in Atlanta. The year was 1922. The NBC affiliate, WSB, needed someone to fill in when the scheduled performer failed to show up, and soon the affable Ed was regularly singing and telling anecdotes for a living.
Married in 1928 to his wife Ruth, family man Ed joined the CBS network in 1932, and in 1937 moved to NBC as their "Sunshine Melody Man," offering hymns and uplifting messages.
The Smiler's blend of "songs, humor and philosophy" was aired over network affiliates in the 5:30 to 6pm time slot, and typical guests included the Doring Trio, The Four Grenadiers, The Campus Choir and the Rhythmaires.
In New York he was heard over WJZ, but he was far from the Big Apple; the show originating in Chicago. He was living in Elk Rapids, Michigan.
Show times varied over the years, as did the sponsors. At one point he shifted to 10:30 am for a fifteen minute program sponsored by the Air Conditioning Training Corporation of Youngstown, Ohio (a correspondence school).
He was a young god-fearin' fellow with quite a future, as this photo would indicate...
Variety reviewed his fifteen minute show, noting that aside from such hymns as "God Understands," he "unloads a hokey hodge-podge of songs and you-know-me-I wouldn't-steer-you-wrong-blather."
Variety quoted Ed's patter as including this line: "'Are ya gitting what ya want out o' life? Maybe ya present job is beneath yer ability and dignity.'"
Ed's helpers did not include Froggy or Buster Brown, just Irma Allen on the organ or Del Owen on the piano.
But even when McConnell had become famous to kids as "Smilin' Ed," he continued to host adult programs for religious adults. For instance, while the Buster Brown show was running, Ed presided over a five minute show sponsored by the American Poultry Journal! It reached over 50 stations. Variety reviewed it:
"Anyone who's been laboring under the impression that a dash of American folk music and a hymn or two is strictly for farm listeners is apparently off the beam, because here's a series of 48 shorties that two metropolitan stations - Chicago's NBC flagship, WMAQ and Minneapolis' MCCO-CBS have latched on to for a 16 week ride....
"Packaged by E. H. Brown Agency for American Poultry Journal, (transcription) disks which feature two songs apiece by Smilin' Ed McConnell, with Irma Glen accompanying on the Hammond, are blanketing the east and midwest now. McConnell plugs the mag ("If you've got a poultry problem, write to APJ's Problem Corner and get a personal reply from the editor...send in a subscription too, only fifty cents for two years!") and sings.
"Cornfed delivery of a song like "Come Along My Mandy" and hymn "When Cares of Life Distress You" on one platter, cues the general format, but the star of NBC's live "Buster Brown" airer knows how to put over the old "neighborly feeling." And he's no slough at plugging the Journal it might be added."
Another Smilin' Ed show that turned up for a while was a fifteen minute program sponsored by the Purity Baking Company. Once again, let's hear what Vareity had to say about it:
"One of the veterans of radio, Ed McConnell mines the rich veins of American sentiment among those who are white-haired, churchy, rural and simple. He has a disarming style that has been analyzed in these columns on previous occasions and for other sponsors. This show differs only that he sticks to hymns and is necessarily serious in comment, with none of the semi-light homefolksy gab he could more appropriately introduce in a framework not devoted to ecclesiastical music alone.
"Aiming at a selective audience, the program will no doubt do well. McConnell puts it o a personal basis. Even while telling his listeners this is one program that will not "be cluttered up with long-winded advertising" he is sledge-hammering the important thought - no chekee no hymnee. "My friends who love me will support me by buying Tasty Bread" he announces..." "McConnell has a good Epworth League baritone and a down homoe rhetorical sloppiness. It's "you-all" or "ya" and no fuss. In fact, this is about the most calculatedly unpretentious program of the season. MCConnell is probabliy the most humble man in America, making $100,000 or better, a year."
And alot of that money was due to the "Buster Brown Show" and Froggy the Gremlin. For this show, Ed had the right sponsor, and great support from producer Frank Ferrin, writer Hobart Donavan (who also wrote the Buster Brown comic book giveaways) and director Arthur Jacobson.
When Ed started his hit kiddie show, radio audiences knew Buster Brown faintly...from a 1929 radio series on CBS. By the time Smilin Ed' got his kiddie show, Buster Brown was no longer well remembered as a comic strip, the character was merely the trademark symbol for a shoe company.
Buster Brown and Smilin' Ed collided in 1944, with "Smilin' Ed's Buster Brown Gang" taking to the airwaves on September 2nd. The show continued on NBC radio every Saturday morning at 11:30 through April 11, 1953.
The format rarely varied. There was an adventure story to open the show, a lot of plugs for Buster Brown shoes, and finally towards the end, Froggy the Gremlin might sing a song or annoy a guest (such as Shortfellow the Poet or Alkali Pete the Cowboy). Midnight the Cat actually spoke a few lines now and then, and Smilin' Ed was always prone to sing a novelty song (or two).
Yes, Ed would invite Froggy to come out and make make himself visible by plunking his magic twanger!
"Plunking" may have come from Ed's habit of plunking the strings on his piano to emphasize some of the action in his stories. (The piano was actually named "Grandy the Piano," as if it was alive.)
Ed was the voice of Froggy, putting on a low, gruff, Popeye-like croak.
However...whenever Ed had to sing a duet WITH Froggy, announcer Archie Presby was the voice of Froggy. And when there was a live audience, Archie would sometimes dress up in a frog costume and carry on to the delight of the screaming kids.
Presby was a staff announcer for NBC. Back in 1937 he performed his duties on a radio variety show called "Bughouse Rhythm." Variety reviewed the show and noted: "Program is nicely laid out, in that quaint croaking narrator, G. Archibald Presby, treats each (jazz) player with dignity...all are introduced and referred to as 'Mr.'"
The full cast of the radio show included June Foray, Wendall Noble, Conrad Binyon, John Dehner and Jimmy Ogg. They took part in the adventure stories. June was called upon to voice Midnight and Bud Tollefson, the sound effects engineer, growled the voice of Tige the Dog.
Smilin' Ed used the show to promote not only the Buster Brown shoes, but the comic books, which featured Ed and usually a little story involving the "Buster Brown Gang" of Midnight, Squeaky and Froggy. To his credit, Ed would tell the kiddies that they could go to their local store and get a comic book WITHOUT having to make a purchase!
The comic books had many premiums to offer, including a Buster Brown Gang neckerchief and various games and trinkets. There were even records for sale featuring Ed and his novelty tunes, most of which he played on his radio show. (Would you believe that in July of 2002 one in "near mint" condition sold for over $150 on eBay??)
Here's one of the records with a drawing of Froggy and the rest of the gang!
And here's a picture of the neckerchief bandana, which was sold in the Buster Brown comic books and had big Ed prominently pictured in the middle. Ed's comic books always had him play the literal fall guy to Froggy's tricks.
These days the early Buster Brown comic books are fairly rare, but most of the first dozen go for less than ten bucks (unless in mint condition). The other numbers, through #43, can sometimes be had for five bucks or less. Froggy was sometimes even on the cover along with the rest of the gang!
Smilin' Ed was the one who originally brought Froggy and the gang to television, and some of the shows were filmed in primitive color. He was one of the kiddie world's most beloved and jolly fat men (he was six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds). But the hefty, aging days of The Smiler were numbered, and the end came in 1954. Andy Devine took over the show and it's "Andy's Gang" that most people remember.
Smilin' Ed still owned the rights to all his characters, and these rights went to his estate, which probably consisted of his two children, Mary Jane and Jimmy.
Hopefully we'll be able to keep adding to this biography, collecting more photos and perhaps some information on how and why Smilin' Ed created Froggy the Gremlin. I hope you come back and visit again, I do, I do...