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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Monday, January 25, 2016

Escape Artist; The Continuing Adventures of Jack Laird


Jack Laird was serving a life sentence in the Oregon State Prison for the 1918 murder of Frank Twombley in Portland when he escaped in 1934. Oregon State Archive.
            “Haven’t you learned yet that crime doesn’t pay?” Kate Michener asked her son Elliott, better known as Mickie, when he visited her shabby Spokane apartment in fall 1934.  Mickie told his mother that he had learned the lesson, but he was lying.  He and his partner in crime, Richard “Dick” Franseen, who had both been released from the Oregon State Prison less than a year before, had never stopped committing crimes.  Mrs. Michener didn’t believe her son and she didn’t trust him. When Mickie and Dick were ready to leave for Everett, WA to visit Mickie’s brother Ashley, they left his mother with a ten dollar bill to cover expenses.  The aging woman was afraid to spend the bill because she was sure that her son had gone into counterfeiting.
            She was right not to trust him. Just weeks before Mickie and Dick, who both had extensive printing experience from their time in prison, had held a Duluth, MN engraver at gunpoint and forced him to create a plate for printing ten dollar bills.  They most likely had a stack of fake tens in their luggage. The cash was for financing a prison break and the crime spree they planned once they sprung their friend Jack Laird from the prison in Salem.
            Jack Laird (real name John Giles) was serving a life sentence for the murder of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Twombley during a botched robbery on the Interstate Bridge in 1918. After seventeen years Jack Laird was considered a “model prisoner.” Head of the prison print shop and editor of the institution’s magazine, Laird was also a trusty allowed to work unsupervised outside the prison grounds on survey jobs.  He was a meticulous, almost obsessive, planner and he had already agreed on an escape plan before Michener and Franseen were released after serving eight years each for armed robbery.


Elliott “Mickie” Michener and Jack Laird became close friends while in prison at Salem.  Together they wrote two dozen adventure stories which were published in pulp magazines.  Federal Prison Archive.
            Mickie and Dick had known each other for years, after meeting in the Idaho State Industrial School, a reformatory for wayward boys.  Dick had been a troubled young man involved in minor crimes, but Mickie had already committed a series of robberies, starting at the age of ten.  At fourteen he had stolen more than $14,000 from the payroll of a Philadelphia factory where he worked.  After being paroled into the custody of his father, a mine worker in Couer d’Alene, ID the incorrigible young man stole more than $12,000 in Liberty bonds from his father and ran off to British Columbia.  After a brief spree, Mickie had been sentenced to the reformatory.  Mickie was released from the reformatory when he enlisted in the Army and served briefly at Fort Lewis.  When he was released from the Army in 1926 he and Dick committed a series of armed robberies in Portland and entered the Oregon State Prison.

Richard “Dick” Franseen met Elliott Michener in the Idaho State Reform school when they were teenagers.  They became life-long friends and partners in crime. Federal Prison Archive.
            Weeks after their arrival, in July 1926, Mickie and Dick broke out and had four days of freedom before being captured.  After the brief escape they were assigned to the print shop where they befriended Jack Laird.  Their escape had been impulsive, but the next one would be meticulously planned and carefully executed.  The three prisoners modeled excellent behavior and became trusties.  Mickie and Jack found that they had real talent for writing stories together and over the next four years sold more than two dozen of them to pulp magazines, where their western character Black Bill became very popular.  In 1933 Mickie, who had been sentenced to ten years, was released for good behavior.  Dick followed a few weeks later.
            After a short stay with his mother, Mickie went east to Minnesota, where Dick’s family lived, and the two men committed a series of crimes in the twin cities before heading west again.  Near the end of October, 1934 they visited Mickie’s brother in Everett, WA and placed a classified ad in the Daily Herald there, purchasing a mail subscription to the paper for their friend in prison in Salem.  The ad was a predetermined code and it told Jack Laird to be ready to go on November 7th.  The escape was simple.  Laird was working unsupervised on a surveying job outside the prison grounds.  Mickie and Dick drove by and picked him up.
            By the time the guards realized that Laird was gone, the three friends were back in Washington, where they laid low for several weeks.  While waiting for the heat to die down, they made plans for a series of mail-train robberies.  Although the jobs were meticulously planned, once again the failure to gather accurate intelligence doomed them.  On December 29, the three men boarded a train near Bucoda, WA.  Frustrated by the fact that the passenger train had no mail car, the three robbers forced it to stop and escaped into the woods empty handed.
            Heading east, the Laird Gang recruited more members and by the time they pulled their next job there were as many as seven men involved. On February 7, 1935 the gang boarded a Denver & Rio Grande Western train as it slowed for a crossing on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.  This time the train did have a mail car, but a confrontation with the engineer forced Laird to fire a couple of shots, alerting the mail clerks to the robbery in progress.   When the robbers ordered the clerks to open the locked door of the mail car, they answered with gunfire and the train robbers were once again forced to retreat empty handed.
            The gang moved north to Milwaukie, WI, where they held up another print shop and forced an engraver to make a plate for printing $20 bills. They also committed several other armed robberies and were probably trying to print counterfeit money when Laird was picked up by the Milwaukie police.  Michener and Franseen fled Milwaukie with some of the other gang members.  Laird was wanted in Oregon, but the Feds had precedence and he was convicted of mail robbery and sentenced to thirty five years in Federal prison.  He was sent to McNeil Island penitentiary in the Puget Sound near Tacoma, WA.  The remnants of his gang had also fled to Tacoma, where they kidnapped 9-year-old George Weyerhaeuser, releasing him after being paid a ransom of $200,000.  Members of the kidnapping gang were captured, but police never connected Michener and Franseen to the crime and they remained free.

Alcatraz Island was opened as a Federal prison in 1935 to house the most violent and escape-prone prisoners.  In 1945 Jack Laird became the first prisoner to successfully escape from the island, although he was only free for less than an hour. Federal Prison Archive.
            At McNeil Island, Laird failed in an attempt to escape and was transferred to the new maximum security prison which had just opened on an island in San Francisco Bay.  The “American Devil’s Island,” Alcatraz was considered to be “escape proof” and it housed the most violent and escape-prone prisoners in the Federal system.  Laird was transferred to the new prison when it opened and was one of the original prisoners to be sentenced to The Rock.
            Michener, who is alleged to have written the Weyerhaeuser ransom note, and Franseen fled east once again, committing several robberies in Montana and Minnesota before returning to Milwaukie, where they were both arrested in late 1935.  Sentenced to 35 years in the Wisconsin State Penitentiary, both men were convicted of counterfeiting in 1937 and sentenced to 30 years each in Federal prison.  Michener was sent to Leavenworth in Kansas and Franseen was sent directly to Alcatraz.  After a failed escape attempt Michener was sent to the The Rock in 1941 and the three friends were reunited. Michener and Franseen modeled excellent behavior and both became trusties, assigned to the prison’s gardens, where they made a lasting mark on Alcatraz and invented several gardening tools before they were finally released in the early 1950s.
            Jack Laird was not quite ready to settle down.  After a failed appeal, which claimed his conviction for “mail robbery” was erroneous because none of his robberies had been successful, Laird became the first prisoner to escape from Alcatraz and successfully leave the island before being caught.  On July 31, 1945, he executed another obsessive plan, dressing in an Army uniform he had carefully put together by pilfering laundry over nearly two years, he boarded a military ferry to Fort McDowell on nearby Angel Island.  Although he was captured within an hour and never left the military base, Laird had made the first successful escape from the escape-proof maximum security prison.
            That was it, for Jack Laird.  He settled down and became a trusty and model prisoner, like his two friends who worked in the garden.  Mickie and Dick successfully appealed their conviction, which had given them 15 years for making the printing plate and 15 years for counterfeiting the money, claiming that the two crimes could not be separated.  They were both released in 1952 and found work on a farm in Wisconsin where they filed for patents on their gardening equipment and bragged of having their own cars and “fat wallets.”  Michener never gave up on his friend Jack Laird and paid for attorneys and wrote several letters asking for his freedom. In a 1952 letter to Oregon Penitentiary Warden Virgil O’Malley, Michener cited his job at Quality Park Farms, and the trusted positions he and Franseen held there as evidence that even those with “long bad records” could be reformed.

Jack Laird returned the Oregon State Prison in 1952 and was paroled from his murder sentence in 1954.  At the age of 59 he had spent less than two years as a free man since his twentieth birthday. Oregon State Archive.to
            By that time Laird had finished his Federal sentence and been returned to the Oregon State Prison to complete his life sentence for murder.  Nearly sixty years old, Laird’s health was not good and he was a very calm and quiet prisoner.  He was paroled in 1954 and moved to Los Angeles, where he was employed by the Western Litho Company, as a print shop worker.  Elliott Michener relocated to El Monte, CA, near Los Angeles, in 1955 and the two friends were again reunited.  In 1962 they patented a system for training race horses and retired from working.  Jack Laird died at the age of 84 in 1979.  Richard Franseen, who had remained in Wisconsin, passed away in 1985 and Mickie Michener died at the age of 87 in 1993.

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