This month marks the 90th anniversary of the first Lum and Abner radio broadcast. It was April 26, 1931, when longtime friends Chet Lauck and Norris "Tuffy" Goff broadcast their initial show on radio station KTHS-AM in Hot Springs.
No one could have dreamed on that day that the program would become a network radio success on NBC, Mutual, CBS and ABC until leaving the air in 1955. There also were a series of seven Lum and Abner movies produced in the 1940s and 1950s. Not bad for two buddies from Mena.
Lauck was born in October 1902 at Alleene in Little River County. The family moved north to Mena in 1911. Both the Lauck and Goff families became prominent in that part of the state.
"Lauck was expected to continue his father's business interests--banking and lumber--but was more interested in entertaining at local events," writes Kathryn Moore Stucker of the Lum and Abner Museum at Pine Ridge in Montgomery County. "After graduating from Mena High School in 1920, he attended the University of Arkansas, where he majored in business and art. In 1924, he was co-editor of White Mule, the university humor magazine.
"On Sept. 1, 1926, Lauck married Harriet Wood of Hot Springs. They settled in Mena, where their first child was born. Two more were born after the family moved to Chicago in 1931."
Goff was born in May 1906 at Cove in Polk County. His family also moved to Mena in 1911 so his father could expand a wholesale general merchandise business that supplied country stories throughout that part of west Arkansas.
"Goff and Lauck began building reputations as class clowns and popular entertainers while still in school," Stucker writes. "After graduating from Mena High School in 1924, Goff attended the University of Arkansas and the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a degree in business. On April 8, 1929, he married Elizabeth Bullion of Mena. The couple had two children.
"Called 'Tuffy' since high school, Goff traveled to small general stores throughout the area, ostensibly to learn the family business. Instead, he spent most of his time talking to old-timers around pot-bellied stoves. Goff was a gifted mimic, performing in the classroom or on the street corner. His mother later claimed that all the family members were funny, but 'Tuffy' was the only one who got paid for it."
Lauck and Goff were chosen to represent Polk County in a statewide charity broadcast at Hot Springs. Their skit was so popular that they were given a radio show. Within a few months, they were in Chicago performing on network radio. The Goff and Lauck families lived in Chicago from 1931-39 before moving to California to begin making movies.
The radio show was set in Pine Ridge. The community once was known as Waters but changed its name to Pine Ridge in 1936 due to the popularity of the program. Henry Waters, who operated a sawmill and cotton gin, established a post office in his store in 1886. A.A. McKinzie built a general store there in 1904. In 1909, Dick Huddleston built the Huddleston General Store.
The McKinzie store became the Lum and Abner Museum in 1971 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 1984. The Huddleston store, which was placed on the register at the same time, includes the museum's gift shop and post office.
Stucker describes the radio show this way: "Two old codgers (Lauck and Goff were actually in their late 20s) ran the Jot 'Em Down General Store in Pine Ridge. Lum [Edwards, played by Lauck] was a bachelor with an eye for women, and his ego usually got in the way of common sense. Abner [Peabody, played by Goff] was a hen-pecked married man, and his gullibility was enormous. They were civic-minded merchants who never seemed to have any money in the cash register. Their schemes for grandeur always brought them to the brink of tragedy.
"Additional characters were created for later broadcasts. Lauck portrayed Cedric Wehunt and nosey Grandpappy Spears, while Goff became Dick Huddleston, schemer Squire Skimp, shy Mousey Gray, Mose Moots the barber, town-meany Snake Hogan and others. Each character was based on a composite of friends from Waters and Mena. ... Their humor was clean and honest, reflecting small-town life and human nature. The stories had universal themes that haven't become dated. Lum and Abner continues to be a popular program with old-time radio fans."
The original radio recordings were syndicated in the 1960s. Their stories also live on through the Lum and Abner comic strip, which is written and illustrated by National Cartoonists Society member Donnie Pitchford of Carthage, Texas. Pitchford is celebrating the 90th anniversary with a storyline known as "Doin' 90" that appears in print and online. Audio productions of each strip are available. The comic strip has been published weekly for the past decade.
Lauck and Goff did almost 5,800 daily radio programs that aired live for 15 minutes. Sponsors included Quaker Oats, General Mills, Ford Motor Co., Alka Seltzer and Horlick's Malted Milk.
"Lum and Abner began as a lark in Mena, traveled to Hot Springs and grew in Chicago and other cities," Stucker writes. "Hollywood fulfilled the dreams of two small-town boys. Early broadcasts had local sponsors, but soon nationwide sponsors reached into millions of homes. After nearly 25 years of radio, television made inroads into audiences, and the programs were again locally sponsored. By 1955, the two were ready to quit."
Goff died in June 1978 in Palm Desert, Calif. Lauck died in February 1980 at Hot Springs.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.