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by Bob Stepno
In the 1958 series “Frontier Gentleman,” radio drama brought a cultured London Times correspondent to the American West of the 1870s — and in the process explored ethics, bravery, style, humor and a sense of adventure that might be hoped for in professional journalists in any century.
John Dehner, a character actor in films, radio and television since the 1940s, starred in the weekly CBS adult Western as J.B. Kendall, who may have looked (or sounded) like a city dude, but proved to be a man of action.
The show’s opening set the tone:
“Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West. As a reporter for the London Times, he writes his colorful and unusual stories. But as a man with a gun, he lives and becomes a part of the violent years in the new territories.”
In the 41 available episodes, Kendall meets newsmakers like Jesse James, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, among others. He hopes to interview George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, but with less success. From the scripts and acting to the cinematic musical score, Frontier Gentleman was an example of mature state-of-the-art radio storytelling just before American radio drama as a genre disappeared in the glare of television.
The Times did have the biggest news out of Montana in July 1876, the same period as the fictional J.B. Kendall’s adventures, but not with an on-the-scene reporter. Bylined “From Our American Correspondent” and datelined Philadelphia, the story’s lead was “The Custer massacre in the Indian country has caused a thrill of horror…” Perhaps further exploration of the paper’s archives could uncover a roving reporter in the West, but he would be hard-pressed to match Kendall’s accomplishments.
Despite the series title and Kendall’s cultivated accent, this mild-mannered reporter was no London dandy. Described as a former British cavalry officer in India, he was shown to be handy with a six-gun, a knife and his fists, while he spun his prose poems from Missouri to Montana Territory. He even had a flair for language when getting the drop on the bad guys:
“You may very slowly and carefully unbuckle your gunbelt and let it drop to the floor. If you try to be foolish and brave, I shall be delighted to shoot you in the stomach.” (Remittance Man)
Each episode — most of them written by series creator and director Antony Ellis — had narration by Kendall woven through the dialogue. He interviewed Indian scouts, gun-slingers, homesteaders, gamblers, exotic women, a man who herded cats, and other colorful characters. It’s not hard to imagine the descriptive narratives in print, although they might be a bit colorful for the Times.
The introduction to each episode is comparable to a newspaper’s “lead sentence” or a television news story’s opening tease. The endings often tell of Kendall’s filing his story to London — or heading to the express office to see whether his latest remittance check has caught up with him. For example, the episode in which Kendall meets an American newsman, Charlie Meeker of the Montana Telegraph-News, opens like this:
“The great chief of the Sioux Indians is Sitting Bull. He’s a rather difficult chap to meet, especially when he’s preparing for war.”
The camaraderie between the two journalists is obvious, despite their different backgrounds — and Meeker’s hangover.
Kendall: I understand you write for a newspaper… I do some correspondence myself, for The London Times.
Meeker: Hey, I’m proud to meet you.
Kendall: May I return the compliment? Look here, is it true what I’ve been hearing these rumors about a Sioux uprising?
Meeker: More than rumors. It’s coming… Now listen, mister, when the Sioux go on the warpath, the best place for you and me is someplace else…
Kendall: Well, do you think you could find me one of those Indian scouts? Someone to guide me to Sitting Bull’s camp?
Meeker: You mean it, don’t you?
Meeker: What a story! Interview with Chief Sitting Bull. Nah, it’s crazy. They’d kill us sure. Nah, Kimball, the best thing is for you to talk to some of the old-timers. They’ll tell you about him, and then you can send your report in on that. It’s a whole lot safer…
Despite his protest, by evening Meeker has not only found a guide, he’s already using “we” when talking about reporting the story. And on the road, they find more camaraderie in a journalistic discussion of hangover cures, and causes.
The conversation also leads Kendall to admit to having been a cavalry captain in India. The script writer was a bit heavy-handed in naming the American reporter “Meeker,” described as short, thin and round-shouldered, but the plot is about the courage of this somewhat frail and alcoholic reporter.
The ending is foreshadowed, but well played. And after Meeker’s death, Kendall files a story to Meeker’s paper, as well sending his own off to London.
Set in the mid-1870s, the story identifies Meeker as a correspondent for a Montana paper called the Virginia City Telegraph-News. I assume the character and paper were as fictional as Kendall, although Virginia City, the territorial capital, did have its first newspaper by then, The Montana Post, founded in August, 1864. Today’s Virginia City local newspaper, the Madisonian, began publication in 1873. Christine Kirkham, coordinator of the Montana Digital Newspaper Project, graciously checked several databases for me, discovering only one paper with the word “Telegraph” in its title, The Walkerville Telegraph, 1891-93.
Throughout the series, Kendall was portrayed as a cool-headed adventurer, a veteran of the other “Indian wars” — in India, as a British cavalry captain. His suggested cure for Meeker’s hangover involves tea, curry, ginger, sugar and a cobra’s head.
Unlike Kendall, Meeker doesn’t carry a gun. But he agrees to help the Englishman try to get an interview with Chief Sitting Bull, and then — inspired by Kendall — insists on accompanying him on the assignment, rather than let the foreigner risk his life alone. The ending is foreshadowed, but well played, including a brotherhood-of-reporters theme not uncommon in popular culture portrayals of otherwise competitive correspondents.
In this and later episodes, Kendall relies on local journalists to direct him to colorful characters and stories that might interest his British readers, such as the old prospector named Short Horned Tom (in the episode “The Lost Mine”), whom Kendall describes as “the most unwashed individual I’ve ever come across in my life.”
“Adult” westerns in the 1950s were not as “white-hat-good, black-hat-bad” as The Lone Ranger and other cereal-selling juvenile series. Characters could have a beer now and then, but they still couldn’t use expletives any stronger than “son of a gun!” The “Frontier Gentleman” writers clearly had fun with that in an episode titled “The Honky Tonkers,” where one character uses the phrase “son of a gun” a dozen times in the first three minutes. Adding whiskey and dance hall girls, and more son-of-a-gun foul language (with ladies present!) offends Kendal and eventually leads to a fight, a shooting, and an opportunity for Kendall to perform emergency surgery as learned on some distant battlefield. I suspect Richard Harding Davis would have been proud to have him as a colleague.
Historical figures were woven into many of the plots. Kendall just misses Col. George Armstrong Custer in “Kendall’s Last Stand,” a few episodes after the Charlie Meeker story. Jesse James (“Jesse James Robs Kendall,” “Kendall Robs Jesse James”), Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok (“Aces and Eights”) were among other real-life figures portrayed in the series.
Thanks to the Library of Congress and university libraries’ access to digitized 19th century newspapers, students researching the series can have fun looking for accounts or actual incidents or individuals mentioned in the series — remembering that 1958 radio script writers had much more limited research resources. Here’s a Montana-newspapers search for “Sitting Bull” in the 1870s at Chronicling America.
While the introduction to each episode is comparable to a newspaper’s lead paragraph (see list below), the endings sometime tell another angle that rings true — Kendall heading to the express office to see if his latest remittance check has caught up with him. Often, it hasn’t.
In addition to “Frontier Gentleman,” Dehner’s contributions to radio’s portrayal of newspaper journalists includes occasional appearances as John, the oldtime printer and typesetter on “Rogers of the Gazette.”
Coincidentally, along with is scores of film, radio and TV dramatic roles, Dehner also worked in broadcast news. According to a biography at the Internet Movie Database, “As a news reporter, (he) earned his radio station a Peabody Award for his coverage of the U.N. conference in San Francisco.” After “Frontier Gentleman,” he leapt into the next century and played a newspaper reporter in the TV series “The Roaring ’20s” (1960).
Sources and Resources
The copies linked below are from the Internet Archive collection at http://www.archive.org/details/FrontierGentleman-All41Episodes, which also includes an audition with a different actor in the leading role.
The DigitalDeli radio history site offers the Definitive Frontier Gentleman Episode Guide, including thoughtful notes on the evolution of the old-time radio recording-sales business, the “otr” collecting hobby and the uneven naming of radio program episodes by collectors.
Pioneer radio collector J.David Goldin provides plot summaries and cast lists in his Frontier Gentleman page at RadioGoldIndex.com.
The commercial company Radio Spirits sells Frontier Gentleman box-set CD collections, with notes from radio historian Jack French.
- Frontier Gentleman, the first 16 episodes, February to May, 1958.
- Frontier Gentleman: Life and Death, 16 episodes, May 25-Sept.14 1958.
For some radio series, Radio Spirits or other commercial firms have claimed to hold exclusive license from the program’s rights holders, and have convinced the Internet Archive and other online sources to “take down” free or for-sale MP3 collections posted by collectors and traders.
The Radio Spirits collections, however, are of professional CD quality, not compressed MP3s, and include supplementary information, so I have requested that my university library acquire them for student use.
In discussing radio series, I provide links to individual episodes at Archive.org, which apparently is satisfied that the programs are in the public domain. To the list of Archive.org selections below, I’ve added transcriptions of Kendall’s “lead paragraph” spoken introductions, improvising the spelling of character and place names where necessary:
|Ben Wright’s audition version of the “Remittance Man” first episode, also known as “Shelton Brothers”: Audition 58-01-29_Episode00_RemittanceManAud-BenWright — 24.2 MB“They have some rather strange customs in the West. There is a town in Montana Territory where it is against the law to carry a gun. The sheriff lives by this order, but other men can die because of it.”|
|John Dehner’s as-broadcast version of the first episode: 58-02-02_Episode01_The Shelton Brothers –5.2 MB “There is a town in Montana Territory where it’s against the law to carry a gun. The sheriff lives by this order, but because of it, other men can die.”|
|58-02-09_Episode02_Charlie Meeker –5.3 MB“The great chief of the Sioux Indians is Sitting Bull. He’s a rather difficult chap to meet, especially when he’s planning for war.”|
|58-02-16_Episode03_The Honky Tonkers –4.0 MB“There are places west of the Missouri where gambling stakes are high. This is particularly true when the wager depends on a man’s life”|
|58-02-23_Episode04_Kendall’s Last Stand –5.8 MB“Sooner or later every man meets his Waterloo, even in Montana Territory. At the time Col. Custer was meeting his, I very nearly met mine.”|
|58-03-02_Episode05_The Lost Mine –11.3 MB (Kendall interviews the editor of a Montana paper, the Fort Benton Dispatch, for leads on stories from the gold fields.)“There’s a fever in the mining country of Montana Territory. It’s known as ‘gold colic.’ Once a man catches it, it can only mean one thing — life or death.”|
|58-03-09_Episode06_The Claim Jumpers –11.3 MB“In the mining country of Montana Territory, it seems that it’s one thing to find gold, and another to claim it as your own.”|
|58-03-16_Episode07_Big Sam For Governer –5.6 MB“Big Sam Hobday was a very important man in Helena, Montana Territory. He wanted to be even more important and insisted that I write about him. This is what I wrote.”|
|58-03-23_Episode08_The Actress –5.4 MB“It’s amazing what a man will do to himself over a woman, and still more amazing what a woman will do to herself over a man. This story in Virginia City, Montana Territory.”|
|58-03-30_Episode09_Gentle Virtue –5.6 MB“At Deer Lodge in Montana Territory, I met a very unusual young lady. Her Chinese name was Chen Shook Yee, which in English means ‘Gentle Virtue.’ This is her story.”|
|58-04-06_Episode10_Powder River Kid –4.0 MB“There seem to be only two kinds of people in Montana Territory, the good and the bad. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.”|
|58-04-13_Episode11_The Trial –5.3 MB“… trial in Fort Benton, Montana Territory; to say that it was unusual is putting it mildly.”|
|58-04-20_Episode12_Aces And Eights –22.7 MB“In a card game, aces and eights are known throughout the West as a ‘dead man’s hand.’ There’s a good reason for it. And this is the story how the hand got its name.”|
|58-04-27_Episode13_Random Notes –11.5 MB“It occurs to me that in my reports to the London Times there are many incidents which I have omitted; things seen and heard in during my past three months in the American West. Here then, some random notes.”|
|58-05-04_Episode14_Daddy Buckbucks — 11.4 MB“In Cheyenne, I met the richest man in the west. I also met Willie Ringo, and was given a railroad train. This is how it happened.”|
|58-05-11_Episode15_The Cannibal –11.3 MB (Kendall follows a lead from Jack Chase, editor of the Cheyenne Daily Press)“In Chugwater, Wyoming Territory, there is a way station for the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Line. Because of a rainstorm, I witnessed a tragedy there.”|
|58-05-18_Episode16_Advice To The Lovelorn –5.8 MB“I learned two things in Cheyenne. One, that ‘hucky dummy’ is baking powder bread with raisins. Another, that love’s labor is not alway lost, even if you don’t know how to use a gun.”|
|58-05-25_Episode17_The Cowboy –5.2 MB“There’s a saying in the West that a cowboy is a man with guts and a horse. This is the story of one. His name was Slim.”|
|58-06-01_Episode18_School Days –5.2 MB (The pretty school teacher mentions that Kendall looks like her brother, a newspaperman back in Nebraska.) “One of the prettiest women I’ve met in the West was very nearly the cause of violence and carnage. And to this day, I don’t think she knows why.”|
|58-06-08_Episode19_The Belljoys’ Prisoner –5.3 MB (Held prisoner, Kendall hopes sending duplicates of old dispatches will summon help from the paper.)“The events that took place in Shoshone, Wyoming Territory, are still something of a nightmare to me. This report to readers on the London Times will explain why recent dispatches have been delayed.”|
|58-06-15_Episode20_The Well –5.3 MB“In the Plains country of Wyoming Territory, I met a homesteading family. This is an account of how they lived, and nearly died.”|
|58-06-28_Episode21_EpisodeGambling Lady –4.2 MB“I met a gambler in Wyoming Territory and learned something about the terrible war between the states.”|
|58-07-06_Episode22_The Education Of Kid Yancey –5.7 MB“In Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, I learned a little about trail herders. And a lot more about the education of Kid Yancey.”|
|58-07-13_Episode23_Justice Of The Peace –5.8 MB (A local editor, Cary Chase, editor of the Cheyenne Daily Press, tips Kendall to a story about a new justice of the peace — one of the first women to hold the position in the U.S.A.) “I met a justice of the peace in Wyoming Territory and saw two kinds of justice done.”|
|58-07-20_Episode24_Mighty Mouse –5.9 MB (Kendall meets Jesse James.)“In Laramie, Wyoming Territory, I met a square-jawed sheriff named Will Harper and his slack-jawed deputy named Clem. I also lost $20.”|
|58-07-27_Episode25_Mighty Tired –7.2 MB“My second encounter with the Jesse James gang was a little more fortunate than my first. This is what happened.”|
|58-08-03_Episode26_Nebraska Jack –5.8 MB“I feel that I cannot leave Wyoming Territory without describing my encounter with Nebraska Jack and his remarkable family.”|
|58-08-10_Episode27_The Cat Man –22.8 MB“I left Cheyenne without my luggage and in company with a wild Irishman and his even wilder cargo of freight.”|
|58-08-17_Episode28_Wonder Boy –22.6 MB“There are many claims to the title of fastest gun in the West. I think that in Deadwood, Dakota
Territory, I may have met him.”
|58-08-24_Episode29_Belle Siddon’s Encore –22.9 MB“Once again, I met a lady named Belle. And learned about a gentleman named Archie McLaughlin. This, taking place in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.”|
|58-08-31_Episode30_Belle Siddon Strikes Back –22.8 MB“It’s a never ending source of amazement to me what a woman will do for a man. This happened in Dakota Territory.”|
|58-09-07_Episode31_The Last Of Belle Siddons –22.7 MB“At Little Cottonwood Creek, I saw a man whose life wasn’t worth $10,000, not even to himself.”|
|58-09-14_Episode32_A Horse For Kendall –5.8 MB“In Deadwood, I learned that a man will risk anything on what he considers a good gamble.”|
|58-09-21_Episode33_Indian Lover –11.4 MB“I learned something of courage, integrity and Indian affairs. This, in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.”|
|58-09-28_Episode34_The Golddigger –5.9 MB“In the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, I met a love sick miner and got bitten by the gold bug.”|
|5.8 MB58-10-05_Episode35_The Librarian —“Last week, I reported an incident involving a gold claim. This is the story of an altogether different type of claim.”|
|58-10-12_Episode36_Aces And Eights –5.7 MB“In a card game, aces and eights are known throughout the West as a dead man’s hand. There’s a good reason for it, and this is the story of how the hand got its name.”|
|58-10-19_Episode37_The Preacher –5.3 MB“Before I left Deadwood in Dakota Territory, I saw the beginning of winter, and the end of a man.”|
|58-10-26_Episode38_The Rainmaker –5.3 MB“There is a section of Kansas in which I shall never be welcome. This is the reason for it.”|
|58-11-02_Episode39_Nasty People –5.2 MB“In Kansas, I found shelter for the night, which led to a number of rather awkward incidents. This is what happened.”|
|58-11-09_Episode40_Holiday –4.0 MB“In Missouri, I saw a thousand people come to witness a living man’s funeral.”|
|58-11-16_Episode41_Random Notes –5.3 MB“It occurs to me that in this, my last report to the London Times, there are many incidents which I have omitted — things seen and heard during these several months on my journeys through the American West. Here then, some random notes.”|