Beginning April 6, 2014, and on the first Sunday of each subsequent month, we at The Tesla City Stories have been presenting an evening of live “radio” theater derived from the recently uncovered archives of the ultra-obscure Tesla Broadcasting Company (1943-1945). It’s “pop archaeology” as performance art, or, more simply, a fun night of vintage entertainment!
The shows of the TBC run the gamut from sitcom to thriller, from mystery to romantic-comedy, with forays into westerns, sci-fi and horror to boot. But all of these shows, regardless of genre, are tied to the fictional locale of Tesla City. That’s part of what makes the output of the TBC so unique and sought-after by historians and collectors.
So how did we come across these rarities in the first place?
The short version is this: after years of armchair detective work (and unbelievable luck), I, that is Brendan Jones, came into the possession of a box full of transcripts of the shows of the TBC. Knowing that these long-forgotten gems hadn’t been heard by audiences since the Forties, I was motivated to put together a cast of my talented friends and begin performing the TBC shows for audiences at Portland’s new Fremont Theater!
But, for those of you who wouldn’t mind the longer, more autobiographical tale of how I became wrapped-up with the TBC and their programs – and how I eventually found these scripts, read on!
In March of 2013, just a couple of weeks before my 44th birthday in fact, I received a package at work. This was rare as most people who would be sending me mail know my home address. Inside this box, packed with little care, was a stack of wrinkled and faded mimeographed pages which, as I scanned through them, proved to be the best pre-birthday present I could’ve hoped for. These were transcripts, copied at least forty years ago from originals that were, by that time, thirty years old themselves. Transcripts of a series of radio shows, all long-forgotten. Those scripts I was holding in my hands are the only remaining record (as far as know) of the amazing output of the most obscure radio network in American broadcasting history.
The labyrinthine path those scripts took to my mailbox will be unraveled momentarily. Why I was so obsessed with acquiring them in the first place is easier to explain. Thanks primarily to my big brother Robin who got me hooked on the radio adventures of The Shadow when we were just kids listening to crackly, old recordings on our Tandy cassette deck, I developed a lasting love of this obsolete art form that had mostly died out in our parents day. Though I’m an aficionado of pop culture in all it’s forms, I became especially drawn to the “TV before TV.” It was the primary form of entertainment in American households through the Great Depression and into the war years; what became known as the golden age of radio theater.
Over the years of my childhood and adolescence, while idly studying the histories of the programs most of us are somewhat familiar with from that period – The Jack Benny Show, The Lone Ranger, The Inner Sanctum, Fibber McGee & Molly, etc. – I would occasionally run across fleeting references to the shows of a short-lived network with an intriguing name. Shows that shared a city, shows where the characters could (and did) weave in and out of each other’s programs – leading roles in one, cameos in another, their story lines sharing a localized continuity.
That’s what initially drew me to these long-forgotten relics of the radio age, the concept of a “shared universe” of radio drama. It’s one thing for George Trendle to create a grand-nephew for his Lone Ranger and call him the Green Hornet, but it’s another to populate an entire programming slate with overlapping characters and plots, tying together sitcoms with thrillers, romantic-comedies with detective yarns. It was an audacious experiment that, sadly, never gained footing with the listening audience.
(For more information on the history of the Tesla Broadcasting Company and its shows, be sure to check out the “A HISTORY OF THE TBC” tab!)
How I, as a burgeoning obsessive, came into the possession of these long-lost TBC scripts, is a convoluted tale that begins in the dark days of 1998.
I had just moved from San Francisco to L.A. and, while looking for a job, I had a lot of free time to surf the internet on my fancy Gateway PC. Not that I could afford internet access, but I had a stack of those “150 free hours of AOL” discs and I was good to go. So, when I wasn’t typing “Winona Ryder topless” into AskJeeves, I was chewing up those hours looking for and downloading vintage radio shows.
On Usenet I stumbled upon alt.radio.oldtime, a sort-of file-sharing newsgroup where I found all these great, obscure programs, like the short-lived Avenger show based on the pulp hero or like the equally brief run of Rocky Fortune which was a detective show starring Frank Sinatra during his first rush of fame. These shows were all chopped into multiple files that took forever to download, but I was ecstatic to have ’em nonetheless.
Though I suspected it was fruitless, I would post to that group, asking my fellow collectors for any leads on Tesla Broadcasting Company shows. Most of the responses I got were along the lines of, “Good luck, pal.” Honestly, that’s about what I expected. That didn’t stop me from searching the group for TBC specific terms. Viola. Blevins. Wraith. And, surprise, surprise, I got a few hits.
A poster whose ID was “PBeddoe82” had been having an extended back-and-forth with another poster “LzrusSG” back in ’94. Just like me, PBeddoe82 was trying to dig up material on or from the TBC and LzrusSG claimed to be sitting on a trove of the stuff. I was just as skeptical as PBeddoe82, but LzrusSG, besides having The Wraith’s alter ego for a username, also filled his messages with references to the plots of specific episodes of Wilde Card Mysteries and Viola Harper – his signature was even “This is my bench!”, a reference I didn’t get until I read these scripts for myself. At the very least, this guy knew his stuff. By the time he dropped mentions of TBC shows I’d never heard of before, like Shepherd’s Trail and Other Worlds, I was hooked and desperate to know more. So was PBeddoe82 whose last posting in the newsgroup was a plea to LzrusSG to share his TBC treasures, even including his personal email so LzrusSG could contact him directly.
Of course I myself wrote to PBeddoe82 to follow up but, by ’98, that email address was dead. And that’s where the trail ended.
Cut to 2010. I’d been living in Portland a couple of years, pursuing a career in comics but working at Powell’s Books. I was at the tills, enduring a cashier shift, when I was ringing up a young man who handed me a credit card with the name “Philo Beddoe” on it. There was no way he could be who I thought he was, I mean this guy was just in his 20s. Still it was a unique last name, so I said, “Philo Beddoe. Huh. You wouldn’t by any chance-“
He cut me off with, “Yes. I was named after the character in Every Which Way But Loose. My parents were big Clint Eastwood fans.”
That threw me for a second. “Uh, no, that’s not what I was going to ask. But, boy, yeah, I bet you get that a lot.”
“Not much. Mainly from middle-aged dudes.”
“Right,” I said, thinking ouch. “But I was going to ask if, by any chance, you were a fan of old radio shows.”
And the guy’s eyes lit up, like I’d guessed the magic word. This was the guy! A fanatic for Golden Age radio since he was a tot, he had been – at twelve! – the very same newsgroup regular who’d been so close to scoring the possibly nonexistent TBC rarities from user LzrusSG!
I told Philo, or Phil as he preferred to be called, about my own quest for Tesla Broadcasting Company material and how I’d tried to write to his old email address. We were both understandably stunned at the coincidence of this meeting. I asked him if he had ever gotten anything from his mysterious source, he replied that the answer was complicated. I was getting the stink eye from my coworkers and everyone else in line, so I had to cut the confab short, but my lunch break was coming up in ten minutes and I asked Phil if he would be game to get a couple of sandwiches and chat. He agreed.
So, while we headed over to the food cart pod on 10th, Phil Beddoe told me what had gone down with LzrusSG all those years before. In an email exchange away from the newsgroup, the mysterious poster revealed himself to be a gent named Vance Prieto, the son of Oscar Prieto who had been chief engineer at the TBC for its entire, brief lifespan. Oscar was a bit of a hoarder and, when he passed, Vance had discovered vast amounts of TBC artifacts amongst his dad’s junk – scripts, promotional material, even acetates of some of the shows! And as proof, he scanned for Phil the first pages of a couple of Wraith and Blevins to Betsy scripts, as well as the opening to Shepherd’s Trail. Prieto, it turns out, was legit and suddenly, through this chance meeting with Phil Beddoe, I was closer than ever to a treasure I’d sought for over twenty years.
I asked Phil if Vance actually ever shared any of his father’s “stash” with him.
Phil told me that, no, sadly, Vance Prieto proved to be overly protective of the TBC files, telling Phil that he had been working on a book about the broadcasting company for a long while, a history, and he was unwilling to share his treasures before it’s release. But, he was more than willing to show his collection to Phil in person. All Phil had to do was come to Prieto’s home in Bakersfield, California.
Seeing as how, at the time of this correspondence in 1994, Phil was twelve years-old and living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota this eventuality seemed unlikely. As Phil put it, “I just couldn’t see myself asking my dad to let me fly halfway across the country to dig through an old man’s closet.” So there it ended. Soon enough, puberty hit and Phil was in high school where he subsequently found new, equally maddening, pursuits. Before that day in 2010, Phil hadn’t given the TBC more than a passing thought in years.
But his story had reignited my obsession and given me a new possible avenue. Spending fifty bucks on an internet public documents search, I was able to track down Vance Prieto for myself. I found his most recent address: the Greenlawn Mortuary and Cemetery in Bakersfield. He’d died in 2004 at the age of 66, apparently unsuccessful in publishing his history of the TBC. So Vance Prieto was gone, but his family was still around and I soon had the Facebook page his daughter Carmen, a pleasant lady only a few years older than myself. I messaged her, explaining in brief who I was and the gist of my “mission”. As respectfully as I could I inquired if her father had left behind any of his TBC material.
This is the response I received a week later:
Wow. From out of the blue comes somebody who actually cares about all the junk that my granpoppy dumped on us. That was dad’s kind of hobby but to the rest of us it was just musty clutter. No one in the family really got into the old radio thing, but I don’t see why we should keep it from anybody who it matters to.When Dad died we just packed all of his junk into storage out here in Eagle Rock. You’re welcome to come down and dig through it if you want.
My heart practically stopped. There were a couple more email exchanges and then, barely a month after I’d met a young man named Phil Beddoe, I was on a plane bound for California.
The morning after I arrived, my buddy Ryan, whose couch I was crashing on, decided to come along when I drove out to meet Carmen at the U-Store lot in Eagle Rock. For those unfamiliar with the area, it could generally be described as a sort-of industrial suburb in northeast L.A.. The storage lot was in a flat concrete slab of city blocks where there was nothing but warehouses and strip malls. It was ugly and, being July in L.A., the temperature was already north of 90 at eleven-thirty AM.
Carmen let us in the gate and was very sweet, even when she passed on the bad news that the family had misplaced the key to the padlock on the storage unit. The U-Store people aren’t responsible for such things, so I ended up having to rent from them a bolt-cutter and buy a new padlock to replace the one I was breaking. Ryan was amused by the whole thing and didn’t offer to help as I spent ten minutes straining my non-muscles to try and snap through the lock. He was there just to spectate and chronicle the whole thing on camera. I’ll say this on my behalf – as the least masculine of men, there’s a certain satisfaction when you successfully cut through a steel lock that’s hard to beat. I was already wiped out and sweaty by the time of that small success yet still very excited, feeling like Carter and Carnarvon breaking the seal of Tut’s tomb.
Inside the unit was a mad tumble of dusty and mildly water-damaged cardboard boxes all unmarked save for the words “dad’s stuff” scrawled in marker. With Carmen’s blessing, I dove in. The very first box I opened – was full of porn. Wrinkled Filipino nudie magazines from the ’70s. Carmen looked embarrassed but not surprised. I quickly closed it up and moved on. Box number two? More porn. But box number three…had four years worth of TV Guides. And so did boxes 4 through 6. Box seven, more porn. Then two boxes that were nothing but Sears Wish Book Christmas catalogs from 1966 to 1985. Next box, more porn. After an hour or so of fruitless searching through teetering boxes containing decades worth of menus, batteries, empty pill bottles, Readers Digests, instructional pamphlets for radar ranges and lawn mowers, and a staggering amount of vintage boobie pictures, Carmen apologized – both for the fact that she needed to go to a play at her daughter’s school, but also for her father’s bizarre hoarding ways. She said I could stay as long as I liked provided I locked up when I left and that she really hoped I found what I was looking for.
Three hours later, when Ryan and I replaced the very last box in the unit, it was clear that I hadn’t. There was no TBC related material in that unit, not even the hoped-for draft or drafts of Vance’s unpublished history of the company. The only things I found even remotely connected to Oscar Prieto’s days in radio were a few scattered technical journals for radio engineers from the late ’40s with his New York address printed on them.
And that was it. The dead end of my search. I enjoyed a couple of days visiting with friends and eating at In-n-Out Burger, but I was pretty deflated.
To be continued….