As a radio adventurer, the Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police show was your typical American kid: interested in short wave radio, aviation and, of course, the International Secret Police.
Written by Virginia Cooke, the radio program ran weekly from January 2, 1937 to May 25, 1940 with 178 episodes of the 15-minute adventure serial made. And, what’s even more cool is that all 178 episodes have survived intact: LISTEN to them here!
Now, since this blog is all about pioneers of aviation, there must be some aviation present in the program, right? Right.
The first instance of it is when Speed Gibson knocks out a bad guy with a model of the China Clipper – the first of the Martin M-130 aircraft he was building – which gets him inducted into the International Secret Police, a special organization his uncle and top agent Clint Barlow works with, along with pilot and sidekick Barney Dunlap.
To his uncle’s credit, he’s not initially keen to have his young nephew involved in the spy biz to track down the evil mastermind, The Octopus, across Africa and Asia.
If you were to join the International Secret Police, you would have to take the pledge first:
Do you (insert your name), as a member of the International Secret Police promise to obey and protect law and order in your own country or wherever else your duties may carry you?
Will you cooperate with the foreign police after you have fulfilled your missions?
And will you, above all else, recognize the code of the Secret Police: Courage; Honor; Silence and not betray it in any manner?
Depending on the family, suspense, horror, comedy and adventure were the driving force behind most social media programs where the family would huddle around the old (new then, I suppose) radio and listen with bent ear for entertainment.
As for who starred on this radio program, not all the facts are in. Elliott Lewis (November 28, 1917 – May 23, 1990) may have starred as Speed Gibson, but no one is sure. They (those with better knowledge of the radio thingamabob) think Lewis may have played Octopus henchman, Splinters. This kills me. We are talking about a character that was famous on the radio only 70 years ago – and we don’t know who played him?! No wonder history is so wrought with mistakes.
We do know that Howard McNear played Uncle Clint Barlow, with John Gibson taking on the role of Barney Dunlop. McNear is perhaps best known for his role as Floyd the barber on the Andy Griffith Show (and one of my favorite voices to do, even though most people don’t know what the hell I am talking about nowadays).
As for the China Clipper itself, as mentioned, this was the official nickname given to the very first of the three Martin M-130 four-engine flying boats that were built for Pan American Airways, which the airplane company used as the first commercial trans-Pacific air service between San Francisco, U.S.A. to Manila, Philippines starting in November of 1935.
Built by the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., it cost $417,000. If we use the inflation calculator from www.dollartimes.com, that cost would equate to $7,145,046.04 in 2013 money.
Here’s an interesting story about the inaugural flight of the China Clipper when it first flew on November 22, 1935 from Alameda, California, U.S.A. The crew for this flight included Edwin C. Musick as pilot and Fred Noonan as navigator.
The flight plan called for it to fly OVER the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (The Bay Bridge) – which was still being constructed…
But… just after take-off, the pilot realized the China Clipper would not be able to go over the bridge, and had to fly UNDER it!
Despite already having a cool name like the ‘China Clipper‘, Pan Am folks provided a nickname for it—the ‘Sweet Sixteen’ in reference to its NC14716 registration number. Maybe because I’m too old to think that sixteen is sweet, but I prefer the China Clipper designation.
The radio show had an aviation theme…the opening of the show featured the sounds of an aircraft engine – we can assume it’s the China Clipper and you can hear in the background a radio operator calling out: “Ceiling zero… ceiling zero…ceiling zero… Heading for Hong Kong.”
There was even a rare 1938 “Speed Gibson’s Great Clue Hunt” Paper Sheet, whereby listeners could track the flight of the China Clipper as it traversed the globe during the radio show.
I’m unsure if there’s a reason for it, but excluding a single cereal-sponsored item, all of the memorabilia tie-ins are bread-related featuring such sponsors as Peter Pan Bread, Brown’s Bread Ltd. and Dreikorn’s Bread.
Despite the popularity of the show, it all came to an end when World War II kicked in, as war and aviation were serious matters, and the frivolous adventures of a teenager and his flying buddies were no match for either real news on the war, or the sudden onslaught of super-heroes in the comic books like Superman, Captain America or Batman.
And… just so you know.. the expression I used above – ‘suffering wangdoodles’ – you might have expected the somewhat famous catchphrase to have been uttered by Speed, but no – that kid was mature beyond his years – it was sidekick Barney Dunlap’s phrase.
Needless to say, kids everywhere were using that phrase.
By the way, I’ve listened to many of the broadcasts, and they certainly are a relic of a bygone area, but suffering wangdoodles, it sure sounded like it was fun!