The 1930s Speed Gibson Aviation Radio Show

Speed-Gibson-head-1Suffering wangdoodles, but everybody loves speed! But, back in the late 1930’s, it referred to a teenaged boy named Speed Gibson who was the darling of the skyways on the airwaves.

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.

The 'official' International Secret Police Speed Gibson Flying Badge!

The ‘official’ International Secret Police Speed Gibson Flying Badge!

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).

Martin M-130 China Clipper

Martin M-130 China Clipper

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!

2Daredevil antics aside, the China Clipper successfully landed in Manila—it’s flight plan had it travel via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam, delivering some 110,000 pieces of mail.

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.”

4-1For those of you who are into collecting memorabilia – particularly aviation-themed memorabilia, there is plenty, including: badges, maps, cards, photos, code books, and even a newspaper.

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.

3I’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.

10And… 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!

Cheers
Andrew Joseph

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About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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7 Responses to The 1930s Speed Gibson Aviation Radio Show

  1. I’d never heard of “Speed Gibson’s Great Clue Hunt” – do you have any reference or pic or link? I’d love to find a picture of it.

  2. mreman47 says:

    That is a good site! I’ve been there, too. Have you listened to the shows?
    I find it strange that no one seems to know who the actor was? Wouldn’t there be a check or some sort of accounting procedure from the production company?
    Surely there were promotional photos??!!

    • I’ve listened to the shows often. I’ve been toying with the idea of putting up a show-by-show reference wiki. I’m not sure what really survived from that era – the only reason SG survived in such excellent condition is that the phonograph records distributed to stations for play were found as a set. That’s why there’s the 2 minutes of music at beginning and end – that’s where the announcer would talk about Bob’s Hardware Store’s great deals or whatever.

      • mreman47 says:

        Wow – that’s interesting. It’s lucky that someone kept the phonographs! Over at the BBC, those cheap buggers tossed out original tapes of Doctor Who episodes, wiping out entire seasons… lost to the ether.
        I’ve listened to Speed Gibson and wonder if something like that show could be done nowadays as a movie… or do you think it’s just too tame?

  3. Still haven’t found the clue hunt, but I did find a copy of the Handbook/Code Book. I put up scans at: http://www.speedgibson.org

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