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From NBC Transmitter, Vol. 3, No. 2, September, 1943

Wyllis Cooper and His Three Men

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From NBC Transmitter, Vol. 3, No. 2, September, 1943

The golden age of radio comedy and drama had many traditions, such as Lionel Barrymore’s annual performances as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and Jack Benny’s yearly shopping expeditions with his cast. However, writer Wyllis Cooper’s “Three Men” is less remembered, though it was produced for national broadcast at least four times from 1935 to 1948.

Cooper (1899-1955) had a varied career before he entered radio in 1930. He’d joined the Army as a bugler and served along the Mexican border before shipping out to fight in World War I in 1917. He survived gas attacks with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), fought in the Argonne Offensive and served in Europe into 1919.

After leaving the service, Cooper tried his hand at journalism and advertising, among other things, before finding his calling in radio in Chicago in 1928. By 1931, he was writing scripts about explorers and pioneers for the series “Empire Builders,” and created “Tales of the Foreign Legion,” which was partially based on stories he’d heard from French soldiers while he was serving in the AEF.

On January 3, 1934, Cooper’s late-night horror and mystery series “Lights Out!” premiered over NBC Chicago affiliate WENR, clicking quickly in that market and going national a little over a year later and becoming a hit coast-to-coast. It is not known if he wrote a Christmas-themed show for the series in 1934, though that year and the year before he did present Christmas morning programs under the titles “Christmas in Flanders Fields” and “Christmas Over There” in collaboration with the Veterans of Foreidgn Wars. Like so much early radio, these programs appear to be lost, and their actual storylines are not known, but they may have had some elements in common with the show that he premiered on the December 25th, 1935 “Lights Out” program entitled “Three Men.”

What listeners heard that night was an unusual and intriguing re-imagination of the journey of the Three Wise Men who followed a star two thousand years ago to find the child Jesus, framed as a chance meeting between three veterans of the World War, departing Paris for holiday leave areas by train on Christmas Eve, 1918. The first we meet is an Australian cavalry lieutenant, the second a French infantry captain and the third a captain in an American infantry outfit. The first two, Lt. Ballantine and Capt. Gascoigne have been lucky enough to find their own compartment on the crowded train and share experiences while they await departure. They see a third man in an American uniform outside their window and call to him. Cooper’s dialogue here reveals a crucial detail, unusual for radio at the time:

Ballantine: Righto. Oh, Yank! Yank, there! This way, Yank!

Gascoigne: He comes?

Ballantine: Well, strike me pink, now. The blighter’s black! And an officer,

Gascoigne: So? I have heard that the Americans have two divisions of Negroes.
And they have many officers who are — as the Americans say — “colored,”
also. But I have never seen one.

Ballantine: You don’t mind if I ask him in?

Gascoigne: My dear Ballantine, why should one mind? Is he not a man? An ally?
An officer? Do we dislike one another because I am French and you Australian?

Ballantine:: Good chap. Ah, we’ve lots of blacks in our units. What
the devil’s the difference? What difference does it make what color the
blighter’s skin is? Oh, oh, Yank — room here!

Maurice Ellis in costume as Macbeth, in the Federal Theatre Project production of 1936, Federal Theatre Project Collection, Library of Congress. Ellis portrayed Captain Melvin and Melchior in the 1948 NBC production of “Three Men.”

Most black radio characters at this time were identified by the broad, stereotypical dialects employed by writers and actors, who were usually white. When he introduces himself, Captain Melvin says that he is with the 370th Infantry, which was one of the segregated, so-called “colored” regiments created for African Americans, and the only one with officers. They served at Argonne, as Cooper did.
Camaraderie is quickly established among them. Captain Gascoigne produces a bottle of Italian wine known as Lachryma Christi, or “Christ’s Tear,” and they imbibe. Gazing at the night sky, they ponder a single star:

Ballantine: Oh, see that one over there? You might imagine it to be the Star
of Bethlehem. Ruddy bright, isn’t it?

Actor Ian Martin, who played Lt. Ballantine and Balthazar in 1948 production of “Three Men,” in a publicity photo for his role in the NBC soap opera Against the Storm, set in Nazi-occupied Europe. From Radio Mirror, Vol. 19, No. 8, December 1942

Gascoigne: Oui. Nearly two thousand years ago. I wonder if that
same star still shines upon the Earth.

Actor Bill Lipton, Capt. Gascoigne and Gaspar in the 1948 version of “Three Men,” with his wife radio script writer wife Joan. From Radio Mirror, Vol. 18, No. 6, November, 1952

Melvin: If it does, we wouldn’t know it. Not us, who fight wars and deny the name of the man that was born under it.

Ballantine: Oh, uh, religious chap?

Melvin: No. No, not at all, Lieutenant. A long way from it.

Ballantine: I’m not a religious chap, either. Ah, but used to have some jolly
times as a kid at Christmastime, though — church things and all that —
candles, whatnot.

Gascoigne: Oui. One is not religious save when one sees the star shining down
on him.

They grow drowsy, and muse that it seems as though they’ve met before but dismiss the notion. They doze off, and after a transition montage of train sounds and music, the same actors are heard voicing three men named Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior. These names have been given to the visitors from the East in many folkloric traditions, though they do not appear in the Bible. Many of these traditions also hold that one was Ethiopian, usually Balthazar, though Cooper identified him as Melchior.

The three men are not called as Wise Men, Magi or Kings but simply seekers pursuing a vision that has directed them to Bethlehem. General Lew Wallace, in his 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, employed a similar trope in that book’s early chapters, in which three men from Egypt, Greece and India named Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior meet at a spot in the desert to which they were directed in dreams and visions, before proceeding to Bethlehem to honor the infant Christ.

Cooper’s Three Men reach a fork in the road, and beg for a sign. A star appears suddenly to guide them. A shepherd approaches who fears that this star portends the end of the earth, but they assure him that it actually portends “the beginning,” and a miracle “hidden from our ken.” The shepherd leads them into Bethlehem, where they meet “Balthus,” a physician who marvels that he has just delivered the child of a virgin.

As written in the New Testament, the story of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, or Kings who sought out Jesus Christ leaves a great deal of room for interpretations, interpolations and extrapolations for imaginative storytellers, who have been rising to the task for centuries. Cooper departs from the larger story of the Nativity in several details, and “Three Men” is notable for the contrast between the three men on the train, who are philosophical but not religious, and the divinely inspired devout believers they become in their dream. Though the three passengers know the story from the Gospel of Matthew, they experience it in their shared dream as seekers who do not know what will happen next, and are in ecstasy when they reach their goal, only to be given one more vision, a tragic and ominous one that they do not know how to interpret, though the three men of modern times do. When the three men of 1918 awake, they find they have had the same dream.

The first performance of “Three Men” received almost no advance publicity, and little comment afterwards. Cooper would hand the “Lights Out” series over to Arch Oboler in mid-1936, who did not stage a repeat performance of it on “Lights Out” that Christmas. In 1937, an Oboler original script called “Uninhabited” was announced for the December 22nd “Lights Out” program, but instead, there was a repeat performance of “Three Men.” This version is in circulation among old time radio fans and can be found on the internet. “Uninhabited” was never produced, but draft scripts are in the Arch Oboler Collection of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress.

There were at least two subsequent performances, both preserved in the NBC Collection at the Library of Congress. The first aired at 12:30 am, EST on Wednesday, Christmas morning, 1943 over NBC. This was the old time slot for “Lights Out,” but it was a standalone broadcast, though Arch Oboler had hosted a revival of his own classic scripts over NBC during prime time in the 1942-1943 season. The last version aired as part of NBC’s “Radio City Playhouse” series on December 20, 1948.

There were minor changes to the scripts in the three surviving versions, and the casts are different in all three, though only in the last are they identified. Ian Martin played Lieutenant Ballantine and Balthazar, Bill Lipton played Captain Gascoigne and Gaspar, and Maurice Ellis was Captain Melvin and Melchior.

“Three Men” was not quite a Christmas radio tradition, but four stagings in thirteen years means that it was remembered and well regarded at NBC. Looking back, it’s interesting that two of the performances were on the eve of World War II, one was during it, and the last was in 1948, the year that the United States Armed Forces were integrated.

“Three Men” lacks the humor and affirmation found in other Christmas radio plays, and perhaps that is why it’s not as well known as many others. Still, its message of camaraderie and the possibilities in a shared dream of peace, from the pen of a World War I veteran against the background of World War II, remains timely and moving today.

Comments (2)

  1. Kudos for your wonderful essay on Wyllis Cooper, his life and his work. I suppose he is best remembered for his “Lights Out!” radio series and, happily, many episodes of this show are easily found on the Internet these days. But his venture into films produced one true classic. This involved the seemingly impossible task of writing the script for the THIRD Frankenstein film. The first two are widely regarded as classics of the American horror film genre and drew some of their story points from Mary Shelley’s famous novel of 1816. But having exhausted the source material, Cooper invented a terrific narrative of Dr. F’s son visiting the old homestead with his family many years later. Guess who he runs into? THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) is a superb sequel and in fact is considered the last of the classic Frankenstein films from Hollywood.

  2. Glad to see this drama discussed — and with its proper title, too. Much of the Old Time Radio hobby still lists it incorrectly as “Uninhabited” by Arch Oboler.

    Prior to the ’37 broadcast, a December 4, 1937 Saturday Review of Literature article, “Jingle Bells: Notes on Christmas in American Literature” by E. Douglas Branch, professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, included a favorable comment about “Three Men”:

    … Since the dreadful days of the “Christmas in the Trenches” stories and verse, there have been some memorable Christmas items in American letters. The best of them — for instance, Heywood Broun’s “The Shepherd” and Willis Cooper’s script for the radio program “Lights Out” in the holiday week of 1935 — hearken, for their locale as well as for the spiritual ingredient, back to the stable at Bethlehem. The diminished place of the American scene in American Christmas literature will become a reversed tendency when the scene again deserves Christmas. …

    I believe it was also scheduled to air on LIGHTS OUT on December 21, 1938; a vintage radio researcher posted NBC publicity to that effect a few years ago in an online forum. It was described as “a story of reincarnation, which has become a LIGHTS OUT Christmas tradition” … So it may have aired at least three times in the 1930s on that series.

    And there may have been non-network versions, too. For example, the 11 December 1947 Bridgeport (CT) Post says that “The Three Men,” [sic] “an original Christmas production by Willis Cooper, will be broadcast Sunday at 2:30 by WICC in cooperation with Fairfield Prep. The drama will be directed by the Rev. J. Joseph Ryan and the Rev. David Commiskey, with Ken Rapleff as producer. In the cast are Roy Daly, John Gonzalez, George Thomas, Geoffrey Ryan, Judson Bump and Anthony Pellegrino.”

    Cooper’s uncirculating QUIET PLEASE episode “Rede Me This Riddle” has a few things in common with “Three Men” and the script makes for interesting reading as a companion piece.

    In the 1930s LIGHTS OUT broadcasts, the part of the American army officer was likely played by Joseph Richardson Jones who “was identified with the National Broadcasting company’s Chicago studios, where he was the only Negro member of the artists’ and writers’ staff” and appeared “numerous” times on the series. (October 29, 1944 Atlanta Daily World) In fact, the part may well have been written with him in mind. In the ’30s, LIGHTS OUT was almost entirely staff-produced, and writers like Cooper and Oboler would tailor the roles for specific actors on the NBC payroll. Jones seems to have joined NBC Chicago in early 1935 and stayed for several years. If you read through the surviving Oboler scripts from 1936 to ’38, they occasionally include Black male characters of some size, and my guess is that these roles got written simply because the network happened to have a Black actor available.

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