A warm place to work in Alaska

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, April 28, 2016

By Frank Roberts

In the mid to late 1940s, the Army decided I was badly needed to — I mean, someone had to — deliver telegrams around Nome. Alaska was a territory then (so we got overseas pay) and there was no Western Union, so the Signal Corps took over.

It was arduous — we wore civilian clothes and found our own homes in town. I shared with Doug Scott from Seattle and our two doggies.


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The Alaska Communications System in that community consisted of about a dozen of us, led by Lt. Morgan, an area native. It was a great life, but there was one drawback. With one exception, we never got those traveling star-studded shows. The one show that did make it was a delight, and it arrived not for us but for the GIs at the tiny Marks Army Airfield, about four miles from town.

Nine officers and 42 enlistees were stationed there. I visited once a week — my turn to drive the beaten, ugly Army bus back and forth.

I learned to drive on the spot. In my hometown of New York, I got around by subway.

I was Signal Corps by day and an Armed Forces Radio Service DJ by night, a job I got because I had prior radio experience in the Big Apple.

The only stars that shone in Nome were — and you have to be a senior-senior citizen to recognize these names — Warren Hull and Vanessa Brown. In appreciation of their visit, we had a very small banquet serving a dish popular up there — reindeer tongue (gray in color). It was good with horseradish.

Both of the visitors were warm and friendly, and I got close to them by yapping with them on the air.

Warren Hull was a movie actor and a radio personality, most famous for a ‘pre-historic’ quiz show called “Vox Pop.” One of the things for which it was known was offering phone calls between servicemen and the home folks.

He was tall, dark and handsome and alternated between comedies and musicals. He was born in Quaker country in Gasport, N.Y.

He moved to New York, where small jobs gave way to bigger jobs, usually as a radio singer. In films, he languished in the B’s. He starred in a slew of ’em. And, he starred in serials, most notably “The Spider’s Web,” “The Spider Returns,” “Mandrake the Magician,” and “The Green Hornet Strikes Again.” In radio, he emceed, “Strike It Rich,” the forerunner of today’s quiz shows.

Hull, who was married four times, died in 1974 of heart disease.

His co-star in Nome was the most lovely Vanessa Brown, the Vienna-born lass who gained fame as a youngster as a Quiz Kid, one of the kids with a very high IQ. Would you believe — 165?

In later years she conducted interviews for the government’s “Voice Of America.” She broadcast using her stage name, changed from Smylla Brind.

She had a healthy Hollywood career in the 1940s, usually as an ingenue. One of her flicks was “Big Jack,” Wallace Beery’s last movie.

She hit the television in the early years, appearing in such prestigious shows as “Robert Montgomery Presents” and the “Philco Television Playhouse.” There was also success on the Broadway stage.

Politically, she was an active Democrat and, on top of everything else, she wielded a mean paintbrush. She had a one-woman show in Beverly Hills.

Brown, who was twice married, weathered tragedies. She had breast cancer, believed she was cured, but the dreaded disease returned. In 1989, she lost her house in an earthquake.

So those were the only two personalities who warmed up a couple of the ‘usual’ cold days in Nome, which, I must say, in spite of the low temperatures, was a “warm” place to live and work.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.