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Q & A with Harry Rinker: Buster Brown Radio Gang Mechanical Window Display

by Harry Rinker (01/25/11).

QUESTION: I purchased a cardboard, animated Buster Brown Radio Gang window display. It is 60 inches wide and 36 inches high. The stage features five figures (from left to right): Midnight the Cat holding a fiddle, Froggy the Gremlin, Smilin’ Ed McConnel grasping a microphone, Squeeky the Mouse playing a crank organ, and Buster Brown winking. The back of the display has the gold walls of a recording studio with a window in the center through which an audience and the studio technicians are seen. Four of the five figures work. Buster Brown does not. The unit is lit, and the celluloid print of Buster Brown and Tige in the center of the top banner blinks off and on. My guess is that it is from the 1940s or 1950s. I paid $1,000 at auction. What can you tell me about it?

– SC, Kensington, Conn.

ANSWER: Let’s begin with basics. Wow, is it neat or what! I listened to “Smiling Ed’s Gang,” sponsored by Buster Brown Shoes, on Saturday mornings on the radio and watched it when it moved to television. At one thousand dollars, I might have been tempted to bid on the window display.

Ed McConnell, son of a minister and First World War veteran, began his radio career in 1922 when he took over for an employee that failed to show up for work at an Atlanta radio station. In 1932, McConnell joined the CBS network, jumping over to NBC in 1938 to become the network’s “Sunshine Melody Man” on a religion-based program. Although his show originated from Chicago’s WJZ, his home was in Elk Rapids, Mich.

“Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang” was first broadcast on radio on Sept. 2, 1944. Frank Ferrin served as producer, Hobart Donavan as writer and Arthur Jacobson as director. The show aired at 11:30 on Saturday mornings. The last broadcast was on April 11, 1953.

Warren Brown, Alvin Bryan and Jerome Desnoyers founded Bryan, Brown & Company, a St. Louis shoe manufacturer, in 1878. The company became the Brown Shoe Company in 1894. In 1904, the Brown Shoe Company secured licensing rights to Buster Brown, Frank Felton Outcault’s cartoon character, and introduced its Buster Brown shoe line at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The company began marketing its Naturalizer brand in 1927, Connie brand in 1931 and LifeStride brand in 1940.

The Brown Shoe Company was the sole (pun definitely intended) sponsor of the “Smilin’ Ed’s Gang” radio show. As the show’s success grew, Brown Shoe Company spent its entire advertising budget on the show. Sales of Buster Brown shoes rose from $8 million to $30 million in the first 12 years.

Smilin’ Ed sang, Froggy the Gremlin plunked his “magic twanger” (no laughs or snickers, please), and Midnight the Cat said a few words. McConnell voiced Froggy’s gruff, gravel like-voice. When singing a duet with Froggy, announcer Archie Presby became Froggy.

“Smilin’ Ed’s Gang” moved to television in 1950. The kids loved the six-foot tall, over 250 pounds, sexagenarian. Some of the last shows were filmed in color. However, McConnell’s age worked against him. He left the show in 1954.

TRIVIA QUIZ: Who replaced Ed McConnell and what was the show called?

The information above limits the dating possibilities for your window display from late 1944 to 1954. Chances of it being made during the first years of the show are slim. Narrow the window to 1948 to late 1952.

The $1,000 you paid is cheap. I found a “private listing” on eBay. The “Buy It Now” price was $9,995 with an estimated shipping cost between $300 and $700 depending on what option the buyer selected. The asking price is ridiculous; way too high. The question becomes where between the $1,000.00 you paid and $9,995 is the “right” price. My gut, upon which I rely a great deal, tells me $3,000 to $3,500. Five thousand dollars is too much.

The continuing decline in the number of Buster Brown collectors outweighs the display’s pizzazz /wow value. No new Buster Brown collectors are emerging. An established collector is aware of the lack of competition. Further, a quick search indicated the display surfaces on a regular basis. Finally, the failure of the Buster Brown figure to move is a detriment. Fixing this so the full display works adds another 15 to 20 percent to the value.

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QUESTION: I am trying to locate a Christmas tree lamp that I remember from the late 1930s or early 1940s. What follows is from my “selective memory.” The metal cone shape lamp was approximately 8 inches to 10 inches tall. The main body of the lamp was a light metal. The body had cut-outs in various shapes such as stars. One cut-out looked like the planet Mars. Different color cellophane sheets were attached to the inside of the lamp. The tree fit into a base with a light bulb mount. The bottom of the lamp base read “CHERRY LITE.” Do you have any idea who manufactured it? How do I find a dealer who might have one for sale?

– WK, South Milwaukee, Wis.

ANSWER: After spending more than an hour searching the Internet, I am not ready to concede that finding an answer to your request is impossible. Patience is a virtue is a truism. It is a necessity in the antiques and collectible field.

The first step is to do a weekly “Christmas Tree +metal +cellophane” search on eBay. Sooner or later an example will appear. While the search may extend a year or more, I doubt if it will. I have vague memories of seeing such a tree as a youth. It is not a “one of a kind.”

Visit the Golden Glow of Christmas Past collectors club’s Web site. The club has more than 1,200 members and hosts an annual convention, but you have to be a member to attend. The 2013 convention will be held July 24-27 in Lansing, Mich. The 2014 convention is scheduled for Chicago. There is a members’ newsletter. If it allows classified advertising, consider joining the club and placing an advertisement. I also recommend joining if you find you are in a position to attend one of the club’s conventions. If anyone knows about your tree, it will be one of their members.

Finally, perhaps one of my readers is familiar with the tree and/or has one they would like to sell. If yes, send an e-mail to harrylrinker@aol.com, and I will forward it to WK.

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QUESTION: I have four Northern Paper Mills “baby” prints that I received by sending in proof of purchase coupons clipped from packages of toilet paper rolls. Three of the prints measure 11 inches by 13 ½ inches. The fourth print measures 5 inches by 7 inches. The envelope’s return address reads: “Northern Paper Mills / A Marathon Division of / American Can Company / P. O. Box 320 / Green Bay, Wisconsin.” There is no zip code. I cannot date them other than sometime in the 1950s. Are they worth anything?

– MS, Shelbyville, Ind.

ANSWER: In 1901, Elias H. Bottum, Charles Fisher, Michael J. McCormick, Herman Segnetz, Frank Suffel, Iver J. Terp and W. P. Wagner, Green Bay and Milwaukee residents, raised $70,000 in capital and built the Northern Paper Mills at the juncture of the Fox and East Rivers in Green Bay. The company specialized in the manufacture of toilet paper. Sanitary Tissue, measuring 4 inches by 10 inches, was sold in packs of 1,000 sheets. In April 1902, the company adopted “Northern” as the name for its bathroom tissue. By 1920, Northern Paper Mills was the largest manufacturer of toilet tissue in the world. In 1935, Northern’s advertisements boasted that its tissue was “splinter-free.”

In 1941, Ross Wentzel created “Fluffy the Northern Cub,” who touted “Mighty Soft . . . Northern Tissue” for more than a decade. In 1947 or 1948, Wentzel created a television commercial for Northern. It only aired in Chicago and a few other key markets. Northern and Fluffy first appeared on nationwide television in 1953.

Marathon Corporation of Menasha, Wis., merged with Northern Paper Mills in 1953. American Can Company, New York, N.Y. acquired Marathon in 1957. A year later, the company’s four “American Beauties”—also known as the “Northern Girls” —based on illustrations done by Frances Hook, appeared in the company’s advertisements. The young ladies’ faces first appeared on toilet roll covers on March 23, 1959. While I was not able to determine the exact date when the first print sets were offered, the company distributed a record 30 million sets of “American Beauties” and Northern Towel’s “All American Boys” prints in 1966. The lack of a zip code in the return address indicated you received your print set before July 1963.

The print sets arrived in a box. An insert provided information about the artist, Mrs. Frances Hook of Flourtown, Pennsylvania. The pastel prints of Degas and Renior were her inspiration. The color tone of the four “American Beauties” prints were based on the colors of Northern’s toilet paper—mist aqua, pale gold, shell pink and snow white.

These prints appear regularly for sale on eBay. Many of the listings contain three to eight prints, some apparently having been framed or lost along the way by the owners. If you have the four “American Beauties” prints without the box or insert, the value is between $12 and $15 for the set. The insert adds another $3 and the box another $5.

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QUESTION: My family owns a Penn-Ruby coal stove made by the Mount Penn Stove Works of Reading, Pa. It was purchased by the great-grandfather of the present owner in 1910. It stands 60 inches high; the base is 24 inches square. It has brass handles. A brass skirt dresses its base. It was converted to oil in the mid-1970s. What is it worth?

– RJ, Schuylkill Haven, Pa., via e-mail

ANSWER: An Internet search failed to provide information about a Mount Penn Penn-Ruby stove model. I cannot tell if your stove is a large parlor stove or a furnace model typically housed in the basement. If the latter, it has only minimum value.

However, if it is an upright parlor model, a distinct possibility because of the brass handles and skirt, its value in used condition is between $200 and $250. Fully restored, the value jumps above $500.

TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER: Andy Divine replaced Ed McConnell. “Andy’s Gang” remained on the air until 1960.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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