If you grew up in greater Boston in the early 1950s, you remember seeing “Big Brother” on channel 4. By then, he was an older man, grandfatherly in appearance, but still quite energetic. I remember him with his ukelele, singing “Oh the grass is always greener in the other fella's yard / the little row we had to hoe, oh boy that's hard…”, or at least that's what it sounded like. I didn't fully understand the words, but I liked how he sang the song. His program taught values like good citizenship (remember the Toast to the President of the United States? There was President Eisenhower's photo, and Big Brother would hold up a glass of milk, while “Hail to the Chief” played in the background), while entertaining kids with songs and stories and even a contest or two. He referred to his young audience as “small fry”, and his closing song was “So long small fry, it's time to say goodbye…”.
Since I was only a kid in the early 50s, I had no idea that he had been doing the “Small Fry Club” in one form or another for the past 30 years. I also didn't know that the original version of his closing theme song had a line which said “Come back again tomorrow night and then / we'll have more fun, there's some for everyone…”; in his radio days, the Big Brother Club was broadcast right after dinner, at 6.30 pm. But on television, the show had a weekday afternoons at 12.15 time slot, causing the lyrics to change to “Come back again, tomorrow noon and then…”.
Years later, when I had long since outgrown children's shows, I sometimes wondered whatever happened to the announcers and performers I grew up listening to and watching. When I became a broadcast historian, I started doing research on those great personalities from the 40s and 50s, and it was then that I finally learnt about Big Brother's many achievements. One article I found about him was especially interesting—it was written in 1968, just after he had retired, and in it, he told the interviewer that he was busy writing a book about his career in broadcasting. To my knowledge, that book never came out, which is a shame, because “Big Brother” Bob Emery certainly deserves to be remembered.
Claire Robert Emery was born in Abington, Massachusetts. He attended the Farm and Trade School on Thompson's Island, graduating in 1912, and then attended North Abington High School for two years, but did not graduate. Much of his youth was spent on his grandfather's farm. He later moved to Hingham. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he took a job at Gilchrist's Department Store in Boston, managing the shoe department. It was customary in those days for companies to have employee glee clubs or drama groups to entertain at company functions. Bob, who could play several instruments, joined a quartet at the store. It was 1921, and the local radio station, 1XE (later known as WGI) was constantly seeking volunteer talent to perform on the air. So the Gilchrist Quartet went to Medford Hillside to sing at 1XE, and even though they only knew a few songs, they got a good response. The PD, Herb Miller, liked their harmonies and invited them back. He especially felt that Bob had potential as an entertainer, and during the Christmas season, he asked Bob to play Santa Claus on 1XE. Bob felt he was too young to be a credible Santa, so he created a character called “Big Brother” to read stories and answer kids' letters to Santa. He was ultimately hired full-time, with a salary of $35 a week. During 1922, he alternated with various of the AMRAD employees (including Bill Barrow—“Uncle Billy”, Eunice Randall, and several others) handling the children's programming. He also used his musical talent to sing with other Amradians, and sometimes he accompanied a vocalist. But it would be another year before he became the official host of a very successful kids' show—The Big Brother Club.
By late 1923/early 1924, Bob Emery (or C.R.E. when he was announcing—some announcers still used only initials, a tradition from the early days of ham radio) was the Program Director of WGI. He had also started the Big Brother Club, and it was rapidly becoming a very popular program. As its name suggested, it was a club—kids who listened could apply for membership. They would get a membership card and pin, and they had to promise to do good deeds and be good citizens. Bob's show on WGI was done with a very limited budget (AMRAD was in financial trouble by this time), but kids loved him, and he always managed to find interesting guests. Meanwhile, as AMRAD's money problems grew more serious, Bob Emery and several other WGI personnel quietly began seeking other options, in case their paychecks suddenly came to a halt. Fortunately, a new station was going on the air in September of 1924—run by the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. It had financial stability, it wanted to hire good people, and Bob decided to join them as their PD. This must have been a serious blow to WGI to lose the person who was their highest profile talent—Bob did lots of appearances and was a good will ambassador for the AMRAD station—but now, he took those talents to a new station, for which he requested the call letters WEEI. (Going with him as his assistant was Marjorie Drew, who had been in charge of women's programming at WGI. She would now do similar programming at WEEI, and also help to book the guests for the Big Brother Club.)
With its new studios at 39 Boylston Street, WEEI wasted no time making an impact. It stole several respected radio columnists away from their newspapers to be in upper management (Charlie Burton of the Boston Herald and Lewis Whitcomb of the Boston Post), hired several of AMRAD's engineers, and was ready to give WNAC—the other big station in Boston that could afford to pay its talent—some real competition. Thanks to its Edison connection, WEEI already had a number of experienced musical groups in house—as you may recall, companies in those days encouraged employees to perform at company functions—but WEEI's management was determined to hire the best people, even if that meant going outside of Edison. (Meanwhile, WBZ was still in Springfield and still working out technical problems with its Boston studio. Soon, WEEI would hire away one of WBZ's best known announcers too.) WEEI did its first broadcast in late September, and within only a few days, the Big Brother Club was back on the air, this time with a much bigger budget and a much better signal. 6 October 1924 was the first “club meeting”, and the show was very well-received.
Bob began writing a monthly column for the Edison company publication, Edison Life, wherein he kept everyone at Edison up to date with what the club was accomplishing. It was in an issue of Edison Life that he explained why he had chosen the name “Big Brother”. He explained how the show came to be—that he had felt it was time for a children's show that did more than just read bed-time stories, a show in which the kids could participate, and not just sit passively listening to the announcer. “[Next, I wanted to] create a character who would have a good influence on children. The Big Brother idea serves this purpose. We all remember we looked to our Big Brother for assistance, and if we had none, how we all wished we did.” Further, he stated that the show had no advertising purpose (this would soon change), and that its sole intent was to “create good-will among its members, and also to instill into the minds of the children the meaning of a ‘Big Brother Act’, and the significance of the club slogan, ‘Be Somebody's Big Brother or Sister Every Day’.” (Edison Life, November 1924, p. 322) As part of the desire to have members participate, Bob also began writing a Sunday column in the Boston Herald; kids were asked an opinion question of the week, and the best letters to him were published in the newspaper. Imagine what a big deal that must have been for a child in the 1920s—not only being listened to by an adult, but having your opinion appear in a major newspaper!
The Edison Big Brother Club, as it was called, often reached out to its young listeners: Bob would have a “day” for a particular town, and elementary or junior high school club members from that town were invited to watch the show as part of the studio audience. And as he had done at WGI, Bob Emery became a roving ambassador for WEEI. He made appearances at various schools and organisations that catered to young people, such as the Boy Scouts; he would sing and play his ukelele, and talk to the kids about up-coming events on his show, while encouraging them to get involved in charitable projects in their community. Edison, which was a very promotion minded company, helped him to start a club magazine for the members. The company also helped to arrange “Big Brother Day” at various locations. The first of these events was in early July of 1925, an outing for club members at an amusement park in Newton known as Norumbega Park. It drew so many young people and their parents that the newspapers ended up treating it as a news story rather than relegating it to the radio page—the crowd was estimated as the largest in the history of the park, and one of the biggest children's outings in greater Boston. Big Brother's drawing power and his popularity among kids continued to grow. His musical talent and his ability to entertain kids earned him the opportunity to be the headliner at a show at the B.F. Keith theatre in the summer of 1926; soon, he was doing the Big Brother club live at various locations. He had also started his own vocal group, the Joy Spreaders. Several members of this band had been listeners of his, while others were experienced young musicians from the Boston area. Big Brother and the Joy Spreaders would become regular performers at Keith's Theatre over the next several years, in fact. And for those who really couldn't get enough of Big Brother, in the fall of 1926, he and his band were asked to make their first record. They were signed to the Brunswick label, which evidently felt our area had a lot of talent because Brunswick also signed several other local radio performers, such as WTAG Worcester's singer/announcer Chester Gaylord, and Boston-area bandleader and former WGI alumnus Joe Rines. Big Brother and the Joy Spreaders recorded the Big Brother Club theme song (which included the call letters of WEEI) and did a re-enactment of a Big Brother Club meeting, complete with various songs and poems and letters from kids. The session was called “Big Brother's Brunswick Record”, and although I have never seen the actual 78, I do know it WAS released. (If anyone has a copy, I would truly love to hear it!) The record was sold in stores, and also given away as a prize to club members. Bob would also make at least one other record in 1929 for Speak-O-Phone Recording Studios. That one, I do have a copy of, and it is similar to the first one—a re-enactment of a show, with songs, contests, guests, etc. In 1929, he was not yet using “So Long Small Fry”, but he was using “The Grass is Always Greener”.
Thousands and thousands of kids from all over the eastern United States were now members of the Big Brother Club, and Edison, not wanting to miss an opportunity, encouraged Bob to do some very indirect selling—some shows about using home appliances (Edison appliances, of course) safely. He quickly became a very credible spokesperson, because kids trusted him. When a store wanted somebody to appear at an opening or promote a new product to kids, the management would call upon Bob Emery, knowing what a following he had. To Bob's credit, he did not seem to take every opportunity that came his way, but he did become a fairly frequent voice for Edison products, as might be expected given how Edison had supported his show.
By 1928, Big Brother had formed a radio drama group, the “Radio Rascals”, made up of club members who enjoyed performing. Some even wrote original plays or skits, which he put on the air. He also made numerous appearances for charity and encouraged his audience to do their part for their community. In fact, throughout the remainder of the 1920s, Bob Emery continued to find new and interesting ways to teach yet still entertain; one feature involved bringing in real people who had unusual jobs. Bob would create a “you are there” scenario, and through the magic of radio, kids could be taken to all sorts of places, such as a lighthouse or an expedition to the North Pole, and they could pretend they were doing the particular job along with the guest.
On 5 February 1930, something unique occurred: the Big Brother Club was televised, via the experimental station W1XAV, owned by Shortwave and Television Labs Inc. While not many people saw it, we can safely assume that the listeners of WEEI must have been somewhat puzzled when the announcer said tonight's show was not only being heard on radio but was also being televised. Bob Emery was certainly one of the first major radio personalities to do television, and it would be helpful to his career later on.
In the summer of 1930, the opportunity every local personality hoped for happened for him: he was called by NBC, which wanted him to do a once a week (Sunday night) children's show on the network. For a while, he commuted back and forth, working at WEEI and also for NBC. But by the fall, the travelling was too much, and he gave his notice at Edison, to concentrate on developing new children's shows for NBC Red. However, he still loved Boston, and by the summer of 1931, he had signed a contract to broadcast the Big Brother Club over the Yankee Network; owner John Shepard 3rd also made him educational director for the chain of stations. I have never been able to find out what caused Shepard and Big Brother to part company—the Big Brother Club was just as popular a decade later as it had been when it first went on the air. Big Brother had famous guests, he put on state-wide spelling bees where schools could field teams and compete for prizes, and of course, he had “opportunity night”—this was a weekly talent show, with the winner having the opportunity to join the supporting cast that put on the Big Brother Club. Yet, despite the popularity of his show and the respect educators and the Boston media had for him, by mid-1933 he and his wife were back in New York. This time, Bob went to work for WOR, where he developed a highly successful children's show called “Rainbow House”; during the early 40s, it began running on the Mutual Network. The mid-40s saw a renewed interest in television, and the Dumont station, WABD hired him to create a kids' program for TV. And so it was in 1946 that the “Small Fry Club” was born. It would run in New York till 1950; interestingly, when WNAC-TV, channel 7, came on the air in the summer of 1948, it began carrying some Dumont shows, including Big Brother's Small Fry Club. It must have brought back a few memories for people who had grown up hearing him on radio, and now here he was on TV.
By the early 50s, Bob was trying to find a way to get back to the city he had always loved, and finally, in November of 1952, he negotiated a contract with WBZ-TV and returned to Boston at last. The remainder of his TV career would take place at WBZ-TV. Although by now he was much older, to a new generation of kids, he was the kindly and informative man who kept them entertained while teaching them new things—he was very proud of all the kids he taught the Pledge of Allegience, for example. Bob had always liked working with young people, but there is a certain story—attributed to Uncle Don, Big Brother, and various other hosts of children's shows—that claims he allegedly called the kids “little bastards” one day while not realising the mike was still open. I can assure you that this story is an urban legend. There is absolutely no evidence that Big Brother ever did such a thing, yet the story has circulated for years. While handling a studio audience of kids was probably no easy task, people I know who worked with him say he was a professional and knew how to run his show; he took great pride in his ability to relate to kids. (When WGI/AMRAD held a reunion in 1964, Bob was there, and said something very interesting—various of the AMRAD folks were lamenting how awful rock and roll was and how radio had deteriorated and how kids these days were uncontrollable. But Bob refused to agree. He said he liked some of the rock music—he especially enjoyed the Beatles—and said that kids today were no worse than kids of any other generation, if you didn't talk down to them and if you let them know what you expected of them. Given how bitter some of the old WGI announcers had become about what had happened to radio over the years, it was refreshing to hear somebody in his 60s saying positive things about the music and about the kids. While I am sure he had bad days like everyone else, Bob Emery never stopped believing in the fact that kids could be reached with intelligent children's programming, and he continued to provide it.)
Big Brother, even in his 60s, was a tireless fundraiser. When he went back on the air at Channel 4, he immediately aligned himself with various charities. During one campaign, he encouraged his young viewers to send in their pennies, nickels and dimes to help the Jimmy Fund, and the kids responded with nearly $11,000. This was actually very typical of what Bob could do. He made kids aware of those children who were less fortunate, and then created opportunities for his audience to help. And, to teach responsibility, he asked kids to earn the money they were donating—by doing chores or baby-sitting or working around their neighbourhood. When storms and tornadoes devastated central Massachusetts in mid 1953, the members of the Small Fry Club helped him raise $18,000; the money went directly to agencies helping children whose families had lost their homes and their possessions. And as he had done during his radio days, Bob was also a frequent visitor to Children's Hospital, where he sang for the kids and entertained them. And he continued making appearances at venues all over eastern Massachusetts—for example, I have a clipping from May of 1958 that announces his visit to the “Kiddie Ranch” on route 1 in Saugus, and another from the spring of 1957 announcing a traffic safety campaign that was taking him to various schools in greater Boston. The idea of doing a good deed—Be Someone's Big Brother or Sister Every Day—was one he never abandoned.
In the 1960s, WBZ began moving his show around, changing its day and time, shortening it, changing its name—“Clubhouse 4”, “Big Brother and Flash”, “Big Brother's World”—and finally limiting it to one day a week and asking him to tape it. While Bob did not feel that he was “too old” or out of touch with the audience, a number of the older announcers and performers were being encouraged to retire, as TV continued to change. Finally, in early January of 1968, Bob did in fact retire, at the age of 70. Some of the surviving members of the Joy Spreaders were at his retirement party. To this day, many of us who grew up watching him have not forgotten him.
After he retired, he was still asked to make some personal appearances for charity, and he did. But he also had time to enjoy his hobbies—he liked to cook, he played golf, he did some acting in theatrical productions. He and Katherine, his wife of 43 years were very close (she had produced some of his TV shows, in fact); they also had four grandchildren. Yet, although he seemed content that he no longer had the pressure of a daily performance, it still seems to me (based on interviews I have read from that time period) that, given his choice, he would have remained on the air in some capacity. Ultimately, it was a stroke that slowed him down; he died in July of 1982, at the age of 85.
I know of few performers whose careers ran from the era of crystal sets all the way to the era of satellites. The world changed so much, and so did the types of programming for kids. Yet Big Brother Bob Emery kept re-inventing himself decade after decade, appealing to entirely new generations of “small fry”. I don't know if his style would work for today's kids—he certainly came from a more innocent, less contentious time. But then, I am sure he would say that some things are timeless, and if a show is honest and interesting, if it provides kids with a chance to get involved in a positive way, it will work no matter what year it is. I don't know if our post-literate society of video games and “South Park” has room for somebody like Big Brother, but I am certainly glad I was around in those formative years of TV, and I wish I could have heard him on the radio. Rest in peace, Big Brother—and thanks!
Donna L. Halper is a media historian, author of five books and many articles. She is an assistant professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass., and received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.