Seattle’s forgotten connection to radio’s Jimmie Allen Flying Club
The “radio serials” of the 1930s and 1940s were adventure soap operas for kids, and they were a mainstay of radio programming and a weekday afternoon ritual for millions of young listeners during the Great Depression and World War II.
In September 1934, a program premiered in Seattle called “The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen.” The show was produced in Chicago and had premiered there a year earlier. Each week, five, 15-minute episodes were recorded to disc, and then shipped to local stations all around the country.
The main character of the show was a 16-year old aviator named Jimmie Allen. He had a gal pal named Barbara, and a mentor named “Speed” Robertson. The “air adventures” revolved around flying airplanes, and getting tangled up in plot complications wherever there was a runway to be found.
While “Jimmie Allen” was produced in Chicago, the show has a mostly forgotten connection to Seattle because of what took place in a mostly vacant building in the South Lake Union neighborhood 85 years ago.
A slice of Jimmie Allen history in Seattle
“Jimmie Allen” and much of the radio programming in the early 1930s were free escapist entertainment during the darkest years of the Great Depression. Pretty much every episode ended with some kind of exciting cliffhanger – with Jimmie or one of the other characters in mortal danger – to keep kids tuning in the next day to hear how it would all turn out.
In different regions around the U.S., a single company would sign on as sponsor for “The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen.” The daily weekday episodes in each region would include advertisements from a bakery or shoe company or, in the case of the West Coast, the petroleum company called Richfield Oil (which many years later became Arco).
While the spoken drama parts of episodes were pre-recorded, each episode also included musical interludes that were built in to allow local announcers to read the different sponsor message for each region.
Those sponsors would sometimes offer “premiums” or special promotion items related to the program that were designed as special gifts for listeners, to gauge listener interest, and to help sell more products.
Richfield Oil sponsored “Jimmie Allen” on the West Coast, and for some reason, though Richfield was based in California, they distributed all the many West Coast Richfield premiums for the show from a building at 901 Harrison Street in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
What this means is that Seattle – in particular, 901 Harrison Street – was considered the “headquarters” for tens of thousands of “Jimmie Allen Flying Club” members, known as “Flight Cadets,” in Washington, Oregon and California.
The club name and the Seattle return address is printed on a wide assortment of Jimmie Allen materials, so much so, that it seems that if you were a kid in Seattle in the 1930s, you’d want to stake out the place to see if you could catch a glimpse of Jimmie showing up for work at his “headquarters.”
A visit to 901 Harrison Street earlier this week reveals that the building that “Jimmie” called imaginary home is still standing, which is remarkable given all the changes in the South Lake Union area lately. The two-story building, with distinctive arched windows, appears relatively unchanged, and it looks much like it must have when it was the “Flying Club” virtual headquarters.
Further digging online reveals that the mission-influenced structure was built in 1927 as real-life headquarters for Pioneer Sand & Gravel (who probably didn’t offer much, if anything, in the way of premiums). Pioneer moved out around 1931, and Richfield moved in not long after, remaining there for about a decade. Later, 901 Harrison was home for many years to Athletic Supply.
The building, which most recently housed a hardware store, now appears to be vacant. In May 2014, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to name 901 Harrison Street a City of Seattle Landmark, which probably explains why it’s still standing, and still relatively unchanged.
A Jimmie Allen collector
Though he’s never been to 901 Harrison Street, and he’s too young to remember when “Jimmie Allen” first aired, Larry Zdeb has been collecting old radio premiums from The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, and others for more than 40 years. It’s clear he really gets a kick out of the old artifacts, and he has a massive collection of hundreds of items, and he’s also become something of an expert on the subject.
Zdeb, who lives in Michigan, says that the main point of the Jimmie Allen Flying Club was to get kids to encourage their parents to buy gasoline at Richfield service stations.
The first step, Zdeb says, was to write to your local radio station and ask for a membership card. In Seattle, “Jimmie Allen” aired first on KJR, and later on KOMO; both stations were owned by the Fisher family in those years.
“You would go down to your local Richfield station, show the attendant your Flying Club membership card and he would give you Jimmie Allen Flying Club ‘Flight Lesson Number One,’” Zdeb said. “And you were told to study this and come back in a week to get the next one. The idea was to get mom and dad to go to Richfield as many times as possible. And, hopefully, they would fill up with gas while little junior was inside getting his flight lesson.”
Those ‘Flight Lessons’ were pretty elaborate and richly illustrated, and the material appears to be based on real aviation principles.
Zdeb says “Jimmie Allen” didn’t want parents making just one trip to a Richfield station.
“These flight lessons lasted for five weeks,” Zdeb said. “So there’s mom and dad, forced to go back to Richfield for five weeks, and then a sixth week so the child could pick up his contest form so he could send it in to win this wonderful prize that was promised.”
The prize was a “wristlet” — sort of a masculine bracelet – decorated with the Jimmie Allen logo. Other companies that sponsored “The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen” in other parts of the country offered variations on this basic approach.
And though Jimmie Allen – the show, the character and the premiums – aren’t much remembered these days, the evidence suggests that the teenaged aviator was pretty popular for a couple of years there in the mid 1930s.
Paramount made a Jimmie Allen film in 1936 called “The Sky Parade” that featured an actor named Jimmie Allen who played himself. Paramount sent this actor (whose real name probably wasn’t Jimmy Allen) around the country to appear as Jimmie Allen at theaters where the film was showing. There was at least one Jimmie Allen engagement like this in Seattle at the Paramount that lasted for a week in May 1936.
The end of the road
“The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen” radio program only lasted for another year, and went off the air for good in 1937. The writing team of Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt who created “Jimmie Allen” must have known they were on to something about aviation-themed action radio serials.
In 1938, the pair created the much more memorable “Captain Midnight,” which was sponsored by Ovaltine and broadcast nationally on the Mutual network, and then NBC throughout much of the 1940s.
When Larry Zdeb began collecting radio premiums, eBay did not yet exist. This meant traveling to toy and ephemera shows and searching through inventory by hand. The introduction of eBay has meant easier searches, and when Zdeb finds something he likes, a little bit of the past comes to life when that latest purchase arrives in the mail.
“I think [radio premiums] are just as cool now as they were back in the day when they originally came out,” Zdeb said. “So when I receive a premium, it’s almost as if I’m that kid in 1941 who’s receiving this envelope, and when he opens it up, this manual comes out with a little badge.”
“I seem to get that same thrill that the kid did back then,” Zdeb said.
When I told him that 901 Harrison Street, the “Jimmie Allen” West Coast headquarters, was still standing, Zdeb seemed to get that “same thrill” yet again.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could somehow go in the building and find a little room and find stacks of Jimmie Allen stuff?” Zdeb wondered aloud.
“If I lived in Seattle, I would probably try to do that,” he said.