WBZ-TV in Boston, which was New England’s first commercial television
station (it began operation in the summer of 1948), broadcast The Sue Bennett Show in 1954 and
1955.The station was affiliated with
NBC then.It was an era of adventure and
excitement on television, because it was still so new.
Sue Bennett’s TV career started promisingly. She had
appeared on the famous Your Hit Parade,
sponsored by Lucky Strike, and on other shows in the heady, nerve-wracking days
of live television. Soon, however, her career took a different turn, and by the
time of Boston’s The Sue Bennett Show,
was waning in the mid-1950s, mostly by her choice.
She had moved from New York, where the big TV shows were
produced, to Boston with her physician husband.They raised two sons, and she occasionally hosted other local programs,
or appeared as a guest on talk shows or took studio voice-over work for TV and
radio commercials.The career that now
began to fade had started with the snap and sparkle of the Big Band Era and the
promise of sudden stardom that TV gives.
The threads of her career, woven into the story of early
live TV, is told by her son, Andrew Lee Fielding in his book The Lucky Strike Papers (Bear Manor
Media: Albany, GE, 2007).It’s a
splendid book, sensitively written, that chronicles the phenomenon of live TV,
and the musical variety type programs which are no longer with us.
He writes from his perspective as one who is taking a mental
and emotional journey back to a time only just a handful of years before he was
born--but it might as well have been a thousand years.He is like an archeologist of popular
history, as he examines artifacts of his mother’s career.The book is filled with interviews of many of
the figures of era, which he began interviewing in the late 1970s.They include Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson,
and Russell Arms of Your Hit Parade,
as well as bandleader Kay Kyser, Merv Griffin, Jack Leonard, Freddy Martin, and
many, many more.
We tread like explorers through the world of kinescope in
the days when shows produced in New York could only reach Chicago and points
west on a kinescope recording before there was a coaxial cable that far to
broadcast live.In the days when a new
TV set cost over $900 in 1949 dollars.
Technologically primitive by our standards, and cost prohibitive for purchasers of new sets, still the new media
commanded such interest that theatre towns were shocked to discover that once
TV came available to their areas, they experienced a drop in attendance.Movies, too.Hollywood was panicked.For more
than one reason.We explore a world
where Red Channels had the power to destroy
Flitting through these images is Sue Bennett, a lovely young
singer of great talent.Her son grasps
at her image, but never holds it for long because the evidence of her career is
fragmented and time is getting away from him.
Mr. Fielding manages to write a very personal memoir about a
story that was not his own, and that is something wondrous.I found the book quite moving in several
passages.I especially liked his
references to the S.S. United States,
a ship on which his mother and several of the Your Hit Parade cast performed in a special episode, a magnificent
ship from the lavish days of transatlantic travel, whose fate the author
follows to its lonely decay in a berth on the Delaware River.
For those interested in the days of early television, this
book, filled with anecdotes and the details of excellent research, is a
For now, have a listen to Big Band singer Sue Bennett singing with the Kay Kyser orchestra on “Let’s Choo, Choo, Choo to
Idaho”. (Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom of the blog and mute the music so you can hear the YouTube audio.)
This sign showing a giant green splotch on the Connecticut
River Valley, illustrates the extent of commercial tobacco growing in western
New England.From about Portland,
Connecticut, following the river up to lower Vermont, we see a huge swath of
land that more or less replicates the gouging of the glacier that once sat
here.Maybe its peeling back layers of
earth as it retreated is the reason for this area’s having some of the most
fertile growing land in New England.Certainly left behind a lot of dinosaur footprints.
The first European settlers here were quick to notice, and
quick to exploit, the fertile land, and started growing tobacco as early as the
1650s.The native tribes hereabouts,
however, had grown tobacco for their own use long before that.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
The colonists smoked it in clay pipes then, and some was
shipped back to the mother country, but it is said that Connecticut’s
Revolutionary War hero (and French and Indian War) Israel Putnam, bringing
tobacco seeds back from Cuba was the start of the growing of this special
tobacco for rolling into cigars. We visted his monument in this previous post.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
Commercial tobacco growing, mainly on small family farms,
took off in the 1800s, when cigar smoking among men became popular.The kind grown here was called Broadleaf, the
outer wrapper of the cigar.Competition
from Sumatra later in the century inspired growers hereabouts to turn over a
new leaf, so to speak, in tobacco growing.In the early 1900s they came up with the idea of erecting enormous light
cloth tents over the tobacco fields, which by cutting direct sunlight and
increasing the humidity of the atmosphere underneath the tenting, replicated
the growing conditions in Sumatra.This
is called Shade tobacco, and it is considered the finest cigar wrapper.
The tobacco farms, not just small family farms anymore but
also large commercial plantations (part of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee,
Massachusetts was once the site of the American Sumatra company plantation),
was a huge influence on the economy of the Connecticut River Valley, and
provided thousands of jobs.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
Local folks, including many teens, found work here, but
tobacco growing is such a labor-intensive project, with a lot of work done by
hand, that workers were sought from other parts of the country to work here
seasonally.One of the first drives to
bring in outside workers occurred during World War II, when of course a lot of
local men were called into the service.During these years, many young people arrived from the South. One of
them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.
Religious services, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
He arrived here in 1944, when he was just 15 years old.He obtained a job on a tobacco farm in
Simsbury, Connecticut that summer to earn money for college.In The
Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Clayborne Carson, IPM, Time
Warner, 1998), Dr. King recounts that he was surprised that he could attend a “white”
church, and eat in any restaurant he wanted, because there were no segregation laws
in the north.“I had never thought that
a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest
restaurants in Hartford.”
He wrote home to his parents in June, 1944:
I am very sorry I am so long about writing but I have been
working most of the time.We are really
having a fine time here and the work is very easy.We have to get up every day at 6:00.We have very good food.And I am working kitchen so you see I get
We have service here every Sunday about 8:00 and I am the
religious leader we have a Boys choir here and we are going to sing on the air
soon.Sunday I went to church in
Simsbury it was a white church…On our way here we saw some things I had never
anticipated to see.After we passed Washington
there was no discrimination at all the white people here are very nice.We go to any place we want to and sit any
where we want to.
Tell everybody I said hello and I am still thinking of the
church and reading my bible.And I am
not doing any thing I would not do in front of you…
The adult Dr. King continues in his autobiography, “After
that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation…I
could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places,
separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly
because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and
Obviously, not all learning experiences on the tobacco farms
were quite as profound as this young man’s, and later decades came to know
labor unrest, with conditions that were not always satisfactory in the larger
work camps.Waves of other newcomers
came to the Valley as temporary tobacco workers and stayed to make a home here,
from Jamaica, from Puerto Rico, as well as from Central America, Haiti, Mexico,
Choir, workers from Jamaica, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
The height of tobacco growing occurred in early 1920s when
some 30,800 acres in Connecticut alone were devoted to this crop.Today, there are only about 2,000 acres left.
This is due to a number of factors, in part to the value of
real estate turning land over to industrial parks and shopping plazas, to the
fact that cigarette smoking eclipsed the popularity of cigar smoking, and that
younger generations have come to understand that smoking will kill you.
Exhibit Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum, photo JT Lynch
Two excellent sources of information on the history of
tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley, used for this article, are the
Connecticut Public Television documentary “Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley”
(produced and directed by Frank Borres,2001), and the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.
Photo JT Lynch
This museum is comprised of a tobacco shed with machinery,
implements, and tobacco, and a separate archives building containing many
artifacts, exhibits, photos and books on this interesting aspect of western New
England history.It’s located in
Windsor, Connecticut.Have a look here at the website.
Another viewpoint of the story of tobacco farms in
Connecticut will be discussed this Thursday on my Another Old Movie Blog when we
take a look at “Parrish” (1961), which starred Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens,
Claudette Colbert, and Karl Malden.It’s
a lavish, Hollywood version of tobacco growing, but a lot of it was filmed
right here in Windsor, Connecticut.I
hope you can join us.
apologize for the longer than usual break in proceedings, but this is just to
let you know that New England Travels will return next Tuesday, January 22nd.We’ll start with a visit to the Luddy/Taylor
Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, Connecticut to explore the
history of broadleaf and shade tobacco agriculture in the Connecticut River
Valley of Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
We’re tying in with my post that coming Thursday the 24th
on my Another Old Movie Blog about the film “Parrish” (1961), which was filmed on location in Connecticut and
offers us a lush look with a soap opera-type story about tobacco growing in
this area. Starring Troy Donahue in a
stunning array of red sweaters and windbreakers, he is ably supported by Connie
Stevens leading the bevy of females chasing him, along with Claudette Colbert
as his mom, and Karl Malden as the boss/stepfather from hell.This movie, and the novel by Mildred Savage
on which it was based, are probably the most famous depictions in popular
culture of commercial tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley.I hope you can join us on both blogs next
Classic Films and the
American Conscience, my eBook collection of essays from Another Old Movie
Blog is now also available from Barnes&Noble.com for your Nook, and
continues to be sold on Amazon.
Four towns, gone. Dismantled slowly while their inhabitants grieve for a history and heritage that has been voted away from them. The present threatens; the future belongs to the fearless.
“Beside the Still Waters” is a family saga based on an actual event which displaced four entire towns in central Massachusetts for the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir.
Read "Beside the Still Waters" available as an ebook here from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.
Helene Kelly said... Thanks so much to all of you for keeping the 'old downtown Springfield alive. I am the niece of George Legos, the former owner and key cook of the Nuttie Goodie Tearoom. He just passed away this morning at the age of 80 from a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was a wonderful uncle and a great man. So many people have fond memories of my family's downtown Springfield landmark, the Nuttie Goodie Tearoom. Helene February 17, 2013
Anonymous said... This article is rubbish. I am Rene Gagnon's grandson and this article seems to pull untrue information out of its ass. My grandfather never tried to capitalize on anything, he was never an alcoholic (who writes this stuff?) He wasn't embittered, and he never worked a menial job... in fact he owned a travel agency with my grandmother. May 25, 2012
Just found out by my brother that Rene Arthur Gagnon was my grandmothers uncle..makes me proud to know that I am related to this man...wish I had heard the same stories from my grandmother that my brother did but I was young...my grandmothers name was Lillian Gagne...would love to know more about him and wish she was alive to tell me! Thank you Tammy Chalbeck May 28, 2012
Val DeGray Orcutt said... This is awesome stuff! Joseph DeGray was my father's great uncle, so his daughter would be some sort of cousin relation to me.I never knew that part of the family was this close to "High Society" :)Thanks for the information!Val DeGray Orcutt
I came across this blog while doing research for my own novel about the Hartford circus fire, HARTFORD 1944. This has proven to be an emotional journey. As I do more research, these people become more real to me. 168 people lost their lives on that terrible July day in 1944. I feel a profound sense of duty to proceed carefully to avoid trivializing their tragic loss by juxtaposition my fictional story against the back-drop of their deaths. This is a story that needs to be told. A uniquely American tragedy equal in scope to the Titanic or Hindenburg—yet it remains largely a forgotten chapter in American history.
I plan to visit Hartford this summer, and your blog Ms. Lynch has inspired me to do so.
Dagmar said... Awesome post! I've lived in Willimantic for 10 years and love our giant frogs. It is a little city with a lot of heart. Next time you visit, check out another gem, the Willimantic Food Co-op (Valley Street) and grab a delicious home-cooked Polish lunch at Nita's (North Street), BBQ dinner at Yellow Rose BBQ (right across the intersection from the Frogs!) or drinks at Willimantic Brew Pub/Main Street Cafe (Main Street, in the gorgeous old Post Office building)!
January 28, 2012
On the Harriet Beecher Stowe house: Jessie said... My old high school is right next door to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. I had the pleasure of walking past this house and the Mark Twain House every morning and afternoon. They're quite a sight, especially in the early fall when the leaves begin to change color and the sun is just beginning to rise/set. Good times, good times! lol. I make it seem like it was so long ago but I only graduated in 2008.
Anyway, great blog!
March 5, 2011
We went to James's Pharmacy every Sunday after church to pick up the Sunday papers. Miss James sat behind the counter. She had snowy, white hair in a soft bun, and always seemed to wear a dazzling smile. Truly, the kind that lit up a room.She always had a few cats about the place, which i had to pet every time we stopped in. Megan
Mrs. LaFlamme said... Fascinating article. I grew up in Chicopee and traveled past the old Ames Manufacturing Co. on my way to high school every day. I learned so much from your well documented article. August 16, 2012
JACQUELINE T. LYNCH: Dwight, I've recently been contacted by a party interested in those tools and the Ames item you mention. If you are still involved in the dispersal of that collection, please contact me through my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com, and I'll forward the message along.
Hi Jacqueline,Don't know if you're still keeping up with an older post, but wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your history of the Ames company. I am currently helping the daughter of a late friend dispose of his tools, one of which is an Ames lathe that I believe was used to make cannon barrels.Regards,Dwight