About The Artist
An old WLS Stand-By from March 14, 1936 featured him as "Henry Hornsbuckle" and told readers, "After working on 119 stations I was mighty glad to come back here last fall." The article tongue-in-cheek attributed the quote to "Henry Hornsbuckle Morpheus Mayfair Manchester Merle Housh." His real name was Merle Housh and was born in Dennison, Kansas. HIs family moved to Topeka, Kansas when he was fourteen years old - around 1920.
Merle was evidently did not wait long to start getting paid to work. When he was 19, he had his own interior decorating business. In other articles, it was mentioned he was "hanging paper" - we assume that means wallpaper.
But around that time, 1925 or so, radio was becoming popular. Merle could play the guitar a bit even sang. But he had an idea for a "rural act."
But he needed a partner. He found one in Truman Wilder who he found at a local store playing the harmonica. They called themselves Henry Hornsbuckle and Hiram Higsby and sold the act to the local station Topeka - WIBW, we are estimating around 1927. Earlier in that 1936 article, it stated his salary at his first job with WIBW was three dollars.
For their first radio performance, they had to fill a 45 minute time slot. At that time, they would play three or four bars of "Arkansas Traveler", stop the music to tell a joke or relate a story. Then go back to the music for a bit and on it went. But we learn a different story from the January 1946 edition of the WIBW Round-Up publication. The team went on the air and started doing their act. The phones started ringing at WIBW. The word went out "keep them on the air". Another 15 minutes and the word was "Let's have more of that". Their second program had a sponsor - Ed Marling, a manager of The Harris-Goar Store in Topeka. In 1929, they left WIBW for Chicago.
On September 28, 1928, Hiram and Henry had an audition at WLS. The musical director at the time, Don Malin, thought the duo was "too hayseed" for their audiences. But George Biggar and Edgar Bill were of the mind set that they had "possibilities". The duo worked at another local Chicago station, WIBO, for a few months before Mr. Biggar asked them to come back.
Hiram and Henry captivated the audiences and their tune, "Ain't We Crazy?" became a popular one. Their stint with WLS lasted a few years before the wandering bug struck again. An old WLS Family Album from 1931 perhaps gives us an idea of the characters they adapted themselves to. One was "Postmaster Henry Hornsbuckle" and the other was "Judge Hiram Higsby". On a side note, it was said that Hiram got married in front of the microphones of WLS in 1930.
They first had a contract with the CBS network. Then went to radio station WGAR in Cleveland, Ohio for 18 weeks. While in Cleveland, Henry (Merle) encountered an old friend - Rene (Zeb) Hartley who had played in the Merry-Go-Round orchestra when Henry did. Hiram and Henry split up. Henry took Zeb with him to Chicago. They crossed paths with another person from Topeka, Ted (Otto) Morse. The 1936 article stated that "Otto had never given a toot on his tooter before a microphone but he had played in orchestras and directed them since the age of 14."
The act of Henry, Zeb and Otto spent only a month at WLS before they went to station KMOX in St. Louis, Missouri for 15 months. In a side note, the article mentioned another WLS alum had also joined the KMOX staff - Charlie Stookey.
This may start get confusing trying to follow Merle's career and you will see why. Merle came back to Chicago and worked for a time at WBBM with Holland Ingle, a program director. But before long Merle adopted the name of Red Ellis and went to radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa "...where he built 18 different combinations of acts, all of them commercially sponsored."
But apparently, George Biggar strived to end the wandering ways of Merle in September of 1935 and brought him back - Merle/Henry said "...for good". Hiram also came back with him, but he only stayed for two months before going to radio station KRNT in Des Moines.
The Stand-By article noted that Henry/Merle was one of the most "versatile" men at their studios in WLS. He would be seen in shirt-sleeves over a typewriter writing out a script or dialogue for the "Drug Trade Products" sponsored program. He would sing and play guitar on the Saturday night National Barn Dance. He could be in Pat Buttram's "Radio Skule fer New Beginners Jes' Startin'" and a host of other programs. It was said he portrayed characters in the Virginia Lee and Sunbeam script and appeared frequently on the Pa and Ma Smithers program. Chuck Ostler wrote in a Fanfare column that the fellow folks saw 'talking to himself' in the studio was really Merle "reading over some commercial copy before taking the air."
In 1936, one of his favorite roles was Morpheus Mayfair Manchester, "...that Sleepy Son of Mississippi" who was on the air daily on the Morning Minstrels program.
The WLS Family Album of 1937 indicated he was on the "Smile-A-While" program.
In June of 1938, we learn that Merle (Henry Hornsbuckle) was doing a show with Rita Ascot ("Widder Green") on the Front Porch Party program that aired at 9:30pm on Saturday nights. We also learn via a question a reader asked that Merle played the part of "Ambidexter" on the "Pat and Henry" program.
In June 11, 1938 issue of Stand-By, a listener writes some high praise for Merle. "I must send my thanks to Merle Housh for I think he is a wonderful announcer. He always puts in so many kind words where they fit so well. I like his singing, too and wish he would sing more often. I hope he never leaves your station." That was what Mrs. A Bankoski wrote.
And it was only two weeks later they were publishing another gushing complement from a listener. "Merle Housh certainly knows how to handle a guitar. He did a grand job playing for Georgie Goebel the other morning. Why can't we have a 15-minute program with Merle playing and singing? I know a lot of WLS listeners would be glad to hear more of him. So come on, folks, and let Merle know that we really do like him and want to hear him more often." It was signed by "A Merle Housh Fan". Mrs. Evelyn Menghi expressed a similar desire to hear Merle in his own program featuring his singing.
A Dorothy Ames wrote also in April 1938 that she liked the folks at WLS, "...But Merle Housh is the best of all. He Knows just what to say and how to say it."
But lest you think WLS only published gushing compliments, along comes a 'criticism' from an "F.T.B." out of Springfield, Illinois after hearing the "Front Porch" program starring Henry Hornsbuckle on May 7, 1938. This person did not mince words. "Why would you think we would want to spend thirty minutes on Saturday evening listening to Hornsbuckle and his gang talk about a wiener roast which chatter didn't add a thing to the evening's program. In fact, I'll guess that most of your radio audience either turned to some other program or went to sleep during this non-sensical feature."
Chuck Ostler took readers "Behind the Scenes" in one column and we see that Merle could be a bit of a prankster. Seemingly he was reading come commercial copy as he would do. But Hal Culver was reading the weather report when Merle suddenly took a chair and placed it behind Hal, got up on the chair and proceeded to give Hal a haircut or trim all the while Hal had to keep his cool and finish the weather report.
The Hired Man, who wrote the Fanfare column in the WLS Stand-By magazines, told readers that "...Pat Buttram, Pokey Martin and Henry Hornsbuckle made their first (and he hoped not last) appearance as a comedy trio in an amusing sketch."
We learned that Merle stayed left WLS in 1940 - by that time he had originated the Exchange Club program. He left due to having to deal with a serious illness and went back to his native Kansas to recuperate. In 1941, he returned to the air on WIBW. In addition to his "Exchange Club" program, he was also on the Daybreak Jamboree which went on the air at 5am and on Doc and Esther's (Embree) Sparkolite program at 6:45am.
The WIBW Round-Up editor told readers that one day, Merle had the tongue twisted time trying to pronounce the simple phrase of "tomato catsup" but for whatever reason it was coming out "topato catsup." Oh, would you like to have been listening when as Henry Hornsbuckle he advised his audience to "...get rid of filthy swy flatters." Then tried to explain it away by stating he meant "sly fatters" or you get it "fly swatters". In another instance, he was heard to say on the air, "poteeta pailings".
The WIBW Round-Up monthly newsletter / magazine indicated in 1947 that Merle owned the Topeka Addressing Company which published his Henry's Hints publication.
In January, Merle was among several entertainers at WIBW who received a pin to honor their five year anniversaries with the station.
Merle/Henry was married before went into the world of radio entertainment - his wife's name was Vivian. They enjoyed the changes in scenery as he took jobs at various stations. They had a daughter named Dona Jeane.
In our research and efforts to determine when Merle passed away, we learned that he was hospitalized Eight years prior to his passing, we learn from his obituary, that he had developed a brain tumor. He was placed in the Valley View rest home in VAlley Falls about eight months prior to his passing. He entered the Winchester Hospital around December 10-11 in Winchester, Kansas, where he spent his remaining days and passed away on Saturday, December 22, 1962. The obituary did not mention his wife but did mention the daughter Donna Jean who was living in Phoenix, Arizona at the time.
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