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Leo G. Carroll
Hey! All you fancy pants Hollywood Big Shots! Why not a SERGEANT PRESTON & YUKON KING movie? Try it and 'member who toldja!
"THE CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON", a Radio Series from the fertile program hatchery of Radio Station WXYZ, Detroit, made its debut on February 3, 1938 as a 15 minute installment. The series followed the adventures of one Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted Police and his Horse, Rex and his canine ally, " Yukon King, the swiftest and strongest lead dog in the North!" It later became a half-hour weekly show on the ABC Radio Network.
It was during this period that the show acquired a regular sponsor in the Quaker Oats Company. It's Quaker that was responsible for the Nations supply of nice, piping hot and wholesome Quaker Oat Meal, as well those two "shot from guns" and ready to eat twins of breakfast, Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice.
Anyone who ever heard one of the shows would not soon forget the excitement generated by one of their radio episodes. There was a certain enchanting and heart-felt spectrum of moods generated in these episodes. The main story lines were propelled forward and necessary exposition was ably handled by the golden voiced narrator. We were bombarded with a variety of rich, image-forming sounds. The wind constantly whistling through the lofty coniferous pines, spruce, balsam and larches, was a constant reminder of the great, snowy wilderness being portrayed.
And that my, dear reader, brings us to a most important element in creating an exciting, memorable drama; be it feature film, television or (especially) radio. That is the music, both themes (sort of the 'Overture' of the radio play) and the incidental music for creating mood and serving as queues for impending action sequences.
Much like the two other highly successful series that came out of WXYZ, Sgt. Preston's "THE CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON" would have a theme culled from the seemingly endless library of Classical Music compositions. They would provide a great list of substantive, charming and memorable fine and adaptable scores. And they all just about all happened to be in Public Domain.
The WXYZ staff had previously chosen the Finale from Rossini's Overture to his Opera, WILLIAM TELL and virtually made it their own as the theme for their own immortal radio series, "THE LONE RANGER". Likewise, when the Masked Man's great,great nephew, Newspaper Publisher, Britt Reid, was in need of a similarly rich and memorable "tune" for a theme, what they pressed into service was Rimzky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumble Bee." Hence, it became forever identified with THE GREEN HORNET.
So two good themes were taken, but there were plenty of fish in the sea. What was chosen for "THE CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON", which was officially renamed "SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON" in 1951, was a lesser known composition by a not as 'famous' composer. It was Nichlaus von Reznicek's overture from his Opera,'Donna Diana'. Once heard it's powerful, lively and triumphant melodies will not soon be forgotten.
As an adaptation from Radio, the TV Series of SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON made the transition as smoothly as one could hope. The voice over narration was continued, but as you would expect, it was in a slightly diminished capacity; the visual medium being not so demanding as Radio.
Overall, it sounded much like the Radio version had been; what with the ever whistling North Wind, Lead DogYukon King's barking, his sled dog team, Rex his horse and the good Sergeant's frequent shouts of "ON KING!" and "MUSH, YOU HUSKIES!" The choice of the lead to portray the Mountie Sergeant was a crucial one and its selection was well done.
In discharging their duty of auditioning and finding the right man they could't have made a better choice. Tall, burly and broad shouldered Richard Simmons was chosen. (Not that one, who was still in diapers then.) He cut a fine figure in his red tunic, dark blue side-striped pants and Pershing-style brown hat.
Furthermore, and just as importantly, Mr. Simmons sounded like the Radio actor who originated the role. So it was with a rich, baritone that all of the Good Sgt.'s various and oft used commands of, "On King", "Mush You Huskies" and "I arrest you in the Name of the Crown", were heard.
And much like "THE LONE RANGER" TV Series, there was plenty of outdoor shooting to add authenticity to whatever studio and back lot "town" shots that they did. We had thought that it was around Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada-California border that starred and doubled for the Canadian Yukon Territory. But we have since then been informed that it was done a California's Big Bear Lake. (I guess I wasn't far off, but no matter!)
That locale provided a beautiful array of, large, snow-covered expanses of looked like fine skiing country. The location was ringed by great growths of pine forest; giving it an authentic look of the arctic. Later episodes, being filmed in Color, made for an excellent record or even a travelogue for this part of Northern (?) California.
One item that Sgt. Preston retained from his Radio Days was the all important Sponsor. Good, old reliable Quaker Oats. After signing on in the '40's, they continued their association with the show up until the end of the TV run. And it is this that will surely awaken a very fond memory of Sgt. Preston. "And that would be .?", I hear you ask.
Sometime during the run of the TV Series, Quaker offered "inside specially marked boxes" of Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, one special Land Deed to One Square Foot of Yukon Territory. (I tink it wuz 1 foot! Any body 'member dat?) When considered today, the whole body of the Sgt. Preston saga, it appears that he truly made a fine impression in our national psyche as a great, immortal symbol of Law & Order and all that is good in Canada and her Neighbor to the South.
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