The Strange Case of the Sunday Stagebill
It was a day and time you never knew. While the rest of America was enjoying “Lum and Abner,” “Fibber McGee and Molly”, “Amos and Andy” and World War II, a Washington, DC, showman was involved in an entertainment battle of his own.
The decrepit Eckington Theater, located near the cross streets of Florida and New York in Northeast DC, was known as the headquarters for a large printing concern. But the door you see in the lower right hand corner of the picture led to a world of wonder. It led to…
The Eckington Theater.
Purchased in 1929 for a pittance (which, in 2010 money is about a billion dollars), a young and jovial impresario named Walter J. Puddingbottom sought to turn the theater into the glittering jewel in the dazzling crown of the Washington, D.C. theater scene. Walter envisioned nothing less than a “New Broadway” centered in the Nation’s capital.
This photo, taken on the day young Puddingbottom purchased the theatrical portion of the building, shows his optimism as the young impresario stands on the corner of Eckington Place and Florida Avenue, waiting for the crowds to arrive for his first show… “And Some Called Them Dandies!” — unfortunately by the time this photo was taken, the show was well into its first act and closed in the middle of the second act.
When Walter learned the truth about his non-existent radio program in 1952, the theater lay dormant until 2001 when XM Satellite Radio purchased the entire building. Broadway Bill Schmalfeldt and Ben Krech revitalized the theater and made it, for awhile anyway, rival to anything Broadway ever produced. On the radio, anyway.
When XM merged with its rival, Sirius, the theater again fell into disrepair.
Walter’s failure as an impresario was eclipsed by his failure as a would-be broadcaster. And it is to his spirit that we dedicate a new website.
Meet the players…
WALTER J. PUDDINGBOTTOM (1894-1952)
The original “Jovial Impresario” of the Eckington Theater in Washington, DC. After taking ownership of a small, community theater in 1929, Puddingbottom had dreams of hosting large scale Broadway productions. The theater’s location in the rough-and-tumble northeast section of Washington was not the sort of destination the city’s upper crust had in mind, however. Walter believed that if he could host a radio program from the theater, then the stars — and the customers — would soon follow.
For years in the early 30’s Walter consistently hounded the executives of the NBC Radio Network (the one his mother preferred) and begged them to do a live broadcast from his stage. Tired of the wheedling, whining Walter, NBC executives fooled him into believing they had created a new network — the NBC Orange Network — to accompany the Red and Blue network, thereby giving them a space on their air schedule. They gave Walter a cheap recording device, told him it was a transmitter, and for nearly 20 years thereafter Walter hosted his own little program.
He called it “The Sunday Stagebill” and recorded each program on wax discs, believing that to be the method of broadcasting at the time. With his sidekick (and some say he was more than that), Eldon McCarricker, Walter ruled the airwaves of his mind until an NBC executive spilled the beans in 1952 when Walter began asking for his own television show.
Walter was found dead in a Montreal hotel room on January 5, 1952. Apparently fell (or was pushed, some say) down the steps and, before he died, wrote the word “Huzzah” in his own blood on a nearby wall. McCarricker told reporters that he felt it was Walter’s way of trying to capture Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” mystique. At any rate, it failed. He was buried, broke and forgotten in an unknown, unmarked grave in DC.
ELDON McCARRICKER (1904 — ??)
Walter met young Eldon McCarricker when he purchased the Eckington Theater in 1929. Eldon was in charge of mopping up spit and other liquids from the stage floor. Being Walter’s assistant meant a small increase in pay for Eldon, but it was just the beginning of his suffering.
Eldon was Walter’s foil, his companion, his lackey, his stooge and his object of torment. For his part, Eldon loved Walter as a surrogate father and in ways that we can’t really understand not having been there at the time.
When XM Satellite Radio sold the remnants of the Eckington Theater in 2002, its contemporary host, Broadway Bill Schmalfeldt, searched for Eldon and found him in a Missouri nursing home. He took Eldon with him to New York City and made him his house boy at his Park Avenue estate. Eldon caused problems, however, by constantly inviting dirty homeless people to come and soak in the hot tub, and Broadway Bill had to let him go.
His whereabouts are unknown, but a search of obituaries hasn’t turned up a death notice, so we will assume he is still alive and bothering someone.
WILHELMINA McKECKNIE PUDDINGBOTTOM (1857-1954)
A horrible, morbidly obese and evil woman, Wilhelmina was a constant source of stress in Walter’s life. She was never actually photographed, but the accompanying drawing comes from a crude playbill Walter commissioned upon the occasion of his mother’s performance in some Gilbert and Sullivan farce in the Eckington Theater in 1931. Wilhelmina played the house organ for the program’s intro each week, and later said that her greatest accomplishment in life was outliving Walter by nearly two years.
OTIS Q. PUDDINGBOTTOM (1894-1949)
For years, Walter believed he was an only child. Not so. His wretched mother gave birth to twins that cold, dank morning in 1894. Fearing that two children would leave less food for her, she gave one to a traveling agricultural exhibit. Luckily for young Otis, he landed with a wealthy family in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin where he amassed quite a fortune in corn and pigs.
On three separate occasions that we’re aware of, Otis attempted to persuade his brother to abandon the Eckington and join him in Wisconsin. But Walter, so star-struck by his imagined radio fame, refused to consider it. They lost contact with each other, and Otis died in 1949 when a pig took a bite out of his spine.
THOMAS THE CIRCUS MONKEY
LISTEN TO ACTUAL EPISODES OF “THE SUNDAY STAGEBILL” at…