Creator of Radio Program Called “Let’s Pretend.”
[NOTE: FAMILY NAME WAS MAC.]
The following article is taken from a quarterly magazine entitled The Little Balkans Review, Volume 3, No. 3, published in the spring of 1983. The article was written by Mrs. George (Betty) Sybrant of Arkansas City, Kansas.
“Let’s pretend that you grew up in Arkansas City in the early years of this century. You might have played with the girl next door, pretending on hot summer afternoons that you were Cinderella or princess Moonbeam.
“Nila Mack, who gained fame as the writer, producer, director of the award-winning CBS children’s program, ‘Let’s Pretend,’ spent such a childhood. Her popular radio show was heard on Saturday mornings from 1934 to 1954 and featured classic stories and fairy tales acted by children.
“Bonnie Nix was the girl next door who applauded her friend’s successes and kept pictures and scrapbooks to document them. This strong friendship endured through separa-tions of time, distance, and lifestyles. When Nila Mack died in January 1953, her will provided funds to help care for Bonnie’s handicapped son. Bonnie’s life ended on Christmas day 1981, at age eighty-nine. Just a few days before, she had visited with me about Nila Mack and shared her treasures of pictures and clippings. Bonnie’s eyes sparkled as she related events from their childhood and she spoke proudly of visiting her friend years later at the CBS studios in New York.
“Nila Mack was the only child of Margaret Bowen Mac and Don Carlos Mac. She was born October 24, 1891, in Arkansas City. Mr. Mac’s ancestors were McLoughlins when they arrived in the United States from Scotland. Somewhere along the line, the name was shortened to Mac. I could find no record of why he was given the Spanish name Don Carlos, but he was always Carl Mac in Arkansas City. Nila added the K to her name after she entered show business because she said it was often thought the Mac was a nickname.
“Carl Mac came to Arkansas City in 1886 as a Santa Fe engineer and is credited with taking the first engine over the tracks to Guthrie in Indian Territory, April 22, 1889, and the first train to Perry when the Cherokee Strip was opened for settlement. He also was the engineer on a train which was held up in June 1892 at Red Rock, about fifty-five miles south of Arkansas City, by the famed outlaw Dalton brothers. This incident is described in detail in George Rainey’s book on the Cherokee Strip. No one was hurt in this fracas, but in October of the same year the Daltons were shot to death in a bank robbery in Coffeyville, ninety miles east of Arkansas City.
“No doubt this and other events made Mrs. Mac apprehensive for her husband’s safety. He formed the habit of blowing his engine whistle, which he had attuned to the words ‘Goodbye Maggie,’ as he approached the Madison Avenue crossing close to his home on South C street in Arkansas City. This would let her know he would soon be home. When Nila and Bonnie heard the whistle, they would race to the tracks and he would slow the train and lift the little girls up to the cab to ride the few blocks to the station. Then they would all walk home together.
“Nila is remembered as a pretty, happy, vivacious child with precocious talents in music, dancing, and ‘elocution.’ Her parents were talented and lively and all of their attention as well as that of her mother’s widowed and childless sister, Mrs. Pocohantus B. Hanway, was lavished on the child.
“Mrs. Mac was an accomplished dancer who organized and taught classes in ballroom dancing. Nila played accompaniment for the classes which were often followed by ‘socials.’ The dances were held upstairs in Highland Hall (where the Burford Theater is now) and in the ballroom of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. On special occasions, Mrs Mac gave balls at the hotel with music provided by Watt Sleeth at piano, William Stickler at violin, and George Bly at drums. Almost weekly, these events were mentioned in the Arkansas City Daily Traveler. Sometimes, W. D. MacAllister’s orchestra, which the Traveler proclaimed the best in the Southwest, played for the dancing.
“Nila also played piano for the Arkansas City open-air theater on East Fifth Avenue, where Fatty Arbuckle and Ozzie Nelson played in vaudeville. As a dancer, she won 208 cakes in local cakewalk contests and played, sang, and danced in many local programs. On May 18, 1907, the Traveler related with some consternation that Mr. Mac’s run on the Santa Fe had been changed and that the family might move to Newton. Indeed, that week’s dance might be the last one. The uncertainty lingered through July and came to an abrupt and tragic end on August 1.
“Santa Fe train No. 116, which was due in Arkansas City at noon, was running thirty minutes late between Otoe and Red Rock. On a downhill grade at a speed of sixty miles an hour, the engine left the tracks and turned completely over. Live steam poured over engineer Mac and fireman Jack Kantzer as they tried to get out. All cars but one derailed and tipped over. Forty-seven people were injured.
“The conductor, who was not hurt, ran three miles to Otoe and telephoned the news to Red Rock, whence it was then telegraphed to Arkansas City. The wrecker and emergency trains were ordered out immediately, and Nila and Mrs. Mac and local doctors accompanied them to the scene of the wreck.
“The conductor returned from Otoe to the wreck with supplies to give emergency aid. The engineer and fireman had been seen to stand momentarily beside the wreck and clasp each other, but they then collapsed and, though Mac remained conscious and talked with his wife and daughter when they arrived, little hope was held that he would survive.
“The first plan was to take the injured to Topeka to the Santa Fe Hospital, but the plans were changed enroute and the train returned to Arkansas City. Carl Mac passed away as they entered town, the first passenger engineer killed on the Oklahoma division. Everyone else survived, only the fireman having serious injuries.
“Nearly five hundred shocked citizens met the train. Mac was well-known and well-liked. Funeral services were held at the Fifth Avenue Opera House and all three floors were packed. Delegations of Masons and railroaders from all over Oklahoma and Kansas attended.
“Many adjustments followed for Nila and her mother. They moved to an upstairs apartment in the downtown area. Mrs. Mac continued to teach dancing, and her sister, Mrs. B. Hanway, a Christian Science reader, who shared the apartment, taught expression. Nila was pictured in black in the high school annual with the sophomore class of 1907-08. However, the story is told that she slid down the bannister of the high school stairs into the arms of the principal, who unknown to her was waiting below. Her spirits were still sprightly.
“During the summer of 1908, while her young friends in Arkansas City were enjoying picnics along the Walnut River, dances and parties. Mrs. Mac took Nila to New York, where they attended Chautauqua classes. She was determined that her talented daughter receive every advantage of training. In the fall Nila enrolled at Ferry Hall, a Presbyterian finishing school for girls at Lake Forest, Illinois. She studied dramatics and helped pay her school expenses by working in local entertainments.
“The following year, Nila went to Boston for further training in dancing, voice, and French. While there, she was offered her first engagement as leading lady with a touring repertory company, at a salary of twenty-five dollars per week. Accompanied by her mother, she traveled with the group throughout the United States. Back home her friends were still in high school.
“Knowles Entriken, a noted director, commenting in Variety in later years on the life of Nila Mack, said that she learned her business in the lost world of the theatrical road company. ‘Salaries were small, hardships were something you took in stride, and the performance you gave was what put meaning into your life,’ he said. He also commented that Miss Mack had a fine command of the salty language of that world and a brisk and friendly wit.
“Not the least of the attractions the road company held for Nila was the leading man, Roy Briant, with whom she fell in love. Soon they were playing lead romantic roles opposite each other.
“But, in the course of the tours, when the company ran out of bookings and funds, they were stranded at Metropolis, Illinois. Undaunted, Briant, Miss Mack, and her mother decided to open a second theater in the town. Briant was to be manager, Nila would play the piano, and her mother would sell tickets.
“It should probably be noted that the piano player was a very important part of the entertainment in shows at this time. He (or She) played before the curtain went up, at intermissions, and often accompanied the action in the play with appropriate music. I can remember attending shows when we went more to hear a particularly talented piano player than for the play.
“The Mac-Briant Theater venture in Illinois failed and, when another road company came to town, Nila Mack and Roy Briant signed on and began touring again as romantic leads. They were married March 20, 1913, in St. Anthony, Idaho.
“Shortly before World War 1, they decided to give up touring and settle in Chicago to collaborate in writing scripts for Paramount Pictures. It seems likely that this was Briant’s forte, for he continued to write, but the high spirited Nila missed the action of the stage. When she was offered the second lead with a theatrical company organized by the famous actress, Alla Nazimova, she eagerly accepted. For six years she stayed with the company and became a close friend of Nazimova. Nila had a role in the movie War Brides, in which Miss Nazimova starred.
“With Nila on tour, Roy Briant moved to Hollywood to be near the studios, for which he continued to write. In 1927, he became ill and Nila left New York where she was preparing for a role on Broadway and went to California to care for him. He died December 15, 1927, in Hollywood and was buried there. Nila Mack was a widow at age thirty-five and from then on her work was her life. She continued to keep in touch with her mother, aunt and old friends in Arkansas City and made periodic visits there, but if she had any other romantic involvements, they were not known.
“After Briant’s death, Nila moved back to New York and returned to the stage as a vaudeville trouper, writing many of her own pieces. In 1927 and 1928 she played in the Broadway production of Fair and Warmer and was a member of the cast for Ibsen’s The Doll’s House. Also in 1928 she appeared in Eva the Fifth and the following year in Buckaroo with Tom Wise. During this time she was also writing scenarios for movie shorts.
“Nila Mack’s radio career began in 1929 when she joined Columbia Broadcasting System as an actress in the Radio Guild productions which became the basis for the program later known as the ‘Columbia workshop.’ On the radio she also had roles in ‘Nit-Wits’ and ‘Night Club Romances.’
“But once again Nila had to interrupt her climb to success and return to Arkansas City to be near her mother, who was now in failing health.
“Not content to be idle in her home town, Nila became program director of the fledgling Arkansas City radio station which had studios in the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Her biographies say she learned many phases of radio production there. This causes local people to smile: they recall that she wrote the material, sold advertising, announced, performed, recruited talent, and in general did anything it took to get the show on the air.
“Perhaps recollections of her own childhood performances for Arkansas City audiences influenced her, for she made the radio station a vehicle for many of the town’s young talents. Lois Hinsey, now a grandmother, recalls how anxious she was when she played a piano solo ‘on the radio’ at Nila’s request.
“After about eight months, CBS lured Nila back to New York to direct its children’s program, ‘The adventures of Helen and Mary.’ Arkansas City’s radio station moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, twenty-five miles to the south. It was August 18, 1930, and the nation was in the midst of the great depression. Children’s entertainment was at a low ebb and only in fantasy could one escape the harsh realities of poverty.
“Nila had reservations about accepting the job - not only because of her mother’s health, but also because it involved child actors. She confided to friends that she really didn’t like children. But a steady job in those troubled times was not to be taken lightly and she finally wired back to say ‘OK.’
“Helen and Mary were Patricia Ryan and Gwen Davies. Somewhere along the line they were joined by ‘Captain Bob,’ played by Harry Swan. The program soon became ‘Let’s Pretend,’ which lasted for twenty-three years and was still a CBS Saturday favorite in 1953, when Nila died.
“Nila drew on all her resources of education and past experience as she adapted the classic stories of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, and the Arabian Nights for her casts made up almost entirely of children. She also wrote the music and directed. She staunchly defended use of the fantasies as a vehicle and readily admitted they were favorites from her own childhood.
“‘I remembered fairy stories that filled me with wonder when I was very young,’ she once said in an interview. ‘I figured that if these lively pieces with a message at their hearts and meant so much to me, other children would like them, too.’”
“That she believed that the ‘message’ of these stories was important was often reiterated and reinforced by her adaptations. Working from the theory that fairy tales are children’s guides to simple eternal truths, Mack preached the triumph of goodness over evil. Her princes were charming, her dragons fiery and tough, courtesy and kindness counted, the good guys prevailed, and each story taught a lesson.
“Nila modified scripts when necessary to emphasize honor and service to a good cause. Her plays plainly spoke against racial prejudice and she wrote an original allegorical drama, ‘Castles of Hatred,’ to dispel the idea that all stepmothers are cruel. In 1946, she told NEA staff correspondent Rosellen Callahan, ‘The tales are candy-coated pills of principles of fair play, rules of courtesy, and lessons on generosity.’ In her own words, ‘The good are very good, and the bad get just what they deserve.’
“Long before Disney adapted the story of the seven dwarfs, it was a Mack favorite. Rather than have her heroine, whom she persisted in calling Snowdrop, appear to be a heel who went off and left the little friends who had aided her. Nila’s adaptation had her take them to the palace with her where they all lived happily.
“With the help of an imaginative sound man, who was often the only adult in the performance, she transported her listeners to long-ago and far-away lands of talking horses and enchanted forests. They developed some wonderful sizzling and steaming noises when oil was poured over Ali Baba’s forty thieves hiding in jars. Bluebeard got his just deserts, too, but only by implication:
“‘The kids are tickled to death when Bluebeard’s sword falls, klunk, closely followed by the thud of Bluebeard hitting the ground for the last time. They get the idea but not the horror,’ she said in a Time magazine interview, September 8, 1952.
“Nila stood firm against new models in heroes. She didn’t care for spacemen (Buck Rogers), cowboys (The Lone Ranger), or clear-eyed adventurers (Jack Armstrong). She stuck to her conviction that young radio listeners liked giants, witches, and fairy godmothers best. In the interview with Time magazine, she declared, ‘I’ll back seven league boots and magic wands any time against six shooters and space ships.’
“Through the years, more than 250 stories were dramatized and the program was carried by more radio stations than any other program on the air. Polls showed that adults as well as children were regular listeners. Most popular was the story of Cinderella, presented dozens of times. Runners-up were ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Snowdrop and the Seven Dwarfs.’
“Some shows became traditional seasonal presentations. During the Christmas season, ‘House of the World,’ an original script by Mack. presented the triumph of Good Will over Intolerance, Greed, Selfishness, and Poverty. ‘Heavenly Music’ was performed at Easter; ‘The Leprechaun’ for St. Patrick’s Day; ‘Fairer Than a Fairy’ at Halloween; and ‘The Little Lame Prince’ during the annual March of Dimes campaign to combat infantile paralysis.
“In the ‘Lame Prince’ dramatization, Mack secured permission for actor Bill Adams to imitate the voice of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio victim. The permission was granted in a wire from Stephen T. Early, presidential secretary, which stipulated only that Adams be named in the cast announcements, so that listeners would not think the President was actually on the air. The appeal for dimes and dollars for the paralysis fund through this channel was, of course, most successful. Miss Mack, in a letter to her aunt, Mrs. P. B. Hanway of Arkansas City, said:
“‘I had a great kick out of doing the program and the executives here who heard it thought the program so fine that they had a record of it made and sent to President Roosevelt. I was pretty proud.’”
“Nila Mack had many proud moments in the ensuing years and she frequently shared them enthusiastically with her aunt and friends in Arkansas City. In one letter, she said, ‘Well, darling Aunt, you can be pretty proud of me today. My program won a nationwide poll. And I am enclosing the account with my ‘Map’ (picture) in the paper! Isn’t that swell, Potie? Along with it, I’m sending an interview by one of New York’s most widely read radio columnists which has made me very happy, too. It all seems to be coming at once. It’s pretty grand to know I’m still going strong and that after all of these years of hard work, I haven’t lowered but increased my standards and output. Ain’t it so!’
“‘Let’s Pretend’ won more than forty awards as the ‘best children’s program in radio.’ The acclamations came from the poll of radio editors in the New York World Telegram, Motion Picture Daily and Radio Day, from the Women’s Press Club of New York City, the Woman’s National Radio Committee, and the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1943, ‘Let’s Pretend’ won the George Foster Peabody Award, sometimes called the Pulitzer Prize of radio; it was voted the ‘most effective commercial program developed by a national network’ by the City College of New York and ‘the national program contributing most to education and public interest’ by the American Schools and Colleges Association.
“In another letter to her aunt, Nila commented: ‘Once more I won the coast-to-coast radio editors’ poll for the best children’s program on the air! What’s more, of the six programs cited - that includes every station and all their programs - six were mentioned and three of them were mine; ‘Let’s Pretend’ was ‘tops’ by a wide majority; ‘American School of the Air’ was third and ‘March of games,’ fifth - all my programs. Isn’t that swell?’
“Given a free hand by CBS, Nila experimented with other programs for children including ‘Children’s Corner,’ ‘Tales from Far and Near,’ and ‘Sunday Morning at Aunt Susan’s.’ In 1939 she took the ‘Let’s Pretend’ program to Columbia Playhouse for stage performances before live audiences. All tickets were sold out well in advance. She also once transported the entire show to the Monefiori hospital for the chronically ill, a monumental effort which she called ‘rewarding.’
“During World War 2, she directed a governmental production for the Department of Interior. It was called ‘Let Freedom Ring,’ ran for thirteen weeks, and was accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Again she injected her own beliefs that there should be programs to help people to understand democracy as opposed to other political doctrines. She was resolute in her patriotism and wanted others to realize why they should be too.
“Nila Mack wrote several children’s stories for magazines, a book titled Animal Allies and a story book illustrated by Catherine Barnes, which was based on the popular radio dramas of ‘Let’s Pretend.’
“In her forward to this 1948 book, Nila says: ‘One of the nicest things about happenings in the kingdom of Let’s Pretend is the fact that you don’t need to explain them - that is, if you don’t want to. You simply believe or you don’t. Personally, I enjoy being with those who do.’
“Nila’s almost total involvement with children for a quarter of a century was something of a paradox. From thinking that she ‘disliked’ children and feared working with them, she came to believe that fantasy and the elements needed to produce the effects of magic and unreality were best achieved through the use of child actors to transmit the childlike wonder of fairy tales to an audience of children.
“She instituted auditions for talented boys and girls from six to sixteen, coached them in dramatics and microphone technique, and gradually built a repertory company of forty veteran actors who could rotate in starring, featured, and minor roles, with emphasis placed on the total production, rather than on the performances of individual actors.
“Each of her auditions would draw many children from whom she would choose one or two with potential. (Roddy McDowell, of movie fame, auditioned for her just before he broke into the movies.) Nila believed that children who had dramatic training were often no more successful than those without any. She preferred to teach them interpretation, enunciation, and other techniques from the beginning. She would sit down with her troupe, listening to their ideas on how a part should be played, reasoning with them, treating them with the same consideration as she would an adult group.
“A new actor would be given a script to study at home. Rehearsal began early in the morning and continued to air time the same day. New players began in small parts. Many in her casts stayed with her for years. Others found it a good springboard to other radio shows, Broadway, and the movies.
“Among her graduates were Nancy Kelley, Rosalyn Silber, Arthur Ross, Bobby and Billy Mauch, Don Hughes, Billy Hallop, Lester Jay, Jimmy McCallion, Sydney Lummet, Patricia Ryan, Jack Grimes, Kingsley Colton, Bobby Readick, Vivian Block, and Estelle Levy.
“Dinty Doyle in the New York Journal and American said: ‘What counts with her is the knowledge that this or that youngster is maturing slowly - learning to act so well that it doesn’t seem like acting.’
“Nila herself said, ‘My greatest joy is dealing with kids. You talk to them and you see them face out, not behind any false front. They are charmingly frank and so honest that it really gives you a thrill.’
“Arthur Anderson, one of the long-time ‘Let’s Pretenders’ gave some insight into Nila’s relationship with her child actors in a article in Variety after her death. ‘Nila and her cast of child actors was something unusual in show business: a personal and continuing friendship and mutual dependence which, in the case of some of us, has lasted for 22 years.
“‘We formed one of the few real stock companies of radio. It those days our acting was only for fun, and so we were glad to accept $3.50 per show, for the opportunity of breaking into radio. (Need I add that this was long before the days of AFTRA.’
“The actors of ‘Let’s Pretend’ were, in her later years, Nila’s only immediate ‘family.’ except for her intimate friends, Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney (famed husband and wife team of Life with Father), and it was inevitable that this close relationship (with the children) should grow. First, doing the show every week provided some stability in our lives, as we started to grow up, and found what fierce competition and quiet frustration the life of an actor could hold. Secondly, I sincerely believe that Nila made the actors out of many of us who would otherwise have been doomed to quick fadeouts, after brief careers as ‘cute kiddies’ whose lisping voices and talent for make-believe, possessed in some degree by all children, took the place of mature acting ability.
“She would work patiently with a new child—start him in small parts (2nd Fairy, 3rd Goblin, etc.) and gradually nurture the child’s talent until he was able to emote as confidently as the rest, and was, incidentally, launched on a lucrative career as juvenile heart-throbs on other programs. Occasionally though, Nila’s theater-wise, irreverent sense of humor would get the better of her, as when, for the sake of a yock, she cautioned a new snippet playing a French maid; ‘No dear—it’s not Madame, it’s Madame. Just remember—Dame, as in God.’
“If there was too much clowning during rehearsal, the talk-back would carry the admonition, ‘Now, cut that out, or I’ll come out there and sock you! And you know I can do it, too!’ But she wouldn’t have.
“The clowning, as we grew up, began to take the form of reading into some of the lines Rabelaisian double meanings, which Nila enjoyed as much as anyone, even when scolding us for them. But she could have topped any of them, and sometimes did. When, however, there was a new and innocent young child actor at rehearsal, discipline would prevail, and the fairies in the script would magically lose the Krafft-Ebing characteristics.
“Nila’s interest in her cast of growing performers went far beyond that of most directors, however. We would frequently come to her with personal troubles or, in the past few years, give her first notification of impending marriages and blessed events. Our annual collective Christmas presents were sincere expressions of affection, and Nila, being sentimental, would go all to pieces at receiving them.
“Nila Mack was described by Newsweek in 1943 as ‘large, plump, hard-boiled and shrewd.’ Her acquaintances described her as high-spirited, friendly, and humble. One kinder critic described her as ‘unspoiled as the dickens,’ and noted that she really appreciated any little attention.
“She lived alone in a midtown Manhattan terrace apartment with two Siamese cats named Sapphire and Tsing Fooey. She gave parties there for her children which she referred to as ‘spontaneous combustion.’
“She worked most of her life in the hustle and bustle of New York City, but talked of returning to Arkansas City to build her dream house in Crestwood near the natural bridge, one of her favorite spots as a child.
“She loved good food, especially sweets, and as her life became more sedentary, she added pounds. Before one visit to her home town, she spent four days at a health farm in New York state.
“‘At this resort,’ she said, ‘I practically go into training for a 15-round bout.’
“Nila Mack always enjoyed signing autographs and meeting fans, and loved attention showered on her when she returned to Arkansas City. For a bit of fun, she would call from New York and tell her friends to listen to the next program. Then she would give the characters in the play the same first names as those of her friends.
“She was as loyal to her old friends as they were to her. Among Bonnie Nix’s mementoes was a card which had accompanied a fruit cake from Schrafft’s. Across it Bonnie had written: ‘Christmas 1952 a fruit cake My last gift from Nila’
“Nila Mack died January 20, 1953, in her New York apartment, apparently from a heart attack. After memorial services in New York, Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay accompanied her body to Arkansas City where she was buried beside her parents. A simple stone bearing the inscription, ‘Nila Mack Briant 1891 - 1953,’ marks the grave.
“A last letter of instructions to Dorothy Stickney found with her will, contained this tag-line:
“‘And if at last you should get to the Pearly Gate.
Let me know you’re coming, and I’ll bake a cake!’”
“Dinty Doyle, New York radio columnist, summed itup for us. He said: ‘This amazing metropolis of ours attracts people from all of the 48 states and the world’s countries, but few of us knew that a little town in Kansas listed on the map as Arkansas City is responsible for one of the most famous people in radio.’
“Someday, probably, the good citizens of Arkansas City—and there can’t be very many of them—will realize that their town made a great contribution to the loudspeaker when Nila Mack was born.”