The McCann Time Capsule: McCann’s Women’s History and . . . Westerns
The McCann job required that the writer spend hot summers each year in California’s Death Valley traveling around, interviewing old prospectors, visiting saloons and the like in order to capture and tell true stories of the Old West. Given that this was 1930, it sounds like a man’s job. But the person responsible for writing an estimated 700-1,000 “Death Valley Days” radio scripts and then bringing the true west series to TV in 1952 was a woman named Ruth Cornwall Woodman.
Woodman’s path into the agency in the early 1920s was equally atypical. After graduating from Vassar in 1916 and then working and traveling extensively overseas (e.g., Turkey, Egypt, China, India) she wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine on Turkey. A McCann VP, impressed when he read it, then offered her a copywriting job, and for five years she wrote magazine and newspaper ads in the New York office. In 1928, she switched into the growing advertising agency area of sponsored radio programming, and she became a scriptwriter and McCann’s Director of Radio.
McCann’s client, the Pacific Coast Borax Co., launched the “Death Valley Days” radio program on September 30, 1930 in support of its 20 Mule Team Borax brand of natural laundry booster. As Woodman recounted in an interview before she died in 1970, “The client’s product came from the desert so we suggested the program should have something to do with that area. Then my boss told me, ‘there’s one little hitch—the client wants you to go out there to the desert. He doesn’t want anyone sitting back in New York writing it off the top of his imagination.’” Woodman would spend two months each summer over the next 14 years visiting the desert and gathering authentic material.
She would be called back to help launch “Death Valley Days” into a TV series in 1952. In its long 23-year run on TV, the show was associated with many famous actors, including Ronald Reagan, who had acted in 21 of its episodes and served as its host in the two years before 1966 when, with McCann as his agency, he was elected California’s governor.
“Death Valley Days” has been credited with introducing the western programming genre into radio. It was one of the earliest and longest-running radio programs and, as it moved into TV, it became one of the longest-running western programs in broadcast history.
While Woodman played a primary role in its creation, it also had more McCann women behind it. Dorothy Barstow, who was also associated as a producer with the show, was a major radio and TV program producer in her long four-decade-plus career at the agency which, incidentally, also included her marrying the agency’s founder and becoming Dorothy Barstow McCann in 1939.