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The Life and Times of Colonel Stoopnagle: Part 1, The Early Years

            “he was born in a small, prefabricated cabin which he helped his father to send for.  he was not brought by the stork.  the colonel, in embryo, was delivered by a man from the audubon society personally.

            “as a baby, the colonel thought he was a pixie, and every spring he lived at the bottom of the family garden.  in the fall the little tyke, with roots sprouting from his diapers, was harvested, brought back into the house, and placed under glass.

            “to pay his way through kindergarten, the colonel vended newspapers.  Sundays he would totter around selling as much of the new york times as he could lift.

            “at the age of five, the little man would lie about on the floor of the cabin and do his homework by the light of a hot-foot he had given his uncle.

            “one fourth of july the colonel’s father left home rather suddenly.  stoopnagle the elder had ignited a skyrocket and forgotten to let go.  when his father didn’t come down, the colonel’s faith in gravity was destroyed for all time.”[1]

            This irresistible bit of foolishness was written by radio’s great Fred Allen (who never used upper-case letters, even when writing the foreword to someone else’s book!).  The subject of his wild biographical ramblings is Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle.  Or is it F. Chase Taylor, the writer/comedian who portrayed Stoopnagle on the radio?  Well, by the time Allen wrote this foreword to Stoopnagle’s book, You Wouldn’t Know Me From Adam in 1944, Taylor had become his character to all who knew him.  Once called ‘Chase’ by his friends, most fellow entertainers and friends now called him ‘Stoop.’  The public called him ‘Colonel.’ As a matter of fact, in the 1948 edition of Current Biography (H. W. Wilson Co.), his biographical sketch can be found under the name ‘Stoopnagle,’ not Taylor!  So where does Taylor leave off and Stoopnagle begin? Well, there is one line of Fred Allen’s biography of Stoopnagle that applies to both.       

“since that day, colonel stoopnagle has specialized in nonsense.  life to him is the tilt of a cuckoo’s wing.”[2]

            Before we can begin to understand Colonel Stoopnagle, though, we have to understand his alter-ego -- F. Chase Taylor.  Then, and only then, can we begin to understand the impact he had on his times and beyond.

            Frederick Chase Taylor was born on October 4, 1897 in Buffalo, New York.  His well-to-do family hardly seems the typical ground from which one of radio’s most unorthodox talents would spring, but such is the case.  Taylor’s mother, Sara Althea Chase, was the daughter of an interesting combination of families.  Her father, Luther Chase, had been a Buffalo lumber merchant and was a relative of Salmon P. Chase, U.S. senator from and governor of Ohio, Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while her mother, Martha Lovecraft, was a cousin of the American writer of weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft.

            Taylor’s father, Horace F. Taylor, was, seven years after his son’s birth, to become president of the Taylor and Crate Lumber Company, which had been established by his own father in 1865.  Simultaneously, Horace was also to be president of Sunflower Plantation, Inc., a four-thousand-acre cotton/corn plantation, and vice-president of the Lumber Mutual Casualty Insurance Co., in New York City.  An alumnus of the University of Rochester, he served from 1912 until his death as a trustee of that institution, and was elected president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce in 1931.  During the first world war, he served as a “dollar a year man,” heading the lumber division of the War Industries Board.  In this capacity he supervised the distribution of hardwoods used for fighting accessories between the United States and the allied nations.  Following the war, Taylor was elected president of the National Wholesale Lumber Dealer’s association for two consecutive terms, and later was elected president of the National Hardware Lumber Association.

            It was into this respected household that F. Chase Taylor (and later his brother Horace F., Jr., and sister Althea) was born.  Of course, he initially set his sights on making the family lumber business his life’s work.  Education included a mix of public and private schools, including the Nichols Prep School in Buffalo and the Montclair Academy in New Jersey.  While attending the latter institution, young Chase was active in football and swimming.  He held the all-around swimming championship there for two years. When it came time for college in 1915, Chase enrolled in his father’s alma mater, the University of Rochester, where he studied liberal arts, was captain of the football team, ‘proms manager,’ and a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity.

            When the United States became involved in the first world war, Chase left school to enlist in the Navy on April 12, 1917.  His training, mostly in New England, included officer material school at Harvard University.  It was during his stint in the Navy that the first of what would become his trademark crazy inventions was created: an upside-down lighthouse to aid submarines.  It was also while in the Navy that Chase Taylor became interested in the new medium of the radio.

            Upon his discharge, he returned home and began working for the family business as a bookkeeping clerk.  In 1921, he became a salesman for the firm, and then, in 1923, assumed charge of soft wood purchases and sales.  He had also married, in 1919 to Lois DeRidder, daughter of a Rochester, New York business man.  Soon after, the couple’s only child, F. Chase Taylor, Jr., was born.

            The 1920’s were restless yet rewarding years for Chase Taylor.  Radio was becoming more than a hobby, with more and more of his spare time spent at Buffalo radio stations in various capacities.  He also dabbled in amateur dramatics and writing.  A “clever artist and cartoonist,” he was art and humor editor of the Buffalo Athletic Club’s monthly publication, and was an editor of Town Tidings, a Buffalo-based monthly humor magazine.

            Town Tidings and the B. A. C.’s publication are important because they served as ‘proving grounds’ for Taylor’s humor.  They allowed him to test his off-beat material through a variety of media, from cartoons to humorous essays, many of which now seem seminal to his best material created after finding success on the radio.  For example, it was in the B. A. C. publication that he started writing what would later become his popular “interviews with little-known men of industry.”

            Chase Taylor was president of the Westminster Club and an officer in the Buffalo Canoe Club (for which he contributed cartoons for the group’s posters and dinner menu’s).  He also played principal roles in productions of the Buffalo Players theatrical group.  Of his performance in a production of J. M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus, a critic writing for The Arts Journal wrote: “F. Chase Taylor as Matey, the butler, was convincing in his humility and pompousness...”

            In 1924, Taylor appeared on radio for the first time, at WGR.  Two years later he had a starring role in “Nip and Tuck,” an early, home-grown version of “Amos and Andy.”

            Also during this time, Taylor and a friend with the wonderful name of Jack Peacock Green, began an entrepreneurial partnership as Taylor-Green, producers of international celebrities.  Their goal was to attract to Buffalo the preeminent statesmen, scientists, explorers, and others of the day for speaking engagements.  Their first, and apparently last, success was in bringing Capt. Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole in 1911, to town.  The lecture, given at the Hotel Statler’s ballroom, was by all accounts very well attended.  Taylor had his picture taken with Amundsen, which appeared in the local papers.

            Back in front of the microphones, Taylor starred for radio station WGR in the “Smax” and “Smoke and Ashes” programs, the latter being yet another variation on the “Amos and Andy” formula. The deeper he allowed himself to go, the more convinced Taylor was that radio was where his destiny lay.

            By 1927, Sara Chase Taylor had died, at the age of 56.  Chase Taylor, wanting to find his own direction in the world, left the family business to join the brokerage firm of Pistell, Deans & Co. on November 21, 1927.  But even as a broker, he found himself before the microphone, dispensing financial advice -- often with a humorous twist.  After a short time, he rose to the position of vice-president of the company.  And then, in 1929, came the stock market crash.  As Taylor himself said:  “Things did things to the brokerage business.”


[1] Fred Allen, foreword to You Wouldn’t Know Me From Adam by Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle (New York: McGraw-Hill/Whittlesey House, 1944), ix.

[2] ibid, x.

 

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Page created November 13, 2006.  Copyright 1998-2005 by Richard D. Squires.