DONAHUE: From Olean to the top, with a stop at the South Pole

Hundreds of people are hidden away in the Olean Times Herald library, clippings of their official lives tucked neatly inside 9-by-12 manila envelopes.

Some die, some move away, some retreat to private lives, and over the years their stories are forgotten … until someone comes by with a reason to dig them out again.

Ruth Hannes of Allegany stopped by the newsroom last week with just such a reason – a letter written by her late brother, Arthur Hannes, on Jan. 17, 1947, while he was a CBS radio correspondent on one of Admiral Richard Byrd’s expeditions to the South Pole.

Art Hannes died in 1992 and he had been gone from the Olean area since about 1940, so it is no surprise that his is not a household name. But those with memories that stretch back that far can recall the story of a small-town boy who became a giant in the broadcast industry.

His was the voice heard each Sunday night through the ’50s and ’60s as the star of The Ed Sullivan Show was introduced to a national TV audience.

Art’s father, George, was a vaudeville actor who went by the stage name of Jack LeClair. When George played Olean’s Palace Theater in 1918, he was smitten by a young ticket-taker, Ruth Prince of Portville.

They married, started a family – Ruth, Art and George Jr. – and when Ruth was about 7 the family moved back to Olean.

Art, described as “independent” and “strong-willed,” demonstrated those traits as a senior in high school when he skipped his finals and failed to earn his diploma.

He went to work for WHDL radio in Olean in 1939, moving from there to WERC radio in Erie, Pa., to WBEN radio in Buffalo, and then on to WGAR in Cleveland, Ohio. He entered the Army in 1941 and then returned to WGAR in 1944.

The following year he went to New York City where he became a staff announcer for the Columbia Broadcasting System. His big break came in 1946 when CBS named him a news correspondent for the Byrd expedition.

The three-page typewritten letter Ruth has today was sent by Art early on in the expedition.

He writes about an “exciting, but dangerous” journey through seas strewn with icebergs “as big as Olean,” and describes a “fantastically beautiful … but treacherous” continent. “Crevasses, cold and a hundred things make it very necessary to be careful,” he writes. “I still can’t get used to the idea that I’m really down here.”

He encourages his family to save newspaper and magazine clippings about the trip, then warns that it might be a couple of months before he gets the chance to write again. “So take care of yourselves and I’ll see you in the springtime.”

On the expedition, Art transmitted a 3-to-4-minute newscast each day. “For that, I got paid and a reputation,” he told an Olean audience when he returned as the speaker for the Olean High School Alumni Reunion in 1959.

Art would go on to work with Edward R. Murrow as a correspondent in Panama and New Zealand, then carve out a long career as an announcer and commentator, lending his voice to radio, television and the recording industry.

“He had a nice voice,” said Ruth.

It was once described as “distinguished,” a voice of “great clarity and confidence.”

Art was the only announcer Ed Sullivan ever had, said Ruth, noting the family would sometimes make the trip to New York to sit in the studio audience. “I remember we drove through a blizzard to see Ella Fitzgerald,” she said. Another time she was awestruck when Louis Armstrong walked past her in the studio in a white tux.

Art’s work brought him together with huge stars of the day including Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and Barbra Streisand.

“He knew all the biggies,” said Ruth.

His wife, Rosalyn Horton Phillips, was a production assistant for Red Skelton. They were married in 1955.

Art’s family in Olean was introduced to the couple’s first child, Heidi, via television when Ed Sullivan held up the newborn baby’s picture and joked that her sour expression was an editorial comment on the show.

Art was with CBS for 25 years, following the entertainment industry’s migration to the West Coast. He and his family settled in the Los Angeles area where he became an instructor at Merit College. The school established a scholarship in his name.

Art’s Times Herald file is now back in a library file cabinet, sandwiched neatly between BLANK and BLANK.

Thanks Ruth.

Until the next time someone gives us reason to blow the dust off our interesting past.

©Bradford Publishing 2006