THE BILLIE THE BROWNIE PLAYERS
Left to Right: Ron Sayles, Mark Higgins, Ralph Luedtke and Carol Boettcher
Listen to a 12-23-2011 performance of the “Billie the Brownie Players”. This was the last performance by the "Billie the Brownie Players" for WTKM.
Billie the Brownie
by Ralph Luedtke
In 1927 a children’s Christmas character, Billie the Brownie, was created by the promotion department of the Ed Schuster & Company, a Milwaukee department store. He was the most popular character ever created in Milwaukee.
Daily bulletins in the local newspapers chronicled the adventures of Santa, his reindeer (and another newly created character called Me-Tik, the Eskimo), on their trip to Milwaukee and Schuster’s from the North Pole. He always arrived in time for the annual Schuster’s Christmas Parade, also a Christmas promotion.
Beginning in 1931, Schuster’s bought 15 minutes of air time on WTMJ and provided children an audio version of Santa’s trip from the North Pole to Schusters.
On the radio show besides Billie the Brownie, there was Santa and Larry Teich, who was a sort of host and narrator. The contents of the show varied little from year to year, consisting of reading of letters from children and a reading of a story. There was another character, that of Mrs Santa who occasionally appeared on the program each year. The program ended each year on December 24th.
The radio program was on the air for 25 years from 1931 to 1955 and the Schuster’s parade was held each year from 1927 to 1960. A record length of time for both the radio program and the parade. Billie and Santa reigned supreme on the Milwaukee airwaves from 1931 until the last original live broadcast in 1955.
In 2004 I organized the Billie the Brownie Players, consisting of four members of the Milwaukee Area Radio Enthusiasts. Using original scripts of the show we presented a live Billie the Brownie program over AM radio here in the greater Milwaukee area. It was presented on the Ron Krauss Show aired on WTKM, Hartford on December 24, 2004. This was the first time that a live dramatic program was heard on radio since the 1960’s when dramatic programs ceased to be broadcast on AM radio.
In 2006 The Billie the Brownie Players also broadcast a live program over WOKY, Milwaukee, on David Doyle’s show ‘Growing Older, A New Perspective’.
The Billie the Brownie Players are; Carol Boettcher as ‘Billie the Brownie’; Mark Higgins as ‘Santa Claus’; Ralph Luedtke as ‘Larry Teich’ and Ron Sayles as the ‘Announcer’.
In 2007 the Players presented a script from 1949, which was donated by Maddy Coogan Pritchard who played Mrs Santa in the original radio program from the early 1940’s until 1955. She reprised the role of Mrs Santa with the Players in 2007 using this script.
WTKM was streamed over the internet and the Billie the Brownie program was heard in the state of Washington and overseas in Japan, listeners calling in saying they heard the show loud and clear. Billie had become an international celebrity.
The Billie the Brownie Players have brought Billie and all of the shows’ characters back to rekindle those wonderful memories of growing up in Milwaukee
Carol Cotter voiced character of Billie the Brownie
Nov. 8, 2011
Among Carol Cotter's many talents was the ability to mimic a child's high-pitched voice.
While she was working as a magician's assistant in Chicago as a young woman, she got gigs on radio soap operas voicing children's parts. After Cotter moved to Milwaukee, her skill landed her a job that attracted thousands of fans - including her children - who never knew her name.
Cotter was the voice of Billie the Brownie for seven years, reading children's letters to Santa on WTMJ radio every day in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Cotter died Sunday of complications from a stroke in Teaneck, N.J. She was 92.
She wasn't the first Billie the Brownie, a Christmas character introduced in promotions by Schuster's Department Store in Milwaukee in 1927. A 15-minute radio show started in 1931, and Cotter took over the incredibly popular Billie in the late '40s until the final Christmas season in 1955.
"It was an absolute phenomenon in the city of Milwaukee," said her son Dave Begel. "She talked about riding in the (Milwaukee) Christmas parade kneeling down in the back of a car and doing Billie's voice over a loudspeaker."
Begel, a former journalist for The Milwaukee Journal, and his brother, Dan, who is two years younger, sent letters to Santa every year. Each year their letters were the first to be read on the radio by Billie the Brownie. They had no idea their mother was the character.
"It was unbelievable," said Begel, who didn't learn of his mother's secret persona until several years after the radio program ended when she thought they were old enough to know. "Like thousands of kids around Milwaukee, we would sit around the radio."
Cotter was more than Billie the Brownie, and she lamented with a smile in later years that the holiday sprite was the only thing people asked her about.
Born in Janesville, Cotter moved to Milwaukee as a child. When her oldest son was in high school, she decided to go to college, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She worked part time as an interviewer and producer at WTMJ-TV in the 1960s and moved to a full-time reporting job at WITI-TV in 1970. Two years later she joined Madison's public television station as a producer.
Documentaries Cotter produced on Wisconsinites U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy and Milwaukee Circuit Judge Christ Seraphim won national awards. A documentary about children of parents who committed suicide struck a chord with Cotter, Begel said.
"She was always interested in the people on the edges of society," he said. "She was concerned about how the rest of the world treated them. She did a lot of very probing documentaries on Native Americans that were picked up nationally by national public television. That was a warm spot in her heart."
Cotter is survived by her three children, Dave, Dan and Amy; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.