Broadcast Pioneers member John Carlton has sometimes been referred to as “the Complete Communicator.” He has worked in radio, television and the print media as a performer, reporter, writer and executive. He is probably best known in the Delaware Valley as the voice of the Atlantic/ARCO Go Patrol.
After graduation as an English major from Niagara Falls High School, Niagara Falls, NY, John attended New York University where he majored in drama. He served in the U.S. Army for two years from October 1945 to November 1947 as a Platoon Sergeant, Ninth Infantry Division and on Armed Forces Radio as an announcer and actor.
John Carlton started his broadcast career in his hometown of Niagara Falls at WHLD. He was part of the WHLD Players from 1942 to 1945. (The station had only signed on a year earlier on May 19, 1941 at 1270 KHz on AM from their studio in the Hotel Niagara.) In his role as an actor, he was heard in over 150 radio dramas. He also worked in summer stock as an actor at the Chautauqua Repertory Theatre in nearby Chautauqua from 1940 to 1945.
Just before going in the service, he worked at the Cleveland Playhouse on 86th Street in Cleveland as an actor. At this same time, he appeared in “The Ohio Story” heard over WGAR Radio, also in Cleveland. “The Ohio Story” was a series of radio programs heard over various local stations for over a decade, sponsored by the Ohio Bell Telephone Company.
After leaving the service, John Carlton landed on his feet by getting a mid-day DJ gig that also included some duty as a commercial/promotion writer and as a salesman.
In September of 1949, John moved to Erie, Pennsylvania and WERC Radio at 10th and Peach Streets where he became the top rated morning air personality. He stayed five years until he received an offer to come to the big-time, a major market and WFIL radio.
He started in September of 1954 as an afternoon DJ, newscaster and staff announcer. He also moved into TV at sister station, Channel 6, WFIL-TV (now WPVI). On TV, he hosted “Movietime USA,” a game show and other programs. It was John Carlton who did the 5th Avenue Candy Bar spots live on “American Bandstand,” which originated from WFIL-TV and was broadcast coast to coast on ABC-TV.
Towards the last days at WFIL, John married the former Gen March, a model, in June of 1960, who would later become his business partner. She has worked at Channel 17 & 48 and was a regular on Maury Povich’s Channel 3 show, “People Are Talking.”
In October 1961, Carlton left the WFIL stations to work as a booth announcer and on camera for WHYY-TV, which at that time was Channel 35 in Philadelphia. (The next year, Channel 12 would become WHYY-TV with Channel 35 remaining as a sister station using the call letters, WUHY-TV.) It was the educational station’s first venture into evening broadcasting and John Carlton was a large part of it. Part of his WHYY duties included writing all the promotional and programming copy.
From there, John went to WQAL (now Smooth Jazz 106) as Program Director and air personality of their easy listening format. Then Carlton ended up at WBUD in Trenton and WNTA in the Big Apple, New York City.
However, John Carlton longed to return to Philadelphia, his adopted city that he had grown to love. When Broadcast Pioneers member Len Stevens put Channel 17, WPHL-TV on the air on September 17, 1965, John Carlton was there as a producer and weathercaster along with Broadcast Pioneers member (and former Broadcast Pioneers President) Bill “Wee Willie” Webber. John Carlton stayed awhile but longed for his own show, so he moved to WKBS-TV at 3201 South 26th Street in South Philly. It was Color Channel 48 (of course, all the channels were in color by that time). It became the station’s trademark and Carlton was the voice of their ID. Besides being a staff announcer and promotion writer, he also hosted a daily TV movie called “Dialing for Dollars.” Viewers had a chance to win “big bucks.”
Several years later, John showed up at WTMR in Camden as a mid-day middle of the road host. A year later, in June of 1971, he reported to work at WTAF-TV, Channel 29 (now WTXF-TV). He stayed until April of 1973 but returned for another tour of duty from March 1974 to May of 1976. He was a staff announcer and on-camera newscaster.
Later in 1976, Carlton returned to WKBS-TV for another 3-year engagement as a staff announcer. At this same time, John took on the advertising duties of ACT, Advertising Communications Times at First and Chestnut Streets, which he co-founded. He was the paper’s Advertising Director and was a guiding force in the establishment and success of ACT, one of the nation’s most successful business/advertising publications.
John Carlton left ACT in 1981 to go to WPEN Radio where is still works today as an on air personality, again joining Bill “Wee Willie” Webber. The two had worked together before at Channel 17 and 48 and at the WFIL stations.
In June of 1981, John and Gen Carlton established their own full service advertising agency, The Communication Farm, in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. The firm, still in existence today, offers creative services, radio and TV production and public relations.
So where did the Go Patrol fit in? Well, John Carlton was their Operations Director with total responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the traffic report service. It was he who blazed the trail for others by providing live road and traffic condition reports from a helicopter.
It was a cold Monday morning that January 8, 1968. It was clear with several inches of snow on the streets. While on the regular morning traffic patrol, John Carlton was instrumental in the rescue of 360 elderly residents (the oldest was 90 years old) of the Normandie Retirement Club. The building (made of brick) was seven stories high with a sort of “E” design, about 100 feet by 200.
Seeing the fire while air-borne, John and his pilot, Dick Scholfield (age 25 at the time) landed on the burning building’s roof. They entered the structure (built in 1901 and renovated in 1958) from a rooftop entrance, and began banging on doors of residents living on the top floors. Carlton and Scholfield took off safely. By 9 am, the roof and top floor had collapsed.
Here’s how the Evening Bulletin (a major Philadelphia newspaper) reported Carlton’s actions. They said:
The Atlantic Go Patrol helicopter, hovering close, swung in closer now and then, as new sounds of collapse came out of the burning structure and spectators gasped for the safety of the pilot (and reporter). …Scholfield radioed the show’s producer, Walt MacDonald, and got permission to land on the roof…and helped rescue some of the occupants. Scholfield and John Carlton, the reporter who does the traffic broadcasts from the helicopter, leaped from the aircraft and got into the top floor through a fire door. They ran through the corridors on the seventh, sixth and fifth floors, knocking on doors and helping elderly residents to the street level. The helicopter crew spent about 35 minutes on its rescue mission. Then they took the craft aloft and broadcast warnings to motorists to stay away from the fire scene.
The nine-alarm fire was the worst in the history of Philadelphia but all residents escaped. Thirty-nine were hospitalised and one later died from the injuries. Philadelphia Fire officials called it, “The Miracle on 36th Street.” For his actions, John was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Heroism, the nation’s highest award for civilians.
Years ago, John wrote all about his experiences with this fire and those recollections are here!
For a decade, John Carlton served on the Board of Governors (now called the Board of Directors) of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia. His membership seniority is one of the longest running in the organization. He joined in 1972. On Friday, November 19, 2004, John Carlton was inducted into our "Hall of Fame."
John Carlton is, in every sense, a Broadcast Pioneer, but the title he really deserves is “An American Hero.”
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member John Carlton
Text written by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
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