The Thunder Child

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Volume 1, Issue 6
"Stand By For Mars!"
June 2006

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Sourcebook

Spaceman's Luck: Frankie Thomas (1921 - 2006)

Frank Thomas Jr. was laid to rest at on May 16, 2006. He was buried in his Tom Corbett uniform, and the words to the Space Academy oath and the Space Cadet song were recited over his grave. Jan Merlin recounted: "It was quite moving, for it personified all that Frankie believed and portrayed in his favorite role."

Call someone a 'space cadet' these days and most won't thank you for it. "One who shows difficulty in grasping reality or in responding appropriately to it," is the sole definition of the term at

This is a pity, for the phrase really deserves to be one of praise, instead.

The term 'space cadet' originated from the early TV series, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, a children's science fiction TV program that ran from 1950-1955. (The show was based in part on the Robert Heinlein novel Space Cadet, but it was the TV/radio/comic strip that brought the term to the masses.)

Like its rival Space Patrol (which also ran from 1950-1955), the show was so well written and acted for its time that it appealed to adults as well as children. These shows came on the airwaves during television's infancy and space exploration's gestation, and it's fair to say they molded both.

Jan Merlin as Roger, Frankie Thomas as Tom, Al Markim as Astro

The show, initially 15 minutes long and on three times a week, was broadcast live. The actors had to memorize their own lines - and frequently memorize those of their guest stars who weren't used to the fast pace of live TV and had to be covered for! Special effects such as weightlessness had to be contrived with the new technology of the time. It was an exhiliarating time for the actors and the production crew - as indeed it was for all of television at that time.

Unlike Space Patrol, Tom Corbett strove for as much realism as possible. Their science advisor was Willy Ley, a founding member of the German Rocket Society who left Germany in 1935. The shows themselves, while set in the future, dealt with age-old human interest themes. They were mainly character plays, and while Tom, Roger and Astro tracked down criminals or rescued stranded space travellers or tried to prevent a meteor from hitting Earth, they explored such themes as friendship, loyalty and courage...and it is these qualities that should be thought of when one thinks of a 'space cadet.'

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
Tom Corbett was set in the 24th century. Mars and Venus are colonized, and space travel is commonplace. The Solar Guard safeguards the solar system, and officers from the Solar Guard are trained at Space Academy.

Tom Corbett, Roger Manning and Astro are cadets at the Academy, under the tutelage of Captain Strong and Dr. Joan Dale. Their ship is the Polaris.

Frankie Thomas, Jr. played the title role of Tom Corbett. Roger Manning was played by Jan Merlin, and Astro was played by Al Markim. (In early episodes John Fielder was Alfie). Ed Bryce was Captain Steve Strong and Margaret Garland was Dr. Joan Dale. This ensemble cast worked well together...but it was Frankie Thomas who led the way.

When the show ended in 1955, so did Thomas' acting career. Fans did not want to see him as anything other than Tom Corbett. (Or, casting directors assumed that this would be so.) Thomas moved on to other successful careers, but fifty years later it is as Tom Corbett that he is still fondly remembered, and will be forever.

1) Child actor
2) Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
3) Bridge player, writer and publisher
5) Sherlock Holmes pastiches
6) Conventions
7) An astronomer and an astronaut and more: Frankie Thomas' Legacy

Child Actor
Frank Thomas, Jr. was born on April 9, 1921 into a show business family. Not only were his parents, Frank M. Thomas and Mona Bruns, actors, but so was an uncle.

Thomas got into acting almost by accident. His mother brought him to a theater where she performed an audition. He told the story to a panel at the 2006 Williamsburg Film Festival:

"My mother got a call, a casting call in New York. And she went to this studio, and the director of this play, Blanche Yurka ? she was the most famous female star of Ibsen plays, she said, 'Mona, all of the characters in this play are much older than you,' (now, I had gone with mother because she picked me up from school), and I was standing in the door, and Blanche looked up and said, ?But I can use the kid.? And that was my first job."

Thomas went on to become a prolific child actor.

"In 1933, I did a play called Wednesday's Child, [at the age of 12] which is the longest and they say the most difficult juvenile part ever written for a child, and that record still stands. And it was just a great part, I mean it was hard to miss. So right after we opened, to rather good notices I'm glad to say, RKO bought the play and they took me out to the coast to make the picture, and that was the beginning of..."

Frankie was often asked what life was like as a child actor. What did he do to "goof off and be an ordinary kid?" He told an audience at the 2006 Williamsburg Film Festival:

"I never wanted to be an ordinary kid. My career, my personal career, was to me the most wonderful thing in the world. Listening to those great stories of character actors. There's an old saying that the inside story, that?s the one that?s interesting. And I just lived on that. After a while I got thinking that I was part of those stories, and that was my fun time. Other kids were out playing football, and all that kind of stuff, but I was perfectly happy..."

Wednesday's Child was Frankie's first movie role. He went on to make 22 more, including the role of Ned Nickerson in a series of Nancy Drew mystery films starring Bonita Granville, and as the Mayor of Boys Town in the movie of the same name. His final film was The Major and the Minor in 1942. In that year, at the age of 21, he went into the Navy, and served during World War II.

Wednesday's Child (1934)
A Dog of Flanders (1935)
Tim Tyler's Luck (1937)
Boys Town (1938)
Little Tough Guys in Society (1938)
Nancy Drew -- Detective (1938)
Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)
Code of the Streets (1939)
Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter (1939)
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
On Dress Parade (1939)
Invisible Stripes (1939)
One Foot in Heaven (1941)
Flying Cadets (1941)
Always in My Heart (1942)
The Major and the Minor (1942)
After getting out of the Navy in 1946, Frankie went to New York. As he told Tom Weaver in an interview, "I came to New York after the war because my parents were there, running in a hit Broadway show called Chicken Every Sunday. I'm an only child and I've been very close to my family all my life. When I got to New York, I started to work in radio, and there was no reason to leave."

Frankie also did work in a few early TV shows. In 1949 he played one of the leads in the first daily TV soap opera, A Woman To Remember which lasted only 26 weeks. He also worked in such shows as Studio One and Philco Playhouse.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
Then, Rockhill Radio decided to branch out into television, and to produce a program called Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, to take advantage of the 'space craze.' They came on air a few weeks after Space Patrol made its debut.

The character of Roger Manning was cast first - Jan Merlin then read his role opposite those auditioning for Astro and Tom Corbett. Al Markim was next cast as Astro, and then auditions went on for Tom Corbett. Among hundreds of actors, Dickie Moore tried out for it, as did Jack Lemmon. At this point Tom Corbett was envisioned as the junior cadet of the trio. The producers saw Frankie Thomas, and that was that. Not only was he cast in the role, but his presence so impressed the producers that it was decided to make Corbett the senior cadet.

The show ran, on various networks, for five years. Originally it was a fifteen-minute show, broadcast three times a week. During the last couple of years of its run (when Jan Merlin had left the cast to avoid being typecast)it was a half-hour program once a week.

According to Frankie Thomas, the cast realized the show was a hit, "almost by the second week. The disc jockeys all picked up our lingo: "Blast your jets," "Don't fuse your tubes," "Spaceman's luck!" We were hearing all of this and we said, "Hey, if they're saying it, they're watching it.

The premiums started coming then. "I think there were 135 products bearing the name of Tom Corbett. Fortunately or unfortunately, that took care of my weekends. I was flying to Boston...going down to Philly...I even went to the Coast...making appearances all over the country in stores where they were selling the suits and all the rest of the paraphenalia."

This was nothing new - they were following the lead of the Western Hopalong Cassidy show (whch was simply following the lead of the radio programs that also made a great deal of money selling premiums to their audience), and the other science fiction shows followed suit.

Thomas had been a fan of science fiction since he was a kid. He told Weaver: "I was a fan of Robert Heinlein. I thought his The Puppet Masters was one of the greatest political satires of all time and that he was a heckuva writer. And, naturally, like all kids my age, I was brought up on the Buck Rogers comic strip and the radio show -- mostly the radio show."

Jan Merlin and Frankie Thomas (wearing his original costume) at the 2006 Williamsburg Film Festival, enacting "Project Enigma."
Links to Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
at The Thunder Child

Williamsburg Film Festival March 2006 Coverage:

Interviews: Articles:

External Websites:

Thomas made a good living out of the Corbett show, but it also ended his career as an actor. "In some respects, Tom was the end of my acting career. It was the beginning, more or less, for Jan and Al, but it was my finish, and I had quite a few credits." Nevertheless, Frankie continued to say, "Tom did very well by me." At the very least, he acquired the lifelong friendships of Al Markim and Jan Merlin.

Bridge playing, writing and publishing
When the show ended, Thomas moved into writing. He wrote for a show called My True Story, and was then the lead writer on a radio show called Theater Five. When that program failed, Thomas decided to start a career playing bridge.

"I had been familiar with contract bridge since I was eight years old, Mother and Dad taught it to me." He started going to tournaments with a friend, actor Stephen Chase, who as a Life Master, and they began to win a lot. And then they started teaching bridge in department stores - the first time anyone had ever done this. The classes were hugely successful. Next, he took over the editorship of The Bridge Teacher's Quarterly, and he became an associate editor of a magazine called Popular Bridge.

He also started to write books. His first two books published were Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective and then, Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective Returns. Then he started on Sherlock Holmes pastiches, with over 13 of these published...the last in 2005.

How did he become interested in Sherlock Holmes? He told Tom Weaver: "When I was a very small boy, a friend of my father's was A. Romaine Callender, who had been with William Gillette when Gillette toured in Sherlock Holmes. He got me a ticket and I saw Gillette play Sherlock Holmes?his last performance on Broadway. I was knee-high to a grass-hopper, but I was intrigued by this character."

Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective

Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective Returns

First of 8 books in the Tom Corbett series, published in 1952. They still hold up today.
Meanwhile, Thomas had grown tired of all the traveling needed in his bridge playing/teaching career, and resigned that to move into the investment field. He had married and had step-children.

And then, in 1993, when he was 72, he was invited to be one of the guest stars at a convention of Old Time Radio enthusiasts. It was the first reunion of actors Frankie, Jan Merlin, Al Markim and Ed Bryce, with their original announcer Jackson Beck from the Tom Corbett radio series, and they performed a radio enactment.

Frankie and Jan Merlin became regulars on the convention circuit after that, always meeting and enthralling enthusiastic fans. Frankie's last public appearance was with Jan Merlin at the 2006 Williamsburg Film Festival in which they enacted a Merlin-written script, "Project Enigma," with the help of a few pros - Ben Cooper, Jimmy Lydon, and several amateur actors.

An Astronomer, An Astronaut and More: The Legacy of Frankie Thomas' Tom Corbett
In the 1950s and 60s, television detectives, cowboys and spacemen were heroes. They were 'straight-shootin', 'fair-playin', 'clear-eyed' men (plus the occasional woman) whom audiences could look up to, if they so chose.

Most fans of a TV program watch it simply for the entertainment value. For some, however, the moral values of these heroes resonate. They become role models. It's not that such people decide to become astronauts, or policemen, because of what they've seen on TV, but rather that the values displayed by these characters are inculcated. 'Yes, this is honorable and good...this is the way I want to live my life also.'

And then there are those very few individuals who actually take what they see in these inspiring programs and say, 'Yes, I'm going to be a spaceman one day. I'm going to do what it takes to achieve that goal.'

Back to the 2006 Williamsburg Film Festival. At the panel afterwards, someone asked if Jan and Frankie realized the big influence they had in the kids all over the country, while the show was on the air.

Jan Merlin answered:

We get more of that now, in a very astonishing and wonderful way. Frank and I just received, from a real astronomer, a man named Bond....photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of an exploding nova. And it shows the various gradations of that explosion so that as it opens up you can see within it the blackness and the other stars and other planets. You see into what is happening beyond the explosion. He sent a note with it that said, 'Had it not been for seeing Frank and you in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, these photographs would not have happened.' And he thanked us for it.

And then there's the astronaut, Stephen Robinson, who in August, 2005 brought his Tom Corbett lunchbox along with him on the space shuttle Columbia. Stephen Robinson flew three shuttle missions in all, and was on the shuttle that brought John Glenn back into space.

From the NASA website (see link at bottom of page):
Robinson is an artist, musician, scientist and space explorer, whose fascination of the new ? untried, untested and uncharted ? has led him throughout his life.

Astronauts Al Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn served as his heroes while his father, an engineer and inventor, was his guide. [And a little impetus came from Tom Corbett!]

Stephen Robinson in space, showing off his Tom Corbett lunchbox.
These men weren't guilty of having "difficulty in grasping reality or in responding appropriately to it." Rather, they took the inspirations in their lives - from science and science fiction - set their goals, and followed them through. Many thousands of anonymous others have done the same, and for them it was thanks to Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and the legacy of Frankie Thomas.

Jan Merlin, a close friend of Frankie Thomas since their Space Cadet days, has shared with Frankie's fans and friends a moving recount of the day Frankie Thomas was laid to rest. He has given permission to post it here.

  • Frank Thomas Laid To Rest, by Jan Merlin
  • Bibliography
    Earth vs. the SCi-Fi Filmmakers: Twenty Interviews by Tom Weaver, edited by Tom Weaver. McFarland. 2005.

    2006 Williamsburg Film Festival coverage at The Thunder Child.

    More External Links

  • Frankie Thomas Obituary
  • Stephen Robinson brings Tom Corbett lunchbox into space
  • NASA Website: Stephen Robinson profile

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