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Searching for "John Acton": 1950s TV Show's Connection to Ludlow, Newport

In 1953, NBC replaced The Milton Berle Show with a summer television series entitled, The Wonderful John Acton. The show takes place in 1919 and was about an Irish-American family living in – wait for it – Ludlow, Kentucky.

In the series, John Acton was the County Clerk and lived behind the store he owned in Ludlow. The Wonderful John Acton is a black and white version of The Wonder Years, where the episodes are narrated by an older voiceover of the child in the show. The show had a bright cast of characters, including Harry Holcome (as John Acton) and Pat Harrington, Sr. (as neighbor Peter Bodkin). The child actor playing the grandson was Ronnie Walken, known today on the silver screen as Christopher Walken.

Yes, Ludlow gave Christopher Walken his first taste of fame.

Over the last several years, I’ve joined with several fellow sons and daughters of Ludlow attempting to determine why this television show was set in our hometown. Mark and Yolanda Mitchell, Dave Schroeder, Steve Bodkin (whose family name is in the series), and I would all trade notes over our dead-end searches. Little by little, however, additional bits and pieces of information began to appear on the internet. Recently, a new clue popped up. The producer of the show was a native Northern Kentuckian named Edward Byron.

Edward Byron was well known locally for having created a radio show called Moon River. Legend has it that radio giant Powell Crosley requested a poem to be read on the air prior to a live music broadcast. The poem gave birth to Moon River, which stayed on the air for decade. Byron’s poem was read at the show’s opening and closing:  

Moon River... 
A lazy stream of dreams,
Where vain desires forget themselves, 
In the loveliness of sleep, 
Moon River...
Enchanged white ribbon, 
Twined in the hair of night,
Where nothing is but sleep.
Dream on... sleep on..., 
Care will not seek for thee. 
Float on.... drift on...,
Moon River, to the sea.

Byron took his radio skills with him overseas in World War II as General Douglas McArthur’s radio officer. Before the war ended, he had attained the rank of Major in the Army. And after The Wonderful John Acton, Byron continued to produce and direct television and radio, the most well-known shows being Mr. Citizen and Mr. District Attorney. Sadly, Ed Byron died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 59, possibly taking the origins of John Acton with him to his reward.

Harry Holcome was the actor who played John Acton. Over a lifetime, Holcome built an impressive resume of acting credits. The role that transitioned him from stage to television was Acton. Recently, as I searched his name, I ran across a 1957 interview where he was promoting his involvement in the upcoming movie No Time for Sergeants. He told a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer about how he had stumbled into being John Acton by calling Ed Byron on the day he was casting the show.

Opening sequence for The Wonderful John Acton:

At the end of the interview, regarding The Wonderful John Acton, Holcome added, “I believe Byron had his own father in mind in creating the main character. And Ed told me many of the incidents were recollections of his own life in Ludlow, Kentucky.”

I have always professed Ludlow to be the crossroads of a continent. And reading the hometown reference in Holcome’s quote reinvigorated my passion to prove my theory true once again. I pushed on.

Ed Byron had two sons – Kevin and Christopher. New York Times Best Selling Author Christopher Byron sadly passed away in January. The younger son, Kevin, was kind enough to speak to me about his father’s career. The first revelation was that the character played by Christopher Walken – Kevin Acton – got his name from Ed Byron’s youngest.

Kevin Byron told me that the character John Acton was based upon Ed’s great-grandfather, John Halloran, who immigrated to Northern Kentucky from Ireland in 1868. According to Kevin Byron, Halloran had been an alderman, road commissioner, and tavern owner. City directories from the era confirmed he owned The Sample Room at the northwest corner of 4th and Central in Newport.

The last name Acton was the maiden name of John Halloran’s Irish bride, Elizabeth. Kevin Byron said he suspected the character of John Acton was modified to make him a county clerk and shopkeeper (rather than a '50s politically-incorrect saloon owner).

Unlike Harry Holcome’s explanation, Kevin Byron had no evidence of his father ever residing in Ludlow. He suspected Ed Byron simply moved the fictional story a mile or two downriver to Ludlow as artistic license. Online records confirm this thought, indicating the Hallorans and Byrons lived in Campbell County.

However, records also show about the time that John Acton ran his fictional store (1919) there was a Halloran family from Ireland living in Ludlow. It’s not a stretch to think Ludlow came into Ed Byron’s life when visiting some railroad-working cousins on Poplar Street.  

And of the use of the Ludlow-centric name of Bodkin, Kevin Byron had no explanation. Steve Bodkin, son of Ludlow Rock Bar owner Duke Bodkin, offered the following: “Maybe Ed had a drink now and then with your dad Bucky and my dad Duke.”

Or maybe the reference came from the Newport connection. Bodkin’s multi-great grandfather was also a Newport businessman/politician around the time John Halloran was in office. Who knows how it came to be? Some mysteries are best unsolved.

My philosophy is there are only two types of people in this world – AFL (Always From Ludlow) and NFL (Never From Ludlow). The Byron family wrapped a nice bow on a story that has been baffling local history buffs for years. And for that alone, they are AFL.

Author’s note: Christopher Walken, who, through his agent, declined to be interviewed for this article, has been relegated to the purgatory known as NFL.

Thanks to Jeff Landen, James Pilcher, Dick Murgatroyd, and Charles Egerton, who along with those listed above will be very glad to quit getting calls and emails from me about The Wonderful John Acton. Also, a special shout-out to Ed Byron’s grandchildren, Jana, Katy, and Nick, who hooked me up with Uncle Kevin.

Rick Robinson is a native of Ludlow, Ky., and the author of popular novels that should buy by clicking here right now.