The upcoming anniversary doesn’t merely mark Old Time Radio’s (OTR’s) end. It also marks the beginning of a nostalgic dedication to the preservation and enjoyment of that era. Indeed, having now been over even longer than it lasted, the Golden Age of Radio never truly died. Like something out of Raymond’s Inner Sanctum, it has survived beyond its original life to find a new home on late-night radio programs and, thanks to the internet and its numerous websites and blogs dedicated to the discussion and preservation of OTR, on countless mp3 devices. As the first truly mass form of entertainment, a medium that brought Americans together the way nothing before ever did or even could, the ‘theater of the mind’ is worth a remembrance.
I became a fan of OTR at an early age. I vividly remember listening to eight-track tapes of “The Abbott and Costello Show,” one of the most popular comedy duos of the 1940-50s. Their classic “Who’s on First?” routine — one of the most famous comedy skits of all time — was one of the first things I can recall committing to memory. Other great comedians and programs like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, “Fibber McGee and Molly” (Jim and Marian Jordan), “Our Miss Brooks” (Eve Arden), “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) and “Burns and Allen” (George Burns and Gracie Allen), among many others, became household names, and with a nationwide fan base already established, many were natural choices to be adapted for some of the earliest television programs.
It wasn’t all laughter, though. Programs such as “Escape” and “Suspense” offered listeners high adventure and tense dramas. Stars such as Jimmy Stewart, Agnes Moorehead, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly and many others frequented “Suspense,” and both programs featured original material as well as adaptations of numerous popular stories. Most famously, and perhaps none to greater effect, was both programs’ presentation of the George Toudouze short story “Three Skeleton Key” or, as “Suspense” producer William M. Robson once introduced it, “that story about the rats.” The most popular versions star Vincent Price (he performed it for both shows) as he narrates the story of three men trapped in a lighthouse overrun by ravenous vermin. Price went on to become a horror icon, and while younger readers may remember him as the sinister voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” is there a role Price ever played that surpasses his creepy description of the terrible progress of the rats through the lighthouse towards their prey?
While “Three Skeleton Key” was among the more horrifying of “Escape” and “Suspense” fare, other programs offered some drama, but focused specifically on horror and the supernatural. From “Lights Out” and “Quiet, Please” to the “The Hall of Fantasy” and “The Mysterious Traveler,” these programs offered macabre, creepy, ghostly, scary or terrifying tales and are best listened to in the dark. Among the best episodes from these programs for chilling your blood are, respectively, “Death Robbery” (with Boris Karloff), “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” “The Castle of Lavoca,” and “I Won’t Die Alone.”
No horror program was more popular, however, than “Inner Sanctum.” Produced by Himan Brown and hosted first by Raymond (Raymond Edward Johnson) and later by Paul McGrath as simply the host or “Mr. Host,” the series opened with what would become its trademark creaking door, and then either Johnson or McGrath welcomed listeners with tongue-in-cheek dark humor, creepy puns and campy yet morbid jokes. The stories themselves were mostly serious, though usually had a perfectly natural as opposed to supernatural explanation. And then, as the episode ended and the creaking door closed, Johnson or McGrath intoned: “Good night, pleasant dreeeeeeeaaams, hmmmmmmmm?” It became one of the most famous endings on radio.
The aforementioned programs infrequently delved into science fiction, but for fans seeking a steady diet of futuristic adventures with robots, in space or on other planets, programs like “Dimension X” and “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” transported listeners from a world where man had yet to walk on the moon to, as the finest of OTR’s sci-fi programs “X Minus One” put it, “adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe worlds.” For audiences used to “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” OTR sci-fi is of a decidedly different nature. Still, it featured some of the true titans of the genre— Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and others — and delivered true sci-fi classics like the heart-wrenching “Cold Equation,” the time-traveling adventure story “A Gun for Dinosaur,” and even humorous episodes like “Skulking Permit,” “The Girls from Earth,” and, a personal favorite, “The Merchant Of Venus” (where one learns that knowing your history can come in very handy in the future).
Of course, no single sci-fi broadcast (or any broadcast, for that matter) from the Golden Age of Radio is more famous, or perhaps infamous, than Orson Welles’ presentation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” Though sensationalized by the press, there is no doubt that some radio listeners actually believed Martians were attacking Earth. The broadcast simulated an actual news program and, since Welles’ “The Mercury Theater on the Air” was a sustaining show (meaning commercial breaks were scheduled whenever Welles wanted them) many listeners were fooled, if only temporarily. Though Welles had already served as radio’s first Lamont Cranston and his invisible alter ego, “The Shadow,” it was the “War of the Worlds” broadcast that ultimately secured Welles’ fame and helped propel forward what would become a remarkable career.
While Welles was the first actor to portray the Shadow as an invisible crime fighter, with the power to “cloud men's minds so they cannot see him,” the character that ultimately became radio’s most famous super sleuth was originally merely a mysterious announcer for “Street and Smith’s Detective Story Hour.” When listeners asked at newsstands not for “Detective Story Magazine” but rather the “Shadow magazine,” Street and Smith acted quickly, hiring on Walter Gibson. Under the pen name Maxwell Grant, Gibson went on to write more than 300 Shadow stories for the pulps. The character would go on to appear in movie serials, B-Movies, comic books, newspaper strips, a major motion picture in 1994, and is still in publication today through Dynamite Entertainment’s “The Shadow” comics. But it was on radio that the Shadow left the most indelible impression on American popular culture. From Sept. 26,1937 until Dec. 26, 1954, listeners heard the Shadow’s spine-chilling laugh and were asked, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” As the episode ended, audiences were reminded that “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay…the Shadow knows!”
Radio also had numerous children’s programs. “Let’s Pretend,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Cinnamon Bear,” “Sky King,” “Tarzan” and many others. But it was “The Adventures of Superman” that became the most popular of OTR’s children’s programming. The Man of Steel’s first radio adventure aired on Feb. 12, 1940. Voiced by radio veteran Clayton “Bud” Collyer, Superman had debuted just two years previously in the anthology series Action Comics and, when the radio program first aired, the series was selling more than half a million copies per month. The Superman comic series itself enjoyed a circulation of more than a million copies a month. But it was Bud Collyer that first helped Superman become a truly national phenomena. The radio program also significantly contributed to the Superman mythos overall. Fans the world-over know Jimmy Olsen, Kryptonite and can recite by heart some of the most recognized pop culture catchphrases in the American lexicon, like “Up, up, and away!” and “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — look, up in the sky — it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” All of which were introduced on the radio program.
All radio heroes weren’t quite so fantastic as Superman or the Shadow. Detective stories were a staple of radio drama; “Sherlock Holmes,” already the most-recognized fictional detective of them all, was a natural choice for radio. Though many actors played the great detective, the most famous was Basil Rathbone who, joined by Nigel Bruce as “Dr. John Watson,” appeared in over 200 episodes in addition to their 14 films together. Though the most well-known, Holmes nevertheless had a whole host of competing private eyes, gumshoes, do-gooders and sleuths sharing the airwaves. “Philip Marlowe,” “Sam Spade,” “Simon Templar” (The Saint), “Nero Wolfe,” “Ellery Queen,” “Jace Pearson” of the “Texas Rangers” and “Johnny Dollar” the insurance investigator (“with the action-packed expense account”) were but a few.
Some radio detectives were even real, sort of. “This is Your FBI,” while special agent Jim Taylor was fictional, featured stories that were not. J. Edgar Hoover allowed series producers access to the FBI files, enabling the radio program to give listeners an inside look at both the FBI and the crime and criminals they fought.
No other radio crime drama, however, reached quite so high a level of realism as did “Dragnet.” Brought to life by Jack Webb (“Sgt. Joe Friday”) and his first partner Barton Yarborough (“Sgt. Ben Romero”), “Dragnet” offered listeners both the tedium and action in the life of a police officer. Webb worked closely with actual police officials to make Dragnet as authentic as possible. And while there was no actual Joe Friday or Ben Romero, the series ultimately not only promised but delivered on its opening: “Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime. For the next 30 minutes, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case history, transcribed from official police files. From beginning to end — from crime to punishment — Dragnet is the story of your police force in action.”
So popular was the series, and so successful was it in raising public opinion of police officers, that upon Webb’s death in 1982 the LAPD not only lowered their flags to half-mast and provided the honor guard at his funeral, but also honored Webb by retiring Joe Friday’s badge number, 714.
No remembrance of the Golden Age of Radio would be complete without mentioning that uniquely American genre of the Western. Children listened to “Red Ryder,” “The Cisco Kid” and, of course thrilled to the adventures of “The Lone Ranger,” just as the introduction said they would by tuning into “those thrilling days of yesteryear.” Adults enjoyed “Frontier Gentlemen” and “Have Gun, Will Travel.” They also tuned in to Jimmy Stewart as “Britt Poncet” in “The Six Shooter.” This warm and humorous series lasted only one season due to Stewart’s refusal to accept cigarette sponsorship, but remains not only one of radio’s best Westerns but one of Stewart’s finest rolls in a career already filled with them.
Without question, though, radio’s finest Western was “Gunsmoke.” Starring William Conrad as “Marshal Matt Dillon,” Parley Baer as “Chester Proudfoot,” Howard McNear as “Doc Adams” and Georgia Ellis as “Kitty Russell,” “Gunsmoke” offered audiences the most realistic portrayal of the violence and difficulty of life in the West as was possible on mid-20th century American entertainment. They were sometimes sad, often violent, and frequently gave glimpses into human nature. “Gunsmoke” was also realistic in depicting said nature; anyone that came to Dodge — regardless of their race, creed, religion or sex — could turn out to be be either honorable or find themselves in Dillon’s sights. Native Americans could be savage or noble and no less so or more so than settlers. Some respected the law, others didn’t. And the supposedly civilized were also sometimes revealed for what they were. In the episode “Kitty,” Matt asks Kitty to a public dance, only to find that his invitation to a woman of her profession as hostess in the Long Branch opens them both to the spite and cruelty lurking in the hearts of many of the citizens of Dodge.
In the episode “Buffalo Hunter,” cruelty takes a different form when Matt and Chester track down a hunter guilty of murder only to find indians have beat them to him. In the midst of a field littered with buffalo recently slaughtered by the killer (buffalo the indians considered theirs), the indians exact a terrible revenge. Hearing several shots fired as a signal for help, Matt and Chester find the hunter. Disturbed by what he sees, Chester can only weakly offer, “Mr. Dillion, that’s awful.” Matt responds, “Yeah. Come on, lets get out of here.” Matt then narrates the conclusion. “I don’t know how the indians caught Gatlith. He’d gone a little mad and maybe that made it easy for ‘em. But they finally got themselves a buffalo hunter. And into their unbelievable savage torture of him had gone all of the hatred and desperation of a race being slowly starved and driven from their homeland. And then they’d put him there surrounded by his own bloody slaughter. And they’d had gone off with a gesture of contempt, leaving his rifle and his ammunition by his side. And having seen what they did to him I’ll never know how he managed to fire even one of those shots. For all his evil Gatlith had died harder than any man I had ever seen. Chester and I rode back to Dodge. And it was never mentioned between us again."
Gunsmoke wasn’t always so grim. The stories and situations were often subtle, but over the years some of the rough edge was polished off and the series became more than a mere Western adventure, realistic though they were. The episode “Christmas Story” is one of the warmest broadcasts of any radio series as Matt, having had to shoot his own horse due to an injury, finds himself sharing a ride into Dodge with a stranger. Hoping to get there in time for Christmas, Matt shares with the traveler some of his Christmas memories from previous years in Dodge. As the Marshal soon finds out, the stranger needs to hear them.
Gunsmoke was ultimately adapted into what would become the longest running prime time television series of the 20th Century. In testament to the radio program’s quality, those familiar with both usually give the edge of which version is better to the radio series.
Despite this, television ultimately forced radio out of any significant attempt at drama. Popular music (especially rock and roll and the rise of the top 40 format) didn’t help, but ultimately it was television that finally drove radio away from drama towards a predominance of music, news and talk radio programing.
Thus the curtain came down on nearly half a century of radio drama. Suspense was canceled without even prior notice, and neither program ended their broadcasts with what could be considered a series finale or even closing remarks. They just quietly went off the air that Sunday evening. And that was the end.
But that’s not really — not quite, at least — the end. Thanks to fans — first those who grew up in the Golden Age of Radio’s heyday and later by new generations just discovering OTR — that collected and traded tapes, organized conventions that hosted surviving actors and actresses to meet with fans and recreate the original broadcasts (The Friends of Old Time Radio being the sponsor of the most popular of these events, though they held the last of their 36 annual conventions in 2011), and now bloggers on the internet, many of OTR broadcasts remain in circulation for modern audiences to enjoy.
There have even been attempts to bring OTR-style entertainment back to radio. No other effort was as successful or long-lasting as “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.” Hosted by E.G. Marshall and later by Tammy Grimes, the series ran from 1974-82 and was similar in format to “The Whistler,” “Suspense,” and “The Mysterious Traveler.” Created by Himan Brown, borrowing from and paying tribute to his earlier work on the “Inner Sanctum” series, the program both opened and closed with the creaking door and, hearing this sound effect, older listeners no doubt fondly recalled the earlier days of radio. The series final broadcast, “Resident Killer,” first aired on Oct. 25, 1982. CBS continued to run previously broadcast episodes until the end of the year and again played this last episode once more as the series went off the air permanently on Dec. 31, 1982. Unlike “Suspense” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” 20 years prior, the series at least received a farewell, if brief, send-off. At the end of the episode, producer and director Himan Brown closed the broadcast, observing:
“These have been the happiest nine years of my 50-year career of creating radio drama. The response to all that we've been doing has been most joyous. The theater of the imagination once again became a vital part of all that radio is and can be. Unhappily, this broadcast marks the end of ‘The CBS Radio Mystery Theater’ as part of the network’s schedule. After 3,000 broadcasts we hope we leave you with many fond memories. I want to say ‘thank you’ to you, our listeners, to CBS and the station you’re listening to for their support and encouragement. And most of all to the hundreds of talented writers, actors and technicians who’ve helped stretch our imaginations. I hasten to assure you that, although this series draws its final curtain, radio drama lives. Until we meet again, and we will, thank you.”
Brown then closed his farewell, paying one final tribute to the Golden Age of Radio by borrowing the closing line from “Inner Sanctum,” and then the creaking door closed shut for the last time.
Except, as noted before and true to Brown’s prediction, it wasn’t actually the last time. Fans can, again and again, meet to enjoy the many surviving broadcasts from radio’s Golden Age. So next Sunday evening, turn the TV off, visit any number of OTR dedicated websites and tune in. Just as families once gathered around their radios, gather yours around your computer and listen to adventures from those thrilling days of yesteryear. In the theater of your own imagination, they truly can take you to adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe worlds… and even beyond.
Special thanks to Anthony Tollin, the Friends of Old Time Radio, radiospirits.com and the escape-suspense.com blog. Other sources included wikipedia, archive.org and cbsrmt.com.
Jeff O’Bryant is the author of “Up into the Hills – A Brief History of Catoosa County” and holds two degrees: a bachelor’s in education and a bachelor’s with honors in history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.