Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Horror on the Radio

Among the most popular genres on Old Time Radio was the suspense/horror anthology. Suspense/horror anthology shows emerged very early in the history of Old Time Radio and, what is more, they remained popular for much of that history as well. Such shows as Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, and Suspense remain remembered to this day. What is more, all three of those shows would make the transition to television in the late Forties and early Fifties. Horror dominated Old Time Radio in a way that it never quite has television.

Given that it was not unusual for local radio stations to produce their own shows early in the days of Old Time Radio, it may well be impossible to determine what was the first suspense/horror anthology in the history of the medium. Certainly one of the earliest was The Witch's Tale. The Witch's Tale debuted on May 21 1931 on WOR in New York City. It aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System and later in syndication.

Adelaide Fitz-Allen, Alonzo Deen Cole,
and Marie O'Flynn of The Witch's Tale
The Witch's Tale was the creation of Alonzo Deen Cole, who also wrote and directed the show. Alonzo Deen Cole would go onto write scripts for such well known shows as The Shadow and Gangbusters. The Witch's Tale introduced an innovation that would be adopted by other suspense/horror radio shows, not to mention one that would be adopted by such media as comic books and television. Quite simply, The Witch's Tale had a host in the form of Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem. Old Nancy was originally played by stage actress Adelaide Fitz-Allen. When Adelaide Fitz-Allen died in 1935 at the age of 79, the role was taken over by Miriam Wolfe, who was only 13 years old at the time. Martha Wentworth also provided the voice of Old Nancy. Old Nancy had a cat named Satan, who was voiced by Alonzo Deen Cole himself. Old Nancy was the forerunner of all suspense/horror hosts to come, from Raymond of the radio show Inner Sanctum Mystery to Alfred Hitchcock of the TV show Alfred Hitchock Presents. It was Old Nancy on The Witch's Tale that inspired the use of hosts in E.C. Comics' classic horror comic books, including the Vault-Keeper of Vault of Horror, the Old Witch of The Haunt of Fear, and The Crypt-Keeper of Tales From the Crypt.

Aside from the actresses who played Old Nancy over the years, the cast of The Witch's Tale included Alonzo Deen Cole himself, his wife Marie O'Flynn, Mark Smith, and Alan Devitte. The Witch's Tale proved fairly popular, inspiring a magazine entitled The Witch's Tales that ran for only two issues in 1935. The Witch's Tale ended its run on June 13, 1938 after seven years on the air. In 1958 plans were made to film a pilot for a television version of The Witch's Tale, to be produced by Leon Fromkess for Television Programs of America, with scripts by Alonzo Deen Cole. Nothing apparently ever came of the planned TV series. Unfortunately, very little of The Witch's Tale survives, as Alonzo Deen Cole destroyed the recordings in 1961 when he moved from New York to California.

It was on January 3 1934 that another extremely popular suspense/horror radio show debuted. Lights Out was the creation of Wyllis Cooper, who would go onto write several of the "Mr. Moto" films, as well as Son of Frankenstein. According to an article in the November 28, 1933 issue of Variety, Mr. Cooper developed the idea of  "...a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour." He soon dropped the idea of a midnight mystery serial, but kept the idea of a series which would air at the witching hour, namely a horror anthology series. That idea would become Lights Out.

Lights Out debuted on January 3 1934 on WENR in Chicago. It started out as only being 15 minutes in length, but the show proved so successful that it expanded to a half hour in April 1934. Very much in demand as a writer, Wyllis Cooper's workload grew as he worked on Lights Out. With more than work than Mr. Cooper could handle, Lights Out was then cancelled in January 1935. So popular was the show that listeners demanded its return. Lights Out then returned to the airwaves after only a few weeks. It was in April 1935 that Lights Out went nationwide on the NBC Red Network.

Wyllis Cooper eventually left Lights Out, after which  screenwriter and playwright Arch Oboler took over the show in 1936. On radio Lights Out was marked by often grisly plots laced with tongue in cheek and more often than not dark humour. If anything, under Mr. Oboler Lights Out became even outré. Indeed, among the most famous radio plays of all time was the Lights Out episode "Chicken Heart", in which a chicken's heart grows to enormous size and devours everything in its path. Eventually Arch Oboler grew tired of of fighting with NBC's Broadcast Standards over the content of the show and decided he wanted to write plays as well. He then left Lights Out in 1938. Lights Out would continue without Mr Oboler until 1939, when it was cancelled.

It was in 1942 that Arch Oboler revived Lights Out on CBS. It lasted until September 1943. NBC would revive Lights Out from July to September 1945 and again from July to August 1946. ABC revived the show from July to August 1947. From 1970 to 1973 episodes from the 1942 to 1943 run were syndicated under the title The Devil and Mr. OLights Out even made it to television. In 1946 NBC-TV aired four Lights Out specials. In 1949 Lights Out became a regularly scheduled television programme and ran until 1952.

The next major suspense/horror anthology show to debut would be The Hermit's Cave. The Hermit's Cave debuted on WJR in Detroit, Michigan in 1935. Like The Witch's Tale it also had it own host, namely an elderly character called the Hermit. Starting in 1940 a separate version of The Hermit's Cave aired on KMPC in Los Angeles. The Hermit's Cave ultimately lasted until 1944. Sadly, only a few episodes survive.

The next major suspense/horror anthology to debut would be Inner Sanctum Mystery, better known simply as Inner Sanctum. The series debuted on January 7 1941. It was the creation of prolific radio writer and producer Himan Brown, who worked on radio shows from The Adventures of the Thin Man to CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. The title was taken from an imprint of Simon and Schuster for a series of mystery novels. Not surprisingly, then, like Lights Out before it and Suspense after it, Inner Sanctum Mystery was an anthology of suspense, horror, and mystery tales.

The show was originally hosted by Raymond Edward Johnson, who introduced himself as "Your host, Raymond." Raymond introduced the episodes with black humour, including morbid jokes and puns, all delivered in a mocking voice. Like Old Nancy on The Witch's Tale, Raymond was the forerunner of such anthology hosts as Alfred Hitchcock of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. While Raymond's introductions may have been tongue in cheek,the episodes themselves were serious tales of horror and suspense. Raymond Edward Johnson joined the Army in 1945, whereupon he was replaced by Paul McGrath, who hosted the show for the remainder of its run. Inner Sanctum Mystery debuted on NBC on 7 January 1941 and ran until 5 October 1952.

Not only was Inner Sanctum Mystery run many years on radio, but it was also such a success that it was adapted to other media. From 1943 to 1946 Universal Pictures produced six Inner Sanctum Mystery movies. Like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum would find its way to television. On January 9 1954 the TV series Inner Sanctum debuted in syndication. It lasted only one season.

Inner Sanctum Mystery would be followed in short order by arguably the most successful and most famous suspense/horror anthology radio show of all time. Suspense ran from 1942 to 1962. Not only was it one of the most successful radio shows of all time, but it also became regarded as one of the most prestigious as well. It should come as no surprise, then, that its origins owe a debt to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In July 1940 CBS debuted a summer replacement show simply entitled Forecast. Forecast was essentially a radio show that each week would present an audition show (the radio equivalent of a television pilot) for a prospective new radio show. It was on  July 22 1940 that Forecast featured the audition for a prospective new show called Suspense. To direct the audition show for Suspense CBS was able to get none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself. An agreement was struck with producer Walter Wanger and the director that he would direct the show on the condition that Mr. Hitchcock could plug his latest film, Foreign Correspondent. The audition show was an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1926 film The Lodger, and starred Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn. The following week Forecast would air the audition show for what would become another successful radio show, Duffy's Tavern.

The audition show for Suspense received a good response from radio listeners, with letters and phone calls pouring into CBS regarding the programme. Despite this Suspense would not be added to the CBS schedule for quite some time. Fortunately, two events occurred that would guarantee that Suspense would become a mainstay of CBS Radio for twenty years. First, in 1941 the NBC Blue Network debuted the aforementioned Inner Sanctum Mystery, an anthology series that delivered mystery, suspense, and horror with a dose of humour. Inner Sanctum Mystery proved to be an enormous success. Second in the summer of 1942 CBS needed a summer replacement series for their radio show Random Harvest. With Inner Sanctum Mystery a hit at the NBC Blue Network, CBS thought a suspense anthology would be a good idea. Fortunately, Suspense proved successful enough as a summer replacement series that it won a spot on CBS's schedule as a regularly scheduled programme.

Unlike its predecessors Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery, Suspense was promoted as a prestige programme. It was writer and producer William Spier who largely shaped Suspense, supervising every single script. Quality was not simply expected from its scripts, but every other aspect of the show as well. Suspense also featured top name stars from film and stage, including Anne Baxter, Humprey Bogart, Ronald Colman, Jospeh Cotten, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, and many others. Bernard Hermman composed the theme to Suspense. While Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery tended to feature more horror, Suspense spanned genres with episodes that could be considered spy thrillers, mysteries, or tales of horror. Suspense adapted The Thirty Nine Steps as well as H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. It adapted The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie as well as Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak.

Suspense proved enormously successful. In 1949 the radio show expanded from a half hour to an hour in length. It was that same year that a television version of the show debuted on CBS-TV. The television show lasted until 1954, but the radio show Suspense would continue until the very end of Old Time Radio. Its final episode aired on September 30 1962. It was the last prime time radio drama CBS ever aired.

Wyllis Cooper, creator of Lights Out, would eventually return to the horror genre with the fantasy/horror radio show Quiet, Please. Quiet, Please emerged from Wyllis Cooper's work on Campbell Playhouse. Mr. Cooper became friends with the announcer on the show,  Ernest Chappell, and became convinced that Mr. Chappell should be the star of his own radio show. Wyllis Cooper then developed Quiet, Please for Ernest Chappell. Quiet, Please debuted on the Mutual Broadcasting System on June 8 1947. In September 1948 it moved to ABC.

Although created by the same man, Quiet, Please was a stark contrast to Lights Out. While Lights Out emphasised gruesome, often downright bizarre tales, Quiet, Please utilised a slower pace and a quieter (no pun intended) approach. Unfortunately, although Quiet Please is highly regarded today, it failed to attract a sponsor or a large audience. Its last episode aired on  June 25 1949. Sadly most of its episodes are lost, although 12 have survived.

While it was short lived, it is worth noting Starring Boris Karloff, also known as The Boris Karloff Mystery Theatre and Boris Karloff Presents. The series was both a radio show and TV show, with the radio show airing on Wednesday followed by the television broadcast on Thursday.  As its title indicates, Starring Boris Karloff featured the famous horror actor in stories of suspense of horror. Despite being attached to a big name, Starring Boris Karloff only ran from September 21 to December 15 1949.

The era of Old Time Radio ended on September 30 1962 when the final episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense aired. That having been said, there would be one more radio show that would at times delve into the suspense and horror genres. CBS Mystery Theatre was created by legendary radio producer Himan Brown, who had earlier created Inner Sanctum Mystery. In many respects CBS Mystery Theatre could be considered a cross between Suspense and Inner Sanctum Mystery. Like Suspense, CBS Mystery Theatre only made occasional forays into the horror and suspense genres. Like Inner Sanctum Mystery, CBS Mystery Theatre opened with a creaking door and its own host (E. G. Marshall for most of its run, followed by Tammy Grimes in its final season).

In many ways CBS Mystery Theatre was a by-product of the nostalgia craze of the mid-Seventies. It debuted only about five months after American Graffiti had been released. While it was originally meant to appeal to older listeners, CBS Mystery Theatre attracted a good number of younger listeners as well. While the primary focus of CBS Mystery Theatre was mystery, it also featured episodes that could be considered horror, suspense, and even science fiction. Among its horror episodes were an adaption of Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Horla", an adaption of Dracula, an adaption of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and others

Given the fact that it aired many years after the era of Old Time Radio had ended, it might be surprising that CBS Mystery Theatre proved to be something of a success. It debuted on January 6 1974 and aired every week night. It ended its run on December 31 1982 after nearly nine years on the air.

The aforementioned radio shows were hardly the only ones to delve into the horror genre. There were yet other horror anthologies, including The Haunting Hour, The Sealed Book, Stay Tuned for Terror (with scripts by Robert Bloch), and The Weird Circle, among others. Additionally, yet other anthology shows as Escape, The Mysterious Traveller, Mercury Theatre on the Air, and many others occasionally  featured shows in the genre.  Suspense/horror anthologies predominated radio in a way that they never have television. In fact, perhaps no other genre would be as dominated by horror as radio was, except perhaps for comic books in the late Forties and early Fifties.

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