Things Mysterious

ust when the first radio mystery series aired is probably lost in the aether. There certainly were programs with mysterious themes aired at the end of the second decade. By 1930, however, "thriller" radio was providing lots of chills with some well-written and strongly produced tales of mystery and the macabre. One mystery series had already premiered in 1929. True Detective Mysteries was based on stories from the pulp magazine of the same name. The host was John Shuttleworth, editor-in-chief, portrayed by the actor Richard Keith. Its beginnings are sketchy, but the program featured case histories of actual crimes always ending with the criminal getting his come-uppance. Usually told from the criminal's point-of-view, the plays were rough, lacking the depth and character development of later series-to-come. The turn of the decade would prove a maturing in radio scripts.

"that Shadow Magazine"

1930 was not only the beginning of the new decade after the stock market crash and the on-set of the Great Depression, but it was also the premier of two series that appealed to one's sense of suspense and mystery. The first was called Detective Story which was designed as a promotion for the magazine of the same name published by Street and Smith, one of the leading pulp publishers of the time. The series premiered on July 31, 1930 and caught the fancy of listeners. The opening featured a disembodied voice with a macabre laugh who introduced the day's drama. In the beginning the voice had no name, but as fans of the series wrote-in asking about the narrator, the writer-director Bill Sweets decided to give the voice a name. Shadow Magazine At the suggestion of Harry Charlot, Sweets' assistant, the narrator was called the Shadow. Eventually, Street & Smith found that people were asking for the magazine by describing it as "that Shadow Magazine." The publishers needed someone who could quickly create stories centered around the Shadow character and which would be published in a new magazine called The Shadow Magazine. To do this, they hired a youngnewspaperman whose name was Walter Gibson who moonlighted writing books about magic. He agreed on the condition that the magazine would become a regular quarterly providing on-going work for the young writer. It was Gibson, writing under the pen name Maxwell Grant, who fleshed out the character of the Shadow. Creating the alter-ego, Lamont Cranston, Gibson later explained that Cranston was only a substitute for the Shadow to step into when Cranston was out of the country. Gibson said that the actual person of the Shadow was Kent Allard.

"The Weed of Crime..."

Of course, none of this ever reached the radio listeners. As the popularity of the Shadow grew, Street & Smith decided to give the narrator his own show by loaning the character to Blue Coal Anthracite to create a series starring the Shadow character. On September 26, 1937, a new series premiered called The Shadow and starred a young up and coming actor named Orson Welles. Welles had yet to create a stir with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast, but his cosmopolitan air fitted the role of Cranston perfectly and equally as well as the sinister Shadow.


Another mystery-detective program that premiered in 1930 showed a much more sophisticated writing style. The show was Sherlock Holmes and the stories were based upon the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle. The author died the same year the series premiered. The Conan Doyle estate had entrusted the development of the radio series to Edith Meiser and NBC. Miss Meiser (who was story editor for the Shadow series) was able to maintain the integrity of the characters as she adapted the stories. Premiering on October 20, 1930 with "The Speckled Band," the series starred William Gillette. Gillette, now into his seventies by this time, had introduced the Holmes character to New Yorkers in 1899 at the Garrick Theatre. This first run on radio was sponsored by G. Washington coffee and as with the later series, Dr. Watson and the announcer enjoyed the sponsor's product while Watson introduced the story.

Probably the most famous of the Holmes' Holmes/Rathboneinterpreters was Basil Rathbone. One cannot think of the actor as anyone but Holmes. Rathbone took over the Holmes character in radio and film in 1939. Nigel Bruce appeared as Dr. Watson. Edith Meiser continued to adapt the stories, though this time with some help. Both Leslie Charteris, creator of the The Saint, and Anthony Boucher, a mystery writer in his own right, wrote some of the scripts under pen names.

Dramatized creepy stories

In 1931 Alonzo Dean Cole brought tales of horror to the listening public in his radio plays, The Witch's Tale. According to David Siegel's introduction to Cole's book of scripts, Deen Cole convinced the management at WOR that "a series of dramatized creepy stories in the late evening hours would attract listeners away from some of the more traditional musical interludes being broadcast by rival stations at that hour." Deen Cole played the lead in every episode while his wife Marie O'Flynn played the primary female roles. Several other actors filled out the script, but the role of Old Nancy, the Salem witch belonged to stage actress Adelaide Fitz-Allen. Satan the cat was performed by Cole himself.

The Witch's Tale continued the tradition begun with Detective Story Hour of using a creepy-voiced narrator to introduce the story. This tradtion would continue with other suspenseful series such as The Strange Dr. Weird, The Whistler, Hermit's Cave, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and the Mysterious Traveler.

A variation from the creepy-voice narrator appeared in a radio series from the early thirties called Majestic's Master of Mystery. The narrator, Maurice Joachim, told the mysterious story in dramatic fashion with sound effects. There were no other actors as he acted all the parts. The series was sponsored by Majestic Radio and the opening was very effective even today evoking a distant exotic feel that seems to transport you from your home and into the story. Close your eyes and imagine strangely exotic violin music and the distant tinkling of a piano flowing from your radio in the cool evening dark of some small town or isolated home as the the voice of the announcer proudly recites

"In the majesty of motion, from the boundless everywhere, comes the magic name - Majestic...mighty monarch of the air!"

The only complete plays from that series were about mysterious characters of death called "Phantom Spoilers."

Best remembered for its famous sound effects

Many of the early mystery series were produced from studios in the East, mostly WOR for Mutual. But in Chicago a series would evolve that would be best remembered for its famous sound effects. Lights Out was the brainchild of Chicago NBC staffer, Wyllis Cooper. Cooper, whom future producer/writer Arch Oboler called one of radio's innovative geniuses, devised a series of horrors built around sound effects never heard on radio. Lights Out treated its listeners to violent death by stabbings, choppings and chokings. Cooper used such effects as a knife tearing uncooked meat, cleavers slicing into heads of cabbage, frying bacon for electrocution. The stories, however violent, were substantial and provided strong narration.

When Cooper left for Hollywood, Arch Oboler was offered the show. He extended it by taking it into realms even Cooper never used including the occult, science fiction with a horrific twist, and often bizzare suggestions in which people were driven nuts by their own fears. Oboler was a genius at his craft. His stories sometimes used stream-of-consciousness that we would later hear in Cooper's Quiet, Please. His use of the inner voice preyed on the listener's fears while they tuned in. And continuing in the tradition established by Cooper, Oboler used sound effects such as people being turned inside out or swallowed up by a storage chest. Needless to say, listeners begged for more week after week.

"Turn out your your lights..."

Another series that achieved a fame of sorts through its memorable sound effects opening and the strange narrator was Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Produced by Himan Brown, who would be known to a new generation of radio drama fans when he created CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the early seventies, the show opened with a memorable sound of a creaking door. This followed with the equally memorable narrator, Raymond, who with his macabre sense of humor was portrayed by Raymond Edward Johnson. Unlike the other series the scenes with the narrator were simply high camp. The show almost seemed to take it all in with tongue-in-cheek. Campy lines such as people hanging around were used with relish by the narrator. Early stories were very good, sometimes based on classic horror tales, but gradually the series broadcast impossibly tangled tales that somehow seemed reluctantly to find an ending.

Outstanding theatre of thrills

As radio drama moved into the forties, the quality of the writing seemed to dramatically improve. One mystery-oriented series that had its genesis in the early forties and which lasted for over 20 years was Suspense - "Radio's outstanding theatre of thrills." The series saw first light with a winner of a script as an audition program on CBS Radio's preview show, Forecast. The script was based on the famous story, "The Lodger" by Belloq Lowndes and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The show was an instant hit! (See review in Variety).

It was two more years before the first show was broadcast. Suspense featured scripts based upon the writings of the well-known mystery writers of the period including Cornell Woolrich, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie. William Spier was asked to handle the directing and producing. The series had a high budget featuring famous film and stage actors in starring roles. John Dickson Carr was also retained to adapt many of the early scripts. Of the many scriptwriters, one who stands out is Lucille Fletcher. It was Fletcher's script "Sorry, Wrong Number" that offered Agnes Moorehead the definitive role as the soon-to-be-murdered lady. The script was so popular it was repeated or re-done eight times and later became a major motion picture starring Barbara Stanwyck! Suspense also maintains the title as the last dramatic radio series from the "golden age of radio."

The end of radio mysteries...

Much less effective was a series created in the genre of Inner Sanctum and The Witch's Tale. The Weird Circle began life in November, 1943 as a syndicated weekly. The scripts were less intense, sometimes with horrific twists, but generally more palatable to general audiences. The series dramatized classic horror stories such as Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, The Moonstone, The Fall of the House of Usher and others. Though each episode was only 30 minutes in length, many times the scripts were well-written.

Wyllis Cooper in the NBC LIbraryIn the late forties, the creator of Lights Out, Wyllis Cooper, returned to radio with a new genre of radio horror. His new series was called Quiet, Please featuring mostly one actor, Ernest Chappell, who would relay horrific things that occurred to his character. The series was essentially stream-of-consciousness as we listened to escalating events that usually culminated in some kind of horror disaster. Some of the memorable episodes from this series include The Thing on the Fourble Board, Let the Lilies Consider, Wear the Dead Man's Coat and others. Cooper was a master at getting under the skin of the listener and usually did. The series premiered over Mutual in 1947 and moved to ABC in 1948 lasting until 1949. Cooper also directed. The haunting theme from Franck's Symphony in D Minor as adapted by Albert Berman was slowed down as the soft reassuring voice of Chappell bid us to be quiet as he prepared to tell his tale.

As the forties were coming to an end, the world was changing. The war was over and the Atomic Age was about to begin. America's interest in mystery and suspense was changing toward things scientific. For radio drama, the mystery genre was nearly at an end. Some anthology series broadcast an occasional show with a mysterious theme, but the era of series dedicated to mystery and suspense was at an end for radio drama. Eventually, it would be revived for a time by Himan Brown the creator of Inner Sanctum in a CBS series called Radio Mystery Theater. But the radio play was coming to an end as a popular force.