On May 25, 2013, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s truly magnificent treasures. One that evening in 1943, CBS’s “Outstanding Theater of Thrills”, radio’s Suspense!, presented for the first time the chilling tale “Sorry, Wrong Number”.
Lucille Fletcher, one of the female mystery writers who dominated the genre, wrote the radio play. In contrast to other types of fiction, there was relatively little “gender-gap” for mystery writers. In part, this was due to Agatha Christie’s work popularizing the genre, but the editor’s need to gather compelling stories whereever they could be found was also a factor. Ms. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker” script that was hugely successful for Orson Welles in 1941. Welles would later opine that “The Hitch Hiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” were the best suspense plays ever written for Radio.
“Sorry, Wrong Number” was as simple as it was effective. The program as originally written as almost a one woman show and radio veteran Agnes Moorehead handled it masterfully. The story opens as she is trying to reach her late-working husband, but finds that his office telephone is constantly busy. Seeking aid from the operator, she overhears two men plotting a cold-blooded murder. As the program progresses, the woman (and the audience) come to realize that she is the intended victim of the crime.
There were two performances of the episode on the evening of May 25, 1943; first for the East Coast and then for the West. One of the supporting actors missed a cue near the end of the East Coast broadcast, which resulted in some confusion among listeners as to the actual outcome of the story. Producer William Spier aired a clarification at the beginning of the following week’s episode, “Banquo’s Chair”, and also announced that the story would be repeated on the coming weeks due to the outstanding audience response. Suspense would present “Sorry, Wrong Number” seven times, each time starring Ms. Moorehead. Each time she assumed the role, Moorehead used her original, dog-earred script.
Producers hired Ms. Fletcher to expand the story for the 1948 film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck received a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar for the role, but many fans of noir fiction feel that the expanded plot of the movie loses the taut simplicity and sheer terror of the original radio version. Ms. Stanwyck appeared on the Jack Benny Program plugging the film and supporting Jack’s parody. She also reprised her movie role for the Jan 9, 1950, Lux Radio Theater presentation.