July 22: 73rd Anniversary of Suspense on the Radio…

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On July 22,  we celebrate the anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s greatest treasures, Suspense. Soon fans will argue that the anniversary is actually June 17, 1942. That is when the fully developed program launched as a weekly series. However, that night in July of 1940 was the first time the public heard a Suspense radio program, and the premiere caused its own share of ruckus for a program which would go on to last for twenty years as a weekly feature, right to the very end of the Radio age.

The Columbia Broadcasting Service, the “Tiffany Network”, built a reputation for bringing the highest quality programming to the airwaves, no matter the expense. This pursuit of The Best manifested itself in many ways, from the almost cinematic productions of Norman Corwin to the infamous NBC “Talent Raids” when CBS chief William Paley outbid the older network for some of its most profitable acts (and helped to establish CBS as the dominant presence in Post War radio).

Fun With Hitchcock

Alfred_Hitchcock_by_Jack_MitchellCBS was not afraid to take risks on new shows and concepts, but like anyone else playing for high stakes, they did their best to minimize the risks. One way the network developed to try out new shows was to introduce them as a summer replacement series for the radio. Another device was a weekly program called Forecast (Forecast itself filled a Monday night summer slot). Forecast was designed as a preview of new radio programs, presenting two audition shows each week. Other great shows that got their start on  Forecast include Duffy’s Tavern.

English movie director Alfred Hitchcock had already established himself as “the master of Suspense” by 1940. Having established himself as one of England’s greatest movie directors, Hitchcock was brought to America by producer David R. Selznick. His first American film, Rebecca, won best picture, and he was getting ready to repeat that success with Foreign Correspondent. Part of the promotion for both films was to have Hitchcock direct the audition program for Suspense. To sweeten the deal, Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall, both of whom were working on Foreign Correspondent, were included in the package.

Hitchcock chose to dramatize the short story “The Lodger” which he had brought to the silent screen in 1926. It was the story of a London boarding house keeper whose guest may or may not have been the infamous Jack The Ripper. In an effort to keep the audience in “Suspense”, at the end of the broadcast Hitchcock neglected to reveal whether or not the Lodger really was the Ripper. This was a major coup for the show-to-be. If listeners wanted to find the answer, they had to write to the network. The show received hundreds of letter, not all of it favorable. Many were upset over the cliff hanger, but CBS was convinced.

Establishing a Weekly Favorite

SuspenseadHowever, even the Tiffany network could not afford Hitchcock every week, so the project was turned over to William Spier, “the Hitchcock of the airwaves”. Suspense began as a sustained program, but soon sponsor Roma Wines was paying the bills.

A number of factors went into making Suspense an incredible Radio success. The production values were kept very high. Spier and the producers that followed him were able to attract an impressive selection of actors to Suspense, not just radio heavyweights, but big names from the screen, as well.

For the actors, Suspense gained a reputation for being a fun project to appear on. The anthology format meant that there would be a variety of different characters to play and develop. Rarely were they the sort of characters that the actors were used to playing. It is very interesting to hear comics like Jack Benny playing a Martian laborer or a clueless bank robber, or Jim and Marian Jones (Fibber McGee and Molly) as kidnap victims. Listeners have their ear ready for a quip or joke, but it never comes. Instead, the anticipation draws the listener even deeper into the story.

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Even more than the production and the actors, the stories were the big attraction of Suspense. Pretty much anything was fair game, as long as it would keep the audience in Suspense. One of the earliest successes was an adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”, Agnes Moorehead plays a woman who panics when she overhears part of the murder plot but cannot convince anyone of what she heard. “Sorry,
Wrong Number” would be repeated seven times over the 20 year run of Suspense. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker”, which featured Orson Welles as a man stalked by a mysterious stranger across country.

Endings, Remembrance, and Rebirth

suspense5The coming of television took a toll on Suspense, but not as big as it would appear. Budgets were slashed, both sponsors and producers left for the small screen, but the stories were still presented every week, keeping audiences in Suspense. Eventually, CBS gave up on dramatic radio completely on September 30, 1962. The last two programs broadcast were Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense.

Suspense was simply too good of a show to die with the Golden Age of Radio. The existing episodes are a cornerstone of any OTR collection.

Radio’s Escape To… Success

Radio ShowsSuspense was the big “grip the seat” program of the golden radio age of the 40’s and 50’s. It’s title characterized efficiently the mood of the show…as it entered the homes across America. However, it was not the only show to set in the motion the building of nerves. The Escape radio program was another broadcastthat built the suspense, but with more supernatural additive. From 1947-1954, Escape carried away its fair share of heavy hitting writing.

From John Dehner to Harry Bartell, Escape featured an array of episodes and stars that never failed to grab the listener where he lived…in the adrenaline. Fear, surprise, anxiety were all adjectives that could be considered perfect qualifiers for the show. But, one thing that never could be stated about this show was that it was boring.

Escape featured shows that made people think. It developed personas strictly by minute by minute intrigue. Each episode was a unique flavor…a focused approach to wonder and bewilderment. The writer of each episode knew how to string dialog with curiosity. But, it took the talents of the voice actor to drive home the message.

Lone Ranger: Mystery Of The Silver Bullets Old Time Radio Show

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SPOILER ALERT!: The Lone Ranger will be coming to cinemas in the summer of 2013. The following article will discuss plot elements from the movie. If you prefer to see these elements when the film comes out, please feel free to skip this article and go OTRCat’s Lone Ranger Page to enjoy 1,365 original Lone Ranger radio episodes.

Many OTR fans 
image070 are looking forward to this summer’s release of The Lone Ranger with understandably mixed feelings. The film will pay homage to one of OTR’s great characters. However, the movie is a pet project of Johnny Depp and the writers, producer and director of the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie. How the people who brought us Captain Jack Sparrow present Tonto and the Lone Ranger will be interesting, to say the least.

The Lone Ranger first appeared on the radio in 1933, making him the first Superhero. Superman is generally given the title of first Superhero, but he did not appear in the comics until 1938. It might be argued that the Lone Ranger is not a Superhero; rather, he fits the definition of Costumed Crime Fighter, a classification he shares with Batman, who first appeared in 1939.

In the early 1930’s, radio station owner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker developed the idea of a cowboy hero with the qualities of Robin Hood or Zorro, both popular swashbuckling heroes in the movies at the time. Because the show was intended for kids, the character had to have an extraordinarily strong moral code. The backstory of the Lone Ranger was that he was part of a posse led by his Texas Ranger brother. An outlaw gang led by Butch Cavendish ambushes the six men and leave them for dead. Ranger Reid (his first name  is never given in the radio series) is the only survivor, and he is nursed back to health by a trusty Indian scout named Tonto, who becomes the Ranger’s most trusted companion.

lone_ranger1From information gleaned from the previews, this is an area where the up coming movie departs from the original story. John Reid is an attorney who was educated in the East and returns to his dusty Western hometown with big city notions of Law and Order. This does not sit well with his older brother Dan, a rough and tumble Texas Ranger like their father. John witnesses the escape of a well known badman, Butch Cavendish, and volunteers to join Dan’s posse to bring him back in. The Cavendish gang ambushes the posse, leaving them for dead and not realizing that John survives.

To this point, the movie seems to be a retelling of the original story with details added for color. Tonto, however, is more than just a scout. He is a Comanche shaman who is pursuing Cavendish for his own reasons. In both the new movie and on radio, Tonto convinces the Ranger that because the world believes he is dead, he can be more effective as a crime fighter if he keeps his identity a secret. Tonto fashions a mask from Reid’s dead brother’s vest.

One of the Lone Ranger’s most unique trademarks was his silver bullets. If someone in the Old West received a message from the Lone Ranger that was accompanied by a silver bullet, they were assured the message was genuine. The Lone Ranger inherited Dan Reid’s secret silver mine, which was the source of the bullets. The mine also afforded the Ranger and Tonto the financial means to spend their life pursuing bad guys. The silver bullets are said to remind the Ranger that life is precious and that there is a cost every time a trigger is pulled.

In the movie, the silver bullets will take on a new, “practical” meaning. Tonto is after the evil Cavendish because he believes him to be a mythical Wendigo. The Wendigo is a creature from native American legends. The creature was cannibalistic spirit the could possess human form. Tonto knows that, in the best tradition of werewolves and vampires, the Wendigo can be defeated by a silver bullet.

To be completely fair, the new movie draws its inspiration from the TV show starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels rather than the radio program. The TV show was a direct take off from the radio show, but there were some changes made for the small screen. The real importance is the integrity of the characters and their values. It will be amusing to see how Depp and Company accomplish that part of the mission.