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
CBS 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
However, 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.
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
The 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.