Arch Oboler Old Time Radio

December 7: Happy Birthday Arch Oboler

It is interesting that Pearl Harbor Day is also Arch Oboler‘s birthday. Interesting, but probably not significant. Arch would be105 years old in 2014, so it is interesting to wonder how he must have spent his 32nd birthday.

Ronald Colman‘s daughter said that Oboler was an “eccentric Hitler hating truth stretching flashy writer” who “wrote and directed in dirty dungarees, no socks, thong sandals, and a hat with a grease stained band”.  TIME called him a “horn-rimmed half-pint scrivener”. Oboler was no stranger to confrontation. Though assuredly as horrified as the rest of the nation at the audacity of the Japanese: Arch was probably thrilled at the thought of taking part in the scrap.

Oboler was the precocious child of poor, but cultured Jewish immigrants in Chicago. Young Arch was a voracious reader and had been taught to appreciate fine music. He sold his first short story at the age of ten (a story about an amorous dinosaur) and he continued to write through his teen years. Possibly hoping to shake the image of being a nerdy kid, Arch was also an accomplished boxer, in contention for a Golden Gloves championship. The writing was a better course to follow after getting expelled from the University of Chicago, even though it was his confrontational manner that earned him the boot.

Arch saw terrific potential in radio as a storytelling medium, even if it was being “wasted” on radio Soap Operas. In 1933, he wrote his first radio play, which NBC thought was impressive enough to include in the dedication program for the new Radio City headquarters. The show was a success, but the writer took some flack about lampooning the slogan of American Tobacco. At the time, the feelings of sponsors were considered sacred by the network, and it was far from the last time Oboler would ruffle feathers, corporate and otherwise.

For the next few years Oboler was kept busy with “Potboilers”, but in 1936, he wrote a short play for the Rudy Vallee Program which won him a 52 week stint writing bits for Don Ameche on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. Of course, it was doomed to end poorly; Oboler wrote a small play with Mae West in the Garden of Eden which did not go over well with the sponsors.

By this time,  Oboler had taken over Wyllis Cooper’s Lights Out!, and was beginning to make it his own show. When he first drew the assignment for Lights Out!, it was with less than enthusiasm. Midnight on Tuesday was hardly a glorious time slot, but he soon realized that he was hidden from sponsors and censors, so there was a chance to experiment with story and content. Not the mention an opportunity to circumvent NBC’s neutrality policy and smuggle in the occasional anti-Fascist message.

Arch-Oboler-Norma-Shearer-radioIn 1939, Oboler used his own money to record his script “The Ugliest Man In The Universe” and presented it to the Network. Fortuitously, NBC was desperate to come up with something similar to CBS’s Columbia Workshop.

Oboler was given a green light for the new project, and until a sponsor was found, it even carried his name. Arch Oboler’s Plays was stuck opposite Jack Benny on Sunday nights, but still managed to attract some impressive talent, including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ronald Colman and Edmond O’Brien. When Proctor and Gamble came on board, the show became Everyman’s Theater for 1940-41. Arch soon tired of having to disrupt his show to put a commercial in the middle, and quit.

After Pearl Harbor, the anti-Fascist shows that Oboler used to receive flack for were suddenly in demand. He took no fee for writing Plays For Americans, but the program was eventually shut down for Oboler being too inflammatory. Oboler continued with other propaganda efforts, including Everything For The Boys, a collaboration with Ronald Colman. Unfortunately, the actor and the writer never got along.

Oboler was ready to make the jump to scripting and directing movies, but it seems uncertain whether the movies were really ready for Oboler. His movie career is most notable for his experimentation with the earliest 3D films.

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