Halloween the Whole Year ‘Round: Himan Brown and the Horror Host

Himan Brown was one of radios foremost pioneers and an advocate for the medium long after the commercial sponsors had given up on radio drama. His name is attached to an impressive number of OTR programs in all genres, but he is best remembered for giving us the Horror classic, Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Notable for its famous creaking door, Inner Sanctum gave us what would become a staple of the horror genre, the horror host. hi brown

Tailor Sam Brown and his wife Dora immigrated from Odessa and settled in a Yiddish neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their little boy Hi would turn out to be an incredibly ambitious young man. While in shop class at the Brooklyn School for Boys, the teacher brought in a receiver built from a piece of copper wire wrapped around a Quaker Oats box and the boys could hear WLW in Cincinnati. Himan was hooked.

At the age of 18, Hi tried convinced WEAF that a Yiddish voice on the air could bring the station the sort of success that Milt Gross’s cartoons brought the newspapers. Whether it was the boy’s persistence or the station’s desperation for programming of any sort, Hi was on the air and enjoyed a good deal following among his listeners. One of those listeners was a creatively minded housewife named Gertrude Berg who had an idea for a Sitcom based on an immigrant family. She enlisted Hi for the project, and after nearly of  a year of pitching to NBC, The Rise of The Goldbergs hit the air with young Himan as the father. Mrs. Berg was less than enthused to have more than one creative genius around, and gave Hi the boot after six months.

challahcrop (1)Hi began going directly to sponsors with story and show ideas, and created a number of immigrant focused programs for the New York market. At the same time,  he was studying law at Brooklyn College. However, Himan Brown quickly realized that the cut-throat lessons of the legal profession could be put to use in the rough and tumble world of commercial radio. His legal background allowed him to get the most advantageous contracts from sponsors, but they always got their money’s worth from Himan Brown. He created a number of soaps, and the anthology Grand Central Station. He also realized that he could buy the right to characters from other media, and brought Bulldog Drummond,  Dick Tracy and the Thin Man to the air.

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When Carter’s Little Liver Pills came knocking on the door looking for ideas, Hi had a concept ready to pitch that he called The Creaking Door. Horror programs on the radio were certainly nothing new, the fun of telling ghost stories and other creepy tales had been a late night staple since the early Thirties with the campiness of The Witches Tale and the refined terror of Lights Out. The Creaking Door was going to take the horror seriously, but kept in mind that telling ghost stories were essentially good fun. Carter’s loved the concept but hated the name. Taking a page from his earlier crossovers from popular literature, Brown bought the radio rights to a series of low-grade mystery novels from Simon and Schuster called Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and the rest is horror history.

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries discarded the title but not the concept of the Creaking Door, which was based on a sound effect Brown discovered on a rusty basement door. A door was planned for use on the air, but when it did not produce the needed creak, Brown sat in a rusty office chair and turned to make the needed sound. The chair remained part of the show’s equipment, (except for the night that a well meaning studio staffer innocently oiled the chair).

The true genius of The Inner Sanctum was its host. Other horror programs had a host to elevate the level of terror, The Witch’s Tale used a scratchy voiced crone, Arch Oboler himself introduced the stories on Light’s Out, and The Whistler took us into the mind of the killer each week.

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Inner Sanctum‘s host went another direction Originally voiced by stage actor Raymond Johnson, “Your host, Raymond” was a mocking character who was so over the top that the audience had to laugh, both at him and themselves, for being so scared. A smiling sociopath, Raymond took delight in his creepy environs, from the collection to skeletons to the shelf filled with severed heads.

In 1945, Johnson left the program to serve in the Army, and host duties were given to Paul McGrath. McGrath dropped the Raymond handle, known as just “Your Host” or “Mr. Host”. 1945 also marked a change in sponsor, and Mary the Lipton Tea Lady joined the show. Mary Bennett as the sunny Tea Lady was a marked contrast to the Smiling Sociopath, but the contrast only served to intensify the fun of the show. The Tea Lady would chide the Host for taking amusement from suicides and dismemberments, using much the same tone as a suburban housewife telling her husband to curb his enthusiasm for pro-football.

The Inner Sanctum carried over into a series of low-budget Universal Horror films during the 1940’s, and was produced as a short-lived syndicated television program produced by Himan Browns Chelsea Studios. However, the visual media lacked the “image intensity” that made Radio Horror so successful. Brown continued to campaign for radio as a story telling medium long after sponsors moved on to TV. He was somewhat vindicated when CBS gave a green light to CBS Radio Mystery Theater in

The over the top Horror Host Himan Brown created by Raymond Johnson and Paul McGrath lives on as the late night TV Horror Movie hosts like Vampira, Count Floyd, Morgus the Magnificent, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. All of these personalities manage to capture the fun of Halloween throughout the year.

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