Espionage in Old Time Radio

third manHardboiled Detectives and Spies are some of the most appealing of characters from the Golden Age of Radio (1920’s – 1959). Of course they have a lot in common, but they are, or should be, fundamentally different types of individuals. They will encounter the worst of humanity in their adventures, so they are both entitled a degree of cynicism. But despite their earned cynical view, Spies and Dicks are essentially hopeful people, who feel that their success will make the world somehow a better place. dangerous assignmentThe Spy and the Hardboiled Detective make great Radio Drama because Danger is in the very air that they breathe. The Detective is chasing Bad Guys, and Bad Guys are Evil; that almost defines Bad Guy. For the Spy the opposition is a Sovereign Nation or their Representative. And that Nation may or may not be friendly to that of the Spy. The stakes will be high for the Detective; some of their antagonists do have designs on “World Domination,” but for the most part the price of their failure will only be paid by themselves and their client. A much bigger stack of chips falls if the Spy fails. The secrets that they are pursuing or defending will could precipitate war between nations, or endanger the nation’s military. the third man

The fictional and Radio Spy is usually a loner. It seems that the more popular often have a loose grip on morality, but like the most beloved cowboys and detectives, he will have a strong sense personal code of honor. Not that he will let it come between him and the charms of a beautiful woman- especially when the pretty lady is part of the enemy. The Spy in fiction is often a lot more colorful than his real-life counterpart. A real Spy living and working in the jaws of the enemy will do all he can to avoid attracting attention. Radio producers and audiences expect a bit of gun play and dramatic chase scene.

As nations compete in reality, the fictional Spy becomes grist for the propaganda mill. The changes in the antagonists of Radio Spy Drama over the years are interesting and educational. During the late 1930s rumors of War were swirling from Europe. Agent K-7 Returns deals with American agents in Europe. The agents K-7’s people face are enemies of Democracy, but not positively identified as Nazis.

Lux Radio Theater presents the story of a young couple in love as WWII descends during “A Winter in Paris.” The young lovers are both spies, and are in danger of discovery by both German and Russian agents. David Harding, Counterspy chases Nazi Agents during the Second War, but after the War the enemy becomes black-marketeers, drug smugglers, and Atomic Competitors. True stories of the OSS are dramatized in Cloak and Dagger, occurring in both the European and Pacific Theater. The minions of the Soviet enemy within the US are a very real Cold War Enemy in I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. communist for the fbi lobby

Radio matured both as a technology and dramatic form during WWII and the opening of the Cold War, but Espionage Radio has been around much longer. Listeners will find the Spies between the Wars to be much more melodramatic than is fashionable today.

Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 was a Dick Tracy copy in both the newspaper comics and radio. Tracy would chase fanciful inner city hoods, but Dunn concentrated on enemies set on Global Domination, or at least sabotaging American Defense.

Agent K7 Returns is from the time between the World Wars, and America is not officially involved in Europe. However Agent K7, a “former United States secret agent who operated in 22 countries” presents stories that take place in Europe. The stories are generally of other highly fictionalized agents, B-9 and Agent Z and their lovely sidekicks. Many of the stories seem as though they could have come from modern headlines- poison gas, defense secrets, and suicide ships. The stories themselves seem somewhat simplistic, but are very effective when presented in a 15 minute time frame.

The long running radio anthology series, Lux Radio Theater started by adapting Broadway plays for the radio, before turning to Hollywood movies. Espionage was a favorite of movie makers. “British Agent”, broadcast June 7, 1937, tells the story of an agent who is left behind when the British Embassy in Moscow is abandoned during the Russian Revolution. Frustrated with inactivity, the agent, played by Erroll Flynn falls in love with a lovely Bolshevik.

Ned Jordan, Secret Agent (1940?) was a short-lived, FBI inspired series from the pen of Fran Striker, one of the creators of The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet. Jordan is a Federal Agent who foils the assassination plans of a secret society that tries to draw the US into war, works with a scientist developing a light for Blackouts, and protects Army plans from terrorists. Ned Jordan starred Jack McCarthy and featured future newsman, Mike Wallace as announcer. In another episode Jordan has to protect an Army Tank expert who is the target of the Fifth Column.

Phillips H. Lord, creator of Gang Busters, also gave us David Harding, Counter Spy. In one broadcast a German Spy who has rowed ashore is captured by residents of a small Maine community. David Harding is called in and manages to capture the Spy’s submarine on the surface with the aid of local fishermen. In another adventure a Spy has embedded himself in a Defense Plant, and murders his wife to throw off suspicion, but doesn’t count on David Harding who finds that the spy network is larger than it first appears.

Of course the rest of the Nation is doing their duty and watching out for potential spies, even Fibber McGee and Molly. At one point Fibber is nervous about a stranger who follows him around taking pictures, click-click-click! Is he a spy, or is it a reporter doing a story about a small town busy-body?

Armed Forces Radio Service presented a series in 1953 called Douglas of the World. Brad Douglas is a newspaper correspondent with an international beat, always tackling the tough stories, and usually getting involved with a pretty girl. In “Double Trouble” he becomes wrapped up in a kidnap plot while covering a Dutch referendum for the unification of Europe. Another time he covers Iranian Premier Mossadegh, just prior to Mossadegh’s actual overthrow by the CIA. In the final episode of the series Douglas sings the praises of the United Nations while covering the threatened suicide of a disabled Korean War Vet.

This just begins to touch the surface of Espionage Stories from the Golden Age of Radio. We hope you will enjoy many hours of enjoyable listening. But it might be a good idea to keep your disguise on while you’re listening. And watch out for that beautiful lady in the corner booth. Wasn’t she the one from Tangiers? Or perhaps it was Singapore? Is she after the Secret Formula too?

Visit Old Time Radio for more tales of espionage and suspense and visit the extensive library of recordings from the golden age of radio.

“If You Frighten Easily…”: Lights Out Old Time Radio Show

CASTOne of the most enduring images of an old time radio fan is the youngster, awake long past his bedtime, in bed with the sheets pulled over his head, listening to a late night horror program.

Listeners who are new fans of OTR can be forgiven for thinking that horror radio shows were the dominant program during the Golden Age of Radio. They were not, in fact there were relatively few of them. However, those that survive are some of fans favorite series.

No genre is as uniquely suited to radio as horror. We can escape horror on the printed page by simply looking up from the book and see that it is all just fantasy. The fantasy of horror on the screen depends upon the director’s use of special effects to create the terrifying images. No special effects can create as intense images of horror as a good script writer can put in our minds, and even if we shut our eyes, the terror is still there, waiting and daring us to quit listening.

That school yard dare was one of the few campy elements of radio’s most effective horror programs, Lights Out. The tongue in cheek horror hosts and creaking doors would come later, perhaps to make the programs better suited to a wider audience.

The announcer’s voice ominously tells us “Lights out, everybody!” and a gong tolls thirteen times, punctuating the warning “It… is… later… than… you… think!” these Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul, so we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.”

Of course, no listener can resist a dare like that, although they may wish they did.

Wyllis CooperAt 17, Wyllis Cooper was a bugler with the 131st Illinois Infantry in WWI, chasing bandits on the Mexican Border. His unit was shipped to France and he was gassed in the Argonne. After mustering out, Cooper got into the advertising game, eventually heading the continuity departments at CBS and NBC in Chicago. Some of his earliest dramatic include scripts for NBC’s pioneering dramatic anthology, The Empire Builder, sponsored by the Great Northern Railroad. On of his stories took place in the copper mines of Butte, MT. Cooper actually traveled to Butte to get a feel for the mining industry, an indication of the level of detail which would mark his later projects.

Late in 1933, Cooper began toying with the idea for “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” Most of the competition was just playing music at this hour, so perhaps thinking he could do little harm that late, WENR gave Cooper 15 minutes on Wednesday midnights beginning in January, 1934. The serial format was dropped in favor of an anthology of supernatural and crime thrillers, and Lights Out was successful enough to grow to a half hour in April.

Few, if any recordings of these early Lights Out episodes exist, but several of the scripts were used when Lights Out were brought back as a summertime revival during the forties. These scripts show that Cooper was experimenting with stream of consciousness writing and first person narration long before Orson Welles and Arch Oboler popularized them.

Lights Out radio showCharacters in these stories could expect to be decapitated, eaten alive by a giant amoeba, vaporized in a ladle of molten steel or beaten to a bloody pulp. Chicago actor Sidney Ellstrom joked that he had “died a thousand deaths”, most of them unspeakably violent. Studio technicians spent many hours in pre production, devising just the right sound effects for heads being removed from shoulders, thousands of skulls being crushed and cannibalistic plants consuming their victims.

Cooper rode the success of Lights Out to Hollywood in 1936 to work on movie scripts, including The Son Of Frankenstein(1939). He never completely left radio, giving us several scripts for The Campbell Playhouse, The Army Hour, and one of radio’s most creative shows, Quiet, Please.

Although it was without a sponsor because of its late hour, Lights Out was too popular to let die, so it was turned over to another rising talent in NBC’s writing pool, Arch Oboler.

Oboler was the scion of poor but cultured Latvian Jews. Born in Chicago, he was a precocious child, a largely self taught intellectual and amateur boxer. He became fascinated with the possibilities of radio as a storytelling medium and disgusted that the potential was being wasted on soap operas.

NBC saw potential in Oboler’s talent (he would be seen later as NBC’s answer to CBS’s Norman Corwin), but had no real outlet for him. He was assigned to several “potboilers” until the helm of Lights Out became available. The lack of sponsorship and the late hour kept the program out of the censor’s attention, and Oboler thrived creatively.

While maintaining, perhaps even elevating the level of gore from Cooper’s days, Oboler’s stories were often more deeply psychological thrillers. Although NBC policy was to remain neutral in regards to the Nazi’s during the Thirties, Oboler managed to sneak in a few anti-Fascist messages. For most OTR fans, Oboler’s tenure with Lights Out is a high point in radio horror.

There is a story about one of Oboler’s most famous episodes being rebroadcast over AFRS during the War. The battle hardened troops, who knew they would face the Germans the next day, were relaxing in their barracks, listening to the radio. Just as the expanding chicken heart was about to engulf the world, the camp gener

The actor at the microphone is Sidney Ellstrom, but the “corpse” on top of the pile of bodies appears to be Harold Peary, who would later star as The Great Gildersleeve.
The actor at the microphone is Sidney Ellstrom, but the “corpse” on top of the pile of bodies appears to be Harold Peary, who would later star as The Great Gildersleeve.

ator went out and the barracks was plunged into darkness. The combat veterans scrambled like Girl Scouts from around a campfire!

By 1938 Oboler was ready to leave horror behind, but those thirteen gongs reverberated throughout the rest of his career. In 1942, Oboler reopened Lights Out on CBS, with a sponsor and a prime time slot this time around. There were few new stories, however, using scripts from the NBC series and some of the more psychological fare from Arch Oboler’s Plays.

The 1945 and 46 summer revivals of Lights Out brought back Cooper’s old scripts, but did not go over in 1947, as the sponsor felt the stories too gruesome for the modern audiences. Lights Out was briefly adapted to experimental TV broadcasts in 1946, and became a regular series in 1949. However, there was no way that TV could replicate the vivid imagery of Lights Out on the radio.

Besides, TV really loses its effect when you have the sheets pulled up over your head.

70th Anniversary of “Sorry, Wrong Number”

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.

Enjoy the “West Coast” version of “Sorry Wrong Number” starring Agnes Moorehead in radio’s Suspense!:–

Superstion and Old Time Radio End of the World

Mayan End of the World

The world is a pretty pleasant place; it has warm puppies, fresh huckleberry ice cream, and Fibber McGee and Molly episodes is pretty much alright. It is too bad that it all has to end.

You may have heard that the end will come on Dec 21, 2012. At least that is the feeling of those who are paying attention to the Mayan Long Count Calendar. The Long Count Calendar follows a 5,125 year cycle, originally observed and recorded by the ancient Mayans. The Mayan civilization was notable for leaving a fully developed writing system as well as having been incredibly gifted astronomers and mathematicians. They were able to calculate the length of the solar year to an even greater degree than the Europeans.

Arch Oboler

The Long Count Calendar is linear rather than cyclical. This means that at the end of the 13th cycle, called a b’ak’tun, the calendar simply stops. Many have interpreted this to mean that time, and the world, will stop at that point.

There is plenty of arguments as to just how the world will end. Some believe that the sun will explode; others feel that time will simply turn off like a light switch. There are theories that a mysterious planet called Nibiru will collide with the Earth, or that the magnetic poles will shift, throwing the world into incredible chaos.

The end of the world should be nothing new to fans of Old Time Radio. OTR fans heard the world end for perhaps the first time on Halloween of 1938, when Orson Welles gave everyone the jitters with his extraordinarily realistic presentation of The War Of The Worlds.


When Arch Oboler took over the Lights Out radio program, he gave us plenty of reasons to believe that the world could end, from Oxychloride to “The Projective Mr. Drogen to “The Chicken Heart”!
Probably the closest the World has come to ending has been since the end of WWII and the invention of the Atomic Bomb. The implications of such destructive weapons found their way into several OTR programs and documentaries. Science Fiction fans know of a dizzying array of ways that the world could end.

The End Of The World collection of Old Time Radio Shows explores all of these possibilities. Hopefully, you will find them enjoyable listening as we approach the end of the thirteenth b’ak’tun.

Finishing our Christmas radio shopping will be a much bigger concern on Dec 21 than the end of the world. After all, on September 30, 1962, when Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar became the final broadcast of the Golden Age of Radio, the world failed to end.

If the Superstitious Radio World can survive the end of Old Time Radio, it should be able to survive the thirteenth b’ak’tun!