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Agnes Moorehead Alfred Hitchcock Old Time Radio Suspense William Spier Yours Truly Johnny Dollar

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

Suspense_1946_Title

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.

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Agnes Moorehead Barbara Stanwyck Sorry Wrong Number Suspense

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!:

http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Suspense-430525-043-SorryWrongNumber–OTRCAT.com.mp3