Category: Golden Age Article

Zorro Comes to Radio

If you grew up in the 1950s, when you think of Zorro as Guy Williams in the Disney series. Or if you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, Duncan Regehr may have provided your vision of Zorro. Others may remember Antonio Banderas as Zorro and for many classic film buffs, it is without a doubt Douglas Fairbanks who defines the character in the silent film version.

Zorro did make it to radio in 1957, in a short-lived serial based on the Curse of Capistrano, however only two episodes of this series survive.

Zorro has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times throughout the years that it’s hard to remember that Zorro originiated in the pulp magazines in stories by Johnston McCulley. may have passed Zorro by for the most part, modern producers of radio drama have picked up the torch.

The Colonial Radio Theatre  brought two of these stories to radio in Zorro and the Pirate Raiders and Zorro Rides Again.

Summaries

In Zorro and the Pirate Raiders, the commandante of the pueblo, Captain Ramon, forms an alliance with cutthroat pirates to  raid the pueblo and split the booty. Ramon also orders the pirates to kill Don Diego de la Vega and kidnap his bride-to-be. Zorro thwarts the attack on Don Diego with the help of other caballeros and then pursues the pirates across the sea.

In Zorro Rides Again, Zorro has retired after The Pirate Raiders but is forced to return when an imposter begins to commit injustices in the name of Zorro. Zorro must clear his name and find the imposter before friends turn against him and the government executes.

Review

These Zorro productions are superb swashbuckling adventures.  Each feature length adventure was filled with action, adventure, and surprise twists throughout the story. The sound effects were amazing, and help to transport you back to Old California.

There were differences between this production and most Zorro adaptations. The biggest was that Zorro had allies: twenty caballeros who fought alongside him. This is a stark difference between modern productions which have Zorro fighting a lone battle against evil, which has become the trend.  However, the CRT’s version of Zorro remains faithful to the original vision of McCulley.

Zorro and his caballeros are courageous and gallant, living by a code of honor.  McCulley’s vision of Zorro was as a North American version of the knights of old and this really shows through in the Colonial Radio Theater production.  The cast from the stars to their supporting players were all excellent. In particular, Sam Donato shined in the role of Sergeant Garcia.  Oftentimes, the role of the Sergeant in Zorro is often played as buffoon or coward, but Donato’s portrayal was more nuanaced, and there was a lot more to Sergeant Garcia than meets these eyes.

There were very few flaws in these productions, and they were  a result of being faithful to the source material, so I can’t complain about them. I will say that when a radio drama features a fight between two guys with knives in their mouths, the theater of the mind has to work overtime to supply the images.

Overall, these are great productions that represent Zorro as he was meant to be and provide hours of fun and excitement.

Note: If you are an Audible Member, the digital download of these programs are only $2.95 each which is a fantastic price for these great productions.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Three for the Chair

While shopping in the thrift store, I found a 1968 Bantam Paperback copy of, Three for the Chair, a 1957 compilation of three Nero Wolfe novellas. While the book was not my planned next Nero Wolfe read, I decided to grab it cheap and enjoy the book.

There are three stories in this book and each should be reviewed in its own right.

A Window for Death:

A man who left his family under a cloud of suspicion and then made a fortune in mining, apparently dies of natural causes after returning home.  Members of the family aren’t so sure, and are suspicious of the man’s partner who inherited the entire mining interest. Wolfe is hired to determined whether there is enough to call the police in.

This story is very workmanlike. There’s little action. The majority of the story involves Wolfe questioning witnesses in the Brownstone and the rest involves Archie doing so outside. No added deaths occur and there are no real plot twists. Inspector Cramer does not appear in the story, with A Window for Death ending with Wolfe composing a note to him. Still, the actual solution is pretty clever.

Rating: Satisfactory

Immune to Murder

At the request of an Assistant Secretary of State, Wolfe leaves the comfort of the Brownstone for a rustic fishing resort to help with sensitive oil negotiations by cooking fish for the ambassador who had specifically requested Wolfe. Wolfe hates the  locale and plans to leave after lunch. Wolfe’s plans are upset when Archie discovers the Assistant Secretary of State lying dead in stream.

Given the other potential suspects (members of a diplomatic delegation who are immune to prosecution and two rich oil magnates), the District Attorney suggests absurdly that Archie was there as a hired assassin. The truth doesn’t come out until the murderer does something that insult’s Wolfe’s vanity.

This story was adapted for television on a Nero Wolfe Mystery as the last episode and was panned by fans. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with either the episode or the story. It was, however unfortunate to make this the last episode, as we had none of the familiar supporting characters that fans loved, plus in the context of a final episode, the solution was unsatisfying. However, in the context of a Nero Wolfe reading binge, the story represents a nice change of pace.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Too Many Detectives

Thanks to Archie’s interest in learning about wiretapping, Wolfe agrees to help a man tap his own phone. Later, Wolfe learns he was duped and the man who hired him didn’t own the phone being tapped.

Wolfe’s embarrassment is deepened when he’s summoned to Albany and forced to endure a long car ride to discuss the matter. Wolfe and Archie to find several other detectives waiting.

When it’s their turn to testify, they learn that the man who fooled them claimed they knew the wiretap was illegal. When it was time for the phony client to testify, he’s found dead, and Wolfe and Archie are arrested as material witnesses.

While Archie and Wolfe are released on bail, they can’t leave  the jurisdiction, a situation Wolfe can’t tolerate. The only way out is for Wolfe to find the killer.

Wolfe compares notes with the other detectives and finds that all but one of them was taken in by the same scheme as Wolfe. Wolfe then gets all six detectives to share every available operative back in New York City to solve the case, leading to a surprising and satisfying solution.

This story in notable for featuring Dol Bonner. Bonner had appeared in her own novel in 1937 and also appeared in a Tecumseh Fox novel. She and Wolfe got along well which had Archie nervous as he figured that Bonner was that rare type of woman Wolfe could actually fall for. Archie even imagines a situation where Archie, Wolfe, Bonner, and Bonner’s assistant Sally Colt all in the Brownstone solving cases together. Thus, even great authors have intriguing ideas occur to themwhich if tried would wreck their franchise.

As an aside, the story makes me curious to read Stout’s Dol Bonner novel.

As for Too Many Detectives, it was truly a good use of an hour and deserving of a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall rating for the Collection: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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Book Review: Might as Well Be Dead

In Might as Well Be Dead, Wolfe is hired by a Nebraska businessman to find his son, Paul Herald. The older Herald had exiled his son eleven years earlier  on the belief his son had stolen $11,000 from the business but had since learned that someone else committed the theft. He turns to Wolfe as a last result after having contacted the police and submitting a classified ad to get his son’s attention.

Because Herald had monogramed luggage that he took with him, Wolfe supposed  the that Paul retained the same initials and so ordered a display ad taken out, address to PH and written in a way that Wolfe felt would be more likely to gain a response as he promises to help PH clear his name of the crime he was falsely accused of without forcing him to renewing any bonds he’d renounced.

Wolfe gets a response all right because a P.H. is on trial for murder and several people think Wolfe is going to intervene in the Peter Hayes murder trial. Looking at the newspaper picture, both Wolfe and Archie dismiss the possibility of Peter Hayes being Paul Herald, but after Hayes’ attorney pays the brownstone a visit, Archie believes an in-person examination is in order. When Archie sees Hayes’ expression when found guilty, he’s almost certain that Hayes and Herald are one and the same.

With the help of Herald’s lawyer, Archie gets an in-person interview that cinches it, but Herald begs Archie not to reveal his true identity for fear of the pain it would cause his mother and sisters.

Wolfe faces a dilemma and decides not to tell his client but to press ahead, find the truth, clear Paul Herald of the crime and then report to his client once he’s cleared his son.

What follows is an amazing series of twists and surprises, of mysteries inside mysteries that represent the series at its best. Every recurring character is in top form, particularly Wolfe.  Wolfe has no relapses to speak of, though he does reach a point where he believes that he’s found enough information so the police can wrap it up, but Cramer lets him know after a few days that’s not the case.

The story takes on an added human element with the murder of a detective working for Wolfe, Johnny Keems. Might as Well Be Dead showcases Wolfe’s humanity and sense of justice is on full display (as much as it ever is) right up and to Wolfe’s magnanimous gesture at the end of the book.

If this had been a third season of Nero Wolfe, this would have been a worthy project to adapt. Though, they would probably have to work with the scene where Archie and Saul Panzer find the final clue due to the grittiness of the scene, but it could be done. This book was adapted for the William Conrad Nero Wolfe series in the 1980s.

Might as Well Be Dead is also interesting for the number of times that a prior Wolfe novel is mentioned. Archie brings up an incident from Fer-de-Lance to a couple different witnesses. Stebens mentions one  from, The Red Box. And Archie tells us that the kids in the neighborhood have viewed Wolfe’s house with suspicion since, in The Golden Spiders, twelve year old Pete Drosos obtained a meeting with Wolfe and was then murdered.

These references were a reminder that 23 books into the Wolfe canon, the series was clearly becoming an American Cliassic, and Might As Well Be Dead is a crowning achievement.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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Interview With a Modern Radio Star

Quick trivia question. What American radio actor  has played Allan Quartermain, Perry Mason, and John Barrymore? If you’re thinking Orson Welles, Elliot Lewis, Howard Duff, or some other golden age figure, you’re wrong.

The answer is  Jerry Robbins, who was born as the golden age of radio was ending. His Colonial Theatre on the Air has been producing radio dramas for fifteen seasons, bringing life such familiar characters as Zorro, Perry Mason, the Wizard of Oz, and Father Brown. In addition, the Western Series Powder River ran for four seasons from 2004-2007 and is coming back for a fifth.

What Colonial Theatre does is remarkable, both in longevity and quality. Most well-known radio revival efforts since 1962 have been splashes in the pan. More than their existence, they’ve rediscovered the art of radio drama. Whether you’re walking through the Noirish world of Perry Mason, travelling into darkest Africa with Allan Quartermain, or running with Jessica and Logan in Logan’s Run, the Colonial Radio Theatre (CRT) takes you there as only radio can.

Actor, Writer, and Director Jerry Robbins graciously granted my request for an interview in which we discussed Perry Mason (in which he plays the lead), the production of radio dramas and what the future may hold for the Colonial Theater:

Question: How did the Colonial Theatre get started and how long has it been in existence?

Jerry RobbinsJerry Robbins: We started as a business in 1995; although I started producing radio plays as a hobby in 1988 (a feeble attempt at A CHRISTMAS CAROL) and by 1990 I was making re-creations of the old time shows on a regular basis; shows like THE LUX RADIO THEATRE, SCREEN GUILD PLAYERS.  In those days – before home computers were commonplace and before the internet, the only way I could get a radio script was to buy an old LUX show on a cassette, then transcribe the script out on the typewriter, then recording and editing. The early shows were horrid, but after a while they were getting a lot better! By the time it was decided we would do “Colonial Radio Theatre” for commercial release in 1995, I had already done well over a hundred or so of those old time programs.  By transcribing all those old programs into scripts, I learned how to write for radio drama that training came in very handy when I wrote my first original dramatic program, BATTLE ROAD. This week we are recording out 425th production.  We are in our 16th year as an official company.

Question: You play the role of Perry Mason in four radio dramas so far. As an actor, how do you approach a role that’s been defined so much by Raymond Burr’s iconic performance? Has Perry Mason been a role you’ve always wanted to play?

JR: I’ve actually done five so far – CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE will be released in December.  Approaching the role was easy – you will not believe this, but I have never seen a complete PERRY MASON episode with Raymond Burr. Just a clip here and there over the years.

The first story we did, VELVET CLAWS ,  takes place in 1933, and I was thinking of Clark Gable in the role – and that is who I have in mind when I play Perry – Clark Gable! I think he would have made a great Perry Mason if MGM had made the pictures.  I can’t say I always wanted to play Perry, but I am thrilled to be able to in these productions, you can be sure on that!

Question: Also, when you’re adapting a story like Perry Mason or Zorro that has appeared in other medias so often, do you try stick closely to the book or do you influenced by previous adaptations?

JR: On our ZORRO productions, which I adapted for audio, we stayed with the original books 100% as far as the storyline goes.  I am pretty sure that we were the first audio company to produce a modern ZORRO recording since the BBC did THE MARK OF ZORRO in the 70’s. I decided to pass on doing yet another remake of MARK OF – and thought a more obscure story that was not so legendary would be fun – thus ZORRO AND THE PIRATE RAIDERS and then ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

The first script took seven drafts, as the Zorro people were very picky on how the role would be written (we were working off of the original book THE PIRATE RAIDERS, but they wanted Zorro portrayed more as he is today – so we went through a lot of changes to make that happen, as I was trying to stay as close to the book as possible.  I am not a Zorro fan, so I didn’t know that “Zorro doesn’t do this, Zorro doesn’t do that, Zorro’s horse is this, not that” – I was just going by the book they sent me – I was not inventing new things for Zorro to do – but they were not happy with the way Zorro was portrayed in the book, thus the re-writes. Anyway, draft seven was approved and we went into production.  Now it seems like everyone and his brother is doing a ZORRO audio production and the owners of ZORRO do not seem as picky with the stories as they were with the first one.

Our PERRY MASON programs also stay with the original books, however I know in some cases M.J. Elliott (who writes our PERRY MASON scripts) sometimes combines / condenses scenes so they will play smoother in a radio drama format – but we do not add our own ideas regarding story into the script. As far as I am concerned, these stories were wonderful long before we ever came along. Why change what already works?

Question: One thing I was kind of curious about is that I see you’ll have the third volume of Father Brown mysteries coming out soon and one of the cases is, “The Oracle of the Dog.” In the story, Father Brown solves the crime without ever going to the scene or interviewing the suspects. How did you deal with that in adapting that story?

JR: Since M. J. Elliott writes all the scripts for our FATHER BROWN series, I sent the question along to him. His response:

“It was best, in the interests of drama, that he should be there to witness events as they unfold, without making any substantial alterations to Chesterton’s excellent tale. We therefore had Father Brown visiting the house where the murder occurs in order to study its extensive library for a sermon he’s working on. He’s right in the thick of things from the start and, unknowingly, almost witnesses the murder. We had a similar problem with the classic The Invisible Man, because Father Brown appears surprisingly late in the adventure. In order to keep him at the forefront (these are, after all, The Father Brown Mysteries), we had him apparently narrate the story, although we learn at the end that all this time he’s actually been explaining his deductions to the killer.”

Question: From start to finish, how long does it take to produce a drama like Zorro or Perry Mason?

JR: Every show is different. ZORRO AND THE PIRATE RAIDERS was recorded in one day. Post production on ZORRO took three months – mainly due to the fact that the score was being written at the exact same time.  ZORRO RIDES AGAIN was recorded in a single session as well, in about four hours. Post production was just shy of three months, and the music from PIRATE RAIDERS was re-used, which also saved time. Our ZORRO productions had about 70 or so music cuts.  On the flip side, we just released our fourth production with Ray Bradbury – THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. That one took 21 recording sessions and was edited over seven months. A half hour episode of a series episode, like POWDER RIVER can a week, or two weeks, depending on the episode. On a series, we tape three or four episodes in a single session.

A PERRY MASON production is also recorded in a single session, and editing can take about a week – sometimes a week and a half.  Seth Adam Sher is our producer on the PERRY MASON series, and he does great work. He also produced our ZORRO productions. They are not easy to edit, trust me!

Question: How many people work regularly for the Colonial Radio Theater?

JR:  We currently work with 5 Producers (post production), 4 writers, two illustrators for cover art, myself as artistic director (I oversee all productions and final release product), and Mark Vander Berg who handles the business end of things. Jeff Gage is our music composer and has been with us since day one.  From 1995 till about the middle of 2006 I edited and wrote all the productions. It wasn’t till we were into the third season of our western series, POWDER RIVER, that another editor came onboard. I haven’t edited a show since.  It gave me more time for my writing and developing the production end of the business. We have an active list of 65 actors who work with us on a regular basis.

Question: Looking back over all the programs you’ve recorded, do you have any favorites? Also, as an actor was there any role that you particularly enjoyed?

JR: I don’t know as I have any special favorite production; but I would have to say those we did with Ray Bradbury are at the top of the list, as is the production we did with Walter Koenig, BUCK ALICE AND THE ACTOR ROBOT.  I am also partial to THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and CAPTAIN BLOOD.   Favorite role would be Peter Blood in CAPTAIN BLOOD, and John Barrymore in William Luce’s BARRYMORE, which he adapted for audio for us from his Broadway play.

Question: Have you ever played a role over the radio that would have been hard for you to play in a movie or on television?

JR: Probably Britt MacMasters in our POWDER RIVER western series. I am not the worlds best horseman, but I sure can ride a radio horse!

Question: There are a lot of fans of Nero Wolfe in my audience. Have you given any thought to adapting Nero Wolfe stories to the radio?

JR: M.J. Elliott, who writes our PERRY MASON scripts has pitched that idea. I never looked into it, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. It’s not for lack of interest; we just have a schedule that is already into 2013.

Question: You have a very good list of many of your planned released into 2012. Outside of this list, do you have any projects that are in the planning and production stages, particularly in the detective genre?

JR: We are continuing with the FATHER BROWN series. We have 16 recorded, currently being released in sets of four from Brilliance Audio.  I am also hoping to continue the PERRY MASON series.  We talked with the folks who own the Agatha Christie works, but they did not seem very interested in getting back to us (and we were looking to do the titles not produced by the BBC – as I don’t want to step into someone elses territory).  We looked into Charlie Chan, and were a week away from recording when we were warned off because, although the book HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY is in Public Domain, the character of Chan is not. We then contacted the owner of the name to make a deal for the audio rights, but never heard back, so we put everything on the shelf. I am not going to chase anyone around, no matter who they are.  We also spoke with a very famous author / director who was interested in us producing one of his books, however we had to get clearance for it from one of Hollywood’s top studios who still held film rights (the picture had been made years ago); well, that was about four months ago and we’re still waiting for that phone call.  A reminder call to the studios law rep. was met with a ferocious growl from someone’s assistant; so if that’s how they do business, I’m not playing ball.  It would have been a fun project to work on, but we can also survive without it.

I was very excited when we went into production with PERRY MASON, and thought we could come up with a whole line of cool mysteries and detective shows, which are perfect radio listening, and trust me, the fact that we are not producing as many as I would like is not from lack of trying.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to add for our audience?

JR: Just for them to know that radio theatre isn’t dead. Radio drama, comedy, musicals, adventure, history  – it’s still here – it never went away. Sure, we may have hit a bump or a pot hole here and there, but there are some great producers of modern mystery and detective shows still in full time, active production; Jim French for example, and his IMAGINATION THEATRE, Angelo Panetta and his RADIO REPERATORY COMPANY OF AMERICA produce some great adventures. The “Golden Age” may be long gone – but someone forgot to tell us!

Thanks for sharing. We look forward to hearing more great radio from you for years to come.

Colonial Radio Theatre programming airs on Sirius XM Book Radio Channel 80. A full schedule is available on their website.  You can follow their blog and podcast online.

Note: If you are an Audible Member, digital downloads are available at bargain prices on most Colonial Radio Theater productions.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

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Book Review: The Red Box

The Red Box was the fourth of the Nero Wolfe novels and begins somewhat abruptly in the middle of the initial interview with Wolfe’s client. With a desperate need for a client, Archie connives with a potential client to get Wolfe to leave his house to travel down to a fashion firm several blocks away to interview witnesses in the poisoning death of a model who ate a candy from a box of chocolate and diet.  The client presents Wolfe with a letter from fellow orchid growers citing his participation in Orchid and urging him to undertake the case in the name of decency.

The client, Lew Frost wants Wolfe solve the murder and get his cousin Helen (who he is in love with) to quit her modeling job, as she is a wealthy heiress who is set to inherit a $2 million estate.

Despite his hating every moment, Wolfe uncovers one valuable clue in the course of his trip, in his interview with Ms. Frost and uncovers who the poison was really intended for. On confronting the target of the poison in his office on 35th street, Wolfe is shocked to learn that the man has made him the executor of his estate. He also wanted Wolfe to undertake a case for him, and an important to element of this was to be found in a red box, but before he could reveal the location of the box, he dies. Though, thanks to the will he remains a client.

As Archie says, this case is one client after another. Lew Frost dismisses Wolfe, but his cousin Helen hires Wolfe to find the poisoner, so Wolfe has yet another client.

The book contains a number of interesting features. The best may be Wolfe’s relationship with Helen Frost. It begins on a very rocky basis, but Wolfe ultimately wins her confidence and Helen matures throughout the book. It’s an interesting note that Wolfe seems to have an interesting effect on many spoiled children by treating them like adults. This is as compared to Helen’s friends and family who dote on her like she’s a child incapable of making her own decisions.

Also, my one big criticism of The Rubber Band was that Cramer was almost subservient to Wolfe. The Red Box thankfully has none of that as Cramer develops quite nicely and seems to be set in his cynicism and impatience with Wolfe’s games.

The story goes along quite nicely until the end when the book hits two big problems.

First, is a third murder, which was incredible. Stout’s fell into the mystery writer’s  trap of creating a murder scenario that is too clever to be practical. This murder involved carrying a volatile liquid in a purse or briefcase to a funeral, sneaking into the parking ar, getting into the murder victim’s car, and pouring this liquid into a teacup and then precariously positioning  the tea cup so that the victim will bump it and spill it on himself. The liquid by the way is so toxic that even casual exposure will send you to the hospital.  Rather than commending the plan for its ingenuity, Wolfe ought to have condemned its pure silliness that depended on dumb luck.

The second problem was the ending. While Wolfe used phony evidence to gain confessions or murder’s self-destructions several times, this particular book seemed to me to have the cheapest use of this trick I’ve yet encountered. And Wolfe’s actions hardly seem to work for his client’s emotional well-being. The main reason for Wolfe’s trick appeared to save the time and expense of finding the last missing necessary piece of the puzzle by substituting a phony.

However weak the end, I still enjoyed the book, with the Wolfe-Helen Frost relationship and the development of Inspector Cramer. While the book is probably the weakest of the first four installments of Nero Wolfe, I’ll give the book:
Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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