Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: The Benson Murder Case

The Benson Murder Case (1926) is the first Philo Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine. The series was popular and spawned multiple film and radio versions into the 1950s. In this novel, a wealthy man about town is murdered. Philo Vance is a wealthy dabbler in a variety of topics and a friend of District Attorney Markham. Vance decides to apply his mind and unique theories of crime-solving to the murder case.

The best thing you can say about Philo Vance in this book is that he’s a man of his times. There was an appeal to many in the 1920s for a hero who was utterly cynical, flippant, was better and smarter than anyone else and was not afraid to say so and put down his inferiors. However, I found him rather insufferable through most of this book. This is hurt by author S.S. Van Dine who goes on and on about him and spends much of the first third of the book highlighting every aspect of the personality of what he seems convinced is the most fascinating person on Earth.

He also had a premise that he was seeking to prove: the importance of psychology in solving crime. This actually wasn’t all that uncommon of a notion among golden age literary detectives. This was a response to the way police forces had evolved. When Sherlock Holmes was introduced, the premise was that the police were dull when it came to observing and interpreting due to a lack of imagination and a lack of ability to apply scientific methods to the classification of evidence. The popularity of Holmes’ stories led to an increase in the use of scientific methods and forensic evidence.

In the world of many golden age detectives, the police were no longer dunderheads who couldn’t understand the importance of things like fingerprints and not traipsing through murder scenes, destroying valuable clues. Rather, according to the new theory, police relied too heavily on the physical evidence and would use it to build circumstantial cases against innocent people. Many golden age detectives would find the true guilty party, not through some elaborate or clever method of detection, but through an understanding of the human condition and human tendencies. This understanding often told the detective what happened and then with that knowledge they could find corroborating evidence to prove their theories. To an extent, this idea of using this sort of method was practiced by golden age detectives such as Father Brown and Hercule Poirot.

Whether this was true or not in real life, the masters of the genre made it believable enough that the reader bought it for the purposes of the story. In the case of Philo Vance, though, his advocacy for psychological evidence is made fatuous by his over-the-top argument against physical evidence having any significance at all. That makes watching him solve the case and be  (in some way) proven right a somewhat annoying experience. Reading this book is like watching the most annoying person you can imagine spending hours spouting rubbish and come up with the right answer.

That said, once you plow through the first third of the book, the mystery itself isn’t all that bad. It’s pretty clever and well-plotted once we get past all the preliminaries. But again, there are mysteries just as good with protagonists who are not nearly as aggravating.

This is a book I can only recommend if you’re curious about the origins of a detective that ended up featured in numerous films and radio programs and\or if you’re into unlikable golden-age detectives. It’s worth checking out from the library, but I can’t recommend a buying it. The book enters the public domain in the United States in January and will be free to download from sites such as Project Gutenberg soon thereafter. If you’re curious about the book, there’s really not a good reason to not wait for it to become freely available.

Rating: 2.75 out of.5

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Thirteen: Conclusion and the Future

Continued from Part Twelve

Conclusion

The Golden Age of American Radio at its peak held Americans in thrall day by day and week by week. It set a standard for high quality in both writing and acting that was a tough act to follow. Radio dramas that followed over the next twenty years strained to reach the heights of radio at its peak and fell far short.

The end of CBS Radio Mystery Theater in 1982 and PBS being forced to scale back its audio drama ambitions was enough to lay to rest the idea that the scope and grandeur of the golden age of radio was in reach for modern producers. Yet, that wasn’t the end of audio drama in the United States. Those currently making audio dramas fall into three categories:

A few corporate properties have found ways to make radio drama profitable. We can assume GraphicAudio’s high-octane audio dramas have made them successful enough to be a worthy acquisition last year, and it would be surprising if the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas hadn’t turned some sort of profit. In addition, Audible has begun making audio dramas and longer dramatized audiobooks as a way to draw in potential subscribers (and revenue) to their online service.

For non-profits, it was an opportunity to reach an audience to fulfill their mission at a far lower expense than television. In addition, the most prodigious at selling albums of their work have been able to recoup their production costs and use the revenue to expand their radio presence. 

Most Independent drama producers have known from the start they would never be Orson Welles, but they persisted anyway. They set out to find an audience to play for. The best of them found their audience, built a relationship, and served them well. For actors, it was (at best) a fun job to do in addition to what other acting or non-acting jobs they did to pay the bills. For Independent creators, audio dramas are a labor of love, an investment in time and money to do something they care about, but which is unlikely to do much more than break even after paying their cast and crew. If they’re very lucky, they may make a small supplemental income.

Many newer audio dramas have come out as podcasts. They never attempted to be on radio, or had a “theater.” On many productions, the cast has never met in person with recordings done at a distance (even before COVID-19) and the performances edited together seamlessly, if both the acting and editing is done well.

Yet most of these productions have a love for the medium at heart. Even for those who make a small profit, there are easier ways to make a living, even in the unreliable world of the arts. Some may have been inspired by the golden age of radio. Others may have no knowledge or interest in the old days, but nonetheless love the power of the medium. It’s cliché, even hackneyed to refer to audio as “the theater of the mind.” Yet it’s true. Audio drama, done correctly, can connect with the listener in an impactful, intimate way. by tapping into the power of imagination.

The Future 

For the foreseeable future, most successful audio dramas will be released as podcasts to a potential worldwide audience. There are countless free podcasts. Some last only few episodes before being abandoned. Some limited series were only a few episodes. Others continue for years until real life pressures and needs forces creators to step away.

Brands such as Colonial Radio Theater, Harry Nile, LA Theatre Works, GraphicAudio, and Adventures in Odyssey that have an existing base for selling products are going to be able to continue to do so and Audible can do what it likes. I doubt we’ll see new producers able to commercially sell audio dramas. While Christian radio or public radio stations might air a new audio drama or two, I expect we won’t hear a new series on radio.

While radio and CD releases have been the past of radio, it’s future will be in the world of podcasts where corporate-sponsored efforts will compete with crowd-funded podcast acting troupes, and the self-funded low-budget series. The future of American audio drama, much like its past, will be varied, colorful, and marked by passion and dedication.

Final Thoughts

It’s been quite a fun summer series and I have to thank Caroline Crompton for prompting this whole series.

The biggest regret is all the programs we didn’t cover or just briefly touched on. ZBS, National Radio Theater of the Ear, California Artists Radio Theater, the Cape Cod Mystery Theater, and Down Gilead Lane are among the series that I either didn’t say much about or whose existence I mentioned briefly. As I said when I started, I wasn’t setting out to write an exhaustive history and therefore we couldn’t include everyone.

I do see an opportunity to write a history of radio drama since the Golden Age of Radio. A lot of interesting individuals have helped form that history. It’s the type of thing that would be written by someone who had retired or could take a sabbatical year to travel, interview people, track down recordings, and create something truly special for the audience that would be interested in it. If anyone writes such an exhaustive history, I’ll be sure to read and review it.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Twelve: The Twenty-First Century

Continued from Part Twelve

The Twenty-first Century has been a boon for audio drama. The software and equipment required to record audio dramas has become far less expensive and easier to use. In addition, it’s possible to record audio dramas with an entirely remote cast using sound mixing software.  The distribution has also become easier. While commercial radio stations remain as reluctant as ever to air audio dramas, there are options, many of which are free, to release audio dramas as podcasts.

We won’t even try to recount all the programs that have emerged on podcasts or produced a CD distributed through Blackstone Audio. There are just too many. But there are a couple of individual productions that merit some discussion.

Twilight Zone Radio Dramas:

The Twilight Zone is one of the most iconic American television programs of all time. Carl Amari and the Falcon Picture Group received a license from CBS and Rod Serling’s estate to bring the series to audio and the series went to air in 2002. The radio series mostly adapted scripts that had been performed on television. Featured actors included some older actors such as Adam West, Beverly Garland, and Stan Freberg, along with some actors who’d appeared on the TV series playing different roles over radio such as Orson Bean and Morgan Brittany. In addition, there were also fairly well-known performers cast such as Jason Alexander, Adam Baldwin, Sean Astin, and John Rhys-Davies who starred in several different episodes of the series.

The scripts would stay faithful to the main thrust of the original stories but tended to add additional details or dialogue to expand on some of the ideas as well as to make them work for radio. At the peak of the series popularity, The Twilight Zone was syndicated on more than 200 radio stations, appeared on BBC Radio 4 extra, and was broadcast on Satellite radio. The last episode was released in 2012 and the website disappeared a few years later. The series continues to be sold on CDs and as digital downloads.

GraphicAudio:

GraphicAudio came into existence in 2004. It has released more than 1,600 releases. Most of their output is a hybrid between traditional audiobooks and audio dramas. Releases tend to feature a narrator and we get to learn characters’ thoughts, but releases feature a full cast to play the characters and immersive sound design.

GraphicAudio is known for the action-packed nature of their releases. They began selling CDs, but are offering more MP3 download and App options. Their original CD plan had a clear target audience. Early CDs reference the presence of the CDs in truck stops and other roadside locations. They tended to sell six CD sets which worked great for long-haul truckers and others who had to be on the road a long time, particularly if they had CD changers. Load the six CD sets in and enjoy non-stop entertainment through a drive, Of course, more and more of their listeners are moving to app and download options which can work the same way while also serving an audience that’s not carrying a CD changer everywhere.

Graphic Audio adapted science fiction, adventure, and western stories among others. In recent years, it’s begun to adapt stories for major comic book publishers, having worked with DC, Marvel, and other comic companies including Dark Horse. With many of their DC adaptations, they adapted novels and even when doing comic book stories, they’d often perform the novel adaptation of the comic book as opposed to try to adapt the comic to the audio medium. While they haven’t done any comic adaptions for “the big two” in a while, they’ve got onto other projects that have a built-in fan base such as the anti-hero series The Boys and Mark Waid’s re-imaging of Archie comics.

GraphicAudio was acquired by RBMedia last year, but that’s not changed direction of the company. It continues to make productions with a very different feel. It’s not just the full-cast audiobook approach. They’re neither nostalgic, nor avante-garde. They’re unabashed action and adventures that offer listeners hours upon hours of escape.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Eleven: The Nineties, Part Two

Continued from Part Ten

Colonial Radio Theater:

Colonial Radio Theater began operating out of Boston in 1995. Of all American radio producers, they may have the greatest range of offerings. I could boil down others to a simple sentence that could boil down what they do. Jim French Productions thrived on producing mysteries. LA Theatre Works operates like a typical playhouse only performing their plays for audio. While these aren’t complete, they give you a gist of what the company does and specializes in.  There are more than hundreds of productions put out by the Colonial Radio Theater and I can’t really boil down their output that neatly. The closest I could come to is saying that they mostly put out period pieces, but that feels more incidental than essential to what they’ve been doing for the past quarter century.

Powder River and Other Original Series:  Powder River is their flagship series. They just released their thirteenth season chock full of half-hour Western adventures. In addition, they’ve also done some feature-length audio “movies.” In addition to that, they’ve also done other original series such as the Revolutionary War era series Ticonderoga. They also produced a series called Beacon Hill. following a wealthy family in Boston in 1898. The series was produced about the time that Downton Abbey was quite popular and played into that sort of story. They also produced comedy series such as The New Dibble Show and The Adventures of Sergeant Billy and Corporal Sam. 

History:  They did a lot of plays based on incidents from history, particularly American history. Notable among them are The Plimoth Adventure, the Alamo, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Little Big Horn. These historic stories were known for their dedication to historical accuracy.

Public Domain Adaptations: The public domain has served Colonial Radio Theater well and vice versa. They’ve adapted productions that have been obvious choices for many radio theaters including Dickens’s The Christmas Carol. L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, they’ve also gone for some less obvious choices such as adapting Dickens’s other Christmas works, public domain sequels to the Wizard of Oz, as well as adapting a couple of the original Tom Swift novels from the early 20th Century.

Other adapted words included all the Jeeves and Wooster stories that were in the public domain at the time, all the stories in the first two Father Brown books, King Solomon’s Mine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Prince and the Pauper. 

Licensed Adaptations: Colonial has produced work for a many licensed properties including Zorro and Perry Mason.  They’ve also licensed some science fiction programs including Tom Corbett and Logan’s Run.

Perhaps, their most noted adaptations have been of the work of author Ray Bradbury, adapting four different novels. Their five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the Martian Chronicles is one of their standouts.

Christmas Musical: In 2016, under the Family Audio Theater imprint, they also released Jimmy and the Star Angel, a children’s fantasy musical about two children who recently lost their father and find themselves shrunk down to ornament size and needing to journey to the top of the Christmas tree in order to be restored to normal.

Colonial was on Satellite radio for many years, and several of their productions were featured on Imagination Theater. Currently they feature on a few terrestrial and online radio stations while also selling their productions on CD and digital download through Audible.

Seeing Ear Theater

All the other productions from the 1990s I’ve talked about have carried on in one former or another. Seeing Ear Theater was different, but it was also an important trailblazer.

Seeing Ear Theater was released on the website of the SyFy channel (back when it was the Sci-Fi Channel) and featured original audio Science Fiction dramas. The dramas included obvious classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine as well as stories based on the work of more recent science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Babylon Five creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote an eight-episode serialized story for the series. The series also paid its respects to the golden age of radio with an adaptation of the most popular old-time radio story of all time, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” While a lot of lesser known actors appeared, there were some more notable talent, including Mark Hamill, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bronson Pinchot, Tony Danza, and Stanley Tucci. They even had one comedy episode featuring the stars of Mystery Science Theater  (the eighth-tenth seasons of the show aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.)

The series didn’t seem to have any major commercial agenda despite a few stories being released on audio cassette. It seemed to be an effort out of love for radio drama as well as a desire to promote the Sci-Fi channel website.

I remember being interested in it, but one word summarized my experience with the series…”buffering.” Seeing Ear Theatre released its episodes from 1997-2001, at the peak of dial-up internet popularity, before broadband connections became more common. In that era, a long-form video series on the Internet was impossible, but audio wasn’t much easier. This limited the reach of the series.

Yet, in retrospect, Seeing Ear Theater deserves credit for pointing to the Internet as the home for audio dramas. Since that series’ original release, Internet connections have gotten faster and hard drives have increased storage capacities. This has allowed greater distribution of audio dramas over the Internet. The Internet would become home to many original audio dramas, either downloaded off individual websites or available as podcasts. Few of these would have the star power that Seeing Ear Theater commanded, but these successor Internet audio dramas have the benefit of mobile devices and not having to deal with the headaches of dial-up.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Ten: The Nineties, Part One

Continued from Part Nine

Jim French Returns

The change in format on KVI radio that had brought French’s first run (see part five) of audio dramas to an end back in 1978 that he had a recorded episode of Harry Nile that didn’t make it to air. “Favor a Friend” finally was aired in 1990. The play featured old time radio actors Jerry Hausner and Hans Conreid (who’d passed away during the intervening period.) The play was broadcast over radio station KIRO, which would become the new home of French’s radio dramas.

Harry Nile star Phil Harper was still available and stepped back into the role for three new episodes in 1991. That year, French produced far more new episodes of his anthology series Movies for Your Mind. However, Harry Nile was popular and production of new episodes ramped up. In the course of time, Harry moved from Los Angeles to Seattle where intricate research and knowledge of Seattle history and geography would give the series a unique flavor and feel. While New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco all had radio private eyes during the golden age. Seattle had been left out, and French remedied that. Harry was joined by his secretary (later partner) Murphy (initially played by Jim French’s wife, Pat.)

The series featured mostly local Seattle talent, although there were a few notable guest stars such as Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island) and Harry Anderson (Night Court and Dave’s World.) Harry Nile episodes were not told in strict chronological order. An episode might be told from the mid-1950s followed by one from the late 1940s. Episodes could be set after Harry has been settled in Seattle for several years or they could be set back when he was in Los Angeles with his office over a tailor’s shop.

175 of the 271 Harry Nile episodes French recorded from 1991 on were done before a live studio audience. Generally these live recording would include Harry Nile and an episode of another series.

While Harry Nile would become French’s flagship show, it would be far from his only one. In 1996, Jim French productions launched Kincaid the Strange Keeper about an investigative journalist that uncovers supernatural goings on. In 1998, French launched a Sherlock Holmes series with The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (not to be confused with the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.) The series initially starred John Gilbert as Holmes, but he was replaced with John Patrick Lowrie in 2000. French would then produce The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes beginning in 2005 and eventually would cover ever story in the Holmes canon.

French also launched Imagination Theater. He  successfully syndicated the series across the United States. It would become an hour-long program that would not only serve as a vehicle for French’s programs (both old and new) but also works by other producers of audio drama, including Louie L’Amour and Colonial Radio Theatre.

In 2003, Harper passed away at age 64 and Larry Albert, who played Watson in Sherlock Holmes, took over as the second voice of Harry Nile after 156 episodes. In Albert’s run as Nile, there was a separate series of adventures called War Comes to Harry Nile. In Harper’s run, Pearl Harbor had been touched on, and then there had been two non-War related episodes during World War II. II. War Comes to Harry Nile did a lot to fill out what happened to Harry during those crucial war years.

At the same time, French continued to launch new programs in the mid-2000s. Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief followed the famous criminal character A.J. Raffles on his escapades. There was also The Hillary Caine Mysteries focusing on a “girl detective” working for a magazine in the 1930s and Kerides the Thinker, focusing on a young philosopher who finds himself drawn into all kinds of mysteries in Third Century BC Greece. French’s audience thrilled to new historic detective stories, but modern tales tended to be shorter-lived. (The exception to this was Kincaid the Strangeseeker.) Most of these series were produced at an episode or two per year. There were nineteen episodes of Raffles released over twelve years, twenty-two Hillary Caine episodes released over twelve years, and eighteen Kerides episodes released over ten years. Over the course of a couple different specials, it was established that all Jim French series existed in a shared universe.

Of course, French didn’t do this all by himself. He built up a solid group of talented actors, directors, and other creative professionals to bring the series together. British writer M.J. Elliott, and Larry Albert and Pat French, who could direct in addition to writing were among those who helped maintain the creative output.

In 2012, Pat French retired from the role of Murphy and passed away in February 2017 and Jim French productions closed its doors in March with the last Imagination Theater released in February 2017 with an implied huge shift in the relationship between Harry and his long-time comrade in, “Harry and Murphy,” the 294th episode of Harry Nile. French himself died in December 2017. His family gave old time radio seller Radio Spirits the rights to produce CDs and audiobooks of his books and episodes of Harry Nile began to appear on Radio Classics.

Yet, that wasn’t quite the end of the road for French’s creations. John Patrick Lowrie had an idea and was able to persuade Larry Albert and others to revive Harry Nile. With the blessing of the French family estate, Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes returned to the air with new adventures produced by a new company called Audio Visions LLC. Harry Nile returned in October of 2017 with the episode, “Once More with Feeling.” The first episode of 2018, “A Guy Named Jim” paid Tribute to the show’s creator.

Since then Audio Visions LLC has produced new episodes of both Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes. There have now been more than 320 Harry Nile episodes released. They’ve also created their own modern series featuring an adult mother-daughter detective duo in Murder and the Murdochs. While they enjoy a much more limited syndication than Imagination Theater did at its heyday, Audio Visions continues the tradition Mr. French began of producing beloved audio dramas from the Pacific Northwest.

LA Theatre Works

L.A. Theatre Works has actually been in existence since 1974 but began as a conventional theatre. However, in the 1990s, it moved towards producing audio plays and has continued to operate in that way for the last quarter of a century.

The company has produced a wide variety of different plays. These have ranged from well-known plays by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, and Noel Coward to adaptations of great works such as Dochotevsky’s The Idiot and The Brothers Karmazov to more modern plays and even some works designed for younger audiences. They also adapted plays from the legendary golden age of radio writer Norman Corwin including a new take on his play The Undecided Molecule as well as works he wrote for the stage.

Over the years, they’ve worked with well-known actors such as Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Calista Flockheart, Carolyn Seymour, Annette Benning, and Michael York. They’ve released more than 500 different plays as audio drama, available through audible.com as well as for free listening through libraries that use the Hoopla app.

They also do weekly broadcasts that are syndicated to fifty different public radio stations in the United States and Internationally. They continue to operate to this day, producing a typical mix of plays for their virtual audience.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Nine: The Eighties

Continued from Part Eight

The 1980s would begin with the biggest radio breakthrough of the 1970s coming to an end. Earplay left on its weekly radio play and its team turned to producing serialized half-hour stories.

In December 1982, it was announced that CBS Radio Mystery Theater was coming to an end. Twenty years after the official end of the Golden Age of Radio. The revival of network radio drama was snuffed out. CBS stated that it’s focus would be on providing news, sports, and special events coverage.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater and its nine seasons on the air hadn’t changed anything. Radio networks had given up on radio drama and then in the 1970s had returned to it as a trend, but it still didn’t fit into their long-term business model.

Himan Brown ran as tight a ship as possible on CBS Radio Mystery Theater to make it make sense for the network. The actors were paid union scale for their time and a flat $350 ($1008 in 2021 dollars) per script payment to the writer. If Brown couldn’t make a radio program profitable enough for the network, it couldn’t be done.

When CBS Radio Mystery Theater left there, it didn’t end audio drama, but it ended the idea a large network of commercial radio stations like CBS or Mutual were going to invest in and promote the new radio dramas. It would require new methods of distribution.

In addition, both Heartbeat Theater and The Eternal Light, two programs that dated back to the Golden Age of Radio, would cease broadcasting. Yet, while the 1980s had more than its fair share of endings, it also featured some very important beginnings.

NPR Playhouse

NPR Playhouse by presenting an adaptation of Star Wars. George Lucas sold the adaptation rights to the original Star Wars films to his local public radio station KUSC for the sum of $1 each. The production was done in cooperation with the BBC on a $200,000 budget. The radio adaptation brought back Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) from the film in a story that was expanded into a thirteen-part serial paying homage to the sci fi serials of the 1930s and 40s, which the Star Wars films paid homage to. The series used the music and many of the same sounds as the films.

The Empire Strikes Back was adapted in 1983 as a ten-part serial with Hamill and Daniels returning and Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of Lando Calrissian. John Lithgow voiced Yoda.

Both productions were fairly well-received. However, due to production issues, Return of the Jedi wasn’t adapted until 1996, with Anthony Daniels being the only original cast member to repise his screen role. It was told as a six-part serial.

NPR playhouse initial run in 1981 used the Star Wars audio drama and reruns thereof as bit of an anchor for the series. Like the Mutual Radio Theater, NPR Playhouse offered five nights of radio drama with nights reserved for Star Wars, re-runs of Earplay, and the BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy based on the novels by Douglas Adams.

NPR Playhouse would turn out many interesting projects. In 1984, they released The Bradbury Thirteen, Thirteen audio dramas based on Ray Bradbury Short Stories. They also released  The Adventures of Doc Savage in 1985, which dramatized two separate Doc Savage pulp novels from the 1930s.

NPR faced financial problems that brought to the verge of insolvency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped NPR remain solvent but forced NPR to re-organize. The grant money that had gone to NPR directly would go to local stations, who would decide what NPR programs to buy. NPR had to make cuts and this included all the teams making audio drama.

This didn’t mean an end to NPR Radio Playhouse but a shift in focus. It began to play more programs made by other non-profit radio theaters around the country and throughout the world.

A theater listing from 2001 shows how the system evolved. NPR offered four separate half-hour playhouses: One dedicated to “Classic World Literature and Plays,” another to “American Tales,” another Mystery and Science Fiction, and a final one to open stage and contemporary dramas. The website states the degree to which individual stations controlled what aired on NPR, “Individual stations may carry only part of the Playhouse programs, may air them in a different order than they are numbered below, and many don’t carry any of it at all. This listing gives only the order of the satellite feeds.”

For the first quarter on its first playhouse, NPR offered Sherlock Holmes Stories from the British company Independent Radio Drama Productions for the first six weeks of the quarter, then the LA Theatre Works Adaptation of the Devil’s Disciple (we’ll discuss LA Theatre Works more in the next part) for four weeks, and then for two weeks, they offered an adaptation for Sleepy Hollow from Generations Radio Theater.

For the fourth quarter, they offered LA Theatre Works presentation of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” a play about Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate major league baseball and then for the rest of the quarter they offered plays from the California Artists Radio Theatre, a theater company began by radio character actor Peggy Webber.

The second and a third quarters were made up of episodes of 2000X. 

2000X was a rare series where NPR actually was involved in the production. They partnered with Yuri Ravosky of the Hollywood Radio Theater of the Air to produce it. The series was originally named Beyond 2000 and released in the year 2000 and centered on futuristic stories from as likely sources as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and as unlikely sources as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. The production featured forty-nine different stories told over twenty-six episodes. Some of these stories took up the length of an entire episode and one for only two minutes. The series featured established Hollywood Actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Robin Williams, and David Warner. It also brought golden age radio legend Jackson Beck to provide narration on one episode. The series was produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

2000x would be the last original work commissioned by NPR. Due to a lack of affiliate interest, NPR Playhouse came to an end in 2002.

Focus on the Family

The radio ministry Focus on the Family entered audio drama in 1987 with Family Portraits over twelve episodes. The family drama series received positive feedback and the series continued on as Adventures in Odyssey. Odyssey continued to be a kid-centered family drama series. However, the series began to change and introduce many adventure elements. Probably the most important was the Imagination Station, which was introduced in 1989 as an invention of Mr. Whitaker, the central character who ran Whit’s End, the local Ice Cream Shop. The Imagination Station allowed users to travel to a simulated version of the past and interact with the characters there. This was typically used to allow characters to experience events from the Bible or history. He also created the Room of Consequences which allowed the user to find out likely consequences of a choice or decision by extrapolating a likely imaginary future.

Odyssey added these speculative elements along with real villains, mysteries, and long plot arcs, while maintaining simple kid drama stories that had nothing to do with these plot elements. This led to an odd mix of episodes that somehow worked. This could be embodied in the lead character of John Avery Whitaker, a kind grandfatherly man who serves kids Ice cream and good advice. However, he also has invented the equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck and stuffed it into the same building as his ice cream shop, and by the way also has a son who is secret agent.

The series, over its run, attracted major voice talent. Hal Smith, who originated the role of Mr. Whitaker was best known for playing Otis, the town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show and for providing multiple voices on Davey and Goliath. Townsend Coleman, who voiced The Tick in the 1990 Animated played Jason Whitaker. Golden Age radio star Alan Young (also the titular Mister Ed and Scrooge McDuck on Duck Tales) featured as multiple voices, including Whitaker’s friend Jack Allen.

Three different actors have voiced Whitaker. After Smith died, Paul Herlinger was cast in the role in 1996 and played the part until he was forced to retire due to ill health in 2008, and was replaced by Andre Stojka. Numerous child actors came and went as the Odyssey series ran.

The series has had a life beyond its more than 900 radio episodes, with seventeen videos released, along with more than eighty books. In addition, there have been toy and computer game spin-offs. Adventures in Odyssey has had the most success at merchandising of any program since the Golden Age.

Focus on the Family tried another series in the 1990s, The Last Chance Detectives. The Last Chance Detectives was a kid-centric mystery-adventure series set in a New Mexico desert town. Their first multi-episode adventure featured an appearance by Jason Whitaker, thus tying it into Adventures in Odyssey. The series featured Adam Wylie, who’d spent four years on the critically acclaimed TV series Picket Fences as the lead. It had a much more limited cast and a down-to-earth setting, which lent itself to something Adventures in Odyssey never produced: a live-action adaptation. The series didn’t make it. There were three different four episode story arcs over radio along with three direct to video films, and five novels.

Another project was Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. The Radio Theatre did longer form standalone productions. Radio Theatre produced adaptations of public domain works like Les Miserables, Oliver Twist, and Ben Hur, along with World War II era biopics of leading Christians such as C.S. Lewis, Corrie Ten Boom, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which won a Peabody Award in 1997). They also produced an original mystery series: The Father Gillbert Mysteries. Some of Radio Theatre’s more notable later work included adaptations of two of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters.

The success of these efforts and Adventures in Odyssey in particular set the stage for many other successful modern Christian Audio Dramas including Paws and Tales, Down Gilead Lane, Jonathan Park, and the Lamplighter Theatre. 

Louie L’Amour Audios

Bantam Audio publishing started up in the 1980s and wanted to publish audio version of the work of legendary Western Writer Louie L’Amour. L’Amour didn’t want to just put out normal audiobooks. He wanted to turn his short stories into audio dramas patterned off old time radio programs.  The programs were mostly produced in New York. The first story to be adapted was “The Unguarded Moment” which was one of L’Amour’s non-Western stories.

An obvious choice for adaptation was L’Amour’s stories of Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie. Reathel Bean was cast as Bowdrie and all the Bowdrie stories were adapted to audio, along with many many others from L’Amour’s lengthy bibliography. Eventually the audio dramas were recut for radio and syndicated on more than 200 stations.

In 2004, the final L’Amour Audio Drama, Son of a Wanted Man was adapted. It was the first and only L’Amour novel to be adapted to radio.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Eight: The Seventies, Part Three

Continued from Part Seven

The General Mills Radio Adventure Theater

By 1977, radio drama in the United States was beginning to see the dust settle. While local radio dramas like Jim French’s Crisis and NPR’s Earplay were enjoying success, in the world of national network commercial radio, one series stood out as a winner. CBS Radio Mystery Theater had made it through three seasons. They’d even found a way to work around some cost overruns. All other attempts, whether superhero shows or soap operas, had been left in the dust.

However, the success of Mystery Theater wasn’t enough for Brown. Brown was more than a producer in radio drama. He loved the medium and wanted more listeners. The network received complaints that CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired too late at night. In addition, the show was targeted towards a more adult audience.

In February 1977, CBS began to air a new series produced by Brown and sponsored by General Mills called Adventure Theater. Adventure Theater was hosted by actor Tom Bosley, who was then playing Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days. The series aired at 6:07 PM on Saturdays and Sundays, thus making it easy for kids and families to be able to listen. The series adapted many classic adventure stories including Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robin Hood, and Ivanhoe. The series also adapted a few Bible stories.

The series was to air twenty-six weeks and would re-run the stories in reverse order, with programs that had aired the first time on Saturday being repeated on Sunday and vice versa. The Digital Deli suggested a noble motive for this odd arrangement that makes as much sense as anything else:

We’re only surmising, but it would seem that CBS’ intent in airing the series in reverse order the second time around was a nod to Jewish listeners, especially, barred by their religion from listening to the series on Saturdays. Certain other religions tended to discourage entertainment on Sundays as well. The reverse-pair order met a host of well-intentioned means’ to provide a full experience of the entire series to the widest audience practical..

The one exception to this reverse ordering was one week where a two-part Jungle Book story was aired. General mills was to sponsor all 104 airings, but ended its sponsorship after the initial fifty-two new episode run, leaving CBS to sustain the re-run series.

Alien Worlds

In the wake of successful TV sci-fi programs Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Space 1999, Alien Worlds was launched in syndication in January 1979. The series focused on the adventures of members of the ISA, an international governing body for space exploration and development. The series starred Linda Gary as Dr. Maura Cassidy and featured Corey Burton as her assistant, Tim.

The series ran two separate blocks of thirteen episodes. The first block concluded at the end of March and the second block in July 1979. The series was known for its well-done sound design and for a beautiful, dramatic score that was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. It also featured many two-part stories and one three-part story, which allowed for telling more complex tales. The series was popular and was resyndicated on stations throughout the world.

In addition to the twenty-six episodes that aired, four additional were written and one recorded, but not aired at the time, including one episode written by future Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.

The series was rebroadcast on Satellite radio and the company used to sell copies of the series on CD but the website was shut down as of 2018.

The Sears/Mutual Radio Theater

In February 1979, CBS added a second hour of audio drama to its weekday line-up. The Sears Radio Theater was helmed by an old hand from the Golden Age with Producer Elliott Lewis (of Broadway is My Beat, On Stage, and Supsense.) Lewis and another golden-age veteran, Fletcher Markle would take on the majority of the directing duties.

The series would run Monday-Friday and had a unique format. In many ways, it was five different anthology programs. Each night had a different host and a different theme.

The lineup for Sears Radio Theater featured five distinguished hosts. Monday focused on Westerns and was hosted by Lorne Green from the TV show Bonanza. Tuesday focused on comedies and was hosted by Andy Griffith of the Andy Griffith show. Wednesday focused on Mystery and was hosted by horror movie legend Vincent Price. Thursday focused on love, hate, and human relationships and was hosted by actress Cicely Tyson, Friday focused on adventure and was hosted by actor Richard Widmark.

The series a lot of key voices from the golden age of radio. Many actors who had been the backbone of the golden age of radio in the 1940s and 50s found themselves once again a critical part of this radio revival program. Actors like Herb Vigran, Mary Jane Croft, Ben Wright and Peggy Webber were critical to the program’s success. Some who had lead roles in the Golden Age such as Eve Arden, Harold Perry, Henry Morgan, and Alan Young were enticed to once again do radio acting. There were also quite a few actors new to the medium.

The Sears Radio Theater aired new episodes from February to August 1979 and then were re-run over the next six months. Sears decided it didn’t want to be the main sponsor of the series and try to fill twelve commercial spots per episode. CBS was even less interested in finding sponsors for the other spots as that had already proven to be a great challenge.

However, Mutual agreed to air the series with a variety of sponsors. So the series moved to Mutual and became The Mutual Radio Theater. Sears continued to be one of the sponsors but was joined by Agree Shampoo, Anacin, ads for AT&T’s “reach out and touch someone” long-distance call campaign, and Ford’s Motorcraft parts among others.

The series also made a change of Friday night hosts with Leonard Nimoy replacing Widmark on the Adventure night as well as a slight change in music. Otherwise, Mutual Radio Theater continued along much the same long the same lines as The Sears Radio Theater. The series left the air on December 23, 1980.

Over two years, the Sears/Mutual Theater made nearly 500 broadcasts of 232 episodes (129 for Sears, 103 for the Mutual Radio Theater.) It had been the second most successful effort to revive network radio drama. It’d also be the last attempt.