Category: Golden Age Article

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.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Seven: The Seventies, Part Two

Continued from part six.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater

The third time proved to be the charm for network radio revivals. Himan Brown, who’d created the Inner Sanctum Mysteries during the Golden Age of Radio was director and producer of the program. The show was hosted by E.G. Marshall who in true Inner Sanctum fashion was the spooky host of the proceedings. The Mystery Theater told a lot of different sorts of stories under that rubric of mystery. The series was perhaps best known for its chilling stories in line with Brown’s reputation from Inner Sanctum. These hit a sweet spot in the 1970s as stories of the supernatural were popular at the box office. However, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater went beyond that. They adapted several detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. They also adapted several works of Mark Twain, along with Les Miserables, and The Last Days of Pompeii. The series was also known for its annual adaptation of The Christmas Carol starring E.G. Marshall as Scrooge.

The series had a lot of ties to the Golden Age of Radio and was meant to play to fans of the Golden Age of Radio. The very first episode starred Agnes Moorhead (who had starred in the most famous American radio play Sorry, Wrong Number) a few months before her death in April 1974. Among other Golden Age stars to appear were Brett Morrison of The Shadow, Superman announcer and the star of Philo Vance Jackson Beck, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar star Mandel Kramer as well as long-time radio favorites such as Mercedes McCambridge, Ralph Bell, and Larry Haines. Robert Dryden led all actors for most appearances on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. At the same time, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater featured actors who’d become noteworthy and never appeared in the golden age of radio such as John Lithgow and Mandy Potemkin.

The series ran for 1,399 episodes over the course of nine seasons. Marshall remained the host until 1982 when Tammy Grimes took over. The series left the air after December 1982 but had a special place in the hearts of fans.

In 1997, CBS posted six episodes of the series on their website and the response was overwhelming. They received 250,000 emails. CBS-owned Westwood One agreed to resyndicate the series Monday-Friday in May of 1998 and ran it for six months with new intros by Himan Brown replacing the previous intros. However, they only attracted fifty stations and after six months the series was pulled. Brown blamed consolidation, where large media corporations, bought up huge numbers of radio stations and demanded maximum ad revenue, some wanting as much as 21 minutes of ads in an hour. Brown’s original programs only had space for ten minutes worth of ads and he refused to butcher them.

The series didn’t appear to be particularly well-marketed. Bob Stepno, who helped me find the above article, noted that there was no article announcing the series return, only its cancellation. I also found little fanfare for it in a newspapers.com search other than one newspaper columnist in Lincon, Nebraska who received letters from readers but he didn’t even know what station it was running on. Clearly, it seems Westwood could have done a better job promoting it.

Brown said he would resyndicate the series himself, but ended up settling for sharing them on NPR’s satellite service in 2000. Since then, the series has been shared frequently online on multiple websites. It remains the most beloved and sought-after American radio series that wasn’t part of the Golden Age of Radio.

A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion was begun by Minnesota Public Radio morning radio host Garrison Keilor in 1974. After doing some research, he decided he wanted to begin a variety show. The first program of A Prairie Home Companion featured twelve audience members. However, it grew, moving to larger venues.

The series was mostly music and storytelling, However, it included several recurring radio sketch segments. There was (of course), a golden age private detective parody “Guy Noir” as well “Lives of the Cowboys.”

The series went into national distribution in 1980. It wasn’t favored for distribution by NPR because of its expense and because NPR thought the series was an insult to small towns. However, the show persisted and eventually ended up syndicated outside of NPR through several different means. At the height of its popularity, it aired on 690 stations and boasted a listenership of 4 million. It remained on the air clear through the 2010s, with only a five-year hiatus. Keilor only retired from the show in 2016 and handed over hosting duties to Chris Thile. The next year, after a scandal involving Keilor and alleged undisclosed “inappropriate behavior,” Minnesota Public Radio severed ties with Keilor. The series was renamed Live From Here, which was canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Post-Keilor, the series continued to offer music and storytelling, but the signature sketches were not part of the series.

Soap Opera Revivals

Soap Operas had been some of the most enduring programs in radio, so they tried to make a comeback.

Byron Lewis, the President of Uniworldan African American Communications firm had grown up with parents who gathered the family around to listen to the soap operas of the day such as Our Gal Sunday. He had the idea for a new radio soap opera focused on black characters. However, he didn’t understand how radio soap operas were written or the structure of modern soaps. Then he met an actress/writer/director who pointed out what a soap opera was supposed to be and helped him develop a pilot for the series Sounds of the City. 

The series followed the Taylors, a  Southern family that had migrated to a Northern City and all the challenges they faced.It aired on the Mutual Black Network, which was made of urban radio stations in several large American cities. The series was sponsored by Quaker Oats and helped to save Uniworld. It began airing on May 1, 1974 and lasted thirty-nine weeks.

One series lead went on to bigger things. Robert Guillaume was cast in the role of Calvin. A couple years later, he’d become a regular on ABC’s series Soap (which parodied Daytime Soap Operas) and his character would get his own spin-off series, Benson. He won an Emmy on both series and got nominated for four additional Emmys during the run of Benson.

Radio Playhouse offered listeners not one but four soap operas. Faces of Love, Author’s Playhouse (which adapted the novel Vanity Fair) The Little Things in Life, and To Have and to Hold. The four programs that originated at WOR in New York were syndicated in several other cities. After initially featuring Joan Loring in the lead role, a young Morgan Fairchild took over for the rest. The Little Things in Life was the last radio soap operated created by Peg Lynch who had also created Ethel and Albert and The Couple Next Door during the Golden Age of radio.

Fantastic Four

Bob Michaelson, who had previously worked on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, approached Stan Lee about adapting the Fantastic Four to radio. Fortunately, for Michaelson, the rights were available, and Lee agreed to have Michaelson do the show. Lee did the narration, which he recorded in two separate sessions but wasn’t present for any actor sessions. The series told thirteen different stories taken from the first twenty-one issues of the Fantastic Four Comic book.

It has a reputation for being campy merely by staying true to Lee’s Silver Age comic book scripts fourteen years later. In addition, Bill Murray* stars as the Human Torch (aka Johnny Storm).* The series was syndicated on a few stations across the country but was not renewed for any additional episodes.

*If that’s not an opportunity to work Murray into the MCU, I don’t know what is.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Six: 1970s, Part One

One could be forgiven for thinking audio drama was well and truly dead in the 1960s, given the obscurity of most of the offerings. However, the 1970s would include numerous attempts to revive radio drama that would be far more prominent.

NPR

National Public Radio was chartered in 1970 and soon stepped into the world of audio drama with the series Earplay. How soon appears to be a matter of debate as are nearly all details about Earplay. Not only is there debate as to when Earplay started, but also as to when it ended with some saying it occurred in 1981, others in 1982, and still others some time in the 1990s. There’s an amazing amount of contradictory information around this series, if you rely on online sources. I found errors in articles published on NPR-related websites. I’ve accessed some books and newspapers and have a closer approximation of what happened, however a full knowledge of what happened to Earplay would require a multi-day trip to Wisconsin and hunting down books, studio records, and any surviving production staff. However, for our purposes that would be overkill. Here’s the best approximation I can find of what happened:

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) extended a $150,000 (nearly $1 million in 2021 money) grant to fund a year of audio drama productions through the University of Wisconsin Extension Radio project and station WHA through a program known as Earplay. The grant was provided in 1971 and accepted by the University of October. However, audio dramas wouldn’t start to air until the following year.

The project by University of Wisconsin Professor Karl Schmidt. Schmdit had gone to New York to be a radio actor but left disillusioned by the lack of opportunity and the general “soapiness” of the New York radio scene. He made it clear he wasn’t trying to create “the good old days.” Initial plans for the series was for short plays, under 20 minutes, preferably under 15 minutes, and certainly no longer than 30 minutes. He also wanted the scripts to keep in mind that American listeners generally listened to radio while doing something else.

A nationwide call for writers went out and there was a contest for scripts. An ad in the Daily Tarheel advertised a contest where $15,000 in purchase awards would be given out to twenty scripts chosen. This ads up to an average award of $750 per winner for writing a 15-20 minute radio play (or nearly $5,000 in today’s money.)

Earplay’s exclusive focus on shorter works didn’t last. They began to sign contracts with well known and prominent playwrights to produce critically-acclaimed, hour-long dramas, many of which later became Broadway plays. Earplay also experimented with new methods of sound and worked radio drama producers in other countries, particularly Canada and the U.K. In order to be able to afford to work with major playwrights, Earplay formed the Commissioning Group with six other countries to add their rights fees to the amount that Earplay was contributing. Earplay won the Peabody Award and was also the first American production to receive a Prix Italia award.

Earplay’s position of strength in the radio drama world was ultimately undone by NPR. Each year, they obtained funding from CPB as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). However, NPR wanted to make their own proposal for funding for audio drama programming to these two agencies and asked Earplay not to submit their own proposal.

Many producers at non-profit radio theaters were  unhappy about the money Earplay received. Yuri Ravosky was with the National Radio Theater in Chicago in the 1970s. In a 2002 interview, he called Earplay “terribly over-produced” and stated they had “cornered some big, big money from the NEA because of it’s affiliation with NPR.”

However, this concern was nothing next to the alarm bells that went off when NPR submitted it’s audio drama funding grant proposal. Tom Perez, from ZBS, another drama production company found the proposed grant alarming:

The proposal was that they would have 3 centres producing radio drama. One doing classical, one doing popular, one doing serious drama, I believe. And it was starting off with 1.1. million and then it would increase to about 2 million. We looked at this proposal and were horrified. We said ‘If this thing happens, we’re screwed. Nobody else in this country will ever see any kind of money for producing radio drama’. And so we put up a stink. Yuri joined in and maybe a couple others. The National Endowment listened to us, CPB wouldn’t listen to us. And the National Endowment agreed and that year didn’t fund Earplay at all. They got zero. And they collapsed. Which surprised us because we didn’t say get rid of the guys, we just said this is unfair and that the money should be distributed around. So we were quite surprised that they were just wiped out totally.

“Wiping out totally” seems to be a slight exaggeration. NPR didn’t get all the money it hoped for, but had gotten a grant from the CPB. Earplay continued on producing full-length audio dramas into 1981. After that, the Earplay unit began to produce series such as their adaptation of the novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. The best available information I could find is that Karl Schmidt retired from NPR when the Earplay unit was disbanded, and the best resource I can find indicates Schmidt retired in 1986 and therefore audio productions apparently continued in some form at WHA, but not as weekly hour-long productions. Even after his official retirement, Schmidt continued to do the Chapter a Day program for the next thirty years until his death.

Newspapers of the day stated that Earplay was rarely “escapism” and raised a lot of hard-hitting contemporary issues. According to the Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio, Schmdit wondered whether the tendency of the program to raise problems it didn’t have an answer for was a turn-off for working people who came home from work and would gravitate instead towards something more refreshing.

NPR would offer something lighter before the end of the decade. In 1979, it broadcast Mind’s Eye’s adaptation of The Lord of the Ring novels. While this is not as popular with fans as the BBC version, it was NPR’s first step into more popular radio drama and they would take even bigger steps in the 1980s.

Jim French at KVI

Seattle served as another unusual spot for radio revival efforts. KVI radio played old time radio programs and Jim French was tasked with providing contemporary audio drama. To start with, French had to use station staff members. French was lucky that many of these staff members could actually act and that the productions were successful enough that he was able to bring in professional actors as his productions went on.

French’s efforts began with The Tower Playhouse, an anthology program that ran for nine consecutive weeks from July-September 1972 and then returned for a final Halloween episode. The second episode of that series introduced two characters; Dameron and Emile who would become the basis of French’s next series.

In the Tower Playhouse, Stewart Wright noted, “Dameron was a sailor/soldier of fortune; Emile was a café owner who was involved in espionage.” However, when The Adventures of Dameron launched in September 1972, Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwicke) became a freelance troubleshooter and Emile (Doug Young) became his partner. The contemporary adventure series ran for forty-nine weeks.

Crisis was French’s next big production and it premiered in November 1973. Crisis was another dramatic anthology show in the style of golden age programs such as Suspense and Escape. French utilized radio acting talent but also had national talent appear on the program from time to time, including Roddy McDowell, Bob Crane, Patty Duke, Keenan Wynn, John Astin, and radio legend Hans Conreid. The show continued to turn out new episodes until December 1977, releasing 152 in all.

Among the most notable episodes of Crisis was, “West for My Health,” released on New Year’s Day 1976. In the play, a debt-ridden private eye with a gambling problem is given one chance to save his life, travel west to Los Angeles to kill someone. However, he arrives to find his quarry is already dead, or is he?

The private detective was named Harry Nile and was played by local radio personality Phil Harper. Nile would return in three more Crisis episodes over the next seventeen months. French decided to do a continuing Harry Nile series. The four Crisis episodes were re-aired as Harry Nile episodes in November and December 1977 and The Adventures Harry Nile began airing new episodes regularly on December 27, 1977.  There would be twenty new episodes aired before KVI changed its programming format. The move was so sudden, French was left with one episode completed but unaired.

French’s 1970s run of Seattle radio drama is impressive. He’d produced and 231 audio dramas, as well having written most of them, and acting in a few. After the sudden end at KVI, it’d be thirteen years before French released a new audio drama. French’s second run of radio dramas would take a different direction and will be discussed in our article on the 1990s.

The National Lampoon Radio Hour

National Lampoon was a cutting edge humor magazine that published between 1970 and 1998. It featured humor that pushed the boundaries of good taste but drew a large following and became iconic and left a lasting impact on pop culture. The magazine spawned multiple films. The most famous were Animal House and the National Lampoon’s Vacation series of films starring Chevy Chase.

They also entered the world of audio. It started with the release of the comedy album Radio Dinner. The album did well and editor Michael O’Donoghue convinced the magazine’s publisher to bankroll a radio program. Thus was born the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which launched in November 1973.

The show’s humor was loved by its fans but it ran into a problem. Its shock humor made sponsors nervous. The show drained the magazine’s resources and after thirteen weeks it was cut to half an hour. According to NPR “As a gag, the performers pretended that stations had cut them off in mid-show.”

The series served to introduce several great comics to America including Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner. They would be among the most celebrated cast members and would make Saturday Night Live a hit when it launched with O’Donoghue as head writer, using much the same style of humor as they did on National Lampoon’s Radio Hour. Material from the radio series was also used for several subsequent comedy record albums.

Zero Hour/The Hollywood Radio Theater:

Eight years after the last attempt to revive network radio drama, Mutual made a new attempt with Zero Hour, which is also often referred to as the Hollywood Radio Theater. The series was hosted by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame and had two separate runs.

The first run featured serialized suspense stories that would have a single story running through five thirty minute episodes Monday-Friday. The first story starred John Astin, Patty Duke, and former Sam Spade radio star Howard Duff, with radio legend Elliott Lewis directing. This series began airing in September 1973 and ran for thirteen weeks.

The second run of the series featured five different standalone twenty-minute stories per week, with the same star featuring in every story broadcast during the week. Among the stars who appeared during this run were Star Trek’s William Shatner, Bewitched’s Dick Seargent, Wonder Woman’s Lyle WaggonerHogan’s Heroes’ Bob Crane, and Wild Wild West’s Ross Martin. Lee Merriweather, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie, co-starred as the daughter of the titular Barnaby Jones, was the only actress to be featured. The series began on April 29, 1974 and like the previous version, lasted thirteen weeks.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Five: The 1960s

Continued from Part Four

In the years after the golden age of radio, there would be many attempts to make new audio dramas, either by paying homage to the golden age of radio or trying to do something new. This started within a year of the Golden Age’s end.

Cataloging every group of actors that ever sat down to make audio dramas over the last sixty years would be an impossible task. So much of it was lost or forgotten or just didn’t have that much of an impact. I’m going to mention those that are prominent as well as others that I find interesting. If you’re aware of an audio drama or group worth discussing, feel free to leave it in the comments.

To start with, audio dramas got released on story records. Story records were a thing in America going back to the 1940s. In some cases, they contained a special recording of a radio drama. In other cases, they contained original audio dramas.. There was a Superman Christmas album in 1941 and two brief Superman records featuring the original radio cast in 1947.

These story records continued to be made long after the golden age of radio ended. Records were made in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Power Records in the 1970s may have been the most famous of these as they told stories of Superheroes, Star Trek, Space 1999, and Planet of the Apes among others. Most of these records attempted to tell complete stories in under 15 minutes, although some (particularly the Power Record LPs) could sustain a story for 45 minutes. Do these count as audio dramas? That’s a dicey question, particularly when you get into the “book and record” sets in which the audio would supplement a book rather than standing on its own.

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. Millions of children listened to story records over those decades and may be what comes to mind when someone mentions “audio dramas.”

Pacifica Network Takes on Radio Dramas

My initial instinct when doing this section was talk about all the 1960s radio dramas in chronological order. However, Pacifica network radio stations not only offered the first two dramas discussed, but also two others, so it seemed good to talk about them first before moving on to other projects.

The Pacifica Network is made up of listener-supported independently non-commercial radio stations. The flagship station was KPFA in Berkley, and by the 1960s, they’d been joined by KPFK in Los Angeles, and WBAI in New York City.

In October 1963, a series of movie parodies that had long been privately performed made their way onto the public airways over KPFA. The series ran for five weeks with four episodes running 45 minutes in length and the other running an hour and a half. This is the first new radio drama made in the United States after the end of the golden age of radio.

The second was the Starlight Mystery Theatre which featured Matthew Slade, Private Investigator, which began over KPFK radio in Los Angeles. The series was the brainchild of former Canadian News Publications owner Brian Adams,  who wrote for the series and was its producer/director. The series was a remake of Matthew Slade, a Canadian radio series from 1957-60. In a July 1964 interview with the Canadian newspaper The Province, he said he hoped to make the new productions available on Canadian radio. He also planned six Matthew Slade movies, although nothing appears to have come of that.

KPFK had been at the center at a lot of political controversies and even had had to answer some questions from the FCC. LA Times Radio columnist Don Page pitched The Starlight Mystery Theatre (and the Los Angeles re-broadcast of The Compendium Cliche series) as a break from the seriousness and controversy.

Slade was played William Wintersole, an experienced stage actor who had just come to Hollywood and whose debut screen acting performance wouldn’t air until November. Wintersole would become a solid presence in Hollywood, logging eighty-seven different acting entries in his IMDB profile including a twenty-five year run on the soap The Young and the Restless.  Slade’s policeman foil Lieutenant Barney Flagg was played by Karl Swenson, a veteran character on screen and radio. Swenson had starred as the lead actor in the Golden Age Father Brown and Mister Chameleon and he became the first actor from the Golden Age of Radio to take part in a radio revival effort.

The Matthew Slade series was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the type of parody of radio detective programs that have continued to be released to this day. It was tongue in cheek in the same that Richard Diamond could be. The series began airing July 5, 1964 and continued on a mostly every other week schedule until November 22nd and then re-aired four episodes in 1965. The series was resyndicated in 1966 by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and in 1968 over the Far East Network to American Service personnel. The only episodes missing are the Avarice Heir and the third party of the “Day of the Phoenix” trilogy. (Note: Still our most sought-after lost episode.)

The audio drama event that had the greatest impact was the arrival. of Firesign Radio Theatre, a comedy troupe that began performing on the Radio Free Oz program over KPFK. The four men who started the troupe chose the name because they were all born under the three astrological “fire signs.” They premiered in 1966 and were a definite part of the Counter-culture movement, but also managed to outlast it.  Their humor had many features: it was surreal, it pushed the envelop, and was also very political. They had several radio programs in succession beginning with Radio Free Oz followed by The Firestone Theatre Hour, Dear Friends, and Let’s Eat. The last of these series ended in 1972. They also continued to publish comedy albums with original radio plays, the most famous of which were the Nick Danger series parodying golden age of radio detectives. The group had a very productive career: releasing albums, writing books, and dipping their toe back into radio every now and again. Group member Dave Ossman established the Mark Time Awards to award excellence in audio drama.

Like any performing group of the era, they had mandatory drama and group break-ups but got back together. The group carried on long enough to even have a  podcast called the Radio Free Oz Podcast. (What else?) Founder Peter Bergmann died in 2012 and his memorial service was their last group performance.

Pacifica’s final contribution came from its New York, WBAI in New York City which produced the first radio drama based on a Marvel Superhero prorperty. Charlie Potter had been hired on at the station to do light admin work but discovered it was relatively easy to get on the air and had been missing radio drama. He decided to produce a series about Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. Theyc called Stan Lee and asked his permission to do the series. Lee, whose office was near the WBAI studio, walked over and gave his blessing in person and wished him well on the radio series.

The series ran for 17 episodes, which were produced over three years. At the start of the 2010, six or (some sites said seven) episodes of this series came into circulation and were passed around by collectors. Most of these have disappeared (into some weird pocket dimension no doubt), but the origin episode is still online and it’s a supririsngly impressive production particularly in terms of sound design and direction.

Theatre Five

After Matthew Slade began airing on the West Coast, something far bigger came to the nationwide ABC radio network, Theatre Five began airing August 8, 1964. It was an anthology program that ran for 260 episodes. It was the first attempt of a major network to bring back radio drama.

It featured some key features that later efforts would implement. Notably, it was a five-night-a-week program. This was critical. While during the Golden Age of Radio, a program could be once a week on any given night, the way network radio had evolved, weeknights had a reliable schedule every night. If you wanted to have a program on one weeknight, you needed to cover them all.  Theatre Five actually filled two separate twenty-five minute timeslots as a network sustained program.

The series was based in New York and brought back many of the most noted New York voices of the Golden Age of Radio York including Jackson Beck, George Petrie, Lon Clark, Ed Begley, Staats Cotsworth, Ralph Bell, and Santos Ortega. It also featured a couple of future stars making one-off appearances in Alan Alda and James Earl Jones.  The stories ranged across a wide variety of genres from Science Fiction to Mysteries and Human Interest.  The stories were written in a very contemporary style, often following modern trends in social thinking and theories. The theme music was similarly modern,with a very memorable quintessentially 1960s feel to it.

The series ended after a year. The programs were translated into Spanish. In addition, ABC gave copies of the series to non-profit radio station WBUR to re-air for educational purposes.

Horizon’s West

Horizon’s West was a thirteen-episode docudrama of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was actually produced by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service which was better known for distribution radio drama.  The series starred golden age radio regular Harry Bartel as Merriweather Lewis and also featured golden age radio actors like Ben Wright, Jay Novello, and Les Tremayne. It was broadcast to American service personnel.

While radio drama continued to be produced during the 1960s, but most were rather obscure. The 1970s would bring memorable efforts to revive radio drama as the attempts to revive it in the United States would begin in earnest.