The Five Best CBS Old Time Radio Detective Shows

Previous post in this series include multi-networkABC, NBC, and Mutual Detectives.

CBS enjoyed radio dominance throughout much of the golden age of radio. Its line up was anchored by long-running anthologies: The Columbia Workshop, The Lux Radio Theater, Suspense, Escape, and (on the West Coast) The Whistler.

In the late 1940s, CBS established dominance in the detective and crime drama genres with shows like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Gangbusters, and The FBI in Peace and War.

Most of the shows on this list began during that period, but lived on after it had passed. As always, I asked our Facebook friends to vote and forty-two shared their favorites.

5) Casey,  Crime Photographero starring Staats Cotsworth

Aired: 1943-50, 1954-55

Staats CotsworthOne of radio’s most enduring shows, Casey has a rich history that dates back to the pulps, which is reflected in the show’s titles.

Casey never was considered more than a “B” detective show. However, it has staying power because of the show’s fun and it’s great characters. While the Blue Note and its faithful barkeep Ethelbert are not usually in the thick of the mystery, they add a lot of enjoyment to show. Ethelbert (John Gibson) brought the comedy with his mangling of the language and love of quotes. It was often at the Blue Note that Casey would solve the case thanks to a random conversation in the relaxed atmosphere.

Casey went through many titles: Flashgun Casey, Casey, Press Photographer, Crime Photographer (twice), and Casey: Crime Photographer, but all are considered part of the same franchise. Cotsworth was also not the only actor to play Casey, as he was preceded briefly by Matt Crowley (eps. 1 and 2) and Jim Backus (eps. 3-13)  but his seven seasons in the lead made him the definitive Casey in the eyes of the public.

In 1950, Casey left the radio and a widely panned television version aired over CBS TV. In the mid-50s with CBS struggling to keep its radio operations, it revamped or looked at revamping several dormant franchises which lead to Casey being brought back for one final season in 1954. In 1957, ABC produced a series with a crimefighting cameraman called, Man With a Camera which was thought to have partially been inspired by Casey.  (Photo: Courtesy of the Digital Deli.)

Fan Vote:  14%

4) Broadway’s My Beat
Aired:1949-53, Summer 1954

Broadway’s my beat. From Times Square to Columbus Circle, the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world

Broadway’s My Beat began being broadcast from New York with Anthony Ross in as Larry Clover in February 1949.

In the Summer,  the series was produced from Los Angeles by Elliot Lewis with Danny Clover played Larry Thor, who was better known as an announcer for programs like Rocky Jordan than as an actor in his own right.

Broadway’s My Beat was unusual in that while Clover was a police detective, the show has the same feel of a hard boiled PI program. Clover was the most world-weary of all radio detectives. Thor’s narration and descriptions of Broadway and it’s characters had a melancholy poetic rhythm to it.

The show also did a good job portraying the diverse population of New York, including featuring black actors in serious dramatic roles as witnesses and crime victims.

Broadway’s My Beat did not make it to television, although writers David Friedkin and Mort Fine did have successful careers in television. In 2010, Friedkin’s son, Gregory produced a pilot for a Danny Clover TV show based on a   1950 radio script and set in Los Angeles.

Fan Vote: 7%

3) Rocky Jordan starring Jack Moyles
Aired:1945-50, 1951-53

Jack MoylesRocky Jordan is a radio series that evokes memories of the Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca. Rocky Jordan, after all was an American expatriate living in the Middle East, running a cafe, and encountering adventure and mystery along the way.

The character of Rocky Jordan hit the air in 1945 as a daily serial with Jordan based in Instanbul. Much as we would have imagined Rick from Casablanca doing, Jordan was engaged in cloak and dagger operations against the Nazis and their sympathizers in North Africa. Only two of these episodes survive and don’t form a complete story line.

A Man Called Jordan continued airing through 1946 and 1947 as a 30 minute program, but none of these episodes survive.

In 1948, the program returned as simply, Rocky Jordan with Rocky now running his Cafe Tambourine in Cairo. Jordan encountered danger and mystery. While not a detective by trade, Jordan was forced to play the part as a matter of survival.

Rocky Jordan may be one of the best examples of the power of radio to stir the imagination. It creates such a rich atmosphere that it succeeds in making listeners who’ve never left the U.S. feel like they’re in Cairo.

Through 1950. the role of Rocky Jordan was played by Jack Moyles. The show went off the air for 9 months and returned with George Raft in the lead. According to legend, Raft turned down the lead in Casablanca, so his starring in Rocky Jordan is an interesting note. However, in the minds of most fans, Moyles remains the definitive Rocky Jordan. CBS clearly agreed with them, as when they made a pilot for a new Rocky Jordan fifteen minute serial  in 1954 (that did not end up being picked up), it was Moyles they cast in the lead.

Rocky Jordan never came to television, which was good as 1950s Television couldn’t come close to replicating the magic of the Cafe Tambourine.

Fan vote: 5%

2) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar
Aired:1949-54, 1955-62

Charles RussellYours Truly Johnny Dollar was one of the most flexible detective shows in radio’s golden era as it followed a freelance insurance investigator as he travelled across the country and around the world investigating a wide variety of insurance cases including life, fire, and theft claims. In a way, the show resembled the syndicated program, The Adventures of Frank Race which featured an international troubleshooter and insurance investigator and began production around the time of the first Dollar series.

Johnny Dollar’s gimmick was that the stories were told as Johnny filling out his expense account. Thus Dollar was advertised as, “The man with the action packed expense account.”  In the Russell episodes, the expense account not only helped to forward the action, but served as a source of comedy as Johnny would pad the expense account with frivolous items out of pique at the client or just because he could. During the O’Brien years, they often became more compact and almost an afterthought with several expense accounts having Johnny list Items 1 and 3 as travel expenses to and from the scene of the investigation, and Item 2 being listed as miscellaneous. Under Bob Bailey, they took on renewed importance with some expense accounts during the five part serial era reaching more than 20 items.

The show was noteworthy for its longevity as well as the six actors who played Johnny Dollar on the air (plus two auditions by Dick Powell and Gerald Mohr.) Each lead brought his own interpretation to the character from Charles Russell’s poor man’s Sam Spade to Edmond O’Brien’s cynical hard boiled eye to John Lund’s more bland take right through Mandel Kramer’s tenure as the last Dollar in the early 60s.

Edmund O'BrienIn early seasons, the show struggled to survive. It disappeared from the schedule for most of 1952 and the show was absent for the entire 1954-55 season and appeared to be cancelled for good after a respectable run.

However, in then mid 50s CBS had decided to meet the new challenge of television by returning to an older style of radio program. The 15 minute serial had went out of favor for everything other than juvenile serials and soap operas, but CBS wanted to put a detective serial on the air. To that end it either piloted or aired serial versions of Rocky Jordan, Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, and Mr. and Mrs. North. The show that made it was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. While Mohr had auditioned for the role, it ended up going to Bob Bailey, who had stared in Mutual’s Let George Do It.

Bob BaileyBob Bailey’s Dollar was a multi-faceted character. He was capable of being touch, hard-nosed with suspects, and cynical. On the other hand, he often showed kindness and compassion, as well as a great sense of justice. He usually made friends with the local police and worked alongside them.

His Dollar had a life and interests beyond detective work. Johnny was an avid fisherman who developed a liking for the fishing up at Lake Majove. The series added recurring guest characters. Rather than bland throw away insurance men who called Johnny up for jobs, he had several recurring callers, most memorably, Pat McCracken. He also had a girlfriend named Betty Lewis in the final year of the series.

Under producer Jack Johnstone (Superman and the Man Called X), for 58 weeks, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar ran every weeknight with a complete story told each week, with the exception of one six and one nine part serial. The format allowed for more character development and more complicated plots. Each complete serial has as much story in it as many mystery movies of the same era.

Coming up with these complex plots was a huge challenge. Writers such as E. Jack Neumann  took old scripts they’d written for Johnny Dollar or other programs such as Jeff Regan and Sam Spade, tweaked details such as location and names, and expanded the story. However, the pace was unsustainable. In November 1956, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar resumed as a weekly half hour program.

Mandel KramerThe show did continue to be entertaining, but the writing suffered in its later years as they couldn’t afford to pay writers as much as television. In addition, CBS, to keep the show profitable,  began acquiring multiple sponsors, and running up to four different commercial breaks in a single program, leaving less than 20 minutes for the plot.

In November 1960, CBS moved its radio operations to New York, but Bailey declined to follow due to family considerations. The show continued with Bob Readick and later Kramer in the lead. While they did an able job, radio’s dominance had passed and on September 30 1962, Johnny Dollar turned in his last expense account.

Fan Vote: 62%

1) The Adventures of Philip Marlowe

Aired: 1948-50, Summer 1951

“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a suckers road, and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other way, but they never learn.”

Many men have played Raymond Chandler’s signature sleuth: from Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart to Danny Glover and James Caan. Before  Mohr played the role, up and coming star Van Heflin took a turn at the role in a 1947 NBC Summer replacement series.  None has ever done it better than Gerald Mohr’s radio version.

Mohr was unmatched in his ability to portray Marlowe’s combination of cynicism and optimism. His Marlowe was the best example of the hard boiled private eye as the knight in tarnished armor. He was unquestionably tough, smart, and as able as any detective on the radio. More importantly, he remained an unquestionable force for good in a seedy Los Angeles that was often dominated by greed and corruption. He was the type of hero that every one in trouble, whether real or fictional, wants on their side.

Each episode of Philip Marlowe began with a teaser that would set the stage and make you want to listen and would close with next week’s teaser, so you’d be sure to tune back in:

“When I started, I thought one man was in trouble and three were trying to help him. But after I found two pounds of tobacco, two pieces of brass, and a boat without a pilot heading straight out to sea, I knew they had all been in trouble. And all had taken the hard way out!”

“I walked into it smiling, because it had all the corny elements: the weird doctor, the beautiful girl, the gloomy house on the windswept cliff, even the hulking menace. Only one thing was missing, the body. And that’s when I stopped smiling, because I turned out to be the corpse myself… almost.”

In the middle of first season, before the intriguing teaser, Marlowe started the show with the quote referenced at the start of the article, which would become one of the most memorable radio quotes from the golden age.

The body of the episode lived up to the hype with plenty of fist and guns, some quick thinking, and plenty of great acting from an always-fine supporting cast. Marlowe’s lines often had a poetic cadence about them, and usually at the end of the dark adventure, Marlowe would often have an almost inexplicable hopeful thought.

The show left the air after the 1949-50 season as Mohr pursued his television career and worked at NBC for a while, serving as one of the six Archie’s on Nero Wolfe. Mohr returned to the role of Marlowe for a Summer replacement series. The show then went off the air, never having jumped the shark.

Since that time, Marlowe has proved his timelessness spurring numerous television, movie, and BBC radio adaptations. Still, the best way to enjoy Marlowe remains this unforgettable radio version.

Fan Vote: 10%

Honorable Mentions:

Jeff Regan, Investigator: This hard boiled private eye series was filled with classic radio noir lines, particularly the first series that aired in 1948 with Jack Webb in the lead. The later series was also good but with a different flavor to it. It was a fun and memorable show that deserves more notice than it gets for its clever story lines and rough hewn heroes.

Pursuit: Another Elliot Lewis produced program that’s worth a note. The series was set an entirely in Great Britain with British Characters. The entire cast did a great job of creating a remarkable degree of authenticity that actually took listeners across the Ocean in a well-done original series.

Next week, we’ll rap our series with a look at syndicated radio detective shows.

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