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.

 

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