Labor Day has come and gone, but it’s not too late to take a vacation over the old-time radio airwaves.
“A Vacation on the Prison Farm” Life of Riley, June 26, 1948
“What would a bellhop want with a gun?” Story: Cash-strapped Riley has a brilliant idea for a cheap vacation—swapping homes with a friend from out of town. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite grasp that his friend is caretaker of a prison farm. Destination: Escudero State Prison Farm. Wish You Were There? You’ll have to dodge some bullets, but this premise is funny enough to make it worth it.
“Vacation Time” My Favorite Husband, April 29, 1949
“Travel is great. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.” About My Favorite Husband: Lucille Ball and Richard Denning starred in this 1948-1951 comedy about a happily married young couple. Three of the show’s writers–Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Pugh, and Jess Oppenheimer—later helped to adapt the program into the TV show I Love Lucy. Story: With different ideas about the ideal vacation, Liz and George agree to a trial run of George’s plan—camping in a trailer. Destination: Goose Grease Lake, but they don’t quite make it. Wish You Were There? If you enjoy the Lucille Ball movie The Long, Long Trailer, you’ll probably enjoy this, too.
“The Goosby Vacation Cottage” The Bickersons, July 10, 1951
“I’m never able to sleep in a strange place.” About The Bickersons: Don Ameche and Frances Langford played battling John and Blanche Bickerson in the mid-1940s on the shows Drene Time, The Old Gold Hour, and The Charlie McCarthy Show. In the summer of 1951, Langford returned to the air as Blanche, with Lew Parker playing John. You probably remember Parker from his role as Ann Marie’s father on That Girl. Story: Blanche tries to manipulate John into a rural getaway. Destination: A vacation cottage in the country. Wish You Were There? Nah…you’ll have a more peaceful time staying home with the cat, Nature Boy.
“Hawaiian Vacation Slogan Contest” Duffy’s Tavern, December 28, 1951
“I like Honolulu because when I land on the island of Honolulu, I hope I land a honey that’s a lulu.” About Duffy’s Tavern: This popular show aired for 10 years beginning in 1941; this is, in fact, its final radio episode. Ed Gardner, who plays Archie, helped to create the series. Story: Archie wins a slogan contest–a kiddie slogan contest. Destination: Hawaii, but only in Archie’s dreams. Wish You Were There? Of course–and you have a better chance of getting there than Archie does.
“Having a Horrible Time” CBS Radio Mystery Theater, August 21, 1974
“We believe in making every minute count.” Story: Amy, who helped convict a drug kingpin and has been getting death threats ever since, makes the brilliant decision to vacation at a “swinging singles” resort. Destination: Tomahawk Tree Lodge in the Poconos. Notable Performers: Lynn Loring, who plays Amy, grew up playing Patti on Search for Tomorrow, then racked up a variety of TV credits in the 1960s. During that period, her marriage to Roy Thinnes made her a fan-magazine fixture. Tony-winning actress Frances Sternhagen, who plays Lois, has appeared in many movies but is probably best known as Cliff Clavin’s mother from Cheers. Wish You Were There? Only if you want to spend your vacation worrying about which resort guest is trying to kill you.
Enjoy—and let me hear from you. What are your favorite old-time radio Halloween episodes? What’s your favorite show in the suspense or horror genre?
November 7, 1937 Columbia Workshop, The Horla
By early radio standards, this is a good adaptation of a creepy Guy de Maupassant story.
July 11, 1938 Mercury Theater, Dracula
This is faithful adaptation with a great cast: Martin Gabel (if you’ve seen What’s My Line? re-runs, you may remember him as Mr. Arlene Francis), Agnes Moorehead, and, of course, Orson Welles. The Mercury Theater’s actual Halloween episode, The War of the Worlds, might seem more appropriate for this playlist, but I wanted to choose something slightly less well known.
February 20, 1944 The Weird Circle, Frankenstein
Many radio shows adapted Mary Shelley’s story—I picked this version rather randomly. I’d love to hear opinions about the best radio Frankenstein.
October 27, 1947 Quiet Please, Don’t Tell Me About Halloween
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure” takes on new meaning when your spouse is immortal. This is an entertaining episode of Quiet, Please, a series of psychological horror stories that aired from 1947 to 1949. Wyllis Cooper created the show and wrote every episode—an amazing feat, in my opinion. Not every episode is brilliant, but they are all interesting. This episode has a bonus for me as a Guiding Light fan: Charita Bauer, who played Bert on GL, is the female lead.
January 10, 1948 Favorite Story, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde
Ronald Colman hosted this series, which presented a classic story each week, supposedly picked by a celebrity. Colman tells us that Alfred Hitchcock picked this classic Robert Louis Stevenson story. Radio stalwart Bill Conrad gives powerful performance in the dual role.
October 31, 1948 Quiet Please, Calling All Souls
This episode has a good story, but the organ music grates—that’s one aspect of old-time radio I just don’t love.
October 31, 1949 Inner Sanctum Mysteries, A Corpse for Halloween
I’m not a big Inner Sanctum fan, and this story loses me a little. It does have compensations, however: Its Halloween setting, its tiger motif (I like anything cat-related), and its star—Larry Haines. As with Charita Bauer, I know Haines from the world of daytime TV drama; he played Stu on Search for Tomorrow for 35 years. He was also a prolific radio actor, and he gives a good performance here as a guy who’s cracking up.
March 14, 1951 NBC Short Story, The Lottery
Long before there was The Hunger Games, there was this classic Shirley Jackson story. No one faces any monsters here; the horror that unfolds is the horror that human beings can inflict on each other when they cling blindly to destructive traditions. Even when you know what’s coming, the end packs a huge punch. The music is appropriately haunting.
October 30, 1976 CBS Radio Mystery Theater, The Witches’ Sabbath
This story doesn’t reference Halloween, but its subject matter suits the holiday. Once again, we encounter Larry Haines as a man cracking under a strain—his performance is even better here than in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries episode above. The conversations between his character and the bartender amused me.
As Halloween approaches, I present more old-time radio versions of Poe stories to entertain you on chilly nights. In this and Part 1 of my Poe playlist, I’ve tried to represent a large range of Poe stories and radio programs.
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
July 11, 1937
“The tell-tale-heart effect, which you heard, was an actual human heartbeat, amplified more than 10 billion times.”—Announcer, Columbia Workshop
NBC Presents: Short Story
“My senses sharpen. Every second makes them sharper. I can hear the rhythmic beating of the old man’s heart…the beating of his heart.”
About These Series: Columbia Workshop was an early radio series that experimented with the new medium’s narrative possibilities. In dramatic radio’s dying days, NBC Presents: Short Story dramatized work by some of the world’s greatest writers. Try to imagine a major TV network airing series like these now (at its own cost—neither of these shows had a sponsor). Columbia Workshop aired on CBS for eight years, but the NBC program didn’t fare as well. According to The Digital Deli Too, the network pre-empted it frequently and ultimately left 11 episodes, including this one, unaired.
Thoughts on These Episodes: Though the sound quality is better on the NBC Presents episode, I prefer the Columbia Workshop version. The voices the NBC protagonist hears—and his reaction to them—become almost comical. In contrast, the voices that cry out from the wind and the rain and walls in the CBS version are eerily effective. The police are none too swift, though. Sample exchange:
Murderer: “You’re laughing at me! You’re torturing me! You’re making believe that you don’t hear so that I’ll confess!”
Policeman: “My dear young man, you’re working yourself into a frenzy. I think we better leave you to yourself.”
“The wind was screaming through the sails like an insane witch on a broomstick.”
About This Series: Many radio series explored horror and suspense. One thing that differentiated The Weird Circle was its source material; it frequently presented “literary” horror stories, including several of Poe’s tales.
Thoughts on This Episode: I’ve tried to read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, his only novel-length work, but just can’t plow through it. I think I’m allergic to nautical adventures. I’ve read enough, though, to know that this adaptation takes major liberties with the story. It also abandons the 19th century setting for a modern one. Phrases like “The captain’s nuts!” and “Awww, shut up!” jar in a Poe story. I would still rather listen to this than try to read the novel again, though.
“Minutes…hours…days… Who can say how long it was? It might have been many days before that hideous blade swept so closely as to fan me with its acrid breath.”
About This Series: Suspense billed itself, with ample justification, as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills.” Extremely popular, it ran for 22 years (1940-1962). For much of that time, it attracted top Hollywood stars, who often got the chance to play roles that contrasted with their on-screen image. By 1957, the show’s star power was diminishing, but it was still presenting outstanding radio drama.
Thoughts on This Episode: Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe—an unbeatable combination! I think this is my favorite Poe story—it’s exciting and has a merciful lack of beautiful dead women. It needs little elaboration to succeed as a radio drama, and Vincent Price (who would star in the Roger Corman film version of The Pit and the Pendulum four years later) gives a good performance.
About This Series: Although not exactly “old-time radio,” CBS Radio Mystery Theater represented the last major gasp of network radio drama. The show ran on weeknights from 1974 to 1982. E.G. Marshall hosted, and radio veteran Himan Brown produced the program.
Thoughts on This Episode: CBS Radio Mystery Theater presented an entire week of Poe stories in January 1975. With about 45 minutes to fill in each episode (not counting commercials), the program had to expand on Poe’s shorter stories.
“Berenice” sticks with the outline of Poe’s story but adds a love triangle and lets us meet Berenice for ourselves; in Poe’s story, we only see her through the narrator’s disordered vision. (The most interesting part of the short story, to me, is Poe’s detailed description of Egaeus’ mental illness. I wondered how modern professionals would diagnose him and found this interesting paper suggesting he was schizophrenic.) The story doesn’t benefit from these additions, but the ending still packs a punch.
Thoughts on This Episode: CBSRMT transports Poe’s plague story to the apocalyptic future that is 1996 (hee) and turns it into an ecological morality play. The morality is confusing, though—I’m a liberal, card-carrying Sierra Club member, and even I don’t understand how the rich capitalist is making the world’s situation worse by protecting his family from the red death. The episode lacks the lurid atmosphere that illuminates Poe’s story, but it’s entertaining as a window into 1970s concerns.
October seems like a good time to enter the eerie world of Edgar Allan Poe. Not only is Halloween approaching, but so is the anniversary of Poe’s death. He died on October 7, 1849, at age 40, from unknown causes.
Radio programs presented Poe’s stories often, and it’s easy to see why. They make exciting listening experiences, painting vivid images in listeners’ imagination.
For this playlist, I have tried to gather the widest number of Poe stories from the widest number of radio programs.
Dim the lights, sit back, and lose yourself in the strange world of Edgar Allan Poe.
“And puzzle they did, these French police, and with them the rest of the world.”
“Rue Morgue Mysteries” Unsolved Mysteries 1949 About this Series: A syndicated 15-minute show, Unsolved Mysteries aired ostensibly true stories and posited solutions to historical mysteries. Thoughts on this Episode: Unsolved Mysteries treats Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a fictionalized account of a true crime, and the show comes up with a different solution to that crime. Poe’s story, history’s first detective story, didn’t have any basis in fact, however. (He did base a later story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” on a real New York murder.)
Read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“Even after two days at sea, death did not destroy that waxen beauty.”
“The Oblong Box” The Weird Circle February 18, 1945 About this Series: Many radio series explored horror and suspense. One thing that differentiated The Weird Circle was its source material; it frequently presented “literary” horror stories, including several of Poe’s tales. Thoughts on this Episode: This show adds a murderous twist to make Poe’s story even more twisted. It’s an enjoyable adaptation, although the acting gets overwrought at times.
Read “The Oblong Box”
“I determined then to even the score, to revenge the desecration of my name, of my family honor.”
“The Cask of Amontillado” Hall of Fantasy January 19, 1953 About this Series: This was another radio show dedicated to tales of suspense and the supernatural. Thoughts on this Episode: We have no big name stars here, but this is a satisfying dramatization of Poe’s tale of revenge.
Read “The Cask of Amontillado”
“And so it happened, that at the end of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the middle of October, I found myself as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the grim and melancholy House of Usher”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” Escape
October 22, 1947 About this Series: Escape was “radio’s greatest series of high adventure,” according to John Dunning’s On the Air. It ran from 1947 to 1954, a sister series to the longer-running Suspense. Thoughts on this Episode: Paul Frees, who plays the narrator, was one of the most prolific voice actors of the 20th century. People unfamiliar with his radio career may know him as Boris Badenov, Burgermeister Meisterburger, or the host ghost in Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. His powerful, deep voice brings the dread and decay in Poe’s story vividly to life.
Read “The Fall of the House of Usher”
“You scream with the terror of it! You scream, and scream, and scream!”
“The Premature Burial” CBS Radio Mystery Theater January 6, 1975 About this Series: Although not exactly “old-time radio,” CBS Radio Mystery Theater represented the last major gasp of radio drama. The show ran on weeknights from 1974 to 1982. E.G. Marshall hosted, and radio veteran Himan Brown produced the program. Thoughts on this Episode: Poe’s story barely qualifies as a story at all—it is mostly a rumination on the horror of being buried alive. And Poe sure can ruminate: It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs- the stifling fumes from the damp earth–the clinging to the death garments–the rigid embrace of the narrow house–the blackness of the absolute Night–the silence like a sea that overwhelms–the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm–these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed–that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead–these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil.
This episode creates a 45-minute story from an incident that is only briefly described in Poe’s story. It does so pretty well, although I found the third act a bit weak. Keir Dullea, best known for his role in 2001: A Space Odyssey, stars in this episode (and many others in the series).