Thursday, February 10, 2011

Forgotten Cruft of the Airwaves

Much as I live for decrepit old TV shows like Ronald Howard's Sherlock Holmes (I recently scored a great cheapo box set containing all Howard episodes for 4.99!), and as much as I adore watching Hollywood's eternal crap of the ages, I could actually do without my television and my DVD/Blu-Ray players if I really had to.

Why? Because like, man, who needs the idiot box when you can listen to moldy old radio plays?

Now, I don't necessarily mean that cornball stuff like Fibber McGee and Molly, Blondie, or Burns & Allen, but hey, I'd still rather listen to an old Blondie than watch whatever the heck is on network TV tonight.

One of the classic 1930s/40s radio horror/supernatural dramas was Lights Out, and in the early 1970s a syndicated radio show called The Devil and Mr. O repackaged old episodes of it. The Internet Archive has 26 episodes of it available to seekers such as yourself. Public domain, baby, now that's what I'm talkin' bout.

From the Archive entry's accompanying text:

Wyllis Cooper, who created, wrote, and produced it, was then a 36-year-old staffer in Chicago's NBC Studios. Cooper created his horror "by raiding the larder." For the purpose of Lights Out sound effects, people were what they ate. The sound of a butcher knife rending a piece of uncooked pork was, when accompanied by shrieks and screams, the essence of murder to a listener alone at midnight. Real bones were broken - spareribs snapped with a pipe wrench. Bacon in a frypan gave a vivid impression of a body just electrocuted. And the cannibalism effect was actually a zealous actor. Gurgling and smacking his lips as he slurped up a bowl of spaghetti. Cabbages sounded like human heads when chopped open with a cleaver, and carrots had the pleasant resonance of fingers being lopped off. Arch Oboler's celebrated tale of a man turned inside-out by a demonic fog was accomplished by soaking a rubber glove in water and stripping it off at the microphone while a berry basket was curshed at the same instant. The listener saw none of this. The listener saw carnage and death.

Dimension X was a short-lived but highly influential NBC radio program broadcast from April 8, 1950 to September 29, 1951. The first 13 episodes were broadcast live, which turned out to be a logistical nightmare, so the rest were pre-recorded. Later the television programs The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits would directly mimic this program. Stories included works by Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Bloch, Murray Leinster, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Ray Bradbury, H. Beam Piper, and Isaac Asimov. Our pals at the Archive offer you all 50 episodes of Dimension X.

An attempt was made to bring Dimension X back under the new name X Minus One, which ran from 1955 to 1958. Stories featured adaptations of cutting-edge Science Fiction writers like L. Sprague DeCamp, Philip K. Dick, Frederik Pohl, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Clifford D. Simak and Theodore Sturgeon. Listen to all 127 episodes here.

Meanwhile, The Hall of Fantasy ran in 1953 on the Mutual Radio Network, mixing inventive new scripts with older tales from the likes of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. The Archive has 10 episodes here, another here, and a few more mixed in here.

Is the awesomeness of it all just leaving you slack-jawed? No? But wait, there's more!

By 1964, radio dramas were on their way out. That's what made the ABC radio network's Theater Five so interesting, as it tried creatively (but unsuccessfully) to keep audio-broadcast theatre alive.

In so doing, they painted a rather odd and idiosyncratic view of the world which comes into focus as you step back and look at the totality of subjects they chose to portray. Science fiction and outer space themes were common, and coexisted alongside detective stories, psychological dramas, and just plain uncategorizable tales. In order to cram a lot of plot into their short time slot (half hour programs, including commercials), they used a lot of extreme storytelling shorthand, giving some of the episodes a fascinatingly incongruous feel.

And the Internet Archive has 256 episodes of Theater Five. Free. To listen or to download. Seriously. Why aren't you ruining your pants at this news??

Although Theater Five was one of the last radio programs to carry the geezerly tradition of radio drama into the post-Television era, it wasn't the only. From 1963 to 1967, a show called Black Mass aired sporadically on radio station KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles.

Black Mass offered radio dramatizations of dark stories from the likes of Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Saki, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Thankfully, their productions are not completely lost: 31 episodes of Black Mass are preserved online.

Or how about the stand-alone six-part radio play Aliens of the Mind, in which Peter Cushing and Vincent Price discover a remote Scottish isle populated by telepathic mutants?

Or how about 125 episodes of Sherlock Holmes in radio play form, with none other than Basil Rathbone himself at the helm? Or 33 episodes of CBS Mystery Theater? (And believe it or not, there are 1300 more episodes out there waiting to be had if you want to buy them.) Or 54 episodes of The Clock, a peculiar and spooky Australian anthology?

Or Dark Fantasy, a great supernatural-themed show with 28 episodes online? Or 30 episodes of Crime Club, a hardboiled gritty murder mystery series? Or 26 episodes of Murder at Midnight? Or 14 episodes of Candy Matson, a tough female sleuth who chain-smokes her way across San Francisco circa 1949?

Is your mind melting by now, or should I go on to tell you about the raw space-opera sci-fi glories of 2000 Plus, with corny-yet-true epics of cardboard rocketry like "Space Wreck", "The Brooklyn Brain", "Temple of the Pharaohs" and "Robot Killer"? What about 77 episodes of Planet Man, or 34 episodes of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet?

Right now, though, my old-time radio obsession du jour is a deliciously noir-ish show called Suspense, which ran from 1942 to 1962 and featured stars like Lucille Ball, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, and Cary Grant. Some of my favorite shows I've heard so far are all on page 9: there's a great beatnik episode called Like Man, Somebody Dig Me, a Hitchcockian heist-thriller called Death in Box 234, and a carhop-in-distress story called Drive-In. The scripts and production on these are top-notch, and you can listen to 668 episodes of Suspense on the Archive, bro.

Get it? Got it? Good. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Dismissed!

- - JSH


Explosivo said...

Holy crap! You didn't mention CBS Radio Mystery Theater! (Or if you did, I missed it.) It's sorta "modern", but still...

JSH said...

Aha, I did indeed mention it; it's near the Candy Matson graphic :) Great show. "The fear you can hear!"

brine said...

I am a big fan of the radio shows of the past and listen regularly. Good stuff.

Explosivo said...

Please accept my humble apology! That's what I get for speed-reading. I used to listen to, and record, CBSRMT off 84 WHAS back in the day. I wish I could use that creaking door in the intro as my ringtone. If you don't own it already, may I suggest the book, "Radio's Golden Years" by Frank Bresee (he of hot wife in bad horror films fame) and Bobb Lynes. Cool book, but about as hard to find as a bottle of Kentucky Nip, or a can of Kickapoo Joy Juice.