Column: Summer Screams: CBS Radio Mystery Theater

By Randy Stafford

[spoilers ahead]

According to the Web of a Million Lies, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater broadcast 1,399 original episodes from January 6, 1974 to December 31, 1982. Allegedly, it was born out of a couple of waves of nostalgia. First, Rod Serling, famous, of course, for The Twilight Zone, hosted a radio drama from 1973-1974, and CBSRMT (as it’s known on the fan websites) rode that minor tide of radio drama revival for a lot longer. Second, American Graffiti, released in August 1973, unleashed American nostalgia for the 1950s on the world. An interest in radio drama, which lasted into the 1950s, was part of that trend. CBSRMT was produced by the legendary Hiram Brown, who also cast and directed every episode. Dying about six weeks shy of his 100th birthday, his radio career extended from 1927 unto the end of CBSRMT’s run. Credited with involvement in some 30,000 episodes of radio drama, his resume also included Inner Sanctum Mysteries, another anthology drama.

CBSRMT did supernatural tales, mysteries, science fiction, westerns, suspense, literary adaptations, and even dramatisations of historical events. Each hour-long broadcast had, after commercials, about forty minutes of show. Sometimes, adaptations of a particular writer were featured in the January broadcasts, and multi-part adaptations were done of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The lives of Nefertiti and Alexander the Great also got the serial treatment.

Those are the public facts. Checking my own memories, I can’t tell you when I started listening to the show as a boy in South Dakota and Montana. Since I caught it irregularly on staticky AM broadcasts, sometime between 8 and 10pm, I had no idea it broadcast so many episodes or lasted so long. I doubt I listened to it past 1978. But I did listen enough to put my name into a local radio station contest and win a copy of the only book based on CBSRMT episodes: Strange Tales of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. As for the nostalgic impulses that gave CBSRMT its long life, I do remember catalogues full of cassette recordings of old radio shows and there was also, in the 1970s, a revival of interest in the old pulps, particularly with the Doc Savage novels I collected.
Oddly enough, my parents never had a whole lot of interest in the show, though they grew up with radio drama. Indeed, my father even warned me the show might “warp my mind.” Since I don’t remember hearing many fantastical episodes on the show, I don’t think it weakened my mental immune system so that the opportunistic infections of science fiction and Lovecraft would take hold a few years later.

I came across the CBSRMT archive a few months ago. When the editors at Innsmouth Free Press put out the call for a look at old radio dramas, I thought it was a good chance to travel down Memory Lane and explore more of the show.

And I can report that the neighbourhood at the end of Memory Lane is a rather shoddy, unkempt place with some avocado-coloured cabinets, burnt orange chairs, and ceramic mushrooms. And the water in Memory’s Well proves often rather stale.

I picked 13 episodes to listen to, only one of which I’d heard before. They were picked not-so-randomly or scientifically. Spoilers and bad transcriptions of character and place names follow.

First up is “The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill” because it was the first episode and set the template. Series narrator E.G. Marshall (these days perhaps best remembered as Lieutenant Colonel Bratton in Tora! Tora! Tora! and Juror 4 in the 1957 version of Twelve Angry Men), in his distinctive voice – clear, with a hint of intractable firmness, says, “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater presents….” Then the memorable intro begins: the long creak of an opening door and memorably ominous woodwinds play the show’s theme, based on music from the Twilight Zone episode “Two”: “Come in. Welcome. I’m E. G. Marshall.” Then he’d lead off with an intro that would be about the writer adapted for the show, or a general introduction to the theme of the night’s production, and also give credit to prominent cast members. As if confirming the idea that the show hoped for an older demographic, this episode featured Agnes Moorehead in one of her last efforts before she died about four months later. Now best remembered as Endora, the witch who put a spell on son-in-law Darrin in almost every episode of the TV show Bewitched, she was also a regular on the Himan Brown radio version of the Terry and the Pirates comic strip. This story has her as an old woman who rents out her house to boarders. The deathbed confession of one, late of Brazil where he also acquired several tropical birds, gets her involved in a ten-year-old murder – allegedly solved, with the guilty party dying in jail. Fearing she might go to the police with some kind of evidence, the actual conspirators who committed the crime send another boarder to befriend her and learn what she knows. Things escalate as the new lodger plans to off Moorhead. Trouble is, like the first boarder, he’s developed a nasty illness. When he tries to shove Moorhead down the stairs, he’s the one that goes for a tumble. The third act – CBSRMT always did three acts, with Marshall speaking at the end and beginning of each act to ruminate on related matters or just recap the plot so far – ends with the somewhat surprising revelation that those tropical birds are what has been making the lodgers sick. It’s an acceptable mystery crafted by Henry Slesar, who authored many mystery and science fiction stories.

As at the end of each episode’s end, Marshall concludes with: “This is E.G. Marshall, inviting you to return to our mystery theater for another adventure in the macabre. Until next time…pleasant dreams.” And then the door creaks shut.

Wanting to see what was done with a literary adaptation of a story I’d heard of, but never read, I selected Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the Pole-Star”. Marshall’s opening narration linking Doyle’s interest in spiritualism to current government research in telekinesis is one of those “That is so 1970s” moments which makes listening to this series a bit of a time capsule. Doyle’s tale starts with Dr. John Ray applying for a medical position aboard the whaling ship Pole-Star. The agent hiring him warns him about the vessel’s competent-but-eccentric Captain Craigie. Amongst the Captain’s peculiarities are disappearing once he’s on shore leave and never allowing anyone in his cabin on the ship. At sea, Craigie takes to Ray well enough that the First Mate, Walker, asks Ray to tell the Captain of the crew’s concern that they are staying out in the Northern Atlantic too long, that they risk being iced in. The Captain rejects the suggestion, says he’s willing to risk his life, and then curiously says, “There’s more to bind me to the other world than this.” Then the story becomes sort of a ship-bound gothic, with Ray and the crew hearing a woman’s voice out of the Captain’s cabin and the Captain seeing, on the ice, the haunting image of a woman that his love once “tore apart.” It doesn’t end well for the Captain and Ray admits that the shape hovering over the Captain’s body did look an awful lot like a woman, though he publicly puts in down to snow drifting in the wind. An acceptable adaptation, though, in scenes between Ray and his fiancé in Scotland and characters recapping earlier events in their dialogue, it shows CBSRMT’s tendency toward padded stories. This was partly due to a shortage of writers having radio drama experience. Even when they could be found, they weren’t necessarily used to CBSRMT’s greater length compared to earlier radio dramas. Their pay wasn’t terrible, though. It was a flat $350, which translates to approximately $834 – $1,633 in inflation-adjusted dollars over the life of the series.

I next decided to sample an adaptation of a story I did know: Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. Really, I should have known better. My favourite dramatisation of it is Vincent Price’s gloating, gleeful performance in An Evening with Poe – and that only takes about twenty minutes for the whole story. “Adaptation” isn’t really the appropriate word for this CBSRMT episode. “Abomination” is. We get three entombments of the living and, instead of a hero who punishes with impunity, he gets dragged off to a modern Italian jail at the end. usefully divides the shows up by episode title, with a short description and airing date. You can also list the shows by actors and writers. There is also a section for adaptations, but it’s not as helpful as it could be. For instance, episodes based on Shakespeare’s works are not listed there, but we’ll talk a bit about that later on. I was happy, in the writers’ section, to see that Alfred Bester, one of my favourite science fiction writers, authored six episodes. So, I decided to sample a couple.

Our editor, Paula Stiles, tried to warn me about his adaptation of his classic story, “Fondly Fahrenheit” – and I might have listened if there would have been any episode with that title. Instead, I chose one called “The Walking Dead”. In my defense, it’s not an adaptation of the story. In Paula’s defense, it is. Bester fused the beginning of the story, minus its opening paragraph with its famed pronoun confusion, onto a plot built around a slavery metaphor. Rex the killer android wants to break his conditioning and become more like a man. It’s a bad episode with a cliché at its core. Bester had experience scripting radio, so I put down this disappointment to a general flagging, in the 1970s, of his skills.

Better Bester is “One Girl in a Million”, a fairly faithful adaptation of his story, “Time Is the Traitor”. It’s a pretty good tale of a super business consultant, a man who makes “Decisions with a Capital D” – and who also compulsively tries to attack any man he meets named ‘Kruger’ and obsessively seeks out women of a particular physical description in his interstellar travels.
I picked a couple of episodes just because I was curious to hear stories very typical of the 1970s. So, of course, I had to try out “The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich”. While Nazis have been in the Villain Hall of Fame going on seventy years, they were even bigger in the 1970s when you could sort of, kind of twist your brain around the idea that Hitler could be alive. Sure, he would have probably been a doddering old guy in his 80s, but, you know…. He’s Hitler. And that’s the premise of this story: Hitler is living in a slum outside Mexico City. Doddering, cataract-blind, and on his last legs, he’s visited by a couple of men all eager to get the Fourth Reich going – after they pump the Fuhrer full of testosterone and vitamins and do some eye surgery. But, at the end of this tale from Henry Slesar, it is revealed that Dr. Bundershaft and our narrator Gunter have other plans for the revived Hitler. “Who cared about destroying a dying old man? What good was our vengeance unless you had hope and strength?” they tell Adolf. Bundersahft is an old German doctor appalled at what he saw when assigned to Dachau, and Gunter’s parents died in Auschwitz. This episode has its moments — the ramblings of Hitler, the 1970s ideas of rejuvenations, but it still seems an implausibly patient and convoluted revenge story. And, at the end, Hitler dies again, “with no Viking funeral this time,” says Marshall.

Terrorism was ramping up in the 1970s, though it still had a long ways to go to achieve modern standards of asymmetrical efficiency. Still, many books and movies had terrorist villains, so I decided to do a bit of bleak nostalgia and listen to “The Terrorist”. Muslim terrorist Bulant Yaman (I warned you about the bad transcription) AKA Saladin the Butcher is hiding in a Greek town. After assassinating people in Cyprus and Athens, he’s on the run. His brother finds him, reluctantly, a hiding place in the house of rich American writer Carling. She lives with her niece, Jane and a couple of household staff, and checks come regularly from America. In one of those family-held-as-secret-hostage stories, Saladin and his brother threaten Carling into staying at her home. Either she or Jane will always be held in the house to ensure good behaviour when the other goes out. Of course, neither of the women goes to the police or the American embassy. Help has to come in the form of Stephen, nephew of Carling’s editor, who dispatches him to Greece to check up on her. Naturally, he gets rid of those pesky terrorists and we get a mega happy ending with Jane and Stephen marrying. Marshall’s narration concludes with a hopeful line that was naïve on its first broadcast: “It’s hard to think of anyone who could be an apologist for a terrorist – even those who support his cause.”

Hoping for maybe something more supernatural or even horrific, I picked out three episodes with archaeological elements.

Altar of Blood” is a predictable-but-somewhat-enjoyable time travel story. Fred Gwynne of The Munsters and Pet Semetary distinctively voices Professor Wells, an archaeologist who has retired from his studies. Widowed, he goes on vacation with his daughter Maria. Traveling down the Pacific Coast of Mexico, he finds the tranquil village of Playa de Laguna and Maria finds Bill Howell, a charming and handsome American working there as a sailing instructor. When both the Wells find themselves mysteriously drawn to a cove and they contemplate building a home there, do I really have to mention that Wells is an expert on the Aztecs? That Aztec blood flows in the veins of Maria? That there are mysterious deaths – with ripped-out hearts – in the neighbourhood? The basic concept – Aztec migration to Mexico’s west coast in the wake of Cortez’s invasion – is interesting. Mason Adams, whose distinctively folksy-old-guy voice is probably familiar from many TV ads, voices Howell.

The Mask of Tupac Amaru” is a cursed-artifact story. The death mask of the legendary Incan is the centre of a plot of forgery, theft, blackmail, extortion, and mysterious deaths which, of course, are maybe due to a curse. Lame, predictable and padded.

Dig Me Deadly” is a mystery – specifically, how modern, fleshed-out hands are attached to a skeleton thousands of years old at an archaeological site. This kept me interested, despite the would-be comedic insults hurled by sophisticated Detective Trubshaw of Los Angeles at the hickish Deputy Sheriff Wiley, who has used his political connections to dragoon the detective into interrupting her Arizona vacation to help him solve a murder. The intrigues and mores of the college students on the dig reminded of a vanished time. The scientific explanation of the mystery is sheer nonsense and Wiley engages in some silly – and padded – adventures in disguise. Still, I actually liked this better than many of the other episodes.

Murder Most Foul” was a conscious exercise in nostalgia, since I remember hearing this episode when it was broadcast. It was my first exposure to Shakespeare (Macbeth, of course). I’m happy to report that it lived up to my fond memories. While the original scripts of series actor-writer Ian Martin are often lame, he did an acceptable job of condensing the play to 45 minutes. Kevin McCarthy, the man who screamed, “You’re next!” at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, does a good job as Macbeth, though I suspect he would have liked to deliver his lines at a slower pace.

Narrator Marshall took up regular acting duties as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”, and I was interested to see how he did. Re-broadcast each year of the series’ life, it’s an acceptable version of the story (my favourite being George C. Scott as Scrooge) and mixes first-person Scrooge narration with Marshall’s third-person voiceover. It also, for no reason I can think of, plays around with the timeline of the ghostly visits to Scrooge.

Health reasons required Marshall to leave for the series’ last season, and he was replaced by Tammy Grimes. Having never heard her narration, I was curious, so I picked the series’ last episode to listen to – an adaptation of Chekov’s “The Boatman and the Devil”. Grimes’ voice just isn’t an adequate replacement for Marshall’s. However, the story – the account of how Sasha the Boatman survives his exile in Siberia, when others don’t, is compelling. He is, as Grimes’ narration suggests, a Charon-like figure dispensing stoical advice to those about to go into exile. But, of course, few heed his advice about leaving the desire for money, comfort and companionship behind, and that includes exiles Count Visily and Ravik. Not having read the source material, I don’t know how it works as an adaptation, but I liked what I heard.

So, that leaves 1,386 episodes left for you to try. Its varied nature and longer length renders CBSRMT, I think, a riskier investment in time than radio shows like Suspense or X Minus One, with their more focused shows. While many CBSRMT episodes are padded and predictable, and the original episodes usually are not that original, some, like the Chekov and Shakespeare, are good. So, check out the adaptation list, pick a story that’s long enough for forty minutes, and give it a try.

You can listen to episodes from CBS Radio Mystery Theater for free at the CBSRMT archive.