20 September: The great howdunit

Bill Forman, who made a deceptively imposing Whistler. (Photo: CBS.)

Bill Forman, who made a deceptively imposing Whistler. (Photo: CBS.)

Twenty-first century old-time radio lovers may not realise The Whistler was never a truly national phenomenon. The CBS crime drama was almost strictly a western U.S. phenomenon thanks to its sponsor, Signal Oil, doing business in the west alone.

Only twice did The Whistler get a crack at a listenership beyond the west, when Campbell Soup sponsored it in the midwest and the east during the summer of 1946, as a replacement for its moderately successful Jack Carson Show; and, when Household Finance Company (HFC) picked it up from March 1947 through the end of September 1948.

Accordingly, The Whistler‘s ratings performances will remain unknown forever, since the Hooper and later Nielsen services paid little to no attention to regional programming and its two brief midwest-to-east runs qualified likewise despite running concurrent to the west coast run. But wherever it was heard it became one of classic network radio’s great cult hits.

The Whistler proved a unique entry in the crime drama genre when it was born in 1942. It may have been inspired in part by The Shadow‘s title character presence as a kind of voice of fate (as John Dunning would phrase it) but that, plus The Whistler‘s superior and surprisingly cliche-free writing, was where the similarities ended. The Shadow trucked with the supernatural or at least the exaggerated; The Whistler pounded the beat of the mundane everyday.

And, discovered the mystery not in whodunit—the guilty’s identity was a given from the outset of just about every episode (there were the rarest of exceptions)—but howdunit and whydunit, as Dunning reviewed it so memorably.

The Whistler The unstated theme that ran the distance was, “this could happen to you.” The Whistler told stories of the everyday gone haywire, of common men driven to murder and then being tripped up in a cunning double-twist. These were not mysteries; the identity of the killer was never in doubt, from the first hint that the deed must be done until the moment when the killer trapped himself. The stories were told by the Whistler from the killer’s viewpoint, the narration done in the unusual second-person, present tense . . . The final act was not played out but was summarised by the Whistler in an epilogue, as . . . he laughed and sealed the killer’s fate with a few terse lines of plot twist.

That earlier summarising proved successful but George Allen, who took over as the show’s director in 1944, decided to make the epilogues full dramatisations, which seems to have engaged the show’s listeners even deeper. And, with The Shadow having long become his own (and often a little too self-congratulatory) hero, and The Mysterious Traveler to come solid but not quite having the Whistler’s subtle thrust, The Whistler remained in its own subgenre as the 1940s’ most singular among the very few truly storytelling crime dramas.

The casts were drawn from the heralded Radio Row west coast regulars, including Joseph Kearns, Wally Maher, Gerald Mohr, Betty Lou Gerson, Lurene Tuttle, Elliott and Cathy Lewis, Hans Conreid, Gloria Blondell, Jeanette Nolan, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Chandler, Paul Frees, and Joan Banks. Some of those players became so frequent a Whistler presence that insiders nicknamed them Whistler’s Children. The famous whistling theme was performed by Dorothy Roberts; the show’s music director, Wilbur Hatch (later to do the same job for I Love Lucy‘s immortal television run), once guessed that only one out of twenty people could whistle the eerie melody note-for-note otherwise

Signal GasolineThe Whistler himself was kept secret until just about the time the show finally expired in the early 1950s; Kearns and Gale Gordon had both played the omnipresent, ironically snickering narrator for the early rounds. Bill Forman—a husky-looking fellow whose personal appearance seemed more a genial athletic coach than a sneering raconteur, and who was probably far more familiar (or at least identifiable) to radio audiences as the announcer for The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show from its birth (on The Fitch Bandwagon) in 1946—picked up the plum role some time around 1943-44 and ran with it for the rest of the show’s life.

But his, Dunning would remember, “was the perfect voice for a murder show that contained little on-mike violence. What there was was ‘velvet violence,’ murder by implication.” When Forman served a brief spell in the military during World War II, his place as the title character was taken by The Whistler‘s normal announcer, Marvin Miller.*



The Whistler: Fog (CBS, 1942)

Joseph Kearns (The Whistler); unidentified cast but possibly including Lurene Tuttle. In heavy fog a merchant shipman becomes temporarily amnesiac in a fall and discovers the hood he goes to meet over a debt is dead—and he fears he may have killed the man during his amnesiac spell.

It’ll kind of force you to stay with it, believe it or not.

Announcer: Unidentified. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Director: J. Donald Wilson. Writer: Herbert Connor.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

Mayor of the Town: Amy Lou Goes to War (NBC, 1942)
Suspense: The Library Book (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
Richard Diamond, Private Detective: The Bald Head Case (Crime drama; NBC, 1950)
The Jack Benny Program: Return to Paradise (Comedy; CBS, 1953)



Special Report: Hitler’s Danzig Address (NBC, 1939)

A soap opera break-in (The O’Neills) reports Hitler’s expected arrival in the Polish city whose annexation der Fuehrer demanded the previous spring. The Third Reich invaded Poland at the beginning of this month, launching what becomes World War II after Britain and France—having guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity after the betrayals of the Munich Pact—declared war on Germany in return. An excerpt from Hitler’s rant is included in this recording, though no translation is available . . . or, perhaps, needed. Announcer: Unidentified.


CBS European News: Driving Back the Blitzers (CBS, 1940)

On an unusually quiet day, Eric Sevareid leads off with one round of German raiders driven back during the London Blitz, apparently, though reports out of Dover indicate another invasion wave is iminent; British troops at Dover are confident of being able to beat the wave back. Sevareid also notes scattered, very occasional incendiary bombs striking around his particular location the day before, not to mention the crash of a German aircraft atop a London home adjacent to a hospital.

Also: Talks between Ribbentrop and the Italian foreign minister; a North African counterattack; Japanese demands for Indochinese bases having little real significance in the Sino-Japanese war.

Additional correspondents: William L. Shirer (Berlin); Albert Warner (Washington). Anchor: George Bryan.

* The Whistler inadvertently played a fine hand in a future television success on which Miller played a role somewhat like The Whistler‘s title character. From 1955-1960, Miller played Michael Anthony—the slightly bemused, story-tablesetting executive secretary to a mysterious billionaire who bestowed a million dollars each on numerous people whose behaviours upon receiving such gifts he studied from afar with close, almost scholarly interest—in CBS’s The Millionaire.

Another small irony: The Millionaire’s mysterious (some said manipulative) weekly benefactor, John Beresford Tipton, was portrayed by Paul Frees—who’d been one of Whistler’s Children himself.

This entry was posted in classic radio, comedy, crime drama, News and comment, old-time radio, World War II and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.