6 January: The brave, bold, unfulfilled mystery theater

Shown here at the height of her old-time radio career, Agnes Moorehead was one classic radio veteran who tried to make The CBS Radio Mystery Theater work generations later. (Photo: CBS.)

Shown here at the height of her old-time radio career, Agnes Moorehead was one classic radio veteran who tried to make The CBS Radio Mystery Theater work generations later. (Photo: CBS.)

If you can say nothing else about The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, premiering tonight in 1974, you can say it is a brave, bold, and often interesting exercise that will prove an ultimately unfilfilled bid to revive classic radio. Certainly it isn’t for lack of effort over its eight struggling seasons. And, just as certainly, its heart—from creator/mastermind Himan Brown and host E.G. Marshall on down—is in the right place.

The premiere includes two old-time radio legends, Agnes Morehead (Suspense, Mayor of the Town, more) and Leon Janney (Charlie Chan, Chandu the Magician, mr. ace and JANE, more). And from here The CBS Radio Mystery Theater will live up to its maiden episode’s title in two ways: It’ll seem little more than a little too referential to classic ancestors such as The Inner Sanctum Mysteries and Suspense, which may be understandable to the point that Brown, was the father of the former. But Marshall’s customary signoff (Pleasant . . . dreams?), and its use of a slightly noisy closing door (gee, we wonder where that came from?), expose the show’s customary inclination to the macabre, even when reaching for elements of comedy, historical drama, and science fiction.

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater‘s heart may be in the right place but its execution won’t always be successful. But it will mix contemporary actors with many of the men and women who made old-time radio breathe. Moorehead and Janney are merely two of a distinguished company of the resurrected. They’ll be joined by:

Mason Adamsthe longtime star of Pepper Young’s Family.
Ralph Bell, Jack Grimes, Larry Haines, Bryna Raeburn, Norman Rose, and other veterans of Dimension X.
Hans Conreidformer co-star of My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi.
Richard Crennawho couldn’t do enough for Our Miss Brooks (as dopey Walter Denton) or wait to marry Marjorie Forrester (The Great Gildersleeve).
Robert Drydencast member of Big Town, Casey Crime Photographer, and other dramas.
Mercedes McCambridgeone-time Big Sister; often cast in other soaps and dramas.
Bret Morrisonthe longest-serving knower of what evil lurked in the hearts of men, as The Shadow.
Virginia PayneMa Perkins herself.
Alexander ScourbyMellifluous veteran of Against the Storm, The Open Door, The Right to Happiness, and The Second Mrs. Burton.
Arnold StangHenry Morgan’s usual second banana, and Rosalie Goldberg’s erstwhile love hopeful.
Karl SwensonLorenzo Jones himself, who also worked often on The March of Time.
Joan TompkinsAnother Big Sister veteran, not to mention other classic soaps.
Les Tremayne—Distinguished radio actor whose credits included The Romance of Helen Trent, The Adventures of the Thin Man, The Abbott Mysteries, and First Night.

The preponderance of the show’s scripts will be written by Sam Dann, Ian Martin, Murray Burnett, Arnold Moss, Gerald Keane, and Elspeth Eric. That, John Dunning would observe in his On the Air valedictory for the series, may have been the preponderant problem:

The trouble, from the beginning, was the writing. The premiere wasted Agnes Moorehead, Newsweek continued, “and the most frightening thing about this Wednesday’s show, which features Kim Hunter as a housewife with an animal phobia, is actor Gilbert Mack’s uncanny imitation of a howling mongrel.” The conclusion: what Mystery Theater needed above all else was help from scripters like Paddy Chayevsky and Reginald Rose. But at $350 for a 52-minute script, Brown wasn’t about to go shopping among TV’s best playwrights. Staff writers Sam Dann and George Lowther did heroic duty in the trenches, but many of the scripts were written by people who were by nature performers . . . That they were all talents was never questioned; that they all desperately loved radio was self-evident. Whether they were writers was another question, and their efforts were finally doomed . . .

It was still a poor man’s version of what radio once was, an echo of its unfulfilled promise. CBS gave the time but precious little money, and the affiliates felt free to tape-delay or drop it from the schedule at will . . . A complaining listener was told that, in effect, he was lucky [a station was] carrying it at all.

Perhaps it is the bravery of the attempt, more than its actual execution, that brings The CBS Radio Mystery Theater a Peabody Award in 1975, its second of eight struggling years on the air.

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater: The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill (CBS, 1974)

With a clean bill of health otherwise, elderly Ada Candy (Moorehead) is shocked when her elderly boarder confesses to a murder for hire just before he dies, but while she struggles to try clearing the name of the late prisoner who served time for the crime, a new, younger boarder (Janney) enters the picture—a boarder working for a witness who’s tried dissuading her Mrs. Candy from pursuing the matter.

Additional cast: Roger de Kova. Host: E.G. Marshall. Director: Himan Brown. Sound: Peter Prescott, Joe Cabbibo. Writers: Sam Dann, George Lowther.

Further Channel Surfing:

Clara, Lu, & Em: Men Are the Weaker Sex (serial; NBC Blue, 1936)
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Night on the Town (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Mayor of the Town: Janie Williams’s Baby (drama; CBS, 1943)
The Danny Kaye Show: The First Show (comedy; series premiere/CBS, 1945)
The Fred Allen Show: Take It or Leave It (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Whistler: Dear Roger (crime drama; CBS/Armed Forces Radio Service Rebroadcast, 1947)
The Halls of Ivy: Dr. Hall’s Reappointment (comedy; series premiere/NBC, 1950)

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