13 March: The man who grew up the western

Meston (seated) with Macdonnell---the western wouldn't be kid stuff anymore. (Photo: CBS.)

Meston (seated) with Macdonnell—the western wouldn’t be kid stuff anymore. (Photo: CBS.)

It may yet surprise old-time radio lovers/collectors of the 21st Century that half the brains behind radio’s arguable most groundbreaking western never won any award recognising his skill.

Colorado-born John Meston didn’t come to Norman Macdonnell to co-create Gunsmoke out of nowhere. Meston and Macdonnell had worked together previously on the respected but often ill-scheduled CBS adventure series Escape. Moreover, Meston by then had worked his way up to become CBS’s story editor. He shared with Macdonnell a feeling that there could be more to the radio western than the typical fare isolated in the children’s hours, which sounded too often to have been written and acted that way, too.

Both Meston and Macdonnell believed there was a place for an adult western and, beginning in 1949-50, spent almost two years developing what would become Gunsmoke. Harry Ackerman, CBS West’s programming director, dreamed up that name and even produced a pair of audition discs that never saw the light of day otherwise.

When Ackerman all but lost interest, Meston and Macdonnell picked it up and married it to their concept. First, they used Escape as a test laboratory: with Macdonnell having succeeded William N. Robson (Suspense) as director, the show aired the Meston story “Wild Jack Rhett” in late 1950. Then, they reached back to another part of Meston’s past—he’d once been Romance‘s editorial supervisor—to air “Pagosa” on that anthology in August 1951.

Armed with those two examples, Macdonnell took the new Gunsmoke concept to CBS, who told him that—with another Robson series, Operation Underground, about to be executed—he had one week to make Gunsmoke air worthy.

Which they did, even if they had to fence with CBS to get William Conrad (a frequent Escape performer) the job as protagonist Matt Dillon. Not because of his talent but because of his apparent ubiquity, as Conrad would remember with bemusement: “I think when they started casting for it, somebody said, ‘Good Christ, let’s not get Bill Conrad, we’re up to you-know-where with Bill Conrad.’ So they auditioned everybody, and as a last resort they called me. And I went in and read about two lines . . . and the next day they called me and said, ‘Okay, you have the job’.”

Once the show began to click, Meston gave up his job as network story editor to concentrate on writing Gunsmoke free-lance, often as many as forty scripts per year, and often acting as a shepherd to such other Gunsmoke writers as Les Crutchfield, Antony Ellis, Kathleen Hite, John Duckett, and Marian Clark. He earned praise for the show’s realistic writing as often as the presentation and performances earned praise for their realistic delivery. Gunsmoke opened a door through which several similarly realistic radio westerns (several of which would include writing by the Gunsmoke scribes) would emerge in network radio’s final decade.

It wouldn’t just be the westerns that grew up in that decade, either.

Macdonnell (left) with Gunsmoke star William Conrad. (Photo: CBS.)

Macdonnell (left) with Gunsmoke star William Conrad. (Photo: CBS.)

[T]he caliber of writing not only got sharper and bolder, but in many ways more adult. Some of this is attributable to the fact that the big guns—sponsors, ad agencies, and the networks themselves—were more concerned with television, and left radio to its own devices. The medium also seemed to draw on the same inspiration as movies of that era; as westerns grew more mature in the postwar years, so did radio “oaters.” Gunsmoke debuted on the air the same year that High Noon was released in theaters. Science fiction was as poplar on radio as it was on screen; in fact, it can be argued that shows like X Minus One and Dimension X, which adapted the stories of leading writers like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, provided more consistently intelligent science fiction than Hollywood movies did.

Leonard Maltin, in The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age. (New York: Dutton, 1997.)

John Meston ended up working, too, on the television version of Gunsmoke (which often recycled his and others’ radio scripts the first few seasons), even if it might seem a little different thanks to the modifications of the lead characters for television, but as John Dunning would write retrospectively, “That the TV show was not a sham was due in no small part to the continued strength of the Meston scripts.”

That the radio original would prove beyond its time even to 21st century old-time radio discoverers—with just about every episode preserved, especially from its first four seasons—is due in no small part to that strength.


Gunsmoke: Confederate Money (CBS, 1954)

Hard-nosed, reformed drinker Fate Ender (Harry Bartell) fires hard-drinking employee Neil Butler (Vic Perrin) publicly after a saloon incident—but after someone shoots Ender in the arm, Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) have two possible killers to stop—one of whom knows the shooter’s identity but feels pressured to get the other first. 

There isn’t another western, dead or alive, that could make that sound this believable. In any era.

Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: James Ogg, Barney Phillips. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: John Meston.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

Box 13: Death is a Doll (Mutual, 1949)
mr. ace and JANE: Jury Duty (CBS, 1948)
Our Miss Brooks: Cafeteria Boycott (CBS, 1949)
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Remley is Re-Hired (NBC, 1949)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Clinton Matter, Part Two (CBS, 1956)

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