You turn on your radio. You’re not interested in news. There are war clouds in Europe, but you have every confidence that the politicians will be able to sort things out. You hear a little bit of classical music, but before you have a chance to change the channel a news reporter breaks in.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.
The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as, quote, “like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun,” unquote. We now return you to the music of RamÃ?Â³n Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.”
That’s it. That’s how it started. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater were broadcasting their adaptation of The War of the Worlds as a Halloween special in 1938. Many people across the country tuned in to the program just too late to realize that it was the Mercury Theater…all they heard was several scenes of news reporting and interviews with various people, intercut with music from the Meridian Room.
To cut a long story short, quite a few people gained the impression that a spaceship from Mars had actually crashlanded in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, and that they were hostile.
The scene that did it:
“CARL PHILLIPS (the reporter broadcasting the ‘news’): A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from that mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame! (SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
CARL PHILLIPS : Now the whole field’s caught fire. (EXPLOSION)
CARL PHILLIPS: The woods… the barns… the gas tanks of automobiles… it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right… (ABRUPT DEAD SILENCE)
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently there’s some difficulty with our field transmission. However, we will return to that point at the earliest opportunity. “
There was panic in many areas, as people started fleeing their homes. The next day the “Night that Panicked America” was front page news.
Think that you wouldn’t have reacted the way many of these people did? Orson Welles’ broadcast still exists. It still stands up today. Give it a listen and find out.
Television ‘killed’ radio drama, with the last two programs, Your’s Truly Johnny Dollar and Suspense airing their final episodes on September 2, 1962.
Teenagers these days rebel at watching black and white movies. How to get them interested in old time radio? To begin with they may not have the patience to sit through the wit of comedy programs like Jack Benny or Fibber McGee and Molly, but start them with horror programs, and quite a few of them will be hooked on the fascinating and entertaining hobby of old-time radio.
Everyone’s heard of Bela Lugosi. Boris Karloff. George Zucco. Peter Lorre. Vincent Price. All of these movie actors starred in some classic radio horror episodes, as chilling to today’s audience as when they were first heard.
Bela Lugosi’s sole episode in the classic anthology series Suspense (“The Doctor Prescribed Death, 2/12/43) is unfortunately lost. Boris Karloff starred in a few Suspense episodes, but unfortunately only “Drury’s Bones” still exists. We’re more fortunate with the episodes of George Zucco, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price. (And more of Karloff’s Lights Out episodes exist.)
What are some of the classic stories that you can use to draw yourself into the theater of the mind? A place where only your own imagination limits w hat you can envision?
Vincent Price starred as Jean, one of three men trapped in a lighthouse off the coast of French Guyana, by thousands, no millions, no…an infinite number of gigantic…rats…in “Three Skeleton Key,” which made its debut on the anthology series Escape. Price reprised the role for both Ecape and later for Suspense. It is the most famous radio episode of all time.
Escape and Suspense are the two most famous anthology programs, and from week to week audiences sat around their radio, their theater of the mind, lost in their imaginations in anything from science fiction to suspense to mystery to horror stories.
Another classic story is “Ghost Hunt”. Two men go into a haunted house to find out what happened to a reporter who was supposed to have spent the night there. All they find is his tape recorder, which they turn on it. For the rest of the episode we hear Ralph Edwards (Of This Is Your Life fame) who does a great job as a young, cocky reporter who, in the space of 20 minutes, grows more and more frightened until finally he drops the tape recorder and jumps over the edge of a cliff, frightened out of his mind.
And then of course there’s “The House in Cypress Canyon.” Newlyweds Robert Taylor and Cathy Lewis move into the isolated house. Then they begin to hear the dog howling…and blood keeps seeping underneath locked doors…
There were plenty of programs that featured horror all the time, of course. The famous Lights Out by Arch Oboler frightened quite a few people during its heyday, with its episodes such as “The Chicken Heart” (scientists experimenting on a chicken heart cause it to mutate into a gigantic, tenticular being that destroys all life on earth) to “The Dark,” in which *something is able to turn a human being inside out (and that’s a gruesome sound effect, let me tell you.) “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” from Quiet Please, still chills – it’s all about what happens on a drilling platform when the drill goes to deep… as an unfortunate visitor learns much too late.
Other programs have evocative names: Creeps By Night, Dark Fantasy, The Haunting Hour, The Sealed Book, and The Weird Circle. Do you have the nerve to enter The Hermit’s Cave? Can you sit still while The Old Sea Hag spins one of her Terror Tales? Do you want to be operated on by The Strange Dr. Weird?
There are plenty of places on the internet to find classic Old Time Radio recordings. Don’t wait for Hallowe’en. Next time you’ve got your teens in the car, tell ’em to be Quiet, Please, shove a tape of “Three Skeleton Key” or some other classic into your tapedeck, and listen. “Listen!
And learn. And enjoy!
Learn all about Old Time Radio at sites including:
www.sperdvac.org/ : The Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy
Obtain recordings from commercial sites such as:
Or discuss it on the Old Time Radio forums:
There’s only one card set in existence devoted to old time horror radio programs. It’s called Tune in for Terror, first published in 1992. Check it out at http://www.goodstuffcards.com/