Sunday, July 29, 2018

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater

by G. Jack Urso

Come in. Welcome. I’m E.G. Marshall. Welcome to the sound of suspense. The fear you can hear. For the next 52 minutes, we’re going to take you into the world of mystery. Into the world of terrifying imagination.
— Opening narration to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater is an anthology series that aired on the CBS Radio Network from 1974-1982. Produced by Himan Brown and hosted E.G. Marshall, the show ran for 1,399 episodes. Debuting long after the Golden Age of Radio had passed, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (CBSRMT) provides a last lingering glimpse at the magic of radio.

Born in 1964, I came along after radio dramas had given way to television. As a kid, my parents often waxed nostalgic about the good old days of radio, curled up on the parlor floor and listening to The Shadow, Little Orphan Annie, Gunsmoke, Superman, and Inner Sanctum Mystery. For myself, having been nurtured by color television and FOUR channels, I rolled my eyes whenever I had to endure their reminiscing about REAL entertainment and “not that crap we watch on TV” with the same patience one might show to a particularly dull-witted friend.
Not long after it began in 1974, my mother began listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. It played locally weeknights on WGY 810-AM. Despite my initial reluctance to go down the entertainment hierarchy (film, TV, radio, books, newspapers, and cave drawings), I soon found myself enthralled by the tales of horror and murder with eerie music and special effects that supported performances by some of the era’s — and any era’s — finest actors from stage and screen, including some veteran radio performers enjoying one last moment in front of the mic. 
For one reason or another, my mother and I were often the only ones home when it aired and it became something of a special ritual for us. She regressed into an almost childlike state of anticipation and suspense. Often, we spoke   not as parent and child, but as two fans. She would tell me who the performers were, such as Fred Gwynne, Herman Munster himself, who starred in 82 episodes, and Agnes Moorehead, Endora on Bewitched, who appeared in two early first season episodes. As my parents’ marriage was breaking up, and my mother and I spending more time together as a result, the show became something of a shared escape for the both of us. 

Producer Himan Brown was a long-time radio veteran with over 30,000 shows to his credit (The Washington Post, "Himan Brown; Produced 'Dick Tracy', other radio hits," June 8, 2010). Frequent contributor Sam Dann wrote 311 scripts and appeared in 438 episodes as a performer. The budget for every CBS Radio Mystery Theater episode was $30,320 ($154,975 in 2018) with a new one produced every two days (National Public Radio Archives, CBS Press Release, 1974; On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning). 

Despite being a then-modern day incarnation of a classic radio format, Brown's sensibilities were squarely, and I do mean squarely, set in an age before the equal rights era. The show was not above being critical about the "liberality of our times" and "women's lib," as in the opening narration to the episode “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Also, African-Americans and other people of color were seldom included in storylines, or the cast. The show, however, had an appeal beyond the “radio generation” of people who grew up from the 1930s to 1950s and maintains a fan base of Baby Boomers who, like me, grew up listening to it with their parents.

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater expanded its programming to include other genres, such as classic literature, science fiction, history, and holiday classics like A Christmas Carol and Dracula. Writers were paid $350 per script and actors were paid union scale, $73.92 (approximately $1,788.97 and $377.83 respectively as of 2018). Nevertheless, the series attracted some of the most notable actors of the day — not only the aforementioned Fred Gwynne and Agnes Moorehead, but also Richard Widmark, Joseph Campanella, Mason Adams, Kevin McCarthy, Jerry Orbach, John Forsythe, Celeste Holm, Kim Hunter, Keir Dullea, and Tony Roberts. Up-and-coming talents including John Lithgow, Morgan Fairchild, Mandy Patinkin, and Sarah Jessica Parker also made appearances.
Himan Brown and Agnes Moorehead (source:
Eventually, E.G. Marshall turned over the hosting chores to stage actress Tammy Grimes for the final season. By 1981, after nearly 1,400 episodes, the CBSRMT had run its course and the show was cancelled. Indeed, for the New Wave/Punk/Yuppie generation of the 1980s, the show must have seemed like a relic of a prehistoric age. I ran into the program once again in 1988 when I worked as a late-night board operator for WQBK-AM, Albany. The program manager, John Pendergast, also a fan of the show, knew someone at CBS and somehow worked out a deal. A rare exception since most sources suggest the CBSRMT was off the air from 1982 until the early 2000s when NPR began making episodes available to member stations on its network, such as WRVO-FM, Oswego, NY. This time, Himan Brown took over the hosting chores himself.

It was as a board operator for WQBK that I began making tapes of the CBSRMT for my mother who then lived in an old farm house on a wind-swept hill in Delhi, NY. A couple times a year I visited her with a box full of several dozen cassette tapes. With no television reception, we often listened to the show together during dinner and late into the night. I taped them off of WRVO’s broadcast for her as well, and later on, as she was spending her final few years on Earth with me, we once again discovered the program on the Internet. We soon found ourselves reminiscing about episodes we hadn’t heard in nearly 40 years. For about 50 minutes, we were transported back in time, and listening to the same shows we heard so long ago brought us closer together. I finally understood what "the magic of radio" really meant.

Episodes of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater are widely available on the Internet. The thirteen presented below are from my personal collection, going back some thirty years. Yes, I could find better quality versions of these programs, but they aren’t the ones I listened to with my mother. I cherish every crackle, hiss, and pop on these tapes like a broadcast direct from the past and like the people with whom we form these memories, they soon disappear into the ether along with the radio waves. 

This is E.G. Marshall inviting you to join us next time for another adventure into the macabre. Until next time . . . pleasant dreams?
 — Closing narration to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

In performance at the CBSRMT studio (left to right):
Tony Roberts, Lois Nettleton, Norman Rose, Terri Keane, and E.G. Marshall

CBS Radio Mystery Theater Episodes
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

CBSRMT Episode 1: “The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill.” | Original Airdate January 6, 1974. Starring Agnes Moorehead.

CBSRMT Episode 2: “The Return of the Moresbys.” | Original Airdate January 7, 1974. Starring Patrick O’Neal.

CBSRMT Episode 22: “Time and Again.” | Original Airdate January 27, 1974. Starring John Beal and Ian Martin.

CBSRMT Episode 28: “A Ghostly Game of Death.” | Original Airdate February 2, 1974. Starring William Redfield.

CBSRMT Episode 86: “Dracula.” | Original Airdate May 2, 1974. Starring Mercedes McCambridge and Martin Seldes.

CBSRMT Episode 91:  “Voices of Death.” | Original Airdate May 14, 1974. Starring Ralph Bell and Evie Juster.
CBSRMT Episode 103:  “A Bargain in Blood.” | Original Airdate June 10, 1974. Starring Tony Roberts.

CBSRMT Episode 129: “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” | Original Airdate August 7, 1974. Starring Nick Pryor.

CBSRMT Episode 144:  “Deadline for Death.” | Original Airdate September 5, 1974. Starring Michael Tolan and Joe Julian.

CBSRMT Episode 156:  “The Golden Blood of the Sun.” | Original Airdate October 3, 1974. Starring John Forsythe.

CBSRMT Episode 158:  “Trapped.” | Original Airdate October 9, 1974. Starring Nina Foch.

CBSRMT Episode 175: "The Strange Voyage of the Lady Dee." | Original Airdate November 18, 1975. Starring Paul Hecht and Augusta Dabney.

CBSRMT Episode 210: “Sleepy Village.” | Original Airdate January 23, 1975. Starring Norman Rose and Martha Greenhouse.