The CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER

(A Fan's Perspective, by Dick Judge)


There were some strange yet familiar sounds on the evening of January 6, 1974. For those old-time radio fans it was the sound of the c-r-e-a-k-i-n-g door. Hiram Brown of Inner Sanctum Mysteries fame was back on the air with a modern concept of an old idea - mystery and suspense for the masses. Originating in New York City, the series premiered on just 79 stations. But by December 1980 the number of stations airing the show had more than tripled, with a total audience of over a million people. No wonder, they could once more hear their favorite radio personalities performing as they once remembered.

The series host was E.G. Marshall, well respected figure of the stage and TV. He continued in this position until the final year, when Tammy Grimes became the hostess. Almost all the stories were original in nature and written by a small cadre of creators gathered by Mr. Brown. These were true masters of mystery and suspense - with scripts and story lines so very remniniscent of the good old days of radio. The series continued for almost nine more years until its last broadcast on December 31, 1982. This revival of nostalgic radio in 1974 was preceded the year before by Rod Serling's fine production, The Zero Hour. What the Mystery Theater did do was to foster three other series: The Sears Radio Theater, later the Mutual Radio Theater; and The General Mills Radio Adventure Theater. All great in their own little way, but hardly comparable to the Mystery Theater.

There were 1,399 original broadcasts of this series, but with repeats, a total of 2,969 broadcast nights. Remarkably the series began with programs 7 nights a week, but on Jan 7, 1980 it went to five nights a week. There were several awards bestowed on the Mystery Theater among them a Peabody and several Mystery Writers of America honors to individual script writers.

The very first show of the very first year starred none other than Agnes Moorehead! She of the highly memorable "Sorry, Wrong Number" of Suspense fame. She was featured in "The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill"; the story of a 77 year old woman who discovers that when it comes to murder, there's no fool like an old fool. Sadly she appeared in only one other production.

The second season started off with a week of Edgar Allan Poe tales. Starting on Jan 6, 1975 it included productions of "The Premature Burial", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Oblong Box", "Berenice", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Tell- Tale Heart" and lastly, "The Cask of Amontillado". The stars of this first week of the second season were Keir Dullea, Paul Hecht, Danny Ocko, Corrine Orr, Richard Mulligan, Grace Matthews, Joan Lovejoy, Michael Tolan, Staats Cotsworth and Jack Grimes. In was during this year that the series was awarded a Peabody, the highest honor a radio program can acquire.

The third season beginning on Jan 5, 1976 featured mystery and suspense adaptations from Mark Twain's works. They were: "Tom Sawyer, Detective", "Is He Living or Dead?", "The Russian Passport", "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg", "The Stolen White Elephant" and "The Mysterious Stranger". Starring in these were Kristoffer Tabori, Alexander Scourby, Bobby Morse, Kevin McCarthy, Fred Gwynne, Robert Dryden and Tony Roberts.

On Monday, Jan 10, 1977 another great author, O. Henry, was chosen for his stories. Heard were "Two Renegades", "The Passing of Black Eagle", "Tobin's Palm", "Don't Die Without Me" (originally "The Furnished Room"), "A Departmental Case", "Cherchez la Femme" and Jimmy Valentine's "Gamble" (originally "A Retrieved Reformation". O. Henry was portrayed by Robert Dryden each night. Others appearing during this week were Fred Gwynne, Joe Silver, Larry Haines, Paul Tripp, Marian Seldes, Russell Horton, Leon Janney, Bryna Raeburn, Paul Hecht and Jack Grimes.

The fifth year, Jan 6, 1978, began a little different. Rather than offering "new" tales or adaptions, Himan Brown chose to repeat seven of classics previously broadcast on the series. They were: "Dracula", "Frankenstein Revisited", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Hand" by Guy De Maupassant. Filling out the week were two original Mystery Theater presentations, "The Black Room" and "Goodbye, Karl Erich", written by Sam Dann who wwas given a Writer's Guild Award for the story. Actors this week included Mercedes McCambridge, Leon Janney, Ralph Bell, Kevin McCarthy, Nick Pryor, Larry Haines, Alexander Scourby and Paul Hecht.

Jan 8, 1979 began the sixth year. Again, something a little different. Gerald Kean authored a five one-hour script depicting the tragic life of Nefertiti, famous queen of ancient Egypt. Playing the title role was Tammy Grimes. Featured with her was Russell Horton, as Akhenaton, her husband and pharoah. Also in Nefertiti during the week: Evie Juster, Robert Dryden, Ian Martin, Earl Hammond and Court Benson.

The seventh year, beginning on Jan 7, 1980 consisted of another Gerald Kean effort. He authored an adaption of "The Last Days of Pompeii", Lord Edward Bulwer- Lytton's classic novel. The lead for the week was Russell Horton. He was assisted by Evie Juster, Earl Hammond, Kristoffer Tabori and Patricia Elliott. It was at this time that the CBS Radio Mystery Theater ceased week-end presentations. It went to five nights a week which continued to the very end, Dec 31, 1982.

Year eight was another work by writer Gerald Kean. On Jan 12, 1981, the first of a five-parter, "The Legend of Alexander", was broadcast. The title role starred Russell Horton. Also in the opening week were Evie Juster, Ian Martin, Robert Dryden, Earl Hammond, Lloyd Battista, Marian Seldes, Ray Owens, Mandel Kramer and Court Benson. Sadly in August of 1981, Ian Martin died. He had written over 250 scripts for the Mystery Theater and acted in over 500 of the episodes.

Once more Gerald Kean was asked to write an adaption of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables". This heralded what was to be the ninth and final season. Start- ing on Jan 11, 1982, Alexander Scourby played the part of Jean Valjean. He was assited by Mandel Kramer, Earl Hammond, Joan Shea, Bernie Grant, Russell Horton, Teri Keane, Evie Juster, Bob Kaliban, Lloyd Battista and Amanda Plummer. It was also in this last year that E.G. Marshall left as host, being replaced by Tammy Grimes on Feb 1, 1982. This was the beginning of the end, really. She just lacked the "voice". It was difficult to understand her sweet, light and bass-type sound. And then the end came quite quickly for Himan Brown. It just seemed that he was told the series was not being renewed around the first part of December 1982. Why else the string of "repeat" shows after Dec 7, 1982 and NO annual "A Christmas Carol" on the 24th which had been a tradition since 1974? But what a run! Nearly 1400 original episodes and 2,979 broadcast nights. Just think: in the golden days of radio, a series aired for 39 weeks. If you consider 1400 shows, that's over 35 years of programming! What a run! Thanks Himan Brown and all your great script writers, sound people, actors for one of the greatest series of all time!

For a complete log of this series, consult Lou Genco's website at www.old-time.com . For a printed copy of the daily log for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater listing every episode, contact the author of this article at dickjudge@netzero.net


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