NBC Mystery Serial
The Witch of Endor (et al)
1930 - 1932
Morse stands beside a winding staircase of his scripts.
The Witch of Endor went on the airwaves the same year as The Witching Hour (in 1932). Both series aired soon after The Witches' Tale, the first radio horror anthology series that had began the year before. Not only did all three series have a witch somewhere in the title, but they were all written by singular authors who were as talented as they were prolific. Alonzo Deen Cole cranked out 328 Witches' Tales episodes, plus he contributed scripts to The Shadow and Casey, Crime Photographer. Wyllis Cooper wrote all of the scripts for Quiet Please, Whitehall 1212, Charlie and Jessie, and The Army Hour, plus he wrote a season of The Campbell Playhouse (1941), the first three seasons of Lights Out (1934-1936), and five seasons (192 episodes) of Hollywood Hotel (1934-1938). Is it any wonder that Cooper became virtually blind in his later years? (Hand, 159). But the radio writer who wore out even more typewriters was Carlton Morse, one of four authors who wrote for NBC Mystery Serial, the umbrella program that aired The Witch of Endor, along with seven other of Morse's ten-part serials. (Which title the series is best referred to is debatable, since both are correct. For reasons of space, however, we will use the title of the encapsulating program rather than the eight different serial titles.) Martin Grams, Jr. summarized all eight of the Morse serials in his I Love A Mystery Companion. The information stated here is gleaned from that excellent 2003 book. They were half hour shows that ran once a week, starting with the Cross-eyed Parrot in 1930, and concluding with The Witch of Endor in 1932. All eight had spooky supernatural set-ups, and most of them were recycled in later years as I Love A Mystery and Adventures By Morse plots.
The Cross-eyed Parrot - According to the NBC press release, the plot was thus. "Its principal setting is an island belonging to the fanatical Dr. Herz Von Elm, who has a fondness for conducting experiments on human beings and animals. He holds his human captives for huge ransoms and if they are unable to pay the money, he uses them as subjects for his gruesome scientific tests." The story was based on a play, but Morse changed it from a melodramatic comedy to a serious horror story. Yet he added his own style of humor, including a character with a country accent that was probably the inspiration for the Doc character in I Love A Mystery. He also changed the ending of the play so that the mad doctor is killed by one of his own creations, a gorilla with the transplanted hands of a killer.
The Dragon in the Sky - An expedition is led to Central America to find a legendary lost city and its forgotten civilization. Along the journey, the group survives human sacrifices, the ancient craft of brain washing, and multiple meetings with a werewolf. There's plenty of action and fistfights throughout. The story would later be recycled (with minor changes) in the Adventures By Morse series as "The Land of the Living Dead".
The City of the Dead - Two young people wind up alone in a ten thousand grave cemetery (a "city of the dead"). Old graves are being dug up and the corpses are being swapped. Supernatural elements abound, including a ghoul named "Old Claw Foot" that attacks victims, a skeleton that walks through the front door to deliver a written message, and a phantom church bell that is heard tolling when no church bell is nearby. In 1944, this story would also be reused (with minor changes) in Adventures By Morse under the same title.
Captain Post, Crime Specialist - A twelfth floor suicide jumper turns out to have been murdered. The investigation leads to an old mansion riddled with secret passages. It also contains an organ that plays without an organist, and a family member who remains in his room out of fear of microscopic germs. A decaying mansion plagued by a dysfunctional family and mysterious murders is the backdrop of several I Love A Mystery stories, including "The Monster in the Mansion," "Blood on the Cat," and "Murder is the Word for It".
The Return of Captain Post - Police Captain Post and Sgt. Jack Long are escorting a prisoner to the Orient. They meet up with a Professor who is looking for a lost Cambodian city. When the prisoner escapes, the two cops join the expedition in hopes of tracking down the escaped fugitive. Along the journey, the two travel on the backs of elephants through tangled jungles, and encounter the Temple of Gorillas and the Cobra King. The plot was later recycled in Adventures By Morse (1945) and I Love A Mystery (in 1952) as "The Cobra King Strikes Back".
The Game Called Murder - Another dark house thriller occupied with decaying personalities, including a dwarf hunchback named Pettifoot. He would be renamed "Fabens" when the same plot was later used in the I Love A Mystery series, "The Case of the Transplanted Castle." The same premonition suite was played on the organ in both serials just before a murder was performed: Brahms Lullaby.
Dead Men Prowl - A cop and his physician friend spend the weekend at a private beach resort and encounter three murders in one evening. Inexplicably, the corpses seem to return to life, moving themselves after death, even when they are tied down or locked in cold freezers. Four youngsters are initially suspects, but soon, they become potential victims as well. The same basic plot was later reprised in Adventures By Morse.
The Witch of Endor - A group of prominent citizens meet at a large home to discuss the activities of a woman professing to be a witch from the San Francisco district of Endor Park. They investigate the strange happenings at the graveyard, perpetrated by an unrecognized figure with secret motives. Characters disappear without warning, and the murder count begins to grow, including the death of a detective, a nurse, and a tramp.
Don't let the later recycling fool you. Even though Morse was not above replaying scripts from his earlier writing days, he cranked out a stunning amount of material. As soon as the first eight serials (80 episodes) were complete, Morse embarked on four new serials, each with ten chapters (totaling 40 episodes). They were crime dramas called Chinatown Squad, Barbary Coast Nights, Killed In Action, and To The Best of Their Ability. Then came the regular family type dramas, including Family Skeleton, and His Honor- The Barber. There were less famous series too, like his early House of Myths, Return of the Gods, and Split Second Tales. And of course, his highly popular thrillers with supernatural overtones, Adventures By Morse, I Love Adventure, and ten years worth of I Love A Mystery. And if that didn't use enough typing ribbons to reach from Earth to the moon, then add 27 years worth of scripts for the family drama, One Man's Family. (Okay, so he got help writing OMF after several years of doing it alone, but everything else was solo, and he only shared the duties on OMF so that he could begin even more projects.) The point is, the man was a speed demon pounding out scripts!
How did he do it? In his article "The NBC Pacific Coast Network", John Schneider describes Morse's writing technique as something close to hypnosis. Morse would arrive at the NBC offices at 5AM so he could work in seclusion before other staff showed up. Then he would go into a trance-like state, imagining the situation in his mind until the words pounded out automatically from his typewriter. Morse claimed, "I would just sort of lose consciousness until I finished." If he was interrupted before he was finished, he usually had to trash it all and start over at the beginning, because he couldn't pick up the train of thoughts where he had left off.
Whether he was demonically possessed, channeling multiple muses from the past, or the world's first bionic typist, the end results were equally good. It's disappointing none of the actual NBC Mystery Serial survives, except perhaps in the memories of some elder West Coast natives. Then again, the plots of those shows were given another life about a decade later in I Love A Mystery and Adventures By Morse. Sadly, some of those shows were also not recorded. Nostalgia being what it is, there's no way they could have lived up to the incredible reputation that they've garnered among OTR fans in the 50+ years that followed. Even so, one can't help but feel that in radio, as in so many other things, only the good die young.
(For more on-line info on Morse, read The NBC Pacific Coast Network, by John F. Schneider.)
Trivia: The Witch of Endor originally refers to the Old Testament story (1 Samuel 28) where King Saul puts on a disguise and secretly confers with a witch to find out how he will do in battle. The witch calls forth Saul's deceased advisor, Samuel, who condemns Saul for being disobedient to the Lord and warns him he will die in battle. Sure enough, the Philistines beat the Jews and kill Saul's sons in battle. The wounded Saul commits suicide.
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