CBS Radio Mystery Theater
E.G. Marshall was the host most identified with the series.
(Squeaking door opens. Dramatic music starts.) "Come in.Welcome to the Macabre. I'm E.G. Marshall."
Hearing something like that on your radio would seem normal in the 1940s, but in the 1970s? Himan Brown, who created the original Inner Sanctum Mysteries series in 1941, recycled his classic opening sequence for his 1974 brainchild, CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Brown seemed to have achieved the impossible when he convinced CBS to set aside an hour every night for radio drama nearly a quarter of a century after its hay day. Of course, CBS didn't do it to be nice. They were reacting to Mutual radio network's Zero Hour, which launched a radio drama revival of sorts in 1973. But CBS Mystery Theater had the staying power that Zero Hour didn't. It lasted for nine years and 1,399 episodes! (If you inclue repeats, it lasted 2,969 broadcasts!)
The series was a mystery anthology, with the occasional hint of the supernatural (usually explained at the end as some sort of trick to scare the victim to death). It was advertised as "the fear you can hear." E.G. Marshall was very serious and somewhat disquieting. Gone was the trademark black humor of Inner Sanctum's Raymond. But Marshall grabbed our attention and held it though the breaks. It wasn't an easy task, considering the series was an hour long (less 8 minutes for ads) every night and competing with the eye candy of TV. E.G. Marshall has been around a long time before and since the series, but for listeners of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, it is almost impossible to see or hear him without reliving some of the chills he caused listening to his show.
I confess, I have a special affinity for this series because it was the first (and only) radio drama I ever heard growing up. I was in the 5th grade and my family had just moved to our Grandmother's empty and antiquated house. The 150 year old plantation home was surrounded by giant oak trees with Spanish Moss hanging off of gnarled, leaf-bare limbs. My room was on the second story, up a winding staircase and away from everyone else. My sister said the house was haunted and I believed her. It was the perfect place to get the hell scared out of you...
One night, long after I was supposed to be asleep, I explored the crackling AM radio dial. I stumbled across the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and became captivated. That's when the spirit of E.G. Marshall entered that old house and haunted it for the rest of my stay. The show started quite late and well past my bed time. I was supposed to be sleeping. I had no alarm so I would lay in bed holding a book over my head waiting for the show to begin. If I fell asleep before the show started, the falling book woke me. Once the squeaking door starting opening, I could put the book aside, because nothing could make me go to sleep for the next hour. (Depending on the episode, I could even have difficulty falling asleep when the show was over.) Looking back, I feel like I experienced the thrill of growing up on old time radio, even though I missed the real era by several decades.
Some critics complained that the scripts to the series were not the same caliber as the ones from the early days when radio was King. If that's true, the massive amounts of money that television paid for stories was probably to blame. Why would the best writers settle for Brown's $350 script fee when Hollywood offered so much more? Then again, the 1970s wasn't exactly the golden age of TV writing either. From what I remember, the CBS radio stories were more thoughtful and clever than anything TV was offering at the time. Perhaps the lack of mini-skirts and car chases forced radio to work harder to keep our attention. Whatever the case, the die-hard radio veterans contributed enough acting and scripts to keep the series humming along for eight years. (That's much longer than a lot of TV series survive.) Some of the big names included Agnus Moorehead, Richard Widmark, Norman Rose, Santos Ortega, and Bret Morrison. Newer talents like John Lithgow, Morgan Fairchild, Lois Nettleton and Joseph Campanella also guest starred.
So was it perfect? Nope, but neither was TV. (A typical TV "hit" back then was Mannix. 'Nuff said?) In my opinion, Brown accomplished much more on radio with a fraction of the amount than his counterparts were blowing in Hollywood. Was CBS wrong to provide the show with so little in the way of resources? Absolutely, but they gave radio drama more than the other networks were giving, and for that, we should all be thankful. It may not have been a runaway hit with the advertisers, but it was a nine year success and it delighted millions of listeners during that time. I feel lucky I was one of them.
Tammy Grimes took over as host when Marshall left for health reasons.
When Marshall left, Tammy Grimes hosted the program. The series ended December 30, 1982. Himan Brown also hosted some of the shows for rebroadcast in 1998. CBS Radio Mystery Theater won the Peabody award in 1975 and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.
Interesting Trivia: The creaking door sound effect is just one of two sounds ever to be copyrighted in the history of the copyright office. (The other sound is NBC's three-chime signature. Payton, 3.)
E.G. Marshall (far right) with cast recording the show.
Others pictured (from left to right) are Tony Roberts, Lois Nettleton, Norman Rose, and Terri Keane.
An Opening Narration:
(Sound effect: Squeaky door opens. Dramatic music plays beneath remarks.)
"Come in. Welcome. I'm E.G. Marshall. Welcome to another hour where the great forces of the unknown, those majestic forces that move around above and beneath us, pushing and pulling at our lives, our bodies, our brains. Forces no less powerful because we know them not. And here's a thought: How much of the power actually derives from their mystery? Were we to fathom them, explode their secrets, would they then become as comprehensible as say, the centrifugal force in the spin drier at the laundry matt? Well, the day is far off when we can be that knowledgeable. In the meantime, listen..."
"Our mystery drama, 'The Secret Doctrine,' was written especially for the Mystery Theater by Elspeth Eric and stars Mercedes McCambridge."
An Ending Narration:
(Creepy music plays underneath remarks.)
"A thousand miles, a thousand days, on her knees. What awful retribution we expect of ourselves. What endurance we can find within us to carry out our goal. And what is the priceless goal we seek? The goal that so obstinently eludes us, after thousands upon thousands of miles and as many days? Why, I think it is nothing more and nothing less than peace of mind. I'll be back shortly."
(Somber music plays beneath remarks.)
"I told you it would be a somber story, did I not? And so it was. Well, exploring the unknown is not all fun and folly. But the unknown must be explored in the wild hope that one day it will become known. I wonder though... when it is as familiar to us as say, the combustion engine, will it stop being fascinating and become boring? What then will we do for fun? What will happen to this program? Merciful heavens, what will I do for a job?"
The Standard Closing:
"This is E.G. Marshall inviting you to return to our Mystery Theater for another adventure in the Macabre. Until next time, pleasant dreams?"
(Sound effect: Squeaky door closes and downbeat music plays.)
Hear An Actual Episode!
(Courtesy of OldTimeRadioFan.com)
The Old Ones Are Hard To Kill
The Return of the Moresbys
No Hiding Place
Honeymoon with Death
Warn You Three Times
Death Rides a Stallion
The Only Blood
Murder To Perfection
Possessed By The Devil
The Precious Killer
The Killer Inside
Roses Are for Funeral
The Queen of Darkness
A Case of Negligence
Can You Trust Your Husband
Hit Me Again
The Red Frisbee
There's No Business Like
The Lady of the Mist
The Slick and the Dead
First Prize Death
The Children of Death
The Enchanted Child
The Forgetful Ghost
Ranee of Rajputana
Dont Look Back
More CBSRMT episodes care of: archive.org
www.cbsrmt.com is a giant site devoted to CBS Mystery Theater, with downloads for EVERY episode.
Read also"A Fan's Perspective" on the series by Dick Judge.
OTR Plot Spot synopsis of various episodes from The CBS Radio Mystery Theater: http://www.otrplotspot.com/CBSRMT.htm
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rev. 6.23.11 ©2007 Monsterwax Sci-Fi & Horror Monster Cards