The Witch's Tale
1931 - 1938
"Witch" Adelaide Fitz-Allen looks on as Alonzo Deen Cole menaces his wife, Marie O'Flynn on The Witch's Tale.
The mastermind behind The Witch's Tale was writer- director Alonzo Deen Cole. He convinced management at WOR in New York to let him try a drama series devoted entirely to the supernatural to compete against musical programs in the same time slot. The series became the premier radio program of its day and is fondly remembered by fans. However, less than 10% of the recordings of this pioneering series survive. Cole kept bound copies of his 332 different Witch's Tales scripts, and was proud enough of his work to actually copyright his stories. (He may have been the first radio writer to do so.) But by 1961, he didn't think there was any commercial value in the actual radio transcriptions. According to Dave Siegel's book The Witch's Tale, Cole destroyed all his own recordings of the series when he moved from New York to California. The three dozen or so surviving recordings are thanks to the efforts of other sources that salvaged what was left of this groundbreaking classic.
The horror series was undoubtedly influenced by the lurid pulp magazines of the same era, complete with vampires, jungle curses, crawling hands, Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, and ghostly manifestations. Cole played the lead in the series while his wife Marie O'Flynn played the primary females. Mark Smith and Alan Devitte rounded out the ensemble cast. (Siegel, 9) By today's standards, the acting can seem overblown, but the plots themselves are engrossing and often crawl under your skin. Some of the surviving episodes are actually Australian remakes based on original scripts (including "Haunted Crossroads" and "Tourists Accommodated").
The host was a cackling old witch named Nancy, played by Adelaide Fitz-Allen, who had a long career as a stage actress. She died in 1935 at the age of 79. A young 13-year-old named Miriam Wolfe auditioned to fill the role at midnight, after one of Cole's shows ended. He was amazed at how ancient the child could make her voice sound and he hired her on the spot. Martha Wentworth also played Nancy during the show's run. (Dunning, 724) Cole himself voiced Satan, the "wise black cat."
The Witch's Tale was recorded live on acetate discs during broadcast and syndicated to other stations. This was common for Mutual because they were the smallest of the four networks (The big money was with David Sarnoff's Blue and Red Networks, also known as the National Broadcasting Company, and William Paley's Columbia Broadcasting Company.) Mutual was owned by Louis Bamberger, a New Jersey department store owner. He didn't have the deeper pockets of his rivals and could not afford the big budget stars and productions. So local stations commonly developed their own shows and syndicated them to other stations in the network. The most famous of these was The Lone Ranger series, which was produced at sister station WXYZ in Detroit (Siegel, 4).
Sometimes, the stories were drawn out over a couple of episodes, but this was usually unintentional. The program was intended to run 30 minutes, but if it ran long during the live broadcast, Cole would write on-the-spot modifications to extend the story until the next week. He would then go home and write a new second half. According to Jack Beck, a veteran actor who appeared in a couple of episodes, Cole would frantically rewrite and hand new script changes out to the actors in mid-broadcast (Siegel, 7). No wonder the stories were suspenseful, the actors themselves couldn't be sure what would happen!
The Witch's Tale is also credited as the inspiration for the infamous EC horror comics, including Tales Of The Crypt.
13-year-old Miriam Wolfe did an uncanny witch imitation, which led to her replacing the 79-year-old Fitz-Allen after her death. In the 1950s, Wolfe went on to parody her earlier witch role in the children's radio series, Miss Switch, The Witch (in which she played the title role).
A scene from one of the more popular episodes that survived destruction, "Hairy Monster," courtesy of Tune In For Terror ©1992.
The Standard Intro:
(Sound effects: Wind, bell tolls.)
Announcer: "The Witches Tale!"
(Music plays from Leginski's Orgie and the Spirits.)
Announcer: "The fascination of the eerie. Weird, blood-chilling tales told by Old Nancy, the witch of Salem, and Satan, a wise black cat. They are waiting... Waiting for you.... now."
An Opening Narration:
Nancy: "Hum-hum-hum-hum-hum. A hundred and 17 year old I be today. Yes sir, a hundred and 17 year old. Well Satan, this here nice night for one of our cheerful little bed time stories, yes? Our Satan's got a yarn to fit just such a night as this, heh-heh-heh. Satan, tell everyone to douse their lights."
(A cat yowls.)
"That's it. Now draw up to the fire and gaaaaze into the embers. Gaze into 'em deep. And soon you'll see a dusty road way out in California in the year of 1852. Now down that road, you'll hear a horseman riding. As he rides into our story, we'll begin. And what we calls Four Fingers and A Thumb. Four Fingers and A Thumb! Hee-hee-hee-hee!"
An Ending Narration & Closing:
(Sound effects: Music builds)
"Well, that's the end of that one Satan. Sleep good until next time, little children. Hee-hee-hee-hee!"
(Sound effect: Cat yowls. Music swells and concludes.)
Hear An Actual Episode!
(Courtesy of Archive. org)
Graveyard Mansion - Two brothers inherit an old mansion in Louisiana that is rumored to be haunted.
Hear a dozen others at the same site.
Hear four more, courtesy of Radiolovers.com
Four Fingers And A Thumb (10-19-1937)
The Boa Goddess (3-18-1937)
The Puzzle (9-7-1934)
Hear more courtesy of otrland.com)
The Power of Lucifer
The Gypsy's Hand (a 1940s rebroadcast from the Star Spangled Theatre)
And the largest selection care of Tennessee Bills Otr.
READ one of several scripts, courtesty of Genericradio.com!
The Haunted Crossroads (Oct 17, 1932)
Spirits of the Lake (Jan 2, 1933)
The Altar (Nov 8, 1933)
The King Shark God (Aug 14, 1935)
EXTRA: Bonus Background!
Thanks to David Siegel's book of 13 Cole scripts, we have an ancient introduction from the early days of the series, when the announcer took listeners to Nancy's home to hear her tale. (The opening scenes were eventually shortened to the standard introduction listed above.) Here's the rare, lost script from Cole's dusty bound volume which provides an early introduction and additional details about Nancy's home and even her last name:
(Orgie and the Spirits music plays)
Announcer: "Do you believe in ghosts, goblins and those strange spirits of evil that sometimes leave their home in the darkness to walk the day with men? Before you say 'No,' turn down your lights, mount a broomstick and come with us to a little tumbled down shack in Salem, Massachusetts where an old, old woman lives alone with a coal black cat. Her name is Nancy Holcomb and they say she is a witch; her cat is known as Satan. The broomstick travels fast-- we're at her door-- and if she'll let us in, perhaps we shall hear that which will make the phantom spirits of evil seem real to us-- terrible-- very terrible."
The music ends. There's a knock on the door and Nancy answers it. After a brief exchange with the speaker (Tom), Nancy begins to tell here tale.
Hear the 1998 David Siegel Interview with John Gassman about his book of The Witch's Tale (in MP3)
Here's one place to order this highly recommended book.
See the log of broadcasts from this series.
The other cast of the show: Alan Devitt (L) and Mark Smith (R). Smith awed the young Miriam Wolf with his imposing size (6'8" and 280 lbs.) She remembered that Devitt would get so excited while acting, that he had difficulty keeping his false teeth from falling out (Siegel, 5).
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