By John C. Alsedek:
As I’ve probably mentioned ad nauseam, one of my very favorite childhood TV shows was Thriller, the early sixties horror/suspense anthology hosted by film legend Boris Karloff. So much of my love for Thriller was based on just how rare it was to even find it on TV during the 1970s and 1980s; it only seemed to turn up randomly on WOR Channel 9 in NYC, like, when New York Mets games were rained out. Oh boy, did I spend a lot of time flipping over to WOR on the off-chance I’d catch it. It didn’t happen often: in fact, I wouldn’t get to see ninety percent of the episodes until the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) ran it at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings back in 1998–1999.
Yet, as difficult to find as Thriller was during those pre-instant-gratification days before streaming video existed, it was as ubiquitous as Friends or Seinfeld compared to Karloff’s previous TV anthology, a show so obscure that not one recording of it remains today. That show was Starring Boris Karloff.
Starring Boris Karloff premiered on ABC on September 14, 1949. The series was produced and directed by Charles Warburton, with a focus on tales of mystery and suspense. In a move that would become somewhat commonplace in the brand-new world of television, the show was produced in both TV and radio versions, using the same cast for both but with versions of the same script tailored for their respective mediums; the radio version of Starring Boris Karloff aired on ABC Radio on Wednesday nights, while the TV version ran on ABC Television one night later. A veteran of radio drama, Karloff would have been very comfortable with this format.
Around Halloween of 1949, the show underwent a name change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff; it was also known as Boris Karloff Presents and Presenting Boris Karloff. The 13th-and-final episode of Starring Boris Karloff/Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff aired on December 15, 1949, and it would be nearly a decade before "The Uncanny Karloff" had his next anthology series: the never-broadcast 1958 Hal Roach Studios production The Veil.
Since there’s precious little information that remains regarding Starring Boris Karloff, any examination of this lost series is going to involve a whole lot of guesswork. For example, it’s unclear whether Starring Boris Karloff was cancelled or was only ever meant to be a limited-run series. The fact that it ran for thirteen episodes could have been a sly nod to the type of dark, spooky material it aired . . . or that could have just been coincidence. I can’t find any Nielsen ratings for Starring Boris Karloff, as the lists available only show the top ten shows; the very similar-in-concept anthology series Suspense was the #8 show for 1949–1950, but it had a built-in audience since Suspense had been (and still was in 1949) a top radio show.
Likewise, it’s tough to know the exact format that Starring Boris Karloff followed. However, a contemporary of Starring Boris Karloff was Lights Out, a TV adaptation of the super-creepy Arch Oboler radio show. While I don’t think Boris appeared as a disembodied head illuminated by a single candle à la Lights Out’s Frank Gallop, he probably did the intros with the accompaniment of organist George Henninger, who would also supply music throughout the episode. And like Lights Out, Starring Boris Karloff was likely shot live and recorded via kinescope (the precursor of videotape, produced by filming off a video monitor during a live broadcast) via an early three-camera setup.
As for the thirteen episodes produced, there’s only a bit of information that’s been found over the years, such as titles and airdates. They are:
1. "Five Golden Guineas" (September 21/22, 1949)
2. "The Mask" (September 28/29, 1949)
3. "Mungahara" (October 5/6, 1949)
4. "Mad Illusion" (October 12/13, 1949)
5. "Perchance to Dream" (October 19/20, 1949)
6. "The Devil Takes a Wife" (October 26/27, 1949)
7. "The Moving Finger’ (November 2/3, 1949)
8. "The Twisted Path" (November 9/10, 1949)
9. "False Face" (November 16/17, 1949)
10. "Cranky Bill" (November 23/24, 1949)
11. "Three O’Clock" (November 30/December 1, 1949)
12. "The Shop at Sly Corner" (December 7/8, 1949)
13. "The Night Reveals" (December 14/15, 1949)
Of those thirteen, I’m familiar with "The Night Reveals," a Cornell Woolrich tale originally performed on Suspense by Robert Young and Margo; it concerns an insurance investigator looking into a series of fires in New York City, and who begins to suspect that the arsonist is his own wife. The others are a mystery to me, with the exception of "Five Golden Guineas," which is described by horror legend Stephen King in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre. King gives a brief plot summary of "Five Golden Guineas" as he compares it to an episode of Thriller from a dozen years later ("Guillotine"); in "Five Golden Guineas," an unscrupulous executioner hides evidence that a condemned young man is innocent, only to have a double comeuppance at the end. Since both the Starring Boris Karloff episode and script for "Five Golden Guineas" have been lost to time, I actually wrote a brand-new script from King’s description for my own radio anthology show; and boy, was that a fun project! It’s still in my eternal edit pile, but it’ll be a real corker when it’s finished.
A handful of actors and actresses are known to have performed on Starring Boris Karloff, including future Emmy winner Mildred Natwick and, of course, Karloff himself. But few had their careers take a turn for the tragic the way that Jean Muir did. We’ll be talking about Muir and the Communist Blacklist next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.