Back to His Radio Roots: Rod Serling & "The Zero Hour"
By John C. Alsedek:
Over the past eight months or so, I’ve occasionally mentioned the radio drama renaissance of the 1970s. The most famous program of the era was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by E.G. Marshall and (later) Tammy Grimes; it ran from 1974 until 1982. However, while it was the most famous, it wasn’t the first. That honor fell to a series on the Mutual Broadcasting System, a series with a narrator whose voice was instantly recognizable to millions.
The series was The Zero Hour, and the narrator was the great Rod Serling.
In June of 1973, Serling had literally just wrapped up his TV series Night Gallery, an experience that had to have left a bad taste in his mouth (he was once quoted as saying NBC wanted “Mannix with a shroud”). Unlike his more celebrated program The Twilight Zone, where Serling had full creative control, Night Gallery was in the hands of producer Jack Laird, who had a very different idea of what the show should be. Oh sure, Serling acted as host and wrote some of the scripts, but he had others rejected as “too thoughtful” for television and was completely locked out of the casting process even for the episodes he penned himself. Jaded and a bit burnt-out, Serling was more than happy to go back to teaching at Ithaca College. But he received a most unlikely opportunity that piqued his interest: creating a brand-new anthology program . . . but on radio. He readily accepted.
When the news got out that Serling was doing a radio drama, the general feeling in the entertainment industry was most likely “Is he nuts?” Everyone knew that radio drama was dead—had been since CBS cancelled its two remaining shows, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, back in 1962. But for Serling, it was like old home week; a decade before The Twilight Zone went on the air, Serling had been a prolific radio drama writer, producer, and even occasional actor while at WLW in Cincinnati and other stations. He was joined by another old radio veteran, former Suspense director Elliott Lewis, and producer J.M. Kholos as the team behind The Zero Hour.
The format was unusual: instead of the typical anthology program in which each episode was self-contained, The Zero Hour featured one five-part story every week. It was a format that Serling had come up with for a never-produced comedy radio series in the early 1950s called The Jenkins Clan. The show premiered in September 1973 with "Wife of the Red Haired Man," starring Patty Duke Astin, John Astin, and Howard Duff. This set the tone for the entire first season, which featured star-studded casts that included a number of Twilight Zone/Night Gallery alums such as Earl Holliman, Julie Adams, Brock Peters, and Nehemiah Persoff. Combined with the presence of Serling himself, this helped The Zero Hour get positive early returns.
However, the format proved problematic—miss the first or last episode of the week, and you’d miss the beginning or ending of that week’s story. So, there was a total format change for Season Two. Instead of one five-part story each week, there would be five separate stories—but with the same actor or actress playing the lead in all five stories. The stars of Season Two were an eclectic bunch: Mel Tormé, Jackie Cooper, Dick Sargent, Lyle Waggoner, William Shatner, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Shelly Berman, Bob Crane, Monte Markham, Joseph Campanella, Ross Martin . . . and the lovely Lee Meriwether, whom I had the great pleasure of working with on my own show, SUSPENSE, back in 2017.
The Zero Hour had it all over the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (which premiered six months after The Zero Hour) in terms of star power. But what the show didn’t have was sponsors. “They forgot to sell it,” noted director Elliott Lewis, who later went on to produce Mutual Radio Theater. Combined with ratings that dropped quickly in Season One due to the odd format and never really rebounded, The Zero Hour was cancelled after the conclusion of its second season in July 1974. However, it inspired a wave of similar programs: the aforementioned CBSRMT, Mutual Radio Theater, NPR’s Earplay, The General Mills Radio Adventure Theater, and others. Unfortunately, Rod Serling didn’t live to hear most of the radio programs he helped inspire; Serling died following open-heart surgery on June 28th, 1975.
Speaking of radio anthology hosts with distinctive voices, did you know that Orson Welles hosted a series of his own in the 1950s? We’ll be talking about that show, The Black Museum, next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!