By John C. Alsedek:
Okay, I swore last time that we were done with the "Down Memory Lane" stuff for a while. But that was before I knew what this column was going to be about, so please bear with me—I swear it'll be a very short jaunt!
As a kid, my go-to program to tune my pocket transistor radio in to was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The creaking door, the ominous music, the sardonic voice of E.G. Marshall
. . . honestly, I couldn't tell you the plot of most CBSRMT episodes, because for me, it was all about the atmosphere. The music I recognized from the Twilight Zone episode "Two," but as for the rest . . . it wouldn't be till I was in my forties that I realized that the creaking door and Marshall's particular style of delivery came from an earlier program by the same producer, Himan Brown. That show was Inner Sanctum.
Inner Sanctum (also known as Inner Sanctum Mysteries) was a radio anthology series that aired on the NBC Blue Network from January 7th, 1941, to October 5th, 1952. Unlike contemporaries such as Suspense and The Whistler, Inner Sanctum wasn't an original creation for radio; rather, it was based on the popular Inner Sanctum series of books by publisher Simon & Schuster. However, the radio series quickly established itself as its own entity. Himan Brown and his production staff decided to take a different tack than those aforementioned contemporaries; instead of playing it straight, they injected a tongue-in-cheek spookhouse element into the show.
Each episode started with a squeaky door slowly opening (the door was actually an office chair, pressed into service on-air when the door effect didn't work) and some eerie organ music, followed by the opening narration by the announcer, Raymond Edward Johnson. Johnson, who became a popular figure in his own right for his work on the show, played "Raymond" more like a horror-show host than a traditional announcer. Raymond's delightfully awful puns and jolly undertaker delivery were every bit as entertaining as the episodes themselves, and his creepy "Pleasant dreeeeams, hmmmm?" was the pretty obvious predecessor to E.G. Marshall's "Pleasant . . . dreams?" at the end of each CBSRMT show. Raymond's shtick took an even more surreal turn in 1945 when Lipton Tea took over as the show's sponsor. He would do plugs for Lipton alongside the unflaggingly cheerful Mary Bennett, remaining in character while Mary pitched the product; Mary (known popularly as "The Tea Lady") would even chide Raymond for his spookiness and try to get him to lighten up.
He never did, however, because Raymond's style was very much in sync with the stories told on Inner Sanctum. The show's stock-in-trade were tight little thrillers/murder mysteries that managed to work in some humor amidst the frights. In general, the show steered away from the supernatural; stories might set up a ghost or other malevolent otherworldly beastie as the culprit, but it almost always turned out to be a fake. However, some of the times that Inner Sanctum moved away from its comfortable mystery format and into more of a horror setting rank among radio drama's spookiest moments: "The Vengeful Corpse" and the show's take on Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" are two of the strongest examples.
Beyond the appeal of Raymond's hosting, a big part of the reason Inner Sanctum was so successful was because of the acting. While not quite as star-studded as Suspense due to the fact that it broadcast from New York City rather than Hollywood, Inner Sanctum didn't lack for big-name performers. The most frequent major guest star was the great Boris Karloff, who did nearly two dozen episodes. Then there were other horror film masters such as Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre and mainstream stars such as Frank Sinatra, Mary Astor, Orson Welles, Agnes Moorehead, Richard Widmark, and Burgess Meredith. However, the vast majority of the roles were filled by members of New York City's radio actor family: Ralph Bell, Leon Janney, Berry Kroeger, Mercedes McCambridge, Santos Ortega, Luis van Rooten, and others. Some of these veterans would return to the airwaves with Himan Brown on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s.
During the height of Inner Sanctum's fame, it spawned a series of six films under the Inner Sanctum moniker, all starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Universal produced the first five, from 1943s Calling Dr. Death to 1945s Pillow of Death; instead of Raymond, they featured a spooky talking head in a crystal ball. The sixth film of the series was produced by Film Classics in 1948 and was only nominally related to the others.
Inner Sanctum left the radio airwaves in 1952 but resurfaced two years later in a television version produced by Himan Brown for NBC. For fans of the radio show, it was a treat to finally get to see the squeaking door and the domicile it gave access to; unfortunately, there weren't quite enough people tuning in, and the show was cancelled after 39 episodes. In an interesting side note, guess who one of the guest stars was? E.G. Marshall, who would later host Brown's CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
As mentioned earlier, Lon Chaney, Jr. was the star of the Inner Sanctum films, but his storied and sad career included a lot of other stops—including 13 Demon Street. We’ll be talking about that all-but-forgotten series next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
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.