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From Chills to Children: The Radio Career of Boris Karloff

by John C. Alsedek:

When you think of the greatest horror stars of the 20th Century—names like Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, John Carradine—they all share something in common: the unique qualities of their voice. And so it was with Boris Karloff, which is a little ironic given that his breakout role in 1931’s Frankenstein involved no dialogue other than inarticulate growling and whining. Karloff’s voice is arguably the most instantly recognizable of the bunch (hellooooo, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that besides his 200+ film/television credits, Boris had a prolific radio career as well.

Karloff appeared on dozens of programs from the mid-1930s until the late-1950’s. Sometimes, those appearances were on mainstream programs such as Theater Guild of the Air, NBC University Theater, and The Radio Hall of Fame, playing fairly mainstream roles. On other occasions, he would do a bit of self-parody on comedic programs like The Jimmy Durante Show, Martin and Lewis, and Jack Benny. He even did the occasional Western, most notably "Night Stage to Dalton," the December 22nd, 1937, episode of The Lone Ranger.

But not surprisingly, it was on the horror/murder mystery anthology programs that Boris Karloff really excelled. His best-known early radio work was a run on Arch Oboler’s Lights Out!, a run that included one of that show’s most notorious episodes: "Cat Wife," in which a man’s wife is transformed into a giant cat. Karloff also starred in seven episodes of the popular Inner Sanctum Mysteries, starting in 1941. His performances in these roles, as well as his name marketability, clearly convinced someone at the Blue Network (the precursor of ABC) that he’d be a terrific host for a series of his own. And so it was that Boris came on board as the face and frequent star of Creeps by Night, a horror anthology series which premiered on February 15th, 1944. Creeps by Night got glowing reviews and solid ratings, but was done in by the decision to move production from Los Angeles to New York City in late May; Karloff was dropped and replaced by an anonymous host named "Dr. X" . . . but when Karloff left, so did the ratings, and Creeps by Night’ went off the air less than three months later.

That wasn’t the end of Boris Karloff’s hosting run, however. Having already done a run as recurring guest star on Lights Out!, he was tabbed to host and star in the show’s summer of 1947 revival on ABC Radio. Broadcasting from Hollywood, this eight-show run (using scripts from original Lights Out! creator Wyllis Cooper) kicked off with "Death Robbery," in which Karloff plays a scientist who brings his wife back from the dead, only to learn that, rather than the loving woman he remembered, she’s now a babbling, mindless murderer. Good lurid fun in the Cooper tradition to be sure, and audiences loved it. The show’s sponsor, Eversharp Pencils, was of another mind, however; disturbed by the show’s content, it pulled the plug after just two more episodes. But that STILL wasn’t the end of Karloff’s hosting run, as he would do a series that even today is a bit of a mystery . . .

On September 21st, 1949, Starring Boris Karloff premiered on ABC Radio. A 30-minute radio show that ran on Wednesday nights, Starring Boris Karloff also existed as a 30-minute television program on Thursdays; both radio & TV versions used the same scripts, with adaptations made to accommodate their respective mediums. Thirteen episodes were produced, using adaptations of short stories by the likes of Cornell Woolrich and Arch Oboler. The premiere episode, "Five Golden Guineas," set the tone; Karloff played an unscrupulous hangman who executes a young man he knows to be innocent, only to learn afterwards that the young man was his son! Starring Boris Karloff underwent several name changes during its 13-week run; it was also known as Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, Boris Karloff Presents, and Presenting Boris Karloff. But beyond that, very little is known about it for a simple and very sad reason: none of the episodes, neither radio nor television, have survived.

That was it for Karloff’s radio hosting days—or at least, the end of his horror radio days. For in 1950, Karloff began doing a regular show on New York’s WNEW . . . for children! It was a labor of love for Boris, who was well known for his generosity towards youngsters. During the course of each program, he would read children’s stories, play children’s music, and share jokes & riddles. Definitely a change of pace for the horror legend, but one that gave the public a better look at his inner self.

Speaking of horror legends, did you know that Karloff wasn’t the only one to have his own radio show? Well, he wasn’t, and that’s what we’ll be delving into next time. Till then, thanks for tuning in!

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