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From Sears to Mutual of Oblivion: Radio's Last Great Anthology Series

By John C. Alsedek:

Riding a wave of nostalgia that swept across the U.S. in the early 1970’s, radio drama—which had essentially died here when Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar went off the air in 1962—had a decade-long resurgence. The fondly remembered CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974–1982) is the show most closely identified with this period, but not the only one that would come to mind for old-time radio buffs; Rod Serling's The Zero Hour (Mutual Broadcasting System, 1973–1974), National Public Radio's Earplay (1972–1982) and The National Theater of Chicago (1973–1986), and even the kid-oriented General Mills Radio Adventure Theater (CBS Radio, 1977–1978) all have their supporters in OTR circles. Yet there is one radio drama of the 1970's that is all but forgotten today—which is ironic because it was perhaps the most ambitious of them all. That show is Sears Radio Theater.

If I had to take a guess, I'd say that Sears Radio Theater suffers a bit in comparison to its contemporaries because it didn't hit the airwaves until 1979, at a point when the radio drama revival was starting to fizzle out. But in terms of its actual quality of acting, writing, and production, Sears Radio Theater was every bit as good—and sometimes even better—as the vaunted CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

Sears Radio Theater was the brainchild of long-time radio stalwart Elliott Lewis and producer Fletcher Markle; the latter had produced both the popular 1950's CBS Radio anthology Studio One and the Boris Karloff 1960's TV show Thriller. Together, they pitched a unique concept to Sears: a weeknight radio drama series in which each night would feature a different genre. The higher-ups at Sears were so enamored with the plan that they pledged $1.2 million to produce 130 episodes (5 episodes per week for 26 weeks) as the show’s title sponsor.

Production began immediately on the Paramount Studios lot, and 40 episodes were ready to go by the time Sears Radio Theater premiered on February 5th, 1979. Each of the five weeknights had a different focus and a different host: on Mondays, Lorne Greene hosted westerns; Tuesdays, it was Andy Griffith-hosted comedies; Wednesday, Vincent Price hosted mystery/suspense tales; Thursdays, Cicely Tyson hosted "love & hate" dramas; and Fridays, it was Richard Widmark with adventure stories. Since the show was based in Hollywood, the producers were able to draw on an enormous pool of voice talent, and they took full advantage of it. Sears Radio Theater attracted an eclectic mix of name talent: television stars like Tom Bosley and Marion Ross, OTR stalwarts such as Eve Arden and Lurene Tuttle, consummate character actors like Lloyd Bochner and John Dehner, voiceover stars like June Foray and Janet Waldo . . . even singer Toni Tennille of the pop duo The Captain & Tennille appeared in an episode. Elliott Lewis explained the appeal thusly: “Actors love it. An actor can come in and do a part in a radio show that has nothing to do with what he looks like. They’re delighted to do this. They get good parts, good material, and the chance to start at the beginning and work through to the end of the story.”

Often paired with the highly successful CBS Radio Mystery Theater, Sears Radio Theater did solidly in the ratings. However, as the 1979 season began to wind down, Sears balked at continuing as the title sponsor. The reason? It simply couldn’t continue filling all the commercial spots five nights a week with nothing but Sears ads. CBS Radio proved to be less than helpful as well, as it was already having trouble selling commercial spots for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

Fortunately, Mutual Broadcasting System stepped up to fill the void, getting both Sears and CBS Radio off the hook. For 1980, the show moved over to the 950-affiliate Mutual network and became Mutual Radio Theater. Sears stayed on as the primary—but no longer only—sponsor, while Mutual picked up the production costs. Other than that, the only major change was that the Friday adventure tales had a new host: Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the format that carried over from CBS Radio; filling the show’s twelve commercial spots became an increasingly difficult task. By fall of 1980, the majority of the spots were being filled by PSAs (Public Service Announcements) rather than paid ads.

So, the writing was on the wall, and Mutual Radio Theater was cancelled on December 19th, 1980. CBS Radio Mystery Theater and Earplay followed within two years, and it would be twenty years before another radio anthology would appear on the U.S. airwaves.

It wasn’t just on radio that the anthology format underwent a revival in the early-to-mid 1970’s; it happened on television as well! We’ll be delving into the story of a forgotten series from that era, Ghost Story, next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

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