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Lights Out, Everybody! The Story of Old-Time Radio's Gran Guignol

by John C. Alsedek:

“The chicken heart was kept alive in a vat, in a laboratory, in a special solution. One day, a careless janitor knocked the vat over. The janitor went to get a rag to clean it up. The chicken heart grew six foot five inches!

It ate up all of the cabs . . . ate up the Jersey Turnpike . . . it’s coming through the woods—it’s right behind you!”

Wyllis Cooper

The story of the monstrous "Chicken Heart" was told by Bill Cosby on Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids back in 1972, though the bit came from Cosby’s 1966 comedy album "Wonderfulness." But how many kids watching Fat Albert had even an inkling that the ridiculous monster described by Bill originated on radio more than thirty years earlier? Well, it did. The program it came from was Lights Out!, an anthology series that stretched the very limits of what could be done on the medium of radio, both in terms of content and presentation.

Lights Out! was the brainchild of writer/producer Wyllis Cooper, a First World War veteran who hit on the idea of airing a dramatic series “at the witching hour,” when all of NBC’s competitors were broadcasting music. Premiering on January 3rd, 1934, on WENR 870AM in Chicago, Lights Out! was originally intended to be a serial but soon moved to the anthology format for which it would become renowned. It was a hit—expanding from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes per episode. When production of Lights Out! was suspended in January 1935 in order to allow Cooper to concentrate on writing for other NBC shows, public outcry brought the series back within just a few weeks. By spring of 1935, it was being broadcast nationally on NBC and was inspiring hundreds of fan clubs. Lights Out! had become a national phenomenon. . . .

. . . and then, Wyllis Cooper walked away from it, using his new-found fame to launch a screenwriting career in Hollywood. End of story, right? Nope. In fact, it was just the beginning for Lights Out!, as a radio wunderkind named Arch Oboler took the helm.

Just 27 years old when he replaced Wyllis Cooper, Oboler already had a reputation as a great talent but a bit of a rebel; his very first script had featured a spoof of the American Tobacco slogan—one of radio’s major sponsors—a serious no-no. So, when NBC offered him the chance to run the show at Lights Out!, Oboler wasn’t initially all that excited about the prospect, but he quickly recognized the opportunity with which he was being presented. Airing at midnight and not having a major sponsor to cater to, Lights Out! would give Oboler a much more forgiving platform for some of his more off-the-wall story ideas. It would also allow Oboler, the son of Jewish immigrants, a platform from which to express his views about the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy during the 1930’s. While NBC didn’t permit overt criticism of the German/Italian governments at that point, Oboler—like Rod Serling two decades later—found workarounds that allowed him to slip anti-fascist messages into his stories.

Oboler’s first episode of Lights Out! was "Burial Service," which concerned a young paralyzed girl who was buried alive . . . and wasn’t going to be rescued. NBC received over 50,000 letters of protest. This would set the tone for Oboler’s sojourn with Lights Out! In style and content, his scripts weren’t that far removed from what Cooper had been doing. Cooper-era Lights Out! stories were beloved for their grisly plotlines and macabre sense of humor, and Oboler followed that lead; for example, his "Chicken Heart" was a kissing cousin to an earlier Cooper script involving a giant amoeba. But Oboler brought his own sensibilities and method of writing—acting out all of the roles into a Dictaphone—to Lights Out!

What made Lights Out! unique among its radio peers was just how "out there" it really was. While other anthology shows were focused on "murderer on the loose" and ghost story-type plots, Lights Out! pulled out all the stops: a chemist who develops a solvent that dissolves anything and everything ("Oxychloride X"); a couple discovers a deadly dinosaur in the railway below Chicago ("Sub-Basement"); a menacing dynamite truck with an unseen driver ("What the Devil?"); a mysterious fog that turned human beings inside-out ("The Dark"); or an ever-growing chicken heart that threatened to devour the entire planet. The scripts by Cooper and Oboler were deeply imaginative, the voice performances frenetic, and the sound effects . . . everything from using a wet rubber glove to simulate a person’s skin being turned inside-out to building an actual functioning gallows (and having the sound effects man drop from it), Cooper and Oboler went to great lengths to have just the right effect to chill the blood of listeners everywhere.

Oboler, eager to use his fame from Lights Out! in order to pursue other projects, left the show in the summer of 1938. It continued with other writers for one more year before it was canceled. But, fittingly enough for a series with such a horror bent, it just wouldn’t stay dead. Oboler revived the show on CBS for one season in 1942; it’s from this version that virtually all the surviving episodes derive. Then NBC brought Lights Out! back for the summer of 1945 . . . and then for another short revival a year later . . . and then for a third revival in the summer of 1947, this one starring Boris Karloff. The latter was canceled after three episodes, not due to lack of interest but rather because of the sponsor’s concerns about the gruesome subject matter.

At that point, Lights Out (without the exclamation point) moved to the brand-new medium of television: first as a series of specials, and then as a regular series in 1949. Running until 1952, the TV Lights Out was a bit tamer than its radio counterpart but still delivered some genuinely chilling episodes (the bulk of them are still available on DVD or online). After 1952, it would be twenty more years before Lights Out was back on radio or television—but then, it was back on both for a short while! Arch Oboler returned with the syndicated program The Devil and Mr. O, which paired vintage Lights Out! episodes with brand-new intros from Oboler. At the same time, NBC aired a TV movie version that, unfortunately, was not well received; Oboler himself stated publicly that he had absolutely nothing to do with it. And so, finally, Lights Out! was laid to rest . . . at least, for now . . .

Apart from horror film great Karloff, Lights Out! generally featured Chicago-area actors rather than the big names of Hollywood and New York City. But that certainly wasn’t the case with the original SUSPENSE. "Radio’s outstanding theater of thrills" featured the brightest stars of the silver screen—and next time, we’ll count down the biggest names to ever appear on SUSPENSE!

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