Oh, Such Horrible Hosts: The Radio Shows of Peter Lorre & Vincent Price
By John C. Alsedek:
When last we met, the topic was the radio career of Boris Karloff. He was the most prolific of the horror "kings" in terms of his audio output (with one possible exception, as you’ll see in a bit), but certainly not the only one. In fact, most of the silver screen’s thrill-masters did at least some radio work.
The granddaddy of them all, Lon Chaney Sr., had already passed on before radio drama caught on; his son, Lon Chaney Jr., did essentially no radio (one appearance as himself) for reasons speculated to be related to his battle with alcohol. But the other six of the "Great Eight"—Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, and Claude Rains—all had radio careers of some substance. Carradine and Rains did about a dozen shows each; while Lugosi did about 30–40 radio shows, including the memorable Suspense episode "The Doctor Prescribed Death." However, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price eclipsed everyone but Karloff, both in overall output and in another respect: they both hosted their own shows!
Peter Lorre arrived on the Hollywood scene in the mid-30’s after a successful stage and screen career in Europe, but it wasn’t until his role in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon that he became a major "star of the suspenseful." That’s when his radio credits began; between 1941 and 1947, he appeared on most of the top mystery/horror shows such as Suspense, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, The Whistler, and Molle Mystery Theater. Combined with his already-iconic film persona, Lorre seemed like a natural to do his own show; and that’s what happened during the summer of 1947.
NBC introduced Mystery in the Air as a summer replacement series, with Lorre as host and lead actor of all thirteen episodes (as a fun side note, the show’s announcer was future Dragnet and M*A*S*H* star Harry Morgan!) Although Lorre had played a wide variety of roles during his Hollywood career to that date—including a great comedic turn in Arsenic and Old Lace—he was most widely identified with horror & mystery, and Mystery in the Air took full advantage of that.
All thirteen stories, including adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," presented Lorre with the opportunity to play tortured souls driven mad by unnatural circumstances—and Lorre took full advantage. In fact, he would get so engrossed in his performances that, on occasion, his script would go flying from his hands and the rest of the cast would have to wing it until he could gather his pages back up.
My personal favorite of all of Lorre’s Mystery in the Air performances is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s "The Horla," a tale in which a man (Lorre) becomes convinced that he is being stalked by an invisible monster from the stars. It’s never made clear whether there really is a Horla, or whether it’s all in the man’s head, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a thoroughly engrossing thirty minutes. It’s also memorable for a rare moment where Lorre breaks through the fourth wall and rages to the audience how the Horla will "get" everyone, before he manages to get himself under control. We actually did our own version of "The Horla" for our revival of SUSPENSE; it stars Christopher Duva and Flapper Press’s own Elizabeth Gracen in what remains one of my favorite episodes!
Mystery in the Air did okay in terms of ratings, but not well enough to warrant additional episodes beyond the thirteen originally planned. That’s unfortunate, because it’s a fun series, and one I’d definitely recommend checking out; episodes are available at archive.org.
Vincent Price had a much longer radio career than even Karloff, and a bit more varied; not only did he do the horror/mystery shows you’d expect (his performances in the classic Suspense episodes "Fugue in C Minor" and "Three Skeleton Key" are especially worth a listen), but he also played Leslie Charteris’ jewel thief-turned-troubleshooter Simon Templar on The Adventures of the Saint from 1947–1951. Unlike some horror stars such as Bela Lugosi, who admitted that he never much cared for radio work, Price had an unabashed love of the medium, even continuing to do shows such as Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar into the last days of radio’s "Golden Age" in the late 1950s. So, it’s not surprising that Price ended up hosting not one but two radio anthology series during the 1970’s.
The first of them was a BBC Radio series called The Price of Fear, which ran for 22 episodes in total, starting in 1973. Price served as host and star of each episode; in an added twist, many of the episodes were couched as fictional adventures of the horror legend himself! It’s a little harder to find than some other old-time radio shows, but some examples are up on YouTube.
As for the other radio anthology Vincent Price was the host of, The Sears Radio Theater premiered in 1979 and ran every weeknight on CBS Radio—often paired with the long-running CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The Sears Radio Theater featured a unique format, with each day of the week dedicated to a particular genre; Price was the host and sometimes-star of the "mystery and suspense" shows on Wednesdays.
And speaking of The Sears Radio Theater . . . that all-but-forgotten series from the brief radio renaissance of the 1970’s is our topic for next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!