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Proto-"Night Gallery"? Orson Welles & "The Black Museum"

By John C. Alsedek:

Imagine, if you will, tuning in your radio one evening during the early 1950’s with the sound of Big Ben tolling in the background as the measured, solemn tones of Orson Welles give the following introduction:

“This is Orson Welles, speaking from London.”
“The Black Museum . . . a repository of death. Here in the grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard is a warehouse of homicide, where everyday objects—a woman’s shoe, a tiny white box, a quilted robe—are all touched by murder.”

(music swells)

One of the great joys of doing this column is that, every now and then, I learn something completely new. Such is the case with The Black Museum, a radio series that I didn’t even know existed until just a few days ago.

The Black Museum was a weekly radio anthology series that ran from January to December of 1951 for 51 episodes in total. Produced by the mother-and-son team of Margaret Miller and Harry Towers, who called their company "Towers of London," it originally aired on Radio Luxembourg and was broadcast on over 500 stations of the Mutual Broadcasting System starting the next year; amazingly, The Black Museum didn’t make it onto the BBC until 1991!

The show dramatized cases from the files of the famed Greater London police headquarters, Scotland Yard. Each episode was named for the murder weapon used in its story: "The Black Gladstone Bag," "The Mandolin String," "Auto Service Card," and so on. Basing an anthology program on this premise wasn’t entirely original: The Secrets of Scotland Yard had been airing internationally since 1949; and an American take on the idea called Whitehall 1212, produced by former Lights Out! mastermind Wyllis Cooper, made it to the U.S. airwaves months before The Black Museum got to the United States. But what set it apart is the presence—and gravitas—of Orson Welles.

Welles—in the midst of a self-imposed exile from the U.S. due to issues with the I.R.S.—took on both the host and narrator roles, acting as the "tour guide" for the listeners, who were taken on a tour of the title location (which actually exists, though it is officially known as the "Crime Museum"). His footsteps echoing down the stone hallways of the museum, Welles would stop to point out a particular item, and action that would provide the introduction to that week’s story. The items ranged from the obvious (a pistol, a straight razor) to the unlikely (a pink powderpuff!), all of which were used in the commission of murder most foul. At the end of each show, Welles would wrap things up, giving an explanation of how the murderer was caught and how he or she was punished. He would end each show with “Now, until we meet again in the same place, and I tell you another tale of the Black Museum . . . I remain, as always, obediently yours.”

Listening to them, I immediately thought of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery due to the similarity of setup: a solemn, matter-of-fact narrator walking through a darkened museum, stopping to talk about a particular object that would be the subject of that episode (a murder weapon on The Black Museum, a painting on Night Gallery). Whether the concept of Night Gallery was influenced at all by The Black Museum, I have no idea. It’s possible, though; I mean, Serling was an avid radio drama fan as well as a writer & producer, and given how widely The Black Museum was distributed on Mutual Broadcasting, he quite possibly gave it a listen or two. There are some episodes on and also on YouTube; it’s well worth checking out for Welles alone.

The Black Museum continued on in U.S. syndication until the early 1960’s and, as mentioned earlier, made it onto the BBC in 1991. Then in 2002, Harry Towers of Towers of London resurrected The Black Museum, this time for the medium of television. Starring Michael York and Rachel Binder, the show kept the original Welles narration and changed the name to Orson Welles’ Tales from the Black Museum, both as a marketing gimmick and a nice nod to the radio & film great, who had passed on in 1985.

And speaking of Orson Welles . . . he once referred to a particular lady as “America’s greatest actress.” To whom was he referring? Bette Davis? Joan Crawford? Nope. It was in reference to "The First Lady of Suspense," Agnes Moorehead. We’ll be taking a look at Moorehead’s career next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

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