By John C. Alsedek:
Full disclosure: from 2012 until 2019, I produced a revival of the classic old-time radio anthology Suspense, a revival that has aired on over 300 radio stations worldwide, including Sirius XM, Radio New Zealand, and Wisconsin Public Radio. Therefore, I am probably a little bit biased regarding the original Suspense, which aired on CBS Radio for 20 years and featured a virtual who’s-who of top Hollywood talent. I’ve always thought of it as the greatest radio anthology series of all time, and one could make a case for that in terms of the level of talent involved, both acting and writing. But if you’re talking in terms of sheer popularity, then even Suspense would have to take a back seat to the granddaddy of them all, Lux Radio Theatre.
Lux Radio Theatre was one of the earliest radio anthology programs, premiering on October 14, 1934, with a production of the Broadway show "Seventh Heaven," starring Miriam Hopkins and John Boles. It was a very different animal than Suspense, which was still the better part of a decade away from existence. Sponsored by Unilever via its Lux Soap brand, Lux Radio Theatre didn’t do tight 30-minute original episodes like Suspense did. No, it ran for a full hour, from 2:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m., performed live in front of a studio audience. And its focus was on adapting Broadway plays and presenting them to a worldwide audience, usually performed by the same actors who had done the original productions. Instead of a traditional announcer, it used the conceit of having the show’s fictional producer, Douglass Garrick (played by John Anthony), give the actors stage directions at the top of the show and do the hosting duties; he was joined by another fictitious figure, Peggy Winthrop (played by Doris Dagmar), who did all the Lux Soap commercial reads.
Lux Radio Theatre was based in New York City for its first 2 years of existence before moving out to Hollywood for the remainder of its 20-year run. Its home was the CBS Radio Playhouse, just one block south of the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine; owned during the 1930s by Howard Hughes, the theater changed hands several times over the years and is now known as the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.
Likewise, the show’s host changed a couple of times before settling in. Anthony portrayed Douglass Garrick from the first broadcast until June 30, 1935, then was replaced in the role by Albert Hayes until May 25, 1936, when Lux Radio Theatre made the move to Hollywood. At that point, the Garrick role was dropped, and the show was hosted by renowned producer and director Cecil B. DeMille; DeMille would prove to be the longest-lived host of Lux Radio Theatre, remaining on the job for almost nine years.
The move to the West Coast and the arrival of DeMille coincided with a new focus for the show. Instead of featuring one-hour adaptations of Broadway plays each week, Lux Radio Theatre began doing abridged versions of popular films—and doing them with the original stars! The very first DeMille broadcast was of "The Legionnaire and the Lady," the show’s adaptation of the film Morocco; it starred one of the film’s leads, Marlene Dietrich, with Clark Gable playing the Gary Cooper role. It was followed the very next week by an adaptation of 1934’s The Thin Man—performed by the film’s original stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Though it’s hard to imagine a modern equivalent (such as Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson doing a one-hour version of The Avengers on National Public Radio), Lux Radio Theatre made it happen on a weekly basis. Part of it was the immensity of the platform: with tens of millions tuning in every week, Lux Radio Theatre was a great place to promote an upcoming film. But it was also a highly lucrative gig, as the show paid $5,000 per episode to its stars . . . that’s well over $100,000 in today’s money! As a result, Lux Radio Theatre even eclipsed Suspense in terms of pure star power: among the luminaries to appear on the show were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Orson Welles, among many, many others.
Though the primary focus was on film stars, their radio peers also turned up on the show. Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Jim & Marie Jordan (stars of the hit show Fibber McGee and Molly) are just a few members of radio royalty who starred in episodes. My personal favorite is when William Bendix, star of the long-running The Life of Riley, starred in a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of a film adapted from a radio show: The Life of Riley!
With the advent of television, Lux Radio Theatre would slowly transition to the new medium. Lux Video Theatre premiered on October 2, 1950. Starting as a 30-minute show brought to audiences live from New York City, it would soon follow its radio brethren out to Hollywood. In 1954, Lux Video Theatre moved from CBS to NBC and was expanded to a one-hour program; there it would remain for the duration of its existence. Seeking to capture the popularity its radio version had enjoyed at its peak, Lux Video Theatre went through four different hosts (James Mason, Otto Kruger, Gordon MacRae, Ken Carpenter) in three years, but lackluster ratings finally brought an end to the show. Unilever moved its sponsorship money over to The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney in 1957, and though it would return briefly to the airwaves with Lux Playhouse a year later, the day of the dramatic anthology series was over, and Lux Playhouse quickly joined its predecessors in cancellation (Lux Radio Theatre had concluded its 21-year run in 1955). But between the three series, the Lux name produced 1,281 episodes of high-quality drama in the course of a quarter-century, a remarkable achievement by any measure.
While Lux Radio Theatre would air on CBS Radio (1935–1954) and NBC Radio (1954–1955), it started out on the NBC Blue Network, which still exists today! Well, sort of . . . We’ll be talking about the network that eventually became the American Broadcasting Company next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.