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SUSPENSE’s Polaris: Robert Montgomery on Radio’s Theater of Thrills

by John C. Alsedek:

During the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930’s and 1940’s, most anthology programs with a mystery/horror focus tended to have a character as the show’s host. The first (at least at the national level) was likely "Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem" on the Mutual Radio Network’s The Witch’s Tale, which began in 1931; other examples include "The Hermit" (host of The Hermit’s Cave), "The Whistler" (the eponymous host of The Whistler), and "The Man in Black" from the original Suspense. But in 1948, Suspense changed things up in a major way. Coinciding with a format change from thirty minutes to a full hour, CBS brought in a genuine star to act as producer, host, and frequent actor. That star was Robert Montgomery.

Today, Robert Montgomery is often best remembered for his famous daughter (more on her later). But in the Forties, Montgomery was a major box office draw—even getting top billing over John Wayne in 1945’s They Were Expendable—and had been for the better part of two decades. He’d already appeared in over sixty motion pictures, garnering two Oscar nominations in the process. He’d also been one of Hollywood’s most active stars during World War II, starting with a volunteer stint as an ambulance driver in France prior to Dunkirk and leading to a stint in the Navy where he saw combat in the Pacific (as a PT boat commander) and during the Normandy Invasion.

Montgomery’s mellifluous voice was a natural for radio, and he already had dozens of guest appearances on shows like Lux Radio Theater and Good News before he arrived at the Suspense studios. He also brought something else: an innate curiosity about the creative process. From his early motion picture days, Montgomery went to great lengths to learn about photography, sound design, sets, editing, and the other facets of filmmaking. In fact, when famed director John Ford became ill during the filming of They Were Expendable, he handed over direction of the remaining scenes to Montgomery.

Starting in January of 1948, Montgomery became the face of the revamped Suspense, which was airing in a new one-hour slot on Saturday nights. Besides hosting and serving as executive producer, Montgomery also starred in fourteen episodes, including some of Suspense’s finest moments, such as "In a Lonely Place" and "Night Must Fall," as well as remakes of classic episodes like "The Lodger" and "The Thing in the Window."

Unfortunately, it was a short-lived collaboration. With previous sponsor Roma Wines having bowed out in November 1947, Suspense was without a sponsor for the first half of 1948 until Autolite took over for what would be the show’s greatest years. Suspense also suffered in the ratings as a result of its move to Saturdays, as much of its most faithful audience—teens and young adults—tended to be out at the movies or partaking in other diversions those nights.

But beyond that, the same curiosity that led Montgomery to take on the Suspense gig was also what led him to leave the show after just five months. Intrigued by the possibilities in the brand-new medium of television, Montgomery would become the driving force behind Robert Montgomery Presents, an Emmy-winning anthology series that aired from 1950–1957. He retired from television in 1960, but the Montgomery name would be carried on by his daughter Elizabeth of Bewitched fame.

And speaking of witches . . . next time, we’ll be tracing the circuitous route of how a 79-year-old stage actress led to a hit 1980’s cable program. Till then, thanks for tuning in!

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