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Theatre of the Imagination

By John C. Alsedek:

Radio drama is often referred to as "the theatre of the imagination" for pretty obvious reasons. Without the visual element of TV/films/stage plays, it’s much more akin to the written word; with only the voices, music, and sound effects of a radio production to set the scene, you have to fill in the blanks in your own mind. I sure found that intriguing as a kid when I discovered "The CBS Radio Mystery Theater" back in the 1970’s, and even in today’s hyper-visual world, the radio drama still appeals to many millions worldwide.

But in the Thirties and Forties, television really wasn’t an option, which meant that for entertainment in the comfort of your own home, radio drama was IT.

This was the "Golden Age of Radio," when Orson Welles’ "Mercury Theatre on the Air" was so popular that a production of H.G. Wells’ "War of the Worlds" could cause a nationwide panic when it was mistaken for an actual news broadcast. And this was the time period in which the original SUSPENSE came into being.

SUSPENSE wasn’t the first radio anthology—not by a long shot. Radio drama had been around for two decades before SUSPENSE came along, and "dark" programs such as "Lights Out" and "The Witch’s Tale" (which featured different stories each week, introduced by a mysterious narrator) were well-established. But what SUSPENSE did was raise the bar to a point that no radio series—or television series, for that matter—has been able to match since. From directing & music to acting & writing, SUSPENSE was basically an all-star production, drawing on the top talent in Hollywood on a weekly basis. And that was evident from the very beginning . . .

On July 22nd, 1940, SUSPENSE premiered as a one-off pilot episode on another program called "Forecast"; the episode was "The Lodger," which was directed by the man who’d brought the story to the screen in 1926: the great Alfred Hitchcock. With Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall heading up a strong cast, the pilot was a major success, and CBS Radio went forward with plans to turn SUSPENSE into a weekly radio series. The show made its official premiere in June of 1942 with a production of famed mystery writer John Dickson Carr’s "The Burning Court" and soon became both a regular front-runner in the ratings and a prestige program (it received a Special Citation of Honor Peabody Award in 1946).

There were multiple elements involved in its success. Certainly, the brilliant musical compositions of Oscar winner Bernard Herrmann were a major boon, as were the scripts supplied by luminaries such as Carr and Lucille Fletcher. But what SUSPENSE really became known for was its star power. Between 1942 and the late 1950’s, nearly anyone who was anyone in Tinseltown appeared on SUSPENSE—and not just horror kings like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Bela Lugosi, either. Here’s just a small sampling of the actors & actresses who did episodes of the series:

· Lucille Ball · Lena Horne

· Jack Benny · Gene Kelly

· Humphrey Bogart · Alan Ladd

· Joan Crawford · Burt Lancaster

· Bette Davis · Charles Laughton

· Olivia de Havilland · Myrna Loy

· Marlene Dietrich · Gregory Peck

· Kirk Douglas · Mickey Rooney

· Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. · Jimmy Stewart

· Henry Fonda · Orson Welles

· Judy Garland · Lillian Gish

· Betty Grable · Cary Grant

At its height in the late Forties/early Fifties, SUSPENSE spawned a magazine edited by "The Saint" creator Leslie Charteris and a television series that ran from 1949–1954. But in the end, it was television that did SUSPENSE in. By the late 1950’s, the show was in decline, and it finally went off the airwaves in 1962; the actual date that it and "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar"were cancelled (September 30th, 1962) is generally recognized as the end of radio’s Golden Age.

But the original SUSPENSE left behind a legacy that is well remembered to this day. Over 900 of the series’ 945 shows still exist (we’ve actually reverse-engineered several of the lost shows on our revival, including "Fury and Sound" and "The Hangman Won’t Wait"). And the series inspired a whole new generation of writers who grew up listening to radio drama and took what they’d learned to the new medium of television. Preeminent among them? Rod Serling, who as a fledgling professional writer submitted several scripts to SUSPENSE; his radio submissions were rejected, but he did get an episode produced on the television series. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that TV shows like "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" might never have come to exist if not for SUSPENSE.

Anyway, that’s the story of the original SUSPENSE. Next time, I’ll tell you a little about a young Rod Serling and his radio drama days . . .

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