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CBS Radio Mystery Theater (aka Radio Mystery Theater and Mystery Theater, sometimes abbreviated as CBSRMT) was an ambitious and sustained attempt during the 1970s to revive the type of audio drama familiar to listeners of old-time radio. The series was created by Himan Brown, a radio legend due to his work on Inner Sanctum Mysteries, The Adventures of Nero Wolfe and other shows dating back to the 1930s.

On CBS affiliates, the series began its long run January 6, 1974. The final episode was broadcast on December 31, 1982. The format was similar to that of classic old time radio shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Whistler, in that the episodes were introduced by a host (E. G. Marshall) who provided pithy wisdom throughout. Unlike the hosts of earlier programs, Marshall is fully mortal, merely someone whose heightened insight and erudition plunge the listener into the world of the macabre.

As with Himan Brown's prior Inner Sanctum Mysteries, each episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater opened and closed with the ominous sound of a creaking crypt door, slowly opening to invite listeners in for the evening's adventure, accompanied by Marshall's disturbing utterance, "Come in. Welcome. I am E. G. Marshall." This was followed by one of Marshall's other catchphrases, usually either "The sound of suspense" or "The fear you can hear." At the conclusion, the door would swing shut, preceded by Marshall's classic sign off, "Until next time, pleasant... dreams?" Marshall hosted the program from January, 1974, until February, 1982, when actress Tammy Grimes took over for the series' last season, maintaining the format.

CBSRMT was broadcast each weeknight, with three or four episodes being new originals, and the remainder were reruns. There were 1,399 original episodes. The total number of broadcasts, including reruns, was 2,969. Each episode was allotted a full hour of airtime, but after commercials and news, episodes typically ran for about 40 minutes.

Contents

Target audience

The program was pitched, at least initially, to an audience old enough to remember classic radio. Even young characters tended to have names popular a generation earlier, such as Jack, George, Phyllis and Mary. Many scripts, especially those by Ian Martin, showed a tin ear for 1970s youth slang ("Don't let her give you no run-around, dad!"[1]; "I think bein' around here's gonna be kicks!"[2]; "I dig a man who's far out!"[3]). As late as 1981, Sam Dann's scripts included nervous or skeptical references to "women's lib," a term that was by then a decade out of date. In short, Brown made no attempt to broaden the program's appeal beyond the generation that had been raised on radio.

But the debut of CBSRMT, only a few months after the American Graffiti phenomenon, coincided with the 1950s nostalgia fad that swept young America between 1972 and 1978. Because radio mystery drama was reminiscent of that era, the program quickly developed a fan base among young listeners in addition to its target audience.

Music

Each show began with Host E. G. Marshall intoning, "The CBS Radio Mystery Theater presents ...", followed by the sound of a creaking door slowly opening, seeming to invite listeners in for the evening's adventure. Three descending notes from the double basses introduced Marshall's sinister intonation of, "Come in... Welcome." A muted trumpet sting and timpani roll, then: "I'm E.G. Marshall." A low, eerie woodwind theme followed as Marshall introduced the program. At the end of each show, Marshall delivered his classic signoff, "... inviting you to return to our Mystery Theater for another adventure in the macabre. Until next time, pleasant ... dreams?" The door then creaked and slammed shut, followed by the woodwinds of the show's eerie, atonal theme music.

The opening and closing themes for CBSRMT are derived from an abbreviated form of the music from the classic Twilight Zone episode "Two," composed by Nathan van Cleeve. Series listeners will immediately recognize the 'RMT Theme' beginning about 1:35 on the "Two" soundtrack selection from the Twilight Zone CD boxed set. Other background tracks from the Twilight Zone music library, to which CBS owned full rights, were featured repeatedly in episodes of CBSRMT.

Scope

Despite the show's title, Brown expanded its scope beyond mysteries to include horror, science fiction, historical drama, westerns and comedy, along with seasonal dramas at Christmas: A Christmas Carol, starring host Marshall as Scrooge, aired every Christmas Eve except 1974 and 1982.

In addition to original stories, there were adaptations of classic tales by such writers as O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and others. Brown typically devoted the first full week of each January to a five- or seven-part series on a common theme. These included a full week of stories by an American writer, (Edgar Allan Poe in 1975, Mark Twain in 1976); week-long adaptations of classic novels (The Last Days of Pompeii in 1980, Les Miserables in 1982); and original dramas about historical figures (Nefertiti in 1979, Alexander the Great in 1981).

Radio historian John Dunning[4] argued the CBSRMT scripts varied widely in quality and concept. Many of the hour-long scripts were padded with filler, Dunning suggested, and could have been worked better as 30-minute programs, while other episodes suffered due to having been written by scribes unfamiliar with the unique needs of radio drama.

Notable performers

Prominent actors from radio and screen performed on the series. Notable regulars included Mason Adams, Kevin McCarthy, Arnold Moss, John Beal, Howard Da Silva, Keir Dullea, Morgan Fairchild, Veleka Gray, Jack Grimes, Fred Gwynne, Larry Haines, Paul Hecht, Celeste Holm, Kim Hunter, Mercedes McCambridge, Tony Roberts, Norman Rose, Alexander Scourby, Marian Seldes and Kristoffer Tabori, and a then-unknown John Lithgow.

The series also introduced a new generation of listeners to many of the great old time radio voices, including such distinctive performers as Joan Banks, Jackson Beck, Ralph Bell, Roger DeKoven, Robert Dryden (who was heard in more than 240 episodes), Sam Edwards, Virginia Gregg, Leon Janney, Victor Jory, Evelyn "Evie" Juster, Mandel Kramer, Marvin Miller, Santos Ortega, Bryna Raeburn, Alan Reed, Anne Seymour, Ann Sheppard, Les Tremayne, Lurene Tuttle and Janet Waldo.

A number of well-known veteran and future stars made guest appearances, including

Actors were paid union scale at around $73.92 per show. Writers earned a flat rate of $350 per show. Production took place with assembly-line precision. Brown met with actors at 9am for the first script reading. After he assigned roles, recording began. By noon, the recording of the actors was complete, and Brown handed everyone checks. Post-production was done in the afternoon.

Awards

In 1974, CBSRMT won a Peabody Award[5], and in 1990 it was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame[6]. On May 6, 1979, Himan Brown was presented a Broadcast Preceptor Award by San Francisco State University for his contributions with the CBSRMT.

Continuing popularity

From June 3 to November 27, 1998, CBSRMT was rebroadcast over CBS affiliates and some NPR stations, with Himan Brown replacing the opening narrations of E.G. Marshall.

CBSRMT remains perennially popular with collectors to this day, with numerous websites, discussion forums and a Usenet newsgroup devoted to trading MP3 files of episodes. Some programs were taped with news and commercials embedded, providing an insight into the period when the show first aired. While some may judge CBSRMT as inferior to similar shows from the past, such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Suspense and The Mysterious Traveler, which were produced in a 30-minute format, such comparisons must take into account the sheer prodigiousness of production by Brown and his players. At the rate of one show per day, it would take nearly four years to listen to each of the 1,399 hour-long episodes of CBSRMT.

Books

The episode "Children of Death", broadcast February 5, 1976, written by Sam Dann, served as the basis for Dann's 1979 novel, The Third Body, published by Popular Library. Another of his stories for Mystery Theater, "Goodbye Carl Erich" from the 1975 season, was also turned into a novel by the same name, first published in 1985.

In 1976, a paperback anthology with three short stories adapted from the series' radio scripts was published by Pocket Library, Strange Tales from the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Edited by, and with a forward written by Himan Brown.

In January 1999, McFarland & Company, Inc. published The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a book documenting the history of the program, including an episode guide. Fully indexed, the 475-page book was authored by Gordon Payton and Martin Grams, Jr. It was published in both hardcover and trade paperback.

In October, 2006 a third book about Mystery Theater was published, examining the series value today in education and instruction: The CBS Radio Mystery Theater as an Educational Degree. The 180-page hardcover was published by Stahl Consolidated Manufacturing Corporation in Huntsville, Alabama and was selected for inclusion in the University of Georgia Film and Television Library in Summer, 2009.

All three books were reviewed in an article by Roger Sobin in Old-Time Detection Magazine in the Spring, 2008 issue.

Listen to

References

  1. ^ Ghost Plane, originally broadcast September 12, 1975
  2. ^ Don't Let It Choke You, May 21, 1975
  3. ^ The Shock of His Life, February 19, 1979
  4. ^ Dunning, John. On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-507678-8
  5. ^ [1]PDF list of winners at Peabody Award site
  6. ^ [2]Award testimonial at RHOF site

External links

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