Historian of Horror: Hide the WD-40!

When you have a medium reliant entirely on sound, which sonic effects are used has an impact that sometimes transcends all the other elements. Three radio shows spanning fifty years of that medium’s history were notable for sharing the same sound.

Radio impresario Himan Brown told the tale, years after the fact, of an ominously creaking door in the basement of a radio studio he once worked in, which inspired him to use that noise during the opening and closing of a program he created in 1941, and another one three decades later.

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries was loosely associated with a similarly-named series of mystery novels published by Simon & Schuster. It premiered on the NBC Blue Network on January 7, 1941, switched to CBS in September 1943, moved to the Blue Network’s successor, ABC, in 1950 for one year, then popped up briefly in 1952, again on CBS. That sort of network perambulation wasn’t uncommon back then.

By the way, NBC’s Red Network is the one that continues on today. Blue was sold off after World War II to become ABC because the Federal Communications Commission didn’t approve of two parallel networks from one company. My, how times have changed.

Anyhow, Inner Sanctum introduced the notion of the humorous host, Raymond, whose descendants include the Tales from the Crypt’s Crypt Keeper and his ilk. Radio show hosts had previously played it mostly straight and generally did subsequently. Neither The Mysterious Traveler nor The Whistler joked around quite like Raymond, whose full name was Raymond Edward Johnson. He drawled a snarky introduction, made some bad puns, insulted the sponsors, then let the murder and mayhem fly over the airwaves. Regular guest stars in those early years included movie boogymen Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. 

Raymond left in 1945, replaced by Paul McGrath. The stories became campier, and the big-name guest stars more infrequently heard, but the program limped on for another six years, plus three months. There was one year of a television version on NBC during the 1953-1954 season, running thirty-nine episodes. In addition, there was a six-film series starring Lon Chaney made by Universal Studios in the mid-1940s, and a 1948 feature film, neither of which were associated with the radio show. Their inspiration came from the novel series. 

The age of Old Time Radio in the United States ended in 1962, but in 1973, Himan Brown decided the medium deserved another chance. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater ran in syndication from January 6, 1974, to December 31, 1982, five and sometimes six nights a week for 1399 original episodes. It was hosted by E.G. Marshall, whom some may remember as the entomophobic businessman in the final segment of the first Creepshow, in 1982. The program featured original stories, as well as adaptations of classic tales, including “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel that was loosely based on Jack the Ripper,  The Lodger. The show starred popular television actors, but none who were big names at the time. Sarah Jessica Parker did have an early credit in “The Child Cat’s Paw”, aired on May 17, 1977, and John Lithgow starred in “The Deserter” on February 6, 1980, but few others of the featured guests would be familiar to most folks these days. Alas. Their loss.

Except for a brief revival of reruns in 1998, the creaking door finally closed for the last time. However, there was one more manifestation of its rusty hinges on the air during the years between Himan Brown’s bookend programs, in a far off land where radio didn’t die out quite so soon as it did in America.

Television wasn’t permitted in the Republic of South Africa until the mid-1970s, so audiences there had no other recourse but to be entertained by radio. So it was that, in 1964, the squeaky old portal was revived by Springbok Radio for at least forty-two episodes aired over the next year or so. Information on the exact number and their broadcast dates has thus far eluded scholars of the medium, but those forty-two episodes of The Creaking Door have been making the rounds among collectors for years, and are not at all bad. Definitely worth a listen.

Many thanks to John Dunning’s hefty tome, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, as well as Jim Harmon’s classic book, The Great Radio Heroes, for the information presented here. I hope to provide many more fascinating facts regarding our favorite genre in the coming year and wish for each of the populace a happy, prosperous, and delightfully frightening 2023. As always, my Merry Miscreants…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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