Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rod Serling in Radio, Pt. 1

Originally published in the December, 2008, Old Radio Times.

The Radio Career of Rod Serling
by Martin Grams, Jr.

Literally, there were thousands of radio programs broadcast throughout the twenties to the fifties that have never been documented in reference guides. Hundreds of radio stations across the country featured regional programming that rarely expanded beyond state lines, and faded from memory as fast as they came. While some programs like The Whistler started out as a West Coast program before making the switch to a coast-to-coast basis, others such as Primer for Parents and Psychologically Speaking never went beyond the local region the program originated from. WENR in Chicago had Jim and Marion Jordan for The Farmer Rusk Hour and Wyllis Cooper for Lights Out! WMCA in New York had John J. Anthony and The Goodwill Hour. And WLW in Ohio had Rod Serling.

This article will center on Rod Serling’s radio career and the many obscure programs he created and scripted for the medium. His switch to television and more importantly, how radio was a major influence on the cult television series, The Twilight Zone, will be emphasized. Like much of American history, little has been done to preserve our heritage. As a result, dates in general (1952 rather than Nov. 21, 1952) are listed because the specifics remain elusive. Serling saved much of his radio work in the form of scripts but to date, only one recording is known to exist -- offering us a brief glimpse of the drama that came from a future Emmy-Award winning playwright. Scripts were donated among other personal items such as letters and contracts to a variety of depositories across the country. The WMCA archive in New York, UCLA in Los Angeles and the Wisconsin Historical Archives. It is from these collections and the author’s personal items purchased off eBay over the past decade that form the majority of the information contained herein.

Dr. Christian Meets Rod Serling
While many maintain that The Twilight Zone influenced a great number of authors, television producers, scriptwriters and fans in general, the television program was influenced by the standards of the broadcast networks. Rod Serling worked first in radio and then moved on to television in Cincinnati (teaching himself, through actual writing, whatever he learned of playwriting). Wanting to make a profession of writing, he was at the radio’s speaker, often favoring good dramas and programs of serious horror and science fiction. Shows such as Suspense and The Mysterious Traveler may well have been influences for the types of stories of which he grew fond. One of Serling’s earliest jobs was as an unsalaried volunteer writer and actor with WNYC, a New York City radio station. Later he worked for stations in Marion and Springfield, Ohio, as well as his native Binghamton, N.Y., and Cincinnati.

“In 1946, I started writing for radio at a New York City station and thereafter did radio writing at other small stations,” he recalled. “It was experience, but incidental experience. I learned ‘time,’ writing for a medium that is measured in seconds. Radio and its offspring, television, are unique in the stringency of the time factor. Radio and TV stations gave me a look-see at the factory that would produce my product. I got to understand the basic workings of cameras, lights and microphones. I got a sense of the space that could be utilized and the number of people who might be accommodated in that space. This was all to the good.”

The radio programs Serling wrote for, however, were not broadcast nationally on a coast-to-coast hookup. They were not sponsored. In fact, almost all of them were sustained, that is, the production costs were borne by the network rather than a sponsor. Cheap to produce, these programs required no major film stars to pay, and there was no shortage of radio actors willing to work for union scale. For him, this was experience needed for a writer with no credits to his name, to get his foot in the door for programs that paid much more – courtesy of well-heeled sponsors willing to pick up the tab.

The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, for example, sponsored a long-running radio program titled Dr. Christian. The program featured top-quality dramas of a country doctor who applied the Golden Rule approach to life when facing obstacles that required his inner strength for support. In the beginning, the Dr. Christian radio program came from various scriptwriters, among them Ruth Adams Knight. In 1942, the producers tried a new approach: a contest in which listeners could submit scripts and be eligible for large cash prizes. This may have been the most significant factor in the program’s long 17-year history. Suddenly, everyone in the country was a scriptwriter. Weekly awards ranged from $150 to $500, good money in 1942, and the grand prize won the author $2,000. It soon became The Vaseline Program, “the only show in radio where the audience writes the script.”

Newsweek reported that 7,697 scripts were received in 1947; sometimes that number went as high as 10,000. Many were called, however, but few were chosen. The scripts that made it to the air continued the appeal of traditional values, showing Dr. Christian as the symbol of good will, as a philanthropist and an unabashed Cupid. The subject matter would include anything – even fantasy. One show was about a mermaid; on another, a human-like jalopy named Betsy fell in love with a black Packard owned by a woman chief of police. Only when murder was the theme of a script did listeners complain; they liked the show when it was mellow. The 1947 prize play concerned Dr. Christian’s effort to convince an unborn child that Earth was not so bad after all.

At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Rod Serling majored in language and literature and began writing scripts for radio. He became manager of the Antioch Broadcasting System’s radio workshop where he wrote, directed and acted in weekly full-scale radio productions broadcast over WJEM, Springfield. With confidence on his shoulder, during the 1948-49 school year, the entire output of the workshop was written by Serling. With the exception of one adaptation, all of the radio scripts were entirely original. Later he would look back and call this work some “pretty bad stuff.”

For the broadcast of May 18, 1949, the eighth annual scriptwriting contest of Dr. Christian ended with a special broadcast revealing the year’s winners. Among the guests on that particular program was Rod Serling, who at the time was attending Antioch College. The producers of the radio show even paid him $76.56 to reimburse his expenses in getting to CBS in New York City to appear on the Dr. Christian program. His submission, titled “To Live a Dream,” had won approval of the judges and been accepted by producer Dorothy McCann. Serling’s script helped him place in the radio contest that netted him a $500 award.

Serling brought along his wife, Carol, to attend the radio broadcast. Among the cast on stage were star Jean Hersholt, Helen Claire as nurse Judy Price, and prizewinners Russell F. Johnson, Maree Dow Gagne, Mrs. Aida Cromwell, Miss Terry McCoog, Earl Hamner, Jr. and Mrs. Halle Truitt Yenni. The program, still sponsored by Chesebrough, was the 546th broadcast of the series. Russell F. Johnson of Thomaston, Connecticut won the $2,000 first prize for his script titled, “Stolen Glory.” Mrs. Lillian Kerr of Tillamook, Oregon, won $500 for her script titled, “Angel with a Black Eye.” Earl Hamner, Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio (the same Hamner who would later write scripts for The Twilight Zone), won $500 for his script titled “All Things Come Home.” This was not Hamner’s first time winning the contest. He had been on the show previous for his award-winning scripts, “Now That Spring is There” and “Who Would Not Sing for David?”

One by one, the prizewinners were announced and interviewed on stage. Biographical background, professional endeavors and their writing ambitions were discussed. Halfway through the broadcast, Rod Serling came to the microphone.

HERSHOLT: Hello, Rod . . . and congratulations. I read your winning script, “To Live a Dream,” and I thought it was a fine job of writing.

SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt. You’ve no idea how thrilled I am to know that you and the judges selected my script as one of the winners.

HERSHOLT: Now tell us a little about yourself, Rod.

SERLING: Well . . . I first saw the light of day in Syracuse, New York, graduated from Binghamton High School, at Binghamton, New York . . . And am now in my third year of college at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

HERSHOLT: You covered an awful lot of years in an awfully few words. What happened during all that time?

SERLING: Well . . . before the war I did some staff work at a Binghamton radio station . . . tried to write . . . but never had anything published.

HERSHOLT: And during the war?

SERLING: I was in the same place as Russell Johnson . . . the Pacific . . . with the Army.

HERSHOLT: What did you do in the Army?

SERLING: I was a paratrooper.

HERSHOLT: Where did you get the idea for this fine story you wrote?

SERLING: Well . . . I’ve always been fond of boxing . . . tried my hand in the Golden Gloves. And well . . . since you’ve read my story, you know where it all ties in.

HERSHOLT: Indeed I do. And do you intend to follow writing as a profession?

SERLING: I’d like to, Mr. Hersholt. In fact, the ambition of my wife and I . . .

HERSHOLT: Oh . . . another married man!

SERLING: How did Russell Johnson say it? Yes, sir!

HERSHOLT: And is your wife sitting out front, too?

SERLING: Yes, sir . . . right there.

HERSHOLT: Well, let’s have her stand up and take a bow, too . . . Mrs. Rod Serling . . .


HERSHOLT: Well, well, you ex-G.I.s certainly specialize in beautiful brides. And now, back to that ambition of yours.

SERLING: Well, we want to live in a large house, in the suburb of a large city, raise a family, a lot of dogs . . . and write!

HERSHOLT: And I certainly hope you realize such a fine American ambition, Mr. Serling. Maybe this check for five hundred dollars will go toward part of the down payment on that dream! Congratulations . . . and good luck to you!

SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt.

- Martin Grams Jr. is the author and co-author of seventeen books about old-time radio and television. His most recent include The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008) and The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade (OTR Publishing, 2007).


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