Friday, December 19, 2008

Rod Serling in Radio, Pt. 2

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

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

More Radio Programs
Serling’s success earned him a credit that would gain the attention of other radio producers, when he included a cover letter with a submission. Broadcasting standards during the 1940s were much different from the standards enforced by the late 1950s. The policy of reviewing and accepting unsolicited radio scripts and plot proposals varied from one producer to the next. While many programs had a staff of writers, other programs occasionally purchased submissions from the open market. Suspense, a radio anthology specializing in thrilling crime dramas, for example, bought scripts from a deaf mute in Brooklyn, a night watchman from Chicago, a cowhand in Wyoming, and one script from a former inmate of San Quentin.

By the 1950s, however, a few who submitted plot proposals and scripts were seeking vengeance for their rejected submissions. They filed lawsuits against the producers and the networks whenever they heard a program of similar nature, claiming their ideas were “stolen” without due compensation. The networks began enforcing policies, in agreement with radio and television producers, not to review or accept any outside submissions. For scriptwriters offering their work in the hopes of making a sale it became a bit more complicated.

The success of the Dr. Christian radio script led to multiple attempts on Serling’s part to submit more proposals to other coast-to-coast radio programs.

“I just kept on,” he recalled years later to a newspaper columnist. “I had to earn a living and took a staff writing job on a Cincinnati radio station; but during every spare moment I turned out more free-lance scripts. Finally, I sold three others, but for each play accepted there were at least three or more turned down.”

Serling began writing scripts that were dramatized not on a national coast-to-coast hookup, but in the local Ohio listening area. “The Colonel’s Coin” was a script in memorandum to Memorial Day. On May 8, 1948, he completed a V-E Day script which was regarded by the station manager as “the first script this year that kept me on the edge.” In 1948, Serling scripted Party Line, a short-run program sponsored by the Army Recruiting Headquarters. Serling played himself in a number of skits he composed, including the lead role of Cooper. On one episode of this program, the announcer stepped aside from his normal duties to inform the radio audience that Miss Carol Kramer was engaged to Rod Serling, announced by her grandparents and the marriage to be on July 31.

But with success came the eventual edge of defeat. On September 8, 1949, Serling’s radio script “Potter’s Paradise” was rejected by the advertising agency, Wallace-Ferry-Hanly Company, for the First Nighter Program. Ira L. Avery, producer for Armstrong’s Theatre of Today, rejected his script “The Memory” in October, because “in the handling of familiar plots and themes, selection needs to be placed on a level determined by the volume and quality of submissions. We regret that, in the light of heavy competition, we do not find this story suited to our current needs.”

After peddling a football script titled “Cupid at Left Half ” to Curtain Time and finding that script rejected, he wrote to Myron Golden, script editor of the radio program, to ask why he had failed to sell a single script to Curtain Time. On October 10, 1949, he sent the following candid reply:

“This particular script lacks a professional quality. The dialog is spotty, the plot is loose, and the whole thing lacks verisimilitude . . . It appears to be a standard plot that writers somehow or other manage to pluck out of the public domain.” *

On August 10, 1949, producer/director Martin Horrell of Grand Central Station rejected Serling’s prizefight script titled “Winner Take Nothing.” The script was “better than average” Horrell admitted, but the ladies who listened to his program on Saturday afternoons “have told us in no uncertain terms that prize fight stories aren’t what they like most.” In a letter, Horrell offered him what may have been the best advice given to the young Ohio resident. “I have a feeling that the script would be far better for sight than for sound only, because in any radio presentation, the fights are not seen. Perhaps this is a baby you should try on some of the producers of television shows.”

“Those were discouraging, frustrating years,” he told a columnist in early 1960. “I wanted to quit many times. But there was something within me that made me go on. I continued writing and submitting scripts without pay and, what is even worse, most of the time, without recognition. Then at last I came up with two plays that were bought by the old Grand Central Station series on CBS Radio. I thought that now surely I was in. But I wasn’t. Day after day, I continued to pound the typewriter, with no result.”

Grand Central Station was a radio anthology consisting of light comedies and fluffy romance. Serling’s first sale to the program was “The Local is a Very Slow Train.” Broadcast on September 10, 1949, under the new title of “Hop Off the Express and Grab a Local,” the story concerned two young men, Joey and Steve, who became involved in a murder case while trying to escape the slums of the city where they live. His second sale for the series was “The Welcome Home,” broadcast on December 31, 1949, and concerned the story of Bill Grant, a crusading reporter for the fictional New York Globe. While his first sale was the prize-winning Dr. Christian script, the first script to be dramatized nationally on radio was the September 10, 1949 broadcast of Grand Central Station. In early November, his luck hung on long enough for him to receive a letter from Rita Franklin of the Dr. Christian program, alerting him that his prize-winning “To Live a Dream,” would finally be broadcast on December 7, 1949. Scheduling conflicts pushed the script ahead a week to November 30, 1949, and Rod Serling’s name was once again referenced on the Dr. Christian radio program. * *

Serling began working at radio stations such as WJEL in Springfield, Ohio, and WMRN in Marion, Ohio. Months later, in the spring of 1950, he graduated from college, and his first job was at WLW in Cincinnati, the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship station. The college radio work had paid $45 to $50 a week, but WLW was offering $75 weekly and the young playwright accepted the job. Members of the program’s casts were students of the radio department at the College of Music in Cincinnati, and he often found himself playing a role or two for some of the broadcasts.

It should be noted that among the leaders of the entertainment industry who began their careers at WLW were Rosemary Clooney, Betty Clooney, Red Skelton, Red Barber, Jane Froman, The Mills Brothers, Virginia Payne, Doris Day, Durward Kirby, Eddie Albert, and Janette Davis.* **

* Two of Serling’s earliest attempts to sell scripts to a national radio program are evident in “Look to the Sky,” dated July 13, 1947, and “The Most Dangerous Game,” dated June 22, 1947. The latter script was adapted from the Richard Connell short story of the same name.

** Serling later submitted a second script to the Dr. Christian radio program that was originally titled “The Power of Abner Doubleday” (for reasons unknown the title changed to “The Power of Willie Doubleday”) but failed to make the sale.

*** The Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, founded by radio manufacturing pioneer Powel Crosley, Jr., was an early operator of radio stations in the U.S. During World War II, it operated as many as five shortwave stations, using the call signs WLWK, WLWL, WLWO, WLWR and WLWS. In 1945, the Crosley interests were purchased by the Aviation Corporation. The radio and appliance manufacturing arm changed its name to Avco, but the broadcast operations continued to operate under the Crosley name. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Crosley (or Avco) operated a small television network in which programs were produced at one of its stations and broadcast on the other Crosley stations in the Midwest, and occasionally by non-Crosley stations.

- 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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