Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rod Serling in Radio, Pt. 4

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

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

The Keeper of the Chair
While these were some of Serling’s earliest attempts at fantasy and science fiction for television, they would not be his last. His love for this kind of stories was evident in a number of early teleplays. In his unsold “The Keeper of the Chair,” he told the tale of a condemned man named Paul, who spends his last moments on death row talking to his executioner, George Frank, about how many people Paul had put to death, and how many Paul felt were guilty of murder and deserved to die. However, a murder has occurred, the result of a prank, and when the warden talks to a guard, looking over the dead body, he questions why Paul shouted out “George Frank” before he died. They had no guard named George Frank. There was a convict by that name executed in 1942, and new evidence presented in 1943 proved his innocence. Paul was the state executioner, whose mind snapped over the years, having been unable to cope with sending a man to the chair for a crime he never committed, and he spent his remaining moments hallucinating – a guilt complex in the form of his own execution.

In late 1949, when Serling was still at Antioch College, he submitted his radio play of the same name to John Meston, the story editor for radio’s Suspense. On December 1, 1949, Meston returned the script, explaining, “After careful consideration, the Script Committee has decided that the story is not suitable for Suspense.” On April 27, 1950, John Meston sent another rejection letter to Serling regarding the same script, as he had submitted it for radio’s Escape. By November of 1950, Rod Serling was living (at 5016 Sidney Road) in Cincinnati, Ohio, and had adapted his radio script into a teleplay, for television’s Lights Out! program. The script editor sent a rejection stating, “This is not well written and does not sufficiently get around its basic fallacy that the executioner, rather than the jury, is responsible for the death of an innocent man.”

Radio Scripts Proposed for The Twilight Zone
“The Cold Equations” was first published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. Written by Tom Godwin, the short story tells of a starship making the rounds of Earth colonies, delivering much needed medical supplies to a frontier planet. When the pilot discovers a stowaway on board, an 18-year-old named Marilyn, who wants to see her brother at the colony, he realizes a bigger problem ahead for them. The ship only has enough fuel for the pilot and the cargo. Marilyn’s weight and mass will prevent the starship from reaching its destination. Marilyn accepts the consequences of her mistake, writes a farewell letter to her parents, talks to her brother by radio, and then enters the airlock – ready to be jettisoned into space.

While this story was never used on the original series, the 1985-89 revival of The Twilight Zone featured an adaptation of this short story. On March 24, 1959, Sylvia Hirsch of the William Morris Agency submitted an hour-long teleplay titled “Tomorrow is Here” by Whitfield Cook. On March 25, Fred Engel proposed “The Black Hound of Bailundu” by Paul I. Wellman. Serling rejected both of these.

On April 7, 1959, the radio play “Return to Dust” was considered for inclusion in the Twilight Zone series. Originally broadcast on Suspense, the George Bamber story concerned a biologist’s efforts to decrease cancer cells, and through an accident in the lab, found himself slowly shrinking in size. The majority of the drama (making the most effective use for the medium of radio) was the biologist’s effort to leave a recorded message explaining his situation and where his lab associates could find him, should they play back the recording. In the end, however, the scientist is down to the size of a bug and still shrinking, though he never gets to microscopic size because a bird mistakes him for an insect and makes a feast of him.

On June 29, 1959, Jack Stewart & Associates, representatives of William N. Robson, wrote to Rod Serling, in care of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

Dear Mr. Serling:
William Robson, who is director-producer and sometime writer for CBS’s Suspense, has a backlog of science stories which he owns. You probably know Bill by reputation. He, along with Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler, changed the whole technique of radio with their wonderful shows. Recently Bill won the Mystery Writers of America – Special Award – for “Best Suspense Series.” Will you please let me know when it would be convenient for you to talk to him?
Very cordially yours,
Jack Stewart

On July 8, 1959, Rod Serling replied, acknowledging Robson’s reputation and confessed that he was a fan of the producer/director. Unfortunately, at the moment, he had over purchased the number of story materials beyond the actual production commitments. He explained that it would be a waste of time for the two to talk on what would be a very problematical level, but offered a sympathetic and interested ear. “Should our situation change and we are once more in the market for material, I’d consider it a privilege to meet Robson because I recognize it as a fact that he was doing wonderful things when I was just still hoping.”

In mid-late August of 1959, Russell Stoneham at CBS Television forwarded to Bill Self a copy of a radio script penned by Irving Reis, titled “Man of Tomorrow.” Self liked the story, and passed it on to Serling for review. The script has been performed twice on CBS Radio – the Escape broadcast of August 23, 1953, and on Suspense on September 1, 1957. Serling rejected the idea and had the script sent back to CBS. The story concerned an Air Force pilot who returns from Korea and agrees to an immoral experiment that ultimately surpasses his five senses, granting him the opportunity of experiencing a sixth sense.

“The Devil and Sam Shay” had been dramatized for Buckingham Theatre in 1950, one of the most prestigious coast-to-coast Canadian radio programs. Scripted by Robert Arthur of The Mysterious Traveler fame, the short story was originally published as “Satan and Sam Shay,” in the August 1942 issue of The Elks Magazine. Arthur sold the rights for his radio script and short story to Cayuga Productions for a possible third season entry on The Twilight Zone. The episode never came to be, but when Serling began considering stories for a sixth season, he returned to the short story as a possibility. Since The Twilight Zone only ran five seasons, the story was never adapted for the program.

To promote The Twilight Zone’s premiere on television, Rod Serling appeared before the radio microphone to promote the television series. On a publicity tour in September of 1959, Serling was a guest on a number of talk shows: Tony Weitzel’s radio program (Weitzel is a columnist for The Chicago Daily News); Jack Eigan’s radio program on WMAQ-NBC Radio; eight-minute interview with Don McNeill of The Breakfast Club on ABC radio network; and an interview with Jack Remington on WKRC.


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