Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rod Serling in Radio, Pt. 5

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

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

Old-Time Radio on The Twilight Zone
Serling was a frequent listener of a number of radio programs, especially of the fantasy and horror genre. Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin were among the many playwrights who’s craft Serling admired (he even named the protagonist of “Night of the Meek” after Corwin). Many of Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes resembled plots from radio thrillers, of which he was an ardent listener, suggesting yet another link to radio dramas as being an influence for this television series.

In “Escape Clause,” a man signs his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. After a few weeks, he becomes bored with life. Poison tastes like lemonade and the thrill of jumping in front of the subway trains only secures him payments from the insurance companies. After going to trial for the murder of his wife, hoping to give the electric chair a whirl, he discovers that his sentence is life imprisonment.

The premise of a man becoming immortal and then being sentenced to life imprisonment was done previous on Inner Sanctum Mystery, a radio crime thriller broadcast from 1941 to 1952. On the evening of February 12, 1946, a script by Emile C. Tepperman titled “Elixir Number Four,” was dramatized with Richard Widmark as a young man who murders a brilliant chemist, so he can steal and drink an experimental elixir that grants immortality. His plan goes afoul, however, when the murder is uncovered, and the young man is sentenced to life imprisonment.

In “The Hitch-Hiker,” a woman driving cross-country is terrorized by the sight of a little man who continues to appear off the side of the road in front of her. Days without sleep come to a conclusion when she discovers that she is dead -- the result of a blowout on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And the mysterious figure that continues to haunt her is Death himself.

The original radio script, as chilling as the Twilight Zone screen adaptation, was dramatized on three separate occasions with Orson Welles playing the lead for each performance. The first time was on a summer filler called Suspense, broadcast on September 2, 1942. The popularity of that particular Suspense broadcast demanded a repeat performance, so Welles obliged a month later on The Philip Morris Playhouse, on October 15, 1942. Four years later, Orson Welles restaged the same radio play for The Mercury Summer Theater on the Air on June 21, 1946.

It is not clear which of the broadcasts exposed Rod Serling to the chilling story, but he certainly remembered it and wanted to adapt it for The Twilight Zone. Lucille Fletcher was represented by the William Morris office, so Buck Houghton made arrangements to negotiate the price.

“In view of the prominence of this particular play, I think it unlikely that we will get it for under $1,000,” Houghton wrote. “May I suggest that we start at $750 and move to $1,000, if we must.”

One week later, the offer was rejected and Houghton wrote to Rod Serling, asking how desperate he wanted the story. “Lucille Fletcher has turned down $2,000 for ‘The Hitch-Hiker,’ when Alfred Hitchcock offered it,” Houghton explained. “I don’t know how much further we would have to go to get the property, but I think it is too high for us to explore.” Leo Lefcourt, the attorney for Cayuga Productions, however, was able to secure a firm price for the story through the William Morris Agency, and completed the purchase for The Twilight Zone. The price was $2,000 and a standard W.G.A. percentage rerun pattern based on $1,100. The story had not been done on television, either live or on film, giving The Twilight Zone an exclusive.

The main protagonist of the radio play was a man, but Serling changed the sex to a woman, “because it’s pertinent and it’s dramatic to make it a woman,” he explained. “Nan” was a nickname of one of his daughters, Anne. If a press release from early January 1960 is accurate, Serling wrote the teleplay under six hours.

When Richard Matheson submitted the story proposal for “The Last Flight,” a tale of a WWI fighter pilot who lands on a modern-day airfield and finds himself displaced out of time. When Serling learned of Matheson’s proposal, he brought to light a radio anthology titled Quiet, Please, scripted by Wyllis Cooper. On November 21, 1948, the program offered a similar story titled “One for the Book,” about an Air Force major who hit Mach 12 in an experimental rocket plane in 1957 and found himself as an Air Force sergeant in 1937. Serling remarked that Matheson’s story “was down-the-line almost a twin,” and the two considered tracking down Wyllis Cooper to purchase the rights and cover their bases, but unable to do so, the teleplay went into production without further consideration.

The fact was the stories were similar, but not exactly the same. But to purchase the rights of Cooper’s script was to prevent a possible infringement. No rights were ever purchased and no lawsuit ever came from the broadcast.

In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a mysterious power outage causes the folks of a friendly neighborhood to turn into a murderous frenzy. The cause of the power outage was a scientific experiment conducted by visitors from outer space, studying the effects of human nature and how, after taking away some of the modern conveniences, resort to self-preservation at the destruction of others. The discussion exchanged between the outer space visitors is similar to the conclusion of a 1951 science-fiction radio script Serling wrote titled “The Button Pushers.”

Set in a future Earth, 1970. Huge television screens substituted for advertising billboards in Times Square, air-way rocket trains carried commuters overhead, and the fear of rival nations separated by a large ocean covered the front page headlines. A bloodthirsty general urges a brilliant scientist to complete the development of a new weapon, best described as a “doomsday bomb.” The enemy overseas, reportedly, has already developed a similar weapon. The general asks the scientist to complete the weapon so that it could be fired with the push of a single button – no secondary protocols required. The scientist, fearing his weapon could start a war that would erase the existence of mankind on the entire planet, contemplated the centuries of progress – ancient civilizations that built the pyramids, the deserted Mayan temples and the skyscrapers of today. After 15 minutes contemplating the beauty and wonder Earth had to offer, he completes the weapon and the Army takes over. Against his warnings, the button is pushed. The enemy does the same, and the countdown for contact begins.

The ending featured a series of explosions on the surface of planet Earth, and two aliens on another planet across the universe start the following discussion:

VOICE 1: Ah, Verus . . . Have you see the little planet – Earth?

VOICE 2: Why no . . . come to think of it, Felovius I haven’t seen it . . . In a few hundred light years. Seems to have just disappeared all of a sudden.

VOICE 1: Ah . . . Then I win my bet.

VOICE 2: Bet?

VOICE 1: Yes, I bet the keeper of the North Star that the little Earth would destroy itself before the next billion years had gone by . . . and she has. She seems to have just blown herself up . . . disintegrated. . . she no longer exists. Tch, tch . . . Pity . . . she was a lovely little planet. Wonder what caused it?

VOICE 2: That is a question . . .

VOICE 1: Oh, what am I thinking of . . . I know what destroyed it. It had human beings on it. I’d forgotten.

VOICE 2: Well then, that explains it . . . Those pesky little things can’t live side by side very long. Shall we go back and tell the others?

VOICE 1: Why take the trouble? As if anyone cared about tiny Earth . . . So unimportant a speck . . . so insignificant a dot in the universe. Who cares?

VOICE 2: I guess you’re right. (sighs) Nice night . . . So quiet . . . So uneventful.

In “A Passage for Trumpet,” a trumpet player named Joey drowns his sorrows with a bottle, and commits suicide when he fails to get a job playing the trumpet. Soon discovering that he is in limbo, between life and death, it takes a bit of spiritual guidance to intervene and reveal just what Joey has been missing in life. The script was an adaptation of a number of teleplays, which in turn were revisions of a 1949 radio script titled, “The Local is a Very Slow Train.” Serling submitted the idea to the producers of the radio anthology, Grand Central Station, who purchased the script and re-titled it “Hop Off the Express and Grab a Local.” The story concerned two young men of the slums, Joey and Steve, who get involved in a murder. Joey comments not once, but twice, about how depressed he became when he was reminded of the social group in which he grew up, having been raised in the slums of the big city. The episode was broadcast over the CBS Radio Network on September 10, 1949.

In 1950, Serling wrote a radio script titled “The Dust By Any Other Name,” concerning a character named Abner Bodner, who attempts to build a chemical plant that would produce a magic dust. When breathed, the dust would make mortal enemies forget their hatred. As a result of his efforts, Bodner has an accident that costs him his life, proving to everyone in town that a man who dies in his belief of peace leaves a larger mark on society. He believed in his dream – not the dust. The radio script was rejected weeks after being submitted to the Dr. Christian radio program.

On June 19, 1958, CBS presented an episode of Playhouse 90, titled “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” scripted by Serling. This version told the story of the lynching of a 19-year-old Mexican boy by a mob spurred on by a young merchant, whose hatred of the victim stemmed both from his wife accepting the affection of the doomed boy and from a deep-rooted prejudice against Mexicans. It was also the story of the town sheriff, who gives in feebly to the lynching mob, but stands firm when it comes to hanging the victim’s brother after he defies the Jim Crow standards of the town. The brother is saved by the sheriff who, after killing the merchant and also is dying from the merchant’s bullet, tells of the time, years ago, when he had led a mob in the ugly lawless murder of another man.

In July of 1960, Serling took the Playhouse 90 script and shortened the length (and the title), making a number of revisions. In combining both the Dr. Christian and Playhouse 90 scripts, he explored the motivation of the mob and eliminated any reference to a prior hanging for an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Dust.”

The plot of a man going back in time to 1865 and given the opportunity to prevent the course of events leading to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has been explored not once – but twice – on radio. The first attempt was on Mutual’s The Mysterious Traveler. On the evening of February 7, 1950, “The Man Who Tried to Save Lincoln” dramatized the story of a scientist who figures how to transfer a man’s thoughts back into time and occupy another man’s body. In this version, the time traveler finds himself in the body of John Wilkes Booth. Booth, managing to get the better of the voice in his head, makes a successful effort to assassinate Lincoln. This same script was dramatized again years later for Suspense. This same theme was explored on The Twilight Zone in the episode, “Back There.”

In “Static,” Ed Lindsay, one of the tenants at Vinnie’s boarding house, longs for the days when radio was a medium of entertainment. He tires of watching everyone else stay fixated to the television programs that insult his intelligence. Digging out the old radio from the basement, Vinnie carries the unit up to his room and plugs it in. He soon discovers that broadcasts of the past are coming through the speakers. Every time he tries to get someone else to listen with him, however, all that comes through the speakers is static. Vinnie, his old flame, believes Ed is getting sentimental for the past, during their romantic days. But 20 years later, they apparently missed their chance. Avoiding the rest of the tenants, Ed retires every day to the radio to listen to Let’s Pretend and Kay Kyser, but is heartbroken when he returns from the grocery store one afternoon to find the radio had been sold to a junk dealer. Ed sets out to find the radio and buy it back. He succeeds and, returning the radio to his bedroom and turning it on, finds himself transported back to 1940 where he is 20 years younger – and so is Vinnie.

While not a Serling script, this Twilight Zone episode was the brain child of Ocee Ritch and his short story, “Tune in Yesterday.” The story certainly appealed to Serling, who was responsible for the final decision regarding story selection, and felt the nostalgic chance to go back to the by-gone days was perfect hunting ground for The Twilight Zone. Days before the episode went before the cameras, he wrote to Ed Wynn, explaining they were doing a show called “Static,” which involved the use of famous radio programs of the past. “Since ‘The Fire Chief ’ is an integral as well as beloved part of the memorabilia of the time, it is essential that it be included. So in addition to your permission, I wonder if you could give us or tell us where we might obtain records or transcriptions of any of your old radio shows.”

Wynn replied by phone, explaining to Serling that while he had no problem of The Twilight Zone featuring sound clips from existing recordings, he himself had none in his possession. He recommended Serling contact Texaco, the sponsor of the series. Buck Houghton, upon learning the sad news, explained to Serling that time was of the essence, and instead, used a recording of The Fred Allen Show in its place. The F.D.R. address to the nation, heard in the soundtrack of this episode, was a recording from his fireside chat of April 28, 1935. The Fred Allen Show segment with Fred and Portland arriving at “Allen’s Alley,” was a broadcast from January 6, 1946. Radio Station WPDA, heard over the radio from one of the recordings was referencing radio station WPDA in Cedarburg, New Jersey.

For custom recordings for this production, the role of the real estate salesman on the television set is played by Eddie Marr, a veteran of numerous radio broadcasts from the ‘40s and ‘50s. According to a production report dated November 18, the voice of the radio disc jockey is that of Bob Crane, who would later play the starring role of television’s Hogan’s Heroes. Though Crane is heard and not seen, this episode technically marks his television debut. Crane was a local morning disc jockey on a Los Angeles radio station at the time, and he was offered the proposal of supplying the voice needed in the soundtrack.

The episode “The Obsolete Man” explored a future society in which the State regulated the occupations of man and those deemed unworthy of advancement are classified “obsolete” and promptly executed. When a librarian faces off against the Chancellor regarding the usefulness of books (banned by the State as nonsense), he devises a way to reveal to the State just who should the judge - God himself.

This episode of The Twilight Zone may just have been Serling’s attempt to dramatize the foolishness of a state under dictatorship. The script was a combination of two previously written scripts. he earliest dates back to the early 1950s, when Serling was writing scripts for radio station WLW in Ohio, where he proposed an anthology series titled It Happens to You, featuring stories the radio listeners would become engrossed in, whimsical tales not too dissimilar to The Twilight Zone. Episode 7 titled “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” explored the notion of a future society in which an unnamed town had a law passed which abolished Christmas, a law against Christ. The church was declared off-limits to the entire village. The mayor, acting much like the chancellor in this Twilight Zone episode, tries to explain why such a law has been put into effect. The state did not recognize any such deity, and therefore, neither should the people. Yet, he faced resistance when a crowd gathered at the front door of the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. After judging them each for their crimes against the State, he attempts to pass sentence – until a little girl named Pat reminds the mayor that Christ died for a principle, too.

“Well, Rod and I were residents of Ohio. We both wrote for the Dr. Christian program and when I left a job in Cincinnati, he took the position,” recalled Earl Hamner. “Years later, I went to Hollywood and Rod introduced me at a party once as the man who gave him his first job. [laughs] That really wasn’t how it was, but I let it go at that. He had success with The Twilight Zone and I had a problem getting into television,” recalled Hamner. “I had written for radio, I had written for live television, and I wrote a few novels. But I could not sell anything for television.”

In a 1977 issue of Writer’s Yearbook with columnist and interviewer Ted Allrich, Hamner remembered, “I had known Rod Serling slightly in New York. One day I called Rod and said I would like to submit some stories for his Twilight Zone series. He said that it was an awfully hard market to crack, but to give it a try. He promised that all the right people would read my ideas. His producer called back a few days after I submitted some, a nice guy named Buck Houghton. Buck had read the stories and liked them. But he also said, ‘I understand you don’t write film. Would you like to write these up as little plays?’

“I said, ‘No. I’d like to write them up as little television shows.’ And I did, and I have not been out of work since.”

In the Twilight Zone episode “In Praise of Pip,” a dying man strikes a deal with God -- to exchange his life for that of his son, who was dying from wounds inflicted at Vietnam. On December 24, 1950, Serling’s radio script, “Choose One Gift,” was broadcast over radio station WLW in Ohio and explored the same theme later used for “In Praise of Pip.” The holiday story concerned a soldier named Rierden, who suffered life-threatening wounds while stationed overseas during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses do not have much hope for the soldier, but their primary concern is the number of wounded that continues to grow every day. Their emotions are stretched to the breaking point, and they pray to God for relief. Towards the end of the drama, it appears a little Divine intervention prevails as the wounded soldier recovers and brings them a most welcome gift for Christmas – the gift of hope.

- 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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