Friday, December 19, 2008

Rod Serling in Radio, Pt. 3

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

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

The Local Programs
Sometime in 1950 or 1951, Serling sold Crosley a number of scripts for dramatization on both radio and television. It is not clear whether the dramas made it to the airwaves, but he did revise the scripts slightly and sold them to various television anthologies. Among the scripts were “Grady Everett for the People,” “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” “The Sands of Tom,” “The Time Element,” “The Carlson Legend,” “The Face of Autumn,” “The Hill,” “A Time for Heroes,” “The Keeper of the Chair,” “Aftermath” and “The Steel Casket.”

Serling also composed a number of radio scripts for a proposed radio series titled It Happens to You. Among the scripts for this series were “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” and “You Be the Bad Guy” (both of which were later dramatized on The Lux Video Theater); “And Then Came Jones,” about the mishaps of Wendell Jones, who had papers claiming ownership to all the area within six and a half miles of Times Square; “The Gallant Breed of Men,” about Captain Peter Bruce, an ex-captain in the Merchant Marine with a conscience; and “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” details of which can be found under the episode entry for “The Obsolete Man.”

From October 14, 1950 to February 17, 1951, Serling authored a weekly program titled Adventure Express, which dramatized the exciting travels of Billy, Betty and their Uncle Jim, who traveled by train across the country seeking high adventure. Each week they stopped at a different town and got involved with the locals. One episode, for example, took place in the wooded countryside of Kansas, and another took place in the state of Florida.

When Serling first proposed this to the station manager, his proposal was titled Conducted Tour Through America, described as “a radio fantasy-drama.” The initial concept was about a little boy named Stephen Crane and a little girl named Loretta Dijon who join the ethereal express operated by an old man named Abraham Goldschmidt. The kids died from the war, and were now looking across America from the train windows, giving their opinions of human character as witnessed through the eyes of a child.

From July 23, 1951 to August 23, 1951, he wrote a number of scripts for a weekly program titled Leave it to Kathy. From September to October of 1951, Our America presented historical biographies of American historical figures such as Jefferson Davis, General Custer and Lewis and Clark. From November 24, 1951 to December 8, 1951, a similar radio program titled Builders of Destiny gave him the opportunity to dramatize biographies of Zane Grey and General Philip Sheridan. *

Among the cast of the Cincinnati radio broadcasts was Jay Overholts, who headed a large number of radio scripts penned by Serling. The two became good friends and in 1959, Serling arranged for Overholts to come to California as a stock actor for a number of Twilight Zone episodes -- including the pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?”

On November 25, 1949, John Driscoll, story editor for The Cavalcade of America, rejected Serling’s plot outline titled “Father of the Common School,” which he would later rewrite for an episode of the short-run historical dramas broadcast over WLW.

“From a writing point of view, radio ate up ideas that might have put food on the table for weeks at a future freelancing date,” he later said. “The minute you tie yourself down to a radio or TV station, you write around the clock. You rip out ideas, many of them irreplaceable. They go on and consequently can never go on again. And you’ve sold them for $50 a week. You can’t afford to give away ideas – they’re too damn hard to come by. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t staff-write at all. I’d find some other way to support myself while getting a start as a writer.”

“No Christmas This Year” was an unproduced radio script (written circa 1949-1951), and told the tale of a civilization that dispenses with Christmas. No one knew exactly why this was so, they just knew it was happening, and the mayor of the town claims someone high up was responsible for the decision. Santa, up at the North Pole, has his own problems. The elves are on strike. The factory no longer manufactures toys – they produce crying gas, heavy bombs, fire bombs, and atomic bombs. Worse, he’s been shot at when he flies over Palestine and China, and one of his elves got hit by shrapnel over Greece.

Another of Serling’s unsold scripts included “The Scene of Lilaces,” a half-hour play about Jackie Evans who was the victim of a murder.

On August 23, 1950, Rod Serling created a radio serial titled The Jenkins Clan, which he proposed to radio station WLW. The series never came to be -- or at least, no documented evidence has been brought to light to verify such a show was broadcast. According to Serling’s proposal to the station manager, the series would be designed for either ‘cross-the-board, five-day-a-week stint, or possibly three times a week, The Jenkins Clan could be fitted for either. In the case of the former, the show would involve a weekly episode - using the five shows to tell one complete story. For a 3-times-a-week stint, a complete episode might be possible for each 15-minute sequence. In either case, The Jenkins Clan is primarily a situation comedy using the husband and wife combination (Harry and Alice Jenkins) with occasional inclusion of other characters.

Serling’s proposal suggested the minimum use of two actors, keeping the budget low for the network. Beginning with the second season of The Twilight Zone and especially during the final season, Serling would be subjected to a number of request by the CBS Television Network to write scripts requiring less actors -- strictly for budgetary purposes.

On July 31, 1950, through the advice of friends and rejection letters, Rod Serling wrote to Blanche Gaines in New York – an agent who specialized in handling about two dozen clients attempting to sell scripts to both radio and television. Blanche was the widow of Charles Gaines, who had died in 1947. He was vice president of the World Broadcasting System, a pioneer in the production of recorded radio series. Among her clients were Frank Gilroy, Jerome Ross, Nelson Bond and Helen Cotton. He included a few scripts (“Vertical Deep,” “The Air is Free,” and “Look to the Sky”), as samples of his work and a résumé of successful sales to Dr. Christian and Grand Central Station. Gaines reviewed the material and gave her opinion regarding the plots and the prose, suggesting a variety of programs for which to submit them, most notably television’s Lights Out! and the radio anthology, Suspense. She agreed to handle his material on a 15 percent commission basis. “It is more difficult to work with a writer who is living so far away from New York,” she explained, “but I think your stuff has merit and am willing to try and see what I can do with it.”

Serling wrote back saying that he was concerned about the 15 percent fee, but Gaines assured him that it was not permanent. After the tenth sale by the same writer, she reduced her commission to 10 percent, explaining that earliest efforts often brought about more rejections, and the 5 percent difference offset the costs involved. In the meantime, she submitted scripts such as “Temptation,” “The Air is Free,” “Look to the Sky” and “Vertical Deep” to television’s Suspense, which were all promptly rejected for various reasons. Formerly radio scripts, Serling began adapting the unsold scripts into feasible teleplays.

On April 21, 1951, the radio program Stars Over Hollywood featured “Curtain Call for Carol” with Phyllis Thaxter in the title role. When Carol Adams appears in a Broadway show backed by her father, she was unmercifully panned by Bill Grant, temporary drama critic for a large metropolitan newspaper. Her anger was further increased when the same Grant offered to teach her how to act, despite the fact that his real specialty was as a sports writer.

The year 1952 promoted Serling to a level of success that he failed to achieve the previous year. The major reason was Blanche Gaines. For every script he finished, she sent a formal submission to story editors and producers of radio and television programs that were on her lists. Every script that was rejected by one program was resubmitted to a different program. No effort was wasted and sales started growing.
On January 2, 1952, the Dr. Christian radio program presented “The Long Black Night,” which was a major rewrite of Serling’s earlier prize-winning script, “To Live a Dream.”

* Author Note: The dates of broadcast are accurate in this paragraph, but may not necessarily be the exact premiere and concluding airdates. A complete set of scripts was not available during research and it was determined to list the earliest and latest known dates of broadcast for those particular series.

- 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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