PROBING THE SHADOW'S HISTORY AND MYSTERIES
with MARTIN GRAMS JR.
An Exclusive Radio Spirits Interview by Elizabeth McLeod
Who Knows What Evil Lurks In The Hearts Of Men? Well, everybody knows the answer to that question. But who knows what mysteries lurk in the history of radio's greatest mystery-adventure character? That would be Martin Grams Jr., award-winning Old Time Radio researcher and author. Mr. Grams' books on a wide range of radio programs and personalities are no mystery to the discerning OTR enthusiast, and now he's turned his focus on The Shadow in an impressive new volume from OTR Publishing, The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954. Covering every aspect of the program's evolution, from its early pre-hero anthology format to the legendary adventures of Lamont Cranston, Martin's book is the most ambitious yet on the subject. Fellow broadcast historian Elizabeth McLeod recently had an in-depth conversation with Martin about the book and the in-depth research that backs it up...
Q: The documentation in this book is extremely thorough. Tell us a bit about
your research sources -- were there materials that hadn't been explored
until you got to them?
A: With any book that requires research, there are always archives that have never been dredged out of the basements. Many times I find myself cutting the cords that wrapped bundles of scripts and memos, removing sealing tape and wiping the dust off photographs that have been sitting on shelves in bankers boxes. There is a thrill in going through archives, often finding treasures that no one knew about. For The Shadow, as an example, I explored over 50 archives over a period of ten years. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York City, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the Goodrich archives in Akron, Ohio, and so on and so forth. The cost factor for gas, airfare, train tickets, motels and copy fees at all those archives is insurmountable and stretched beyond $10,000. It's the high price of doing the legwork, rather than rely on published reference guides, but I can see no other way to research old time radio properly.
Q: What are some of The Shadow's "mysteries" that you hope to clear up with
A: The subtitle of the book is "history and mystery," because there are mysteries that still remain unsolved. With the book, I cleared up a number of myths and rumors. I was getting disappointed in seeing the same mistakes reprinted in multiple reference guides, encyclopedias and liner notes. I do hope now that the book is available, the errors will be corrected and the myths debunked. Problem is, a number of Shadow fans won't let go -- afraid to admit they made a mistake -- and would try to debate and defend their prior mistakes. So, it's going to depend on the general public to encourage the true facts to get out there. One mystery I resolved was the myth that Kenny Delmar played the role of Lamont Cranston when Orson Welles was unable to attend a broadcast. Delmar probably recalled, no doubt, how he filled in for Welles during the rehearsals. But authors of the past should have investigated Delmar's claim before publishing the myth as fact. It's been reprinted too many times and hopefully that, along with dozens of errors, get corrected now.
Q: You provide the most substantial discussion yet of the pre-hero version of The Shadow, in which the character appeared as a narrator/host figure,somewhat in line with The Whistler's format later on. What sort of stories did he narrate? Did he ever participate in any of the plot action? In terms of production values, music, and sound effects how would you comparethese episodes with other dramatic productions of the time?
A: The Shadow was a sinister voice narrating between the two acts. Each week, a detective mystery offered listeners an adaptation of a short story from Street & Smith's Detective Story Mazazine. Very rarely was a horror story introduced, but with Alonzo Deen Cole providing scripts, it happened on rare occasions. To my knowledge, The Shadow never participated in the plot action, unlike Raymond Edward Johnson who did so every few months on Inner Sanctum Mystery. But, I cannot say for certain, because even if all the radio scripts from 1930 to 1935 were reviewed, that only documents what was intended for broadcast…and anything could have happened to change the story, or a revised script was written later, contradicting this statement. Production for The Detective Story radio broadcasts were probably no different than any early 1930’s radio production. Radio was still in its infancy, so the radio plays contained lots of talk and played like a scripted stage drama.
Q: For years it was thought that Orson Welles was the first actor to play Lamont Cranston, but in recent years, facts have been uncovered about a short-lived syndicated version of The Shadow from 1935 that bridged the gap between the anthology and the Mutual series. What have you learned about this version -- and what remains unknown?
A: What you are referring to is the 1935 MacGregor and Sollie transcriptions. A short-run radio program lasting 26, fifteen-minute episodes, featuring The Shadow as a crime fighter, pre-dating Orson Welles by two years. The radio recordings exist, at least as of a few years ago, but are not in circulation. Karl Schadow, an unsung hero in the field of old time radio research, first discovered this program while browsing a number of vintage trade periodicals. Recently, Karl was kind enough to share his e-mails from perhaps ten years ago, heralding his discovery, and the responses from a number of Shadow fans who encouraged him to continue digging into the facts. What I was able to unearth about the MacGregor and Sollie transcriptions is featured in the book. I held nothing back. I was also given a rare opportunity to temporarily house a private collection of MacGregor and Sollie archives and it was that collection that unearthed [the answers to] some of the biggest mysteries, including cast names, brief plot summaries for The Shadow program, and cast names for Doc Savage, another transcription series, which was considered by one Doc Savage historian as a Holy Grail.
Q: Who really “created” The Shadow? Can any one person be assigned that credit, or was his creation more an evolutionary process? How much does The Shadow owe to previous pulp or radio characters?
A: The radio program evolved over the years. The radio listeners were asking for The Shadow magazine…so the publishers asked Walter Gibson to write the pulp novels. But Gibson created a Shadow character that combated crime, far different from the radio incarnation. In an attempt to add realism and a connection between the two, Gibson incorporated into a number of The Shadow novels The Shadow's use of a private radio broadcast to send coded messages. The radio program ultimately added coded messages of its own. The radio program first used Margot Lane as the female hero, later incorporated into the pulps. So, in short, both the novels and the radio program inspired and influenced each other.
Q: The evolution of The Shadow was gradual over the first half of the 1930’s -- from anthology drama to the familiar masked-avenger format -- but from then on, the format seems at first glance to have stayed remarkably stable. Did it really, or were there subtle changes continuing that aren't apparent until you look at the whole program's run?
A: The program did remain stable. What makes the program unique, when compared to other radio programs, was the number of staff writers. Ellery Queen wrote mysteries. Alonzo Deen Cole wrote horror stories. This is why the show wasn't cookie cutter format. One week The Shadow could be combating racketeers trying to muscle into an orphanage. The next week The Shadow could be foiling the scheme of a mad scientist and his monsters in a cabin in the woods. The next week The Shadow could be venturing to an island to investigate voodoo. The next week The Shadow could be warning the town of a crooked politician, having found evidence to expose him. During World War II, German and Japanese enemies became more frequent. During the early fifties, Communist agents were becoming more frequent as well. But the format of the program remained fairly consistent throughout the program's run.
Q: The Shadow is most closely identified with the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Coal Company -- makers of Blue Coal -- and it's pointed out in the book just how closely DL&W was involved in the program. How do you see this sponsor influence as having shaped the course of the series?
A: The sponsor paid for the time slot. The advertising agency representing the sponsor had much more involvement, because they hired the script writers, directors and actors. The only time I found that the sponsor had involvement was the wording of commercials and the rejection of a radio script because it involved a murder in a coal mine. The format of the program did not change much after DL&W ceased sponsorship.
You also make a good point there, and that is one I have been struggling and complaining about for years. Almost every encyclopedia I have read keeps referring to the sponsor by the product name. People keep saying that Rudy Vallee was sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast, but that was the product. The correct statement is that Rudy Vallee was sponsored by Standard Brands, makers of Fleischmann's Yeast. When I did a slide show presentation at the Friends of Old Time Radio, concerning THE SHADOW, I was shocked to discover that even the most die-hard of fans were making reference to the sponsor as "Blue Coal," when it should have been (and I pointed this out to the audience), the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Coal Company.
Q: Another key influence in the development of the series was the Ruthrauff and Ryan advertising agency. How much control did they have over the productions themselves -- were they produced entirely in house, or did they rely on the WOR dramatic department for production details?
A: They were produced in-house, but used the WOR facilities, including staff announcers and sound men, for the radio productions. This was not uncommon because radio broadcasts were not always in-house. The advertising agency, representing the sponsor, paid for the time slot and the network was merely the means and facilities to broadcast the program.
Q: Just how closely did Orson Welles define the path other Shadows would follow? Would you consider his the definitive performance in the role, or merely a foundation? What would you say each of the subsequent Shadows brought to the role?
Most radio actors have their own distinct personality. But while they can flex their voices, they cannot flex their personalities. Orson Welles played the role like Orson Welles. I wouldn't say he defined the way each actor played the role, except for the laugh, which was distinctive. The director of the program, Wilson Tuttle, insisted on [a specific laugh]and that was why he tried out a number of actors following Welles' departure. William Johnstone did not get the role because of the way he personified Lamont Cranston; he got the role because he did The Shadow laugh as Tuttle wanted it. It's impossible to say which actor offered a "definitive performance," simply because doing so would be a romantic notion and not a fact.
Q: Only a handful of broadcasts survive from the final years of The Shadow, but you've had the chance to read the scripts from this era. Are there any lost gems over the course of those final seasons, or did the series taper off in quality as radio lost steam?
A: The program lost a little steam as a result of the network's insistence on cheapening the budget, but I am speaking from the production aspects. Organ music was ultimately replaced with recordings of classical music. In my opinion, this takes away from the spooky atmosphere. The Charles Michelson syndications that float about in circulation are evidence that replacing the organ music with orchestral pieces did not work. Continuity went out the door and Margot's weight, height, hair and eye color changed from one episode to another. For a short while, Lamont Cranston worked for David Fairfield of the U.S. government, acting as a spy and infiltrating Communist territories. While those momentary formats changed the program's pace a bit, I don't recall any real gems that rose my eyebrows as I read the scripts…which is a good thing, because if the "lost" episodes from 1950 to 1954 surfaced, fans of the radio program would probably not be disappointed.
Q: The Shadow is often seen as falling somewhere between a juvenile-adventure program and a thriller/mystery show. Who did the sponsors and staff see as their primary listening audience? Does any documentation exist for how the audience viewed it in its own time? How popular was the program outside of its core audience?
Most sponsors issue reports for demographics. They knew juveniles were listening to the program and attempted to cater to their tastes. For almost a full season in the early forties, The Shadow program began offering one-minute sketches at the conclusion of each broadcast, in Gang Busters fashion -- criminals who were apprehended and their sentence was reported, demonstrating that "crime does not pay." During the late forties, the program came under fire from a number of Christian Leagues and concerned parents who expressed their disappointment in the blood and thunder yarns, believing they influenced their young children. Many crime programs at that time, circa 1947, were under fire, but The Shadow was [singled out].
The Shadow aired on Sunday afternoons and not during the weekly prime time lineup. If the program had, the ratings would have sunk when compared to the weekday programs. There really wasn't anything notable competing against The Shadow in its time slot on rival networks. Times were different then and most businesses were closed on Sundays. Most people were home Sunday afternoons. It's historically known that programs on Sunday evening were some of the highest rated programs of the week. But, looking back on the program today, the ratings were not as huge as we might think. Today, we like to look back romantically and consider the program one of the most popular of the Golden Age of Radio. Fact is, if it wasn't for Charles Michelson syndicating the program through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, The Shadow might not be as well remembered today.
Q: What's the biggest Shadow mystery yet unsolved?
A: There are no big mysteries yet unsolved. There are a number of holes in the history that still need further digging. We don't know where the recordings are for the MacGregor and Sollie transcriptions. We would like to know the exact reason for why Stephen Courtleigh and the rest of the cast (including the director) was replaced in mid-season in 1945. There are theories -- and a couple sworn by fans as "facts" – but, we really don't know the exact reason. I would personally like to know how much the actors were paid for playing the roles, but even Orson Welles, when interviewed, could never remember and quoted a different figure every time. Perhaps the biggest mystery that remains unknown is how long it will take for people to understand that prior published reference guides contain incorrect information about The Shadow. Many of the authors simply consulted prior books and did their own write-up, reprinting the same mistakes. For all of the conflicting information, I made sure to include a footnote or comment clarifying the true facts, proving that 15 books can be wrong. But how long it will take for the corrections to be printed in future editions and reference guides will all depend on how many consult the book.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth McLeod and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.