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CBS Radio Mystery Theater

Thursday 3/16/23

I've never formally written about the CBS Radio Mystery Theater program, an episode of which ("The Crack in the Wall") that I cited on here the other day, though I believe I did discuss an episode once on the radio. It's not really classic old time radio, given when it ran--from 1974 to 1982, with a whopping 1399 episodes. A lot can happen in that many episodes--good, bad, middling, very bad, truly creepy.

One has to appreciate CBSRMT for keeping this form of dramatic radio going when it was otherwise largely nonexistent, save for one-offs that a radio station would put on. My sense is that the audience was a good mix of people who pined for that OTR, having grown up with it, and imaginative newcomers/younger people. I bet you had a nice mix. I can equally imagine a sixty-something on a warm summer night delighting in an episode as I can an eleven-year-old child in the dark of a bedroom on an autumn evening.

The series was smart. Uneven, yes, but smart. Chances were taken. There wasn't really a formula, either. The less formula, the better, I say. For instance, the episodes of Suspense that work best are those that ditch the shock/twist ending that so many of the other episodes featured. I'd say that CBSRMT is an effective way to get into OTR. Gets you acclimated and ready for more.

If you don't like an episode, you have plenty of others to appeal to you, and the fidelity is almost was strong. I could see how hard it would be to try to get into OTR via Quiet, Please, for instance, even though it's one of the handful of best programs, because most of those available episodes are in rough sonic shape (but fortunately not "The Thing on the Fourble Board," which I would recommend as an excellent place for beginners with OTR to begin).

That aforesaid smartness had something to do with the ideas broached and questions raised by the erudite host, E.G. Marshall. He was the pragmatic juror #4 in 1957's 12 Angry Men.

An adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Marshall as Scrooge was performed in 1975 and then rebroadcast each year, save in 1982 (with the last episode airing on New Year's Eve of that same year, which must have felt bittersweet).

The series was created by Himan Brown, who produced and directed the episodes and who directed a mere 30,000 radio episodes in a career spanning seven decades.

Most of the scripts were original, but CBSRMT also did a lot of literary adaptations, and it was a rich haul. Works by Bierce, Dickens, Wharton, Wilde, Blackwood, Twain, Poe, Gogol, Maupassant, Dostoevsky.

These are a few recent episodes that I think highly of, and which show off the merits of the program nicely.

This first one, "The Figure in the Moonlight," aired 5/2/78, and is a variant on, and relocation of, M.R. James's story, "The Mezzotint." James isn't billed, but this isn't some mere nod--they've taken the whole thing and shifted it to New Hampshire.

The academia angle remains in place, but there's actually a rather clever way of addressing--papering over--what is arguably a flaw in the James story, which I've talked about before. There's no jeopardy for the characters in that original version. They observe and discuss what they observed between themselves. They are in the story but also not in the story. By jeopardy, I don't mean that they have to be facing death or anything; I mean stakes. The CBSRMT solution also leaves some of the characters in this version with a decision to make. That's what you want--make characters have to make decisions.

This next episode is "The Captain of the Polestar," from 10/6/78, and is based on the Conan Doyle story, a work most people don't know. You're not apt to think of Doyle and haunted maritime fiction in connection with each other, but he was very versatile, which is one reason he came to resent Sherlock Holmes and all of the attention that went towards that one character out of many. Nice to see the story resurrected on late 1970s radio.

Then we have "Ghost Talk," from 1/17/75, which I like a lot. It's a ghost story, but not a scary one; rather, funny, clever, thoughtful, witty, but sobering all the same. A man has died, leaving his young widow--she's in her forties. She can't stop thinking about him, and that hampers his ability to get on with the next stage of his journey in the next world, where he makes a friend named Bruce and sometimes talks to God, who has problems of his own. Stand-out radio work.


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