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THE RADIO ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN: The First Season
Written by Francis M. Nevins.
 
While Fred Dannay and Manny Lee (creators of the fictional detective Ellery Queen) were arguing with each other over the phone in their $45-a-month office, a young executive in the program department of the Columbia Broadcasting System was toying with the concept of a new kind of radio drama.  George Zachary (1911-1964) had been associated until then with CBS musical variety series like 99 Men and a Girl, which featured the Raymond Paige orchestra and “the incomparable Hildegarde.”  What he really wanted was to produce and direct an hour-long detective series which would invite listeners to match wits with the principal character and – if they were very smart and very lucky – beat him to the solution of the week’s mystery.  To make this concept a reality was George Zachary’s dream, but first he needed a writer who’d be at home with such a program and capable of turning out a 60-minute script each week.  No one of that description was then working in dramatic radio.  In 1939, the medium was still in its adolescence, and mystery programs on the air were few and far between.  The spooky anthology Lights Out! was doing well, as were the cop show Gangbusters and the news-hawk series Big Town and, of course, the weird weekly exploits of The Shadow, portrayed in 1937-1938 by a young genius named Orson Welles.  But except for an occasional cycle of adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was first heard over the airwaves in 1930, radio had no genuine “detective” programs at all.
 
If we are to believe the anonymous article in the March 1940 issue of Radio Varieties, Zachary spent night after night sitting up until the early hours of the morning, reading mystery author after mystery author, looking for the one perfect writer who could turn out a complete detective story every week.  Yet make it puzzling enough to intrigue the radio audience.  Yet fair enough so that they could solve it if they marshaled all the facts correctly.
The clear implication of this article is that Zachary knew next to nothing about the detective fiction of his time, and didn’t have the sense to seek advice from fans of the genre.  According to Radio Varieties, it was only “after reading some 200 odd stories” that he “stumbled upon the first of the mysteries connected with Ellery Queen.”  This tidbit smacks more of publicity hype than of truth, but in any event, once Zachary had read a few Queen novels and realized that their “Challenge to the Reader” device was the exact literary equivalent of his own plan – to enlist the radio audience as detectives – he got in touch with Dannay and Lee and made them an offer.  What he proposed was that Ellery Queen should become the star of his own weekly series on CBS.
 
At first the cousins were reluctant.  They knew nothing about radio writing and were being offered a starting salary of $25 a week to learn the ropes.  Then – and most of this reconstruction is informed guesswork – they must have thought long and hard about their economic situation and their literary goals.  Between them they had a wife, an ex-wife and four children to support, and their most recent novel, The Dragon’s Teeth (1939), had been the first in years which hadn’t been bought by a major national magazine prior to hard cover publication.  Twenty-five dollars was only ten less than they’d received for the first Ellery Queen short story six year before, and currently the short adventures of their character were appearing in slicks like Blue Book that paid top prices.  But the audience for a successful radio program could be counted in the millions, astronomically larger than the readership of the most profitable Queen novels.  And the cousins had already proved their own and Ellery’s ability to change with the times and the needs of different media when they’d converted him from the Philo Vance clone of the early books to the slick magazine and Hollywood sleuth of Period Two.  So why not invest some time and energy and give this new form of storytelling a try?
 
First of course they had to learn the fundamentals of writing for radio.  This they did by turning out a number of scripts, without credit and at minimal pay, for two existing crime series.  One of these was Alias Jimmy Valentine (1937-1939), a radio program produced by soap-opera specialists Frank and Anne Hummert and very remotely based on the O. Henry short story “A Retrieved Reformation,” which had earlier spawned a popular song, a stage play and three silent movies.  Bert Lytell starred as a reformed safecracker who helped the police by not quite legal means.  In his introduction to Cops and Robbers (1948), a paperback collection of O. Henry’s crime stories that he had edited, Dannay claimed that he and Lee wrote “weekly scripts” for this series.  The only episode they are known to have written is the one broadcast November 21, 1938.  Alias Jimmy Valentine has long been forgotten – but the other series on which the cousins honed their radio-writing skills was that audio immortal The Shadow.  Unfortunately, how much they enhanced the saga of that mysterious character with the power to cloud men’s minds, will probably never be known for sure.  When I asked Fred Dannay, he couldn’t remember any episode titles he and Manny Lee had written, nor even whether The Shadow was being played by Orson Welles, or his successor Bill Johnstone when the cousins’ scripts were aired.  It now seems clear that they made their contributions to The Shadow during the first of Johnstone’s five seasons as the character.
 
A little more than two months before the Ellery Queen series debuted, Dannay and Lee became involved in another radio venture which to the end of his life, Fred Dannay believed to be one of the most fascinating experiments in the medium’s history.  Author! Author! was an impromptu melange of game and panel show which the cousins created and sold to the Mutual network.  It debuted on April 7, 1939 under the sponsorship of the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company and with Robert Lewis Shayon as director.  The moderator for the series was humorist S.J. Perelman, although light-verse wizard Ogden Nash took Perelman’s place one week.  Dannay and Lee, billed respectively as “Mr. Ellery” and “Mr Queen,” served as permanent panelists, and the guests each week were media figures like Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Mark and Carl Van Doren, Fannie Hurst, Erskine Caldwell and Quentin Reynolds.  The format of the program was described by the announcer as: “a fiction funfest.”  Each week’s show would begin with a dramatized version of some inexplicable event.  Here’s an example, employed on the first program (which has survived on tape) and summarized by Dannay exactly forty years later for David Behrens of Newsday:
 
A young man arrives for the reading of his uncle’s will.  The only heir, he is desperately in need of money to cover gambling debts.  The will gives him a choice: Accept $10,000 in cash or the contents of an envelope.  He opens the envelope, which is empty, with no stamps or writing on it. “I will take the envelope,” he says.
 
At this curtain line the sketch would end and the moderator would challenge each of the week’s four panelists – Dannay, Lee, and two guests who varied from program to program – to devise on the spot a set of circumstances that would make sense of the scene.  Dannay’s explanation for his own example was as follows:
 
The young man could not wait for his uncle to die.  He killed him instead.  The murder was committed with a slow-working poison placed on an envelope in his uncle’s study.  But the uncle realizes his nephew’s evil deed and scrawls a revision in his will, to create a malicious dilemma.  His nephew has to choose between $10,000 in cash or the chance to recover the only evidence of the murder – the uncle’s final revenge.
 
After each panelist had offered an ad-lib rationale for the situation, everyone would proceed to attack the others’ constructions and defend his or her own.  At the end of the first broadcast the announcer invited listeners to send in their own impossible story situations, with B.F. Goodrich promising $25 for each one used on the air.  The panel members seemed to have a marvelous time heckling each other, but the whole concept presupposed an absurdly mechanical approach to storytelling and offered little to the millions of listeners who had no desire to hear writers match wits.  Surprisingly, Author! Author! survived for almost a year before vanishing into the ether.
 
During that program’s first weeks on Mutual, George Zachary over at CBS was lining up the actors and support troops who would bring The Adventures of Ellery Queen to audible life.  For the crucial role of Ellery, he picked suave and slender Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982), who had played the dumb rich boy in Victor Schertzinger’s Broadway musical comedy Kiss the Boys Goodbye.  Inspector Richard Queen was portrayed by radio veteran Santos Ortega (1899-1976), the doughty Sergeant Velie by utility actor Howard Smith, and medical examiner Doc Prouty by Robert Strauss (1913-1975), whose best-known part was as a homesick GI in Stalag 17 (1953).  In order to provide the mandatory “love interest” that was supposed to attract the female audience, Dannay and Lee and Zachary added a new member to the Queen radio family: Ellery’s pert secretary, Nikki Porter.  Her role went to lovely Marian Shockley (1908-1981), who had been a 1932 Wampas baby star in Hollywood and had debuted on Broadway with George M. Cohan in Dear Old Darling (1936).  She and Zachary were married in October 1939, and Zachary made sure that Nikki was written out of the scripts during the weeks the newlyweds were off on their honeymoon.  The first announcer for the series was Ken Roberts.  During its initial ten weeks on the air, the orchestra that performed the background music for episodes was conducted by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who accompanied Orson Welles to Hollywood a year later, wrote the score for Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane (1941), and went on to compose the music for such Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).
 
Zachary’s analogue to the Queen “Challenge to the Reader” device was to stop each week’s drama at a certain point, after all the clues had been set forth.  Then the panel of well-known guests who “represented” the home listening audience, would engage in an unrehearsed debate as to Who Done It.  At first these guest sleuths were drawn from the ranks of New York media celebs: Princess Kropotkin, writer Gelett Burgess, music critic Deems Taylor, playwright Lillian Hellman, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, and were paid $25 to $50 apiece.  Most of them turned out to be less than scintillating.  One claimed that the murderer was his fellow guest detective.  Another spent five minutes arguing that the week’s culprit must have been Ellery himself.  A third, whose regular job was as a producer for CBS, became so confused by the plot that all she could say was: “I’m an Ellery fan Queen.”  The most perceptive of the early guests was Lillian Hellman, who solved the case of “Napoleon’s Razor” in a nick.  After a few months Zachary decided to replace the big-name armchair Sherlocks with ordinary men and women.  But neither the members of the live studio audience at CBS, nor the home listeners who were chosen on a write-in basis,  contributed satisfactorily and soon Zachary returned to using celebs like playwright Harry Kurnitz, better known to whodunit fans under the pseudonym of Marco Page, who cracked “The March of Death” mystery in jig time.
 
The special guests weren’t the only people in the CBS building who were trying to solve each Sunday evening puzzle.  Zachary had decided to withhold the last scenes of each script from the actors until the final moments of the dress rehearsal, so that the one playing the murderer wouldn’t blow the show by trying too hard to act innocent.  By late in the year the regular cast had organized a pool, with the proceeds going to whoever identified the murderer.   The most frequent winner was Ted de Corsia (1904-1973), who had taken over the role of Sergeant Velie in November, and the runner-up was Robert Strauss.
 
Zachary must have been one of New York’s busiest men that summer of 1939.  Not only was he producing and directing a 60-minute drama each week, but whenever a Queen script ran short he and his assistant, Charles Jackson (1903-1968), who was to become famous a few years later for his novel about alcoholism The Lost Weekend (1944), had to insert additional dialogue as needed.  On top of all these chores Zachary functioned as story editor, taking special care to make sure that the Queen plot premises were sound.  The series’ first episode, “The Adventure of the Gum-Chewing Millionaire,” hinged on a scorecard from a baseball game supposedly played that very Sunday afternoon, June 18, 1939, between the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Cardinals.  A few hours before air-time, Zachary made a routine check and discovered to his horror that the game had been canceled because of rain.  But a frantic phone call to Washington satisfied him that the clue was still viable: several thousand fans had gone to the stadium before the game was called.  The next week’s episode, “The Adventure of the Last Man Club,” dealt with a favorite theme in the Queen novels and short stories, red-green color-blindness, and Zachary made it his business to find out whether someone with this handicap could tell the difference between crême de menthe and a cherry liqueur.  For “The Adventure of the Bad Boy” he had to research whether arsenic would kill a rabbit.  So it went as week followed week and a new kind of radio drama was born and grew.
 
During 1939, Fred and Manny must have spent almost every minute of their workdays writing for The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which required a 60-minute script week in and week out.  Dannay spoke of those hectic days when he visited the University of California’s San Diego campus in 1977:  “Each week we received the magnificent sum of $25.  Imagine doing a one-hour original drama each week for $25!  And we didn’t really keep the money, because at the end of each show we’d take the cast out for coffee and cake – that’s all we could afford, coffee and danish pastry – and blew the $25 each week.”
The cousins wrote and Zachary produced and directed a total of 34 hour-long radio dramas that CBS broadcast between June 1939 and February 1940.  No tapes of the performances seem to have survived (except for a fraction of one episode but the recording has not held it’s age) but we can gain some idea of what they were like, because several of them were later translated into other forms.  Indeed the first two episodes of the series were recast by an anonymous hack into painfully infantile prose and published, in 1942 and 1940 respectively, as Whitman Better Little Books, with the story on the left-hand pages and line-drawing illustrations on the right.  (Decades later the two were reprinted in one volume without illustrations as The Last Man Club, Pyramid pb #R1835, 1968.)  With some knowledge of dramatic radio and a bit of imagination, one can read these awful prose versions (“Reaching the door, Ellery tried the handle.  It gave!  Opened!  The door Peter Jordan always kept locked was – UNLOCKED!”) and extrapolate backwards to the broadcast originals.
 
Frankly, the debut episode, “The Adventure of the Gum-Chewing Millionaire” (June 18, 1939; translated into story form as The Murdered Millionaire, Whitman, 1942), doesn’t appear to have been one of the best.  The kickoff is intriguing enough as Ellery receives a friendly letter from a complete stranger, asking him to recommend a nurse. Soon he’s trying to solve the bludgeon murder of a crippled, gum-loving, will-changing old tyrant.  As in Queen’s 1938 novel The Four of Hearts, no one seems to have had a motive for the crime.  But this time Ellery handles the problem poorly, never considering the possibility, for example, that the killer might have been a person who mistakenly believed he’d benefit from the old man’s will.  And what turns out to be the real motive is lifted bodily and unconvincingly from Queen’s then most recent novel, The Dragon’s Teeth (1939).  Ellery solves the case by determining that the murderer must have had a scorecard from the afternoon’s Senators-Browns game, and then deducing that only one person in the circle of suspects could have had that item.  But since he forgot to establish that the killer must be among the people we’ve met in the story, his deduction proves nothing.  The most interesting part of the play is its casual reference to how Nikki Porter became a member of the Queen household.  She was a professional typist to whom Ellery had been taking his near-illegible manuscripts, until she decided to do both herself and Ellery a favor by asking for a full-time job as his secretary, so that he could dictate to her instead of scribbling.
 
The next week’s tale, “The Adventure of the Last Man Club”, (June 25, 1939; translated into story form as The Last Man Club, Whitman, 1940), is a superior job on all counts – and the last one whose title I shall preface with that ridiculous obligatory “The Adventure of....”  Ellery and Nikki witness a hit-and-run and are caught up by the victim’s dying words into the affairs of a survivor-take-all group to which the dead man belonged.  The clues are neat and subtle and Ellery’s solution plays perfectly fair with the audience.  Queen fans might have recalled certain elements of the denouement from the 1932 novel The Greek Coffin Mystery and the 1935 short story “The House of Darkness.”  These elements were carefully reworked into the context of the radio play, which is the first Queen script but by no means the last to feature a misleading dying message and a death-plagued tontine.
 
The plot of Ellery’s third radio adventure, “The Fallen Angel” (July 2, 1939), was reworked by Dannay and Lee several years later into a short story of the same name, first published in the July 1951 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and collected with eleven other transformed radio scripts in the 1952 volume Calendar of Crime.  On a Fourth of July weekend Nikki pulls Ellery into the affairs of her girl friend, who recently married an aging laxatives tycoon, and moved into the monstrous family mansion and apparently into an affair with her husband’s artistic younger brother.  Then murder enters the picture, along with a few plot elements from Queen’s 1936 short story “The Hollow Dragon” (collected in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1940).  Ellery solves the crime by puncturing an incredibly chancy alibi gimmick (if he’d been even a few minutes late for his appointment the scheme would literally have gone up in smoke) that could have worked only at that particular time of year.  The apparent triangle consisting of old husband, young wife and young artist was revived many years later in Queen’s superb 1948 novel Ten Days’ Wonder.
 
In the fourth episode of the series, “Napoleon’s Razor” (July 9, 1939), Ellery and Nikki are returning from California on a transcontinental train when a French historian asks the gentleman sleuth to find out which of the other passengers – an alcoholic salesman, a pair of newlyweds, an aging movie star, three characters calling themselves Smith, Jones and Brown – stole one of his most prized possessions: a razor which had once been given to Napoleon by the Empress Josephine.  One of the week’s guest armchair detectives was playwright Lillian Hellman, who according to a write-up of the Queen series in Time magazine (October 23, 1939) cracked the case instantly.  Of course she had an edge over her fellow armchair guests in that she was the lover and protegee of Dashiell Hammett.
 
Ellery’s fifth audio exploit, “The Impossible Crime” (July 16, 1939), deals with the stabbing of an escaped convict in the office of Nikki’s doctor at a time when all the office doors were being watched.  This was followed by “George Spelvin, Murderer” (July 23, 1939), in which Ellery and his entourage stop at a New England hotel where the cast members of a summer-stock theater are staying, and quickly find themselves involved in the murder of a blackmailing actor.  Learning that the weapon was a cane carried by a missing thespian named George Spelvin, Ellery warns his colleagues that: “as ridiculous as it seems, everything is known about the murderer – and nothing!”   The title hints at a connection with Queen’s 1953 novel The Scarlet Letters, in which the name George Spelvin (the traditional pseudonym adopted by an actor with both a bit part in a play and a featured role) crops up again, but nothing of the radio script seems to have been used in the book.
The next week’s adventure, “The Bad Boy” (July 30, 1939), is the earliest Queen radio play to survive on tape, although not in its original form.  On January 4, 1948, eight and a half years after its presentation on CBS, George Zachary reassembled the actors who’d been regulars on the Queen series for most of its first fifteen months on the air – Hugh Marlowe as Ellery, Santos Ortega as Inspector Queen, Ted de Corsia (who wasn’t in the July 1939 cast) as Sergeant Velie – and restaged the episode for NBC’s Sunday afternoon series The Ford Theatre.  Surviving tapes of this broadcast allow us to hear a 60-minute Queen radio play, but without the theorizing of the guest armchair Sherlocks and with substantial revision of the original script.  In a December 1947 letter to mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher, Manny Lee said that upon hearing of Zachary’s plan to rebroadcast the play “I asked George to send me the script.  It confirmed some of my worst fears, and I spent about 36 hours more or less consecutively rewriting it.  Gad, some of the dialogue!”  Apparently the plot remained unaltered.  “The Bad Boy” is set in an old brownstone overlooking Washington Square and furnished with several elements from Queen’s 1932 novel The Tragedy of Y including a secret room, a vicious old matriarch and a precocious little boy.  The challenge for Ellery and the listener is to solve the murder of hateful Sarah Brink, who was poisoned by arsenic in a serving of rabbit stew and found dead in her bed with several dozen live bunnies loose in the room.  Among the clues is a top hat more or less borrowed from Queen’s 1929 debut novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, although this time its owner is a vaudeville magician.  The plot is far from watertight: Ellery never explains how the one portion of stew could have been harmless and the other fatal, and a quick phone call to the police would have stopped the story in its tracks before the curtain ever rose.  But Brad Barker gives a fine performance as the eight-year-old whose fantasies of intrigue and death suddenly become real.
 
The gimmick in “The Flying Needle” (August 6, 1939) seems to have involved blowing a poisoned needle through a soda straw, a feat to which George Zachary devoted several hours one afternoon before the air date to make sure it would work.  “The Secret Partner” (August 27, 1939), which entangles Ellery and Nikki in a plot to smuggle diamonds from the Netherlands into the United States in shipments of tulip bulbs, was later adapted into a serialized comic book whose nine 4-page installments, given away at Gulf Oil stations on successive Sundays during May and June of 1940, are extremely rare and valuable today.
 
“The Three Rs” (September 10, 1939) is another of the dozen which Dannay and Lee later recycled as short stories (this one published in EQMM, September 1946) and as installments in Calendar of Crime.  As a new academic year begins and students and teachers all over the United States return more or less voluntarily to their classrooms, the administration of Barlowe College hires Ellery to locate one of its faculty, a Poe scholar who vanished in the Ozarks during the summer.  Ellery’s investigation along the Missouri-Arkansas border turns up some intriguing clues like a detective-story manuscript and a skeleton with two missing fingers, but the solution sounds more like a Jon L. Breen parody than like genuine Queen, and the final plot twist turns the whole show into a farce.  Just two weeks later came “The Lost Treasure” (September 24, 1939), in which a retired explorer is murdered after inviting Ellery to do some detective work on his private island, where Captain Kidd is rumored to have buried some of his loot centuries before.  This episode too was later adapted by Dannay and Lee into a short story (“The Needle’s Eye,” EQMM, August 1951) collected in Calendar of Crime. 
 
In “The Mother Goose Murders” (October 8, 1939) Ellery visits an old hotel to investigate a series of killings with nursery-rhyme motifs.  Robert Strauss, taking a week off from his Doc Prouty role to play the mild-mannered proprietor Mr. Wiggins, turned out to be the killer.  But the major significance of this play is that it may inadvertently have saved the Queen series from early cancellation.  The high executives of CBS, Dannay recalled at the University of California in 1977, “did not believe that mysteries [meaning fair-play detective stories] would serve as good materials for radio in those days.”  And to make matters worse, the series had so far failed to attract a commercial sponsor and was still running as a “sustainer.”  But that evening a water hose burst in the transmitter cooling system of WBBM, the CBS affiliate station in Chicago, and forced the episode off the air nine minutes before the end of the hour.  The station was besieged by literally thousands of angry phone calls from listeners demanding to be told the murderer’s identity.  Ad agency veteran that he was, Fred Dannay believed at first that this widely reported incident was just a publicity stunt.  He visited the CBS vice president who had insisted that fair-play detective stories would never make it on radio and asked him point blank: “Did you plant that incident in Chicago?  If so it’s one of the most brilliant moves you’ve ever made!”  But the executive swore that it had really happened and, as both he and Dannay saw at once, it was a demonstration more convincing than any poll that the Queen series was drawing a large and avid audience.  The cousins’ pay was raised to $350 a week and sponsors soon began to make offers, although it wasn’t until late April 1940 that Gulf Oil picked up the series and commissioned the EQ comic books that the company’s filling stations gave away during May and June.
 
Reprinted with permission from the author, excerpts of The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen’s Adventures in Radio (revised edition) by Francis M. Nevins and Martin Grams, Jr., due for publication in May of 2002.
 
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Copyright © 2002 by Martin Grams, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States Of America.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

 


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