RADIO ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN: The First Season
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.