- IN THE
SHADOW OF FU MANCHU
- Written by Martin Grams,
- “The chimes of old Big Ben, London’s historic clock, ring out.
A sharp rap on a door is heard.
The door creaks and warns of a stealthy entrance.
A girl gasps and piercingly screams.
A shot is fired. The
Yellow Peril Incarnate laughs terrifyingly and sends shivers through
millions of listeners from coast to coast.
Dr. Fu Manchu, Mastermind of Crime, is on the air!”
- Sax Rohmer’s Oriental mysteries
never made it to the top of the popularity charts, but fans of Fu
Manchu can never get enough of him.
His exploits were many, but documentation about the radio
series has been cursory at best.
Fu Manchu was brought to radio in five separate incarnations.
- The first was THE COLLIER HOUR,
broadcast over the NBC Blue Network in 1927. Designed to boost magazine subscriptions, this hour-long
program was divided into segments, each dramatizing a story or
serial installment from the current issue of Collier’s.
The segments were introduced by a host called The Editor,
portrayed through the years by John B. Kennedy, Phil Barrison, and
Jack Arthur. Malcolm
LaPrade created and produced the series; his brother Ernest LaPrade
supplied the music scores. Directed
by Colonel Davis, this series was a mere amateur performance, with
music and sound effects improvised during rehearsals.
Three separate serials were dramatized, based on those that
appeared in Collier’s:
- “The Day the World Ended” (12
installments, May 1, 1929 to July 17, 1929)
- “Daughter of Fu Manchu” (12
installments, March 9, 1930 to May 25, 1930)
- “Yu’an Hee See Laughs” (12
installments, March 1, 1931 to May 17, 1931)
- Arthur Hughes played Fu Manchu
(and also doubled as host “The Editor” for a majority of these
broadcasts). For the
first year, THE COLLIER HOUR was broadcast on Wednesday evenings
preceding publication of the magazine.
Beginning in 1928, the program was broadcast on Sunday
evenings following publication.
According to the files at NBC, Sax Rohmer appeared in person
on March 1, 1931 (often mis-credited as Mat 1, 1931), for the
premiere broadcast of “Yu’an Hee See Laughs.” It’s been suggested that “The Emperor of America” was
another 12-chapter serial, broadcast circa 1927-28, but no
information has been found to confirm it.
THE COLLIER HOUR originated from New York radio stations and
was heard only on the East Coast.
Luckless listeners on the West Coast never had a chance to
hear the first radio serials of Fu Manchu.
- It should also be noted that the
first three Fu Manchu novels written by Sax Rohmer, were actually
compilations of twenty-nine short stories that Rohmer wrote for Collier’s
- By far the most ambitious Rohmer
adaptation was the second of the four series, this time recorded in
the WBBM studios, and broadcast over the CBS Chicago affiliate, WGN.
On Thursday, September 15, 1932, Sax Rohmer and his wife
Elizabeth sailed from Southampton, bound for the Big Apple.
On Wednesday, September 21, the White Star line Majestic
arrived in New York port. Mr.
and Mrs. Rohmer stayed at the Ritz for a few days, and went
sightseeing till Sunday the 25th, when Rohmer made one of his rare
radio appearances for a fifteen-minute interview with CBS writer
Steve Trumbull. The
purpose of the interview was to publicize the radio series, which
again was heard only on the East Coast, not the West.
Within weeks, the program brought hundreds of positive
letters to CBS, and a nationwide hookup was established so that
certain stations on the West Coast could carry the program.
- “I am deeply interested in radio
and the dramatic technique,” Rohmer commented, “which has been
enormously developed on your [the American] side.”
Rohmer claimed crime was on the increase in England and
attributed it largely to the influence of American crime and the
fact that some American criminals had transferred their activity to
London. He believed that Scotland Yard was capable enough when
dealing with ordinary crimes, but frequently ineffective when faced
with organized gangs.
- On Monday, September 26, FU MANCHU
MYSTERIES premiered on CBS radio, nationwide.
(Unfortunately, no episodes are known to exist of the
series.) Instead of a
serial, the show presented a single 30-minute adventure.
The opening episode, an adaptation of Rohmer’s “The Zyatt
Kiss”, varied slightly from the rest of the series, the drama
lasting only twenty minutes instead of the customary 25.
Introductory remarks and commercial credits usually took up
the remaining five minutes, but the premiere instead featured a talk
by Sax Rohmer.
- Unlike the other Fu Manchu series,
this one went all out for preparation and performances.
The actors had to dress in full costume, and instead of the
performance being acted out in a small sound studio, it was
performed on stage before a live audience, recorded, and later
broadcast via transcription. Sound
effects were as authentic as possible.
The solemn note of Big Ben and the background traffic noises
of the Thames embankment were as true as could be, since they were
actual recordings specially made and imported from England.
G. Fred Ibbett, director of radio for the McCann-Erickson
Company, and in charge of the production, would have nothing but
exact sound effects. He
knew his native London, having been an engineer for the BBC previous
to his service with NBC and CBS.
When Nate Caldwell, with an option on the radio rights to
Rohmer’s mystery in his pocket, convinced Mr. Ibbett that Fu
Manchu was a natural, the radio director readily agreed.
Ibbett convinced the Campana Company to sponsor the dramas,
and began a diligent search for the right actors and actresses to
make Rohmer’s characters spring realistically to life.
- Most of the characters were
British, with a wide variety of types required, and the problem of
finding them in Chicago was a hard one to solve.
“From all corners of the world (if you can believe a 1932
CBS press release), even far off china itself, the cast was
drawn.” John C. Daly
(as Dr. Fu Manchu) spoke French, Chinese, Arabian, and Hindustani.
(Note: This was fairly common for many radio actors, as
Virginia Gregg, during the forties and fifties, doubled as old
English ladies and young Chinese women in many radio westerns.)
Charles Warburton, one of the first to bring Shakespeare to
radio (as Shylock), would play the role of Nayland Smith, the Devil
Doctor’s nemesis. A
few years later, Warburton returned to the New York radio studios to
star in 35 big dramatic programs, among them SHERLOCK HOLMES, ENO
CRIME CLUB, and K-7: SECRET SERVICE SPY STORY.*
enough, although Warburton was signed to play roles in these shows,
one Sherlock Holmes radio expert insists that Warburton did not act
in any Holmes radio plays, but with so many radio incarnations of
the Holmes character, and so little recordings existing in recorded
form (compared to the thousands broadcast), it still remains a
possibility that Warburton did play a few roles in Holmes films.
- Bob White, who played Smith’s
“Watson,” Dr. Petrie, was born in England and experienced on the
stage. Betty, his wife,
was an experienced radio actress specializing in juvenile parts, and
took an unbilled role in a couple of the FU MANCHU episodes.
When not excelling as Petrie, White headed his own successful
- Many hours were spent daily during
the week preceding the Monday night broadcast, which took but 30
minutes air time. There
was no music for the production.
Ibbett explained that “The chance of irritating the
listener, instead of creating a mood fitting the play, is too great.
I prefer to omit music which might distract from the
setting.” The actors
performed their roles in costume, so that fans could attend the
stage performances and be thrilled by the spectacle of the Oriental
settings. During the
early productions, Ibbett drafted plans for the scenery and lighting
effects, for the purpose of allowing the audience attending the
“horror chambers” of the criminal mastermind.
- Part way through the series, John
C. Daly, (not, by the way, the John Charles Daly of television’s
WHAT’S MY LINE? Fame) was replaced by Harold Huber, and Sundra
Love was replaced by Charles Manson.
In the thirties, Huber became a popular character player for
Warner bros., as well as a radio actor.
He is also known to Charlie Chan fans for playing police
inspectors of various nationalities in the 20th Century
Fox Chan film series. Huber
also wrote radio scripts for SUSPENSE in 1943 and 1944.
Sponsored by Campana Balm.
Helen Earle and Urban Johnson supplied the sound effects.
- FU MANCHU MYSTERIES ran for a
total of 31 half-hour programs, heard Monday evenings at 8:45 p.m.
It lasted until April 24, 1933.
- During the thirties, the pirate
commercial radio programs transmitted from the European continent
had vast English audiences. By
law, the British Broadcasting Corporation had a complete monopoly on
radio transmission within Britain, and was charged by its license
holders, and by the British Parliament, with the task of providing
radio entertainment for all tastes.
Commercial radio, banned in Britain and able to operate only
from transmitters on the Continent, capitalized on this situation.
With the financial backing of sponsors such as Ponds,
Colgate-Palmolive, and other large firms, the pirate stations
attracted quality writers and performers to provide showcases for
their talents, which the BBC could not match.
From the inception of their transmissions until they were
closed down in the late thirties, the pirate IBC stations in
Luxembourg, Normandy, Lyons and Toulouse offered a continuous flow
of high-quality entertainment.
In 1936, Radio Luxembourg decided to feature a series of
mystery adventures built around a single character.
This series would originally be written and supervised by Sax
- “Sax himself wrote the scripts
during the first half of the series,” Rohmer biographer Cay Van
Ash recalled. “When
the series continued beyond his original expectations, he found it
too great an imposition on his time.
He continued to write some of the scripts, but others were
written either by Elizabeth or myself.
I came in on only the last six months or so of the project.
I had first met Sax in November 1935, and he had had my
education in hand for just over a year.
Whether the draft scripts were written by Elizabeth or by me,
they were carefully edited afterwards by Sax, for which reason I
described the series in Master of Villainy
as the most faithful version broadcast.
The adaptation was not a very difficult job.
I don’t recall that any particular selection of episodes
was made. As I remember
it, we just went straight through the books in their natural
sequence. The dialogue
did not require changing very much.
On the other hand, we did our utmost to avoid narration and
to translate action directly into dialogue or sound.
This often required additional material, and I think we also
used a great many more sound effects than there were in the American
SHADOW OF FU MANCHU radio series.”
- Frank Cochrane, who played the
Luxembourg-broadcast Fu Manchu, was a distinguished stage actor and
eminently suited to play the part.
He had lived for many years in China, studying the native
habits and mental makeup. He
had also played innumberable Chinese roles on the stage.
(Cochrane had won acclaim for the part of The Cobbler in the
long-running show, CHU-CHIN-CHOW.)
- “Fu Manchu,” Cochrane said in
a 1937 interview, “has a definite personality and a definite
purpose. He is a keen
wit and possesses a quick Oriental brain.
He is a demon for power and wants to mold the world to his
way of direction and thinking.
The adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu are full of unlikely
happenings, which have been so well treated that they convince the
listener as being highly probable.
Before settling down to listen, I suggest you turn out the
lights in the room the moment you hear the gong, and take your mind
into serious channels. This
will help you enormously to catch the illusion.”
- All of the IBC recordings were
produced in London. There
were no live broadcasts. It’s
believed that Rohmer and the crew recorded the shows at a disused
theater. The leading
light in the operation was producer Eddie Pola, who also took part
as an actor in some episodes. There
was actually a plan to follow up the 52 Fu Manchu broadcasts with a
series adapted from Rohmer’s The Quest of the Sacred
Slipper (1919), Cay Van Ash
distinctly remembering having written the first two episodes.
However, the BBC exerted legal pressure to close down the
rival operation, so it came to nothing.
- D.A. Clarke-Smith, a well-known
stage actor who had appeared in Rohmer’s stage plays THE EYE OF
SIVA and SECRET EGYPT, played the role of Nayland Smith. “I’m getting hardened to it now, but the nerve strain is
still almost unbelievable,” commented Clarke-Smith, as the
atmosphere in the studio grew more intense with each passing moment.
“I have to talk so fast, sic or seven prop men are grouped
round another mike, to provide the dramatic effects.
And, when I’m supposed to be swimming for my life in a
swirling river, I have to try to forget that at the other mike a man
is vigorously shaking a half-filled hot-water bottle.”
- The program’s producer,
swift-thinking Eddie Pola, rehearsed three radio installments in the
space of two hours. “Funniest
thing, rehearsing one dramatic scene,” recalled Eddie, “was when
we came to the line, ‘Shoot the man at the window.’
The effects man fired the gun, but it just didn’t go off.
Again we repeated, ‘Shoot the man at the window.’
Again the gun refused to function.
We tried again. ‘Shoot the man at the window!’
But still the gun was silent.
‘Oh, cut his throat,’ I said.
And at that moment, the gun went off and nearly blew me out
of my skin!”
- “There is only one female role
in DR. FU MANCHU,” Frank Cochrane said.
“This is the part of the heroine.
The girl who takes this character, Karameneh, is Rani Walker.
She’s brilliant! There is a good cast in these programs, all exceptionally
good actors, and with Rani in the only female role – who, as I
have said, is excellent. It
is a well-balanced cast.”
- The supporting cast who performed
the incidental character parts included Arthur Young, Mervyn Johns
(father of actress Glynis Johns), and Vernon Kelso. As was common in radio drama, the actors often took several
parts in the same episode and program, and sometimes switched roles
whenever necessary. For
example, in Episode 43, Arthur Young portrayed Dr. Fu Manchu,
Inspector Weymouth, and Sir Frank Narcombe, while Vernon Kelso took
on three other parts.
- With the completion of the Fu
Manchu series, Cochrane and Clarke-Smith were rated such a
successful team that they were featured in another long-running
series of radio plays, this time concerning Inspector Brooks of
Scotland Yard. Clarke-Smith played the Inspector, while Cochrane played the
– perhaps inevitably – Chinese villain, La Sante.
- In 1939, another, lengthier Fu
Manchu program was produced, probably the most popular of them all.
This was a series of 156, fifteen-minute episodes, under the
overall title THE SHADOW OF FU MANCHU.
The series was recorded, transcribed, and released through
Fields Brothers in Hollywood. After
the recordings were completed, all 156 episodes were pressed and
copied onto transcription discs, and distributed to radio stations
across the country. This
allowed the stations to play the episodes in any time slot they
wanted. Some presented the series on Mondays, Wednesdays, and
Fridays, while others broadcast on all five weekdays.
- Ted Osborne played Dr. Fu Manchu,
with Hanley Stafford as Nayland Smith, Gale Gordon as Dr. James
Petrie, Paula Winslowe as Karameneh, and Edmund O’Brien as
Inspector Rymer. It has
not been confirmed whether O’Brien or Gerald Mohr was the
announcer. (It was
common for radio announcers to double in an acting role, which would
give credence to the claim that it was O’Brien, but until someone
turns up a recorded interview with either actor providing that
information, or can find the original scripts, cast credits
included, neither name should be taken as the gospel.)
Frank Nelson and Norman Fields played supporting roles.
- 40 episodes from THE SHADOW OF FU
MANCHU have definitely been floating about in circulation among
collectors for the last few decades, 39 of them were definitely the
first serial in complete form.
The single out-of-sequence episode that has been in
circulation was not (as many people have assumed), episode number
forty. In fact, from
observation, and narrowing down possibilities (and applying a little
common sense), I suspect that the out-of-sequence episode many
people label as episode #40 is either episode #136, 137, 138, 139,
140 or 141.
- The adaptations was quite faithful
to the original books, though in the middle of the series the
episodes occur in somewhat jumbled order.
From what is known so far:
- Episodes #1 to #21, for example,
is an adaptation from The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (1913)
- Episodes #22 to #27 from The
Hand of Fu Manchu (1917)
- Episodes #28 to #39 from The
Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1916)
- Episodes #40 to #78 from Trail
of Fu Manchu (1934) and President
of Fu Manchu (1936)
- Episodes #79 to #94 from Daughter
of Fu Manchu (1931)
- Episodes #99 to #117 from Mask
of Fu Manchu (1932)
- Episodes #118 to #135 from Drums
of Fu Manchu (1939)
- Episodes #142 to 156 from Bride
of Fu Manchu (1933)
- Many sources wrongly list the
1939-40 Fu Manchu series as a 77 or 78 episode broadcast run.
The reality is that 156 were actually recorded and aired.
Four separate serials were recorded, each 39 episodes in
length, each composed of more than one Sax Rohmer story.
Each serial ran 39 consecutive installments.
It’s been rumored for the past decade that selected discs
from the other three serials, episodes #40 to #156, are in
existence, but not yet released in circulation, being held on to by
a profiteering collector in Niles, Ohio.
I personally tracked down and made contact with the
collector, who verified over the phone that he had come across a
huge stack of 16-inch transcription discs and, among them, were many
of the episodes from the third and fourth serials of THE SHADOW OF
FU MANCHU. Neither
serial is complete. Sixteen
of the thirty-nine episodes are missing from the third serial, and
fifteen of the thirty-nine episodes, from the fourth and last
serial, making only half of the episodes of each serial available.
- The fourth and final Fu Manchu
broadcast was a one-time presentation.
THE MOLLE MYSTERY THEATER was an anthology series, aired over
a decade under different titles.
The program featured the best in mystery and detective
stories, all adaptations of short stories, stage plays and novels by
such stalwarts as Raymond Chandler, Jack London, W.W. Jacobs, Rufus
King, and Craig Rice. On Tuesday, October 3, 1944, from 9 to 9:30 p.m., EST, the
1913 novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu
was dramatized, originating from NBC studios in New York. The program was narrated by Roc Rogers and selected by
Geoffrey Barnes (the on-the-air pseudonym of Bernard Lenrow, who had
recently played Doc Savage, Man of Bronze,
in a series that ended in June of 1943).
Jack Miller supplied the music.
A few publications and web-sites incorrectly list this
episode with an August 1944 broadcast date.
However, the October date is official; it originates from the
original script held at NBC Studios in New York, where the MOLLE
scripts are housed.
- Will Dr. Fu Manchu ever return to
the radio airwaves? Well,
Sherlock Holmes does to this day, so we can only hope . . .
notes: This article originally
appeared in the thirty-ninth issue of Scarlet Street,
© 2000. Reprinted with
permission and courtesy of the editors of Scarlet Street,
and the author. You can
visit the magazine’s web-site and subscribe to their quarterly
mystery nostalgia magazine at:
- According to Gordon Payton (a.k.a.
“The Sci-Fi Guy”), In 1945, Sax Rohmer wrote a series of eight
radio plays for the BBC. Fu
Manchu was a bit too politically incorrect for the BBC, in light of
England’s large Asian population, and they liked to avoid
criticism from any quarter, so Sax created for them a character
named Sumuru, who, in effect, was a female Fu Manchu.
Described as “a glamorous witch of totally untraceable
nationality, heading an international crime organization which
employed strange and bizarre devices.”
This aired from December 30, 1945 to February 17, 1946.
No copies survive, but Rohmer later wrote a series of five
books based on his BBC plays.
- Since the article’s initial
printing, the discs described as held by a collector in Ohio, have
been purchased and released on audio cassette and CD by Ted
Davenport, who paid the collector his very large ransom.
Thanks to Ted, these shows are currently available through
RADIO MEMORIES (and your support in purchasing these from RADIO
MEMORIES will help reimburse Ted for his generosity).
To purchase these newly released episodes, visit:
- email me:
- 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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Last Updated: 04/27/15 07:37:41 PM