Audio ClassicsÒ Archive


THE RADIO CAREER OF ROD SERLING
by Martin Grams, Jr.
 
Dr. Christian Meets Rod Serling
 
            While many maintain that The Twilight Zone influenced a great number of authors, television producers, scriptwriters and fans in general, the television program was influenced by the standards of the broadcast networks. Rod Serling worked first in radio and then moved on to television in Cincinnati (teaching himself, through actual writing, whatever he learned of playwriting). Wanting to make a profession of writing, he was at the radio’s speaker, often favoring good dramas and programs of serious horror and science fiction. Shows such as Suspense and The Mysterious Traveler may well have been influences for the types of stories of which he grew fond. One of Serling’s earliest jobs was as an unsalaried volunteer writer and actor with WNYC, a
New York City radio station. Later he worked for stations in Marion and Springfield, Ohio, as well
as his native Binghamton, N.Y., and Cincinnati.
            “In 1946, I started writing for radio at a New York City station and thereafter did radio writing at other small stations,” he recalled. “It was experience, but incidental experience. I learned ‘time,’ writing for a medium that is measured in seconds. Radio and its offspring, television, are unique in the stringency of the time factor. Radio and TV stations gave me a look-see at the factory that would produce my product. I got to understand the basic workings of cameras, lights and microphones. I got a sense of the space that could be utilized and the number of people who might be accommodated in that space. This was all to the good.”
            The radio programs Serling wrote for, however, were not broadcast nationally on a coast-to-coast hookup. They were not sponsored. In fact, almost all of them were sustained, that is, the production costs were borne by the network rather than a sponsor. Cheap to produce, these programs required no major film stars to pay, and there was no shortage of radio actors willing to work for union scale. For him, this was experience needed for a writer with no credits to his name, to get his foot in the door for programs that paid much more – courtesy of well-heeled sponsors willing to pick up the tab.
            The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, for example, sponsored a long-running radio program titled Dr. Christian. The program featured top-quality dramas of a country doctor who applied the Golden Rule approach to life when facing obstacles that required his inner strength for support. In the beginning, the Dr. Christian radio program came from various scriptwriters, among them Ruth Adams Knight. In 1942, the producers tried a new approach: a contest in which listeners could submit scripts and be eligible for large cash prizes. This may have been the most significant factor in the program’s long 17-year history. Suddenly, everyone in the country was a scriptwriter. Weekly awards ranged from $150 to $500, good money in 1942, and the grand prize won the author $2,000. It soon became The Vaseline Program, “the only show in radio where the audience writes the script.”
            Newsweek reported that 7,697 scripts were received in 1947; sometimes that number went as high as 10,000. Many were called, however, but few were chosen. The scripts that made it to the air continued the appeal of traditional values, showing Dr. Christian as the symbol of good will, as a philanthropist and an unabashed Cupid. The subject matter would include anything – even fantasy. One show was about a mermaid; on another, a human-like jalopy named Betsy fell in love with a black Packard owned by a woman chief of police. Only when murder was the theme of a script did listeners complain; they liked the show when it was mellow. The 1947 prize play concerned Dr. Christian’s effort to convince an unborn child that Earth was not so bad after all.
            At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Rod Serling majored in language and literature and began writing scripts for radio. He became manager of the Antioch Broadcasting System’s radio workshop where he wrote, directed and acted in weekly full-scale radio productions broadcast over WJEM, Springfield. With confidence on his shoulder, during the 1948-49 school year, the entire output of the workshop was written by Serling. With the exception of one adaptation, all of the radio scripts were entirely original. Later he would look back and call this work some “pretty bad stuff.”
            For the broadcast of May 18, 1949, the eighth annual scriptwriting contest of Dr. Christian
ended with a special broadcast revealing the year’s winners. Among the guests on that particular
program was Rod Serling, who at the time was attending Antioch College. The producers of the
radio show even paid him $76.56 to reimburse his expenses in getting to CBS in New York City to
appear on the Dr. Christian program. His submission, titled “To Live a Dream,” had won approval
of the judges and been accepted by producer Dorothy McCann. Serling’s script helped him place in the radio contest that netted him a $500 award.
            Serling brought along his wife, Carol, to attend the radio broadcast. Among the cast on stage were star Jean Hersholt, Helen Claire as nurse Judy Price, and prizewinners Russell F. Johnson, Maree Dow Gagne, Mrs. Aida Cromwell, Miss Terry McCoog, Earl Hamner, Jr. and Mrs. Halle Truitt Yenni. The program, still sponsored by Chesebrough, was the 546th broadcast of the series. Russell F. Johnson of Thomaston, Connecticut won the $2,000 first prize for his script titled, “Stolen Glory.” Mrs. Lillian Kerr of Tillamook, Oregon, won $500 for her script titled, “Angel with a Black Eye.” Earl Hamner, Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio (the same Hamner who would later write scripts for The Twilight Zone), won $500 for his script titled “All Things Come Home.” This was not Hamner’s first time winning the contest. He had been on the show previous for his award-winning scripts, “Now That Spring is There” and “Who Would Not Sing for David?”
            One by one, the prizewinners were announced and interviewed on stage. Biographical background, professional endeavors and their writing ambitions were discussed. Halfway through the broadcast, Rod Serling came to the microphone.
 
HERSHOLT: Hello, Rod . . . and congratulations. I read your winning script, “To Live a Dream,”
and I thought it was a fine job of writing.
 
SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt. You’ve no idea how thrilled I am to know that you and the
judges selected my script as one of the winners.
 
HERSHOLT: Now tell us a little about yourself, Rod.
 
SERLING: Well . . . I first saw the light of day in Syracuse, New York, graduated from Binghamton
High School, at Binghamton, New York . . . And am now in my third year of college at
Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio.
 
HERSHOLT: You covered an awful lot of years in an awfully few words. What happened during all
that time?
 
SERLING: Well . . . before the war I did some staff work at a Binghamton radio station . . . tried to
write . . . but never had anything published.
 
HERSHOLT: And during the war?
 
SERLING: I was in the same place as Russell Johnson . . . the Pacific . . . with the Army.
 
HERSHOLT: What did you do in the Army?
 
SERLING: I was a paratrooper.
 
HERSHOLT: Where did you get the idea for this fine story you wrote?
 
SERLING: Well . . . I’ve always been fond of boxing . . . tried my hand in the Golden Gloves.
And well . . . since you’ve read my story, you know where it all ties in.
 
HERSHOLT: Indeed I do. And do you intend to follow writing as a profession?
 
SERLING: I’d like to, Mr. Hersholt. In fact, the ambition of my wife and I . . .
 
HERSHOLT: Oh . . . another married man!
 
SERLING: How did Russell Johnson say it? Yes, sir!
 
HERSHOLT: And is your wife sitting out front, too?
 
SERLING: Yes, sir . . . right there.
 
HERSHOLT: Well, let’s have her stand up and take a bow, too . . . Mrs. Rod Serling . . .
 
(Applause)
 
HERSHOLT: Well, well, you ex-G.I.s certainly specialize in beautiful brides. And now, back to that
ambition of yours.
 
SERLING: Well, we want to live in a large house, in the suburb of a large city, raise a family, a lot
of dogs . . . and write!
 
HERSHOLT: And I certainly hope you realize such a fine American ambition, Mr. Serling. Maybe
this check for five hundred dollars will go toward part of the down payment on that
dream! Congratulations . . . and good luck to you!
 
SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt.
 
            Serling’s success earned him a credit that would gain the attention of other radio producers, when he included a cover letter with a submission. Broadcasting standards during the 1940s were much different from the standards enforced by the late 1950s. The policy of reviewing and accepting unsolicited radio scripts and plot proposals varied from one producer to the next. While many programs had a staff of writers, other programs occasionally purchased submissions from the open market. Suspense, a radio anthology specializing in thrilling crime dramas, for example, bought scripts from a deaf mute in Brooklyn, a night watchman from Chicago, a cowhand in Wyoming, and one script from a former inmate of San Quentin.
            By the 1950s, however, a few who submitted plot proposals and scripts were seeking vengeance for their rejected submissions. They filed lawsuits against the producers and the networks whenever they heard a program of similar nature, claiming their ideas were “stolen” without due compensation. The networks began enforcing policies, in agreement with radio and television producers, not to review or accept any outside submissions. For scriptwriters offering their work in the hopes of making a sale it became a bit more complicated.
            The success of the Dr. Christian radio script led to multiple attempts on Serling’s part to submit more proposals to other coast-to-coast radio programs.
            “I just kept on,” he recalled years later to a newspaper columnist. “I had to earn a living and took a staff writing job on a Cincinnati radio station; but during every spare moment I turned out more free-lance scripts. Finally, I sold three others, but for each play accepted there were at least three or more turned down.”
            Serling began writing scripts that were dramatized not on a national coast-to-coast hookup, but in the local Ohio listening area. “The Colonel’s Coin” was a script in memorandum to Memorial Day. On may 8, 1948, he completed a V-E Day script which was regarded by the station  manager as “the first script this year that kept me on the edge.” In 1948, Serling scripted Party Line, a short-run program sponsored by the Army Recruiting Headquarters. Serling played himself in a number of skits he composed, including the lead role of Cooper. On one episode of this program, the announcer stepped aside from his normal duties to inform the radio audience that Miss Carol Kramer was engaged to Rod Serling, announced by her grandparents and the marriage to be on July 31.
            But with success came the eventual edge of defeat. On September 8, 1949, Serling’s radio script “Potter’s Paradise” was rejected by the advertising agency, Wallace-Ferry-Hanly Company, for the First Nighter Program. Ira L. Avery, producer for Armstrong’s Theatre of Today, rejected his script “The Memory” in October, because “in the handling of familiar plots and themes, selection needs to be placed on a level determined by the volume and quality of submissions. We regret that, in the light of heavy competition, we do not find this story suited to our current needs.”
            After peddling a football script titled “Cupid at Left Half ” to Curtain Time and finding that
script rejected, he wrote to Myron Golden, script editor of the radio program, to ask why he had
failed to sell a single script to Curtain Time. On October 10, 1949, he sent the following candid reply:
            “This particular script lacks a professional quality. The dialog is spotty, the plot is loose, and the whole thing lacks verisimilitude . . . It appears to be a standard plot that writers somehow or other manage to pluck out of the public domain.” *
 
* Two of Serling’s earliest attempts to sell scripts to a national radio program are evident in “Look to the Sky,” dated July 13, 1947, and “The Most Dangerous Game,” dated June 22, 1947. The latter script was adapted from the Richard Connell short story of the same name.
 
            On August 10, 1949, producer/director Martin Horrell of Grand Central Station rejected Serling’s prizefight script titled “Winner Take Nothing.” The script was “better than average” Horrell admitted, but the ladies who listened to his program on Saturday afternoons “have told us in no uncertain terms that prize fight stories aren’t what they like most.” In a letter, Horrell offered him what may have been the best advice given to the young Ohio resident. “I have a feeling that the script would be far better for sight than for sound only, because in any radio presentation, the fights are not seen. Perhaps this is a baby you should try on some of the producers of television shows.”
            “Those were discouraging, frustrating years,” he told a columnist in early 1960. “I wanted to quit many times. But there was something within me that made me go on. I continued writing and submitting scripts without pay and, what is even worse, most of the time, without recognition. Then at last I came up with two plays that were bought by the old Grand Central Station series on CBS Radio. I thought that now surely I was in. But I wasn’t. Day after day, I continued to pound the
typewriter, with no result.”
            Grand Central Station was a radio anthology consisting of light comedies and fluffy romance. Serling’s first sale to the program was “The Local is a Very Slow Train.” Broadcast on September 10, 1949, under the new title of “Hop Off the Express and Grab a Local,” the story concerned two young men, Joey and Steve, who became involved in a murder case while trying to escape the slums of the city where they live. His second sale for the series was “The Welcome Home,” broadcast on December 31, 1949, and concerned the story of Bill Grant, a crusading reporter for the fictional New York Globe.
            While his first sale was the prize-winning Dr. Christian script, the first script to be dramatized nationally on radio was the September 10, 1949 broadcast of Grand Central Station. In early November, his luck hung on long enough for him to receive a letter from Rita Franklin of the Dr. Christian program, alerting him that his prize-winning “To Live a Dream,” would finally be broadcast on December 7, 1949. Scheduling conflicts pushed the script ahead a week to November 30, 1949, and Rod Serling’s name was once again referenced on the Dr. Christian radio program. *
 
* Serling later submitted a second script to the Dr. Christian radio program that was originally titled “The Power of Abner Doubleday” (for reasons unknown the title changed to “The Power of Willie Doubleday”) but failed to make the sale.
 
            Serling began working at radio stations such as WJEL in Springfield, Ohio, and WMRN in
Marion, Ohio. Months later, in the spring of 1950, he graduated from college, and his first job was
at WLW in Cincinnati, the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship station. The college radio
work had paid $45 to $50 a week, but WLW was offering $75 weekly and the young playwright accepted the job. Members of the program’s casts were students of the radio department at the College of Music in Cincinnati, and he often found himself playing a role or two for some of the broadcasts.
            It should be noted that among the leaders of the entertainment industry who began their careers at WLW were Rosemary Clooney, Betty Clooney, Red Skelton, Red Barber, Jane Froman, The Mills Brothers, Virginia Payne, Doris Day, Durward Kirby, Eddie Albert, and Janette Davis.**
 
** The Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, founded by radio manufacturing pioneer Powel Crosley, Jr., was an early operator of radio stations in the U.S. During World War II, it operated as many as five shortwave stations, using the call signs WLWK, WLWL, WLWO, WLWR and WLWS. In 1945, the Crosley interests were purchased by the Aviation Corporation. The radio and appliance manufacturing arm changed its name to Avco, but the broadcast operations continued to operate under the Crosley name. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Crosley (or Avco) operated a small television network in which programs were produced at one of its stations and broadcast on the other Crosley stations in the Midwest, and occasionally by non-Crosley stations.
 
            Sometime in 1950 or 1951, Serling sold Crosley a number of scripts for dramatization on both radio and television. It is not clear whether the dramas made it to the airwaves, but he did revise the scripts slightly and sold them to various television anthologies. Among the scripts were “Grady Everett for the People,” “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” “The Sands of Tom,” “The Time Element,” “The Carlson Legend,” “The Face of Autumn,” “The Hill,” “A Time for Heroes,” “The Keeper of the Chair,” “Aftermath” and “The Steel Casket.”
            Serling also composed a number of radio scripts for a proposed radio series titled It Happens to You. Among the scripts for this series were “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” and “You Be the Bad Guy” (both of which were later dramatized on The Lux Video Theater); “And Then Came Jones,” about the mishaps of Wendell Jones, who had papers claiming ownership to all the area within six and a half miles of Times Square; “The Gallant Breed of Men,” about Captain Peter Bruce, an ex-captain in the Merchant Marine with a conscience; and “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” details of which can be found under the episode entry for “The Obsolete Man.”
            From October 14, 1950 to February 17, 1951, Serling authored a weekly program titled Adventure Express, which dramatized the exciting travels of Billy, Betty and their Uncle Jim, who traveled by train across the country seeking high adventure. Each week they stopped at a different town and got involved with the locals. One episode, for example, took place in the wooded countryside of Kansas, and another took place in the state of Florida.
            When Serling first proposed this to the station manager, his proposal was titled Conducted Tour Through America, described as “a radio fantasy-drama.” The initial concept was about a little boy named Stephen Crane and a little girl named Loretta Dijon who join the ethereal express operated by an old man named Abraham Goldschmidt.  The kids died from the war, and were now looking across America from the train windows, giving their opinions of human character as witnessed through the eyes of a child.
            From July 23, 1951 to August 23, 1951, he wrote a number of scripts for a weekly program titled Leave it to Kathy. From September to October of 1951, Our America presented historical biographies of American historical figures such as Jefferson Davis, General Custer and Lewis and Clark. From November 24, 1951 to December 8, 1951, a similar radio program titled Builders of Destiny gave him the opportunity to dramatize biographies of Zane Grey and General Philip Sheridan. *
 
* Author Note: The dates of broadcast are accurate in this paragraph, but may not necessarily be the exact premiere and concluding airdates. A complete set of scripts was not available during research and it was determined to list the earliest and latest known dates of broadcast for those particular series.
 
            Among the cast of the Cincinnati radio broadcasts was Jay Overholts, who headed a large number of radio scripts penned by Serling. The two became good friends and in 1959, Serling arranged for Overholts to come to California as a stock actor for a number of Twilight Zone episodes -- including the pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?”
            On November 25, 1949, John Driscoll, story editor for The Cavalcade of America, rejected Serling’s plot outline titled “Father of the Common School,” which he would later rewrite for an episode of the short-run historical dramas broadcast over WLW.
            “From a writing point of view, radio ate up ideas that might have put food on the table for
weeks at a future freelancing date,” he later said. “The minute you tie yourself down to a radio or TV station, you write around the clock. You rip out ideas, many of them irreplaceable. They go on and consequently can never go on again. And you’ve sold them for $50 a week. You can’t afford to give away ideas – they’re too damn hard to come by. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t staff-write at all. I’d find some other way to support myself while getting a start as a writer.”
            “No Christmas This Year” was an unproduced radio script (written circa 1949-1951), and told the tale of a civilization that dispenses with Christmas. No one knew exactly why this was so, they just knew it was happening, and the mayor of the town claims someone high up was responsible for the decision. Santa, up at the North Pole, has his own problems. The elves are on strike. The factory no longer manufactures toys – they produce crying gas, heavy bombs, fire bombs, and atomic bombs. Worse, he’s been shot at when he flies over Palestine and China, and one of his elves got hit by shrapnel over Greece.
            Another of Serling’s unsold scripts included “The Scene of Lilaces,” a half-hour play about Jackie Evans who was the victim of a murder.
            On August 23, 1950, Rod Serling created a radio serial titled The Jekins Clan, which he proposed to radio station WLW. The series never came to be -- or at least, no documented evidence has been brought to light to verify such a show was broadcast. According to Serling’s proposal to the station manager, the series would be designed for either ‘cross-the-board, five-day-a-week stint, or possibly three times a week, The Jenkins Clan could be fitted for either.  In the case of the former, the show would involve a weekly episode - using the five shows to tell one complete story.  For a 3-times-a-week stint, a complete episode might be possible for each 15-minute sequence.  In either case, The Jenkins Clan is primarily a situation comedy using the husband and wife combination (Harry and Alice Jenkins) with occasional inclusion of other characters.
            Serling’s proposal suggested the minimum use of two actors, keeping the budget low for the network. Beginning with the second season of The Twilight Zone and especially during the final season, Serling would be subjected to a number of request by the CBS Television Network to write scripts requiring less actors -- strictly for budgetary purposes.
            On July 31, 1950, through the advice of friends and rejection letters, Rod Serling wrote to Blanche Gaines in New York – an agent who specialized in handling about two dozen clients attempting to sell scripts to both radio and television. Blanche was the widow of Charles Gaines, who had died in 1947. He was vice president of the World Broadcasting System, a pioneer in the production of recorded radio series. Among her clients were Frank Gilroy, Jerome Ross, Nelson Bond and Helen Cotton. He included a few scripts (“Vertical Deep,” “The Air is Free,” and “Look to the Sky”), as samples of his work and a résumé of successful sales to Dr. Christian and Grand Central Station. Gaines reviewed the material and gave her opinion regarding the plots and the prose, suggesting a variety of programs for which to submit them, most notably television’s Lights Out! and the radio anthology, Suspense. She agreed to handle his material on a 15 percent commission basis. “It is more difficult to work with a writer who is living so far away from New York,” she explained, “but I think your stuff has merit and am willing to try and see what I can do with it.”
            Serling wrote back saying that he was concerned about the 15 percent fee, but Gaines assured him that it was not permanent. After the tenth sale by the same writer, she reduced her commission to 10 percent, explaining that earliest efforts often brought about more rejections, and the 5 percent difference offset the costs involved. In the meantime, she submitted scripts such as “Temptation,” “The Air is Free,” “Look to the Sky” and “Vertical Deep” to television’s Suspense, which were all promptly rejected for various reasons. Formerly radio scripts, Serling began adapting the unsold scripts into feasible teleplays.
            On April 21, 1951, the radio program Stars Over Hollywood featured “Curtain Call for Carol” with Phyllis Thaxter in the title role. When Carol Adams appears in a Broadway show backed by her father, she was unmercifully panned by Bill Grant, temporary drama critic for a large metropolitan newspaper. Her anger was further increased when the same Grant offered to teach her how to act, despite the fact that his real specialty was as a sports writer.
            The year 1952 promoted Serling to a level of success that he failed to achieve the previous year. The major reason was Blanche Gaines. For every script he finished, she sent a formal submission to story editors and producers of radio and television programs that were on her lists. Every script that was rejected by one program was resubmitted to a different program. No effort was wasted and sales started growing.
            On January 2, 1952, the Dr. Christian radio program presented “The Long Black Night,” which was a major rewrite of Serling’s earlier prize-winning script, “To Live a Dream.”
 
The Keeper of the Chair
            While these were some of Serling’s earliest attempts at fantasy and science fiction for television, they would not be his last. His love for this kind of stories was evident in a number of early teleplays. In his unsold “The Keeper of the Chair,” he told the tale of a condemned man named Paul, who spends his last moments on death row talking to his executioner, George Frank, about how many people Paul had put to death, and how many Paul felt were guilty of murder and deserved to die. However, a murder has occurred, the result of a prank, and when the warden talks to a guard, looking over the dead body, he questions why Paul shouted out “George Frank” before he died. They had no guard named George Frank. There was a convict by that name executed in 1942, and new evidence presented in 1943 proved his innocence. Paul was the state executioner, whose mind snapped over the years, having been unable to cope with sending a man to the chair for a crime he never committed, and he spent his remaining moments hallucinating – a guilt complex in the form of his own execution.
            In late 1949, when Serling was still at Antioch College, he submitted his radio play of the same name to John Meston, the story editor for radio’s Suspense. On December 1, 1949, Meston returned the script, explaining, “After careful consideration, the Script Committee has decided that the story is not suitable for Suspense.” On April 27, 1950, John Meston sent another rejection letter to Serling regarding the same script, as he had submitted it for radio’s Escape. By November of 1950, Rod Serling was living (at 5016 Sidney Road) in Cincinnati, Ohio, and had adapted his radio script into a teleplay, for television’s Lights Out! program. The script editor sent a rejection stating, “This is not well written and does not sufficiently get around its basic fallacy that the executioner, rather than the jury, is responsible for the death of an innocent man.”
 
Radio Scripts Proposed for The Twilight Zone
            “The Cold Equations” was first published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. Written by Tom Godwin, the short story tells of a starship making the rounds of Earth colonies, delivering much needed medical supplies to a frontier planet. When the pilot discovers a stowaway on board, an 18-year-old named Marilyn, who wants to see her brother at the colony, he realizes a bigger problem ahead for them. The ship only has enough fuel for the pilot and the cargo. Marilyn’s weight and mass will prevent the starship from reaching its destination. Marilyn accepts the consequences of her mistake, writes a farewell letter to her parents, talks to her brother by radio, and then enters the airlock – ready to be jettisoned into space.
            While this story was never used on the original series, the 1985-89 revival of The Twilight Zone featured an adaptation of this short story. On March 24, 1959, Sylvia Hirsch of the William Morris Agency submitted an hour-long teleplay titled “Tomorrow is Here” by Whitfield Cook. On March 25, Fred Engel proposed “The Black Hound of Bailundu” by Paul I. Wellman. Serling rejected both of these.
            On April 7, 1959, the radio play “Return to Dust” was considered for inclusion in the Twilight Zone series. Originally broadcast on Suspense, the George Bamber story concerned a biologist’s efforts to decrease cancer cells, and through an accident in the lab, found himself slowly shrinking in size. The majority of the drama (making the most effective use for the medium of radio) was the biologist’s effort to leave a recorded message explaining his situation and where his lab associates could find him, should they play back the recording. In the end, however, the scientist is down to the size of a bug and still shrinking, though he never gets to microscopic size because a bird mistakes him for an insect and makes a feast of him.
            On June 29, 1959, Jack Stewart & Associates, representatives of William N. Robson, wrote to Rod Serling, in care of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:
 
Dear Mr. Serling:
            William Robson, who is director-producer and sometime writer for CBS’s Suspense, has a backlog of science stories which he owns. You probably know Bill by reputation. He, along with Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler, changed the whole technique of radio with their wonderful shows. Recently Bill won the Mystery Writers of America – Special Award – for “Best Suspense Series.” Will you please let me know when it would be convenient for you to talk to him?
 
Very cordially yours,
Jack Stewart
 
            On July 8, 1959, Rod Serling replied, acknowledging Robson’s reputation and confessed that he was a fan of the producer/director. Unfortunately, at the moment, he had over purchased the number of story materials beyond the actual production commitments. He explained that it would be a waste of time for the two to talk on what would be a very problematical level, but offered a sympathetic and interested ear. “Should our situation change and we are once more in the market for material, I’d consider it a privilege to meet Robson because I recognize it as a fact that he was doing wonderful things when I was just still hoping.”
            In mid-late August of 1959, Russell Stoneham at CBS Television forwarded to Bill Self a copy of a radio script penned by Irving Reis, titled “Man of Tomorrow.” Self liked the story, and passed it on to Serling for review. The script has been performed twice on CBS Radio – the Escape broadcast of August 23, 1953, and on Suspense on September 1, 1957. Serling rejected the idea and had the script sent back to CBS. The story concerned an Air Force pilot who returns from Korea and agrees to an immoral experiment that ultimately surpasses his five senses, granting him the opportunity of experiencing a sixth sense.
            “The Devil and Sam Shay” had been dramatized for Buckingham Theatre in 1950, one of the most prestigious coast-to-coast Canadian radio programs. Scripted by Robert Arthur of The Mysterious Traveler fame, the short story was originally published as “Satan and Sam Shay,” in the August 1942 issue of The Elks Magazine. Arthur sold the rights for his radio script and short story to Cayuga Productions for a possible third season entry on The Twilight Zone. The episode never came to be, but when Serling began considering stories for a sixth season, he returned to the short story as a possibility. Since The Twilight Zone only ran five seasons, the story was never adapted for the program.
            To promote The Twilight Zone’s premiere on television, Rod Serling appeared before the radio microphone to promote the television series. On a publicity tour in September of 1959, Serling was a guest on a number of talk shows: Tony Weitzel’s radio program (Weitzel is a columnist for The Chicago Daily News); Jack Eigan’s radio program on WMAQ-NBC Radio; eight-minute interview with Don McNeill of The Breakfast Club on ABC radio network; and an interview with Jack Remington on WKRC.
 
Old-Time Radio Influences
            Serling was a frequent listener of a number of radio programs, especially of the fantasy and horror genre. Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin were among the many playwrights who’s craft Serling admired (he even named the protagonist of “Night of the Meek” after Corwin). Many of Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes resembled plots from radio thrillers, of which he was an ardent listener, suggesting yet another link to radio dramas as being an influence for this television series.
 
            In “Escape Clause,” a man signs his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. After a few weeks, he becomes bored with life. Poison tastes like lemonade and the thrill of jumping in front of the subway trains only secures him payments from the insurance companies. After going to trial for the murder of his wife, hoping to give the electric chair a whirl, he discovers that his sentence is life imprisonment.
            The premise of a man becoming immortal and then being sentenced to life imprisonment was done previous on Inner Sanctum Mystery, a radio crime thriller broadcast from 1941 to 1952. On the evening of February 12, 1946, a script by Emile C. Tepperman titled “Elixir Number Four,” was dramatized with Richard Widmark as a young man who murders a brilliant chemist, so he can steal and drink an experimental elixir that grants immortality. His plan goes afoul, however, when the murder is uncovered, and the young man is sentenced to life imprisonment.
            In “The Hitch-Hiker,” a woman driving cross-country is terrorized by the sight of a little man who continues to appear off the side of the road in front of her. Days without sleep come to a conclusion when she discovers that she is dead -- the result of a blowout on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And the mysterious figure that continues to haunt her is Death himself.
            The original radio script, as chilling as the Twilight Zone screen adaptation, was dramatized on three separate occasions with Orson Welles playing the lead for each performance. The first time was on a summer filler called Suspense, broadcast on September 2, 1942. The popularity of that particular Suspense broadcast demanded a repeat performance, so Welles obliged a month later on The Philip Morris Playhouse, on October 15, 1942. Four years later, Orson Welles restaged the same radio play for The Mercury Summer Theater on the Air on June 21, 1946.
            It is not clear which of the broadcasts exposed Rod Serling to the chilling story, but he certainly remembered it and wanted to adapt it for The Twilight Zone. Lucille Fletcher was represented by the William Morris office, so Buck Houghton made arrangements to negotiate the price.
            “In view of the prominence of this particular play, I think it unlikely that we will get it for under $1,000,” Houghton wrote. “May I suggest that we start at $750 and move to $1,000, if we must.”
            One week later, the offer was rejected and Houghton wrote to Rod Serling, asking how desperate he wanted the story. “Lucille Fletcher has turned down $2,000 for ‘The Hitch-Hiker,’ when Alfred Hitchcock offered it,” Houghton explained. “I don’t know how much further we would have to go to get the property, but I think it is too high for us to explore.” Leo Lefcourt, the attorney
for Cayuga Productions, however, was able to secure a firm price for the story through the William
Morris Agency, and completed the purchase for The Twilight Zone. The price was $2,000 and a standard W.G.A. percentage rerun pattern based on $1,100. The story had not been done on television, either live or on film, giving The Twilight Zone an exclusive.
            The main protagonist of the radio play was a man, but Serling changed the sex to a woman, “because it’s pertinent and it’s dramatic to make it a woman,” he explained. “Nan” was a nickname of one of his daughters, Anne. If a press release from early January 1960 is accurate, Serling wrote the teleplay under six hours.
            When Richard Matheson submitted the story proposal for “The Last Flight,” a tale of a WWI fighter pilot who lands on a modern-day airfield and finds himself displaced out of time. When Serling learned of Matheson’s proposal, he brought to light a radio anthology titled
Quiet, Please, scripted by Wyllis Cooper. On November 21, 1948, the program offered a similar story titled “One for the Book,” about an Air Force major who hit Mach 12 in an experimental rocket plane in 1957 and found himself as an Air Force sergeant in 1937. Serling remarked that Matheson’s story “was down-the-line almost a twin,” and the two considered tracking down Wyllis Cooper to purchase the rights and cover their bases, but unable to do so, the teleplay went into production without further consideration.
            The fact was the stories were similar, but not exactly the same. But to purchase the rights of Cooper’s script was to prevent a possible infringement. No rights were ever purchased and no lawsuit ever came from the broadcast.
            In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a mysterious power outage causes the folks of a friendly neighborhood to turn into a murderous frenzy. The cause of the power outage was a scientific experiment conducted by visitors from outer space, studying the effects of human nature and how, after taking away some of the modern conveniences, resort to self-preservation at the destruction of others. The discussion exchanged between the outer space visitors is similar to the conclusion of a 1951 science-fiction radio script Serling wrote titled “The Button Pushers.”
            Set in a future Earth, 1970. Huge television screens substituted for advertising
billboards in Times Square, air-way rocket trains carried commuters overhead, and the fear of rival nations separated by a large ocean covered the front page headlines. A bloodthirsty general urges a brilliant scientist to complete the development of a new weapon, best described as a “doomsday bomb.” The enemy overseas, reportedly, has already developed a similar weapon. The general asks the scientist to complete the weapon so that it could be fired with the push of a single button – no secondary protocols required. The scientist, fearing his weapon could start a war that would erase the existence of mankind on the entire planet, contemplated the centuries of progress – ancient civilizations that built the pyramids, the deserted Mayan temples and the skyscrapers of today. After 15 minutes contemplating the beauty and wonder Earth had to offer, he completes the weapon and the Army takes over. Against his warnings, the button is pushed. The enemy does the same, and the countdown for contact begins.
            The ending featured a series of explosions on the surface of planet Earth, and two aliens on another planet across the universe start the following discussion:
 
VOICE 1: Ah, Verus . . . Have you see the little planet – Earth?
 
VOICE 2: Why no . . . come to think of it, Felovius I haven’t seen it . . . In a few hundred light
years. Seems to have just disappeared all of a sudden.
 
VOICE 1: Ah . . . Then I win my bet.
 
VOICE 2: Bet?
 
VOICE 1: Yes, I bet the keeper of the North Star that the little Earth would destroy itself before the
next billion years had gone by . . . and she has. She seems to have just blown herself up . . . disintegrated. . . she no longer exists. Tch, tch . . . Pity . . . she was a lovely little planet.
Wonder what caused it?
 
VOICE 2: That is a question . . .
 
VOICE 1: Oh, what am I thinking of . . . I know what destroyed it. It had human beings on it. I’d
forgotten.
 
VOICE 2: Well then, that explains it . . . Those pesky little things can’t live side by side very long.
Shall we go back and tell the others?
 
VOICE 1: Why take the trouble? As if anyone cared about tiny Earth . . . So unimportant a speck
. . . so insignificant a dot in the universe. Who cares?
 
VOICE 2: I guess you’re right. (sighs) Nice night . . . So quiet . . . So uneventful.
 
            In “A Passage for Trumpet,” a trumpet player named Joey drowns his sorrows with a bottle, and commits suicide when he fails to get a job playing the trumpet. Soon discovering that he is in limbo, between life and death, it takes a bit of spiritual guidance to intervene and reveal just what Joey has been missing in life. The script was an adaptation of a number of teleplays, which in turn were revisions of a 1949 radio script titled, “The Local is a Very Slow Train.” Serling submitted the idea to the producers of the radio anthology, Grand Central Station, who purchased the script and re-titled it “Hop Off the Express and Grab a Local.” The story concerned two young men of the slums, Joey and Steve, who get involved in a murder. Joey comments not once, but twice, about how depressed he became when he was reminded of the social group in which he grew up, having been raised in the slums of the big city. The episode was broadcast over the CBS Radio Network on September 10, 1949.
            In 1950, Serling wrote a radio script titled “The Dust By Any Other Name,” concerning
a character named Abner Bodner, who attempts to build a chemical plant that would produce a magic dust. When breathed, the dust would make mortal enemies forget their hatred. As a result of his efforts, Bodner has an accident that costs him his life, proving to everyone in town that a man who dies in his belief of peace leaves a larger mark on society. He believed in his dream – not the dust. The radio script was rejected weeks after being submitted to the Dr. Christian radio program.
            On June 19, 1958, CBS presented an episode of Playhouse 90, titled “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” scripted by Serling. This version told the story of the lynching of a 19-year-old Mexican boy by a mob spurred on by a young merchant, whose hatred of the victim stemmed both from his wife accepting the affection of the doomed boy and from a deep-rooted prejudice against Mexicans. It was also the story of the town sheriff, who gives in feebly to the lynching mob, but stands firm when it comes to hanging the victim’s brother after he defies the Jim Crow standards of the town. The brother is saved by the sheriff who, after killing the merchant and also is dying from the merchant’s bullet, tells of the time, years ago, when he had led a mob in the ugly lawless murder of another man.
            In July of 1960, Serling took the Playhouse 90 script and shortened the length (and the title), making a number of revisions. In combining both the Dr. Christian and Playhouse 90 scripts, he explored the motivation of the mob and eliminated any reference to a prior hanging for an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Dust.”
 
            The plot of a man going back in time to 1865 and given the opportunity to prevent the course of events leading to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has been explored not once – but twice – on radio. The first attempt was on Mutual’s The Mysterious Traveler. On the evening of February 7, 1950, “The Man Who Tried to Save Lincoln” dramatized the story of a scientist who figures how to transfer a man’s thoughts back into time and occupy another man’s body. In this version, the time traveler finds himself in the body of John Wilkes Booth. Booth, managing to get the better of the voice in his head, makes a successful effort to assassinate Lincoln. This same script was dramatized again years later for Suspense. This same theme was explored on The Twilight Zone in the episode, “Back There.”
 
            In “Static,” Ed Lindsay, one of the tenants at Vinnie’s boarding house, longs for the days when radio was a medium of entertainment. He tires of watching everyone else stay fixated to the television programs that insult his intelligence. Digging out the old radio from the basement, Vinnie carries the unit up to his room and plugs it in. He soon discovers that broadcasts of the past are coming through the speakers. Every time he tries to get someone else to listen with him, however, all that comes through the speakers is static. Vinnie, his old flame, believes Ed is getting sentimental for the past, during their romantic days. But 20 years later, they apparently missed their chance. Avoiding the rest of the tenants, Ed retires every day to the radio to listen to Let’s Pretend and Kay Kyser, but is heartbroken when he returns from the grocery store one afternoon to find the radio had been sold to a junk dealer. Ed sets out to find the radio and buy it back. He succeeds and, returning the radio to his bedroom and turning it on, finds himself transported back to 1940 where he is 20 years younger – and so is Vinnie.
            While not a Serling script, this Twilight Zone episode was the brain child of Ocee Ritch and his short story, “Tune in Yesterday.” The story certainly appealed to Serling, who was responsible for the final decision regarding story selection, and felt the nostalgic chance to go back to the by-gone days was perfect hunting ground for The Twilight Zone. Days before the episode went before the cameras, he wrote to Ed Wynn, explaining they were doing a show called “Static,” which involved the use of famous radio programs of the past. “Since ‘The Fire Chief ’ is an integral as well as beloved part of the memorabilia of the time, it is essential that it be included. So in addition to your permission, I wonder if you could give us or tell us where we might obtain records or transcriptions of any of your old radio shows.”
            Wynn replied by phone, explaining to Serling that while he had no problem of The Twilight Zone featuring sound clips from existing recordings, he himself had none in his possession. He recommended Serling contact Texaco, the sponsor of the series. Buck Houghton, upon learning the sad news, explained to Serling that time was of the essence, and instead, used a recording of The Fred Allen Show in its place. The F.D.R. address to the nation, heard in the soundtrack of this episode, was a recording from his fireside chat of April 28, 1935. The Fred Allen Show segment with Fred and Portland arriving at “Allen’s Alley,” was a broadcast from January 6, 1946. Radio Station WPDA, heard over the radio from one of the recordings was referencing radio station WPDA in Cedarburg, New Jersey.
            For custom recordings for this production, the role of the real estate salesman on the television set is played by Eddie Marr, a veteran of numerous radio broadcasts from the ‘40s and ‘50s. According to a production report dated November 18, the voice of the radio disc jockey is that of Bob Crane, who would later play the starring role of television’s Hogan’s Heroes. Though Crane is heard and not seen, this episode technically marks his television debut. Crane was a local morning disc jockey on a Los Angeles radio station at the time, and he was offered the proposal of supplying the voice needed in the soundtrack.
 
            The episode “The Obsolete Man” explored a future society in which the State regulated the occupations of man and those deemed unworthy of advancement are classified “obsolete” and promptly executed. When a librarian faces off against the Chancellor regarding the usefulness of books (banned by the State as nonsense), he devises a way to reveal to the State just who should the judge - God himself.
            This episode of The Twilight Zone may just have been Serling’s attempt to dramatize the foolishness of a state under dictatorship. The script was a combination of two previously written scripts. he earliest dates back to the early 1950s, when Serling was writing scripts for radio station WLW in Ohio, where he proposed an anthology series titled It Happens to You, featuring stories the radio listeners would become engrossed in, whimsical tales not too dissimilar to The Twilight Zone. Episode 7 titled “Law Nine Concerning Christmas,” explored the notion of a future society in which an unnamed town had a law passed which abolished Christmas, a law against Christ. The church was declared off-limits to the entire village. The mayor, acting much like the chancellor in this Twilight Zone episode, tries to explain why such a law has been put into effect. The state did not recognize any such deity, and therefore, neither should the people. Yet, he faced resistance when a crowd gathered at the front door of the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. After judging them each for their crimes against the State, he attempts to pass sentence – until a little girl named Pat reminds the mayor that Christ died for a principle, too.
            “Well, Rod and I were residents of Ohio. We both wrote for the Dr. Christian program and
when I left a job in Cincinnati, he took the position,” recalled Earl Hamner. “Years later, I went to
Hollywood and Rod introduced me at a party once as the man who gave him his first job. [laughs]
That really wasn’t how it was, but I let it go at that. He had success with The Twilight Zone and I
had a problem getting into television,” recalled Hamner. “I had written for radio, I had written for live television, and I wrote a few novels. But I could not sell anything for television.”
            In a 1977 issue of Writer’s Yearbook with columnist and interviewer Ted Allrich, Hamner remembered, “I had known Rod Serling slightly in New York. One day I called Rod and said I would like to submit some stories for his Twilight Zone series. He said that it was an awfully hard market to crack, but to give it a try. He promised that all the right people would read my ideas. His
producer called back a few days after I submitted some, a nice guy named Buck Houghton. Buck
had read the stories and liked them. But he also said, ‘I understand you don’t write film. Would you like to write these up as little plays?’
            “I said, ‘No. I’d like to write them up as little television shows.’ And I did, and I have not been out of work since.”
            In the Twilight Zone episode “In Praise of Pip,” a dying man strikes a deal with God -- to exchange his life for that of his son, who was dying from wounds inflicted at Vietnam. On December 24, 1950, Serling’s radio script, “Choose One Gift,” was broadcast over radio station WLW in Ohio and explored the same theme later used for “In Praise of Pip.” The holiday story concerned a soldier named Rierden, who suffered life-threatening wounds while stationed overseas during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses do not have much hope for the soldier, but their primary concern is the number of wounded that continues to grow every day. Their emotions are stretched to the breaking point, and they pray to God for relief. Towards the end of the drama, it appears a little Divine intervention prevails as the wounded soldier recovers and brings them a most welcome gift for Christmas – the gift of hope.
 
What the Devil?
            On June 11, 1963, Arch Oboler wrote a teleplay for the fifth season of Twilight Zone titled, “What the Devil?” Millie and Frank, driving a Jaguar across the desert, witness a hellish hit-and-run that kills the driver of one of the vehicles. In shock, the two start to suspect the fleeing driver may have seen them and now set his sights on the witnesses. Their suspicions are confirmed when, further down the road, the huge truck takes chase. The words “Danger, High Explosives” are on the side of the vehicle, but the driver misses his mark and the couple manages to get away. Frank tells Millie he caught a glimpse of the driver, and she laughs when he tells her it was the Devil. In a game of cat and mouse, they manage to switch vehicles, hoping the driver is looking for the Jaguar and not a station wagon. Millie, meanwhile, discovers that Frank committed a brutal act before leaving on the trip, and the driver may be a form of conscience. Ultimately, the truck catches up and once again, gives chase, hits-and-runs, this time taking the lives of Millie and Frank, the police arrive on the scene to find the car flattened. One of the officers is puzzled when he points out to his partner the hoof prints burned in the pavement, “like something walked around watching them burn!”
            From 1942 to 1943, Oboler scripted a total of 52 episodes for a horror program titled Lights Out!, sponsored by Ironized Yeast and broadcast over the CBS. The premiere episode, aired on October 6, 1942, was a radio play titled “What the Devil?” and this Twilight Zone teleplay was a faithful adaptation of the radio version. Gloria Blondell and Wally Maher played the leads for the radio version. Serling insisted the script be purchased from Oboler, and Bert Granet went along with Serling’s decision. (A letter dated October 2, 1963, from Granet to Serling, suggests that this arrangement was a fiasco, and Granet disliked the idea from the start, keeping silent to please Serling for a decision that ultimately never went before the cameras.)
            Assigned a production number on June 11, 1963, the television script was clearly intended to be filmed for the fifth season of The Twilight Zone. The attempt was short-lived. An M-G-M work order dated August 13, 1963 announced the cancellation of this production, and most of the copies of the scripts were returned to Oboler. Serling retained at least two copies for his records, and donated one to UCLA. According to tax paperwork and financial records, secretarial and other expenses cost Cayuga Productions a total of $420.47. No paperwork has been found to verify how much Arch Oboler was paid (if he was paid at all) for his teleplay, which would have been an additional expense to Cayuga.
 
The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas
            On March 4, 1965, a variation of the Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” aired on the radio program, Theater Five. “The Land of Milk and Honey” was an almost mirrored copy of the same story, right down to the final surprise ending. In March of 1974, Rod Serling was in Houston, in association with Mutual Broadcasting System, during the National Association of Broadcasters Convention. He was promoting his new radio program, Zero Hour, which he was heavily involved with. This short-run program was Serling’s attempt at another anthology program -- and possibly his chance to retain control of his own program without the interference of both the network and the movie studios.
            The December 21, 1960 issue of The Hollywood Reporter reported Serling’s sale of a radio program to CBS, suggesting the network wanted to broadcast a radio series adapted from television scripts of The Twilight Zone. This is not a farfetched notion as some might ponder, because the television series Have Gun – Will Travel had been adapted to radio two years previous on the CBS Radio Network. This concept never fleshed into radio dramas until four decades later when producer Carl Amari decided to present new dramatizations based on this classic program. A lifelong fan of old-time radio, Amari decided to revive the series not as a nostalgic recreation of radio as it once was. Instead, Amari commissioned fresh radio adaptations based on the original 156 teleplays along with new story ideas never seen or heard on The Twilight Zone. Among the prolific writers responsible for adapting the teleplays into 160 History of The Twilight Zone feasible radio scripts are World Fantasy Award-winning writer Dennis Etchison. Recorded in digital stereo, narrated by Stacy Keach and starring a remarkable cast of actors, these exciting productions take the art of audio drama to an audience that may not have seen the Twilight Zone productions when they were first telecast from 1959 – 1964.
            Among the radio dramas are adaptations of teleplays written by Charles Beaumont and Jerry Sohl that were commissioned but never produced, such as “Free Dirt” and “Who Am I?” The program has been syndicated across the country on XM and Sirius Satellite Radio, as well as a number of local radio stations. They can also be presently heard over the Yesterday USA Network on the internet, and CD box sets are available commercially.
 
 
Special thanks to: Terry Salomonson, Earl Hamner, Bill Bragg, Walden Hughes and Carl Amari for their assistance with this article.
 
Martin Grams Jr. is the author and co-author of more than a dozen books on old-time radio and retro television. Selected excerpts from his recent publication, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic was reprinted with permission from the publisher.
 
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Copyright © 2008 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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