Saturday, January 10, 2004


My introduction to famed horror maven/radio playwright Arch Oboler dates back to the autumn of 1982, while I was attending Marshall University in Huntington, WV. I had come across a blurb in a student magazine describing a Halloween program (“Sticks,” from ZBS Productions) that would be broadcast over various public radio stations that very weekend—what made this production so interesting was that it would be presented in a form of “audio 3-D,” which you could experience via headphones. I turned on my radio that Sunday afternoon and tuned into the local NPR affiliate in an attempt to locate it.

Instead, I stumbled onto a curious dramatic excerpt where two men, exploring an old, abandoned house, encounter a mysterious fog that turns its victims inside out! Yipes! I remember saying to myself. After that segment concluded, the host introduced and interviewed Arch Oboler, writer-director-producer of the classic Golden Age of Radio horror show Lights Out. (I later learned that the “inside out” segment—commonly titled “The Dark”—and a second excerpt played during the interview, “A Day at the Dentist’s,” were culled from a 1960s era Capitol LP entitled Drop Dead!

Though Oboler is usually considered the driving force behind Lights Out, the origins of the series actually lie with a man named Wyllis Cooper, an NBC staffer at its studios in Chicago. Cooper created, wrote, directed, and produced the fifteen-minute horror series, first broadcast over the Windy City’s WENR January 1, 1934 (the show expanded to thirty minutes in April of that same year). On April 17, 1935, it landed a berth on NBC nationwide, and was usually broadcast around 11:30 or 12 midnight, as intuited by its opening: “This is the witching hour! It is an hour when dogs howl, and evil is let loose on the sleeping world. Want to hear about it? Then turn out your lights!

Lights Out was an excellent blend of well-written scripts, top-notch performances, and revolutionary sound effects, billed enthusiastically by NBC as “the ultimate in horror.” Some of the names among the Chicago-based talent involved include Harold Peary, Willard Waterman (both Peary and Waterman played The Great Gildersleeve), Mercedes McCambridge, Arthur Peterson, Macdonald Carey, and Betty Winkler. But the show occasionally attracted big-name Hollywood stars as well, most notably Boris Karloff. The series was especially boastful of its sound effects: spare ribs snapped with a pipe wrench allowed listeners to visualize human bones being broken, and bacon in a frypan gave a realistic impression of someone being electrocuted.

Cooper left Lights Out in 1936 for a burgeoning Hollywood screenwriting career (among his efforts: two of the Mr. Moto films and the 1939 Son of Frankenstein, the third film in Universal Studios’ successful Frankenstein franchise) and was replaced by Oboler, another unknown NBC staffer who was at that time writing for Rudy Vallee and the Grand Hotel series. Oboler wasted no time in putting his own personal stamp on the program with his first script, “Burial Services,” the story of a paralyzed girl buried alive. (Oboler was off to a good, controversial start: NBC received more than 50,000 letters of complaint after that debut broadcast.) Many of the best-remembered Lights Outs sprang from Oboler’s prolific typewriter: “Cat Wife,” a classic chiller where a cuckolded man (Boris Karloff) must deal with his tramp of a wife after she is transformed into a human-sized cat; “Revolt of the Worms,” in which ordinary earthworms grown to enormous proportions after a scientist carelessly tosses his growth formula into the backyard; and of course, “Chicken Heart,” a fondly remembered tale (made immortal in a comedy routine by Bill Cosby) of a little organ that grew and grew and grew until (thump-THUMP…thump-THUMP…thump-THUMP) it consumed the world.

Oddly enough, Oboler never really cared that much for the horror genre; his dramas often consisted of “message plays,” like “Profits Unlimited,” a stinging rebuke of the evils of capitalism. In an interview with Leonard Maltin, he once commented: “I didn’t write about little green men, monsters with dripping talons and grotesque faces from the special effects department…I wrote about the terrors and monsters within each of us.” By 1938, Oboler had discovered the monster—Adolf Hitler—and he quit the program to concentrate on writing more patriotic plays, leaving Lights Out in the hands of NBC staffers until it departed the airwaves August 16, 1939. Three years later, Oboler resurrected the series beginning October 6, 1942 on CBS for Ironized Yeast. Many of Oboler’s old Chicago scripts were dusted off and presented in new versions for the listening audience, favorites like “State Executioner” and “Oxychloride X.” The show lasted but one season, but it’s probably the version best-remembered by OTR fans, as the bulk of the programs that have survived today originate from this series.

Lights Out would make only three more appearances on the radio networks—twice on NBC in the summers of 1945 (Fantasies from Lights Out) and 1946, and another summer run on ABC in 1947. These episodes consisted of new versions of old Wyllis Cooper scripts, with Cooper contributing a few originals to the 1947 series. Having returned to radio, Cooper created yet another memorable series in Quiet, Please, which showcased a sort of subtler, psychological horror and which has acquired quite a cult following among OTR fans today. Cooper later dabbled in live television, including the TV transplant of Lights Out, which ran on NBC-TV from 1949-52. (Reruns of this early horror series were at one time featured in a late night Friday timeslot on cable’s The Sci-Fi Channel.)

As for Oboler, he eked out a semi-successful movie career, writing and directing films like Strange Holiday (1945), Five (1951), and Bwana Devil (1952)—the movie that kicked off the 1950s 3-D craze. He would not return to Lights Out until the 1970s nostalgia boom, when a reedited syndicated radio version of the old 1942-43 broadcasts debuted, entitled The Devil and Mr. O (1970-73).

Last night, I listened to a couple of Lights Out programs—the CD I took with me to work has Oboler’s picture on the cover, but the two shows were taken from the 1945 and 1946 NBC summer runs. First, “Man in the Middle,” an AFRS rebroadcast of a show that originally aired over NBC August 25, 1945: businessman John Phillips is involved in a ménage a trois with his wife Lucille and secretary Patricia. He’s in way over his head and even after taking the easy way out (committing suicide) his problem still hasn’t changed. I thought at first that this episode was just being unintentionally funny (the ending sort of dispels that notion), but overall it’s pretty so-so—there’s a lot of surface noise during the last third of the show that makes it somewhat of a chore to listen to. I did like the stream-of-consciousness monologue employed to illuminate Phillips’ inner thoughts; a technique often used in many of Oboler’s scripts for the series.

The second episode, “Haunted Cell” (broadcast July 20, 1946), is a definite improvement—small-time hood Max Young (Norman Gottschalk) is pinched by a cop named Miller (Roy Engle) for a filling station holdup, but as it turns out Maxie’s also the prime suspect for the murder of Miller’s partner. After his attempt to get the hood to talk via the rubber hose treatment fails, the cop locks Maxie up in a special cell—one haunted by the ghost of cop killer Skeeter Dempsey (Stanley Schull). This eerie ghost story is quite entertaining, and while listening to it I could easily imagine it being retooled and used on Cooper’s Quiet, Please.

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