Wednesday, January 14, 2004

”Pleasant dreeeeeaaaaammmmmsssss…hmmmmm…?”

Of all the many celebrated sound effects from the Golden Age of Radio, several remain in the memory even after that wonderful medium’s demise: the wicked laugh of The Shadow, the haunting warbling of The Whistler, the legendary overstuffed closet at 79 Wistful Vista. But perhaps the granddaddy of them all is the haunting sound of the celebrated creaking door from…Inner Sanctum.

Inner Sanctum (or to use the official title, Inner Sanctum Mysteries) was a popular radio horror melodrama much in the same mold as Lights Out, though Sanctum definitely lasted much longer than the Wyllis Cooper/Arch Oboler fright fest. It was created by savvy producer-director Himan Brown, whose radio resume included The Adventures of The Thin Man and Grand Central Station, and was put together after consulting with publishers Street & Smith, whose popular Inner Sanctum Mystery novels (first published in 1930) provided the inspiration for the program. Brown was able to secure a sponsor in Carter’s Little Liver Pills and Sanctum debuted over the Blue Network January 7, 1941. The program would open to ominous organ music—three bars in a low register, then a sharp sting—and then the announcement: Inner Sanctum Mysteries! A doorknob would then turn, and a rusted door-hinge would swing slooowly, creating a vivid atmosphere of terror and doom. Brown once remarked, “I’m gonna make that door a star,” and he was as good as his word.

The first host of Inner Sanctum introduced himself only as Raymond (in real life, actor Raymond Edward Johnson), and though he apparently had no last name, I’ve always speculated that it might be “O’Dell.” (Raymond was given to same sort of gallows humor possessed by “Digger” O’Dell, the friendly undertaker of Life of Riley fame.) Raymond spoke in a sepulchral voice and rattled off the most atrocious, gruesome puns—and yet, somehow it all seemed to work; an intriguing combination of horror and humor, with the stories always played straight, no matter how farfetched they might be. Raymond left the program in May 1945 and was replaced by Paul McGrath, who was a bit more light-hearted than his predecessor.

In its early years, Inner Sanctum was able to attract a goodly number of big-name stars—Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Raymond Massey, Paul Lukas, etc. Horror icon Boris Karloff appeared on the show so often (nearly twenty times from 1941-42) that he could very well have been considered a regular. Of course, many of the shows from those early days featured not only originals but many classics from the horror genre, among them The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell Tale Heart. By 1943, the guest appearances had tapered off, but the program still had a respectable repertory company of professional New York radio actors: Everett Sloane, Lesley Woods, Larry Haines, Santos Ortega—even a young Richard Widmark.

The stories on Inner Sanctum were frequently over-the-top, with plots hinging often on the wildest of happenstance and improbability. It didn’t seem to matter much then, and fifty years later, it still doesn’t. Sanctum was essentially the equivalent of a spook house amusement park ride, or a ghost story told around the campfire—never to be taken too seriously. Today, even if the show’s power to thrill and chill seems greatly diminished, it has a refreshing camp quality that never fails to entertain.

Last night, I took along a CD of Inner Sanctum broadcasts from its last season, a summer run on CBS Radio from June-October 1952. The first of the two broadcasts, “Death For Sale,” is an AFRS rebroadcast from July 13 that features Boris Karloff as Mark Deavers, a man who has conspired with his lover Cora to institute an insurance scam that will net the two of them $50,000. They arrange for a man named Elliott Stans (Everett Sloane) to marry Cora, and then disappear for seven years in order for him to be declared legally dead. The wacky complications ensue when Stans returns before the seven years are up, demanding a bigger slice of the pie. The story is pretty standard, but as a Karloff fan, Boris makes even the weakest material fun.

After that, “No Rest For the Dead,” originally broadcast August 24, 1952 and sponsored by Pearson Pharmaceuticals—an interesting tale about a man named George Denning who makes a bargain with a doctor to sell his brain for the doctor’s experiments, much to the horror of his daughter Grace. She calls the doc’s office to speak with him, and finds out from his nurse that he’s been murdered. It’s fun to listen to, though the ending will make you groan. Both of these scripts had been performed on Inner Sanctum in the 1940s; the CBS summer run consisted mostly of new performances from these old scripts.

To be honest, I never really cared all that much for Inner Sanctum at first; I have a problem with any kind of entertainment that “explains” away anything supernatural with the old “there’s-a-perfectly-rational-explanation” excuse. To illustrate, how many episodes of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? have you watched where the “ghost” turns out to be an image from a movie projector? As a proud member of the seventh-grade Audio/Visual club (better known as the Fraternal Order of Geeks), I can assure you that setting up a projector to do that sort of thing would not even be remotely as easy as it looks. I changed my mind about Inner Sanctum though, sometime last year—and what turned me around was the outstanding history of the program as told by Martin Grams, Jr. in The Official Guide to Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door. It is a book no OTR fan should be without.

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