Wednesday, January 21, 2004

”…which might mean something…or might mean nothing…”

Final Day of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

The Black Door

Archaeologist Landry (Robert Readick) and his guide Pablo (Ralph Camargo) are exploring the ruins of the Lost City of the Fire God, the location of which was told to Pedro by his grandfather, who stumbled across it years earlier. Gramps also told his grandson about “la puerta negra” (the black door), which leads the two men to an underground city inhabited by creatures with human bodies...and dog-like heads...

“The Black Door” (broadcast November 19, 1961) is one of two broadcasts included on The Best of Suspense box set from the series’ final year—the script, written by Robert Arthur, had been previously presented on Mutual’s The Mysterious Traveler March 18, 1952. It’s not terrible, but it does illustrate that “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills” was definitely on life-support by that time.

The series had moved its production base to New York in late August 1959, and with its relocation, secured a new director-producer in Paul Roberts. (Roberts had previously helmed a CBS crime series called Indictment from 1956-59.) Suspense would continue to feature fine performances from the crème de la crème of New York talent—folks like Jackson Beck, Bret Morrison, Raymond Edward Johnson and Mason Adams—but the incredible shrinking budget made scripts for the series very hard to come by. When Bruno Zarato, Jr. became director-producer on June 25, 1961, he made do with old scripts (paying a total of $350 for the whole lot) from series like Radio City Playhouse and, as mentioned, The Mysterious Traveler, plus some contributions from actors on the show, like Ralph Bell.

Suspense was actually resurrected from the radio dead in 1961—it had originally received the axe on November 27, 1960, along with the likes of Have Gun, Will Travel, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall. Johnny Dollar got a reprieve and returned on January 7, 1961—and Suspense was brought back several months later to replace the now-cancelled Gunsmoke.

The Second Door

Gordon Saunders (Robert Readick) begins to question as to just what is reality and what is illusion when he’s introduced to Dr. Howard Ederly (Paul McGrath) and his daughter Merilla (Barbara Cassar). Ederly, it would appear, has invented a door that can take any individual anywhere they desire in a matter of seconds.

Now, I will confess that I haven’t listened to a lot of Suspense episodes from its final period, but if this broadcast and “The Black Door” represent the best this venerable series had to offer then it was time to grab the paddles and yell “Clear!” Well, that might be a little harsh—again, “The Second Door” isn’t that awful, just “aggressively average,” as a friend of mine might say. This May 6, 1962 broadcast was scripted by Robert Readick (who also played the lead) who apparently had a lot in common with the episode’s protagonist in that he suffered from a case of schizophrenia, and had difficulty differentiating reality from illusion as well. Readick, who began his radio career at age 8 on the CBS series Let’s Pretend, came from a prominent show business family: his grandfather was an accomplished stage actor, and his father Frank starred as The Shadow during that program’s early years on the air. (Frank would later achieve radio immortality as reporter Carl Phillips in the legendary Orson Welles broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.”)

There have been some comparisons made between this episode and the 1999 film The Matrix but since I’m probably the only person in the entire Western Hemisphere who hasn’t seen the film (scavenger hunters take note) I’ll simply have to take their word for it. I did notice, though, that radio veteran Robert Dryden has a small part in this broadcast—Dryden passed away recently on December 16, 2003, having established a distinguished career in radio, TV, theater, and film. (Dryden was a noteworthy presence on Himan Brown’s The CBS Radio Mystery Theater from 1974-82. R.I.P, Robert.)

Shortly six months after this broadcast, Suspense wrapped up its twenty-year run on radio and was cancelled—along with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar—by CBS on September 30, 1962. To paraphrase Don McLean, it was “the day the radio died.”


All in all, I was pretty pleased with most of the choices on The Best of Suspense, although I still wonder how some classic episodes—“August Heat,” “Track of the Cat,” “Wet Saturday,” “Banquo’s Chair,” “Return Trip,” and “Ordeal at Donner Pass,” to name but a few—got overlooked. (If they had dropped “The Bullet,” the programs with Escape origins, and these last two clinkers they certainly would have the room.) Then, of course, there are some of my personal favorites: “Dead of Night,” “Three O’Clock,” “Post Mortem,” “You Take Ballistics,” “Death on My Hands,” and “The Giant of Thermopylae” that got lost in the shuffle as well. If this box set were a term paper, I’d probably give it a B+. Thanks to everyone for indulging me in this Suspense-a-thon—beginning tomorrow, it’ll be B.A.U. here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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