Monday, January 19, 2004

”You’re about to experience…one of the most terrifying half-hours in your entire life…”

Day 18 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

The Waxwork

A down-and-out reporter looking for a story to sell to a newspaper agrees to spend a night in the “Murderer’s Den” exhibit of the local wax museum. An unnerving experience, to be sure—especially when he swears he can see one of the exhibits moving…

Certainly one of the most audacious of all the Suspense broadcasts, “The Waxwork,” from May 1, 1956, is literally a one-man tour-de-force: William Conrad plays all the characters in this show, including the narrator. Despite the fact that he doesn’t possess the versatility of a Paul Frees or Ben Wright (Conrad once joked that he was “the man of a thousand voice”) he still manages to pull it off; his scene where he discovers one of the wax figures moving is an incredible bit of radio acting, you could cut the hysteria present in his booming voice with a knife. On a personal note, William Conrad—for me, anyway—remains the only Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, miles and away superior to that TV guy…you know, the one that plays the “intellectual carrot” in The Thing From Another World (1951). If you’ve ever been curious as to how the famous TV western might have looked had Conrad been chosen for the role, you should check out a little-known gem called The Ride Back (1957), which was released on DVD just last year. The script for the movie was written by Suspense director-producer Antony Ellis, and was originally broadcast as a Gunsmoke episode June 28, 1952. (Sadly, this is one of a handful of Gunsmokes that has not survived for us to enjoy today.)

“The Waxwork” was an encore performance of a Suspense episode originally heard March 20, 1947 starring Claude Rains, and was broadcast a third time with Herbert Marshall as the lead on May 1, 1959. The script was adapted by Mel Dinelli from a 1933 story written by Alfred M. Burrage, and is definitely a must-hear for any fan of the show.

Three Skeleton Key

Jean (Vincent Price), Louis (John Dehner), and Auguste (Ben Wright) are in charge of a maintaining a lighthouse, and one night they witness a derelict ship break up on the nearby reefs. The ship may be devoid of any human life, but the three men soon discover that the passengers have disembarked and are headed toward the lighthouse—an invading army of millions and millions of hungry rats!

“Three Skeleton Key,” was a long-time favorite horror tale of many listeners during the Golden Age of Radio, and it remains so for modern-day fans today. It was broadcast on Suspense on November 11, 1956 (with an encore on October 19, 1958) and it marked one of the early episodes directed and produced by the newly-hired William N. Robson, or as he was billed, “the master of mystery and adventure.” Robson sought to reestablish the show’s former prestige, and with the signing on of several new sponsors (Fitch Shampoo, Kent Cigarettes, Four-Way Cold Tablets)—allowing CBS to increase the show’s budget slightly—he was able to bring back an occasional big-name to guest star, as witnessed by the presence here of horror movie icon Vincent Price.

Robson was no stranger to the program, having directed a January 31, 1948 Suspense show, “Bet With Death.” He had a long, distinguished radio career helming such critically acclaimed series as The Man Behind the Gun and The CBS Radio Workshop. He’s best-known, however, as the director of Suspense’s sister series, Escape, which ran on CBS from July 7, 1947 to September 25, 1954. During Robson’s stint with Suspense, he often went to Escape’s well for inspiration and scripts (as did his predecessor Ellis), which explains the presence of “Three Skeleton Key,” which was first adapted by James Poe from the 1937 story by George Gustave Toudouze and broadcast November 15, 1949. It would become one of the most requested of the program’s many fine broadcasts (always referred to by fans as “the story about the rats”), and it was encored twice, on March 17, 1950 (which also starred Price) and August 9, 1953.

Which leads to a tiny quibble: “Three Skeleton Key” is one of my all-time favorite radio plays, and I’m always up to listen to a broadcast—but it’s a show that I identify more with Escape, not Suspense. (Of its three Escape appearances, I think the March 17, 1950 broadcast is the best.) I think the individuals putting together this CD box set would have been better served leaving it out and choosing a worthy replacement, less it spoil a future The Best of Escape collection (in case anyone from Radio Spirits is reading this, hint, hint).

That nit-pick aside, “Three Skeleton Key” remains even today one of the most spine-tingling horror dramas ever broadcast, and every aspect of the show, from the sound effects of the ravenous rats (achieved by crunching/chewing berry baskets and rubbing cork against glass) to the performances (Price, as usual, is nothing short of magnificent) comes together to make a show that forever remains in the memory. As director-producer Robson comments in his opening remarks before the play, “It is unconditionally guaranteed to chill your blood…unless you happen to love rats…

No comments:

Post a Comment