Saturday, February 28, 2004

“Bellkeeper, toll the bell!”

I whiled away the hours last night at work with a couple of Edgar Allan Poe tales on The Weird Circle, a 1940s mystery-horror series originally produced and recorded at NBC’s Recording Division and later distributed by syndicator Fredric Ziv. There’s a certain irony about Circle, in that the program itself is as mysterious as the short stories it weekly showcased. The actors on the program received no on-air credit (though some have been identified: Arnold Moss, Lawson Zerbe, Eleanor Audley, etc.), and no writing, directing or producing credits for the series exist today.

Even its broadcast history remains spotty: for example, the first of the two broadcasts I heard—Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”—is dated April 15, 1946, the date the program made its debut over New York’s WOR. Jerry Haendiges’s Weird Circle log, however, assigns an August 29, 1943 date—but according to a source I consulted the program didn’t start until November of that same year. This same source also mentions that the show had a brief run on ABC from September 15-October 6, 1947. Perhaps we’ll never really know for certain.

The Weird Circle was a low-budget affair, presenting adaptations of classic stories from literature with an emphasis on gothic tales like “Frankenstein” and “Wuthering Heights.” This was essentially a cost-cutting measure: since most of the copyrights of these tales had expired, it eliminated the need for royalty payments. Among the authors showcased on the program were Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edgar Allan Poe was probably the author whose work was most represented on the series (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Oblong Box,” etc.).

Despite its shoestring budget, I actually found the two productions I sampled fairly entertaining: “Usher” is, of course, the classic Poe tale that tells of the supernatural bond between twins Madeline and Roderick Usher—the last two branches on the Usher family tree. The second show, “The Cask of Amontillado” (11/25/46), was even better—the production fleshes out Poe’s legendary revenge tale a good deal, though the famous “bricking-the-guy-up-inside-the-wall” bit is discarded for a kindler, gentler “locking-him-up-in-a-cell-in-the-cellar” conclusion. Must have been a decree from Standards and Practices.

“In this cave by the restless sea, we are meant to call from out of the past, stories strange and weird. Bellkeeper, toll the bell—so that all may know we are gathered again in…The Weird Circle!” So went the show’s standard opening, uttered by a peculiar, otherworldly voice in the tradition of The Shadow and The Whistler. 78 episodes were produced—all extant today—and these broadcasts saw a new “weird circle” begin in the 1960s when the show was syndicated by Charles Michelson (who also reintroduced The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and The Lone Ranger to a new generation of listeners). Given its budget limitations, I must admit that the shows entertained me last night…so toll on, bellkeeper, toll on.

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