Friday, February 20, 2004

“…I take the same train every week at this time…”

The Mysterious Traveler, one of the Mutual Broadcasting System’s most durable series, debuted over that network on December 5, 1943 and lasted nearly a decade until it left the airwaves September 16, 1952. The show was sustained throughout its run—though it hardly mattered as the program was fairly cheap to produce—and starred Maurice Tarplin as the host-narrator who told stories of “the strange and terrifying” as he arrived weekly on a phantom train. “I hope you will enjoy the trip,” he would intone in a menacing but good-natured way, “that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little. So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves, and be comfortable—if you can!

Tarplin was a seasoned radio veteran known for his roles on shows like The Shadow, The March of Time, Gangbusters, and a variety of soap operas to boot. (His most famous role outside The Mysterious Traveler was that of Inspector Faraday on the syndicated detective series Boston Blackie.) He landed the part of the Traveler by beating out such radio stalwarts as Lon Clark, Lawson Zerbe, Larry Haines, and Lon McAllister; according to producer-director-writer David Kogan, “Maurice was far and away the best. We’d never worked with him before, but there was no comparison.” Tarplin’s ability to “double,” or play multiple characters in one episode, was no doubt an additional enticement to hiring the talented actor.

The stories on The Mysterious Traveler ran the gamut from crime to science fiction, and the show’s best-known episode dabbled in the latter genre: “Behind the Locked Door” (November 6, 1951), which tells the tale of a pair of archaeologists trapped in a dark cave by a landslide, and of the strange creatures they discover residing there. One of my personal favorites is “The Man the Insects Hated” (July 27, 1947)—a scientist finds himself on the receiving end of being attacked by insects after he creates a formula to destroy all bug life.

I would describe The Mysterious Traveler as a low-rent Whistler, the popular CBS West Coast series (1942-55) that also featured an omnipresent host-narrator. There were, of course, some differences: most of the Traveler shows that I’ve listened to, don’t have the degree of participation in the narrative that The Whistler did. I can also say this in the Traveler’s favor—at least he had the wherewithal for train fare every week. The Whistler was always having to “walk by night.”

Last night, I listened to a pair of shows from 1948, beginning with “Murder in Jazztime” (from April 20), which tells the story of a popular singer named Vicki Saunders (Joan Alexander) who marries a man named Alexander Drake (Frank Barron). While the couple honeymoon in New Orleans, they meet up with a legendary jazz pianist named Jeff Becker (John Gibson), with whom Vicki becomes deeply infatuated. Alex, in a fit of jealous rage, kills the pianist—but soon finds himself haunted by continuous jazz music. This episode is pretty so-so, but the acting is good, and I was both surprised and pleased to learn that the music in this show was contributed by the legendary Hazel Scott.

“Murder is My Business,” originally heard June 8, 1948, is a definite improvement: David Philips (Eric Dressler), the scriptwriter for radio’s Dangerous Adventure, is hired by autocratic radio producer Basil King (Philips’ wife Julia describes him as “the most hated man in radio”) to be the new scribe on King’s hit program, Brad Barker—Private Eye. But King turns out to be a real martinet, and after several weeks David decides to…well, let’s just say he’s not gonna send him a fruit basket. A fine cast including Shirley Blanke, John Sylvester, and Richard Coogan—plus The Mysterious Traveler’s announcer Carl Caruso as…well, an announcer—makes this a pleasing entry, if not outstanding. That pretty much sums up The Mysterious Traveler in a nutshell—it’s not particularly great, but it’s not all that bad, either.

The Mysterious Traveler proved to be a rather hardy radio chestnut, particularly due to the fact that two similar shows—The Strange Dr. Weird (1944-45, which also featured Tarplin in the title role) and The Sealed Book (1945)—recycled many of the show’s scripts, as did Suspense in its later, waning years. This proves to be a good thing, since OTR historian Jay Hickerson notes that only 75 of the show’s original 370 broadcasts survive today. As for Maurice Tarplin, he was able to continue on even after the Golden Age of Radio’s demise by finding a career in dubbing soundtracks for foreign films and doing commercial voiceovers for a variety of advertised products.

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