Wednesday, February 25, 2004

“I’m quietly yours, Ernest Chappell…”

Radio’s legendary Arch Oboler built his formidable reputation on the classic horror series Lights Out—to be sure, many of that program’s most memorable tales—“Cat Wife,” “Chicken Heart,” “Revolt of the Worms”—sprang from both his typewriter and fertile imagination. It seems unfair, however, that the individual who originally developed Lights Out—Wyllis Cooper—should receive such short shrift with regards to that series, though a lot of that is due to the fact that his work on the show (from 1934 to 1936) simply did not survive in the numbers that Oboler’s productions did and cannot be listened to by modern day old-time radio fans.

Still, Cooper’s splendid contributions to the Golden Age of Radio are available to OTR listeners, thanks to surviving recordings of his unsung and seldom-heard-at-the-time Quiet, Please, which debuted over Mutual Radio on June 8, 1947. Ostensibly a return to Cooper’s radio roots, the program has been heralded by radio historian John Dunning as “a potent series bristling with imagination,” in which listeners confronted a seemingly ordinary world where “the element of menace was ripe and ever present.” For me, the off-kilter nature of Quiet, Please explains why I’m such a fan of the series—rarely is anything explained or justified on the show, and this reminds me of the expression often used on Vic and Sade: “Stuff happens.”

Each week, the series would be ushered in a with an unforgettably eerie piano-and-organ theme (Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor), and host/star Ernest Chappell would relate in first person (sometimes in present tense, sometimes in flashback) an unsettling tale of, as he once characterized it, an “ordinary fellow who gets all bollixed up with the supernatural.” Chappell was a long-time radio veteran—he was the announcer on Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse—who at one time coached first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on her broadcast commentaries. Chappell’s wonderfully understated narrative approach to the show’s stories was a directive from creator-writer-director Cooper, who disdained “acting,” preferring a more deadpan, naturalistic “here’s how it happened” style that was later used for radio’s Dragnet. Many of the show’s productions often featured Chappell and Chappell alone, though the two broadcasts I listened to last night at work are exceptions to this rule.

“The Thing On the Fourble Board” (8/9/48) was the first show I previewed, and is often cited as one of Quiet, Please’s classic broadcasts. It’s the story of an oil-drilling “roughneck” (Chappell) and his geologist friend (Dan Sutter) who discover evidence of human (?) life in soil samples taken from the Earth. This intriguing tale takes an extremely bizarre twist towards the end, and though I think its reputation is a little inflated, the mewling sounds emanating from the “thing” (Cecil Roy) are definitely bloodcurdling. In the second show, “Presto Change-O, I’m Sure” (8/16/48), a master magician (Edgar Stehli) hands a teenager (Chappell) a magic wand that bestows upon him supernatural powers. Granted, it’s no classic, but it’s still entertaining in an offbeat way—very reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode (“The Magic Shop”) I saw as a kid. Ed Latimer, Peggy Stanley, and Brad Barker round out this broadcast’s supporting cast.

The strength of Quiet, Please lies in the realization that even its weakest episodes constitute prima facia evidence of Wyllis Cooper’s imaginative talent; indeed, it’s the outstanding writing in the show’s scripts that drive the action, such scripts being described by Radio Life beginning “as immediately and forceful as opening a door on a madman’s monologue.” But when Quiet, Please was good, it was very, very good—among my favorites are “Northern Lights” (“a…e…i…o…u…”), “My Son, John,” “Whence Came You,” and “Nothing Behind the Door.”

Quiet, Please spent its roughly two-and-a-half year radio run as a sustained series, mostly on Mutual before it moved to ABC Radio on September 19, 1948 and wrapping up its all-too-brief stay June 25, 1949. Although nearly all of its original 104 broadcasts are extant today, a great majority of them are in poor or substandard sound. To wrap up this essay, I echo the thoughts of the esteemed New York Herald-Tribune radio critic John Crosby: “Most of the Quiet, Please dramas are weird, ingenious and intimate affairs. Above all, they are pure radio.”

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