Thursday, March 4, 2004

“Midnight…the witching hour, when the night is darkest…our fears the strongest…and our strength at its lowest ebb…”

While I was away at my sister’s, I scooped a handful of stray OTR CD’s to take with me, and one of them was an unfamiliar program to me: Murder at Midnight, a syndicated series that originated at WJZ in New York and was broadcast September 16, 1946 through September 8, 1947. The verdict: an undistinguished little show, not particularly memorable but easy enough to take—and some of the people involved later went on to greater triumphs.

The series would open with a creepy voice intoning “MURRR-DERRR-A-A-AT-MIIDNIIGHT!”—the voice belonging to a Long Island minister named Raymond Morgan, who had succumbed to the excitement of radio and, in turn, relinquished his career as a man of cloth. The program showcased tales of Midnight!...when graves gape open and death strikes!”—a polite euphemism for “Um…we went and recycled a bunch of old Inner Sanctum Mysteries scripts.” The producer was Louis G. Cowan, later the creator of television’s The $64,000 Question—and as such, implicated in the subsequent quiz show scandal. Assuming the show’s directorial reins was Anton M. Leader, who would later go on to direct “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” Suspense.

Most of the actors on Murder at Midnight were veterans from New York radio: Elspeth Eric, Mercedes McCambridge, Lawson Zerbe, etc. A frequent performer on the show was Berry Kroeger, best remembered by old-time radio fans as the sinister host of several radio mystery programs: he was the original voice of Suspense (June 17-December 22, 1942); a frequent pinch-hitter for “Raymond” (Raymond Edward Johnson) on Inner Sanctum; and the host of the syndicated The Haunting Hour from 1944-46. Other radio roles of Kroeger’s included The Falcon (he originated the role of detective Michael Waring) and The Shadow, where he was called upon to “fill in for Bret Morrison for a few weeks. I’ll never forget that [the director] said the reason he wanted me was because, like Bret, I had a ‘mellifluous voice.’”

Kroeger’s melodic tones are present and accounted for in the first of two Murder at Midnight programs I previewed, “The House Where Death Lived” (12/23/46). He plays Dr. Goff, a psychic researcher who buys a haunted house—haunted because the previous owner murdered his wife. It’s a surprisingly good entry, thanks to a solid script by writer Robert Newman, and appropriately eerie organ music by Charles Paul.

Unfortunately, scribe Newman strikes out with the second show, “Death Across the Board” (a undated show that was recorded but never broadcast)—in which Dr. John Strand (Eric Dressler) is admiring a chess set in a pawnshop, which its proprietor informs him is not for sale. Strand then finds himself in a living Hitchcock flick as he becomes a life-size chess piece in a deadly game of chess. It’s an interesting story premise, but its execution falls sort of flat. According to Jerry Haendiges’ log, Murder at Midnight had one more brief run on Mutual in 1950—but the programs consisted of the previously syndicated repeats.

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