Happy Birthday, The Whistler! – rated by independent research the most popular West Coast Program in radio history

Adventures of the Lone RangerMy introduction to old time radio was listening to a 1957 Decca 12” The Adventures of the Lone Ranger that my dad presumably procured as a child. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I don’t think I ever made the connection that the album’s tracks were old radio episodes… I don’t think I even knew about radio dramas until I think I became vaguely aware of – but not interested in — The Shadow sometime later.

It must’ve been around 2000 when I was hanging out with my friend Josh Beckman one night and he excitedly turned his radio on and dialed in to AM 1260 KNX to catch The Whistler. I’d never heard ofThe Whistler before but Josh was obviously a fan and whistled the Whistler’s theme as the program began. I listened and was entertained and surprised at how much more mature the story was – having previously assumed that all old time radio consisted of nothing but adolescent serials.

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Signal Gasoline
 

The Whistler debuted on CBS on 16 May, 1942. For most its run it was sponsored by Signal Oil Company, an oil company founded in The Harbor’s Signal Hill community. Regular fans from any era feel their ears prick up when they hear the sound of clicking shoes, the haunting, whistled theme and the announcement, “That whistle is your signal for the Signal Oil program, The Whistler.”

The Whistler (1944) movie poster

In 1944, it was adapted into a Columbia Pictures film, The Whistler, directed by the great William Castle and launched a franchise that ultimately included The Mark of the Whistler (1944)*, The Power of the Whistler (1945), Voice of the Whistler (1945)*, Mysterious Intruder (1946)*, Secret of the Whistler (1946), The Thirteenth Hour (1947), and The Return of the Whistler (1948).

 

The signature whistle was provided by Dorothy Roberts, who was backed by the theme’s composer, Wilbur Hatch and his orchestra. The voice of the titular Whistler was provided variously by Bill Forman, Bill Johnstone, Everett Clark, Gale Gordon, Joseph Kearns, and Marvin Miller but regardless of the actor, the opening announcement was always the same, “I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes… I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.”

Unlike most programs, the protagonists of The Whistler were criminals and most episodes began with their having committed a serious crime. Ultimately justice is served thanks to a twist in the final act or something that was overlooked in the beginning having been overlooked. The Whistler’s shadowy narrator was undoubtedly inspired by the Shadow but was no superhero — rather an omniscient narrator who provided ironic commentary and programs it was more in line with mystery anthology programs like NBC’s Mystery House, the Blue Network’s Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and Mutual’s The Mysterious Traveler and The Strange Dr. Weird — but in my opinion it’s superior to all of them.

 

For the shows first two seasons it was overseen by writer/producer J. Donald Wilson. He was succeeded in 1944 by director/producer George Allen. The scripts were written by Joel Malone and Harold Swanton. Directors included Sterling Tracy and Sherman Marks (who went on to direct episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.GrindlTammy and other TV series).

Bill Johnstone Cathy Lewis Elliot Lewis
                       Bill Johnstone                                          Cathy Lewis                                    Elliot Lewis

Gerald Mohr Hans Conried Jack Webb Lurene Tuttle
            Gerald Mohr                         Hans Conried                     Jack Webb                        Lurene Tuttle

Strangely, whereas its fellow and-not-dissimilar CBS anthology Suspense frequently featured famous Hollywood guess stars, most of the actors who appeared on The Whistler were better known as the stalwarts of Hollywood’s so-called “Radio Row,” e.g. Bill Johnstone (The Shadow, The Line-Up, Cavalcade of America, Suspense, Lux Radio Theatre, This Is Your FBI, Dragnet), Cathy Lewis(The First Nighter Program, My Friend Irma, Suspense, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen), Elliot “Mr Radio” Lewis (The Amazing Nero Wolfe, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, The Adventures of Maise, Broadway is My Beat, Suspense, Crime Classics), Gerald Mohr (The Adventures of Bill Lance, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe), Hans Conried (The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show, My Friend Irma, Suspense), Jack Webb (Dragnet, The Jack Webb Show, Pat Novak for Hire, Johnny Modero, Pier 23; Jeff Regan, Investigator; Murder and Mr. Malone, One Out of Seven), and Lurene Tuttle (The Adventures of Sam Spade, Suspense, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Great Gildersleeve, Brent House, Dr. Christian, One Man’s Family, The Red Skelton Show, Hollywood Hotel, Those We Love, Duffy’s Tavern).

TV in 1955
Its final episode aired on 22 September, 1955 — at a time when radio audiences were flocking to TV, where its influence can certainly be seen in anthology TV programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone (and later series like The Hitchhiker, and Night Visions). More than 200 of the 692 episodes are currently considered lost. Most of the rest are available on online, on LP, on cassette, on CD and other formats.

*directed by William Castle

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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