Suspense – Radio’s outstanding theater of thrills

AND NOW, A TALE WELL CALCULATED TO KEEP YOU IN SUSPENSE

 

Lurene Tuttle (left) and Rosalind Russell in "The Sisters" (9 December, 1948)
Lurene Tuttle (left) and Rosalind Russell in “The Sisters” (9 December 1948)
On 17 June 1942, the anthology Suspense debuted on CBS Radio. The long-running series, which anticipated television programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, concluded in 1962, an occasion now usually cited as signalling the end of radio’s Golden Age.

 

The formula of Suspense was similar to that of another excellent anthology of the day, The Whistler. In most episodes a crime occurs shortly after the program begins. Suspense is heightened as the drama unfolds. In the end justice prevails and the program concludes. Suspense succeeds where lesser anthologies often failed through good production, usually-taut writing, and the presence of some of the biggest names in Hollywood including giants like Bela Lugosi, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Joan CrawfordJohn Garfield, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Paul Muni, Peter Lorre, among others — who were often cast against type (especially in the case of actors mostly thought of as comedians like Jack BennyLucille Ball, and Red Skelton). 

 

Joan Crawford in "The Ten Years" (2 June, 1949) Joan Crawford in "The Ten Years" (2 June, 1949)
Joan Crawford in “The Ten Years” (2 June, 1949)

AUDITION EPISODE – THE LODGER

The audition episode was an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1926 silent film, The Lodger, and was also directed by Hitchcock. It aired on a 22 July, 1940 episode of the program, Forecast and was Hitchcock’s American radio directorial debut.
EARLY YEARS

The first episode was called “The Burning Court.” The programs were initially hosted by the mysterious, omniscient “Man in Black” (voiced by Joseph Kearns or Ted Osborne). In its early years, Suspense episodes almost always were in the mystery/thriller vein although there were occasional forays into fantasy, horror, and science-fiction. It bounced around the schedule five times before the end of 1943, when it moved to Thursday.

THE HITCHHIKER

One of the best-remembered episodes from Suspense‘s first season was “The Hitchhiker,” which aired on 2 September, 1942, and starred Orson Welles as a cross-country motorist haunted by a mysterious hitchhiker who continues to appear at every turn. It was later adapted into a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone and seems to have directly or indirectly inspired the 1962 film Carnival of Souls.

Suspense Radio drama advertisement

ROMA WINES

One of my favorite aspects of listening to old time radio dramas are the advertisements, especially when they’re promoting a product that no longer exists. If anyone in the 21st Century knows of Roma Wines they’re almost certainly a fan of Suspense and have tasted their delicious sauterne. CBS sustained Suspense until Roma Wines became the program’s sponsor in 1943.

Roma was a Fresno-based winemaker and boasted in their ads that they were “America’s largest selling wine” (during an era when Americans drank FAR more liquor and beer) and that Roma was “Made in California for enjoyment throughout the world.” They seem to have been absorbed into a larger company in the 1970s.
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

 

Agnes Moorehead in Sorry, Wrong NumberAgnes Moorehead in Sorry, Wrong NumberAgnes Moorehead in Sorry, Wrong NumberAgnes Moorehead in Sorry, Wrong Number

Agnes Moorehead starring in several versions of “Sorry, Wrong Number”

Perhaps even more popular than “The Hitchhiker” was an episode which first aired on 25 May, 1943, titled “Sorry, Wrong Number.” It starred Agnes Moorehead as an hysterical, bedridden woman who accidentally overhears a murder plot on the phone but is unable to convince the police to take action and grows more and more unhinged as the plot twist unfolds. In fact, it was so popular that it was restaged seven more times, each time starring Moorehead, and adapted into two films of the same name — one in 1948 and starring Barbara Stanwyck and the other in 1989 and starring Loni Anderson.
HOUR LONG EPISODES

 

Apparently encouraged by Suspense‘s success and mistakingly equating length with quality (as many filmmakers do today), half hour program was stretched to an hour in January 1948. The Man in Black was done away with and replaced with actor, House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) cooperator, and that year’s Oscar host, Robert Montgomery. The bloated version ran until May, when it was thankfully trimmed back to fighting fitness.

Autlolite Suspense television advertisement

AUTOLITE

Following its return to the 30 minute format, spark plug manufacturer Autolite began sponsoring the show in July 1948 and continued to do so until June 1954. Beginning in 1949, Autolite also began sponsoring a live broadcast television version of Suspense for CBS although, like most radio programs adapted for television, it was inferior to the original. It ended with Autolite’s sponsorship in 1954, although it was briefly revived in 1962. It was also during Autolite’s sponsorship that two attempts were made to cash in on the success of Suspense by producing two short-run magazines of the same name, one in 1946 and ’47 and the other in 1951 and ’52.

Elliott Lewis

ELLIOT LEWIS

Actor/producer/director Elliott “Mr. Radio” Lewis and his wife Cathy assumed the co-producers’ roles on Suspense from 1950 until 1956. Elliott Lewis also directed the program from 1951 until 1954. From 1952 until 1954 he was also producing,  writing, directing, and performing in his own production, the excellent but sadly short-lived Crime Classics. Although the Lewis years are fondly remembered by today’s fans of Suspense, it was during the 1952-1953 season that the series’ popularity began to decline as audiences increasingly turned away from radio to television.

LATER YEARS

After Autolite ended their sponsorship of Suspense in 1954, CBS and various sponsors (like Alpine CigarettesParliament Cigarettes, and Pepsi-Cola), sustained the program and it once again began bouncing around various nights of the week. Lewis left his role as producer in 1956 and was succeeded by Antony Ellis, William N. Robson and others. As the networks increasingly shifted their efforts to television, budgets were cut and to cut costs, episodes were adapted from other anthologies like Escape (1947-1954) and The Mysterious Traveler (1943-1952).

After the departure of the Lewises, most of the big Hollywood actors stopped coming around — although loyal listeners could still count on regular appearances from radio stalwarts like Agnes Moorehead, Frank Lovejoy, Joseph Cotten, Parley BaerRaymond BurrVincent Price, and William Conrad at least until the end of 1959.

 

THE END OF SUSPENSE

Suspense was actually first cancelled in 1960, following the November airing of an episode titled “Home Is Where You Find It.” It was revived the following June with  “Call Me At Half-Past.” What proved to be the final episode, “Devil Stone,” aired on the same day as the final episode of another long-running series, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, 30 September, 1962. The program had debuted shortly after the US had entered World War II. By its end, the country was ramping up for an invasion of Vietnam

946 episodes of Suspense were produced in its twenty year run and roughly 900 are known to still exist, which you can stream here, at the Internet Radio Archive. My favorite way to hear them is by tuning into Radio AM 1710 Antioch, a the best listener-supported online Old Time Radio station which, whenever possible, airs old radio drama episodes on the same date as it originally aired.

Episodes of the television series have been released on several DVD box sets from Infinity Entertainment Group.
PARTIAL SUSPENSE CREDITS
Writers: E. Jack Neuman, George Wells, Hugh Pentecost, J. Donald Wilson, Jack Johnstone (often as Jonathan Bundy),  James Poe, John Dickson Carr, John R. Forrest, John Shaw, Joseph CochranLarry Roman, Louis Pelletier, Lucille Fletcher, Mel Dinelli, Peter FernandezRobert CorcoranRobert L. Richards, Robert Tallman, Ronald DawsonSigmund Miller, and Walter Newman, amongst othersDirectors: Anthony Ellis, Anton M. Leader, Bruno Zirato, Jr., Charles Vanda, Elliott Lewis, Fred Hendrickson, John Dietz, Jr., Norman MacDonnell, Robert Lewis Shayon, Ted Bliss, and William N. RobsonProducers: Bruno Zirato, Jr., Cathy Lewis, Elliott Lewis, Norman MacDonnell, William N. Robson, and William Spier.

Music: Bernard Herrmann, Alexander Semmler, Lucien Morawek, and Wilbur Hatch

Announcers: Berry Kroeger, George Walsh, Joseph KearnsLarry ThorPaul Frees, and William Johnstone


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 generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject 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 KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
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