By Ivan G Shreve Jr
Radio writer and playwright Arch Oboler once had these words of praise for the man he would eventually replace as the mind behind the mayhem that fueled the horror series Lights Out: “Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Willys [sic] Cooper.” Okay, maybe Arch could have worked on the spelling of his mentor’s name a bit; he’s referring to Wyllis Cooper, who created the series that featured the intonation of “Lights out, everybody!” before presenting plays guaranteed to chill the bone marrow. After spending a brief sojourn in Hollywood, Cooper—born Willis Oswald Cooper in Pekin, Illinois one hundred and seventeen years ago today—would later follow up that success with the underrated Quiet, Please in the 1940s.
Pekin was also where the young Willis attended high school, and after graduating in 1916 he joined the U.S. Cavalry—eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant as he served along the Mexican border. The following year found him in France during the First World War as a signal corpsman, and though he was gassed at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive as part of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, he continued to serve until 1919…and for many years after, was a member of the Illinois National Guard and the Cavalry Reserves. Advertising, however, was the civilian field in which Cooper chose to toil. After working as a copywriter for several agencies (including a brief stint at one he founded himself), Willis got into the ground floor of radio at NBC in Chicago, where his first assignment was for the Western drama The Empire Builders.
After writing for Empire Builders, Cooper worked at rival CBS as a continuity editor, and generated scripts for such series as The Witching Hour and The Lost Legion (Tales of the Foreign Legion). His loyalty then reverted back to NBC when he was hired to do the same continuity editor job, and he continued to write prolifically with such contributions as Desert Guns and Fifty-Fifty. Willis would create the program that would become his radio legacy in 1934: a fifteen-minute horror program broadcast at midnight known as Lights Out.
Lights Out began as a quarter-hour in January of 1934, but its popularity convinced NBC Chicago to grant it half-hour status three months later. Lights Out’s midnight time slot allowed Cooper to go a bit beyond broadcasting’s usual norms by concentrating on gory sound effects and terrorizing subject matter, and it attracted such a devoted following that even when the series was discontinued in January of 1935 to ease its creator’s workload, public outcry brought Lights Out back a few weeks later. In April of 1935, the program made its debut national on NBC Red after a positive reception to test broadcasts in New York City.
Willis Cooper stayed with Lights Out until May of 1936 (allowing Oboler to take over and put his distinctive stamp on the show), when he answered the siren call of Hollywood and moved west. After doing uncredited work on such films as Pigskin Parade (1936), Wild and Woolly (1937), and She Had to Eat (1937), Willis received his first onscreen credit by contributing “additional dialogue” to Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937). Cooper would receive screenplay credit for Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937) and story credit on Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), two entries in the popular 20th Century-Fox franchise starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese sleuth created by John P. Marquand. Willis’ best-remembered screenplay was 1939’s Son of Frankenstein—the third in Universal’s highly successful horror series, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. (Willis also participated in projects that never materialized on the silver screen…though he earned a place in the hearts of cheesy movie fans by scripting the Universal serial The Phantom Creeps .)
During his sojourn in Hollywood, Willis Cooper had kept his hand in radio by writing scripts for the popular Hollywood Hotel program, and in 1940 he returned east (New York City) to continue in broadcasting and contributing to such shows as Charlie and Jesse and The Campbell Playhouse (the new name of The Mercury Theatre On the Air after creator-star Orson Welles landed a sponsor). By this time the writer was signing “Wyllis Cooper” on his scripts, purportedly changing the spelling of his first name “to please his wife’s numerological inclinations.” Cooper’s experience in World War I landed him a position as consultant to the Secretary of War during the Second World War, and part of his new job involved producing and directing The Army Hour, a weekly propaganda show with elements of both news and variety.
After the war, Wyllis was hired by the radio department of Compton Advertising in New York, and many of his old scripts for Lights Out would be utilized when the series enjoyed three summer runs in 1945, 1946, and 1947. In June of 1947 Mutual premiered what many consider to be Cooper’s most exemplary contribution to radio drama: Quiet, Please. A horror anthology that was much more understated than the previous Lights Out, Quiet, Please didn’t attract much attention during its initial run (it lasted a year on Mutual before moving to ABC for its second and final season), but has since become recognized by historians as one of the medium’s most outstanding shows. John Dunning praised Quiet, Please as “a potent series bristling with rich imagination,” and University of Glamorgan professor Richard J. Hand declared the show’s creator “one of the greatest auteurs of horror radio.”
Wyllis Cooper made a grab for small screen achievement with contributions to TV shows like Escape and (of course) Lights Out, but his own productions of Volume One and Stage 13 never caught on in the way that his radio contributions did. He would enjoy one last success with one final radio series, Whitehall 1212—a 1951-52 NBC crime anthology (featuring an all-British cast) that dramatized stories based on artifacts held at Scotland Yard’s Black Museum (Whitehall competed with a similar Orson Welles program on Mutual, The Black Museum, and there has occasionally been confusion between the two). Wyllis Cooper passed away in 1955 at the age of 56.
Copyright 2016 Ivan G Shreve Jr and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.