By Ivan G Shreve Jr
My introduction to old-time radio came about in the 1970s, when the “nostalgia boom” was well underway. WOUB, Ohio University’s FM radio station, had a feature that aired every Monday night entitled, appropriately enough, “Monday Night at the Radio”—and it was through that program that I was initiated into “the theater of the mind” with shows like Night Beat and The Lone Ranger. And, there was also The Shadow, which the station slotted in a 10:30pm berth, which was way past my bedtime. Like a generation before me, I often had to listen to the Shadow’s adventures way down low for fear that my father would burst in at any moment and exact strict parental retribution.
The program that would ultimately come to define old-time radio (along with The Lone Ranger and Fibber McGee & Molly, as once theorized by radio historian John Dunning) premiered eighty-two years ago on this date. At the time of its debut it was known as The Detective Story Hour, an anthology program sponsored by publishers Street and Smith to promote their Detective Story magazine. “The Shadow” of the program was the unseen narrator who introduced and closed the program each week…but it wasn’t long before listeners were asking where they might buy magazines featuring “that Shadow character from the radio.” The publishing company was only too happy to introduce The Shadow Detective Magazine to newsstands in April of 1931. The mag’s premiere novel-length story, “The Living Shadow,” was penned by a professional magician named Walter Gibson, who would later turn out the equivalent of 283 novels, writing as “Maxwell Grant.”
By the fall of 1932, the Shadow became a full-fledged participant on the program, voiced by both Frank Readick and James La Curto. But, the most famous of The Shadows wouldn’t arrive until the fall of 1937, when the newly-formed Mutual Broadcasting System debuted a series sponsored by Blue Coal that featured a 22-year-old actor named Orson Welles. Welles, before he made that movie about the sled, played both The Shadow and his alter ego, Lamont Cranston—a wealthy playboy who was taught, during a visit to the Orient, the hypnotic power to “cloud men’s minds” in order to become invisible. This nifty parlor trick allowed Cranston to adopt the identity of The Shadow who, like The Green Hornet, became a headache to the underworld as he smashed rackets and generally made life uncomfortable for them. The Shadow’s friendly nemesis on the police force was Commissioner Weston (played by Santos Ortega and Ray Collins, among many others), who publicly vowed to put an end to The Shadow’s activities but was secretly glad “the Shad” was on his side. Cranston’s “friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane” was the other regular on the show, originally played by Welles’ fellow thespian from his Mercury Theater troupe, Agnes Moorehead.
Boy wonder Welles played the part of The Shadow throughout the summer season of 1938 before relinquishing the role to actor William Johnstone. Orson would find bigger fish to fry, scaring the pants off listeners in his celebrated “War of the Worlds” broadcast on The Mercury Theatre of the Air. Moorehead would soon be replaced as well, by Marjorie Anderson (with Lesley Woods, Grace Matthews and Gertrude Warner to follow), considered by many fans to be the best of the Margos. Johnstone was a celebrated character actor, but his Cranston/Shadow often came across as a bit too mature (sounding like a “wealthy old man about town”). In 1943, the actor best-remembered as The Shadow, Bret Morrison, took over for Johnstone. Although his tenure was interrupted briefly by military service (during which he was replaced by John Archer and Steve Courtleigh), he played the role the longest, right up until the show left the airwaves on December 26, 1954. Morrison definitely nailed the persona of callous playboy Cranston, and was a first-rate man of mystery to boot.
OTR historian Jim Harmon once observed that The Shadow became “the chief fictional representative of all that was Radioland. After all, we knew even back then that here was the perfect hero for radio—the man you couldn’t see.” As one of OTR’s most durable and enduring heroes, The Shadow welcomes newer generations of fans with each passing year, all of them coming to know that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”
Copyright 2012 Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.