Without question, we live in an age where books are accessible in many types of formats. We can read them the old-fashioned way by holding an actual printed book in our hands, or create a cyber library on any number of electronic devices where all your favorite books (or new releases that interest you) are at your fingertip – regardless of where you are in the world. For those who prefer to hear a book read aloud by professional actors or narrators, there are audio books.
How many of us remember having bedtime stories read aloud to us as children? My children loved to hear me read stories aloud to them, and I had no amount of endless fun doing various voices in many a tale – including all the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. For myself, as a child, I remember my mother telling me how she would listen to radio shows as a child. She compared it to how you can use your imagination to visualize a book and its characters when you read it. Someone is bringing that story to life…and with sound effects.
As an adult, I now understand how she felt listening to those old time radio shows. You see, several years ago I discovered a wonderful channel called Radio Classics (Channel 82) on Sirius XM Radio. Thanks to the dedication and efforts of Greg Bell, (Greg Bell Media) program director and host of Radio Classics, I have been introduced to the Golden Age of Radio. I’ll be honest. I am now totally addicted to Radio Classics. I listen to this channel in my car. I listen to it at home. And I have purchased many old radio shows on my iPhone that I listen to on a daily basis.
Without a doubt, the Golden Age of Radio captivated millions of faithful listeners, and one of its most popular genres was Westerns.
Imagine yourself transported back in time. The year is 1952. You are seated with your family waiting for the opening of one of the most exciting western dramas on the air. You hear the sound of a horse and rider galloping hard and fast as if in pursuit, followed by the echo of a gunshot. A voice speaks…
“Around Dodge City and the territory out west, there’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers, and that’s with the US Marshal and the smell of gun smoke. Gunsmoke, starring William Conrad -- the story of the violence that moved west with young America; the story of the man who moved with it…Matt Dillon, United States Marshal.”
Conrad’s portrayal of Marshal Dillon is brilliant, captivating the audience with subtle nuances and a powerful strength that display his range of acting, and provides a visual performance to the listener of a US Marshal that is strong, brave, scarred, complex, and engaging.
From 1952 to 1961, CBS Radio aired 432 weekly episodes of the 30-minute western drama -- all wonderfully written, directed, produced, and performed. Supporting cast members [pictured below] were Georgia Ellis (Kitty Russell), Parley Baer (Chester Wesley Proudfoot), and Howard McNear (Doc Adams). An extremely talented and versatile character actor, some of you may remember Howard McNear portrayed the lovable Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. I might add there was no Festus on the radio version of the series. Chester was Matt Dillon’s soft-spoken, kind-hearted right hand.
Each episode of Gunsmoke is well written, entertaining, and suspenseful. Dodge City comes alive through the writing and performances of its characters, and just like life in the Old West, there were no guaranteed happy endings. For Marshal Dillon especially, the fact he cannot save everyone is a reality that irritates and haunts him. The expectations of everyone weigh on him, and you often wonder why he doesn’t just quit. Life was a struggle for everyone in and around Dodge City, but the pressures upon Matt Dillon are a burden few men could bear.
Quite honestly, I have become such a fan of this radio series that I listen to it on Radio Classics whenever I can. I have also purchased an album of 50 original episodes on CD. Additionally, I am so impressed with the talent of the man who first brought Matt Dillon to life that I want to share with you some of what I have since learned about William Conrad.
As a prolific actor with a broad range of acting ability, William Conrad was highly sought after during the Golden Age of Radio for numerous productions. He had an unforgettable deep voice, and could play a hero or villain with equal finesse. Conrad once stated he’d played more than 7,500 different characters on radio. I might add that many of these roles were done at the same time. He would act on one show then cross over to do another character on a different show, etc.
From 1947 until 1954, he was the voice of the popular radio adventure series, Escape. Years earlier, when just 22 years old, he acted in and produced The Hermit’s Cave, a horror radio series.
I think it’s safe to say that at one time or another in your life, you’ve heard (or seen) William Conrad as a performer. Unfortunately, today, many remember him more for his appearance in later life than his talent. For me, especially since discovering the original Gunsmoke radio series, his 9-year portrayal of Matt Dillon is without equal.
Having said that, I don’t want fans of the television series to be up in arms with me. The television series was exceedingly popular—especially to new audience members and their children who never heard (or knew about) the radio series. But what you may or may not have known was that there was another Matt Dillon, the original Matt Dillon. Needless to say, Conrad had quite a fan base that were upset someone else would portray the US Marshal on television. I would have been as well.
Thus, we return to changes made (sometimes necessary) when adapting books for films or television, and changes in casting actors as characters that people have come to love. When you read a book, you envision a particular character. It can be frustrating when someone who doesn’t seem right for the role is cast to portray that character. You only hope the director knows what he/she is doing. Sometimes the casting works; sometimes not. Sometimes an actor brings a different yet appealing element to the character. And very often you realize the actor was chosen more for looks and popularity than talent.
The interpretation or portrayal of Matt Dillon by James Arness was very different. Perhaps the show’s producers felt it best to have the televised version of Dillon differ in some way from the radio version. Arness also may not have wanted to imitate the way Cannon portrayed Matt Dillon, but make the character his own. Many fans of the television series believe he succeeded. The show did run for 20 years. Still, much as I respect the man’s dedication, hard work, and tenure on the television series, by comparison, I find the portrayal of Matt Dillon as originated by Conrad the more compelling, engaging, interesting, relatable, and imposing characterization of the US Marshal. Matt Dillon as portrayed by James Arness -- especially in the early years of the series -- had a stiff, almost wooden presence at times. Despite his height, he was a soft-spoken, kind, honest man. He also rarely showed emotion or even inflection in his voice. William Conrad as Marshal Dillon, portrayed a more complex lawman – still honest but flawed. He was kind at heart but also could be moody and temperamental. The range, nuances, and complexity of the radio Matt Dillon humanized him. At the same time, although the viewer could not see Conrad's height, his performance proves more believable as someone the bad guys would have found more threatening.
I might add that although Conrad did not have the long-legged lean physique Arness possessed, he was not the overweight man many remember him being 20 years later when he starred as Los Angeles police detective Frank Cannon on the crime drama series, Cannon. Even then, despite his hefty physical appearance, the power of his acting and talent could not be denied. His performance on the series won critical acclaim and repeated Golden Globe nominations.
Gunsmoke was co-created and produced by Norman McDonald, who later produced and/or directed other mega popular radio shows including Escape, Suspense, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Have Gun Will Travel, and Fort Laramie.
Every Sunday in 1956, CBS offered the radio drama Fort Laramie, starring a young Raymond Burr as US Cavalry Captain Lee Quince. As many remember, Burr would later star in two popular television shows, Perry Mason and Ironside.
THE SIX SHOOTER
This western opened with the following introduction: "The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged; his skin is sun-dyed brown. The gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl. People call them both The Six-Shooter.”
Each episode of this weekly series featured Kendall as he traveled the American West documenting his experience on the frontier for publication with his employer back in England. Sometimes amusing and often dangerous, each episode featured different plots and characters that Kendall encountered, including some actual historical figures of the period such as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James..
Like William Conrad, actor John Dehner was a very prolific, popular radio performer. Not only did he portray the lead character on Frontier Gentleman, he also starred as the original Paladin in another western radio series, Have Gun, Will Travel.
The above-mentioned westerns are just a few of the radio shows that can still be heard on Radio Classics (Channel 82) on Sirius XM Radio, and/or purchased at such sites as Amazon.com, iTunes, and www.RadioSpirits.com.
You can also learn more about Radio Classics and their schedule of various radio programs (including a variety of genres) by visiting Greg Bell Media at www.gregbellmedia.com. or their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/GregBellMedia?fref=ts.
I am so happy to have finally discovered some of the wonderful radio shows my mother talked about, and am grateful they have been preserved, and are available to young and old alike today. Thanks for visiting and I hope you enjoyed this post. ~ AKB
For more information about best-selling author, Ashley Kath-Bilsky, visit her Website at www.ashleykathbilsky.com. You can also find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ashley-Kath-Bilsky/302554710513 , and
Twitter at https://twitter.com/AKathBilsky