Saturday, May 30, 2015

WESTERNS ON THE AIR -- THE GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO REVISITED

By:Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Most of us have heard the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover”. Well, there is another popular quote that says, “Never judge a book by its movie”. Both statements are valid. How many times does a book cover fail to attract a reader, or even convey what the book is about? How many times has a favorite book been changed when adapted to film? The film might be popular, perhaps even a blockbuster at the box office, but for faithful fans of the novel, they preferred the author’s writing. For most fans of the original work, the best compliment a director or film company can receive is, “The film remained true to the book.”

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.

So, today, I am going to address the wonderful world of old time radio shows; in particular, the early audio adaptations of books and/or original written works of dramatic fiction. As a writer, I especially enjoy listening to how the weekly episodes of these radio dramas were crafted, and the techniques used to bring that drama to life – from the plotting, pacing, and dialogue, to the wonderful performances by the actors and use of sound effects. As a theatre major with a background in acting, I both admire and respect the diverse talent of the performers featured on the various radio dramas. Just as popular books were adapted to radio plays and film, many radio shows were adapted to television, usually with different actors.

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.”

GUNSMOKE:

As mentioned in the above opening of the series, the original version of this western drama starred William Conrad as US Marshal Matt Dillon. It was considered the finest western drama that ever aired on radio. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I prefer the radio version to the television series of Gunsmoke which aired from 1955-1975. [Pictured: William Conrad as the original Matt Dillon]

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.

One of the aspects I enjoy most about the radio version of Gunsmoke (apart from Conrad’s performance as Matt Dillon), is the quality of the production. The sound effects are wonderful, and really set each scene with great realism of the period and the action. One episode has Matt and Chester riding into an Indian camp to question the chief about a murder. As Matt and Chester discuss what they see – namely the women and children going inside their tipis to hide, and the men lining up to face the intruders – you know the potential for danger is high. Anything could happen. In addition, the scene is enhanced by the hushed conversation between Dillon and Chester, the subtle sound of saddles creaking, the slow, steady steps of their horses, and even the sound of a protective lone dog barking at the strangers. Everything works perfectly. And that dog, a minor detail perhaps, was so beautifully executed that it captivates the listener and contributes to the tension. The scene was brought to life and the audience saw in their mind’s eye what was happening.

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.

Matt Dillon as portrayed by William Conrad is truly the LIFE FORCE for Dodge City. No question about it; this town would not survive without him. The townspeople know it, and he knows it. Yet, power and authority does not corrupt him. It is his sense of loyalty, of decency that keeps him there. This US Marshal is tough, a stoic man who often projects a very surly disposition. If he smiles or laughs, it’s rare. You soon realize this persona is his mask – perhaps the only way he can do his job. There is a gentle side to him, even an almost boyish charm that sparkles through when he lets his guard down.

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.

His career spanned 50 years. As a highly respected actor, he worked in radio, television, and film. He was also a director and producer. In fact, he directed many episodes of popular western television shows, including The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, and Bat Masterson. Bet you didn’t know that William Conrad also narrated the popular television show, The Fugitive. His voice can also be heard narrating the opening of Chisum, starring John Wayne. And let’s not forget Conrad’s more light-hearted skill as narrator for six years on Saturday mornings with the Rocky & Bullwinkle animated 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.

When Gunsmoke was being adapted for television, the visual medium was still in its infancy. It may not have mattered what an actor looked like on the radio, but what if the television audience didn’t like the way someone looked. A similar parallel can be made when famous movies stars of the silent era lost their careers because their voices were not appealing to audiences when talkies were introduced. One cannot help but wonder if the "powers that be" felt 5’8” William Conrad (although extremely popular in the role on the radio) did not project the heroic physical image for Matt Dillon they wanted for television. Thus, 6’7” James Arness was cast in the role. Then again, it should be noted that the radio series was still airing new episodes on a weekly basis and quite popular when the television series started. In addition, all the radio series actors were replaced for the television series.

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.


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.

There were 41 episodes of this weekly 30-minute western drama that aired on CBS radio in 1956. Each episode focused on the drama and suspense of life in the US Cavalry and the men stationed at Fort Laramie. The responsibility of Captain Quince was not just for his men at the fort but settlers as well. He also had the tension of dealing with 5,000 Sioux living on a nearby reservation. Great insight is given into the daily life of the period, the responsibilities of the US Calvary, the good and bad men who served in the Cavalry, and even the wives of officers also living at the fort. From a historic standpoint, especially if you write or enjoy reading western fiction, this series was excellent.


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.”

The Six Shooter aired on NBC radio from 1953-1954, and starred film legend James Stewart as Britt Ponset. The 30-minute weekly drama series focused on Ponset (Stewart), a cowboy (obviously good with a six-shooter), who traveled all over the west. Sometimes Ponset might be a member of a cattle drive, or working for a ranch between moving on. Stewart’s portrayal of the good-natured, honest cowboy was spot-on and the episodes varied in content. The Six Shooter was entertaining, offering some suspense involving life and death danger, as well as poignant human interaction among interesting characters. Stewart also brought a natural ease and humor to his character, and how Britt Ponset might react to people or a situation.


FRONTIER GENTLEMAN

Frontier Gentleman aired on CBS radio every week during 1958, and starred John Dehner, another talented and very versatile actor during the Golden Age of Radio. Dehner portrayed J.B. Kendall, an English journalist for the London Times.

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.

Dehner's range of acting ability enabled him to portray a variety of characters, and he often appeared in guest roles on Gunsmoke and other westerns. His career spanned 40 years, and included radio, television and film. An interesting fact is that he originally worked as an animator for Walt Disney. The next time you watch Fantasia or Bambi, you’ll be seeing some of John Dehner’s animation.

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

18 comments:

  1. Great post, Ashley! I had Sirius radio when I bought my car several years ago and I love listening to the Old Radio Classics when I've driving by myself. I agree about William Conrad as a great Marshal Dillon.

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  2. Boy, your post sure brought back childhood memories! We never had a t.v. until I was in 6th grade. My Dad always had his favorite westerns tuned in for us to listen to. It was great family time.

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  3. Thanks, Paty. So glad you enjoyed the post. I know what you mean about listening to these old radio shows when driving, especially if you are on a long road trip. Even the commercials are interesting. I have to laugh at the commercials for sugar coated breakfast cereal that was new post-war, and the benefit of 'energy' it gave kiddos in the morning. I'm sure teachers were ever so appreciative of parents loading their kids up on Sugar Crispies, etc. And I am happy you agree about William Conrad. I listened to some episodes this morning and really just enjoy his performance in each different episode. Hearing him actually yell with that deep, booming voice when pushed to the limit, or speak with a dangerously quiet, disciplined frustration when you know one more word and whomever is getting on his nerves will be at the receiving end of his clenched fist, is just perfection. Reminds me of stories about my great-grandather, who was a Pinkerton, and how he would just knock out someone out with a powerful clip to their jaw rather than draw his gun, especially when innocent people were around. Anyway, thanks again, Paty.:)

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  4. Hi Diana, thanks very much for your comment. How great your father preferred radio to television, and that you all listened to the shows together. So happy you enjoyed this post and it brought back some sweet memories. :)

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  5. Ashley, what a wonderful nostalgic post! I remember my dad listening to the radio version of Gunsmoke. He loved it! He was very put out when James Arness replaced William Conrad on the TV version but he came to enjoy that too. I watched it with him every week, as well as many other TV westerns. Those were the days!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Lyn. How nice you watched Gunsmoke with your dad every week. Perhaps sharing that time with you made him enjoy the tv series more as time went by. And look at all the wonderful western stories you create now. :)

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  6. Another well-written and interesting article, Ashley. By the way, Chester was on the TV show "Gunsmoke" for several years with his faked limp and calling "Marshal Dillon, Marshall Dillon" as he hobbled along. (Or was it "Mr." instead of "Marshal"?Chester was played by Dennis Weaver. Later, for a while, both he and Festus (Ken Curtis) were on the show, but Weaver left for other projects including movies and the TV series "McCloud". You made me nostalgic, Ashley. My next car will have Sirius, that's for certain.

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    1. Thanks very much, Caroline. i do remember Chester with the limp played by Dennis Weaver. I don't think the character limps in the radio version. He is from Texas, and is a great, good-natured sidekick for the often grumpy Dillon. But he is always there when the Marshal needs him, and vice versa. As a kid, Festus on TV annoyed me. Just too over the top and dirty looking. But I was a little kid.. Chester was very polite, and a very endearing character. Did they create Festus to phase out Chester because Weaver wanted to move on? I did like the tv series character Newly alot. He was sweet and kind like Chester, but more educated. Still, I think the radio Chester was better, although Weaver was very good, too. Anyway, I could talk all day about Gunsmoke. :) Thanks again for your comment. Happy you enjoyed the post. :)

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  7. Great post, Ashley! I didn't even realize these old radio shows were still available. My parents used to talk about listening to them when they were growing up.

    The photos are so much fun. Who knew so many television and movie stars got their stat on the radio? Jimmy Stewart and Raymond Burr really surprised me. William Conrad's voice was so distinctive, I'll bet he was the perfect man to represent Matt Dillon in a medium that depended on voice.

    Thanks for sharing all of this with us. :-)

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    1. Thank you, Kathleen. Oh, yes, many old radio shows are available on CDs now -- westerns, detective stories, comedy shows like Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Fibber Magee, Our Miss Brooks, etc. Episodes from Suspense, The Whisler, Sherlock Holmes -- you name it. Great family entertainment, and excellent quality. I really am so tired of all the reality shows. The only series I really like right now is The Pinkertons. Excellent cast, writing, directing, and it's a western. Beautifully filmed. Just finished its first season. Looking forward to Season 2. You should check it out. And go to Radio Spirits website for radio show albums you might enjoy. :)

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  8. I never got to hear westerns on the radio. As much as my dad loved Gun Smoke, I'm sure he did listen to it. I only remember The Shadow Knows. I was only 4 years old at the time.
    Now that I know these old programs are still around, I need to check them out.
    I do recall in recent times listening to The Prairie Home Companion and loved it. Don't laugh, but it make me feel safe and secure.
    I loved your post, Ashley. It was fun to read.

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  9. Thanks, Sarah J. I cannot recommend these old rafio shows enough. They just make me happy. Great eacape, too. Nice to just relax, put your feet up, close your eyes, and listen. Take care. :)

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  10. Somehow, I have missed something. I was born in 1940 but didn't hear a radio until I was in third grade--about nine years old. Daddy worked out of town from early Monday morning until late Friday when he came home. During the week days, Mother raised us three girls and kept us busy learning domestic chores, including crocheting and embroidering. At night, she circled us three with her around the radio. Each of us had some kind of needlework to keep our hands busy while we listened to the radio. We listened to The Lone Ranger--our favorite--Amos and Andy--some kind of soap opera (can't recall the name), The Shadow Knows, and Fibber McGee and Molly.
    I've never heard of Gunsmoke as a radio program. By the time most of the radio programs you mentioned were aired, I was 14, 15, 16...and by that time we did our own thing instead of sitting with mother around the radio. My parents did not buy a television until after I graduated in 1958.
    Thanks for the information. As usual, you are very thorough. I suppose you realize your posts are still being found on Google from years back and some titles are still being read. When I check Stats for most viewed titles, yours are always among the top.

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    1. Hi Celia - Well, you can still listen to those shows, if you want. Like I said, if you don't have Sirius XM, many shows are available on a CD album. :)). And I am so glad people enjoy my posts and check out the older ones, too. BIG thank you to those who comment or email me, and everyone who checks back each month. Lovely to share things I have learned or enjoy about the West and westerns. ((Hugs))

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  11. I can remember sitting on the floor in front of the big radio and listening to the stories. It was also a great way to pass time while in the car when we were kids. Thanks for reminding me of this great part of history. :)

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the post, Paisley, and that it brought back sweet memories.

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  12. This is a wonderful post. I'm also a big fan of the adult westerns from old time radio. Like you, my favorite is "Gunsmoke," but "Frontier Gentleman" and "Fort Apache" also have provided hours of entertainment. The kiddie westerns do nothing for me.

    You mentioned that Howard McNear (who played Doc Adams on "Gunsmoke") was also the lovable barber Floyd on "The Andy Griffith Show." Less well known is that Parley Baer (Chester Proudfoot) also played Mayberry's easily and regularly exasperated mayor Roy Stoner.

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    1. Thanks, George. So glad you mentioned Parley Baer on Andy Griffith. I had heard he also delivered the eulogy (for McNear) at his longtime friend's funeral. Like McNear, Baer was a terrific character actor and so good as Chester. Great to meet another old time radio show fan. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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