Tales Calculated to Keep You in
Suspense, a crime drama promoted by CBS as “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” remains one of the most popular and certainly most respected of all radio dramas even by those who never once heard a broadcast. Thankfully, the vast majority of the series’ 945 episodes have survived and are readily available through compact disc collections and Internet archive sites enabling post-radio audiences to fully grasp the significance of the series to American culture.
Suspense owes its origin to a brief 1940 series called Forecast, which, though considered an anthology series today, was actually an on-air audition of CBS shows the network thought had potential for conventional broadcast. Each episode was performed in front of a live audience and the network actively solicited audience response to each program, and the programming varied across genres. Everything from folksy musical shows to horror shows were auditioned between July 1940 and September 1941. But only two found favor with audiences and thus found network sustenance. The first was Ed Gardner’s story set in a New York bar filled with zany characters “where the elite meet to eat” called Duffy’s Tavern (July 20, 1940). The show was so popular with audiences that CBS made it a regular series beginning in March 1941.
The second program, broadcast July 22, 1940, was actually a showcase for film director Alfred Hitchcock, the famed director’s sole involvement with radio. Hitchcock was given free rein to fashion a suspenseful tale, and he utilized a favorite subject. As he had done in 1926 for his first stab, as it were, at film suspense, Hitchcock adapted Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger this time into an aural drama that found Jack the Ripper taking refuge inside a London boarding house. In a particularly ironic twist Hitchcock cast Herbert Marshall in the dual role as not only Jack the Ripper (called Mr. Sleuth in the story) but host and narrator as well. As such, Marshall dominates the narrative, tugging at listeners’ emotions from two compelling directions. First, he is the enigmatic Mr. Sleuth, who goes about his morbid business of slaying women in the nighttime London fog, and, secondly, he is the omniscient third person observer of events who may or may not be describing the events accurately but always entreating the listener to trust him no matter what.
Audience reaction to Hitchcock’s tale was immediate; listeners praised radio’s ability to tingle the spine and were quick to admit to locking doors, shuttering windows and looking under the bed after hearing the broadcast. CBS had a winner, but it failed to persuade Hitchcock to produce a weekly series of suspense tales; the director for whatever reason preferred filmmaking to radio. But the idea itself of “creating 30-minutes of suspense” appealed to CBS executives and they eventually offered a 30-minute program titled appropriately Suspense.
Suspense premiered from New York on June 17, 1942, under the guidance of Charles Vanda, oddly the network’s Pacific Coast program director, with “The Burning Court,” adapted by Harold Medford from the novel by John Dickson Carr, a specialist in writing the so-called “locked room mysteries,” and featuring comic actor Charlie Ruggles, a bit of casting that would be a repeated many times as we shall later note. The unnerving narrative was bolstered by original scoring by Bernard Herrmann, then a CBS musical director and musical supervisor for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air. Announcer Berry Kroeger promised listeners that week after week Suspense would offer “stories from the world’s great literature of pure excitement; a new series frankly dedicated to your horrification and entertainment.”
The program, however, was still in an awkward stage of development. As it was, Suspense varied little from other programs like it. Relying mostly on the works of John Dickson Carr the episodes were barely distinguishable from the episodes of other mystery shows. Indeed, after the first 20-odd episodes CBS further blurred the programs hoped-for uniqueness by adding a staple of similar shows, the eerie host/storyteller. In this case, the tales were told by “The Man in Black,” played for two New York episodes by Ted Osborne and then by Hollywood actor Joseph Kearns. In one respect, however, he was exceptional in that the Man in Black lacked any defining features; indeed, he was no cackling hermit from The Hermit’s Cave or screeching witch from The Witch’s Tale, but just a man with a voice and rather commonplace manner.
For whatever reason, following 25 episodes Suspense moved to Hollywood. With it came the series’ on-again-off-again producer-director William Spier, who guided such Hollywood personages as Bela Lugosi, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Fredric March, Paul Lukas and Ralph Bellamy through 11 episodes that began to eschew the mystery ambience for stories favorable to keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. Again, for some reason, however, Suspense returned to New York for 22 episodes featuring Broadway performers Wendy Barrie, George Zucco, Heather Angel, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Edmund Gwenn. It was also at this time that Jim Bannon assumed the role of the Man in Black portraying the storyteller with just enough lackluster spirit to rival his predecessors; it should be noted that Bannon would retain that role through September 16, 1943, at which time Joseph Kearns again played the role until the Man in Black was finally dismissed altogether on March 8, 1945. And again the Suspense stories were mostly of the whodunit variety including an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (May 18, 1943) featuring Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester.
Following the broadcast of August 8, 1943, titled “The King’s Birthday,” written by Lewis Pelletier and featuring Dolores Costello, Martin Kosleck, George Zucco and Ian Wolfe in an offbeat story of the Nazi occupation of Denmark challenged by supernatural resistance, Suspense finally left New York for Hollywood for good. Commencing with episode 56 titled “The Singing Walls,” adapted by Robert L. Richards from the story by Cornell Woolrich, the format was firmly established with William Spier permanently guiding the program as either producer, director or more often as both producer-director through the 1947 season.
Originally from New York, William Spier honed his skills as a writer and producer-director of various radio programs by working for advertising agencies until he joined CBS in Los Angeles in 1941 where he produced and directed such programs as The Atwater Kent Hour, The General Motors Family Hour, and 400 episodes of The March of Time. In addition to his work with Suspense he was also the guiding force behind the critically successful detective series, The Adventures of Sam Spade.
It is William Spier more than anyone else who gave Suspense the gravitas that resulted in Suspense being considered one of the principal radio shows of the golden age of radio. Spier, like Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler among few others, had a unique talent for recognizing the requirements of radio storytelling. Indeed, Spier did not see radio drama as merely a film told without pictures but, perhaps owing to his training as a music editor and critic—he had become a senior music critic at Musical Drama magazine at age 19—Spier saw radio drama as a unique form unto itself in which each sound, or more descriptively, “the thing that is heard be it voice, sound effect or music,” was crucial to the singleness of effect that totaled the series’ half-hour narratives. Spier saw sound effects and music as essential to the drama as the characters themselves, and to this end he worked closely with his musical directors and sound effects artists to create a whole that certainly found favor with audiences and critics alike.
Spier’s production routine was fairly unique in radio. Whereas most production companies rehearsed actors with music and sound effects on the periphery, performing as needed, Spier faithfully collaborated with his musical directors and sound effects artists to chart each detail of performance. Musical director Lucien Moraweck once stated that Spier often called for a piece from a classical composition to underscore a phrase or action, noting that Spier knew more about music than the musicians. Berne Surrey, Spier’s primary sound effects artist, recalled that each effect was scribbled in as if it were dialogue—as crucial to the story as any phrase spoken by an actor. In addition, Surrey said that Spier emphasized that the timing and rhythm of each effect had to be as acute as that of the musical score.
With this routine in mind, Spier, often described as sophisticated and intelligent by his contemporaries, took Suspense to a level of refinement shared by the likes of such series as Columbia Workshop. So cultured was the series that upon its arrival in Hollywood within weeks the program had found a sponsor, Roma Wines, and with the sponsor came increased budgets. Leading writers were now being recruited including veteran radio scribes Antony Ellis, William N. Robson, Robert L. Richards, and the team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin.
Naturally, being located in Hollywood with an increased budget meant that Hollywood’s A-list of performers were knocking on Spier’s door pleading to appear in episodes. Such luminaries as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Young, Robert Montgomery, Merle Oberon, Boris Karloff, Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Judy Garland, and Rita Hayworth among many others lent their talents to keeping audiences in suspense. Grant himself once stated that if he ever did another radio show it would be Suspense “where I get a chance to act.”
Maxine Anderson, the Roma Wines representative, once noted that Hollywood stars implored the agency to let them appear on the series. The reason, as Anderson stated, was William Spier. “He gives them a chance to dig their teeth into a role,” she said. “They like the no-audience rule [because] it allows them to lose themselves completely into their characterizations; when Cary Grant comes to the Suspense microphone he acts all over the place.”
The no-audience rule was somewhat exceptional for Suspense. Indeed, Suspense was one of a few live radio shows that went on the air without a live audience. To some this denied feedback that was considered crucial to successful performances, but to film actors accustomed to no audience but members of the crew this opened new possibilities for innovation. As one fairly audience-shy film actor once said, “having no audience allows you to perform with only your imagination.” This was apparently Spier’s rationale for having no audience; he once noted that having no audience present curbed distractions and forced performers to focus on the story to be performed rather than on performing the story for an audience.
The no-audience rule was just one of many of the all-but-unbreakable rules enforced by Spier. Of these rules the paramount one was that stories had to adhere to realism. Spier eschewed supernatural and science fiction stories for tales that focused on the psychological strains of people caught in natural yet extreme difficulties. Spier wanted ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and excessive circumstances, and if that person happens to be, borrowing from Hitchcock, “the wrong man” then all the better. He demanded, as one wag put it, “sweat!” To further this angst Spier required that resolutions be stretched to the last possible moment at which character and listener both had but a brief moment to capture a breath of relief. Moreover, to achieve this effect he often cast performers against type. Comics and entertainers, such as Charlie Ruggles from the very first episode, often found themselves menaced one way or another by overwhelming forces. This group included performers whose appearances often surprised listeners accustomed to their jollity or light-hearted interactions; among the members of this group were the likes of Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee & Molly, Eddie Cantor, Ed Gardner, Eddie Bracken, Lucille Ball, Donald O’Connor, Ozzie & Harriet Nelson, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney, and even the audience participation magnate Ralph Edwards and satirist Stan Freberg.
In addition, Spier made it clear to writers and performers alike that an aspect of the so-called Victorian compromise was in effect in all Suspense stories. This to say that despite adherence to strict realism evil nonetheless should be brought to accountability. “Bill Spier was a moralist,” said one writer, “who felt strongly that letting virtue get the last word was a reward unto itself.”
And so under the direction of Bill Spier episodes of Suspense would be void of fantastical narratives of ghouls, monsters and ghosts, either from natural origins as those found in science fiction tales or supernatural origins as those found in horror tales. Moreover, virtue would get the last word and evil would be properly dispatched. But only so far. Indeed, Spier often flouted his own rules but only if he felt strongly that compromising the story would defeat the story’s effect. For instance, despite his dislike for science fiction and supernatural he nonetheless looked the other way, as it were, and approved a two-part adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain (May 18 & 25, 1944) featuring Orson Welles. He also approved an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror” (November 1, 1945) with Ronald Colman. And most significantly, he approved an original titled “The House in Cyprus Canyon” (December 5, 1946) with Robert Taylor, Cathy Lewis, Hans Conried and Howard Duff as Sam Spade—yes, the Sam Spade.
“The House in Cyprus Canyon,” written by Robert L. Richards, is considered one of the best of the Suspense episodes and rightly so. It is a gripping and genuinely creepy story effectively conveyed by sound and as such should be heard with the lights out. Richards’ story is a story within a story as famed detective Sam Spade is told the story by a friend about a manuscript the friend found inside a derelict old house. The scene shifts to a narrative about a couple moving into the house and the resulting horror; indeed, everything is there to tingle the spine including screams in the night and terrifying noises emanating from a locked closet. Moreover, the story reaches its ultimate thrill with the transformation of a human into a beast—a werewolf yet!—and the resultant murder-suicide of the couple. Sam Spade offers the compromise to the supernatural tale by dismissing the whole story, but once Sam is out of the picture the supernatural comes to the fore as the very couple described in the manuscript enter the agent’s office and wish to lease the “House in Cyprus Canyon.”
The compromise, however, was abandoned altogether for the series’ most successful and popular dramatization, Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number,” whose storyline is so well known that it has become an urban myth. It seems that everyone knows somebody who knows about a friend’s mother or sister who once tried to get help by telephone only to be told that she had reached a wrong number, leaving the poor lady in a state of desperation. Fletcher’s tale, as presented on Suspense, took such a nightmarish dread to psychological excess. Fletcher’s tale speaks about a neurotic invalid and her inadvertent overhearing of a telephone conversation between two men who are plotting to murder a woman that very night. In the narrative that followed, the neurotic woman makes a series of frantic telephone calls to the police, to the telephone company, and to her husband’s office in efforts to alert someone to the looming danger, but she is repeatedly rebuffed by everyone she contacts. Ultimately, she recognizes that she is the intended victim.
As people in this day and age like to say, spoiler alert as we examine the effect of “Sorry, Wrong Number” as a cultural artefact. As radio historian Gary Coville has pointed out, the ending to “Sorry, Wrong Number” was a rather extraordinary one for radio in that era. It was a generally held practice that justice, in one form or another, was expected to be meted out by the end of each script; indeed, not only did network and industry guidelines and practices, both written and informal, mandate the triumph of justice but so did Spier’s own rules. But the agonizing panic expressed by the victim within a tightly wound narrative demanded adherence to brutal reality; otherwise the startling and grim climax would have lost its effectiveness. In fact, had someone come on the air and announced that Mrs. Stevenson had been rescued at the last minute by a cop or a neighbor or a party-line listener the whole story would have evoked contempt if not outright ridicule. And so Spier broke his own rule as did the network’s censoring arm, and Fletcher’s story was performed intact to great effect.
Reportedly, “Sorry, Wrong Number” not only horrified listeners, who, it was said, could be counted on to dial the police seeking help for the hysterical woman on the radio, but lead performer Agnes Moorehead herself. She admitted that a broadcast of “Sorry, Wrong Number” was a professional and emotional undertaking as well as a physical strain. There was no studio audience to break the spell, but it was said that CBS personnel would informally gather to watch and marvel at the performance. Moorehead would remain seated at a table, microphone suspended inches away, script in hand although large parts of the script had been committed to memory, where she responded to brief disembodied voices that would weave in and out of the narrative as she reached the play’s climax. At that point the actress would clutch at her throat, throw back her head, and cut loose with a bloodcurdling scream that unnerved the watchers. Utterly exhausted, Moorehead collapsed, dropping her head forward on the table.
The actress confessed that as she found herself caught up in the ever-rising level of hysteria, that she reached the point that she was scaring herself, noting that, “I can’t bear to go home alone when it’s over, and I find myself checking doors and windows before I go to bed.” Interestingly, film actress Greer Garson once conceded to being so terrified by her friend Aggie’s performance that Garson made her mother accompany her throughout the house checking every door and window to make sure all were secure against intruders.
A total of eight performances of “Sorry, Wrong Number” was produced on Suspense with the last occurring on February 14, 1960. All are accessible except for the September 15, 1952, performance which is, unfortunately, in the “lost” category of old radio shows. Agnes Moorehead starred in all; indeed, her extraordinary performance as the distraught invalid made the substitution of any other actress out of the question for radio audiences, and each repetition became something of a heralded event. Surprisingly, Moorehead would later admit that the first time she read Fletcher’s script she turned it down. She would explain that her initial reaction sprang from the feeling that the play was “morbid and people would turn it off.” She would tell Radio Life (October 14, 1945) that her first reaction had included her feeling that the audience would soon recoil from her character’s steadily escalating sense of panic and hysteria. After a second reading, however, she changed her mind and agreed to take the role if only for the creative challenge. Moorehead would later acknowledge that “Sorry, Wrong Number” was one of her favorite radio plays.
William Spier departed the series in late 1947 because he objected to CBS’s insistence that Suspense be turned into a 60-minute program. Spier rightly believed that adding an additional 30-minutes would reduce the “singleness of effect” of the short stories adapted for the series. Spier’s objections were ignored and on January 3, 1948, Suspense returned to the air—following a short five-week run of experimental programs—now under the guidance of actor Robert Montgomery and direction of Anton Leader. Their first effort was “Beyond Reason” (February 21, 1948) by Devery Freeman with Robert Ryan, Ruth Warrick, Howard McNear, Joan Banks, Berry Kroeger and William Johnstone. A month later Robert Montgomery left the series and Anton Leader became producer and director. By May, CBS had recognized its blunder and returned Suspense to a half-hour format. Leader remained as producer-director and the series found its second major sponsor, Auto-Lite, which would remain with the series through the end of the 1954 season in addition to sponsoring that year the short-lived television version.
Leader eventually tired of the series and left it after the June 30, 1949, broadcast. CBS entreated Spier to return and he did in September 1949 this time as producer and editor, but insisted that direction be turned over to Norman Macdonnell, who, with John Meston, had produced episodes of Escape, a series not unlike that of Suspense. As a footnote, Macdonnell and Meston were at the time collaborating on the creation of an “adult western” that would eventually find prominence on CBS as Gunsmoke.
Spier and Macdonnell left Suspense after one season, relinquishing the production to longtime radio actor-writer-producer-director Elliott Lewis. It was at this time that Suspense relied on a stock company of radio actors who had been the recurring supporting players in previous seasons. Indeed, cast sheets show such radio luminaries as Paul Frees, Sam Edwards, Lurene Tuttle, Cathy Lewis, Lawrence Dobkin, Joseph Kearns, Harry Bartell, Hans Conried, Vic Perrin, John Dehner, Parley Baer, Howard Culver, Virginia Gregg, Shirley Mitchell, William Conrad, Ben Wright, Mary Jane Croft, Stacy Harris, Herb Butterfield, and Jeannette Nolan among many others in roles that would have been played by Hollywood stars in previous episodes. This casting continued after Lewis left in 1954 and was replaced briefly by Macdonnell and then by Antony Ellis, who remained through the 1956 season.
With the arrival of another gifted radio artist, William N. Robson, in autumn 1956 and multiple sponsorship (CBS was now selling 30-and-60-second spots rather soliciting sponsorship of the series) the Hollywood stars returned, and radio’s stock company was again relegated to supporting status. Robson himself introduced each episode and often explained reasons for his selection of any particular story. As one critic wrote, “the series has taken an erudite turn in its long history of stimulating suspense.” Robson would guide Suspense until the end of summer 1959 when the series again returned to New York; no reason was ever shared for the move which was perplexing since all but daytime serials were produced in Hollywood at the time. Suspense was now under the guidance of Paul Roberts, and he utilized the talents of New York-based radio performers; moreover, in a nod to the new technologies, he pre-recorded all episodes and used the latest technology in post-production to, as they say, “sweeten” the broadcast.
Suspense came to a crashing end on the weekend of November 25, 1960, when CBS abruptly pulled the plug on all radio drama. Soap operas suddenly wrapped up their storylines, and one of the most popular of detective series, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, abruptly left Hollywood and came east to join Gunsmoke, which remained in Hollywood, as the sole survivors of the massacre. A year later, however, Gunsmoke—CBS’s highest rated radio series—was off the air and reasons remain unclear as to why Gunsmoke was abruptly replaced by a return of Suspense. Some have speculated that it was guilt on the part of CBS executives for snubbing their longtime success, and others have stated that CBS was merely filling airtime until the network could find a permanent format. Whatever the reason Suspense was back this time under the guidance of Bruno Zirato, Jr., who remained as producer-director through May 1962 when Fred Hendrickson assumed the position of producer-director through the final broadcast on September 30, 1962. Indeed, at that time both Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense were cancelled, in that order, leaving Suspense as the last true old-time radio drama to be aired.
Throughout its two decades, the premise of Suspense was simple: offer tales that keep listeners in suspense, and in this regard, and under the adept leadership of William Spier, the program specialized in atmosphere and more often depicted individuals in psychological desperation rather than haunted by supernatural forces. Spier preferred to eschew horror angles such as supernatural tales heard on such series as The Witch’s Tale, The Hermit’s Cave and Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and instead focused on characters who were harassed by criminals-at-large or by their own fears evoked by circumstances often of their own making.
By Patrick Lucanio and Gary Colville