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I recently read with about the death of Himan Brown. He was 99. Brown had been a radio producer with a list of credits that stretched back to the medium’s golden days. I wasn’t alive then, but I did become a big fan of his CBS Radio Mystery Theater when it began airing in the 1970s. In Augusta, Maine, where I grew up, it played on WFAU five nights a week. It started at 10:07 and ended at 11:00. I listened to it a lot, tuning in on the same clock radio by my bedside that would torment me back to wakefulness the next morning.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater offered stories of mystery and mayhem, filled with twist endings, gruesome deaths, and ironic fates. Some of them were originals and some were adaptations. Someplace in my stash of cassette tapes I have a recording I made of the broadcast they did of Dracula. It must have been tough squeezing Bram Stoker’s novel into just a little more than 40 minutes of radio, but as I recall they did a decent job of capturing its flavor. Like all the best radio drama, Brown’s productions used sound to spark the imagination and create a world inside the listener’s head.

Sometimes Brown would do a little promo piece on the show, and his warm, velvety voice made me think he looked something like Sebastian Cabot. It turns out he would have been much more Jeff to Cabot’s Mutt, for he appeared to be a tall, thin man. The strange thing is that I had been thinking about Himan Brown and his radio show just a day or two before I read about his death. Was it coincidence–or something more?

I have a bunch of CBS Radio Mystery Theaters on the external hard drive my friend Bill gave me for Christmas. They came from the collection of our friend Mike, who is something of a pack rat when it comes to recorded sound. I don’t know where he got them, but once I heard about Brown’s death I decided to load some up on the iPod and listen to them as I walked.

The first one I listened to was called “Island of the Lost.” It originally aired around Thanksgiving in 1975, because the recording included a commercial for Thanksgiving items from True Value Hardware (also ads from Budweiser and Buick Skylark). It opened, as the shows always did, with the sound of a door creaking open and some foreboding music, followed by the voice of the host, the late E.G. Marshall. “Good evening,” he said. “Come in.” And so I did.

Marshall had a long and distinguished career, albeit on a lower tier on the Hollywood star machine, but for me he’s always going to be the host of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. He was there to usher is into his den of madness and suspense and provide ironic commentary on the events we heard. And then at the end he would wish us “pleasant . . . dreams?” and close the creaking door.

“Island of the Lost” turned out to be fun, goofy entertainment. It was about an older man who—as Fritz, the slightly sinister ophthalmologist, is good enough to explain—nurses feelings of inadequacy regarding his marriage to his much younger and very beautiful wife. So maybe it’s not a good idea that he show up early at the tropical island where he and his wife are going to vacation. She has gone there ahead of him. But why does Fritz send a telegram alerting her of her husband’s early arrival? Why does the hotel clerk seem to expect him? Who is that young man who shows up at his wife’s cabin in the middle of the night? What’s in that locked closet? Why are the man and his wife attacked by a flock of flamingos? (I’m not making that part up.) There’s also an earthquake—or is there?

As I said, good, goofy fun that ends in murder and madness . . . and Marshall’s wish for pleasant dreams.

I was a little disappointed when I started the second show, “Deadline for Death,” and discovered that Mr. Marshall would not be my host. Instead, Mr. Brown himself assumed those chores. Once I got over my initial disappointment it seemed gruesomely appropriate that this newly dead man, my very reason for listening to these shows in the first place, should return from the grave to act as my guide. (Apparently, when Brown prepared his shows for syndication after their initial run he had to replace E.G. Marshall as the narrator.) This story was an EC Comic-like tale of revenge, with mobster “Johnny Promise” vowing that the man who testified against him would be dead within the month. There was madness involved in this story, too, as well as a plot twist that involved a seasonal time change. And it turns out that the real thing you can’t escape is a guilty conscience.

It was a real kick listening to these macabre tales from my youth. Wherever you are, Mr. Brown, I wish you pleasant . . . dreams? (Cue the creaking door.)



June 2010
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