Seventy-three years ago on this date, one of the Mutual Broadcasting System’s longest-lasting and most popular programs premiered in the form of The Mysterious Traveler. It was created and written by the team of Robert Alan Arthur, Jr. and David Kogan—the duo became acquainted when Arthur encountered Kogan in a radio writing class. Kogan had already established himself as a contributor to programs such as The Shadow and Bulldog Drummond, while radio novice Arthur had been working hard as a pulp magazine author on publications like Amazing Stories and Pocket Detective Magazine (a concept that Arthur sold to pulp giants Street & Smith, and on which he served as editor).
The Mysterious Traveler was a dramatic anthology, narrated by an enigmatic individual who unquestionably enjoyed train travel…for that’s where listeners could find him every week. The Traveler spun tales of “the strange and the terrifying” in a fashion not dissimilar to Dark Destiny, a supernaturally-tinged series that Arthur and Kogan also created for Mutual and broadcast from 1942-43. “I hope you will enjoy the trip,” The Traveler would intone in a menacing but good-natured way (over the sound of a distant locomotive), “that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little. So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves, and be comfortable—if you can!” The identity of The Traveler was shrouded in mystery…though a few sources have written that early broadcasts hinted he was “Dr. Smith,” once associated with the medical profession.
A few notable radio veterans auditioned for the titular role of The Mysterious Traveler—Lon Clark, Lawson Zerbe, Larry Haines, etc. There was no doubt in the minds of Arthur & Kogan, however, that actor Maurice Tarplin was their man. (Kogan later related in an interview: “Maurice was far and away the best. We’d never worked with him before, but there was no comparison.”). Tarplin was a busy performer who had appeared on a slew of daytime dramas and popular programs like The March of Time and Gang Busters; he would later be a regular as Inspector Farraday on Boston Blackie, another Mutual favorite. Maurice also had the enviable ability to “double,” or play multiple characters in a single broadcast, which was no doubt appealing to a program that often had to keep a keen eye on its strict shoestring budget.
Assisting Tarplin in his weekly train travels was a repertory company of accomplished radio thespians that included Roger DeKoven, Elspeth Eric, Jan Miner, Joseph Julian, Santos Ortega, Bryna Raeburn, Ralph Bell, and Luis van Rooten; surviving broadcasts of the series reveal that future Academy Award winners Mercedes McCambridge and Art Carney also acted on the show. Sherman “Jock” MacGregor was the show’s producer-director, overseeing the scripted plots of Kogan and Arthur, which ran the gamut from crime/mystery to fantasy/science-fiction. The former stories tended to rely on a time-worn formula of jealous spouses driven to murder their respective better halves (love triangles were also a frequent plot device), so it’s no surprise that the fantasy and sci-fi episodes remain in the memories of listeners. A good example is “Behind the Locked Door,” in which a pair of archaeologists finds themselves trapped in a dark cave due to a landslide…and discover to their horror that they’re sharing that space with the descendants of wagon train survivors, who have learned to adapt to their sightless world. (It was broadcast on the series on multiple occasions.)
The success of The Mysterious Traveler led to two similar Mutual series. One was The Strange Dr. Weird (broadcast from November 7, 1944 to May 15, 1945), which not only recycled previous Traveler scripts (shortened to a quarter-hour), but utilized the talents of Maurice Tarplin in the role of the titular host. (Weird had something that Traveler didn’t, though: a sponsor in Adam Hats.) Traveler scripts were also borrowed for The Sealed Book, a Mutual offering heard from March 18-September 9, 1945. Philip Clarke was the host of Sealed (as “the Keeper of the Book”), relating “tales of every kind, tales of murder, tales of madness, of dark deeds and events strange beyond all belief.” Traveler’s Jock MacGregor also held the director-producer reins on this program, which was re-broadcast as The Teller of Tales in 1950. (Traveler later got a facelift when some broadcast outlets recycled the show as Adventure Into Fear.)
The Mysterious Traveler even made in-roads beyond its weekly radio visits into the world of publishing, both in pulps and comic books. A one-shot comic released by Trans-World in November of 1948 (as Mysterious Traveler Comics) led to thirteen issues (how appropriate!) of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler published by Charlton Comics between 1956 and 1959. The series eventually returned to Robert A. Arthur’s pulp fiction roots beginning in November 1951; Grace Publishing introduced a digest-sized Traveler pulp that ran for five issues under the supervision of publisher David Kogan and containing stories from managing editor Arthur.
Kogan and Arthur would win their second Edgar Award (for excellence in radio mystery drama writing—their first was for their efforts on Mutual’s Murder by Experts) for The Mysterious Traveler in 1953…shortly after that the show ended on September 16, 1952. (It would seem the team’s active participation in the Radio Writers’ Guild did not meet with the approval of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], who leaned heavily on Mutual to cancel the show.) Kogan decided to continue working in the world of publishing, while his former partner Arthur worked on such TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. Toward the end of the long run of Suspense, a good number of the duo’s Mysterious Traveler scripts were recycled for “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.”
Radio Spirits’ Great Radio Horror collection features two classic broadcasts from The Mysterious Traveler: “If You Believe” (12-29-46), and one of my personal favorites, “The Man the Insects Hated” (07-27-47). (In my case, the insect animosity works both ways.) But if you want pure, undiluted Traveler you need to check out Dark Destiny, a set that features twenty episodes from that series—and as a bonus, six installments of The Strange Dr. Weird! So have your tickets ready when the conductor…oh…you have to get off here…I’m sorry…but I’m sure we’ll meet again…