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Happy Anniversary to “Radio’s Outstanding Theatre of Thrills”!


If you really wanted to nitpick…celebrating the 71st anniversary of the anthology program Suspense would have to be put off until July 22 of this year—and we’d also have to add a few years, making it the 73rd birthday.  July 22, 1940 marked the official debut of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” when it premiered as a pilot (or “audition,” as they were known in radio) on the CBS series Forecast.  For an entire hour, listeners were entertained by an audio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novella The Lodger—brought to the silver screen in 1926 by a promising young British director named Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact, Hitch himself directed the Forecast broadcast.  Loaned to CBS for the production by producer Walter Wanger, the Master of Suspense was also joined by Herbert Marshall (who played the titular role) and Edmund Gwenn, both of whom were scheduled to appear in the Wanger-Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent.


suspense5Suspense’s audition generated enough positive buzz for CBS to bring it to the airwaves on June 17, 1942.  (It wasn’t the only series to spring from the summer program; Forecast begat Duffy’s Tavern and Hopalong Cassidy.)   Producer William Spier was placed in charge of the show, and was determined to live up to his nickname “the Hitchcock of the airlanes.”  Overseeing every aspect of the series, Spier soon acquired a reputation for being able to lure big stars to his microphones (many of whom had never done radio before), and for supervising every aspect of each broadcast from sound effects to music.  Though Suspense started out as a sustained program (meaning the network was paying its bills), it acquired a sponsor in Roma Wines by December of 1943.


suspense4Suspense was responsible for some of the finest radio dramas ever broadcast, and its most famous was a production entitled “Sorry, Wrong Number.”  First broadcast on May 25, 1943 (it would be repeated seven more times), it starred Agnes Moorehead as an invalid who overhears plans for a murder via crossed telephone wires one night when she’s all alone at home.  The half-hour play was written by Lucille Fletcher, who also contributed a memorable episode for frequent Suspense guest star Orson Welles in “The Hitch-Hiker”—the terrifying tale of a man who, without explanation, keeps running into a mysterious drifter by the side of the road that he’s traveling.


suspense9Welles also appeared in a two-part Suspense production entitled “Donovan’s Brain,” based on the novel by Curt Siodmak.  It was adapted as a feature film on multiple occasions (most famously in 1953) and also bears the distinction of having won a Grammy—the two-part broadcast was released on an LP and snagged a trophy in 1981 for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording.  The science fiction nature of “Donovan” was out of character for Suspense, which usually dealt in realistic crime dramas…but Spier bent the rules a little, and occasionally allowed material like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The House in Cypress Canyon” to become memorable shows.


suspense7Suspense soon became the anthology program.  Celebrities angled for a chance to get on the show.  Cary Grant once said: “If I ever do any more radio work, I want to do it on Suspense, where I get a good chance to act.”  Grant, as a matter of fact, starred in one of the classic Suspense broadcasts: “On a Country Road.”  In this thriller, he plays a husband who is stranded with wife (played by Cathy Lewis) on a back road in a car that has out of gas…with an escaped female mental patient on the loose.


suspense3The cream of Hollywood’s acting crop made the rounds on Suspense, including performers like Ida Lupino, Olivia DeHavilland, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Lana Turner, and many more.  Spier, and future Suspense producers like Anton M. Leader and Elliott Lewis, also indulged in what some might call “stunt casting” – bringing in personalities who might otherwise be out of their comfort zone on a dramatic show.  Many times the results were glorious: comedians Jim and Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly) were the stars of the classic “Backseat Driver,” in which a couple returning home from the movies discover a stowaway in their car.  Emcee Ralph Edwards, best known for Truth or Consequences, headlined the terrifying scare story “Ghost Hunt.”  And, there are countless other examples.


suspense6Producer William Spier gave up the director-producer chair in February of 1948 when Suspense was expanded by CBS to a full hour. This expanded presentation, hosted by actor Robert Montgomery, was a complete bust and the program shrank back to its half-hour size in July of that year with Tony Leader at the producer’s controls.  It was at this time that the bills for Suspense were paid for by Autolite (“You’re always right…with Autolite”).  After a year at the helm of the S.S. Suspense, Leader turned the wheel over to Norman Macdonnell, who later relinquished controls to actor Elliott Lewis.  Under Lewis’ supervision, the series often experimented with the content of its plays, presenting offbeat productions that included a fine adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello.


suspense2By 1954, Suspense was getting by on a patchwork of multiple sponsors and the network’s sustaining largesse.  The big-name wattage dimmed as well, though the show would occasionally attract a star or two.  It really became a showcase for tried-and-true radio actors like William Conrad, Lawrence Dobkin, Georgia Ellis, Harry Bartell, John Dehner and Lurene Tuttle, to name just a few.  The staying power of the series cannot be underestimated, however; it continued to present good radio drama (despite a brief cancellation from November of 1960 to June 1961).  And, along with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Suspense actually closed the curtain on Radio’s Golden Age on September 30, 1962.


suspense10Old-time radio fans have been blessed in that 900 of the 945 original broadcasts of the series have been preserved, and many are available in CD collections from Radio Spirits.  The latest release, Suspense: Final Curtain includes 30 broadcasts from the programs’ last years; Suspense: Around the World, features stories that span the four corners of the globe; Suspense: Omnibus is also a great way to introduce oneself to the series.  Suspense: Tales Well Calculated features broadcasts with unusual guest stars such as Ozzie & Harriet, Dennis Day, William Bendix and Phil Harris & Alice Faye.


  1. Kathleen Miller says:

    I love Suspense it is an all time favorite show. There are so many that I love. The House in Cypress Canyon, The Yellow Wallpaper, Donovan’s Brain (with Orson Wells) and so many others. Happy Birthday Suspense!

  2. Cameron Estep says:

    Suspense is my top favorite radio mystery series to listen to. I much prefer this over Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Mysterious Traveler and even the Whistler. I have been collecting a lot of the radio episodes from Suspense over the years. I like this show a lot because not only was it a mystery series that lasted for 20 years but also because of the Hollywood stars and stories by famous mystery writers like Agatha Christie’s the ABC Murders with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit with Humphrey Bogart, even Charles Dickens’ the Mystery of Edwin Drood with Herbert Marshall. But it is the stars that gets my attention particularly like Peter Lorre, Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, Vincent Price, Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Edward G. Robinson, and even Ronald Reagan to name a few. I never get bored with this series and I too join in to say Happy Birthday to Radio’s Outstanding Theatre of Thrills, the series that brings you tales well calculated to keep you in…SUSPENSE!

    • bob carrico says:

      Ah, the ‘cream of Hollywood’s acting talent.’ Take that Ozzie and Harriet gig. Who would have thought they could do drama? Creepy, man–if I remember it right: Trapped in a car with a mad man–or was it when they were murdering her uncle? Dang, can’t remember. The Ralph Edward’s (This Is Your Life) I definitely do. The dude goes nuts. Shoulda known this would happen when the dog got spooked by the haunting ghosts. Very, very creepy. C’est la vie.

  3. Ray says:

    There’s been a lot of melancholy about the asnnveriary of the demise of radio drama, and it makes me a little moody too, but I recalled something..After I’d discovered OTR and was ravenously devouring all the episodes of anything I could find, the people I knew who had heard it first hand showed little of no interest when I talked with them about it. They remembered all the shows but just didn’t seem to care. One of my grandfathers did appreciate the tapes I made for him of Boston Blackie, but nobody else cared to reminisce at all. Weird!Some still alive who were there to listen enjoy reminiscing about it, some don’t. Life in these United States wasn’t always a barrel of rice pops in the Depression or the war years, even if radio was the nation’s salve and (dare we say) information superhighway. Living in the Great Depression wasn’t exactly the jolly boys (or girls) club; living through World War II wasn’t all USO canteen dances and hijinks on Nantucket Island. On the other hand, I sent my oldest friend’s mother a set of OTR shows that happened to air on the dates of her birthday, and she absolutely loved having those shows again. It really varies from person to person. Which is one good reason why my OTR blog is subheaded, Standing athwart nostalgia, yelling Art! . . .

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