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Happy Birthday, Paul McGrath!

On May 29, 1945, radio’s popular Inner Sanctum Mysteries welcomed inside “the creaking door” a new host to replace the departing Raymond Edward Johnson.  The new master of ceremonies who welcomed audiences to the weekly broadcasts of murder and mayhem would be referred to as “The Host” or “Your Host” …and not “Raymond,” the beloved narrator that had been a fixture on the series since its debut in 1941.  There was a reason why Inner Sanctum’s Himan Brown chose not to identify the replacement; according to Johnson, “Hi used to be a lawyer, and Hi knew that they could not say [“Raymond”] because it was my name, a natural name.”

Additional speculation as to why the new host’s identity was cloaked in semi-anonymity is that Brown insisted that the content of Inner Sanctum was the star, and he was reluctant to promote another pop culture icon like Raymond Edward Johnson’s macabre host.  We won’t keep you in suspense any longer: the new host of the Sanctum was none other than actor Paul McGrath, born in Chicago on this date in 1904.  Not only did Paul bid listeners “Pleasant dreams…hmmm?” until the show left the airwaves in 1952, he served as the narrator of a short-lived attempt to bring the series to TV in 1953-54.

Though a native son of the Windy City, Paul McGrath moved with his family to New York, where he attended Public School 26 and graduated from Evander Childs High School.  After that, he was off to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology to study engineering…but that choice of vocation didn’t last long.  Paul had been bitten by the acting bug, and he dropped out in 1924 to return to New York and a career in the footlights.  He made his stage debut in a road company version of The First Year (written by character actor Frank Craven). He later confessed that he landed a part in that play “by lying about my stage experience.”  McGrath followed that gig touring as a member of the repertory company in shows like The Doctor’s DilemmaMr. Wu, and Ned Cobb’s Daughter.

The lights of Broadway were not all that far off for Paul McGrath: he appeared in stage hits like In the Near Future (1925), Made in America (1925), and The Arabian (1927).  Paul’s breakthrough role was in a 1931 production of Ferenc Molnar’s The Good Fairy featuring “The First Lady of the American Theatre,” Helen Hayes. Throughout his lengthy Broadway career (his final play was 1970’s Brightower) McGrath acted alongside some of the stage’s finest actresses.  He did Here Today (1932) with Ruth Gordon, Ode to Liberty (1934) with Ina Claire, In Bed We Cry (1944) with Ilka Chase, The Small Hours with Dorothy Stickney and Love and Let Love with Ginger Rogers (both in 1951), and a summer production of Desk Set with Shirley Booth.

McGrath’s most prominent role was opposite the legendary Gertrude Lawrence in 1940’s Susan and God; a part that became his after Osgood Perkins (the father of Anthony) died unexpectedly.  Lawrence and McGrath reprised their roles in an early televised performance of the play (also in 1940), and he would work again with Ms. Lawrence the following year in Lady in the Dark.  Paul McGrath would experience many Broadway triumphs, including turns opposite Paul Kelly in 1947’s Command Decision (later adapted for the silver screen) and John Garfield in 1949’s The Big Knife (also made into a movie, in 1955).

Performing on stage allowed Paul McGrath to make extra money as a radio actor—he could do any number of daytime soap operas and still fulfill his theatrical commitments in the evenings. And McGrath certainly made the rounds of radio’s most popular “weepies”; he was Edwin Lorimer on This Life is Mine, Phil Stanley on When a Girl Marries, Dr. Sewell Crawford on Young Doctor Malone, and Richard Lane on Lora Lawton.  His best-remembered “soap gig” was portraying Dr. John Wayne (I’m not making that name up) on Big Sister, and in the waning days of radio Paul was emoting as the titular medico of The Affairs of Dr. Gentry.

Other radio programs to employ Paul include A Date with Judy (he was the first thespian to play Melvin Foster, in the Ann Gillis years of the program), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBest PlaysThe Casebook of Gregory Hood (in the title role), The Chase, Crime DoctorThe Eternal LightThe FBI in Peace and WarMy Son JeepStudio One, Suspense, and The Theatre Guild on the Air.  Even after “Radio’s Golden Age” rang down the curtain, McGrath made time for shows that attempted to revive audio drama, like Theater Five and The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre.

Though his radio and stage work no doubt kept him busy, Paul McGrath found time for appearances in feature films every now and then.  Paul had a high-profile role in This Thing Called Love, a 1940 comedy with Rosalind Russell; a 1941 Charlie Chan film, Dead Men Tell; and a nice showcase in the Claudette Colbert-Fred MacMurray romp No Time for Love (1943). Other items of interest on McGrath’s cinematic c.v. include A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Advise and Consent (1962).  Paul was no slouch when it came to the small screen, either. He made the rounds on many of TV’s top dramatic anthologies (Robert Montgomery PresentsThe United States Steel Hour), daytime soaps (The Guiding LightThe Edge of Night), and several New York-based dramatic series such as East Side/West SideThe Doctors and the Nurses, and For the People.  According to the IMDb, Paul McGrath’s final film performance was in a 1969 TV movie entitled This Town Will Never Be the Same. The actor passed away two days after his 74th birthday in 1978.

You know simply by having read the above material that Paul McGrath was a much-in-demand actor in radio, and Radio Spirits features two compendiums of his signature role as “Your Host” on Inner Sanctum MysteriesShadows of Death (with liner notes by yours truly) and Pattern for Fear.  (There’s also Inner Sanctum to be heard in our potpourri set of audio chills and thrills, Great Radio Horror.)  But please don’t overlook Final Curtain, a collection of vintage Suspense broadcasts from the final years of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” and a classic episode entitled “The Lost Lady” (06-14-53) on Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator.  Happy birthday to one of the richest voices in the aural medium!

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