Family members of all sizes and ages have watched with admiration and fascination at the adventures of the world’s most famous collie dog, Lassie, ever since the first of seven films produced at M-G-M premiered in 1943 with Lassie Come Home. (This movie, starring Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, was based on the novel by author Eric Knight, who expanded a short story he had written for The Saturday Evening Post two years earlier.) The wonder canine later came to TV in the fall of 1954, and stayed there for nearly twenty years (Lassie ended its original network run in 1971, and was seen in syndication for a few years afterward); later versions of Lassie would turn up in the 1980s (as The New Lassie) and the 1990s…as well as additional theatrical movies from that time span as well. My curmudgeonly father once cracked that if that were really the original dog from the movies, at its age it would be more likely to lie around and do nothing as opposed to helping out people in distress. Of course, all of the Lassies over the years have been played by male collies (despite the character being female), descendants of “Pal,” the dog from the 1943 film.
Lassie has been the subject of novels, comic books, toys and practically every other form of media…and currently hawks her own line of dog food, as well as hosts a pet show seen on many PBS stations. But would you be surprised to learn that the super collie also had her own radio show? Sixty-five years ago on this date, The Lassie Show debuted on the ABC Radio network—with M-G-M’s famous canine star trained to bark, whine and snarl on cue by her longtime trainer Rudd Weatherwax. Lassie hadn’t achieved the mantle of “star” at this point in her career, so she was forced to peddle a brand of dog chow other than her own. For the show’s three-year run (it ran for a year on ABC before switching to NBC in 1948, where it was heard until May 27, 1950), Red Heart Dog Food, a product of the John Morrell Packing Company, was Lassie’s sponsor.
The stories on this quarter-hour show were fairly simple and straightforward; interestingly, the show’s creative team hadn’t yet stumbled onto the successful TV formula where she had to pull Timmy out of a well every week. Instead, Pal/Lassie played a variety of dogs—many of them collies, but occasionally they’d mix it up and assign her the part of a German shepherd or Irish setter. The scripts were inspired by real-life stories submitted by listeners, with “The Red Heart Award for Valor” going to a canine who performed above and beyond the call of duty. Accompanied by Weatherwax’s narration and an organ (John Duffy, who played incidental music and the show’s theme, “Comin’ Through the Rye”), Lassie would emote alongside many of radio’s finest utility players, including John Dehner, Betty Arnold, Don Diamond, Ken Christy, Martha Wentworth, and Ruth Parrott. On the occasions when Lassie was temperamental, animal imitator Earl Keen was on hand as the collie’s “understudy” (in addition to playing the parts of other dogs).
The scripts for Lassie were written by Hobart Donovan, with direction by Harry Stewart and production by Frank Ferrin. The show’s longtime announcer was Charles Lyon.