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Old-time radio, 21 February: A hard road out of Dodge

William Conrad and Georgia Ellis, Gunsmoke mainstays.
William Conrad and Georgia Ellis, Gunsmoke mainstays.CBS

With sixty years’ hindsight available, it will be possible to suggest that Gunsmoke came to radio just half a decade late. Written brilliantly for what it is, a horse opera without the cliches and melodramatic flourishes that have turned too many radio Westerns into comic fodder, Gunsmoke proves a hard sell to prospective sponsors in 1952-53.

The reason proves only too simple: network television has now taken stronghold enough that network radio is no longer a primary lure for sponsors no matter how good the show in question. Even if Gunsmoke‘s announcer could sign off truthfully by noting America now listens to 105 million radios, the nation has turned in earnest to television and won’t be turning away.

Not even for a smart Western starring mellifluous William Conrad as deceptively laconic federal marshal Matt Dillon, a lawman whose stoic appearance and conversation is an appearance that doesn’t always hide his heart—something that will be made more clear in his eventual, fabled self-introduction: [I'm] the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful—and a little lonely.

There was always a danger thing in my voice. Now, I don’t know how that got there, but I covered everything with a black drape. I never took a drama lesson in my life. I never even thought about what it is to be an actor. All I thought about was the money that it was possible to make, maybe. And it turned out to be possible. I was just f—king lucky to have a voice that fascinated people.

—William Conrad.

It was a time of shooting and fighting . . . but conversations were not like that at that time. You figure that everything was conceived and modulated out of an office or around a campfire. People lose sight of the fact that in those times, quiet was their safety, really, because even the rustle of clothing could be detected in the quiet prairie by sharp ears. That was one of the things that I think we tried to portray, that it was a time of underplay. I think we maybe overdid it at times because it was a technique that worked.

—Parley Baer (Chester Proudfoot).

In its first season Gunsmoke enjoys a single sponsor for a single episode, the 21 November 1952 installment (“Fingered”) sponsored for the single night by Plymouth. And it nearly equals the Nielsen rating garnered by This is Your FBI (ABC) opposing it that Friday night, the latter show near the end of its once-formidable run.

Not until the fall of 1953 will Gunsmoke attract another sponsor, General Foods, promoting its Post Toasties cereal, who will stay on board until giving way to Liggett & Myers’s Chesterfield and, later, L&M cigarettes. And the show will enjoy nine seasons out of Dodge City, even after the television version (for which none of the radio cast will be considered, even if Conrad turns out to be the man James Arness guns down weekly in the television version’s opening credits) takes hold and becomes the most popular Western on the tube from 1957-61.

Perhaps more miraculously, almost the entire radio run of Gunsmoke will be preserved for future archivists and classic radio fans. And it will still be heard for what it is: maybe the single best-written, most sensibly acted and directed horse opera in the brief but brilliant history of network radio drama.

Gunsmoke: Meshougah (CBS, 1953)

Enjoying a refreshing ride to Pierceville, where Matt (William Conrad) has to deliver government papers to the local postmaster, he and Chester (Parley Baer) arrive to something they don’t expect—the entire town held hostage in a large warehouse by six hard men who took over the town swearing mayhem until the killer of one’s brother is exposed. Leading Matt and Chester to a drastic measure to end it.

Brill: Lawrence Dobkin. Additional cast: Vic Perrin, Bob Sweeney, John Dehner, Lou Krugman, Michael Ann Barrett, Ted Bliss. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: Antony Ellis.

Tune In Tonight, Otherwise . . .

Adventure

Escape: The Red Mark (CBS, 1950)—William Conrad, Will Geer, Harry Bartell, Paul Frees, Julius Mathews, Barbara Whiting. Conrad and Geer cast against types as an inmate clashing with the grisly executioner of prison island New Caledonia. It ain’t Matt Dillon and Grandpa Walton, kiddies.

Comedy

The Chase & Sanborn Show with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: Desert Heat (NBC, 1943)—Bergen & McCarthy, Don Ameche, Bill Forman, Joan Merrill. The 21st Ferrying Group of the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command in Palm Springs gets some additional live heat from Carmen Miranda in the middle of the usual wisenheimer mayhem.

mr. ace and JANE: You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (CBS, 1948)—Goodman and Jane Ace, Gertrude Warner, Leon Janney, Eric Dressler, Florence Robinson, Michael Abbott, Ken Roberts. Jane’s indignant over Ace’s forgetting a half-anniversary and the comely candy maker who’s his new advertising client. Dedicated to “all the husbands who will someday marry Jane.”