Sunday, December 16, 2018

Gunsmoke Radio Show

BROADCAST HISTORY: April 26, 1952–June 18, 1961, CBS. 30m Saturdays until 1955, then Sundays; brief Monday schedule, summer 1954. Various timeslots; two broadcasts heard weekly in 1955, both Saturdays, at 12:30 and 8; then from 1955–61, Sundays at 6:30 with repeats Saturdays at 12:30. Post Toasties, Oct. 3–Dec. 26, 1953; Liggett & Myers Tobacco, July 5, 1954–April 7, 1957, first for Chesterfield and then L&M Cigarettes; multiple sponsorship, 1957–61. CAST: William Conrad as Matt Dillon, U.S. marshal, of Dodge City, Kan. Parley Baer as Chester Wesley Proudfoot, his deputy. Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell, the saloon girl. Howard McNear as Dr. Charles Adams. Also: Harry Bartell, Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, Don Diamond, Lou Krugman, Barney Phillips, Jack Kruschen, Vivi Janiss, Lillian Buyeff, Ben Wright, John Dehner, Paul Dubov, Jim Nusser, Frank Gerstle, Mary Lansing, Michael Ann Barrett, Virginia Gregg, Junius Matthews, Joseph Kearns, Sammie Hill, Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Ralph Moody, Joe DuVal, Jeanne Bates, Charlotte Lawrence, Johnny McGovern, Peter Leeds, Byron Kane, Helen Kleeb, Edgar Barrier, Joyce McCluskey, Virginia Christine, Clayton Post, Eleanore Tanin, Joe Cranston, Richard Beals, Jack Moyles, Lynn Allen, Frank Cady, Vic Perrin, and others from Hollywood’s Radio Row. ANNOUNCERS: Roy Rowan, George Walsh; George Fenneman for Chesterfield. MUSIC:
Rex Koury. PRODUCER-DIRECTOR: Norman Macdonnell. WRITER: John Meston. OTHER WRITERS: Herb Purdum, Les Crutchfield, Antony Ellis, Kathleen Hite, John Dunkel, Marian Clark, etc. SOUND EFFECTS: Tom Hanley, Ray Kemper, Bill James. Gunsmoke was slowly developed by producer-director Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston over a two-year period beginning in mid-1950. Macdonnell had been working as assistant director to William N. Robson on Escape; Meston had become story editor at CBS. Both men were interested in the concept of a western series for adults. Radio had relegated the western, like science fiction, to the children’s hour, with such series as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and Red Ryder its most prominent offerings. In 1946–48 Robson had produced and directed Hawk Larabee, which he himself would describe years later as “a pictureless B-grade western—the same kind of plot and character development that you’d find in a Roy Rogers movie.” Even the venerable Death Valley Days had never contained the kind of gritty realism that Macdonnell and Meston envisioned. The framework for such a series was already in place. Harry Ackerman, director of programming for CBS West, had coined a title—Gunsmoke—and had recorded two audition shows. The first had starred Rye Billsbury as lawman “Mark Dillon” and had been produced on June 11, 1949. This was redone July 15, with Howard Culver playing the lead. The records were never aired, and when the Ackerman project fell by the wayside, Macdonnell and Meston continued their discussions of adult western concepts. They began working these into existing programs. Robson had left Escape: Macdonnell had become its director, and on Dec. 22, 1950, he aired a Meston story of the West titled Wild Jack Rhett. This was followed by Pagosa, written by Meston and produced by Macdonnell on Romance, Aug. 6, 1951. Again Macdonnell approached CBS about a western series. His timing was right: the network was canceling Robson’s spy series, Operation Underground (June 26, 1951–April 19, 1952), and Macdonnell was told he had one week to get his show together. “In that week we had to find a writer, we had to find a star, we had to have a theme composed,” Macdonnell told John Hickman on a five-hour Gunsmoke radio documentary in 1967. “We got Walter Brown Newman to come in—one of the better writers in town—we gave him an acetate recording of Pagosa and, I believe, Wild Jack Rhett, and said, this is the style, this is the color, this is the feel. We laid out no other guidelines, except we told him how Matt Dillon should be written, and the kind of character he was.” In Rhett and Pagosa, they had experimented with “exaggerated sound patterns.” The shows had an uncluttered sound. “There was lots of dead air,” said Macdonnell on Hickman’s show; “you could hear all the sound effects.” There was little or no narration, the action being carried largely in dialogue. When a man walked across the street, a listener heard every step. This style would continue in Gunsmoke. The music was assigned to Rex Koury, who had never done a western. Macdonnell wanted a theme with a “big, wide-open sound to it, something that suggested the wide-open spaces.” The show was being set in Dodge City, Kan. in the 1870s: a cow town and a brawling outpost on the frontier. So wild was Dodge that writer Lucius Beebe had termed it a “suburb of hell.” It was a plains town, and Koury’s music should reflect that, and perhaps suggest something of the man Matt Dillon, who had come to tame it. Koury always wrote his interior music first: then, after satisfying himself with the sound and feel of the bridges, he would develop a theme that pulled it together. The night before the broadcast, he decided to go to bed early, get up early, and write his theme in the morning. “I knew pretty well what I wanted,” he said. But he overslept and didn’t remember the unwritten theme until he was shaving. “I gathered a magazine and a piece of manuscript and a pencil, and I sat down in the most convenient spot, and that is where the Gunsmoke theme was composed.” It took ten minutes to write and became one of radio’s all-time best-known pieces of music. The casting had been more difficult. Macdonnell and Meston both wanted William Conrad for the lead, but CBS objected. Conrad was known as a heavy from his movie roles (Body and Soul; Sorry, Wrong Number; The Killers). He was also a busy radio actor (Escape, Suspense, The Adventures of Sam Spade, many others) with a distinctive air presence. As Conrad told Hickman: “I think when they started casting for it, somebody said, ‘Good Christ, let’s not get Bill Conrad, we’re up to you-know-where with Bill Conrad.’ So they auditioned everybody, and as a last resort they called me. And I went in and read about two lines … and the next day they called me and said, ‘Okay, you have the job.’” Newman’s initial script was a one-man show, a lynch-mob story building to the less-than-original conclusion that the little boy so enthralled by Dillon’s gunfighting prowess was none other than William Bonney, soon to be known as Billy the Kid. But the power of the script was in a two-minute standoff between Dillon and the mob, a scene delivered by Conrad with raging fire. Only once had anything like it been heard, a Conrad performance of equal intensity on the Escape show Poison. The series was launched. Buried in the background on that first broadcast were two characters who would become regulars: Chester, the deputy, and the ghoulish Doc. Newman’s script had given Chester no name. His designation as TOWNSMAN in the script had left Conrad cold. “Bill Conrad named Chester,” said Parley Baer, who would play the role from beginning to end. “‘Call him Chester or something,’ Bill said.” Later in the series he would be fully named, when Baer ad-libbed, “Well, as sure as my name is Chester Wesley Proud-foot ….” By then Baer had a clear idea who Chester was. He would disagree with a critic’s view that Chester was a “dimwitted town loafer,” preferring his own description, “a dependable nonthinker.” As Baer told Hickman: “Dillon trusted Chester and Doc as much as he dared trust anyone. He knew that if he needed someone to stand at his back, Chester would be there, but he wasn’t sure that Chester would function at all times. I think he had the same feeling about Doc: Doc was dependable, but every now and then he’d get soused up, and maybe at the moment of removing the appendix Doc could’ve been a little snockered. Chester was dishonest with many people, but he had to be completely honest with Dillon, and there was Dillon’s strength! Everyone had to be honest with Dillon, because Dillon was the one who was most completely honest, in his dealings with lawbreakers, in his dealings with the town, in his dealings with his everyday associates.” Doc was truly a vulturous character in the opening episode, so delighted over the carnage strewn by Dillon’s blazing guns that at one point Dillon threatened to knock him down. Conrad again suggested a name: why not borrow from cartoonist Charles Addams, whose vampire panels were then popular, and name the Gunsmoke doctor Dr. Charles Adams? Howard McNear played the role all the way. Also in the cast that opening day was Georgia Ellis, who played the widow of the murdered man. Within weeks Ellis would join as the fourth regular, the saloon girl, Kitty Russell.
“She was a generous, loving human being,” Ellis said of Kitty. Macdonnell, in a 1953 Time interview, put it bluntly: “Kitty is just someone Matt has to visit every once in a while. We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, plain and simple.” “Nobody was sure whether we had a hit or a miss,” Macdonnell said of the first broadcast. Conrad was not yet playing Dillon with a great amount of warmth—an understatement, as a review of the tape reveals. But soon the characters underwent a strange metamorphosis, a process that always happens as props become flesh and blood. Chester became more humorous, Dillon more understanding, Doc less bloodthirsty, and Kitty emerged as the quietly understood love interest. She and Dillon had their understanding: “There was no forgiveness to be given,” said Ellis, “because I don’t think Kitty was available to anybody but Matt.” The relationship between Chester and Dillon moved from tolerance to open affection. Chester drove him crazy: Dillon cringed when Chester put sugar in his rye whiskey, and he always wondered what Chester was looking for, rummaging through the desk drawers. But as the show matured, a special bond grew between them. Once, after he’d saved Dillon’s life, Chester refused to let the marshal discuss it in town: it would only be embarrassing to them both. Dillon was a “lonely, sad, tragic man,” said Macdonnell. He played his hand and often lost. He arrived too late to prevent a lynching. He amputated a dying man’s leg and lost the patient anyway. He saved a young girl from brutal rapists, then found himself unable to offer her what she needed to stop her from moving into town and a fairly obvious life as a prostitute. Meston rejoiced in such freedom. In a letter to the New York Tribune, he welcomed the opportunity to destroy a character he had always loathed, the western guitar-thumping hero, singing his synthetic, nasal ballad. “I spit in his milk, and you’ll have to go elsewhere to find somebody to pour out the lead for his golden bullets.” In Meston’s view, Dillon was almost as scarred as the homicidal psychopaths who drifted into Dodge from every direction. “Life and his enemies have left him looking a little beat-up. There’d have to be something wrong with him or he wouldn’t have hired on as a United States marshal in the heyday of Dodge City, Kansas.” The opening signature left little doubt that Dillon was the law. Around Dodge City, and into territory on west, there’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers: that’s with a U.S. Marshal, and the smell of gunsmoke! Gunsmoke! … starring William Conrad … the story of the violence that moved west with young America, and the story of a man who moved with it. I’m that man … Matt Dillon. United States marshal … the first man they look for, and the last man they want to meet … it’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little lonely. The show drew critical acclaim for unprecedented realism. It was compared—though the two sounded nothing alike—to Jack Webb’s Dragnet. When Dillon and Chester rode the plains, the listener heard the faraway prairie wind and the dry squeak of Matt’s pants against saddle leather. When Dillon opened the jail door, the listener heard every key drop on the ring. Dillon’s spurs rang out with a dull clink-clink, missing occasionally, and the hollow boardwalk echoed dully as the nails creaked in the worn wood around them. Buckboards passed, and the listener heard extraneous dialogue in the background, just above the muted shouts of kids playing in an alley. He heard noises from the next block, too, where the inevitable dog was barking. In the second year, Meston left his job as CBS story editor to freelance the writing of Gunsmoke. For the next three years, he was virtually the author of Gunsmoke, turning out about 40 scripts a years. His writing was described by Macdonnell as “understated and simple.” Conrad found it “seasoned and highlighted by red streaks of magnificent violence,” yet filled with “a final total compassion with whatever the problem was.” The violence often went beyond that of radio’s fabled horror shows: there were mutilated bodies left by Indians to rot on the plains, men killed by axes or knives, families burned out or slaughtered. “This is the way I work,” said Meston in 1955. “I decide that it’s time for an Indian story, or an Army story, or maybe a Civil War vet returning home. Then I think of the people I knew as a kid in Colorado. And I think of what I’ve read about the west of 1870, and I put a character together. Let’s say I decide on a man who can’t take the land, it’s too rough for him and he wants to get back east. Then I have my character and can build a story.” The company formed close personal friendships. Parley Baer wept on Hickman’s show, remembering his days with Howard McNear. “The dearest man, there was just nobody who didn’t like him.” Conrad considered McNear “the life of our cast…. Howard and Parley are two people that everybody should know in their lives.” The recording sessions rippled with camaraderie and became known as “dirty Saturdays,” filled with laughter and ribald jokes. Vic Perrin, who with John Dehner, Harry Bartell, and Lawrence Dobkin was among the show’s steadiest character actors, once said that doing Gunsmoke was more fun than attending the Academy Awards. As early as 1953 there was talk of television. Perhaps Macdonnell saw the writing on the wall when he told the press that “our show is perfect for radio,” that Gunsmoke confined by a picture couldn’t possibly be as authentic or attentive to detail. Behind the scenes, he was intrigued. If the cast could be left intact (a major problem, for the once-slender Bill Conrad had ballooned in recent years, giving him an appearance far different from what a listener saw in the mind) and if the spirit and integrity of the radio show could be maintained … well, it might be interesting. In the end, CBS simply took it away from him. The radio cast was given a token audition (and this only because of a persistent newspaper columnist), and with the radio show going strong, a new regime moved in for television. Charles Marquis Warren would direct, Macdonnell would be allowed to produce, and Meston—wisely, for he would become its greatest asset—would continue as writer (the early shows used Meston’s radio scripts). James Arness would star as a very different Dillon; Amanda Blake would play Kitty; Milburn Stone would be a good Doc Adams; and Dennis Weaver would be given a wooden leg and a greater drawl as Chester. Two things amused Parley Baer in later life: that the new people would find it necessary to change Chester’s surname (from the Baer-coined Proud-foot to Goode) and that Dennis Weaver eventually came to hate the role. Isn’t it interesting, Baer was asked in 1984, that what was the highlight of his professional life became for Weaver a limiting, confining trap, like the picture tube itself? “That is interesting,” Baer said, as if such a thought had never occurred to him. For Bill Conrad, the television show was a bitter loss. He became unavailable to interviewers, especially when they wanted to talk about his radio career. He became Cannon on TV, and a generation came of age never knowing that the declining Matt Dillon (age overtook even James Arness) they watched on Monday nights owed his existence to the fat detective who waddled across their screens on Tuesday. The acrimony was probably unavoidable: certainly it was understandable.
There would always be champions of radio vs. TV, and among radio people Gunsmoke is routinely placed among the best shows of any kind and any time. That radio fans considered the TV show a sham, and its players impostors, should surprise no one. That the TV show was not a sham was due in no small part to the continued strength of Meston’s scripts. Gunsmoke is another story with a happy ending. Virtually every episode from the first four years exists on tape, and the shows are widely circulated. A new listener can begin with Billy the Kid in 1952 and go straight through. A fringe benefit can be found in some of the dress rehearsal material that was saved and put on tape. There are hilarious excerpts: Conrad struggling to say “sod hut” and blowing it every time, with the cast rolling in laughter. Notable is the rehearsal of New Hotel, recorded in late 1955 and aired in its polished version Feb. 19, 1956. Rex Koury’s musicians break into a fire scene suddenly with I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, and the show falls apart. A digestive indiscretion occurs at the microphone. “That goddamn shrimp curry does it every time,” one of the actors says, and Bill Conrad is reduced to helpless laughter. A listener must wonder how after such hilarity they managed to get the actual broadcast recorded. The broadcast version of the same show testifies that they were all professionals, and when they played for the money, they played it straight. Suddenly the listener is back in Dodge, with its dusty streets and its Long Branch Saloon, its Texas Trail and shoe-leather buffalo steaks. The marshal is steely-eyed and a little lonely, and the deputy cradles the shotgun and covers his back. So strong a show was bound to gather advocates, and did, when SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas published Gunsmoke: A Complete History (McFarland, 1990). This 836-page book covers the show in every conceivable aspect—radio and television—with reminiscences of both casts, a huge section of photographs, and show-by-show descriptions with titles, dates, story synopses, and players for every episode.

Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (p. 306). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

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