Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Whistler

WHISTLER, crime melodrama. 

BROADCAST HISTORY: May 16, 1942–Sept. 8, 1955, CBS, West Coast regional network for Signal Oil, 1943–54; various 30m timeslots. (The sponsor, Signal Oil, operated only in the West. Only two attempts were made to split the show, with separate sponsorship in the East: July 3–Sept. 25, 1946, CBS, Wednesdays at 8 for Campbell Soups, substituting for Jack Carson; and March 26, 1947–Sept. 29, 1948, CBS, Wednesdays at 10 for Household Finance. Signal continued West Coast sponsorship throughout these times.) CAST: Bill Forman as the Whistler, mysterious teller of murder stories. Gale Gordon and Joseph Kearns as the Whistler in earliest shows. Marvin Miller as the Whistler while Forman was in the Army. Bill Johnstone as the Whistler, 1948. (Everett Clarke as the Whistler in a 1947 Chicago series.) Supporting casts from Hollywood’s Radio Row, players who appeared so often they were known as “Whistler’s children”: Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Joseph Kearns, Betty Lou Gerson, Wally Maher, John Brown, Hans Conried, Gerald Mohr, Lurene Tuttle, Donald Woods, Gloria Blondell, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Chandler, Joan Banks, Mercedes McCambridge. ORCHESTRA: Wilbur Hatch, who also composed the eerie mood music, as well as the theme that was whistled at the beginning and end. WHISTLER: Dorothy Roberts, who weekly for 13 years whistled the 37 notes (13 at the beginning, 11 leading into the story, 13 at the end); composer Hatch estimated that only one person in 20 could whistle the exact melody. PRODUCER-DIRECTOR: George Allen (from ca. 1944). WRITER-PRODUCER: J. Donald Wilson. WRITERS: Many freelancers; final scripts by Harold Swanton and Joel Malone. ENGINEER: Robert Anderson. SOUND EFFECTS: Berne Surrey; also, Gene Twombly, Ross Murray. Despite its regional status for most of its days, The Whistler had one of radio’s best-known crime-show formats and one of the longest runs. The signature ranks with radio’s greatest, playing perfectly into the host’s “man of mystery” role. Like the Shadow before him and the Mysterious Traveler yet to come, the Whistler was a voice of fate, baiting the guilty with his smiling malevolence. The show opened with echoing footsteps and a lingering whistle, destined to become one of the all-time haunting melodies. The whistle got louder, then louder, finally blending with the orchestra in a high-pitched sting. Then the Whistler spoke: I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak… The unstated theme that ran the distance was “this could happen to you.” The Whistler told stories of the everyday gone haywire, of common men driven to murder and then being tripped up in a cunning double-twist. These were not mysteries: the identity of the killer was never in doubt, from the first hint that the deed must be done until the moment when the killer trapped himself. The stories were told by the Whistler from the killer’s viewpoint, the narration done in the unusual second-person, present tense. In the earliest days, producer J. Donald Wilson sometimes had the Whistler engage in open dialogue with the characters, the host playing Conscience, arguing with the murderer and goading him to the inevitable doom. The final act was not played out but was summarized by the Whistler in an epilogue as, like the Shadow, he laughed and sealed the killer’s fate with a few terse lines of plot twist. One of the first changes made by George Allen when he arrived as director in 1944 was to fully dramatize that closing turnabout. This was far more satisfying. The Whistler remained the great omniscient storyteller of the air, for the Shadow had long since become his own hero, and the Mysterious Traveler never packed quite the same punch. The voice was an unforgettable tenor, the message dripping with grim irony. It all worked out so perfectly, didn’t it, Roger, he would coo, while listeners waited for the shoe to drop. This would come in “the strange ending to tonight’s story,” the little epilogue when the finger of fate struck, some fatal flaw of character or deficiency in the master plan that was so obvious that everyone had overlooked it. The classic example was the story Brief Pause for Murder. A newscaster had decided to kill his wife. His alibi was perfect: he had cut a recording of his 10 o’clock newscast and had blackmailed a felon working at the station into playing it on the air at the exact moment of the murder. The chief of police would be listening; Roger had made sure of that. And with his wife’s body still warm on the floor, the news came on as scheduled, in his own voice. It all worked out so perfectly, didn’t it, Roger?… until the needle hit a flaw, and repeated … and repeated … and repeated … Allen rotated his stock company depending on the needs of his scripts. He found Joe Kearns “adept at the goodbrain-plotting-his-moves type of part.” Cathy and Elliott Lewis were both full-range players: Elliott “can sound like the average guy under pressure, and he builds emotion fast and holds it at a peak; Cathy has the same qualities as Elliott, the female counterpart of the average guy in her ability to sound absolutely genuine.” Betty Lou Gerson he used in “parts that convey mental superiority; she’s perfect for women who have catty, fencing dialogue.” Wally Maher “makes a perfect blowtop.” John Brown “brings all his fine comedy technique in pacing and dialogue into play,” and Hans Conried was “a marvelous straight lead with tangents, a lead with two faces, a split personality.” Gerald Mohr was used in parts requiring extreme sophistication or as an out-and-out thug. Lurene Tuttle, said Allen, “can be anything: she may change her performance on the air as she finds another facet of the character; she picks out the parts of her characterization that didn’t ring right in rehearsal and corrects them.” In the show Death Sees Double, Tuttle was given the role of identical twins—murderer and victim—to be done in identical voices. At one point she had six unbroken pages of double dialogue, using two microphones and letting distance and pitch tell the listener who was Mona and who was Martha. As for the Whistler, his identity was a loosely kept secret for a decade. In November 1951, Bill Forman was introduced as the actor who had given voice to the character for so long. His was the perfect voice for a murder show that contained little on-mike violence. What there was was “velvet violence,” murder by implication.

Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (p. 720). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.   

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