Sunday, October 18, 2009

Radio Memories: Gettin' Out Of Dodge

Riding in for a Sunday night break comes this week's entry in our Radio Memories series, where we listen to echoes of a time when radio drama, the theater of the mind, shaped the culture.

Early television offered many westerns, but the most popular and enduring tv western, Gunsmoke, actually began as a radio show, and was one of the only instances of a successful transition from one medium to the other. Co-created by director Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston, it was envisioned as "an adult western", according to an interview Macdonnell provided to Time Magazine in 1953, almost a year into the western's eventual nine-year radio run.

The show had a far harder edge to it than most radio westerns of the period, and that was partly its purpose; Colorado-born Meston had a particular dislike for the milk-totin', Melody Ranch singin', Lone Ranger-style western hero, having grown up among Indians, pioneers and other survivors of the real Old West. In a well-quoted letter to the New York Tribune newspaper in 1959, Meston challenged the historically false stereotype of the fantasy cowboy head on: “I spit in his milk, and you’ll have to go elsewhere to find somebody to pour out the lead for his golden bullets.”

One of the strengths of the radio show was the masterful use of the medium of radio drama itself. Gunsmoke, even more than the other great shows of the era, succeeded in painting such vivid pictures in the mind's eye, from dusty Dodge City Kansas streets to drink-adled cowboys arguing in dirty saloons, to the stark prairies surrounding these scenes, making Marshall Matt Dillon's world as believable as the street scenes I can see outside my bedroom window.

The episode included below was one of the first I ever heard, over twenty-five years ago, and served as my introduction to a side of the story of the Old West that at the time was unknown to my young teen self. There are references to the notorious "fighting parson" John Chivington, and the dark stain of the Sand Creek Massacre, "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation", as an army judge pronounced at the time.

The radio Gunsmoke relied on a small pool of talented radio actors, many of whom performing in rotation as they portrayed each episode's cast of new characters. They were the best that radio had to offer in those days, and one in particular is worth special mention: the busy John Dehner.

Dehner mischievously participated in a secret running gag, dreamed up spontaneously in rehearsal and repeated virtually each week for over a full year (as far as this fan can tell from listening to the first half of the series' 480 episodes). When he would be appearing as another character, John Dehner would double as a meek, star-struck townsman greeting Marshall Matt Dillon with a crusty "Oh, hello Marshall!" And Marshall Dillon would smile and pause long enough to answer with a courteous "Hello, John."

The joke is that this brief exchange would happen every single week, interrupting interrogations the Marshall would be engaged in with suspects, popping up while Matt Dillon was walking down the street, always at unexpected times in each week's story. The audience were never coached to notice the proud townsman, and it seemed to become a game to see if, left to themselves, the audience ever would notice him. His appearances, therefore, began to push the envelope of credibility until, as a bemused John Dehner himself recalled for a later Gunsmoke retrospective, his townsman character bumped into Marshall Dillon way out to hell and gone on the prairie, as if this humble little townsman was out there living among the Arapaho Indians.
"Oh, hello Marshall!" "Hello, John..."

There was said to be a lot of this kind of joshing behind-the-scenes, especially in rehearsals; a very rare few of these have survived, and testify to the creative lengths the actors, sound effects team and sometimes even the musicians went to to get each other to crack up on-mike... probably in an attempt to diffuse some of the tension of each week's script; Gunsmoke was one of the most violent programs on radio.

Few were as dramatic, or as poignant, as this episode, first broadcast on Saturday August 2nd 1954, an episode proving once again, that around Dodge City and the territory on west, there's only one way to handle the killers and the spoilers; and that's with a US Marshall, and the smell of.... Gunsmoke.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Biography In Sound: George M. Cohan
Fibber McGee And Molly: The Scrap Drive
D-Day Broadcasts (from June 5, 1944)
Red Skelton: Vacations
Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

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