A FRONT-ROW SEAT—AND MORE—AT A CLASSIC RADIO DRAMA
One of the outstanding afternoons of my childhood 60-some years ago was spent watching a broadcast of The Shadow . I got there at the invitation of a neighbor I’ll call Fred. Fred was just then beginning his career in advertising and, as far as I know, had no experience in radio or the theater, but he had been assigned to direct The Shadow , presumably because his father had founded the agency that was producing it. Fred knew I never missed a broadcast and invited me to sit in on one.
The Shadow went on the air at five-thirty on Sunday afternoons. I arrived at the Rockefeller Plaza studio in New York City about four-thirty. There were a few other privileged invitees already there (probably friends of the sponsors or agency executives), and we sat on folding chairs arranged in rows in front of several microphones. Looking around me, I noticed a door about three feet high and a large wooden box with a plywood top. Nearby there were also a large turntable with piles of records and a ladder with a mailbag on top of it. I can’t remember seeing an organ, but there must have been one; The Shadow , like many programs of that era, always featured booming organ cues. Before I could ask anyone about the props, the actors and the announcer appeared and the show began.
The Shadow opened each week with a few bars of sinister music followed by an even more sinister laugh and words that became part of American culture: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Then the announcer would explain that the Shadow was Lamont Cranston, “a man of wealth, a student of science, and a master of other people’s minds,” devoted to “righting wrongs, protecting the innocent, and punishing the guilty.” Using his ability to “cloud men’s minds,” continued the announcer, “Cranston is known to the underworld as the Shadow, never seen, only heard, as haunting to superstitious minds as a ghost, as inevitable as a guilty conscience.” The Shadow shared his true identity only with his friend and aide Margo Lane.
Accustomed to movies in which the actors rode horses or punched one another, I wasn’t ready for this medium, in which they stood in front of microphones, rarely budging except to drop pages of their scripts. When they first appeared, I was fascinated. So that’s what Lamont Cranston looks like, I thought, as I eyed the tall, rather beefy actor. But after the first few minutes of dialogue, my eye began to wander over to the only person who was moving, the soundman. First he selected a record, put it on the turntable, and set down the needle. Moments later, when Lamont announced to Margo that he was leaving, the actor stayed still but the soundman sprang into action. First he hopped onto the box with the plywood top and walked in place to create the sound of Lamont walking to the door. Next he ran to open that odd door I’d seen earlier. Then he returned to the turntable for the sound of Cranston’s car speeding off.
Watching the soundman, I had a difficult time attending to the actors, which is probably why I don’t remember more of what they said. I do remember that crucial moment in the broadcast when Lamont turned into the Shadow. It almost always happened when the bad guys thought they were alone, plotting their next move. One of them, the nervous one, would think he heard something. “Nah,” his companion would say, “that’s just the wind.” Then came the voice that all the underworld dreaded. To do the voice of the Shadow, Lamont moved to a filter microphone that gave his magnificent baritone voice a rasping quality terrifying to criminals. I recall also that Lamont grinned at certain lines that I didn’t think were funny (the show was not known for humor), as if sharing a joke with Margo, a good-looking young woman, who grinned back.
Back to the soundman. The confrontations between the Shadow and the bad guys almost always ended with violence of some kind. In this broadcast, it was a fistfight. “Take that!” the Shadow shouted, and the soundman smashed his right fist into his left palm. “And that!” The actor grunted, and the soundman pulled the mailbag off its ladder. End of bad guy.
After the program, Fred asked me if I’d like to have something to eat with the Shadow. “ Would I! ,” I probably said. We ascended rapidly to a large restaurant overlooking the city (I now realize it must have been the Rainbow Room), where I ordered a pastry. I wish I could report that I enjoyed an exciting conversation with the Shadow, but I was so excited at the prospect of eating my first napoleon that I took very little notice of anything else. That’s my only regret about the afternoon, because the Shadow sitting opposite me was Orson Welles.