A History of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

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Old Time Radio Shows - CBS Radio Mystery Theater

The creaking door sound on the radio heralded yet another episode of the creepy CBS Radio Mystery Theater, the brainchild of radio guru Himan Brown. Known for his work on the Inner Sanctum radio program, Brown’s attempt to revive radio drama in the 1970s with Mystery Theater was incredibly successful – it ran for 1,399 episodes between Jan. 6, 1974 and Dec. 31, 1982.

The Mystery Theater series ran the gamut of revivals of classics like Dracula and various Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Charles Dickens writings, as well as running a variety of newly-written stories, and was extremely ambitious in taking on several five-part series including The Last Days of Pompeii. The series went beyond mysteries and delved into such genres as science fiction and comedy. Such well-known names as Richard Crenna, John Lithgow and Agnes Moorehead were among the stars.

Hosts of CBS Mystery Theater

For the most part, the series was hosted by veteran actor E.G. Marshall, who was at the helm for every year except the last of Mystery Theater. Marshall would welcome listeners to each broadcast, creepily enticing them with a welcome and an invitation to come in. He would prompt listeners to take a journey into the world of “terrifying imagination.” Each show was broken into three acts and Marshall would speak between acts, which gave the program a sense of continuity.

For the final year of Mystery Theater, actress Tammy Grimes – who was herself a veteran of many a broadcast of the series earlier – took over host duties. She continued in the tradition of Marshall, and when the door swung shut at the end of each broadcast, she would sign off – as Marshall had – with the phrase “Until next time, pleasant… dreams?”

In 1998, Brown attempted a revival of the series, rebroadcasting some of the programs with himself as host.

CBS Mystery Theater Programs

A Horror Story: A chef in France turns psychotic, preparing dishes for some – perhaps as high as royalty – with a gusto only a killer could love. Later, he travels to America to take on a new identity, but with the same deadly flair.

The Man in Black: A Cold War story that features a woman who views a Soviet agent gunned down. The tale is woven with spies, police and the mysterious title figure.

The Tell-Tale Heart: Starring actor Fred Gwynne, this adaptation of Poe’s story has a couple and their young daughter in dire financial straits. They head to the husband’s uncle’s farm for a truly harrowing, and deadly, experience.

Himan Brown on Radio

When Brown died at 99 earlier in 2010, the New York Times carried a report on the radio king. Following is an excerpt of that report.

“I am firmly convinced that nothing visual can touch audio,” Mr. Brown said in a 2003 interview, his eyes sparkling. “I don’t need 200 orchestra players doing the ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ I don’t need car chases. I don’t need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination.”

Indeed, imagination – fired up by the sound of a creaking door – is a big part of Brown’s legacy. He left a body of work that lovers of the imagination listen to fervently to this day.