Friday, July 20, 2012

Eargasm: "Gunsmoke"

Producer-director Norman Macdonnell (left) confers with William Conrad during a rehearsal for "Gunsmoke."


Dramatic radio program; “adult Western”
30 min. episodes
Broadcast April 26, 1952 to June 18, 1961

Not all memorable sounds are musical. During the Golden Age of Radio, a number of programs and a subculture of talent entertained, informed and inspired the public. One of the best of these was “Gunsmoke.”

Very few people retain a living memory of that medium, but from 1926 through Sept. 30, 1962, network radio was a real-time, (at least until Bing Crosby pushed through pre-recorded programming in 1947) vital cornucopia of drama, comedy, variety, news, music and public service. There were niche shows that appealed to specialized audiences, and even prestige and experimental efforts that the networks “sustained” (carried without commercials).

By and large, though, network radio was pitched by mutual consent to the lowest common denominator, and censored rigorously . . . save for some gruesome violence on horror shows such as “The Inner Sanctum” and “Lights Out,” and not excluding the matter-of-fact retailing of then-popular racist stereotypes of the day on such shows as “Amos & Andy,” “Life with Luigi,” Asian villains galore, especially during World War II, and of course the faithfully subordinate, monosyllabic Tonto.

Television killed radio, at precisely the point when it was about to mature and diversify. The juvenile and wholesome tone of “old-time radio” was disturbed by several darker shows that cropped up late in the era – most significantly, “Gunsmoke.”

Producer-director Norman Macdonnell and writer John Mestin wanted to bring gritty realism to the Western genre, which was previously the domain of children’s programming. They devised a formula so successful that it lasted a decade on radio and transferred to TV for a 20-year run as well.

“Gunsmoke” was set in frontier Dodge City, Kansas, and centered on the exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon. Although the typical story arc of conflict and bloody resolution prevailed, Macdonnell and Mestin’s conceptual framework enabled all manner of stories to be told, all kinds of themes to be explored, and countless sharply-drawn characters to be delineated. Later writers like Antony Ellis, Les Crutchfield, and Kathleen Hite kept up the quality.

The choice to play Dillon was William Conrad. Perhaps better remembered today for his TV work in the detective shows “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fat Man,” Conrad was a stellar radio performer for decades. Although he jokingly referred to himself as “The Man with a Thousand Voice,” he was adept at accents and graced all manner of shows.

Conrad’s husky baritone allowed him to play leading men on radio, but he had a quality of vulnerability in his voice as well. His thoughtful, nuanced delivery personified the complexity and ambiguity found in the show itself. Dillon killed regularly in the course of his job, yet he was a man of conscience. As he said in each show’s intro, “It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.” Pathos, and humor, were not excluded either. Still, week after week, we never forgot that Matt Dillon was a violent and haunted man.

The regular cast of characters included Parley Baer as Chester Proudfoot, Dillon’s deputy; Howard McNear (Floyd the barber later on TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show”) as Doc; and Geogia Ellis as Miss Kitty, the saloon proprietress. A host of top-notch supporting players handled a variety of roles each week, including John Dehner, Harry Bartell, Larry Dobkin, Jack Kruschen, Jeanette Nolan, and Vic Perrin.

Two of the highlights of the show were Rex Koury’s score, scored eloquently and economically for guitar, trumpet and violins, and the best sound effects in the business. So elevated was the approach to them that they were referred to as “sound patterns” in the credits, and Tom Hanley, Ray and Bill James Kemper provided them. Their quest for realism led them great lengths. You can listen to characters’ footsteps change from wood to gravel to dirt as they “track” through a scene; the aural landscape is meticulously if subtly laid out for the listener.

Here's an exemplary episode to try: "The Square Triangle," from Nov. 14, 1952 -- 

Fortunately, these shows were preserved and are available for free listening on the web. Such locations as,, will give you pleasure by the hour. I must refer exceptionally curious listeners to Denver writer and old-time radio expert John Dunning’s classic 1998 reference work, “On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.” Dunning, who enchanted me with his weekly broadcasts for decades, cannot be surpassed.

Network TV killed network radio. In contrast, narrative radio in England never died out, and the medium is mature and robust there (oh, yes, they still have their share of dreck as well). What would Amrican radio sound like now if the form hadn’t been dropped? There have been sporadic attempts to revive the genre, such as “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater” and some National Public Radio efforts, but unless some miracle occurs, you could do worse than realize the possibilities for edgy and challenging content that “Gunsmoke” made manifest.

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