Click here to listen to this soundbite of The Shadow
To download this soundbite of The Shadow right-click here.
Probably the best known of all Old Time Radio (OTR) programs, the most popular, and the most enduring was The Shadow. Even those who have never heard a single OTR program have still heard of The Shadow. But where did The Shadow come from? What circumstances created this precursor to the superhero?
It was in 1929 that McFadden, publishers of a pulp magazine called True Detective, used an emerging medium called radio to create a show to boost the sales of their magazine. Their competitor, Street and Smith, was forced to take a hard look at this new medium as McFadden was eroding away at the sales of their own magazine, Detective Story. This was particularly exasperating to S&S because they had literally created the detective magazine format when they had converted the old Nick Carter magazine into Detective Story. Detective Story spawned a host of imitators, of which McFadden’s entry was now challenging S&S’s dominance in the field.
To stem the tide, S&S came up with the idea of their own weekly radio show based on the stories presented in Detective Story. This new show was called Detective Story Hour (of which, sadly, no episodes have survived that I’m aware). To make their show unique, they came up with the idea of having a mysterious announcer speak through a filter microphone. They gave this announcer the name of The Shadow and the show debuted July 31, 1930 on CBS. The Shadow as host would eerily introduce the show then he’d appear again at the end to make some closing remarks like, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit, crime does not pay, The Shadow knows,” but he didn’t star in any of the shows.
The Shadow gimmick quickly caught on and soon the character became even more popular than the show he was hosting. Hosts, of course, were nothing new, but until The Shadow they had been cultured, smooth talking, friendly announcers. The Shadow, using the filter microphone and whispering and laughing harshly, was different from everything at the time and people listened.
Street and Smith had hoped that the Detective Story Hour and their new popular announcer The Shadow would help boost the sales of their Detective Story magazine. But when the people ran to the newsstand they were clambering for The Shadow magazine, not Detective Story. Street and Smith had a potential hit on their hands, but no product!
The Shadow Phenomenon
S&S quickly went out and hired newspaper reporter and amateur magician, Walter Gibson (an editor with McFadden at the time), to develop The Shadow character into a saleable product. In April 1931 S&S published the first issue of The Shadow magazine containing a full-length novel called, “The Living Shadow.” Now The Shadow was not simply just a voice on the radio but he appeared in his own adventures as a mysterious crusader battling crime.
S&S originally had planned to publish the magazine quarterly, but they had underestimated the public’s hunger for stories about their host with the mysterious mocking voice. The first issue sold out and the second issue, after a double press run, sold out too, causing S&S to alter their plans. By the third issue, The Shadow became monthly and eleven months later it went to twice a month. S&S had an unprecedented and unexpected hit on their hands.
The Shadow magazine ran from 1931 to 1949. During it’s run, a total of 325 full-length The Shadow novels were written. Walter Gibson, under the pen name of Maxwell Grant, penned 282 of them, writing two 60,000 word novels a month. To accomplish this task he wrote at a pace of approximately 10,000 to 15,000 words a day, often writing on three different typewriters at the same time.
The Shadow’s popularity had repercussions across three media forms. In the pulps, there soon appeared imitators like The Spider, The Phantom, Operator 5, Secret Agent X, Dr. Wu Fang, Doc Savage, and The Green Lama.
On radio, other shows soon imitated The Shadow with their own mysterious, eerie hosts such as, Inner Sanctum‘s Raymond, Suspense‘s Man in Black, The Whistler, The Hermit, and many others.
The Shadow character became so popular that the first of six two-reel motion picture shorts starring The Shadow was released in the summer of 1931. To capitalize on this popularity, and to appease the other editors of Street and Smith magazines who were complaining that the entire corporate advertising budget was going to promote The Shadow magazine, S&S decided to use The Shadow character to promote their other magazines. A result of this was The Shadow hosted 40 weeks of Love Story Dramas. In 1932, The Shadow got his own show, The Shadow, but he was still just the host.
It wasn’t until 1937 that The Shadow finally stopped just being a host and appeared in his own adventures on the radio. In the magazine, the true identity of The Shadow was never known. When he finally got his own tales on radio, The Shadow’s alter ego became Lamont Cranston who, with his lovely companion Margo Lane, helped the police solve crime. It was the hit of the year and S&S realized they should have done it years earlier.
Prior to 1937, the part of The Shadow had been played by James La Curto and for 5 years by Frank Readick (who is famous among OTR buffs for playing the part of reporter Carl Philips in the 1938 Orson Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds –a copy of which will be available in Part 5 of this series). For this new version of The Shadow they conducted a national talent search to fill the roles.
It was a coup of sorts by the sponsor Blue Coal and Street and Smith when they acquired Orson Welles to play the part of Lamont Cranston. Orson Welles, in his early 20s at the time, was already considered a hot property. He had achieved great fame as the youngest and most successful producer on Broadway.. To get him to play the part, concessions had to be made. One of these was that he didn’t have to attend rehearsals. When he was needed, he’d hop into a taxi or limo, pick up his script at the studio and go to the microphone to perform. What made The Shadow so arresting and dynamic was the idiosyncratic delivery of the lines by Welles, introducing pauses at unpredictable moments, and this partly came about because of Welles’ lack of familiarity with the script.
Playing alongside Welles as the lovely Margo Lane was the talented Agnes Moorehead. She was a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater Group and was also one of the players in “The War of the Worlds.” She was a successful radio voice actor, often playing in several different shows a day. One of her most memorable roles was an episode of Suspense titled, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” A very interesting story of a selfish, paranoid busy body who overhears a murder plot on the phone. The police don’t believe her and start to think she’s a crank. ***SPOILER*** She eventually discovers that she in fact was the intended victim of the murder plot. Most people today remember her for her television performance as Endora, the mother on Bewitched, which is sad because she was so much more than that.
The Shadow radio program ran from 1937 until 1954, producing well over 700 episodes aired. Sadly, only about 200 episodes have survived.
Information on “The Shadow” was culled from various radio broadcasts, such as “The Story of the Shadow, Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4,” “The Shadow, BBC Radio Detectives,” and “Whatever Became of The Shadow and Margo Lane?”
Please enjoy the following episode of The Shadow.
“The Silent Avenger”
Original Air Date:
March 13, 1938
Starring Orson Welles as The Shadow
Agnes Moorehead as Margo Lane
Click here to listen to this episode of The Shadow
To download this episode of The Shadow right-click here.
Orson Welle’s and The Mercury Theater Present “The War of the Worlds!”