Silver Screen Shadow
AS MYSTERY MEN GO, THE SHADOW AND HIS ORIGINS have been well documented in books and articles, but some elements of his early history are still obscured by the shadows of time. Though the history of Walter B. Gibsons pulp crimefighter has been heavily researched, much of The Shadows early radio years remain obscured, as mysterious and hidden as anything in Walter Gibsons pulp novels. Its known that The Shadow originated as the mysterious host of Street & Smiths Detective Story Program in 1930, and proved popular enough for the publishing company to launch The Shadow Detective Magazine the following year. We have long believed that The Shadow continued to be heard only as a phantom host until 1935, and returned to radio in 1937 with Orson Welles becoming the first actor to portray Lamont Cranston over the airwaves. However, it was recently discovered that Welles was not the first radio Cranston. In fact, it now appears that he was the third.
The trail of the missing Shadow began with an email query from Elizabeth McLeod, the Old Time Radio hobbys foremost authority on Amos n Andy and Depression-era broadcasting. In 2000, she wrote me: There's a long-time bit of Shadow mystery that I've never found any definite answers about, and I see you don't mention it anywhere. There's a brief reference in an issue of Broadcasting magazine in 1935 indicating that McGregor and Sollie of San Francisco were distributing a syndicated Shadow series -- 26 episodes were supposedly made, with an actor by the name of Carl Kroenke in the title role.
I'd figured this had never actually happened, until I ran across a Radio Guide listing from mid-1935 for some obscure station in the midwest listing a Shadow series in a fifteen-minute time slot. I've never run across anything else confirming the existence of this series -- no recordings, no publicity materials -- and I don't know if it was an authorized Shadow project or just an attempt by McGregor to capitalize on the name. Have you ever run across anything about this anywhere?
A lost Shadow radio series? In a fifteen-minute serial format? (C. P. Chip MacGregor's San Francisco studio was a leader in the production and distribution of low-cost syndicated transcription series during the early 1930s, following the development of program syndication by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll of Amos n Andy.) Considering all the research that had been done on the character over the years, surely such a series should already have been documented. However, a letter had appeared in the June 1, 1936 issue of The Shadow Magazine mentioning an earlier radio series that featured The Shadow not as a phantom announcer but as the master crimefighter of the pulps. "...if The Shadow ever goes on the radio again, please tell them to put The Shadow in the stories, not just talking in between, wrote Jack Maloney of the Bronx. Put his agents in the stories, too. I hear you did this about three years ago. Why not again?" Maloneys information was secondhand, but a similar letter had earlier alerted me to The Shadows 1931 stint as host of Street & Smiths Love Story Dramas which was eventually confirmed in 1930s magazine and newspaper articles.
It occurred to me that the MacGregor serial might tie in with a Shadow radio script in my own Sanctum Archives. I had acquired the script in 1996 at the Walter Gibson estate auction, spending far more than I could comfortably afford at the time. A handwritten notation on the title page identified it as a 1934 Radio Script Shadow, and the serial installment was pure Gibson, taking place aboard a railroad train and featuring not only Lamont Cranston but also agents Cliff Marsland and Harry Vincent. Unlike the later Mutual series, the serial installment featured the mysterious slouch-hatted crimefighter of Walters novels, along with a master criminal called Kalda and a fierce gun battle won by The Shadows automatics.
Like many of Gibsons early Shadow novels, the script opened with proxy heroes Vincent and Marsland conducting undercover work (eavesdropping on a criminal conference at the Hotel Spartan via a concealed dictograph) and reporting their findings to their mysterious chief
who remained in the background until arriving in the nick of time to rescue the distressed damsel and mysteriously vanish with his fading laugh announcing his departure.
Walter Gibson confided to me that he had written several Shadow audition scripts in the 1930s, manuscripts he believed were forever lost. I gathered that Walters scripts had never been produced, but the script I had acquired bore handwritten corrections that suggested the show had actually been performed. Could the MacGregor serial have been scripted by Walter Gibson himself? No, February 1935 articles in Broadcasting and Broadcast Weekly identified prolific West Coast radiowriter John Eugene Hasty as the scriptwriter for the New Hollywood mystery serial titled The Shadow. (MacGregor & Sollie frequently promoted their San Francisco transcriptions as Hollywood-style dramas, capitalizing on the screen backgrounds of veteran actors like Carl Kroenke.)
Born in Lafayette, Indiana, Jack Hasty arrived in California at age 16, headed the U.S. Marines San Diego publicity bureau during WWI and worked as a magazine wordsmith before moving into radio scriptwriting in the 1930s. One of the most-prolific continuity writers in radio, Hasty often had as many as six different serials on the airwaves at the same time, ranging from comedies like Eb and Zeb to Death Valley Days and death-ray mysteries.
It occurred to me that there was probably a connection between Lester Dents 1934 15-minute Doc Savage series and the 1935 15-minute Shadow serial. 26 Doc Savage episodes had aired over the Don Lee network beginning in February 1934, sponsored by Cystex which syndicated the shows throughout the United States immediately following the West Coast run. Considering that the earlier Street & Smith programs (Detective Story, Love Story and The Shadow) had previously originated as half-hour network programs from New York, it seemed too much of a coincidence that 15-minute transcriptions of Doc Savage, Love Story and the 1935 Shadow could possibly be unrelated California productions. I eventually learned that the 15-minute Shadow serial debuted on April 1, 1935, the week after CBS last Shadow-narrated series left the airwaves.
I found it intriguing that the transcribed series was announced before the end of the Frank Readick broadcasts and apparently debuted the week after the 1934-35 CBS series ended (following disagreements between the publishing house and sponsor Blue Coal over story content). It became apparent that the MacGregor serial was launched just as the 26-week Doc Savage cycle ended, and most likely came about because of the earlier contacts between Street & Smith and MacGregor & Sollie. Why had Street & Smith cancelled Blue Coals contract for a network series in favor of a syndicated series?
The answer came from Walter Gibsons own recollections. Street & Smith, while I was first writing the Shadow stories, let Blue Coal . . . use The Shadow as an announcer, and we got tr
emendous protests from the readers, Gibson explained at the 1975 New York Comic Art Convention. They had a voice; it was merely an announcer idea. And the readers of The Shadow said, Why dont you have the real Shadow on the air? and so forth. So they told these people flatly that they could not have The Shadow unless they used our characters and took it directly from the magazine, because at that time all Street & Smith wanted to get out of it was plugs for the magazine. Since Street & Smith had severed its association with Blue Coal because the sponsor refused to feature the crimefighting avenger of Gibsons pulp novels, I suspected the syndicated series most likely featured Lamont Cranston.
I asked Karl Schadow, a dedicated radio researcher who lives in close proximity to Washington, DC, to investigate materials in the Library of Congress and the Library of American Broadcasting. He soon discovered that the Doc Savage series had indeed originated at MacGregor and Sollies San Francisco studios, and not in Los Angeles as had been assumed by previous researchers. That came as no surprise, since San Francisco was still the major West Coast broadcasting center in 1935. In the MacGregor archives, Karl found production schedules which listed the actors featured in the Doc Savage Cystex commercials, and it also came as no surprise that the voice of Carl Kroenke had been featured in the transcribed Doc Savage broadcasts. (A veteran of stage and screen, Kroenke was later heard as neighbor Chuck Brainfeeble on Vic and Sade and Chris Acropolous on The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, and can be seen as the guard in James Stewarts 1948 noir classic Call Northside 777.)
Karl Schadow continued to search 1930s newspaper microfilms for additional information on the MacGregor Shadow series, eventually discovering that the transcriptions were reportedly released over 50 stations in a MacGregor & Sollie broadcasting system. In program listings in the Albuquerque Journal, he discovered that the earliest episodes featured a haunted opera house and a magician named Delano (played by transplanted Londoner Donald Stuart). I had long possessed a photocopy of a July 11, 1935 Shadow E.T. label from Oregons KOIL, but had assumed it was from a rebroadcast of a Readick-hosted episode. I now realized that the label related to the MacGregor series starring Kroenke. I asked Karl to check the Portland Oregonian microfilms, and he reported that The Shadow had aired on that date over Spokanes KGA, not Portlands KOIL. Perhaps the Portland station was considering the series for future airing, or was researching their competitors program schedule. Its also possible that a local sponsor had contracted KOIL to record an aircheck of the KGA broadcast, since few stations had facilities for cutting electrical transcriptions in 1935. Checking local program listings, Karl determined that the July 11, 1935 airing of Pirate from the Past was actually the tenth Shadow episode broadcast by KGA.
By the summer of 1935, the MacGregor Shadow transcriptions had generated enough interest that the Associated Oil Company of California bought sponsorship of the serial on a group of small stations in Montana, while other sponsors purchased the serial to broadcast on other stations in the Midwest, South and West. However, the Kroenke serial hadnt aired in Blue Coals East Coat region (perhaps due to contractual terms with the earlier sponsor), and so remained below the radar screen of later broadcasting historians whose research focused primarily on the major East Coast stations and networks.
I learned that radio-historian Michael Ogden had unearthed articles from 1940 trade magazines mentioning a 15-minute Shadow radio series being distributed by Charles Michelson, the program syndicator who licensed The Shadow radio series during the 1940s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Further research by Karl Schadow confirmed that Michelson was selling transcriptions of both 15- and 30-minute Shadow series in the early 1940s, and that some stations were broadcasting both versions in succession.
I suddenly recalled a 1946 article from Sponsor which provided further light on the mystery of the MacGregor transcriptions: Back before actors or writers received anything extra if a show was recorded at the same time it was being broadcast, Street & Smith had the [Shadow] program transcribed. These, along with other e.t.s tied up with S. & S. magazines, Dr. (sic) Savage and Love Story, were distributed to stations without charge. In 1938 Charles Michelson of Michelson and Sternberg, exporters, bought 26 weeks of the records for Australia and the publishing firm came to the conclusion that maybe the discs could be soldand Michelson snagged himself a contract. He was to represent Street and Smith in the sale of all air rights to The Shadow except the Blue Coal territory. I had acquired the Sponsor article years earlier when I purchased Bret Morrisons archives, but had originally assumed that the transcriptions were from the early network series featuring The Shadow as a phantom host.
However, the mention of 26-week Shadow, Doc Savage and Love Story series meant that Michelson had been delegated to sell the E.T.s originally produced and distributed by MacGregor & Sollie, not the earlier CBS programs hosted by The Shadow. Since Street & Smith had severed their association with Blue Coal because the 1934-35 series featured The Shadow only as narrator, it became progressively apparent that the serial which was still being syndicated in the 1940s featured Gibsons pulp crimefighter, not Readicks sinister host.
However, an even earlier lost Shadow production was soon discovered by Michael Ogden. A 1934 Billboard article revealed that Blue Coal had sponsored a Shadow audition over WMCA several months before Frank Readick (and briefly James LaCurto) returned to host a final series of CBS Shadow mystery anthologies. Subsequent research by Karl Schadow revealed that the audition had aired at 10:30 p.m. on June 15th, 1934 over the New York station, with no advance publicity yet discovered. Because of the timing, I initially assumed that the audition broadcast had featured The Shadow in the same narrator format as the subsequent series. However, it eventually occurred to me that Blue Coal would have had no reason to sponsor an audition broadcast for an established program that was about to be revived in the same format as its earlier series. The sponsor already knew what the program would sound like
unless the audition was in a much different format that its earlier series.
Walter Gibson and Shadow Magazine-editor John Nanovic had previously related that Blue Coal was reluctant to feature The Shadow as the crimefighting hero of the pulps. The sponsor wanted to revive The Shadow as sinister host in the format that had proven successful in earlier years, while Street and Smith insisted the new program feature the crimefighting Shadow of Gibsons pulp novels. Both Nanovic and Gibson had recalled that a compromise was reached allowing Blue Coal to return to the original hosted format if The Shadow failed in the crimefighter format (which was still a radically new concept in broadcasting in 1934, nearly two years before The Green Hornet debuted over Detroits WXYZ).
I now believe that Blue Coal produced the June 15, 1934 Shadow audition to appease Street & Smith, utilizing the script I purchased at the Gibson estate sale. Why else would Blue Coal have sponsored a late-night Shadow audition over a single station, and with no advanced promotion in newspapers or magazines? Perhaps the 1934 Shadow audi
tion was produced only to satisfy Street & Smiths demands for a pulp-based radio tryout. Could Blue Coal have deliberately sabotaged the audition so that they would have an excuse to return to the earlier format featuring The Shadow as narrator?
If Carl Kroenke was the second actor to portray the master crimefighter of the pulps over the airwaves and Orson Welles the third, who was the first actor who impersonated Lamont Cranston in the 1934 WMCA audition? It could have been Frank Readick (whose performances had propelled The Shadow to national prominence), James LaCurto (the actor who had first voiced The Shadow in 1930 and filled in for the ailing Readick over CBS during the latter months of 1934) or possibly an unknown member of the WMCA stock company
someone whose name, like Kroenkes, has never previously been associated with The Shadow. The answer is buried in the shadows of time, though several dedicated radio historians are searching though faded newspapers and microfilms in the hope of discovering the answer.
In the meantime, only The Shadow knows!
This article is copyright ©2003 BLOOD 'N' THUNDER; it originally appeared in BLOOD 'N' THUNDER #3, and is reprinted here by permission. Anthony Tollin co-authored Walter B. Gibson's The Shadow Scrapbook. He was featured in the Sci-Fi Channel documentary Martian Mania: The True Story of the War of the Worlds and the History Channels Fantastic Voyages: the Evolution of Sci-Fi. Tollin has been professionally associated with many of the worlds greatest adventure heroes for more than a quarter century, serving as a comic-book color artist on The Shadow Strikes, Doc Savage, Superman, Batman, the Phantom, Zorro and Green Lantern. Anthony has written more than 50 historical booklets for Radio Spirits and Great American Audios Old-Time Radio collections, and directed numerous cast reunions of The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman radio series.