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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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A Look At One Of OTR’s Legendary Shows
By Maury Cagle © 2010
(From Radio Recall, June 2010)

Among the myriad of shows that form the history of Old Time Radio, few can be considered as truly groundbreaking. Certainly, one of them is Lights Out, which aired at various times and in different formats, on and off from 1934 to 1947. Even today, its reputation is far larger than its total time on the air would seem to warrant.

Lights Out was conceived by one of the true geniuses of radio drama, Wyllis Cooper, today best remembered for his 1947-48 thought provoking series, Quiet Please. Cooper was NBC’s continuity chief in Chicago, and late in 1933 wanted to produce “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listener at the witching hour,” when almost all the competition was playing music.

The first shows were aired in January, 1934, on WENR, at midnight on Wednesdays. The 15-minute serial format was soon dropped for an anthology which featured crime thrillers and the supernatural. By April, the program had grown to a half hour format. In January, 1935, Lights Out was discontinued, to ease Cooper’s workload, but popular demand had it back on the air in a few weeks.

These early Lights Out scripts were often grisly. There had been some attempts at radio horror before, but nothing as outrageous and graphic. Characters were buried, eaten, or skinned alive. They could be vaporized in a ladle of white-hot steel, absorbed by giant amoeba, or have an arm torn off by a robot.

Sound effects were a vital part of these shows. Adhesive tape, stuck together and then pulled apart, simulated the sound of a man’s skin being ripped off, cleavered cabbages and melons became beheadings, and snapped pencils and spareribs stood in for broken bones. Bacon frying in a pan gave the sense of someone being electrocuted.

Cooper was a stickler when it came to sound effects. He once had his crew build a gallows and was not satisfied until one of the sound men personally dropped through the trap. Sound effects at this time were created by Bob Graham, Ed Joyce, and Ed Bailey.

The aural impact of intense acting and unusual sound effects could be powerful. Newsweek reported that one listener fainted from excitement and another called police to her home after listening to the show. “I was frightened out of my wits,” she said.

That was the same month (April, 1935) that Lights Out moved to the NBC Network after a successful tryout in New York. It was heard nationally late at night on Wednesdays. Some of the more gruesome aspects of the shows were toned down—somewhat—for network audiences.

Chicago was an excellent place for the program to be produced, as it was one of the main centers of radio production in the 1930’s.

Among those appearing often during the Cooper era were Harold Peary, Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge, Willard Waterman, Arthur Peterson, Betty Caine, Ed Carey, Sidney Ellstrom, Murray Forbes, Robert Griffin, Rupert LaBelle, Robert Guilbert, Philip Lord, and Raymond Edward Johnson. Film stars, such as Boris Karloff, also appeared in leading roles.

Cooper stayed with the show until June 1936, when he moved to Hollywood for what turned out to be a marginally successful career as a screen writer. During his tenure, he wrote some 120 Lights Out scripts. When he left, there were about 600 Lights Out fan clubs around the nation.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving recordings of the 1934-1936 shows, and the bulk of the scripts are also missing. Some scripts were recycled in later versions of the program. These reveal that Cooper was experimenting with both stream of consciousness and first person narration years before these techniques became more widespread.

When Wyllis Cooper left, his replacement was Arch Oboler, whose name is most often thought of today in association with Lights Out. While he shaped the show to his own creative bent, he was quick to give credit to Cooper, who he called “the unsung pioneer of radio dramatic techniques.”

Oboler quickly made a name for himself. His first script was Burial Services, about the mistaken burial of a paralyzed girl who was still alive. It created a furor, with NBC receiving 50,000 outraged letters. Oboler said he would never again write a script with such a personal theme that could affect thousands.

He put it this way: “I had taken a believable situation and underwritten it so completely that each listener filled the silences with the terrors of his own soul. When the coffin lid closed inexorably on the conscious yet cataleptically paralyzed young girl in my play, the reality of the moment, to thousands of listeners who had buried someone close, was the horrifying thought that perhaps sister, or brother, or mother, had also been buried….alive.”

Oboler had a unique way of working. He would lie in bed, smoking cigarettes and improvising dialogue into a Dictaphone, acting out every line of the play. Some shows were completed in just 30 minutes, others took up to three hours. In the morning, he would have his secretary transcribe his words into script format, so he could easily make the needed adjustments. Using this technique, he ultimately wrote more than 100 plays for Lights Out. Years later, Rod Serling used a similar method for writing his scripts for The Twilight Zone.

In 1937, NBC announced that Lights Out would be discontinued, but once again popular demand gave the show a reprieve for 1938. However, by the end of that season, Oboler had had enough of coming up with a new play each week, and left to pursue other, more serious projects, such as the acclaimed Arch Oboler’s Plays, Everyman’s Theater, and Plays for Americans. NBC staffers produced Lights Out for the 1939 season, after which it was terminated.

In 1942, Oboler needed money, and brought back Lights Out for that year and 1943. Sponsored by Ironized Yeast, this series resurrected previous scripts, including Revolt of the Worms, Catwife, Chicken Heart, and Valse Triste. Oboler acted as his own host, voicing the show’s ominous opening, spoken as a clock tolled 13 times: “It…is…later…than…you …think…”

This was followed by a warning:

“Lights Out brings you stories of the super natural and super normal, dramatizing the fantasies and the mysteries of the unknown. We tell you this frankly, so if you wish to avoid the excitement and tension of these imaginative plays, we urge you…calmly, but sincerely…to turn off your radio….now.”

Most of the 74 recordings that exist today come from this version of the show.

Sound effects continued to be vital to each broadcast, and were created and performed by Bill Brown and Jerry McCarty.

Lights Out returned for the summers of 1945, 1946, and 1947, called Fantasies from Lights Out, with a mix of old Wyllis Cooper scripts and some new material from Oboler. Finally, from 1970 to 1973, the program returned in transcribed syndication under the title The Devil and Mr. O (Oboler liked being called “Mr. O”), rebroadcasting the scripts from 1942-1943.

With this sporadic history, a natural question is why is Lights Out so well remembered today? One reason is an LP record Oboler produced in 1962 , called “Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror!” (Capitol ST1763). This LP contains abbreviated recreations of some of Oboler’s best-known plays, including Chicken Heart, and features talent such as Bea Benadaret, Virginia Gregg, Jack Johnstone, Harold Peary, and Mercedes McCambridge.

Another LP of the 1960’s also boosted Lights Out. This was young comedian Bill Cosby’s first album, Wonderfulness, and contained a routine with Cosby remembering being scared to death by Chicken Heart while listening to the radio when his parents were not at home.

Lights Out proved to be a very influential show. Its concept turned into a genre of its own, with radio shows such as Inner Sanctum, Weird Circle, Witch’s Tale, along with episodes of Suspense, Escape, The Whistler, and the Mysterious Traveler. Even moreso, the scripting techniques of Wyllis Cooper and Arch Oboler opened up new perspectives for radio drama, and directly impacted its best years.

By today’s standards, Lights Out would not cause anyone to faint. As John Dunning says, “If (Oboler’s) horror plays do not often stand the test of time, it may simply be that freedoms of the modern age have allowed so much more graphic horror to be seen as well as heard. What frightened so deeply 50 years ago can seem dated and even preposterous today.”

While that is true, there are still few experiences quite like sitting in a darkened room and listening to Lights Out.

Utilized Resources: On the Air, The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning, pp 399-401 and Wikipedia.com.