This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
WE OFFER YOU... ESCAPE!
by Stewart Wright © 2011
(From Radio Recall, October 2011)
(This is the conclusion of a two-part article. Read part one here.)
For most of its run, Escape was directed by three of Hollywood’s finest: William N. Robson, Norman Macdonnell, and Antony Ellis. Robson was a veteran director with over ten years experience. For Macdonnell, a recently returned World War II veteran, Escape was his chance to move from acting to directing. Ellis, an experienced actor and writer/adaptor, got his first extensive experience in direction on Escape.
Robson was one of the most honored directors during Radio’s Golden Age. He was Escape’s initial director through late March, 1948. In October, 1949, Robson returned to direct Escape through mid-August of 1950. His other directorial credits include Calling All Cars, The Columbia Workshop, The Man Behind The Gun, Doorway To Life, Suspense, Romance, and The CBS Radio Workshop.
Norman Macdonnell got his first directing experience on Escape. Early in Escape’s run, he was the assistant director to producer/director William Robson. In the beginning of 1948, Robson was so busy with other CBS series that he turned over the direction of Escape’s broadcasts for the West Coast audience to Macdonnell. By late March, 1948, Macdonnell became the director and producer of the series and continued in those positions until late August of 1949. Macdonnell returned to resume directing Escape for 16 episodes in 1950, 12 episodes in 1951, 16 episodes in 1952, 7 episodes in 1953, and 14 episodes in 1954.
Macdonnell became one of the busiest CBS radio directors during the last 15 years of the Golden Age of Radio. His credits include The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Fort Laramie, Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel, Honest Harold, Rogers of the Gazette, Romance, and Suspense.
Antony Ellis had started in Hollywood as an actor and writer/adaptor. Counted in his extensive writing/adapting experience are 27 episodes of Escape; including 14 episodes while he also directed the series.
Ellis got his directing start on the series Pursuit. He directed most of the Escape episodes from December, 1952 through mid-October, 1953 and later also directed Romance, Suspense, The CBS Radio Workshop, and Frontier Gentleman.
1954: The End Of The Line
During 1954, its last year on the air, 24 episodes of Escape were broadcast. Again, there were changes in broadcast nights and time slots. Still the script, music, sound effects and acting quality was there and several memorable episodes were produced and aired.
The first twelve of episodes were aired on Thursday nights; six from mid-March to mid-April at 10 PM, a single episode in May, and the remaining five episodes on consecutive Thursday nights at 9:30 PM from June 3rd through July 1st. Norman Macdonnell was again the director. Included in this group of shows were three written by actors who regularly performed on Escape: "Affair at Mandrake" by Ben Wright, "Benscelina and the Fisherman" by John Dehner, and "Bloodwaters"by Tony Barrett.
On July 10, 1954, Escape made its final move to Saturdays to the 8:00 PM slot. Again it was a Summer replacement series. The final run started with a fine adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier story, "The Birds". After the first two episodes, Norman Macdonnell turned over the directorial reins to the team of David Friedkin and Morton Fine. (The duo also wrote two of the final twelve episodes: "Night of the Guns" and "Carnival In Vienna".) An early September episode, "The Boiling Sea", placed the listener in a most improbable spot: on a ship in the Philippines that was being surrounded by a rapidly rising undersea volcano. The magic of Escape was still potent.
As the reading of the credits for the final episode, "The Heart of Kali", on September 25th was completed and announcer George Walsh said "Next week," the audience was not treated to the usual music bridge used to precede the teaser for the next week's episode of Escape. Instead, the theme of the series that Escape had filled in for those last twelve weeks rose in volume and became recognizable. It was the theme from Gunsmoke.
Walsh turned the microphone over to Gunsmoke star and frequent Escape Voice and performer William Conrad who told the audience, "Today, marks the last of the current series of Escape programs. . . ." Conrad then told the audience that Gunsmoke would replace Escape.
With this announcement, one of the finest anthology series in Radio history ended. However, since so many Escape episodes have survived, we and future generations still can be transported to exotic locales for
". . . . a half-hour of High Adventure . . ."
and be placed in situations "from which there is . . . no Escape!"
A few days after the first part of this article was published, I learned that the following:
The thought-to-be unaired episode "Grand Canyon Suite" actually did air as "The Golden Snake." The script for "The Golden Snake" has information that was not broadcast, that it was adapted by Les Crutchfield, from the story "Grand Canyon Suite" by Paul Pierce.
My best guess is that Escape producer-director Bill Robson wanted a more exotic atmosphere/setting for the story. So when Les Crutchfield adapted Paul Pierce's original story, "Grand Canyon Suite," he changed the locale from Arizona to the Yucatan and the indigenous people from Arizona Indians to the Mayans. The title was changed from the no longer appropriate "Grand Canyon Suite" to "The Golden Snake.
Postscript: One Fan's Experience
On June 30, 2001, I was fortunate to attend a Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound (REPS) recreation of "Three Skeleton Key." The audience included a large number of youngsters who had just attended an Adventures in Odyssey re-creation. Most of these pre-teenagers and their parents had never heard of Escape, let alone the classic tale about "The Rats." Here is the review I wrote for REPS Newsletter, the Air Check:
"Take a classic story and superlative acting. Add great sound effects and music. Mix with skillful direction and engineering. Magic happens! The power of "The Theater of the Mind" was never more evident than during the Showcase IX re-creation of the radio classic 'Three Skeleton Key.' In a REPS survey taken last year, this particular Escape episode was listed as one of 'Top Radio Treasures of All Time.'
This year, Showcase attendees not only had the opportunity to see and hear this classic tale, about the occupants of a lighthouse being attacked by hoards of ravenous rats, but to see it performed by two of the three actors who appeared in the original Escape airing on November 15, 1949.
Harry Bartell and Elliott Reid brought down the house with tour de force performances of their original roles, Auguste and Jean respectively. Herb Ellis masterfully played the head lighthouse keeper, Louis, and also doubled as the announcer. REPS member Christopher Conrad, son of actor William Conrad, who originated the role of Louis, adeptly performed the Voice of Escape. The drama was heightened by the compelling music played by Randy McMillan and fantastic sound effects created by Ray Erlenborn, Cheryl Jacobs, and Bruce Pair. Deftly orchestrating this fine performance was director Frank Buxton. An incredible job by all!
The audience responded with a prolonged and well-deserved standing ovation. Somehow, the performers had transported them back in time over 50 years into a broadcast studio during the Golden Age of Radio. Radio drama doesn't get any better than this!"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stewart Wright is an vintage radio researcher and historian in Colorado. He has written extensively on many Old-Time Radio and Contemporary Radio series. He has also researched and compiled several series broadcast logs that can be found at: http://www.old-time.com/otrlogs2/index.html