Friday, February 3, 2012

THE GREEN LAMA: The Radio Program (Part One)

Before we explore The Green Lama, it seems fitting to explore Ken Crossen's background in radio before the summer of 1949.

Dubbed the “Robin Hood of modern crime,” the polished, urbane private eye named Simon Templar, a.k.a. "The Saint," was a devil-may-care swashbuckling do-gooder. Based on the fictional character created by novelist Leslie Charteris, The Saint maintained a healthy run on radio from 1945 to 1951. Radio scripts were not entirely faithful to the character that appeared in the Charteris novels, but was accepted by the radio audience craving a good mystery and the program’s sponsors, Bromo-Seltzer, Campbell Soups, Ford, and Pepsodent. The success of The Saint can be attributed to script writers Michael Cramoy, Louis Vittes and Ken Crossen.

Vincent Price on The Saint
In early 1948, Crossen wrote a radio script for The Saint titled “Babies for Sale.” Simon Templar’s girlfriend, Patricia Holm, is doing volunteer social work where she meets Horace J. Atwood and philanthropist Gordon Phillips, who work at the Sanctuary Foundling Home, a free maternity hospital for indigent mothers. The maternity hospital, however, has a three-fold racket. After telling the mothers their babies have died, they sell the offspring via adoption to future foster parents for high donations, in addition to the usual thousand dollar fee. Denton, an ex-con, works with the hospital executives to then call upon the foster parents and, after convincing them he is the father, blackmail them. After tricking a confession out of Denton, Templar approaches the guilty parties, including Atwood, whereupon the police overhear the details of the plot and arrest the culprits.

The above synopsis, based on a radio script found in the Kendall F. Crossen archive at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, is about all we know of this particular episode of The Saint.* It has become a commonplace of radio scholarship that less than ten percent of all radio broadcasts pre-dating 1960 are known to exist in recorded form. And it is with a heavy heart that more than half of The Green Lama radio broadcasts from 1949 are among those statistics. Crossen’s involvement with the radio program did not involve paying for transcription discs to be recorded. He was apparently more focused on story structure and plot proposals.

* This radio script was loosely based on The Green Lama adventure of the same title, originally published in the June 1940 issue of Double Detective, and reprinted in the first of this three-volume pulp reprint. Both stories took place in Hollywood, California. Instead of a maternity hospital, the original pulp story involved a home for children.

"Babies for Sale" short story
Very little is known about Ken Crossen’s script writing career for radio mysteries. Only recently have excavations through the Library of Congress revealed some of his earliest known efforts, mainly as a contributor for The Molle Mystery Theatre, which premiered over NBC on September 7, 1943, featuring dramatizations of classic and current mystery stories. The novels, short stories and original mysteries were introduced by a mysterious narrator who used the name of Geoffrey Barnes, a distinguished criminologist, played by actor Roc Rogers. Cornell Woolrich, Craig Rice, Edgar Wallace and many other creators of modern detective fiction had their stories adapted for the program by script writers Jay Bennett, Charles Tazewell and Everett George Opie.

Crossen wrote pulp detective fiction and novels under his own name as well as the pseudonyms Kim Locke, Richard Foster, M. E. Chaber, Christopher Monig, Clay Richards, Bennett Barley, and others. With pulp stories to his list of credits, Crossen attempted to venture into radio. 

His first assignment for The Molle Mystery Theatre was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s "Lady in the Lake," which was broadcast on the evening of December 14, 1943.

It is apparent that Crossen admired the writings of Raymond Chandler, and never turned down the opportunity to adapt one of Chandler’s novels for the program. Subsequent offerings included "Farewell My Lovely" (February 29, 1944), "Goldfish" (July 18, 1944) and "Murder in City Hall," a.k.a. "Spanish Blood" (September 14, 1944)*. While the exact number of Crossen’s radio scripts remain unknown (he did not write under a pseudonym), four others have been verified. Dwight V. Babcock’s "Homicide for Hannah" (December 28, 1943), Michael Venning’s "Murder Through the Looking Glass" (September 5, 1944) and Jonathan Pierce’s "A Crime to Fit the Punishment" (December 5, 1944), the latter of which he co-scripted with H.L. Gold. For the broadcast of June 20, 1944, Crossen chose to adapt the Richard Powell novel, Death Talks Out of Turn, cleverly designed to remind radio listeners that “loose lips sink ships.” The story involved a ring of spies who are in contact with an enemy sub off shore, who propose to blow up an Allied ship loaded with supplies and about ready to sail.

* Crossen’s radio script for "Murder in City Hall" was dramatized again with a different cast on April 5, 1946.

Crossen continued writing scripts for radio mysteries, including one contribution for The Adventures of Ellery Queen. In “Nikki Porter, Killer” (March 5, 1947), Ellery comes to the rescue when his secretary/girlfriend Nikki, suffering amnesia, steps off a train just as the loot from a bank robbery disappears from her compartment and a man is found murdered. While the majority of the Ellery Queen radio broadcasts exist on transcription disc from 1947 to 1948, the March 5 broadcast does not. From 1954 to 1955, the Ellery Queen radio program aired on Australian airwaves, courtesy of Grace Gibson Radio Productions. Purchasing scripts from the America, Gibson’s staff at the Australian Record Company performed their own renditions, changing only minor essentials such as Sydney, formerly New York City. The only existing copy of Crossen’s radio production in collector hands exists in the form of the Australian counterpart.

Crossen succeeded in selling one script for The Saint, which was broadcast on May 19, 1948, titled “With No Tomorrow.” It tells the tale of Warner Wilson, an executive of the exporting firm of Wilson and Lynn, who believes he is the victim of a monstrous plot against him. His entire existence is being removed, including the removal of his birth certificate at the Bureau of Vital Statistics and the records at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Fearing his sanity, he turns to Simon Templar to investigate. The murder of Jerome Lane, his business partner, leads to the guilty culprit, Stephen Hurley, a young politician who had ambitions for Wilson’s wife and the money she would inherit upon her husband’s death. Hurley devised an elaborate scheme to drive Wilson crazy and create a situation whereby the two business partners have a deadly falling out. Templar intervenes and proves without a shred of doubt that Hurley committed the crime. Sadly, no recording is known to exist.

Among the most prestigious radio programs was Suspense, broadcast over CBS, featuring a large budget (courtesy of the Auto-Lite Company) and a weekly Hollywood star. Soon after Anton M. Leader took over the producing/directing chores for Suspense over the CBS Radio Network in early 1948, Crossen learned that Leader purchased scripts from the open market (before the days of studio policy that declared reviewing unsolicited scripts was a legal liability). Crossen approached the producer with a total of three radio scripts, all adaptations of classic mysteries. “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (December 2, 1948), John Collier’s “De Mortuis” (February 10, 1949) and “Murder Through the Looking Glass” (March 17, 1949). The third and final broadcast was loosely re-written from his former Molle Mystery script.

Norman Macdonnell  (Photo courtesy of Roy Bright.)
It was during his tenure on CBS that Crossen was introduced to producer/director Norman MacDonnell. MacDonnell had purchased the radio rights to Graham Greene’s 1939 novel, Confidential Agent, and like many of Greene’s literary properties, proved a challenge for feasible adaptation. The story, attempting to avoid political opinion, involved a chivalrous agent who starts out as a hunted man and becomes the hunter, the peaceful man who turns at bay, and the man who learned to love justice by suffering injustice. MacDonnell was unable to find someone capable of writing a feasible adaptation for his radio program, Escape. Crossen agreed to take on the task and succeeded. The Graham Greene story was recorded on March 30, 1949, and broadcast on April 2, 1949, with Ben Wright in the supporting cast, the same actor who, months later, would play the role of Tulku on The Green Lama. It was here that MacDonnell and Crossen struck a friendship. “Ken was very ambitious and high strung. Always nervous and looking over his shoulder,” recalled MacDonnell in a 1971 interview. “He was a smooth pitchman that knew the right words to say when he wanted something. Ken submitted a radio script adapted from his Green Lama creation. I believe this was for Escape. After I looked over it, I discouraged him, briefly, by asking for a revision to fit the mold of a weekly sustainer. Establish the plot, format, recurring characters and so forth… Ken might say otherwise but it was I who convinced CBS to broadcast the program.”

Knowing that Broadway is My Beat was going off the air for the summer, MacDonnell pitched the proposal to executives at CBS for the summer time slot. Ken Crossen agreed to write the radio scripts but MacDonnell, fearing Crossen did not have enough experience to meet the demands of completing a full thirty-page script every week, assigned William Froug to co-write. Froug was an experienced newcomer to the field, having already helped create the Rocky Jordan radio program, and served as a mentor to Crossen.*

* William Froug would later take helm of the critically-acclaimed CBS Radio Workshop and for a number of months act as producer for the television classic, The Twilight Zone.

There has been some speculation that Crossen only created the plots and Froug wrote the physical scripts. This appears to be a myth because further review of the radio scripts reveals many of Crossen’s trademarks and influences. This includes not one, but two direct references to Philip Marlowe and one reference to Raymond Chandler.

Altus Press has recently released a three-volume set of all the Green lama pulp magazine stories, along with essays of historical nature, including the radio program and the comic books. Buy all three of them and own the complete series! 

For more information about the books, also check out this review, which makes reference to the radio program.

To Be Continued...
In the next two blog postings, I'm going to explore the origin of The Green Lama radio program, with a complete episode guide for all eleven episodes.