Friday, October 18, 2013

The Mysterious Traveler Radio Program: Five "Lost" Episodes

Mysterious Traveler comic book
Romantically, fans of old-time radio (and fans of old horror radio programs) rave about The Mysterious Traveler. Chilling tales of murder -- and on occasion -- science fiction and horror. One can easily compare the stories to those of E.C. Comics (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, etc.) and while the series today ranks among the most popular of radio chillers (as opposed to the often overlooked and underrated Quiet, Please series), in reality it was not as popular at the time it was first broadcast. The best example I can come up with at the moment is the motion-picture, It's a Wonderful Life. Never reaching box office success at the time of release, it's become a pop classic today. In reality, The Mysterious Traveler was a sustaining filler for time slots on the Mutual Broadcasting System's irregular schedule. A sustaining program was simply as it suggests: the network forked up the production costs in the hopes that a sponsor would buy what network executives believed was a promising program. Ford was a temporary sponsor in 1950, but only for a few broadcasts. (Ford did the same for a large number of radio programs in the same manner in late 1950.)

The radio program spawned a short-lived series of comic books and four mystery magazines. These collectibles vary in price depending on the quality of the comics and magazines. The front and back cover, and the tightness of the spine, are inspected for grading quality so if the magazine is in superb condition but half the front cover is torn, the value is so cheap you can pay $5 bucks for it. The usual going price for a good condition copy of the magazine is $20 per issue.


Mysterious Traveler mystery magazine
The series was created and scripted by Robert Arthur and David Kogan. I suspect (and am presently working on digging for proof) that they rarely co-wrote a script together. Instead, they wrote the scripts solo and shared joint authorship for every radio script broadcast. (In the same manner as Lennon and McCartney as The Beatles.) Many of the episodes were reused for The Sealed Book, The Strange Doctor Weird and a couple recycled for the later episodes of Suspense. Robert Arthur later adapted a number of his Mysterious Traveler scripts for short stories in magazines. During the late fifties and early sixties, Arthur ghost wrote the introductions for Alfred Hitchcock in the paperback and hardcover anthologies. You can always tell if Arthur was the editor because there was always one story among the selection penned by Arthur -- many of which were adaptations of Mysterious Traveler scripts.

Regardless of what is reported on a number of internet websites, The Mysterious Traveler did not inspire other mystery radio programs such as Dark Venture, Murder by Experts and The Teller of Tales. Anthology programs were a dime a dozen and rarely was one radio program the inspiration for another. In fact, producers insisted on their own variation-on-a-theme so they could avoid potential lawsuits. One website goes as far as to suggest that The Mysterious Traveler competed against Inner Sanctum Mystery and Lights Out! and that "the same big three networks were forced to continually shuffle their offerings back and forth on the radio dial to continue to fend off the upstart Mysterious Traveler." This, naturally, is incorrect and merely an assumption. The same site claims: "While simply a road-bump to MBS, the blacklisting of one of radio's greatest writing teams effectively ended their radio writing careers with the cancellation of The Mysterious Traveler." This is not true. Executives at Mutual made a financial decision to cancel the program after it was determined that selling the series to potential sponsors in an era where it was acknowledged that television was going to dominate the field was not feasible.

Maurice Tarplin as The Mysterious Traveler
Transcription discs for "lost" episodes are expensive because they rarely turn up on eBay. Just a hair over 70 episodes are known to exist and while unscrupulous mp3 vendors have been altering episodes of The Sealed Book and retitling them to fool gullible consumers into believing they are buying over 100 episodes, discs do seem to turn up from time to time. I recently paid $225 for three transcription discs and they are presently being transferred to audio CDs. The dates on the disc labels do not cohere with the radio scripts so whether they are "lost" recordings or simply ones that exist already has yet to be determined until the discs and CDs arrive and I can listen to them. So in the meantime, here are a few plot summaries for five "lost" episodes for you to enjoy. I'll try to post additional plots in future posts.

Episode #187  “DEATH IS MY PARTNER”
Broadcast January 20, 1949
Plot:
Harry Leseur, a dark, powerfully built young man, has just returned home after being missing for two years, following a plane crash in the remote mountains of India. There, he learned about catalepsy, a condition when the heart and the breathing are so close to stopping, a person appears to be dead. Even if he is stabbed by a nail or large needle, he will not feel a thing or react to the pain. Sometimes it happens naturally. In India, the yogis have learned to induce it artificially. Harry, recently rescued from India, reveals the trick to his wife, Lucy, and plots a fake heart attack to fool the doctor, the coroner and the life insurance company into a $25,000 policy payoff. Lucy plays the role of the grieving widow, trying her best to prevent the doctor and the coroner from performing an autopsy or embalm her husband. The ruse works and two days later her husband’s coffin is placed into the family vault -- where Lucy eventually gets to late at night to revive her husband with the trick he demonstrated days before. The doctor and the coroner, however, played a trick on Lucy. In spite of what they promised her, and how she felt about the body not being touched, and his religious beliefs, the men snuck the body down to the morgue to embalm him, like the law says. Back in the vault, Lucy rubs the wrists of her late husband, begging for him to wake up. “It’s been fifteen minutes since I gave you the medicine! Harry, please wake up! Harry… Harry… Harry!”

Episode #188  “THE GHOST MAKERS”
Broadcast January 27, 1949
Plot:
In the little New England village of Wilton, in a old colonial house just across the road from the town’s ancient cemetery, Agatha Wainwright entertains her nephew Ned, who is in debt from Chicago gamblers and is in desperate need of money. With the assistance of Professor Piedmont, who runs phony spiritualistic cults, the men plot to create ghosts and scare the old woman into an asylum so Ned can oversee the estate’s finances. Four magic tricks and two weeks later, Henry, the hired man and Stella, the maid, resign in terror. Aunt Agatha, however, ignores the ghostly knocks, footsteps and voices that professor Piedmont’s ingenuity devises. After a month the whole town is buzzing with tales of her haunted house… but she refuses to heed them. After two months, in desperation, the Professor and Ned devise a plan that will not fail. Departing for Boston, the men arrange for a staff member of a Boston hospital to phone Aunt Agatha and report the death of her nephew and his friend. The two would then return and play ghost. On route back to the mansion, the car skids on the slippery road, goes down a steep embankment and turns over on its side. The temperature is hovering near zero and Ned’s ankle is broken. For a half hour the men struggle to get to the mansion, the only house within miles. Having received the phone call, Aunt Agatha’s mind has finally cracked -- and believes the cries outside the front door are real ghosts. “Aunt Agatha! We’ll freeze to death if you don’t open the door!” Ned’s cries go unanswered.

Episode #189  “DEATH SPINS A WEB”
Broadcast February 3, 1949
Plot:
Carl and Dora Evans, fleeing from the police after committing criminal schemes, find themselves stranded along a deserted road through the Maine woods, heading north, for Canada. There, they find a moderate-sized stone house, a surprising sight in the dense woods. After observing how Dora’s ankle is sprained, an accomplished pianist by the name of Leonard Vance shelters the couple, believing they are brother and sister. Vance explains how he leads a lonely life and, delighted to have company, allows them to stay over for a few days. By the end of the week, Vance has fallen in love with Dora and, in an effort to convince her that he is not penniless, reveals a hidden wall safe containing $50,000. Dora accepts the marriage proposal. Dora and Carl scheme to kill the old man, make it look like suicide, and steal the money. When Leonard’s brother comes to visit, Herbert insists on calling off the wedding -- Leonard should remain isolated in his small stone house. Before Herbert can do anything about it, he succumbs from a heart attack and dies. Carl takes matters into his own hands and shoots Leonard dead, then makes it appear as if Leonard shot himself in an act of suicide. After drinking a toast of wine to celebrate, the couple open the safe and remove the $50,000 -- and the yellow, brittle newspaper clippings about a pianist sought for murder. It seems Leonard used a bottle of poison whose symptoms duplicated those of heart failure. Herbert was merely trying to protect his brother… and Dora. Before the two can share a laugh of irony, both Carl and Dora get weak and feel a squeezing of the heart…

Trivia, etc. The music Leonard plays on the piano is “Danse Macabre.”
    
Maurice Tarplin doubled the role of Herbert Vance.

Episode #190  “TONIGHT I DIE”
Broadcast February 10, 1949
Cast:
Frank Behrens (Alex Drake); Gwen Jordan (George Adams and the doctor); and Henry Neely (Professor Erlich).
Plot: Alex Drake, a haggard looking man in his early thirties, finds himself pacing the few short feet between the locked door of his room and the barred window. In desperation, he composes a letter recounting the events that led to his incarceration and why he knows he will die tonight. Eight months ago he was an instructor in bio-chemistry at Mid-Western State University. After accepting an invitation from Professor Erlich, Alex discovers the professor discovered a way to bring the dead back to life. Once deterioration of the body tissue and brain tissue sets in, it is impossible to bring anyone back from the dead. But he has since conquered the problem with a special serum. Alex witnesses one experiment after another and eventually agrees to be a human guinea pig. During his dream-like state of unconsciousness, Alex finds himself in a vast, white plain. In the distance was a huge gate… and tens of thousands of people before it. Among the people was George Adams, a colleague, who explains that he died four hours ago in an automobile accident. Alex wakes an hour later, revived from the dead by Professor Erlich, and discovers George really did die a few hours ago. Remembering what George said about knowing the past, present and future, Alex wants the Professor to kill him again. A week later, Alex succumbs from the same fate and discovers he will die on February 10, 1949 at 9:52. When he wakes, the Professor explains that he will not commit the crime a third time. Angry, Alex Drake strangles the Professor.

Before he can finish his letter describing the events that since happened, Alex Drake dies from a heart attack, clutching the seven page letter in his hand. The lieutenant claims the letter “reads like the truth.” The doctor, however, accounts for the prediction because the patient frightened himself to death. “Come now, Lieutenant. Drake speaks of having murdered a Professor Erlich six months ago. That was a sheer hallucination. You know as well as I do that Drake’s been in this insane asylum, under lock and key, for the past ten years.”

Trivia, etc. Maurice Tarplin doubles for the role of the lieutenant.
    
The time of Drake’s death coincides with the time of broadcast. This episode of The Mysterious Traveler aired from 9:30 to 9:55 p.m., Eastern.

Episode #191  “COLLECTOR’S ITEM”
Broadcast February 17, 1949
Cast:
Bob Dryden (Jennings and Lansing); Cameron Prud’homme (Edward Morlock and the man); and Bill Zuckert (Cain Morlock).
Plot: Four hundreds miles south of San Francisco, Edward Morlock, a pale, plump man who has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident in his boyhood, proudly displays his private collection of merchandise related to hideous murders. These include a dress worn by one of the victims of Jack the Ripper and the very glass in which the notorious Dr. Crippen served poison to his wife. The only things lacking to make the collection complete, Edward remarks, are a murderer and a victim. After his servant, Jennings, discovers that Edward cheated his brother Cain out of his father’s will, the servant blackmails his employer. As a solution, Edward calls on his brother, Cain, wanted for numerous murders. Cain is morbidly sensitive about his unusually large hands, compulsively killing anyone who reacts and gets within reach of his hands. Edward tricks Cain into strangling the life out of Jennings, then drugs his brother unconscious so the police can take the killer away. Months later, Cain is executed -- but not before he swears revenge on Edward. A few days later, Edward is making arrangements for Jennings and Cain to be buried in the garden just outside the window -- his collection is now complete. When the echo of Cain’s voice torments vengeance against Edward, the handicapped victim dies from a heart attack… an bruises about his throat made by a pair of unusually large hands.

Trivia, etc. Maurice Tarplin doubled for the role Commissioner Tennant.
 
Episode #192  “TIME IS RUNNING OUT”
Broadcast February 24, 1949
Plot:
Captain Miller wakes to finds himself at an Army Airfield Hospital in Maine, delirious as he recounts to Lt. Wells and General Bryson the events that led to his present surroundings. Miller and Major Pulaski piloted the first experimental rocket, powered by rocket and jet propulsion, known as the XR-1. The metal is a new discovery which can withstand thousands of degrees of heat and reach an altitude of 300,000 feet. The launch goes according to plan but the flight suffers complications. The controls are frozen and the men are on a fast ride into the ionosphere. They have emergency rockets to slow them down, to act as a brake, when they re-enter the atmosphere but hesitate using them until the fuel is all used up. Hoping to raise a number of radio stations, the men overhear the Presidential Inauguration of Governor Webster. Hawaii recently became the newest state in the union and the date is January 20, 1953. At first the men believe some radio genius is giving them his cockeyed version of the world of tomorrow -- until they change channels and overhear a language they never heard before. Looking outside the observation window the pilots observe what they first thought were falling meteors. Then it turns out to be ships… hundreds of them… coming down to Earth. When the rocket ship plunges back to Earth, it crashes and Pulaski dies. Moments after Miller is done telling his story, he passes on. But his delirium may have some basis of truth to it -- 40 feet of tape from the tape recording machine was found among the wreckage and the strange language has been deciphered by folks back in Washington: “Supreme Commander to Fleet Commanders. We are now entering the Earth’s stratosphere. Alert all crews. Man all guns. Task Force A will proceed to destroy…”

Trivia, etc. Arthur and Kogan’s predictions of the future were not unrealistic. Hawaii did become a State on August 21, 1959. The first successful attempt at firing a rocket into space was achieved by the Soviet Union in about 1956 when their “Sputnik 1” was placed into orbit.


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