Friday, September 14, 2012

DR. CHRISTIAN Meets Rod Serling

Rod Serling
While many maintain that the television program, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), influenced a great number of authors, television producers, scriptwriters and fans in general, the television program was influenced by the standards of the radio networks of the 1950s. Rod Serling got his start in radio in Cincinnati, and it was there that he moved on to television (teaching himself, through actual writing, whatever he learned of playwriting). Wanting to make script writing a full-time profession, he was at the radio speaker, often favoring good dramas and programs of serious horror and science fiction and whatever suited his fancy. Shows such as Suspense and The Mysterious Traveler may well have been influences for the types of stories of which he grew fond. One of Serling’s earliest jobs was as an un-salaried volunteer writer and actor with WNYC, a New York City radio station. Later he worked for stations in Marion and Springfield, Ohio, as well as his native Binghamton, N.Y., and Cincinnati.

“In 1946, I started writing for radio at a New York City station and thereafter did radio writing at other small stations,” he recalled. “It was experience, but incidental experience. I learned ‘time,’ writing for a medium that is measured in seconds. Radio and its offspring, television, are unique in the stringency of the time factor. Radio and TV stations gave me a look-see at the factory that would produce my product. I got to understand the basic workings of cameras, lights and microphones. I got a sense of the space that could be utilized and the number of people who might be accommodated in that space. This was all to the good.”

The radio programs Serling wrote for, however, were not broadcast nationally on a coast-to-coast hookup. They were not sponsored. In fact, almost all of them were sustained, that is, the production costs were borne by the network rather than a sponsor. Cheap to produce, these programs required no major film stars to pay, and there was no shortage of radio actors willing to work for union scale. For him, this was experience needed for a writer with no credits to his name, to get his foot in the door for programs that paid much more – courtesy of well-heeled sponsors willing to pick up the tab.

The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, for example, sponsored a long-running radio program titled Dr. Christian. The program featured top-quality dramas of a country doctor who applied the Golden Rule approach to life when facing obstacles that required his inner strength for support. In the beginning, the Dr. Christian radio program came from various scriptwriters, among them Ruth Adams Knight. In 1942, the producers tried a new approach: a contest in which listeners could submit scripts and be eligible for large cash prizes. This may have been the most significant factor in the program’s long 17-year history. Suddenly, everyone in the country was a scriptwriter. Weekly awards ranged from $150 to $500, good money in 1942, and the grand prize won the author $2,000. It soon became The Vaseline Program, “the only show in radio where the audience writes the script.”

Newsweek reported that 7,697 scripts were received in 1947; sometimes that number went as high as 10,000. Many were called, however, but few were chosen. The scripts that made it to the air continued the appeal of traditional values, showing the character of Dr. Christian as the symbol of good will, as a philanthropist and an unabashed Cupid. The subject matter would include anything – even fantasy. One show was about a mermaid; on another, a human-like jalopy named Betsy fell in love with a black Packard owned by a woman chief of police. Only when murder was the theme of a script did listeners complain; they liked the show when it was mellow. The 1947 prize play concerned Dr. Christian’s effort to convince an unborn child that Earth was not so bad after all.

At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Rod Serling majored in language and literature and began writing scripts for radio. He became manager of the Antioch Broadcasting System’s radio workshop where he wrote, directed and acted in weekly full-scale radio productions broadcast over WJEM, Springfield. With confidence on his shoulder, during the 1948-49 school year, the entire output of the workshop was written by Serling. With the exception of one adaptation, all of the radio scripts were entirely original. Later he would look back and call this work some “pretty bad stuff.”

For the broadcast of May 18, 1949, the eighth annual scriptwriting contest of Dr. Christian ended with a special broadcast revealing the year’s winners. Among the guests on that particular program was Rod Serling, who at the time was attending Antioch College. The producers of the radio show even paid him $76.56 to reimburse his expenses in getting to CBS in New York City to appear on the Dr. Christian program. His submission, titled “To Live a Dream,” had won approval of the judges and been accepted by producer Dorothy McCann. Serling’s script helped him place in the radio contest that netted him a $500 award.

Photo courtesy of Roy Bright, from the Jean Hersholt 25th Screen Anniversary Book.
Serling brought along his wife, Carol, to attend the radio broadcast. Among the cast on stage were star Jean Hersholt, Helen Claire as nurse Judy Price, and prizewinners Russell F. Johnson, Maree Dow Gagne, Mrs. Aida Cromwell, Miss Terry McCoog, Earl Hamner, Jr. and Mrs. Halle Truitt Yenni. The program, still sponsored by Chesebrough, was the 546th broadcast of the series. Russell F. Johnson of Thomaston, Connecticut won the $2,000 first prize for his script titled, “Stolen Glory.” Mrs. Lillian Kerr of Tillamook, Oregon, won $500 for her script titled, “Angel with a Black Eye.” Earl Hamner, Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio (the same Hamner who would later write scripts for The Twilight Zone), won $500 for his script titled “All Things Come Home.” This was not Hamner’s first time winning the contest. He had been on the show previous for his award-winning scripts, “Now That Spring is There” and “Who Would Not Sing for David?”

One by one, the prizewinners were announced and interviewed on stage. Biographical background, professional endeavors and their writing ambitions were discussed. Halfway through the broadcast, Rod Serling came to the microphone.

HERSHOLT: Hello, Rod . . . and congratulations. I read your winning script, “To Live a Dream,” and I thought it was a fine job of writing.

SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt. You’ve no idea how thrilled I am to know that you and the judges selected my script as one of the winners.

HERSHOLT: Now tell us a little about yourself, Rod.

SERLING: Well . . . I first saw the light of day in Syracuse, New York, graduated from Binghamton High School, at Binghamton, New York . . . And am now in my third year of college at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

HERSHOLT: You covered an awful lot of years in an awfully few words. What happened during all that time?

SERLING: Well . . . before the war I did some staff work at a Binghamton radio station . . . tried to write . . . but never had anything published.

HERSHOLT: And during the war?

SERLING: I was in the same place as Russell Johnson . . . the Pacific . . . with the Army.

HERSHOLT: What did you do in the Army?

SERLING: I was a paratrooper.

HERSHOLT: Where did you get the idea for this fine story you wrote?

SERLING: Well . . . I’ve always been fond of boxing . . . tried my hand in the Golden Gloves. And well . . . since you’ve read my story, you know where it all ties in.

HERSHOLT: Indeed I do. And do you intend to follow writing as a profession?

SERLING: I’d like to, Mr. Hersholt. In fact, the ambition of my wife and I . . .

HERSHOLT: Oh . . . another married man!

SERLING: How did Russell Johnson say it? Yes, sir!

HERSHOLT: And is your wife sitting out front, too?

SERLING: Yes, sir . . . right there.

HERSHOLT: Well, let’s have her stand up and take a bow, too . . . Mrs. Rod Serling . . . (Applause)

HERSHOLT: Well, well, you ex-G.I.s certainly specialize in beautiful brides. And now, back to that ambition of yours.

SERLING: Well, we want to live in a large house, in the suburb of a large city, raise a family, a lot of dogs . . . and write!

HERSHOLT: And I certainly hope you realize such a fine American ambition, Mr. Serling. Maybe this check for five hundred dollars will go toward part of the down payment on that dream! Congratulations . . . and good luck to you!

SERLING: Thank you, Mr. Hersholt.

Serling’s success earned him a credit that would gain the attention of other radio producers, when he included a cover letter with a submission. Broadcasting standards during the 1940s were much different from the standards enforced by the late 1950s. The policy of reviewing and accepting unsolicited radio scripts and plot proposals varied from one producer to the next. While many programs had a staff of writers, other programs occasionally purchased submissions from the open market. Suspense, a radio anthology specializing in thrilling crime dramas, for example, bought scripts from a deaf mute in Brooklyn, a night watchman from Chicago, a cowhand in Wyoming, and one script from a former inmate of San Quentin.

By the 1950s, however, a few who submitted plot proposals and scripts were seeking vengeance for their rejected submissions. They filed lawsuits against the producers and the networks whenever they heard a program of similar nature, claiming their ideas were “stolen” without due compensation. The networks began enforcing policies, in agreement with radio and television producers, not to review or accept any outside submissions. For scriptwriters offering their work in the hopes of making a sale it became a bit more complicated.

The success of the Dr. Christian radio script led to multiple attempts on Serling’s part to submit more proposals to other coast-to-coast radio programs. “I just kept on,” he recalled years later to a newspaper columnist. “I had to earn a living and took a staff writing job on a Cincinnati radio station; but during every spare moment I turned out more free-lance scripts. Finally, I sold three others, but for each play accepted there were at least three or more turned down.”

Serling began writing scripts that were dramatized not on a national coast-to-coast hookup, but in the local Ohio listening area. “The Colonel’s Coin” was a script in memorandum to Memorial Day. On May 8, 1948, he completed a V-E Day script which was regarded by the station manager as “the first script this year that kept me on the edge.” In 1948, Serling scripted Party Line, a short-run program sponsored by the Army Recruiting Headquarters. Serling played himself in a number of skits he composed, including the lead role of Cooper. On one episode of this program, the announcer stepped aside from his normal duties to inform the radio audience that Miss Carol Kramer was engaged to Rod Serling, announced by her grandparents and the marriage to be on July 31.

But with success came the eventual edge of defeat. On September 8, 1949, Serling’s radio script “Potter’s Paradise” was rejected by the advertising agency, Wallace-Ferry-Hanly Company, for the First Nighter Program. Ira L. Avery, producer for Armstrong’s Theatre of Today, rejected his script “The Memory” in October, because “in the handling of familiar plots and themes, selection needs to be placed on a level determined by the volume and quality of submissions. We regret that, in the light of heavy competition, we do not find this story suited to our current needs.”

After peddling a football script titled “Cupid at Left Half ” to Curtain Time and finding that script rejected, he wrote to Myron Golden, script editor of the radio program, to ask why he had failed to sell a single script to Curtain Time. On October 10, 1949, he sent the following candid reply: “This particular script lacks a professional quality. The dialog is spotty, the plot is loose, and the whole thing lacks verisimilitude . . . It appears to be a standard plot that writers somehow or other manage to pluck out of the public domain.”

Two of Serling’s earliest attempts to sell scripts to a national radio program are evident in “Look to the Sky,” dated July 13, 1947, and “The Most Dangerous Game,” dated June 22, 1947. The latter script was adapted from the Richard Connell short story of the same name.

On August 10, 1949, producer/director Martin Horrell of Grand Central Station rejected Serling’s prizefight script titled “Winner Take Nothing.” The script was “better than average” Horrell admitted, but the ladies who listened to his program on Saturday afternoons “have told us in no uncertain terms that prize fight stories aren’t what they like most.” In a letter, Horrell offered him what may have been the best advice given to the young Ohio resident. “I have a feeling that the script would be far better for sight than for sound only, because in any radio presentation, the fights are not seen. Perhaps this is a baby you should try on some of the producers of television shows.”

“Those were discouraging, frustrating years,” he told a columnist in early 1960. “I wanted to quit many times. But there was something within me that made me go on. I continued writing and submitting scripts without pay and, what is even worse, most of the time, without recognition. Then at last I came up with two plays that were bought by the old Grand Central Station series on CBS Radio. I thought that now surely I was in. But I wasn’t. Day after day, I continued to pound the typewriter, with no result.”

Grand Central Station was a radio anthology consisting of light comedies and fluffy romance. Serling’s first sale to the program was “The Local is a Very Slow Train.” Broadcast on September 10, 1949, under the new title of “Hop Off the Express and Grab a Local,” the story concerned two young men, Joey and Steve, who became involved in a murder case while trying to escape the slums of the city where they live. His second sale for the series was “The Welcome Home,” broadcast on December 31, 1949, and concerned the story of Bill Grant, a crusading reporter for the fictional New York Globe.

While his first sale was the prize-winning Dr. Christian script, the first script to be dramatized nationally on radio was the September 10, 1949 broadcast of Grand Central Station. In early November, his luck hung on long enough for him to receive a letter from Rita Franklin of the Dr. Christian program, alerting him that his prize-winning “To Live a Dream,” would finally be broadcast on December 7, 1949. Scheduling conflicts pushed the script ahead a week to November 30, 1949, and Rod Serling’s name was once again referenced on the Dr. Christian radio program.

Serling later submitted a second script to the Dr. Christian radio program that was originally titled “The Power of Abner Doubleday” (for reasons unknown the title changed to “The Power of Willie Doubleday”) but failed to make the sale.

Note: A selection of passages and paragraphs in this write-up was reprinted from the book, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, LLC, 2009). Reprinted with permission.