Friday, February 22, 2013

The Shadow Unmasked

From July 31, 1930 to July 30, 1931, the Detective Story Magazine Hour presented spooky mysteries dramatized late at night, under the sponsorship of Street & Smith Magazine. The stories were adaptations of short stories from the weekly magazine. Contracted for a series of 52 broadcasts with a 26-week cancellation clause, Street & Smith chose thrilling tales from their pulp pages in an attempt to promote their magazine. Allyn Jay Marsh was the account executive at Ruthrauff & Ryan, located then at 132 West 31st Street in New York City. He oversaw the radio production and worked closely with William Sweets, who wrote the radio dramas and selected stories which fit the mold of the program. Marsh was formerly an advertising salesman for the New York Times and would later become director of network program sales for CBS.

A few reference guides claim the title of the program switched from "Detective Story Hour" to "Detective Story Program" after the first two broadcasts. This, however, is inaccurate. The source of this information originated from the New York Times, which oftentimes failed to report the correct or full title among the radio listings. Adding the word “magazine” in the listings would have constituted sponsorship and the newspaper wanted to sell ad space. The radio listings offered little if not limited space for lengthy titles. The correct title was Detective Story Magazine Hour and never changed during the 52 weeks it was on the air. Even though the program ran a half-hour, programs referred to as “Hour” were broadcast on the hour, or on the half-hour; the designation did not indicate the program length. Newspaper listings should never be taken as the gospel, especially when one considers the Washington Post listed this program as “Tales of Mystery” in their radio listings.
The premiere broadcast, “The Serpent Stings” (July 31, 1930), was adapted from the short story of the same name by Herman Landon. It centered on a daring jewel robbery with two ruthless murders pressuring the detective, who finds a number of suspects. Among them are Mrs. Wakeling, Shorty, the rodman’s gun moll, Margy, who squealed when she thought he gave her the double-cross, and Wolf Garrett, who ultimately was executed for murder but was a strong character in the play. One columnist remarked “the program builders might be a little more careful, however, in selecting voices that show contrast. There was some confusion at times, because of vocal similarities.”

To give the program a splash of color, a horror host was added, a menace voice of conscience that sometimes urged the criminal to continue their deeds, and suggested retribution was close at hand. The Shadow became that voice. To add publicity to the radio program, a number of press releases were issued and sent out to various columnists and newspapers across the East Coast. These press releases were designed to add an air of mystery behind the man with the voice.

An undated 1930 column reported: “Secrecy surrounding ‘The Shadow’ announcer for Detective Stories is maintained by having him sneak into the studios via the freight elevator.” The September 4 issue of the New York Evening Journal reported the same news about the freight elevator, remarking, “Those press agents!” suggesting more publicity stunt than fact. The freight elevator story was widely circulated, appearing in numerous newspapers and Variety through late October. 

The January 3, 1932, issue of the Topeka Daily Capital-Journal reported: “‘The Shadow’ has refused to reveal his identity and whenever he was scheduled to appear for a broadcast, those who were in the studio were afforded only a glimpse of him as he dashed to the microphone.”

Early depiction of The Shadow.
The April 10, 1932, “Airy Chats” column penned by Bill Schudt (a Columbia scout) reported a series of mishaps that occurred over the network, including: “The night The Shadow was trying to be so mysterious on that Detective Hour and his mask slipped off, and three people immediately recognized him.”

But these press releases were obviously pure hokum. Some columnists did not bother to report the news as it was submitted, but rather offer their own speculations. The November 28, 1930 issue of The Decatur Review reported: “There was a new ‘Shadow’ to introduce the CBS Detective Story Thursday. The regular Shadow has a voice that vibrates one’s backbone. The sub was almost a tenor!” Columnist Jo Ranson in the October 30, 1932, issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, comented: “I still insist that Singin’ Sam’s laugh reminds me of The Shadow, radio’s most sinister figure.” It seems unlikely that a third person was playing the role of The Shadow but there can be no definite answer because there is an on-going debate between historians question whether Readick was a tenor.
Some newspapers did report his identity. The July 8, 1931 issue of The Boston Post reported the identity of the Shadow “not even known by members of that cast, has been uncovered. ‘The Shadow’ is portrayed by Frank Readick, character artist of the CBS, the same man who enacted the majority of the roles in Time magazine’s broadcast, and has also taken parts in Columbia’s True Story hours.”

In the November 27, 1931 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, columnist Jo Ranson added an air of mystery when she remarked: “Very few people at the Columbia studios really know who he is. Every one is entitled to a guess and the guesses have been high, wide and handsome. He generally appears in the studio completely disguised (black robe, hood and mask) and comes up to the mike in the freight elevator. Among those suspected of being The Shadow are Frank Readick, Tony Wons, Bill Schudt, Jesse Butcher, Herb Glover, the Gloomchasers, and the Round Towners Quartet.”

Frank Readick as The Shadow (and all photos on this page).

From January to February 1932, The Shadow returned to the airwaves after a five month absence from the blood ‘n’ thunder format with his own program titled The Shadow. Frank Readick definitely reprised the role for this short-run series, giving the listeners (for five weeks, anyway) the opportunity to hear his weekly narrations. (Readick’s appearance was verified by numerous periodicals, including the January 12, 1932, issue of the Cleveland Press, which remarked: “Frank Readick, a mite of a fellow with an oily mustache, is the very mysterious Columbia ‘Shadow’ you’ll hear tonight.”)

The February 3, 1932, issue of the Elmira, New York, Advertiser reported: “With this week The Shadow again fades from WABC-CBS after a comparatively brief revival of his mystery dramatizations, and The Shadow is impersonated by Frank Readick, whose identity was kept secret for quite a time.”

The newspapers could only work with press releases issued from the network and often contradict each other, leaving one to wonder whether The Shadow’s identity truly remained a secret to anyone other than their readers. The October 2, 1932 issue of Radio Guide revealed Frank Readick as the former announcer, claiming a press agent revealed the fact and “now everybody knows ‘The Shadow.’” The October 5, 1932 issue of the Akron, Ohio, Times-Press claimed that the new Shadow was “not Columbia’s Frank Readick, and his identity will remain a secret.” The October 14 issue of the Grand Rapid Chronicle reported the Shadow’s return, contradicting the Ohio paper: “He’s on the NBC-WEAF net and his name, in case you haven’t heard, is Frank Readick. Last year he was just ‘The Shadow’ and enjoyed hearing remarks about his program, but now he takes his place among the headliners.”

Which all leads to a simple question. When did Frank Readick become publicly known as The Shadow? Who was the first to leak the info out? After finding a column in an old radio periodical that supports the July 8, 1931 Boston Post, there was a casual mention that The Shadow had unmasked on stage at a special event in St. Louis in September 1931. Naturally, I looked up the library on the internet, e-mailed a reference librarian and asked what the possibility would be of having someone dig through old microfilms of St. Louis newspapers (there were three) in September of 1931, to find what I was hoping to verify -- a personal one-stage appearance of The Shadow. Trent Sindelar of the St. Louis Public Library had no problems performing the task. He spent about two hours browsing every page of all three newspapers through the month of September 1931 and he found something that brought new light to the mystery. The results of that finding, and a copy of an advertisement from that microfilm is included below.

The Shadow Unmasks!
Eight weeks after the Detective Story Magazine Hour ended, The Shadow supposedly made an appearance on a radio broadcast heard over KMOX, KSD and KWK in St. Louis, Missouri. Sponsored by the Seventh Annual Southwest National Radio and Allied Products Exposition, the St. Louis Radio Show was heard twice a day from 4:45 to 5:15 and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., CST, in a week-long special broadcast (Monday through Saturday, September 21-26, 1931) from the Crystal Coliseum. Most of the performances were musical in nature, with the Hawaiian Melodists (Joe and Dick), Eddie Jackson’s Crackerjacks, Romeo and Juliet (performed by Robert Betts, tenor, and Grace McGowan, soprano), and Helen Traubel. Not all of the stage performances were broadcast, but on the evening of Friday, September 25, The Shadow was heard over the ether in a rare public appearance. As pictured in this advertisement, The Shadow was scheduled to unmask in front of those in attendance!

Advertisement found on microfilm. Thank you, Trent!

According to a number of news items following the unmasking, Frank Readick was the actor on stage portraying the mysterious Shadow. When The Shadow later made a return to radio, newspapers reprinted a press release issued by the radio station that the masked man’s identity still remained a mystery. A number of columnists who recalled the news item of September 1931 were quick to point out that Frank Readick’s name had been reported as the elusive figure and questioned the validity of the press release. At the time of the unmasking, Street & Smith may have had no intentions to revive The Shadow and therefore created the confusion that mounted throughout the months following.

Months after the unmasking, the following appeared in the Editor's Mailbox column of the May 22-29, 1932 issue of Radio Guide: “After publishing in this column some weeks ago that the real name of ‘The Shadow’ had never been revealed, we received several confidential letters stating that his name was Frank Readick. We have since verified this information.” Many newspaper columnists throughout 1932 and 1933 who were not caught up in the mystery (or followed the events) continued to supply information as it was being delivered via press releases, claiming The Shadow's identity was still a mystery. 

Gotta love Canadian newspapers on microfilm!
There are a few grey areas of casting that remains unknown. The October 18, 1980, issue of The Winnipeg Free Press reported George Earle and Robert Hardy Andrews as playing the role of The Shadow at one time. This inaccurate statement most likely originated from the columnist having consulted a previously published reference guide that incorrectly stated Andrews played the role of “The Shadow” for the five Perfect-O-Lite broadcasts. Numerous periodicals have verified it was, indeed, Frank Readick, during the Perfect-O-Lite era and further investigation has shown Andrews was still in Chicago scripting and acting on soap operas, such as Just Plain Bill and Easy Aces. When Frank and Anne Hummert pulled up stakes in Chicago in 1938 to relocate to New York City, they steered Andrews away from his radio scripting and acting tasks to join them in the trek to the East. A thorough search of the Robert Hardy Andrews papers at Boston University confirms that Andrews never played the role. To this day the error continues to be reprinted, so with this detail, the record is set straight.

On the evening of Friday, June 15, 1934, The Shadow made a comeback in the form of a late-night audition that practically went unnoticed by faithful Shadow followers. Radio listings in the New York Times and other New York newspapers reveal only “Mystery Drama,” with no further details or even a mention of The Shadow. Slated for a deadly time slot of 10:30, following William Barley at the organ and a lecture about better business management for the government by Bernarr MacFadden, rival publisher of Street & Smith, The Shadow was more than likely accidentally discovered by those craving a good mystery yarn or twisting the dial in fear of laughing at the antics of Jack Benny, which aired over NBC during the same time slot. Benny received advanced publicity; The Shadow did not. 

Confirmation of the audition can be found in the June 23, 1934, issue of Billboard, which remarked that The Shadow “made a one-time comeback June 15 on WMCA for Blue Coal. Chances are a steady return in the fall.” Broadcast over WMCA, the same New York station that had established its independence by syndicating programs on motion picture soundtrack film and recently dropping its time-sharing agreement with WNYC, the Shadow broadcast was not aired on any other station, limiting the number of potential listeners and possibly suggesting this was an audition broadcast to determine whether the series could make a
return in the fall.
The actor playing the role of The Shadow remains unknown. Historians speculate either James La Curto or Frank Readick. La Curto had worked at every radio station in New York City and at the time was closely associated with producers at WMCA. The November 24, 1934, issue of Radio Guide reported La Curto replacing Readick “in the role he had had for so long, The Shadow.”  But there was nothing to ensure La Curto, who by that time took over the role for Readick for another radio run of The Shadow, was playing the role for every appearance including auditions. I have seen researchers and authors type their words in such a way as to offer an "assumption" as a fact, misleading readers. There are other Shadow appearances on other programs and the casting for those, too, remains elusive. The mystery continues...