“Suspense”: old-time radio chills and thrills

Back in the days of the Golden Age of Radio, the mystery show “Suspense” was a staple for whodunnit-loving Americans. I’m not old enough to have been around for the original broadcasts of “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”, as I was not yet even a gleam in my daddy’s eye back in 1942, but I rediscovered this program online last weekend while hunting for the original radio version of “Sorry, Wrong Number” starring Agnes Moorehead.

With a little research I found that the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock himself adapted his own previously-filmed story (“The Lodger”) , directed the “audition” episode, and even made a brief voice appearance near the end! “Suspense” thus began its run as a regular radio drama in the summer of 1942 and stayed on the air for an amazing 20 years.

An enormous retinue of famous movie stars including Peter Lorre, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Rosalind Russell and scores of others lent their voices to what ended up being a total of 945 episodes broadcast, and “Suspense” was considered the last of the last great radio drama series when it left the air in 1962. Surprisingly, a great many of these broadcasts are still available online for anyone’s free listening pleasure.

Robert Montgomery featured as a "Suspense" host in 1948

Many of these 30-minute shows are thrillers, and based on famous classic short stories that even today’s mystery-lovers may be familiar with, but eventually the show branched out into showcasing science fiction and fantasy themes, even including a version of H.P.Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” starring the delicious intonations of Ronald Coleman. Probably the most remembered “Suspense” show was the very one I had been searching for, the “Sorry Wrong Number” program starring Agnes Moorehead. I learned that this virtually one-woman show was first heard on May 25, 1943, and was such a success that it was produced an additional seven times, each time with Moorehead in the lead role as the nervous invalid woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone and struggles in vain to report it.

I’m a big fan of classic film, so naturally the appearance of so many old-time stars in any program that I was previously unaware of was initially the biggest draw for me. However after listening to just a couple of episodes I recognized something that I’d forgotten amidst the multimedia blitz of our world today. To fully enjoy the audio format of radio I had to really use my own imagination and pay attention. No watching TV, surfing the web or making dinner at the same time, as these broadcasts required me to listen and exercise the thinking and reasoning portion of my brain, which is something that today’s naturally multitasking audience may find quite difficult at first!

Joan Crawford preparing for her performance on "Suspense" in 1949

The book-reading portion of our population will immediately know what I am talking about, but the TV and movie crowd may have a slightly harder time grasping the concept of just focusing on just ONE thing at a time, and using only ONE of our five senses almost exclusively. My college lecture days are long behind me, and I’ll admit that even I had a little difficulty adapting to the concept of total focus on speech alone at first, but once I did I felt a real sense of how rich this medium of radio was once upon a time, and how involved its loyal listeners must have been, because the feeling of total immersion in a story is addictive!

Yes, “Suspense” is old-fashioned and quirky, and there are a few clunkers in the lot, but overall the voice performances are grand and the stories quite entertaining even today. With the inclusion of advertisements for Autolite Sparkplugs and the occasional Victory War Bond promotion added in, it’s just possible to get a an even rarer sense of the bygone era in which these broadcasts were originally made. I absolutely suggest googling “Suspense” and giving it a listen for yourself!

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2 Responses to “Suspense”: old-time radio chills and thrills

  1. Pingback: “Suspense”: old-time radio chills and thrills « Seshat Travels | Old Time Radio

  2. Pingback: Radio drama — Your ticket to entertainment! | Business Unleashed

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