Tag Archives: Theater of the Mind

Who Knows The Shadow?

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“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

I knew that phrase before I ever heard a single episode of that very popular crime show from the Golden Age of radio. My dad liked to use the phrase and he would tell me of those old, old days when families would gather around the radio to listen to shows like The Jack Benny Program, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, and The Shadow. People would sit transfixed looking at their radios as though they were television sets. Seems odd, but it does make sense if you think of the radio as a storyteller. Where else would you look? You don’t want to be rude, do you?

In the early 1970s, radio technology had advanced some due to the transistor. Radios could be smaller and more affordable. And they could be placed under you pillow, so you could listen as you went to sleep. Each Sunday night, after Casey Kasem signed off his American Top 40 countdown, the local station would play some old radio shows from that bygone era. Oh, how I dug listening to them, especially The Shadow.

Radio was theater of the mind and in your mind could be found the most spectacular special effects, effects that are just now being approached by the best FX departments of Hollywood. But, through radio (and books, I suppose) when cued by the dialog as to what is going on, each listener’s view in their mind’s eye would be unique to them. That’s something the visual medium is only able to do by not showing something to the audience.

Suspenseful moments were all the more suspenseful because you couldn’t see what was happening. It was the “less is more” concept and it couldn’t be any other way on radio. Jack Benny’s pauses were funnier, Fibber McGee’s closet had so much more junk in it than could ever be shown, and The Shadow’s laugh was so much creepier and more menacing simply because the visuals were all in our heads. In film, the viewer can be shown everything, but good filmmakers know that to build suspense or the feelings of dread and terror not seeing something can be much more effective.

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That’s why The Shadow was so perfect for radio. Trained in the mystical arts of the Far East, Lamont Cranston had the ability to cloud men’s mind so that he could not be seen. He became a shadow whose sinister laugh would alert the bad guys of his presence. Like Batman (whose creators were greatly influenced by Cranston’s alter ego), the Shadow knew criminals to be a fearful and superstitious lot and his abilities made him an excellent crime fighter.

He was assisted by his “friend and companion” Margo Lane. She was the only other person to know Lamont’s secret identity. I have to wonder, since this was the late 1930s and Margo and Lamont were not married, were any of the more conservative listeners concerned about the nature of their relationship? I don’t recall there being any indication of romance between them. Hey! Men and women can work together without any hanky panky.

In 1935 the character of the Shadow started out as the voice that introduced the CBS radio program the Detective Story Hour, on which he would open each show saying, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” and then he’d laugh that terrifying laugh. Later, in 1937, CBS developed a crime drama with The Shadow as its lead character and it was a very young Orson Welles who provided the voice. Listening to Welles as Cranston and the Shadow it’s hard to believe he was only in his early 20s.

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A very young Orson Welles as the Shadow.

Those old radio shows were aired live and with very little rehearsal. Actors had to be able to act from the page after only gaining a very cursory view of the script before going to air. They didn’t have much to go on, but most shows went just fine. On one particular Shadow episode (Death From The Deep) there were a couple moments when Welles seems to step on his fellow actors’ lines, but he may have been going for dramatic effect.

There’s an entertaining conversation between Welles and Johnny Carson about the old days of live radio dramas and comedies. (You can check that out here.) In that conversation Carson mentions what a great medium for storytelling radio was and he’s so right. I suggest you go to YouTube and find and listen to a few of those old radio shows. Let your mind’s eye have a little fun.

And remember:

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadows knows!”

Packing Peanuts!

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