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Drop Dead! An Exercise In Horror!

April 13, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau

Lights Out, originally created by writer/producer Wyllis Cooper, debuted in 1934 and was one of the most inventive radio shows of that decade and beyond. Its midnight time slot was intentional, as the radio show was known for rather extreme, violent storylines. After just two years in production, Cooper high-tailed it for Hollywood, and the series was taken over by Arch Oboler, an ambitious, brilliant playwright from a poor but cultured Jewish family in Chicago.

The midnight time slot was also crucial in that it didn’t require any underwriting from a sponsor. To keep a show on the air, writers and directors often censor or slightly abridge their work to appease those holding the purse strings. Since the midnight time slot didn’t require any underwriting from a sponsor, Oboler had near-free reign over the show’s direction. Handy, because he really didn’t give a rat’s ass about towing the company line.

Obler wanted to move the radio drama format away from boring soap operas and into a highly creative, surreal direction. In addition to his talent for creating great horror stories, his imaginative usage of sound effects made the show an instant success.

Oboler didn’t waste any time. His first episode, “Burial Service,” was about a paralyzed girl being buried alive – pretty heady stuff for a time when Little Orphan Annie and Sherlock Holmes were the popular shows of the time.

The titles for episodes illustrate just how dark Oboler was willing take his listeners: “State Executioner,” “They Died,” “The Bride of Madness,” “Death Prayer,” “Mother-In-Law,” (wait, what?) “Kill,” and humorously, “Murder in the Script Department.” Then there is “The Author and the Thing,” where Oboler played himself being haunted by one of his own creations.

The show was a quick success and soon big name players were lining up to be a part of the action. Boris Karloff did five episodes in a row, thereby vindicating Lights Out horror credibility.

Oboler’s writing technique — sitting in bed late at night talking out his story ideas into a Dictaphone, playing all the characters himself — was crucial in the show’s stream-of-consciousness tone, further bolstering the nightmarish aspects.

By adhering to his plan to write about “the terrors and monsters within each of us,” Oboler began to slip in anti-Fascist themes and references. “The Ivory Tower,” starring Russian actress Alla Zazimova, being an early example. As was common for the time, however, major radio networks turned a blind eye to the nasty goings-on in Europe. Until Pearl Harbor went up in smoke, the creeping death of fascism was treated as if it just wasn’t happening. Out of sight, out of mind. NBC, which broadcasted Lights Out, was no different. Almost immediately there was a tug-of-war between the writer and the network regarding global issues.

Oboler cranked out almost 150 shows before he wanted to move on by the summer of 1939, and there were plenty of other jobs for him to choose from. NBC created an experimental radio hour that year and gave Oboler his own series, without a sponsor to worry about, where he had total creative control. Arch Oboler’s Plays aired from 7:00 – 7:30pm opposite radio monolith Jack Benny. Again, big-name stars were willing to work for less pay in order to appear in Oboler’s plays — the most valuable cache of all, as far as the industry was concerned.

Oboler’s continued success attracted Proctor and Gamble to fork over some cash in order to be the sponsor for his next series, Everyman’s Theater.

When the U.S. became involved in WWII, suddenly Oboler’s once too-hot-to-handle, anti-fascist leanings were welcomed with the open arms of executives tripping over themselves to get involved. The result, Plays for Americans, which Oboler worked for free, boiled down to half-hour propaganda dramas stoking the coals of the war effort on the homefront. Years later he’d recall, "I found myself wanting the dimensions of that half hour on the air expanded to take in the actual horror of a world facing, with half-shut eyes, the fascistic Frankenstein monster moving over Europe."

In order to make up for the donation of time and talent, Oboler agreed to have Lights Out revived for CBS, and the floodgates of astoundingly good horror and suspense was again unleashed on the public. This second run series (1940-1941), which is mostly available to us all these decades later, features a stylistic opening that’s one of the most memorable in the history of radio dramas.

Announcer Frank Martin’s deep-toned voice is the first thing you hear: “Lights out. Everybody.” Which is followed by 13 strikes of a bell. After the fifth ring, Oboler himself speaks in a trance-like voice in between the remaining bells: “It… is… later… than… you… think.”

For the iconic warning, he adopted a more leveled, professional broadcasting tone.

“This is Arch Oboler bringing you another in our series of stories of the unusual. And once again we caution you: These stories are definitely not for the timid soul, so we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.” The disclaimer is punctuated by a loud, single gong strike, making for the audible equivalent of the curtain rising on an opening scene.

Of course, time was running out. Radio dramas (and programing, in general) were the first victim to the rapidly increasing popularity and availability of television sets. Oboler took this as a challenge, spending the next 20 years working and writing for any medium that would have him.

As with many of his contemporaries, he first decamped to Hollywood where he wrote, produced, and directed both mainstream and B-movies: Escape (1940), The Arelo Affair (1947), and Bwana Devil (1952).

His play Rocket From Manhattan was adapted for Broadway and retitled Night Of The Auk in 1949. Next, that same year, was a six-episode television anthology called Oboler’s Comedy Theater. The printed word was a natural fit and collections of his stories were also either anthologized or parceled out in magazines.

Then, in 1962, taking advantage of the popularity of long-playing records, Oboler re-introduced himself and his craft by dishing out the wonderfully macabre Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror! LP, which serves as an overview of his greatest radio work.

With a simple image of a giant skull, the cover alone was a jarring slap in the face of the early ‘60s, sure to catch any kid’s curious eye.

For the back cover, Oboler relied on his writing talent to clinch interest. In his inimitable way, Oboler gave the label some choice copy: “Well, here’s the recording,” he writes in a presumed letter to the label, “I hope it scares the wash-and-wear trousers off you!”

Drop Dead An Exercise in Horror back cover

Getting a jump on Hunter Thompson, he conjures a bit of Gonzo PR by running down a list of “expenses” accrued during the recording process, illustrating the fun and absurdity of his work.

I had better warn you about a bill you may receive shortly. It will be for the following items:

1 wrecked diesel engine

4 quarts fresh blood

6 pairs of rubber gloves

1 ripe watermelon

6 bottles tranquilizers

1 registered nurse

6 assorted chicken hearts

There will also be some miscellaneous bills for minor items including field artillery, one alabaster mountain, and one slightly damaged light plane sans wings. You asked for realism, right?

About rebuilding the studio we worked in: I know a contractor who tells me that, by ripping up the floor and plastering the walls, it should be very simple to get rid of the bloodstains. This very reliable builder (who happens to be an uncle) would be very happy to do the job at cost plus $50,000.

And that, right there, is what distanced Oboler from many of his peers — the seriousness of the fun. Oboler, in good humor, made a point in the final paragraph about the good ol' days, highlighting the importance imagination played in radio programs. This a human trait he saw vanishing as television and films became more accessible.

And another snippet from the back cover:

"I’m pleased that, other than the exquisite photograph of my skull which appears in the cover, there are no pictures with this album. I think that you or anyone else who listens to this LP will get far more pleasure recreating the madness and the mystery on the widescreen of your own mind."

The material contained on the album is no lighthearted affair: seven abridged, over-the-top chunks of Lights Out programs performed by some of the same voice actors used in the originals (Virginia Gregg and Forrest Lewis being two such notables). Not only is the notorious “Chicken Heart” story included (a tale known for its constant, hypnotic heartbeat sound effect), but also “The Dark,” which centers on a mysterious mist creeping up on victims and turning their bodies inside out.

These 1962 versions, however, aren’t as convincing as the originals — running times were cut to fit the time constraints of the LP format. For years, records were one of the only places people could hear these stories, so truncated versions were welcome.

Throughout the decades, all stripes of radio programs have gone through various re-issues (LP’s to cassettes to compact discs) and, with each new technological advancement, easier availability. With the wide-open range of the internet, one can easily track down complete runs of programs, allowing everyone more access to this era of entertainment than in their heydey.

While not a household name on par with Orson Welles or Rod Serling, Arch Oboler’s standing as a first-rate creator of the macabre remains intact. Stephen King has called him “the genre’s prime auteur,” and that’s about as good as it can get.

For those willing to sit alone in the dark and have their imagination filled with wicked, deadly tales, the horror is out there. Arch Oboler, dead now for 30 years, has been waiting for you.


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