Old Time Radio Thursdays – #014: Gunsmoke (1952-1961)

The short intro: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Old Time Radio is the phrase generally used to refer to the time when radio was (mostly) live, and was full of a variety of different shows, as opposed to simply being a means for record labels to use robots to promote the top records of the day. Old Time Radio Thursdays is my chance to explore some of those old radio shows, their connections (both old and new) to movies, and hopefully to encourage some of the rest of you to take a look at a probably unfamiliar source of entertainment that I truly love. If you want more info on OTR, and some examples of the variety of shows that were made, be sure to check out this introductory post.

Yeah, this is the logo from the opening of the TV show, but it was the best image I could find.

Yes, it’s true. US television’s longest running prime time live action drama actually began as a radio show.

Actually, the story behind the creation of Gunsmoke is rather fascinating. Here’s Wikipedia’s version which squares pretty well with the way I’ve heard it told over the years:

In the late 1940s, CBS chairman William S. Paley, a fan of the Philip Marlowe radio serial, asked his programming chief, Hubell Robinson, to develop a hardboiled Western series, a show about a “Philip Marlowe of the Old West.” Robinson instructed his West Coast CBS Vice-President, Harry Ackerman, who had developed the Philip Marlowe series, to take on the task.

The cast of radio’s Gunsmoke: Howard McNear (Doc), William Conrad (Matt), Georgia Ellis (Kitty) and Parley Baer (Chester)

Ackerman and his scriptwriters, Mort Fine and David Friedkin, created an audition script called “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye” based on one of their Michael Shayne radio scripts, “The Crooked Wheel”. Two auditions were created in 1949. The first was very much like a hardboiled detective series and starred Michael Rye (credited as Rye Billsbury) as Dillon; the second starred Straight Arrow actor Howard Culver in a more Western, lighter version of the same script. CBS liked the Culver version better, and Ackerman was told to proceed.

But there was a complication. Culver’s contract as the star of Straight Arrow would not allow him to do another Western series. The project was shelved for three years, when MacDonnell and Meston discovered it creating an adult Western series of their own.

MacDonnell and Meston wanted to create a radio Western for adults, in contrast to the prevailing juvenile fare such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid.

Marshall Dillon? No, but it is William Conrad in a promotional photo for a later western show that he starred in.

From these converging ideas was born Gunsmoke which was set in Dodge City, Kansas during the thriving cattle days of the 1870s. As far as the goal of creating a more “adult” western, the creators definitely succeeded in that, as the show’s characters, themes, and episodes rarely flinched at presenting a much more realistic portrait of life in the “wild west”. This was not a show where Sheriff Dillon would always shoot the gun from the bad guy’s hand then cart them off to the pokey, nor did he always necessarily escape from certain situations unscathed. There was a reason why one of the main characters and one of Matt’s best friends was the town doctor.

Of course, for anyone who grew up with or who knows Gunsmoke only from it’s TV version, squaring William Conrad’s voice with the image of James Arness may take some work, but really this is one of those cases where you have to set aside your preconceived notions and listen to the shows as they unfold. Or perhaps consider this an “alternate universe” version of the show. You know, it’s kind of like when a book is adapted for television or the movies. Just let it be what it is on its own terms.

For those interested in learning more about or hearing more of radio’s version of Gunsmoke, I’d suggest downloading this OTRR (Old Time Radio Researchers group) certified set of shows from the Internet Archives. The set contains all except six episodes, which are not known to exist. It consists of eleven zipped CDs. The first CD contains many bonus materials, including the Tribute Show, the first TV episode, all known Australian episodes, and a lot of other great stuff.

Until next time, Happy Listening!

2 thoughts on “Old Time Radio Thursdays – #014: Gunsmoke (1952-1961)

  1. Holy Doodle ! I’d forgotten it was Conrad who did the voice of Dillon.
    One of several voice actors who successfully transitioned to TV and Film – including Dehner, Ladd, Chandler … quite a few.
    Or did these guys just do Everything ?

  2. Holy Doodle ! I’d forgotten it was Conrad who did the voice of Dillon.
    One of several voice actors who successfully transitioned to TV and Film – including Dehner, Ladd, Chandler … quite a few.
    Or did these guys just do Everything ?
    Always remember Conrad in a little celebrated (but good) Western called Johnny Concho with Frank Sinatra.

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