Thursday, October 20, 2016

Lights Out

Lights Out is an American old-time radio program devoted mostly to horror and the supernatural. Created by  Wyllis Cooper and then taken over by Arch Oboler, versions of Lights Out aired on different networks, at various times, from January 1934 to the summer of 1947 and the series eventually made the transition to television. Lights Out was one of the earliest radio horror programs, predating Suspense and Inner Sanctum.

The Wyllis Cooper era

In the fall of 1933, NBC writer Wyllis Cooper conceived the idea of "a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour." The idea was to offer listeners a dramatic program late at night, at a time when the competition was mostly airing music. At some point, the serial concept was dropped in favor of an anthology format emphasizing crime thrillers and the supernatural. The first series of shows (each 15 minutes long) ran on a local NBC station, WENR, at midnight Wednesdays, starting in January 1934. By April, the series proved successful enough to expand to a half hour. In January 1935, the show was discontinued in order to ease Cooper's workload (he was then writing scripts for the network's prestigious Immortal Dramas program), but was brought back by huge popular demand a few weeks later. After a successful tryout in New York City, the series was picked up by NBC in April 1935 and broadcast nationally, usually late at night and always on Wednesdays. Cooper stayed on the program until June 1936, when another Chicago writer, Arch Oboler, took over. By the time Cooper left, the series had inspired about 600 fan clubs.

The Arch Oboler era

When Cooper departed, his replacement—a young, eccentric and ambitious Arch Oboler—picked up where he left off, often following Cooper's general example but investing the scripts with his own concerns. Oboler made imaginative use of stream-of-consciousness narration and sometimes introduced social and political themes that reflected his commitment to antifascist liberalism.

Although in later years Lights Out would be closely associated with Oboler, he was always quick to credit Cooper as the series' creator and spoke highly of the older author, calling him "the unsung pioneer of radio dramatic techniques" and the first person Oboler knew of who understood that radio drama could be an art form.

Like Cooper, Oboler was much in demand and highly prolific. While working on Lights Out, he wrote numerous dramatic sketches for variety shows (The Chase and Sanborn Hour, Rudy Vallee's programs), anthologies (Grand Hotel, The First Nighter Program, The Irene Rich Show) and specials. In August 1936, singer Vallee, then the dean of variety show hosts, claimed that Lights Out was his favorite series. Oboler occasionally redrafted his Lights Out scripts for use on Vallee's and other variety hours. A version of Oboler's "Prelude to Murder" starring Peter Lorre and Olivia de Havilland was scheduled to air on a November 1936 Vallee broadcast. Other Lights Out plays that turned up on various late 1930s variety programs included "Danse Macabre" (with Boris Karloff), "Alter Ego" (with Bette Davis) and "The Harp."

Oboler met the demand by adopting an unusual scripting procedure: He would lie in bed at night, smoke cigarettes, and improvise into a Dictaphone, acting out every line of the play. In this way, he was able to complete a script quickly, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes, though he might take as long as three or four hours. In the morning, a stenographer would type up the recording for Oboler's revisions. Years later, Rod Serling, who counted radio fantasists like Cooper, Oboler, and Norman Corwin among his inspirations, would use a similar process to churn out his many teleplays for The Twilight Zone, a series that in many respects was to television what Lights Out was to radio.

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