CBS Radio Mystery Theater (aka Radio Mystery Theater and Mystery Theater, sometimes abbreviated as CBSRMT) was an ambitious and sustained attempt during the 1970s to revive the great drama of old classic radio. The series was created by Himan Brown, a radio legend due to his work on Inner Sanctum Mysteries and other shows dating back to the 1930s.
On CBS affiliates, the series began its long run January 6, 1974. The final episode was broadcast on December 31, 1982. The program aired nightly and ran for one hour, including news and commercials. Typically, a week consisted of three to four new episodes, with the remainder of the week filled out with reruns. There were a total of 1399 original episodes. The total number of broadcasts, including reruns, was 2969.
The format was similar to that of classic old time radio shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Whistler, in that a host (E.G. Marshall) introduces each episode and provides pithy wisdom throughout, but unlike the hosts of earlier programs, Marshall is fully mortal, merely someone whose heightened insight and erudition plunge the listener into the world of the macabre.
The show began with the ominous sound of a creaking crypt door, slowly opening to invite listeners in for the evening's adventure, accompanied by Marshall's disturbing utterance, "Come in. Welcome. I am E.G. Marshall." At the end of each show, the door would swing shut, followed by Marshall's classic sign off, "Until next time, pleasant... dreams?," segueing into the show's haunting woodwind theme music.
Marshall hosted the program every year but the final one, when actress Tammy Grimes took over, maintaining the format.
Brown was already one of the leading names in old time radio, having co-created such popular shows as Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Adventures of Nero Wolfe.
CBSRMT was broadcast each weeknight, with three or four episodes being new originals, and the remainder were reruns. There were 1,399 original episodes broadcast. The total number of broadcasts, including reruns, was 2,969. Each episode was allotted a full hour of airtime, but after commercials and news, episodes typically ran for about 40 minutes.
The format was similar to that of classic old time radio shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Whistler, in that there is a host, E.G. Marshall, who introduced each episode and provided pithy wisdom throughout. But unlike the hosts of many classic radios shows, who often had extra-human abilities, Marshall is fully mortal, merely someone whose heightened insight and erudition assist in plunging the listener into the world of the macabre.
The program was pitched, at least initially, to an audience old enough to remember classic radio. Young characters tended to have names more popular a generation earlier, such as Jack, George, Phyllis and Mary. Many scripts, especially those by Ian Martin, showed a tin ear for 1970s youth slang ("Don't let her give you no run-around, dad!" - broadcast of September 12, 1975; "I think bein' around here's gonna be kicks!" - May 21, 1975; "I dig a man who's far out!" - February 19, 1979).
But the debut of CBSRMT coincided with America's intense 1950s nostalgia during the mid-1970s. Because radio mystery drama was reminiscent of that era, the program quickly developed a fan base among young listeners as well.
Old time radio expert John Dunning argues the weakest element of CBSRMT was the scripts, which he argued could vary widely in quality and concept. Dunning thought many of the scripts would have been interesting as 30 minute segments, but lost some impact when expanded for an hour long program; and additionally that many episodes seemed written by scribes unfamiliar with the unique needs of radio drama.
Each show began with the sound of a creaking door slowly opening to invite listeners in for the evening's adventure. Three descending notes from the double basses introduced Marshall's sinister intonation of, "Come in... Welcome." A muted trumpet sting and timpani roll, then: "I'm E.G. Marshall." A low, eerie woodwind theme followed as Marshall introduced the program. At the end of each show, Marshall delivered his classic signoff, "... inviting you to return to our Mystery Theater for another adventure in the macabre. Until next time, pleasant ... dreams?" The door then creaked and slammed shut, followed by the woodwinds of the show's haunting theme music.
Marshall hosted the program from January, 1974, until February, 1982, when actress Tammy Grimes took over for the series' last season, maintaining the format.
The opening and closing themes for CBSRMT are derived from an abbreviated form of the music from the classic Twilight Zone episode "Two," composed by Nathan van Cleeve. Series listeners will immediately recognize the 'RMT Theme' beginning about 1:35 on the "Two" soundtrack selection from the Twilight Zone CD boxed set. Other background tracks from the Twilight Zone music library, to which CBS owned full rights, are featured repeatedly in episodes of CBSRMT.
Despite the show's title, Brown expanded its scope beyond mysteries to include horror, science fiction, historical drama and comedy, along with seasonal dramas at Christmas. Nevertheless, as stated by Marshall at each show's finish, the show's focus was on "adventures into the macabre."
In addition to original stories, there were adaptations of classic tales by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe (seven Poe stories were adapted during a special week in January, 1975), Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Charles Dickens and others. Later in the series Brown experimented with five-episode adaptations of novels such as Les Misérables and The Last Days of Pompeii, as well as an original five-part story about Egyptian queen Nefertiti with Tammy Grimes in the title role.
Prominent actors from radio and screen performed on the series. Notable regulars included Fred Gwynne, Mercedes McCambridge, Norman Rose, Tony Roberts, Howard Da Silva, Celeste Holm, Morgan Fairchild, Larry Haines, Paul Hecht, Kim Hunter, Mason Adams, Keir Dullea, John Beal, Alexander Scourby, Marian Seldes, a then-unknown John Lithgow, Jack Grimes and Tammy Grimes.
The series also introduced a new generation of listeners to many of the great old time radio voices, including such distinctive performers as Joan Banks, Jackson Beck, Ralph Bell, Roger DeKoven, Robert Dryden, Sam Edwards, Virginia Gregg, Leon Janney, Victor Jory, Evelyn "Evie" Juster, Mandel Kramer, Marvin Miller, Santos Ortega, Bryna Raeburn, Alan Reed, Anne Seymour, Ann Sheppard, Les Tremayne, Lurene Tuttle and Janet Waldo.
A number of well-known veteran and future stars made guest appearances, including
- Theo Bikel ("Just One More Day," first aired May 29, 1975)
- Richard Crenna ("Ghost Plane," September 12, 1975)
- Joan Hackett ("The Eye of Death," March 7, 1975)
- An elderly Margaret Hamilton ("Triptych for a Witch," October 30, 1975)
- Casey Kasem ("The Headless Hessian," September 23, 1975)
- Agnes Moorehead (appeared in the first broadcast, "The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill" and "The Ring of Truth," January 26, 1974<)
- Jerry Orbach ("The Follower," January 25, 1975)
- Sarah Jessica Parker at age 12, ("The Child Cat's Paw", May 17, 1977)
- Mandy Patinkin ("Lost Dog," January 9, 1974)
- Kathleen Quinlan ("Ring of Evil," April 16, 1979)
- Jerry Stiller ("The Frontiers of Fear," August 13, 1974)
- Roy Thinnes ("Journey Into Terror," August 14, 1974)
Actors were paid union scale at around $73.92 per show. Writers earned a flat rate of $350 per show. The production took place with assembly-line precision. Brown would meet with actors at 9:00 am for the first reading of the script. After he assigned roles, the recording began. By noon the recording of the actors was complete, and Brown handed everyone their checks. Post-production was done in the afternoon.
In 1975, CBSRMT won the prestigious Peabody Award, and in 1990 it was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. In 1998, the still-active Brown attempted a brief revival of the series, rebroadcasting selected old episodes with his own introductions replacing Marshall's.
CBSRMT remains perennially popular with collectors to this day, with numerous websites and discussion forums. A Usenet newsgroup is devoted to trading MP3 files of episodes. Himan Brown has explored selling copies of CBSRMT shows by asking on his website whether or not people would be willing to purchase original recordings of his program.
One of the most interesting aspects for some collectors of CBSRMT is that some of the shows were taped with both news and commercials embedded, which provides an illuminating insight into the period in which the show ran.
While some fans of old-time radio may judge CBSRMT as inferior to similar shows from the past, such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Suspense and The Mysterious Traveler, which were produced in a 30-minute format, such comparisons must take into account the sheer prodigiousness of production by Himan Brown and his players. At the rate of one show per day, it would take nearly four years to listen to each of the 1399 hour-long episodes of CBSRMT.
On May 6, 1979, Himan Brown was presented a Broadcast Preceptor Award by San Francisco State University for his contributions with the CBSRMT.
In 1978, a paperback anthology with three short stories adapted from the series' radio scripts was published.
The episode "Children of Death", broadcast February 5, 1976, written by Sam Dann, served as the basis for Dann's novel, The Third Body, published in 1979 by Popular Library. Another of his stories for Mystery Theater, "Goodbye Carl Erich" from the 1975 season, was also turned into a novel by the same name, first published in 1985.
From June 3 to November 27, 1998, CBSRMT was rebroadcast over NPR, with Himan Brown replacing the opening narrations of E.G. Marshall.
In January 1999, McFarland & Company, Inc. published The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a book documenting the history of the program, including an episode guide. Fully indexed, the 475-page book was authored by Gordon Payton and Martin Grams, Jr. It was published in both hardcover and trade paperback.
In October, 2006 a third book about Mystery Theater was published, examining the series value today in education and instruction: The CBS Radio Mystery Theater as an Educational Degree. The 180-page hardcover was published by Stahl Consolidated Manufacturing Corporation (Huntsville, Alabama).
All three books were recently featured and reviewed in an article written by Roger Sobin, which appeared in the Spring, 2008 issue of Old-Time Detection Magazine.