The Top Ten Performers of Old Time Radio
Gunsmoke - the Radio Cast
Gunsmoke - Bill Conrad
Agnes Moorhead in Sorry Wrong Number
The Great Gildersleeve
the Lone Ranger
Gracie Allen Runs for U.S. President
Jack Benny Show with Basil Rathbone
Orson Welles in "The Hitch Hiker"
The War of the Worlds - Radio Broadcast
The Shadow- Orson Welles & Agnes Moorhead
Lights Out - Boris Karloff in The Cat Wife
Agnes Moorhead - Radio Superstar
Brett Morrison - The Shadow
Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone
By Bill Russo
Radio used to be just like television - except that it delivered a higher quality picture.
Indeed, the images transmitted by radio were in HD and 3D long before TV could even dream of the technology.
To the people who lived during the golden age of radio this is absolutely true. And to anyone of any age, who has ever listened to a thrilling ‘Lights Out’ episode on a windy, ‘rain smashing into the window panes night‘; it is a sure bet that 'the unseen' can frighten you as much, or more, than 'the seen'.
It was called “The Theater of the Mind” and during its greatest years (from around 1939 to 1962), radio delivered the greatest theater ever.
To come up with a top ten list of the greatest radio actors, I consulted only my memories of more than 60 years of listening to dramatic radio: first live as it happened and later on tapes and CDs & Old Time Radio rebroadcasts.
HERE IS THE LIST OF THE TOP TEN RADIO GREATS
10. Harold Peary.
You might not be familiar with his real name, but almost everyone has heard of “The Great Gildersleeve”.
Peary played the role on NBC’s Fibber McGee and Molly show to such great popularity, that he was given broadcasting’s first spin off series. In 1941 Gildersleeve premiered on NBC radio and lasted all the way up through 1957.
Gildy was played by Peary until 1950 when he left NBC and the show in favor of CBS radio. He was replaced by a sound-alike named Willard Waterman. Waterman was good, but Peary was better. He created the role and fleshed out Gildersleeve from a few lines of script. Peary’s laugh and exasperated cries of ‘ooooh Leroy!’ were radio classics that could not be scripted.
9. Brace Beemer.
Another name you may not know: but his air name is among radio’s most famous. He was The Lone Ranger. For 13 years Brace gave voice to the masked man.
He looked the part. He played the part. He lived the part.
Beemer would regularly put on his white hat and outfit - complete with spurs and the 'Great Horse Silver' - and visit nursing homes, orphanages, schools and hospitals. Ron Lackman, in his book ‘Same Time Same Station’ said that Brace Beemer did it all without publicity and without compensation.
The Lone Ranger roamed the Kilocycles from 1933 to 1955. There were a few other actors before Beemer took on the role in 1941, but he put his stamp on it like no one else. He rode the show all the way up to the last live program in 1954. The network ran repeats in 1955 and then gave up on the radio version as the TV show took over. Another great actor, Clayton Moore, became the man behind the mask.
8. George Burns & Gracie Allen.
George and Gracie enter the eight spot in tandem because during her lifetime, she and George were as close as shakers of salt and pepper. They always worked together, and you really could not use one without the other.
Gracie would hit 60 laugh home runs every single show, but she could not have done it without the skilled pitching of George; who always knew where to throw a line so Gracie could nail it.
Burns and Allen were at times on NBC and also had several seasons on CBS. No matter which network, the show ran without interruption from 1935 to 1950, when it migrated to television.
7. Jack Benny.
Jack’s show ran on various networks from 1933 to 1955, For many years the Benny show was number one and indeed Jack may have been the most popular performer of the Golden Age.
His show was one of the first ensemble sit-coms. Like Seinfeld, Jack did not always deliver the big lines or the funny lines. A zany cast of characters paraded by Jack during each show, much in the same way Kramer, Newman, George and Elaine bounced their material off Jerry.
For several years Jack did both radio and TV, but somewhere around 1953 he decided not to make any more radio programs, so for two years the network ran only re-runs: and the re runs often scored a number one rating.
6. Basil Rathbone:
He was the ultimate Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen and also on the silvertone radio. Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson made only 14 films, but acted in over 200 Sherlock Holmes radio stories between 1939 and 1946 on NBC and later the Mutual Broadcasting System.
The writing was based on names and incidents suggested by Conan Doyle’s original stories, and was done expertly by Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher. There were occasional contributions from Leslie Charteris, who was the author of the hit chain of novels (also a radio & tv series) featuring “The Saint”.
Unhappily for fans of 221B, Rathbone tired of the radio series in 1946 and quit, even though he was offered a huge amount of money if he would continue. Nigel Bruce did not want to quit, so he partnered with Tom Conway and the New, New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aired in 1947. Conway did a fine job and Nigel Bruce was, as always, Nigel Bruce...but the ratings were nowhere near what they were with Rathbone, so the show was dropped from the 1948 schedule.
Almost all of the Rathbone-Bruce radio adventures are available cheaply and in excellent quality. Many are available to listen to and download for free at the Internet Archives Old Radio section.
5. Boris Karloff:
Boris did quite a bit of radio, but takes the number five rating based on just one single performance….”The Cat Wife”.
This is a must listen episode of Arch Obler's “Lights Out”. Karloff plays a hardworking cuckold with a horrid wife. She transforms into an unearthly 'horror' after she argues with Boris when he comes home to find her partying with her drunken,rowdy friends.
4. Brett Morrison:
He played “The Shadow” longer than any of the several actors who had a crack at impersonating 'the man about town who learned the secret of invisibility in the Orient'.
As a person who could not be seen, The Shadow was the most perfect radio character ever. Morrison played him well, from 1943 to 1956 - with time out in the middle for the Second World War. A renaissance man in real life, Morrison had the air of one who actually could learn secret stuff in the Orient and bring it home to the States.
3. Orson Welles:
Orson Welles also played the Shadow. He had the role for the 1938 and 1939 seasons. He was a brash 22 year old boy genius who was juggling his “Shadow” role with a little acting troupe he had on Broadway called the 'Mercury Theater'.
On broadcast days, Welles would be taxied from his Broadway performance to the radio studio. He would storm in at the last second, and pick up his script just minutes before the show was scheduled to begin. Without rehearsal or even reading through the script, he would give a masterful performance every single time.
His Margot Lane, Agnes Moorhead, once told of a particularly good episode. She said that Welles was being his usual booming self, reading his lines with authority and chasing bad guys around the radio stage.
During the middle commercial halfway through the show, Welles stage whispered to Moorhead, “Hey Agnes, this is a pretty good show. I wonder how it turns out!”
In addition to his Shadow work Welles had a few other series. From London for the BBC, he did a program called Harry Lime…it was a prequel to “The Third Man”. Most of Welles radio work was good. Some of it was spectacular.
For the Mercury Theater and also for Suspense, Welles did “The Hitch hiker”. It’s a chilling story of a 1939 road trip from New York to California with Welles driving and death following him.
His biggest contribution to radio, of course, was “The War of the Worlds”. It’s probably the most famous radio show in history and should be listened to every year or two - much like Citizen Kane needs to be viewed every couple of years.
2. Bill Conrad:
William Conrad may perhaps be known to television viewers as the portly star of ‘Cannon’ or ‘Jake and the Fat Man’…….but to radio listeners Bill will always be the fast draw gunman who took a chancy job that’s a little lonely: The Marshall’s job at Dodge City, Kansas. It was the greatest western of all: Gunsmoke.
Gunsmoke started on radio in 1952 and was an immediate hit. Bill Conrad was perfect as Matt Dillon. He was tough, a little unmannered, deadly with a six-gun, and inclined to be rough on prisoners. Conrad played the part to the hilt. His voice could bite like the business end of a saw and he never shouted ‘come out with your hands up’ to any crooks. He just blasted ‘em. When Gunsmoke went to TV, the network bosses never gave Conrad a chance for the part. They gave him a ‘fake’ audition but had no intention of installing a ‘fat’ guy as the TV Marshall of Dodge.
The Radio Gunsmoke had a much harder edge than the television version. On TV, sometimes it seemed like Miss Kitty was Oprah…always helping people, giving away stuff, being nice to everybody, and lending cowpokes a couple silver dollars.
On radio, everybody knew what Miss Kitty’s business really was.
Listen to some radio Gunsmokes at the Internet Archive and you’ll quit those mild TV ‘smokes’ in favor of the full flavor radio ones.
1. Agnes Moorhead:
Radio’s greatest actress is Agnes Moorhead.
In later life she did a lot of television, including Bewitched where she played Endora, Samantha’s Mom.
In radio she was brilliant. She was the first “Margot Lane” to Orson Welles' Shadow.
She performed many other great gigs, but she gets the Top Actor Spot for a single role……..”Sorry Wrong Number”.
She plays a sickly wife who has taken to her bed and is awaiting her husband’s return from work when she overhears an ominous telephone call.
The show plays in real time as she frantically makes phone calls to get help when she imagines that her life is in danger. She can’t leave her bed and has to rely solely on the phone for her rescue.
This performance was so well received and so highly rated on the “Suspense” program that it was annually rebroadcast “Live” many times.
Sadly, the Golden Age of Radio ended when CBS pulled the plug on “Johnny Dollar” and “Suspense” in September of 1962. In the 1970s Hyman Brown began the “CBS Mystery Theater” which ran from 1974 to 1982 and introduced dramatic radio to a whole new generation.
Recently, Carl Amari has produced all new, radio versions of the Twilight Zone. The show is carried on pay radio and on many free stations. It can also be downloaded cheaply from Twilightzoneradio.com. The series features Stacy Keach as narrator and uses many current actors like Jason Alexander (George on Seinfeld) and Jim Caviezel.
Jim French produces a weekly package of shows including some brand new Sherlock Holmes programs. Google “Imagination Theater” to listen to a few for free or to buy some Cds.
The internet has become the new home of all the old radio shows. Do some searches and you will find free access to thousands of hours of radio entertainment.
More by this Author
How hard are you willing to work to make your dream come true? How many years will you toil to get where you want to be? Here's a story of a man who has been chasing his dream for over 60 years.
A young country musician is offered a three year deal from a Nashville record company...but he has to leave home & tour Europe and Australia. He's torn between family & wanting to succeed in music.
Update on eerie creature sightings and the film and TV documentaries about haunted New England