The Infamous Mr. Oboler

Radio shows are kind of enigmatic to my generation. My parents and grandparents listened to them, but all I knew about that sort of thing were the Christian audio dramas I heard on Family Radio sometimes. Yes, they do exist. No offense to anyone who likes them, but the ones I heard in the eighties were hokey and melodramatic, punctuated by vigorous organ music.

Fast-forward to 2008. My son was a baby, and I was puttering around the library with him one day when I found a CD collection called America At War. Being interested in the World War Two period, I picked it up and started reading. Out jumped a whole lot of then-unfamiliar names and titles, like Jim and Marian Jordan, Lux Radio TheatreMarch of Time,  and Norman Corwin. Intrigued and slightly mystified, I took the CDs home and popped them into my stereo.

And…it was an epiphany. It sounds hyperbolic, but listening to those programs felt like time travel. Suddenly, I was seeing what people decades ago had seen and thinking about what they thought about. I was hooked.

Source: Old-Time Radio Catalogue

While I enjoyed everything I heard, the writer who soon became my big favorite was Arch Oboler. A Latvian Jewish American, Oboler is most remembered for his work on the horror series, Lights Out, which he took over from its creator, Wyllis Cooper. Not a huge fan of horror, Oboler also wrote on a wide variety of other topics, and even delved into film and novel-writing. However, his horror plays were extremely effective. Ideas that would’ve been utterly silly or impossible to any other writer, such as a chicken heart eating New York City, were bone-chilling when Oboler tackled them. He generally wasn’t big on having tons of music in his plays, because he thought dramatic impact was more immediate without it. What also struck me about his writing was that it seemed to have a lot more meat on it than most of the others; not that other programs were completely inane, but Oboler’s character studies were more thoughtful and realistic. He often made use of the surrealist format, which was unusual, but completely natural for an auditory media. Plus, I appreciated never knowing what to expect. The typical thing in radio was to find a formula and stick to it. Fibber McGee and Molly had the hall closet and the neighbors dropping by to chat. Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve had his trick laugh. Even Norman Corwin had his usuals–plays on words, literary references, and sometimes entire programs written in rhyming couplets. While the English B.A. in me geeked out over all of this, I found Oboler’s view of life and his writing style really resonated with me the most. He used to say that human nature is one of the scariest things in the world, and this is absolutely right.

In that spirit, and just in time for Halloween, I’ve put together a sampler of Oboler’s extensive body of work. I apologize if any of these mp3s don’t play perfectly, but they at least will give a taste of what made Oboler a unique part of broadcast history (Not to mention, they’ll fill up some time between trick-or-treaters).

The Fast One (October 14, 1936, adapted and rebroadcast on January 5, 1943): One of Oboler’s earliest Lights Out episodes, “Fast” is the tale of mysterious robberies and accidents happening all over an unnamed town. No one can figure out what’s going on, and the weirdest part is that some victims wind up squashed flat. A young journalist gets curious, and meets a scientist who tells him of an elixir that can make someone move faster than sound. It appears to be the set-up for the perfect crime, but there’s a catch. There’s always a catch.

The Ugliest Man In the World (March 14, 1941, rebroadcast on Lights Out June 1, 1943): The plot here is what it sounds like–Paul is an outwardly ugly man looking for his place in a world that torments him for his appearance. Heartbreaking and beautiful, “Man” was written as an audition play for NBC. The higher-ups were so impressed that they enlisted Oboler for a new series, Arch Oboler’s Plays, which was a huge honor, considering Oboler wasn’t yet much of a name in 1939.

An American Is Born (January 19, 1942): Lots of A-list stars clamored to work with Oboler, and in this play Bette Davis is Marta, half of a young Czech couple waiting to get into the United States from Mexico. Marta is pregnant, and more than anything, she wants her baby to be born in the States. 1942 started off rather dismally for Americans, who were hungry for good news, and plays such as “American” reminded them that other countries envied our freedoms.

Source: Digital Deli Too

They Met At Dorset (February 23, 1943): Two Germans parachute into England to meet Rudolph Hess and carry out a mysterious mission for the Fuhrer. They land on a rainy night and seek shelter in what they think is an old abandoned country house, when they meet the cultured Burley family. After making some polite small talk, the Germans end up shooting the Burleys when their cover gets blown. Their problem seems to be solved, except that the Burleys are hard to kill for some strange reason.

The Dream (March 16, 1943): A woman is terrified of sleeping because she has the same dream every time. What does she find so frightening, and why can’t she shake it off? Will she ever get a good night’s sleep? This play is a terrific example of the surrealism Oboler excelled at, as it literally takes place inside the character’s head, or rather her subconscious.

Murder In the Script Department (May 11, 1943): As his reputation for horror grew, Oboler found the people he worked with had lots of preconceived notions about him, and he got plenty of sly fun out of it. “Murder” is a wink-and-nudge poke about two typists who get locked in the script department while typing up an Oboler play. The lights go out, the phones don’t work, their typewriters jam, and those are just the technical difficulties.

The House I Live In (April 26, 1945): A tale of a lonely father waiting for his children to come home from overseas, “House” was inspired by a popular Frank Sinatra song. It was initially presented by Ronald Colman and Dinah Shore on a series called Everything For the Boys, but I prefer this version because, unlike the Ronald Colman one, it’s in first person and really captures the fatigue felt by the public late in the war.

An Exercise In Horror (A Peculiar Comedy) (May 24, 1945): Starring Peter Lorre, this play satirizes horror cliches of the time, as well a few of Mr. Oboler’s greatest hits. It’s funny and sobering, as it also explores why Oboler lost what little taste he had for the horror genre. (Note: Old Time Radio Download’s copy is heavy on the static.)

Source: Scifist

Rocket From Manhattan (September 20, 1945): Like many after the atomic bombs were dropped, Oboler was both apprehensive and optimistic about the new world he had suddenly been thrust into. Like many, he couldn’t help envisioning the worst, and “Manhattan” summed up what was going through a lot of people’s minds. Later reimagined as a stage play, “Night of the Auk,” it is nuclear war as seen by a group of astronauts on their return from the first voyage to the moon.

The Family Nagashi (September 27, 1945): This play deals with a Japanese family welcoming one of their own back from overseas, and everyone coming to terms with their experiences. One major aspect of the Second World War was, of course, the internment of Japanese Americans in camps. Not everyone took to the idea to say the least, and Hollywood basically pretended it wasn’t happening, but Oboler was one of those who promoted reconciliation.

Arch Oboler was known to be eccentric and sometimes a bit of a firebrand, but also impossible to be indifferent to once discovered. He really raised the bar in terms of structure, use of sound, and characterization. More importantly, Oboler knew how to capture human nature, quirks and all, while making sound and pithy commentary on the world around him.

If anyone wants to find out more about Arch Oboler, Radio Spirits is an excellent resource, and they have CD sets for sale as well if anyone’s in a buying mood. They’re a little pricey, but totally worth it (I’m not their shill, I promise). Happy Halloween, all!

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