I recall vividly listening to the show late at night at 10, 11, 12 years old - and being frightened as I hid beneath the covers!
There is a very well-done website out there that explores the show and I am honored to have with me, Paul, the fellow that runs the site. After months of trying to track him down, I finally got a hold of him and here are the questions asked and answered:
OTR BUFFET: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. I've actually been trying to get a hold of you for about six months but I simply could not find a way to reach you.
Paul: Thanks. I am glad we could connect and I am sure you know how hard it is to get a site like CBSRMT.com off the ground. CBSRMT.com is a website where visitors can listen to all 1,399 episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theater old time radio free. Visitors can stream or download old radio shows in MP3 format or copy radio shows to CD. Visitors can listen their favorite Radio Mystery Theater shows and comment with other fans to talk about their favorite Radio Mystery programs (sort of like the comment system on your blog, Jimbo). The episodes are fully logged with broadcast & synopsis. The shows are fully searchable and you can there are short bios of each actor and writer and a list by adaptation.
OTR BUFFET: Between the 2 narrators/hosts, can you point out the strength of each and which one you liked more? Do you have the total of episode hosted by each?
Paul: Both are great CBS Radio Mystery Theater hosts and lend to the show's "Creepyness Factor" in their own way. The part is an out growth of "Raymond" from Inner Sanctum, but while Raymond's silliness added a Halloween fun flavor to the show, H.G. Marshall's seriousness used to make my hair stand on end when I was riding in the backseat of my parent's car. Tammy Grimes' feminine voice should be reassuring, but the fact that it really isn't I find to be even more frightening.
OTR BUFFET: What is your favorite genre of the anthology?
Paul: I'm not sure if Radio Mystery Theater is really a Genre, but I really love the Adaptations from Literature. The Dickens and Poe stories are great fun, but I think the Mark Twain week from January 1976 is about my favorite.
OTR BUFFET: When I think of the series there are 3 or 4 actors and a few actresses that come up quickly in my mind. Which actors and actors do you associate most closely with the series?
Paul: Mason Adams had such a great voice for Radio. But the ones that are the most fun for me to listen to are the people that I remember from TV and Movies, like Morgan Fairchild, Jack Grimes, Richard Crenna.
OTR BUFFET: Can you name a few really good episodes and why they stand out?
Paul: I get a big kick out of the Christmas Carol adaptations starring E.G. Marshall as Scrooge. But if I were going to burn just one or two CDs to take to the desert island with me, it would be filled with the First Week in January Theme shows, maybe they aren't as scary as some of the other episodes, but life on a deserted island is scary enough!
OTR BUFFET: I'll be honest with you. When I listen to CBSRMT then thing that makes the biggest impression on me are the horrible 1970's commercials. How do you feel about the commercials? Do you know of anyone editing those out and just leaving the play?
Paul: We'll have to agree to disagree- I love hearing how sleek and modern the new '74 Chevy's are, and the great deals on pocket calculators for only $60 at True Value Hardware Stores. But I do understand what you mean about commercials. A number of the episodes were retrieved from AFRTS, and they pulled the commercials before playing them for the Military.
OTR BUFFET: Other than Mercedes MacCambridge and Mason Adams, which other Old-time radio stars showed up now and again on the series?
Paul: The acting pool the Himan Brown drew from mostly came from two sources. One was CBS TV talent, especially daytime actors, I think because the 'Soaps were still being produced in New York. The other was Old time radio actors like Adams and MacCAmbridge, along with Agnes Moorehead, Jackson Beck, Staats Cosworth, Mandel Kramer and many others.
OTR BUFFET: What do you think the main difference is between CBSRMT and the shows from the Golden Age of Radio?
Paul: The quality of the production! Part of it is the progress in recording technology between '62 when Johnny Dollar's last broadcast ended Old Time Radio and '74 when CBSRMT got started. But I have a feeling that a lot of the difference is that Himan Brown was given a much larger budget to play with than anyone ever had to play with during "The Golden Age". Radio Drama is so much cheaper to produce than anything with pictures, it would be a lot of fun to see what a group of kids, say a High School Drama Club, could do with a good script and a laptop computer!
OTR BUFFET: Any idea who wrote the theme music to the show?
Paul: I believe it is an adaptation of a Twilight Zone theme written by Nathan van Cleeve. Hearing that big ol' bass is like getting to the head of the line to get on the roller-coaster; you know you are going to get the stuffing scared out of you and you just can't wait!
OTR BUFFET: Were most of the stories for the show written for the show or were they reworks of other scripts?
Paul: A number of the stories are adaptations from literature, but the scripts are all original. Himan Brown paid a flat $350 for each script, so I don't think that anyone got rich writing for CBSRMT. Reworking old scripts would have been hard to pull off- most older shows were a half hour format, so the stories were simple enough to fit. Stretching them to fit a full hour would have been difficult.
OTR BUFFET: With all of the old Time Classic radio we have available to us, why was The Mystery Theater so well received?
Paul: When CBSRMT was on the air it was the only game in town! Radio Drama had been declared Dead when Johnny Dollar went off the air in '62. Mutual had Zero Hour in '73, but even with Rod Serling, in my mind, it just wasn't as good a production as CBSRMT.
OTR BUFFET: How well did it hold up with regard to writing and acting values in comparison to older shows? If favorably, why did it do so well?
Paul: I think that the writing and acting of Radio Mystery Theater is equal to or better than some of the fare from older programs, but for the opposite reason. During the Golden Age of Radio, it was the primary source of income for the actors and writers, so they had to be good or learn to live on less groceries. The pay-scale for CBSRMT was much lower than what the same talent could make in Television, so I have the feeling that many of them worked on the show for the fun of it or as an "artistic challenge." Under these conditions a lot of people will do their best work for personal satisfaction.
OTR BUFFET: Why do you think CBSRMT succeeded when Theatre Five (1973) - which was 30 minutes shorter and seemed to not dwell so much on sci-fi or the supernatural, failed?
Paul: I have a feeling it was the time-slot. 5 pm Drive Time is a bread and butter for the local affiliates who's audience needed to be bombarded with music, DJ patter, and profitable local commercials. Later in the evening is a good time for kids who should be asleep to quietly pull the covers over their heads and tune in their AM portables for a good scare.
OTR BUFFET: Could a new show such as The CBS Mystery Theater even make it on the air today?
Paul: I think that there could be a market for a program like Mystery Theater, but unfortunately not on the air. Which is sad, because I love the technical simplicity of Radio Broadcasts in comparison with the Internet Infrastructure. But unless someone drops The Big One on the dozen or so Server Farms around the world that the Internet depends on, the 'Net will be the big kid on the block for a long time. Audio Drama have the potential to get big again for similar reasons that Radio Soap Operas got big in the 30's: it is cheap to produce very entertaining programs that can be enjoyed while multi-tasking, whether it is washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, commuting to work, working out, or hiding under the covers with a flashlight and an MP3 player getting scared before falling asleep.
OTR BUFFET: Thanks Paul for the time and the answers!
[Many thanks to friends Jon at OTRCat, Larry Gassman (Same Time, Same Station) and "Boston Blackie" for helping provide questions.]