Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lighthouses on Old Time Radio - Vincent Price in Three Skeleton Key (Escape and Suspense)

Here is the ninth entry in my lighthouses on old time radio series.  I hope you are enjoying all these great old time radio programs with a lighthouse theme.  I have a good number more to do - hopefully they will not be so far apart.  With today's entry, we ask ourselves three questions:

Tired of the everyday routine? 
Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? 
Want to get away from it all?

With that, I offer you ESCAPE! This was one of the most famous shows on the CBS Radio Network.  It ran from 1947 to 1954 and, along with Suspense, Gunsmoke and various programs led by Norman Corwin (that will be covered later in this series), cemented the place for CBS to be at the Pantheon of the Golden Age of Radio.  Escape featured many adapted versions of short stories that placed the characters in difficult, if not impossible adventures.


Detroit River Light (South Rockwood, Michigan)

Detroit River Light (Lake Erie - July 2011)

It was 65 years ago today that one of the most famous Escape episodes aired.  Three Skeleton Key aired on March 17, 1950.  The story was written by George G. Toudouze (1877-1972) and it first appeared in English in the January 1937 issue of Esquire.  Twelve years later, James Poe adapted it for radio, and the rest is history.  The story story centers on three men who work at a lighthouse far off the coast of French Guiana in South America on the Atlantic Ocean.  The three men are Jean, the newest member of the crew at the lighthouse and the narrator of the radio plays.  Louie is the tough nosed leader of the crew who cherished his quiet.  And Auguste was a former actor on the Paris stage, a short hunchback who loved to talk...and talk...and talk.  As Jean sat on watch one night, a ship was heading towards the light and the rocks on the key.  And while the light was working, they soon realized that the ship was not manned by a normal crew.  Rats.  Thousands and thousands of rats made up the crew of that ship.  And as it approached the lighthouse, the lives of these three lighthouse keepers would be irrevocably changed.  In many ways, it is a perfect story for radio.  There is so much tension and drama is knowing that an army of rats was just on the other side of a brass door.  But there are so many elements that make it an amazing listen.

While it aired 65 years ago today, it was, in fact, the second time that it aired on the series.  The first time happened only a few months before on November 15, 1949.  The opening was tweaked to reflect this:

Tonight, we escape to a lonely lighthouse off the steaming jungle coast of French Guiana and the nightmare world of terror and violence as we bring you again in response to hundreds of requests "Three Skeleton Key" starring Vincent Price.

It would also air three more times, once on Escape,  and twice on Suspense.  While all these are all great, none can top Vincent Price as Jean and the recording made in 1950.  Other stars to be in these recordings include Elliot Reid, Ben Wright, John Dehner, Lawrence Dobkin, William Conrad, Harry Bartell, Jeff Corey, Paul Frees and Jay Novello.  All of the episodes were directed by William N. Robson.  And when people select the most famous episodes from the Golden Age of Radio...ones like this, and Sorry Wrong Number always come up to the top of the list.  To get a sense of the power of this story, just consider the opening of the story - brilliant acted by Vincent Price:

Picture this place. A gray, tapering cylinder welded, by iron rods and concrete, to the key itself: a bare black rock, one hundred fifty feet long, maybe forty wide. That's at low tide. At high tide, just the lighthouse, rising a hundred ten feet straight up out of the ocean, and all about it the churning water -- gray-green, scum dappled, warm as soup, and swarming with gigantic bat-like, devil fish, great violet schools of Portuguese man-of-war, and yes, sharks, the big ones, the fifteen-footers. And as if this weren't enough, there was a hot, dank, rotten-smelling wind that came at us day and night off the jungle swamps of the mainland. A wind that smelled like death. A wind that had smelled the slow and frightful death that came one night to this bare black rock. Set in the base of the light was a watertight bronze door  and in you went. And up. Yes, up and up and 'round and 'round, past the tanks of oil and the coils of rope, casks of wicks and racks of lanterns, sacks of spuds, and cartons and cans and up and up and up, 'round and 'round. Over the light storeroom was the food storeroom. And over the food storeroom was the bunk room where the three of us slept. And over the bunk room was the living and cooking room. And over the living and cooking room was the light.

She was a beauty. Big steel and bronze baby with the sun gleaming through the glass walls all about, bouncing blinding little beams off the big shiny reflectors, glittering and refracting through her lenses. The whole gigantic bulk of her balanced like a ballerina on the glistening steel axle of her rotary mechanism. She was a sweetheart of a light.


 And at night, you'd lie there on the stone deck of the gallery with her revolving smoothly and quietly over over your head, easing her bright white eye three hundred sixty degrees around the horizon. You'd lie there watching to see that the feeders kept working, that everything ran right. And it wouldn't be bad. The other two fellows snoring in their sacks two levels down. You'd smoke your pipe to kill the stink of the wind and it wouldn't be bad.


I have listened to this enough that I can always imagine Vincent Price saying "...it wouldn't be bad." when things do not go my way in life. After you listen to it - you might feel the same way.  And while the acting and story were fantastic, the sound effects are simply amazing.  At the end of the 1950 version, you hear this:

Sound effects on "Three Skeleton Key" created by Cliff Thorsness and executed today by Mister Thorsness, Gus Bayz, and Jack Sixsmith, have been awarded the best of the year by Radio and Television Life Magazine. 

This is not surprising at all.  The noise they make for the rats and for the moving parts of the light put you there like nothing else.  This is truly what Norman Corwin called the "Theater of the Mind."

Here are all five episodes.  Make sure you listen to the March 17, 1950 version - it is amazing!

Escape. November 15, 1949

Cast: Elliott Reid (Jean - the narrator), William Conrad (Louis), & Harry Bartell (Auguste)

Escape. March 17, 1950

Cast: Vincent Price (Jean - the narrator), Jeff Corey (Louis), & Harry Bartell (Auguste)

Escape. August 9, 1953

Cast: Ben Wright (Jean - the narrator), Paul Frees (Louis), & Jay Novello (Auguste)

Suspense. November 11, 1956

Cast: Vincent Price (Jean - the narrator), John Dehner (Louis), & Ben Wright (Auguste)

Suspense. October 19, 1958

Cast: Vincent Price (Jean - the narrator), Lawrence Dobkin (Louis), & Ben Wright (Auguste)
This one is trimmed a bit - to reflect the time allotted to programs in the late 1950s.

Please enjoy these great episodes.  This is a real treat and a great way to continue my Lighthouse Old Time Radio series.  I will have another entry in about a week!

Here are some links to programs relating to Old Time Radio and both Escape and Suspense:

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