The old white plastic AM clock radio flipped to 11:07 pm. Huddled under the covers in the corner of my darkened childhood bedroom, I braced myself for the sounds of evil. The creaking door, that harbinger of impending doom, was reinforced with bass, oboe, and muted high-pitched trumpet, shrill as a woman’s shriek. It was time for E.G. Marshall and the CBS Mystery Theater. It was time to be frightened, maybe even scared ****less, and there wasn’t an adult on Earth who could save you from it. Did it get any better than that? Me thinks not.
I’ve always been a night owl. Whether through some imperfection in my circadian rhythms, or the result of aberrant genetic code, adenine where there should have been guanine, I feel most alive from 9 p.m. until the wee hours. This tendency nearly drove my parents to distraction in my youth. My bedroom was directly across from theirs in our Northern Virginia suburban home, so nighttime activities required stealth, subterfuge, and cleverness. Listening to the CBS Mystery Theater at night wasn’t just a childhood preference, it was a prime imperative.
Real headphones in those days weighed 13 lbs and were usable only with the most sophisticated electronic components. My little Sears clock radio certainly didn’t qualify. If you were lucky, your radio had an input for a single earpiece. Looking something like a suppository, the high-tech 1970’s earphone was usually caked with the previous user’s earwax, hurt like hell to wear, and had a sound quality only slightly superior to 2 soup cans connected by string. Headphones, therefore, just weren’t an option. Achieving my nightly mission would require a more creative approach.
In order to get my nightly fix of terror, school night or not, I took a far more daring approach. Pulling the clock radio in bed with me, I’d put the volume on the lowest setting possible, and listen with my ear pressed to its cool plastic side. The possibility of being discovered by an outraged parent only made the experience that much more exhilarating. The witching hours weren’t just frightening, they were dangerous. Hearing the steps of my 6’4” Marine Colonel father stomping towards my bedroom door was something to be avoided at all costs.
As the ominous refrain of CBS Mystery Theater’s opening quieted, it was the deep and confident voice of E.G. Marshall who set the stage for the evening’s nightmare to come. Marshall had a singular talent – he could read a cereal box (my personal favorite was ‘Rice Honeys’) and make it sound dark, mysterious, and enthralling. But Marshall didn’t just introduce that night’s radio show, he connected the cosmic dots for his listeners.
CBS Mystery Theater wasn’t just entertainment – there were lessons to be learned if you paid attention – about life, about the Cosmos, about the dangers just under the surface of our everyday normal lives. Frightening lessons were waiting for us all out there, and if we weren’t very, very careful, we might have to learn them the hard way.
Night after night, year after year, for nearly a decade, I kept my 11:07 pm AM radio appointment with the macabre. I survived ghosts, murdering spouses, witches, warlocks, ancient curses, secret stranglers, and monsters both Earthly and other-worldly. I learned that mystery and magic can best be experienced, not with our eyes, but through our ears, and that there is no more powerful tool a human possesses than his imagination. The nearly 3,000 episodes of the CBS Mystery Theater scared the hell out of America’s kids (and probably more than a few grown-ups) from 1974 – 1982 when the show finally came to a close. Although the shows weren’t always award-winning in quality, they were consistently scary, exciting, and well-written. The characters we met were real, the danger genuine, and their stories sucked the listener in as surely and inexorably as a whirlpool.
The commercials and news updates that divided the show into ‘acts’ served as a sweet reprieve, reminding the young listeners that this was, in fact, just a radio program, and that they were still safe and protected in the sanctuary of their real American beds. But the reprieve was always brief, as the inevitable sound of an ominous oboe heralded the return of the show. More than anything I think, it was this glorious back and forth between what ‘was’ and what ‘could be’ that made the show so mesmerizing and memorable. I will never forget the end of each show, marked by my mad scramble to turn the clock radio off before having to hear the frightening closing words of E.G. Marshall.
Sometimes they were, sometimes to the chagrin of my parents, not so much. But the nights of my youth were indelibly marked by this amazing show. I am grateful to have had the borders of my imagination forever expanded by the experience.
Learn more about the CBS Mystery Theater.
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