Sunday, August 27, 2017

Total eclipse of the sun - "Nightfall" on radio

Given the eclipse of the sun which occurred on August 21, 2017, I've been wanting to write about the radio adaptations of Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall." It was done first on Dimension-X (September 29, 1951) and then again on successor show X-Minus One. It's the tale of a planet with multiple suns, so night is unknown. Once every 2,0049 years, however, an eclipse occurs. Also every 2,0049 years, the planet's civilization collapses entirely. As the event nears, astronomers have tried to warn people to prepare. Religious zealots welcome it (and with it the arrival of the mysterious "stars"), and a reporter, Theremon somewhat skeptically tries to dig into the story. Both story and radio version consist largely of conversations the reporter has with Aton (the chief astronomer) and the psychologist Sheerin (who explains the very real concern about what the eclipse could do to humanity).

Both shows use the same script, by Ernest Kinoy, but different actors (and a few lines are trimmed for ''X-Minus One''). It sticks closely to the source story, with some changes, mostly minor or necessary for radio. Asimov gave all of his characters a number after the name, which reads fine but basically eats seconds on radio. The character name of a religious cultist is given to a different character, and the high priest (mentioned several times in the story but not actually present) fills his function (strengthening the conflict). Most minor of all, in the story the psychologist remarks that he's too fat to be a suitable survivor (and on radio, he says he's too scrawny!) Incorporated in the shared narration is a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote (about how man would react on first seeing stars) which was the starting point for Asimov.

I heard the X-Minus One version first, so I confess I favor it a tad. But I like to be chronological so first, here's Dimension-X.

Only three of the seven speaking parts are credited: Lyle Sudrow as Theremon, Cameron Prud'Homme as Aton, and John McGovern as Sherrin. "Your host" Norman Rose (voice of the Juan Valdez coffee commercials, Death in Woody Allen's Love and Death, and many more) narrates, with a sort of sardonic authority.

The X-Minus One version is narrated by Floyd Mack (of The Bell Telephone Hour), who lacks the vocal timbre and seems to be working *against* the stronger voices of the cast. On the other hand, the high priest Sor is played by Santos Ortega, who makes him suitably foreboding and adds weight to those scenes.

Wendell Holmes is top-billed, playing chief astronomer Dr. Aton. Holmes was often heard on both Dimension X and X-Minus One, especially effective in "Mars Is Heaven" (all versions) as Captain Black. With a voice perhaps best described as bluff, Holmes played roles on soap operas, usually fatherly physicians for limited arcs of Young Dr. Malone and Exploring the Unknown. In 1949, he starred as the title character on the revival of Scattergood Baines. He was also heard in the final New York Sherlock Holmes season as Dr. Watson (billed under the hoary theatrical pseudonym George Spelvin; apparently someone involved thought a Holmes playing Watson would confuse people). Still, most of his radio toiling was for anthologies, including The Chase, Suspense, Words at War, Gangbusters, and The Mysterious Traveler. On-screen, he played similar establishment types in films like 1949's Lost Boundaries(according to trade magazines, he had more offers after that but turned it down for radio), The Absent-Minded Professor (one of the armed forces heads who respond to the news of Flubber), and Elmer Gantry. TV, he was on Leave It to Beaver several times (nearly always a teacher), Perry Mason (DA in one, doctor in another, stuffy brother-in-law of victim in a third), Bonanza (two different judges), The Twilight Zone (David Wayne's defense attorney in "Escape Clause"), and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

John Larkin (Theremon the reporter) was heard in 13 other X-Minus One installments, and a few for Dimension X) (often in Bradbury tales; he was the lead in "To the Future," a retitling of "A Fox in the Forest" from The Illustrated Man). Larkin's leading man voice quality led to stints as Buck Rogers and Mark Trail, and in soapers like The Right to Happiness. He played Perry Mason on radio from roughly 1947 until the show's end in 1955. He then moved into TV, when radio Perry was reworked as the serial Edge of Night, starring as Mike Karr. He kept busy on the tube, with guest spots on Alfred Hitchcok Presents, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Fugitive. His last role was a regular stint on Twelve O'Clock High as supervising General Crowe (a stint ended by his passing).

Santos Ortega (High Priest Sor) played sleuths and villains with equal aplomb. He was the gangster Duke in Robert Block's "Almost Human" (done on both shows) and Arvardan in the Dimension X adaptation of Asimov's Pebble in the Sky." He had stints as Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason (before Larkin), Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, Inspector Queen on Ellery Queen, and Commissioner Weston on The Shadow. He played heavies on Adventures of Superman (notably the political boss Big George Latimer, who cropped up more than once) and similar often menacing types on Suspense. On-camera, he played Grandpa Hughes on As the World Turns.

Mercer McLeod, who plays Sheerin, was heard in five other X-Minus One broadcasts. He starred in a 1947 series produced by NBC syndication called Mercer McLeod - The Man with the Story (as shown above), playing all the male roles in an anthology format (his wife played the females). McLeod played historical roles on You Are There and Cavalcade of America and was heard in the last years of Suspense when the show returned to New York. On Broadway, he was in the original cast of Half a Sixpence, while TV included tube versions of Inner Sanctum and Light's Out.

Heard in smaller roles are Alan Collins (according to J. David Goldin, the same as disc jockey Al "Jazzbo" Collins who starred as himself in the hep episode "Real Gone"; could be, but haven't confirmed it), Roy Fant, and Bob Hastings. Fant worked Broadway on and off, and his radio credits (dating to the thirties) included Norman Corwin's "Odyssey of Runyon Jones" (as the cranky Father Time). Bob Hastings, one of the stalwarts of X-Minus One (only a few leads, but heard in bits almost weekly), plays the somewhat cocky worker interviewed by the reporter. The elderly cult member is played by Roy Fant, Broadway stage veteran whose radio highlights include Norman Corwin's "Odyssey of Runyon Jones" (as the cranky Father Time). Bob Hastings was a stalwart on X-Minus One; heard in over thirty broadcasts; while he only had a few leads ("Early Model," for example), he was a steady utility player, as reporters, workmen, and other crowd types. He had been a child performer on radio and starred as Archie on Archie Andrews (based on the comics). He became a familiar face on TV (notably Lt. Carpenter on McHale's Navy and Tommy Kelsey on All in the Family ) and in films (he was the ballroom emcee in THe Poseidon Adventure). He kept busy with voice work as well, from the raven on The Munsters (replacing Mel Blanc) to Superboy on the Filmation series, and a long stint as Commissioner Gordon in animated Batman projects.

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