Radio Rides the Range: A Reference Guide to Western Drama on the Air, 1929–1967, edited by Jack French and David S. Siegel, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 2013, $49.95
Watching Gunsmoke on TV was (and remains) a treat, but no more so than hearing Gunsmoke on the radio. The radio version ran from April 26, 1952, to June 18, 1961, overlapping with the TV version for four years (when 90 percent of the small-screen episodes were adapted from radio scripts). The rather rotund William Conrad was radio’s Marshal Matt Dillon, the role associated with TV’s towering James Arness, but it didn’t matter. It was the voice that counted, not the body, and what a voice Conrad (later the title character of the TV detective show Cannon) possessed.
In the Golden Age of radio, though, Conrad couldn’t top John Dehner, who turned down the radio Dillon role because he didn’t want to be typecast as a Western actor, but then went on to appear in nearly half the 480 Gunsmoke episodes and was the leading man in two other CBS radio adult Western series—Frontier Gentleman (1958) and Have Gun–Will Travel (1958–60). Yes, Dehner played gun-for-hire “Paladin,” just like Richard Boone on the TV version, which actually preceded the radio version. Dehner also was a supporting actor on a fourth superb CBS radio show, Fort Laramie (1956), which starred Raymond “Soon to Be Perry Mason” Burr. That show was created by Norman Macdonnell, who earlier teamed up with writer John Meston to capture the gritty realism and details of Gunsmoke’s Dodge City.
The programs mentioned above are just four of more than 100 American West radio programs (with half-hour or 15-mintute episodes) discussed by various knowledgeable authors in a book that provides everything but sound effects. For the history-minded, some entries—like the ones on Fort Laramie, Tales of the Texas Rangers (1950–52), Wild Bill Hickok (1951–56) and Death Valley Days (1930–44)—not only describe each series but also say to what extent it was based on facts. The Lone Ranger, which first rode onto the radio airwaves on January 31, 1933, and made 3,377 broadcasts in 21½ years, gets plenty of attention, but so do lesser-known shows, including ones that might not have actually aired, such as The Adventures of Annie Oakley and Tagg. The Western radio world was a relatively small one and, as one might expect, a man’s world. But Kathleen Hite wrote some of the best Gunsmoke episodes and 29 of the 40 Fort Laramie episodes, while Ruth Woodman (née Cronwell) created the long-running anthology show Death Valley Days. Many of the more popular shows were juvenile Westerns, starting with Bobbie Benson, the first version of which ran from 1932 to 1936. I took a special interest in that one, because my late mother regularly listened to this Hecker H-O cereals–sponsored show when she was a 6-year-old New York City “cowboy” (never a cowgirl). The book says no audio copies are extant, which is unfortunate. But I can read all about it here and settle for listening to the 474 (out of 480) available episodes of Gunsmoke.