Lights Out was an extremely popular American old-time radio program, an early example of a network series devoted mostly to horror and the supernatural, predating Suspense and Inner Sanctum. Versions of Lights Out aired on different networks, at various times, from January 1934 to the summer of 1947 and the series eventually made the transition to television.
Cooper's run was characterized by grisly stories spiked with dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, a sort of radio Grand Guignol. A character might be buried or eaten or skinned alive, vaporized in a ladle of white-hot steel, absorbed by a giant slurping amoeba, have his arm torn off by a robot, or forced to endure torture, beating or decapitation -- always with the appropriate blood-curdling acting and sound effects. Adhesive tape, stuck together and pulled apart, simulated the sound of a man's or woman's skin being ripped off. Pulling the leg off a frozen chicken gave the illusion of an arm being torn out of its socket. A raw egg dropped on a plate stood in for an eye being gouged; poured corn syrup for flowing blood; cleavered cabbages and cantaloupes for beheadings; snapped pencils and spareribs for broken fingers and bones. The sound of a hand crushed? A lemon, laid on an anvil, smashed with a hammer.
Though there had been efforts at horror on radio previously (notably The Witch's Tale), there does not seem to have been anything quite as explicit or outrageous as this on a regular basis. When the series switched to the national network, a decision was made to tone down the gore and emphasize tamer fantasy and ghost stories.
There are no known recordings from Cooper's 1934-1936 run, but his less gruesome scripts were occasionally rebroadcast. An interesting example is his "Three Men", which had aired on Christmas 1935, was performed again on the series in 1937 (a version circulates among collectors under titles like "Uninhabited" or "Christmas Story"), and was revived for a 1948 episode of NBC's prestigious "Radio City Playhouse" anthology series. The plot is typical of Cooper's gentler fantasies. On the first Christmas after World War I, three Allied officers meet by chance in a train compartment and find one another vaguely familiar. They fall asleep and share a dream in which they are the Three Wise Men searching for Jesus. But is it really a dream? In the best tradition of supernatural twist endings, Cooper has the officers wake to find a strange odor in their compartment -- which turns out to be myrrh and frankincense.
In the mid-1940s, Cooper's decade-old scripts were used for three brief summertime revivals of Lights Out. The surviving recordings reveal that Cooper was experimenting with both stream of consciousness and first person narration a few years before these techniques were popularized in American radio drama by, among others, Arch Oboler and Orson Welles. In one tale, a murderer describes how the Chicago police try to beat a confession out of him. When that doesn't work, they put him in a jail cell haunted by the ghost of a previous occupant, a smooth gangster named Skeeter Dempsey who describes his own execution and discusses the afterlife knowledgably. In the final twist, the narrator reveals that he has taken Skeeter's advice to commit suicide and is now, himself, a ghost.
Another story, originally broadcast in March 1935 as "After Five O'Clock" and revived in 1945 as "Man in the Middle", allows us to follow the thoughts of a businessman as he spends a day at the office cheating on his wife with his secretary. The amusing contrast between what the protagonist thinks to himself and what he says out loud to the other characters enlivens one of Cooper's favorite plot devices, the love triangle.
One radio critic, in reviewing a March 1935 episode that used multiple first person narrators, said:
Technique in writing and producing this script is one of pure radio license and can't even be compared to the flashback from the movies, since characters dead at the close of the tale do considerable talking of their experiences. This feat, combined with the terse, stark sock of the drama, is probably one of the most realistic pieces radio has ever presented.
Other Cooper scripts are more routine, perhaps in part because the author's attention was divided by other projects. From the summer of 1933 until August 1935, Cooper was NBC Chicago's continuity chief, supervising a staff of writers and editing their scripts. He resigned in order to devote more time to Lights Out as well as a daily aviation adventure serial, Flying Time. At various times, he also served on NBC's Program Planning Board, wrote soap operas like Betty and Bob and commuted weekly to produce another program in Des Moines, Iowa.
From early 1934 to mid-1936, Cooper produced close to 120 scripts for Lights Out. Some episode titles (all from 1935) include "The Mine of Lost Skulls", "Sepulzeda's Revenge", "Three Lights From a Match", "Play Without a Name" and "Lost in the Catacombs" (about a honeymoon couple in Rome who lose their way in the catacombs under the city). Typical plots:
The show benefited tremendously from Chicago's considerable pool of creative talent. The city was, with New York, one of the main centers of radio production in 1930s America. Among the actors who participated regularly during the Cooper era were Sidney Ellstrom, Art Jacobson, Don Briggs, Bernardine Flynn, Betty Lou Gerson, and Betty Winkler. The sound effects technicians frequently had to perform numerous experiments to achieve the desired noises. Cooper once had them build a gallows and wasn't satisfied until one of the sound men personally dropped through the trap. The series had little music scoring save for the thirteen chime notes that opened the program (after a deep voice intoned, "Lights out, everybody!") and an ominous gong which was used to punctuate a scene and provide the transition to another.
When Cooper departed, his replacement -- a young, eccentric and ambitious Arch Oboler -- picked up where he left off, often following Cooper's general example but investing the scripts with his own concerns. Oboler made imaginative use of stream of consciousness narration and sometimes introduced social and political themes that reflected his commitment to anti-fascist liberalism.
Although in later years Lights Out would be closely associated with Oboler, he was always quick to credit Wyllis Cooper as the series' creator and spoke highly of the older author, calling him "the unsung pioneer of radio dramatic techniques and the first person Oboler knew of who understood that radio drama could be an art form. In June 1936, Oboler's first script for Lights Out was "Burial Service", about a paralyzed girl who is buried alive. NBC was flooded with outraged letters in response. His next story, one of his most popular efforts, was the frequently repeated "Catwife", about the desperate husband of a woman who turns into a giant feline. He followed with "The Dictator", about Roman emperor Caligula. This set the pattern for Oboler's run; for every two horror episodes, he said later, he would try to write one drama on subjects that were ostensibly more serious: usually moral, social and political issues.
Like Cooper, Oboler was much in demand and highly prolific. While working on Lights Out, he wrote numerous dramatic sketches for variety shows (Grand Hotel, Chase and Sanborn, Rudy Vallee's programs), anthologies (The First Nighter) and specials, as well as Lady Counselor, a series about a woman lawyer, starring Irene Rich. In August 1936, singer Vallee, then the dean of variety show hosts, claimed that Lights Out was his favorite series. Oboler occasionally redrafted his Lights Out scripts for use on Vallee's and other variety hours. A version of Oboler's "Prelude to Murder" starring Peter Lorre and Olivia de Havilland was scheduled to air on a November 1936 Vallee broadcast. Other Lights Out plays that turned up on various late 1930s variety programs included "Danse Macabre" (with Boris Karloff), "Alter Ego" (with Bette Davis) and "The Harp."
Oboler met the demand by adopting an unusual scripting procedure: He would lie in bed at night, smoke cigarettes and improvise into a Dictaphone, acting out every line of the play. In this way, he was able to complete a script quickly, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes, though he might take as long as three or four hours. In the morning, a stenographer would type up the recording for Oboler's revisions. Years later, Rod Serling, who counted radio fantasists like Cooper, Oboler and Norman Corwin among his inspirations, would use a similar process to churn out his many teleplays for The Twilight Zone, a series that, in many respects, was to television what Lights Out was to radio.
Despite acclaim for Oboler's dramas, NBC announced it was canceling the series in the summer of 1937 -- "just to see whether listeners are still faithful to it", according to one press report but also, it seems, to allow the hard-working author a vacation. Another outcry from fans led to the program's return that September for another season.
In the spring of 1938, the series earned a good deal of publicity for its fourth anniversary as a half-hour show when actor Boris Karloff, the star of many a Hollywood horror film, traveled to Chicago to appear in five consecutive episodes. Among his roles: an accused murderer haunted by an unearthly creature (played by Templeton Fox) urging him to "Kill ... kill ... kill ..." in "The Dream"; the desperate husband in a rebroadcast of "Catwife"; a mad, violin-playing hermit who imprisons a pair of women, threatening to murder one and marry the other, in "Valse Trieste." Oboler left in the summer of 1938 to pursue other projects, writing and directing several critically acclaimed dramatic anthology series: Arch Oboler's Plays; Everyman's Theatre; and Plays for Americans. A variety of NBC staff writers and freelancers filled in until Lights Out was canceled in 1939. NBC Chicago continuity editor Ken Robinson supervised some of the writing. Regular contributors included William Fifield and Hobart Donovan. A recording of the fifth anniversary show survives from this season. Donovan's "The Devil's Due", about criminals haunted by a mysterious stranger, is predictable but in keeping with the formula laid down by Cooper.
In 1942, Oboler, needing money, revived the series for a year on CBS. Airing in prime time instead of late at night, the program was sponsored by the makers of Ironized Yeast. Most of the Lights Out recordings that exist today come from this version of the show. For this revival, each episode began with an ominously tolling bell, over which Oboler read the cryptic tagline: "It...is...later...than...you...think." This was followed by a dour "warning" to listeners to turn off their radios if they felt their constitutions were too delicate to handle the frightening tale that was about to unfold. Naturally, the intended -- and successful -- effect of this was more tantalizing than off-putting.
Directing and hosting the 1942-1943 broadcasts, mostly from New York and Hollywood, Oboler not only reused scripts from his 1936-1938 run but also revived some of the more fantasy-oriented plays from his other, more recent, anthology series. Some of the most interesting episodes had originally aired on the author's groundbreaking, critically acclaimed 1939-1940 program Arch Oboler's Plays, among them:
Another unusual script, "Execution", about a mysterious French woman who bedevils the Nazis trying to hang her, had previously aired on Oboler's wartime propaganda series Plays for Americans.
Like Cooper, Oboler made effective use of atmospheric sound effects, perhaps most memorably in his legendary "Chicken Heart", a script that debuted in 1937 and was rebroadcast in 1938 and 1942. It features the simple but effective "thump-thump" of an ever-growing, ever-beating chicken heart which, thanks to a scientific experiment gone wrong, threatens to engulf the entire world. Although the story bears similarities to an earlier Cooper episode (about an ever-growing amoeba that makes an ominous "Slurp! Slurp!" sound), Oboler's unique choice of monster was inspired by a Chicago Tribune article announcing that scientists had succeeded in keeping a chicken heart alive for a considerable period of time after its having been removed from the chicken. Whatever the inspiration, the script's climax is pure Oboler and it was fortunate that he recreated it for a 1962 record album because recordings of the original radio broadcasts are lost or unavailable. Part of the episode's notoriety stems from a popular stand-up routine by comedian Bill Cosby (on his 1966 album Wonderfulness), an account of his staying up late as a child to listen to scary radio shows against his parents' wishes and being terrified by the chicken heart.
Other well-remembered Oboler tales, many of them written in the 1930s and rebroadcast in the '40s, include:
A winking sense of self-referential, metafictional humor sometimes enlivened the proceedings. Perhaps inspired by Cooper's "The Coffin in Studio B", in which actors rehearsing an episode of Lights Out are interrupted by a mysterious coffin salesman peddling his wares, Oboler wrote amusing stories like "Murder in the Script Department", in which two Lights Out script typists become trapped in their building after hours as frightening, unexplained events occur. In "The Author and the Thing", Oboler even plays himself, pitted against one of his own monstrous creations.
After the 1942-1943 Lights Out, Oboler continued to work in radio (Everything for the Boys and revivals of Arch Oboler's Plays) and pursued a second career in filmmaking, first in the Hollywood mainstream, and then as an independent producer, writing and directing a number of offbeat, low-budget films, including Five, about survivors of a nuclear war, The Twonky, a satire of television, and the 3-D film Bwana Devil which made a huge profit on a small investment. He dabbled in live television (a six-episode 1949 anthology series, Arch Oboler Comedy Theater), playwriting (Night of the Auk) and fiction (House on Fire). In 1962, he produced an album entitled Drop Dead! which recreated abbreviated versions of his Lights Out thrillers including "Chicken Heart" and "The Dark", about a mysterious creeping mist that turns people inside-out. In 1971-1972, Oboler produced a syndicated radio series The Devil and Mr. O (he liked for people to call him "Mr. O") which featured vintage recordings from Lights Out and his other series with newly recorded introductions by Mr. O himself.
This was followed by an eight-episode revival in the summer of 1946, from NBC Chicago, although at least one of the scripts is not by Cooper (a fine adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Signal-Man"). This series also avoided the use of outright gore. In fact, a review in Variety complained that the premiere episode was "a little too serious in content for a thriller" since it included "religious background, philosophical discussion and dream diagnosis ... A third series of eight vintage Cooper scripts was scheduled to run in the summer of 1947 as well. Broadcast from Hollywood over ABC Radio, it starred Boris Karloff and was sponsored by Eversharp whose company president canceled the series after the third episode, apparently unhappy with the gruesome subject matter. The chilling premiere, "Death Robbery", featured Karloff as a scientist who brings his wife back from the dead, only to find she's become a gibbering homicidal maniac. An uncredited Lurene Tuttle, as the wife, gives an unnerving performance. This episode is one of the few surviving examples of Cooper's Lights Out work that reflects the sort of explicit horror that characterized the original series. Eversharp paid off Cooper for his five unused scripts and Lights Out ended its long run on network radio.
From 1936 to 1939, Cooper pursued a screenwriting career in Hollywood (his major credits are the screenplay for Universal's 1939 Son of Frankenstein and contributions to the Mr. Moto mystery series starring Peter Lorre) but continued to work in radio, advertising and, later, television. By 1940, he had changed the spelling of his name from "Willis" to "Wyllis" (to satisfy "his wife's numerological inclinations") and lived mainly in the New York City area where he worked on a number of radio programs, the most important of which was probably Edward M. Kirby's popular and acclaimed government propaganda series, The Army Hour, which Cooper wrote, produced and directed for its first year.
In 1947, Cooper created Quiet, Please, another fine radio program dealing with the supernatural, which he wrote and directed until 1949, occasionally borrowing ideas from his Lights Out stories while creating wholly new scripts that were often more sophisticated than his 1930s originals. In 1949 and 1950, he produced (and contributed scripts to) three live TV series that frequently dealt with the supernatural: Volume One, Escape and Stage 13.
Coe initially produced this second series but, for much of its run, the live 1949-1952 Lights Out TV series was sponsored by Admiral (makers of television sets and refrigerators), produced by Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., directed by Laurence Schwab, Jr., and hosted by Frank Gallop. Critical response was mixed but the program was successful for several seasons (sometimes appearing in the weekly lists of the ten most watched network shows) until competition from the massively popular sitcom I Love Lucy helped to kill it off.
The 1949-1952 series featured 'Dead Man's Coat,' an episode starring Basil Rathbone, adapted from the radio script 'Wear the Dead Man's Coat' from the program 'Quiet, Please.' Arch Oboler's 'And Adam Begot' was also adapted from the radio script for the television series, with Kent Smith in the lead. Leslie Nielson starred in 'The Last Will Of Dr. Rant' where he played a young librarian haunted by a repetant ghost. The latter and many others are available on DVD.
In 1972, NBC aired yet another TV incarnation of Lights Out, a TV movie pilot which was not well received. In fact, Oboler (who was then syndicating his The Devil and Mr. O radio show) made a point of announcing publicly that he had nothing to do with it.
In 1995, the network announced it was developing a TV movie and "potential miniseries" called "Lights Out" which, it was stressed, was "not being adapted from the radio series ..." Although Oboler managed to retain the rights to his radio scripts, NBC apparently still owns the rights to the series' title.
Despite its modest television success, radio historian John Dunning is probably right to suggest that the legend of Lights Out is firmly rooted in radio.