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Next on the Program is Perry Mason in The Case of the Mistyped Soap Opera February 21, 2007

Posted by William Spear in >> Next on the Program, >> Radio Drama.

Perry Mason, a hard-edged attorney who did anything, and everything, to save his clients, emerged from Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing which first appeared in the pulp magazine, Black Mask. In the early 1930s, Black Mask published six Gardner short stories about a crusading defense lawyer named Ken Corning. The character was the beginning of Perry Mason.

With the publication of the first Perry Mason novel in 1933, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner described the character as a fighter who, “with infinite patience jockeys his enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch.” Four more novels – The Case of the Sulky Girl, The Case of the Lucky Legs, The Case of the Howling Dog and The Case of the Curious Bride – were published like a flurry of uppercuts. Movies from the books started in 1935; although their results were mixed, they maintained the character as a tough attorney.

Gardner continued writing and produced another 20 Perry Mason “The Case of . . .” novels with the same pulpy and sensational style. With the rise of radio drama, he began negotiaions to sell rights to the character. He had never described the character, leaving details to the readers imagination. Wide open to interpreation for an aural medium.

With the contract signed, the sponsor set, the scripts written and cast in place, Erle Stanly Gardner launched his rough, brash, knock-out punching Perry Mason on CBS radio as … a soap opera complete with sponsorship by “new Tide, the amazing washday miracle.” Pure melodrama, through and through.

From 1943 to 1955, Monday through Friday, fifteen minutes each day, for over 3,200 hundred episodes, Perry Mason was played by Donald Briggs, Santos Ortega, Bartlett Robinson and John Larkin. Della Street was played by Joan Alexander, Jan Miner and Gertrude Warner. Paul Drake, Mason’s private investigator, was performed by Matt Crowley and Charles Webster. Frank Dane and Mandel Kramer played Lieutenant Tragg. The Announcers were Bob Dixon, Alan Kent and Richard Stark.

For three years, Gardner listened with growing displeasure. Not until the arrival of writer Irving Vendig did Gardner find anything to like. Vendig fleshed out the character, added dimensions, and ultimately Gardner tolerated the program for the duration of it’s run.

Although radio’s Perry Mason was not as iconic as television’s version, the series did have significant financial impacts elsewhere. It served as a daily advertisment for the novels. While the show was on the air, another 23 novels were published and sold in the tens of millions in the US and around the world. Titles such as The Case of the Crooked Candle, The Case of the Borrowed Brunette, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, The Case of the Runaway Corpse and The Case of the Glamorous Ghost advanced the Perry Mason series and persona.

In 1956, while preparing to move from radio to television, and still mindful of the radio version’s disappointments, Gardner formed his own production company to ensure greater control of Mason on TV. Further, he took the melodramatic aspects out and launched the television series, with a new cast, where it ran from 1957 – 1966 and subsquent television movies. Plus 30 more novels were published, still pulpy, still sensational and practically reaching off bookshelves to grab readers with titles such as The Case of the Screaming Woman, The Case of the Singing Skirt, The Case of the Spurious Spinster, The Case of the Careless Cupid and The Case of the Postponed Murder.

Nor did the melodramatic radio series fade to silence. It was repackaged for an evening series on CBS television. That series was The Edge of Night and featured the cast from the radio show.

Given the radio series spun off two television shows and enhanced book sales, perhaps The Case of the Mistyped Soap Opera would be better titled The Case of the Multiplied Revenue Streams.

Case closed.

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