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'The Witch's Tale:
THE WITCH’S TALE
Read G. Burgan
Recently it was “dejavu all over again” as KLOS in Los Angeles and 15 other west coast radio stations aired a recreation of two old time radio horror scripts from the famous Witch’s Tale series originally broadcast in the 1930’s. The two episodes were aired on October 30th on the Mark and Brian Show from the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles and featured actors Barry Williams (The Brady Bunch), Bill Mumy (Lost In Space), Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs), Judd Nelson (Suddenly Susan) and others.
None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the efforts of a retired public school superintendent by the name of David Siegel of Yorktown Heights, NY. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You see, this is a story about a book -- a very special book entitled: The Witch’sTale, and containing the radio scripts of thirteen stories from the series of the same name. Written by Alonzo Deen Cole, The Witch’s Tale was a radio horror series that originated in the studios of WOR New York and was broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System. The program began on May 28, 1931 and continued for a total of 332 episodes, ending on June 13, 1938. For most of its run, The Witch’s Tale was a half hour weekly program with each story complete in one episode.
The Witch’s Tale is an important footnote in radio history, not only because it was one of the first of its genre, but because nearly all radio, television, and even comic book horror series that followed borrowed liberally, and often shamelessly from the conventions first developed by Cole. From the very beginning, Cole used the character of a witch named Nancy to introduce his program.
Initially Cole used actress Adelaide Fitz-Allen in the role of Nancy. She was 75 years old when she began the role and in the publicity pictures looks every bit the part of a fearsome witch. But four years later when Fitz-Allen died, Cole went from the sublime to the ridiculous when he replaced her with 13 year old Miram Wolff. Actually, casting the young Wolff as Nancy wasn’t so farfetched. She had been playing witches for some time on the CBS children’s series Let’s Pretend.
Witch Nancy introduced each episode, with lots of cackles along with accompanying “meow’s” from her black cat Satan played by Alonzo Deen Cole himself. Here’s an abridged sample of Nancy’s dialogue from the opening of the February 8, 1932 episode:
“He he . . . douse that candle! It’s more cheerful in the dark. Now draw up t’ th’ fire an gaze intr th’ embers -- t’ a cheerful leetle town, t’ Noo York City we’re a goin’ -- where cheerful lookin’ houses stan’ in cheerful lookin’ groun’s. An in one o’ these houses we’re goin’ t’ call on sum cheerful lookin’ pepul. He he . . . ever’thin’ ‘bout this stury’s nice an cheerful at th’ start -- an mebee -- meebe -- it’ll stay that way. Mebbe! He he he he . . .”
Future radio horror programs would use similarly mysterious characters to introduce their programs, including Suspense, The Whistler; The Mysterious Traveler And Lights Out.
The stories themselves ran the gamut of horror lore, from hands with a will of their own, to an artist’s dummy that could kill, to haunted houses and to a mirror leading to the fourth dimension. Cole was a gifted writer who managed to turn out a new and grisly tale each week. Many of his tales were original, while others borrowed from classical legends and authors. Cole added his own unique twist to each of them.
In later years, he became the sole writer for the radio series Casey, Crime Photographer, turning out 384 scripts. He also provided scripts for Seth Parker, the Hour of Charm, Gangbusters, the Kate Smith Hour and The Shadow -- producing nearly 900 radio plays in all.
Cole directed the Witch’s Tale and he and his wife Marie O’Flynn always played the key roles in the radio drama. Two other actors, Mark Smith and Alan Devitt provided the other voices on the series. Music and sound effects combined with the artful scripts and skillful acting produced a program that was consistently popular during its seven year run.
After the series ended its run on the Mutual network in 1938, Cole sold a syndicated version to regional radio stations using recordings of the original broadcasts. This sustained the program for another six years.
In a twist of fate almost as ironic as some of Cole’s scripts, he himself is responsible for the dearth of recordings of his program available today. In 1961, while preparing to move to California, Cole destroyed all of his recordings of The Witch’s Tale, convinced they had no further commercial value. Only about 30 recordings of the original 332 episodes are known to exist, and most of these are in extremely poor condition.
If it hadn’t been for the tireless efforts of David Seigel, Cole’s Witch’s Tale legacy might have died with the destruction of the original radio recordings. By editing and publishing the Witch’s Tale book, Seigel has insured that the program’s legacy will continue on for at least another generation. Seigel is a retired high school superintendent who began collecting old time radio programs in the 1960’s and now has more than 65,000 in his personal collection.
He has established a reputation as an old time radio authority. When the television series Biography needed radio exerpts for its documentaries on Walter Winchell and Danny Thomas, they looked to Seigel to supply them. One of his audio clips appears in the HBO film on Walter Winchell.
All 332 scripts were shipped in four large cartons to Seigel who photocopied the entire set. Each script ran an average of 25 to 28 pages. All were in extremely fragile condition. It took ten working days to photocopy the entire collection.
In selecting which of the many scripts to actually publish, he first eliminated those represented in the existing 30 recorded programs. He further eliminated those that were reworks of other authors. Originally he planned to scan the scripts to be included in the book into his computer, but the many marginal notes and changes made that an impossible task. So his wife Susan diligently typed each script.
The resulting thirteen stories provide a nice balance of the kinds of stories that constituted The Witch’s Tale radio program and made it such a hit with its original listeners. Seigel has provided an introduction that details the career of Cole and a background on the program and it’s participants including several rare publicity photos.
The book is sure to please anyone with an interest in old time radio programs in general or horror stories in particular. The Witch’s Tale by Alonzo Deen Cole (ISBN: 1-891379-01-1) is available for $19.95 plus $3.00 for shipping and handling directly from Dunwich Press, P. O. Box 193, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598 (914) 245-6608 FAX (914) 245-2630 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at email@example.com.