by Tim Deforest
Over the first few decades of radio's Golden Age, the medium gave its listeners some truly wonderful Western heroes. The Lone Ranger, of course, had a 21-year run. The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and Tom Mix all spent time on the airwaves as well. All are great characters and they were the centerpieces for expertly told and highly entertaining stories, both on radio and on the movie screen during Saturday matinees.
But these characters occupied an Old West that never really existed one in which moral issues were simplified; heroes and villains were easily identifiable; and supporting characters all fit into specific stereotypes. Pointing this out isn't intended to be a criticism. Fiction isn't obligated to be historically accurate and a world without the Lone Ranger would be a much poorer place.
But this did leave a lot of storytelling potential unfulfilled. A more realistic approach to the Old West, dealing with the brutality and moral complexities that existed there, could allow for anything from epic adventures to quiet character studies.
In 1952, radio finally got around to tapping into the idea of an "adult" Western. Producer/director Norm Macdonnell and writer John Meston brought Gunsmoke to CBS that year. Centered around the character of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke was a superbly written and acted show, featuring three-dimensional characters, violent action, and a regular dose of tragedy mixed in with heroism and a real sense of humanity.
Fort Laramie was another brainchild of Macdonnell and Meston. It was their idea to present a realistic portrayal of army life in the Old West during the19th Century. It would not be a show that depended on action alone to generate drama. Macdonnell would depend as much, if not more, on "the rugged, uncharted country, the heat, the cold, disease, boredom and, perhaps last of all, hostile Indians" (quote from The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, by John Dunning) to give his stories dramatic bite.
In real life, Fort Laramie (located in Wyoming) was built in the 1830s as a trading post for fur trappers. It was bought by the Army in 1849 and eventually used as a staging area for troops during fighting against the Sioux and Cheyenne. Its relative remoteness and its proximity to the major Indian wars made it a pretty much perfect location for a Western series.
An audition show was recorded in July of 1955, with radio veteran John Dehner playing Captain Lee Quince, commander of a cavalry company based at the fort. Dehner plays Quince as a calm professional, determined to do his duty even in the face of dangerous orders issue by bureaucrats.
Right off the bat, Fort Laramie demonstrates that it definitely wasn't living in the same Old West as Roy Rogers. Quince and his men are on patrol when they find a homestead that had been attacked by renegade Sioux. The wife and children are dead. The husband is still alive, but dying and unable to give any information because his tongue's been cut out. Quince leaves the man a pistol as he and his troops ride off. After they here the sound of a single gunshot, Quince orders his sergeant to go back and retrieve the pistol.
As the story progresses, Quince discovers he must find a way to side-step some restrictive orders to catch both the leader of the renegades and a gun smuggler. The plot is straightforward and well-constructed, as well as layered with good characterizations that give it real depth. We find out, for instance, that Quince came up from the ranks during the Civil War; that he's respectful of his commanding officer, but still give his own opinions forcefully; that he enforces proper discipline among his men, but still watches out for them.
The episode also showcased a new recruit named Boatwright, a terrified private who is convinced he would overcome his fears once he gets to kill an Indian. His story intertwines with Quince's and gives the climax a strong emotional twist.
When the show went on the air, Captain Quince was played by Raymond Burr. Burr was not well-known at the time. He had played bad guys in a number of films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). He was inserted into the Japanese monster movie Godzilla as a reporter when that film was released in the U.S. On radio, he had played the brutal police lieutenant Hellman on Jack Webb's wonderful private eye show Pat Novak, For Hire. A year after Fort Laramie aired, he would find lasting fame as defense attorney Perry Mason on the TV show of that name.
Some of the busiest and best character actors working in radio joined Burr on Fort Laramie . Vic Perrin played the tough veteran Sergeant Gorse, Quince's right-hand man. Harry Bartell played the eager new officer Lieutenant Seiberts. Both actors had worked with Macdonnell in the past. Both, in fact, were almost regulars on Gunsmoke, taking on different supporting roles in that series nearly every week. Either actor might be a coarse and brutal buffalo hunter in one episode, then a charismatic gambler in the next, then a shy store clerk in the next after that. No matter what the role, Perrin and Bartell played them believably.
Perrin's character on Fort Laramie , Sgt. Gorse, is superficially the stereotypical tough non-com that has appeared in countless Westerns and war stories. But good dialogue and Perrin's strong line readings gave Gorse a realistic personality that lifted him above that stereotype. Perrin and Burr manage to build up a believable rapport between their two characters.
Harry Bartell is particularly notable as Seiberts. That character has a story arc of his own that runs over the course of the series. He begins as an over-eager and over-educated West Point graduate who doesn't know nearly as much as needs to in order to be an effective leader. With Quince's guidance and more than one tongue-lashing, he gradually matures into a competent and reliable officer. Bartell's performance grows with the character, incrementally and subtly giving Seiberts more maturity as time goes by. Burr does a great job of playing off of this, as he slowly comes to treat Seiberts with more respect.
Fort Laramie had a 40-week run, with its last episode broadcast in October of 1956. It didn't find enough of an audience to keep going, lost perhaps among the countless other Westerns popping up on both radio and television during that time. But Fort Laramie is nonetheless a high point in the history of the American Western and all 40 episodes (in addition to the audition show starring Dehner) survive on good quality recordings. Quince, Gorse, Seiberts and the other troopers of Company B served with honor during their time and we can still enjoy the fruits of their labor today.
Some typically strong episodes include:
"Boatwright's Story" (January 29, 1956)
A remake of the audition show, centering around a trooper who is convinced he'll no longer be scared once he kills an Indian in battle.
"Don't Kick My Horse" (June 3, 1956)
A trooper has a stronger rapport with his beloved horse than with his fellow soldiers. This has unexpected consequences when a patrol is ambushed and pinned down by the Cheyenne. This episode is a great example of how radio works as the Theater of the Mind, using sound effects and dialogue to efficiently convey complex action during a battle scene.
Arguably the best episode of the series. A down-and-out Shakespearean actor and a failed medicine show drummer join the army together as their option before starving to death. The unlikely friendship that builds between them smoothly runs the gamut from comedy to tragedy. John Dehner plays one of the recruits though he lost the lead role, he frequently appeared in many different roles (much as he did on Gunsmoke). He and Parley Baer are perfect as the new recruits, while Kathleen Hite's script is typically strong.
John Dehner might not have gotten the lead role on Fort Laramie . But in 1958, Dehner was given the lead role in Frontier Gentleman, yet another gritty and intelligent Western that, like Fort Laramie, would manage only 40 episodes before disappearing from the air. But those 40 episodes represent 20 hours of superb storytelling crammed with memorable characters and sharp writing (helped along by great music composed by Jerry Goldsmith). It would run the gamut from tragedy to comedy, always spinning a satisfying tale along the way.
Dehner would play the only regularly appearing character on the show, but other actors would appear multiple times in various roles. Like Dehner, these were the elite of radio's acting crowd. In fact, these were actors he had often worked with on Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie, Escape and other excellent shows. Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, Larry Dobkin, Jack Kruschen, Virginia Gregg and others could almost have been said to have made up a radio stock company, each of them able to work smoothly with the others playing either supporting or lead roles.
They worked together often and, as Dehner once said: "There was a great warmth, as it is to many other shows that we did in those days. We had actors we knew well and loved dearly it was a tight-knit group and we enjoyed it very much."
Frontier Gentlemanwas created by Antony Ellis, who had a writer on Gunsmoke (and, in fact, was married to Georgia Ellis, who played Miss Kitty on that show.) Ellis had also worked as a producer and director on Suspense, the second best anthology show ever produced on radio.
In fact,Frontier Gentleman could be said to be an anthology show, with the wide-ranging stories linked together by the lead character. Dehner played J.B. Kendall, a reporter for the London Times, who wandered across the American West looking for human interest stories. He was an outsider, giving a fresh perspective to the events he witnessed and of which he usually became a part.
Thus, though Kendall would inevitably become involved in helping an underdog or trying to see justice done, the stories weren't primarily about him. They were about the people he met each week. His job, even if he was jumping into a bar fight to help the guy who was outnumbered six to one, was supposedly that of an observer. But his moral code would inevitably obligate him to take the role of protector or friend.
Kendall is an intriguing protagonist in part because the show only gives us hints to his background without filling in all the details. We eventually discover he served in the British Army and was stationed in India. In one episode, he tells another character "I've had the dubious pleasure of slitting a number of throats under similar circumstances in India."
He eventually resigned or was thrown out of the Army under circumstances that apparently involved a woman and he has no desire to ever return to England. But we never learn much more than that.
The format allowed for a wide variety of settings whether it be in a town, a mining camp or out on the open range. It allowed for a variety of characters, whether they be a prim school-marm, a burnt-out gunslinger or a woman who doesn't have time to mourn her dead child because she's still fighting to save her own life.
It was a great format for radio allowing Kendall to act as narrator without this seeming contrived or forced. We are presumably "reading" one of his articles in the London Times when we listen to an episode.
Antony Ellis was the show's director and usual writer during its entire all-too-short run. Ellis' entire career in radio was an honorable one, but it could be said that Frontier Gentleman was his finest work.
Some of the strongest episodes include:
"Kendall's Last Stand" (February 23, 1958)
Kendall is accompanying a cavalry patrol that's ambushed by the Cheyenne. He finds himself trapped in a cabin with an Indian scout named Six Toes and a woman who just watched her son die when a neighboring cabin burned down. Jeanette Nolan gives a superb and heartbreaking performance as a strong woman who simply doesn't have time at the moment to grieve for her dead child. The ending, in which Kendall and Six Toes sneak out of the cabin to outflank the Cheyenne, is a tense and expertly told action set piece.
"Random Notes" (April 27, 1958)
This episode is a series of vignettes involving various interesting characters Kendall had met so far. There's the sales pitch by a drummer selling a tonic; an interview with a killer about to be hanged; a Chinese businessman who buys a gold mine that turns out to be salted; and a few other snapshots of the myriad personalities that made up the West.
The best bit is Kendall's account of a performance of Othello by an amateur theater group in Kansas. The actor playing Othello is a thickly-accented Texas cowboy who has had only three days to learn his lines. We get to listen in on Desdemona's death scene, in which "Othello" and his "wife" stumble over lines and insert Western slang into the dialogue. It is a side-splittingly funny scene. Virginia Gregg is the woman playing Desdemona doing a remarkable job of playing a lousy actress in a way that makes her a joy to hear.
"The Cowboy" (May 25, 1958)
Kendall meets Slim on the open range while riding towards Laramie. Soon, the two men come across a man dying from wounds suffered when he was attacked by Arapahos. The man's wife was taken by the Indians, so Kendall and Slim take on the job of rescuing her.
This episode stands out as yet another example of how skilled radio professionals could present complex and exciting action sequences using just dialogue, narration and sound effects.
"School Days" (June 1, 1958)
Two small mining towns Rotten Head Gulch and Goose Creek are feuding over who gets the new school marm. They're not as concerned about her skills as an educator (there aren't even any children in Rotten Head Gulch) as they are with the fact that she's drop dead gorgeous. Of course, she's completely oblivious to the real reason for the feud.
Portions of this article were excerpted from the ebooks Fort Laramie: A Review and Episode Guide and Frontier Gentleman: A Review and Episode Guide. Both are available for both the Kindle (via Amazon.com) and the Nook (via Barnes and Noble).
Tim DeForest has been geeking out on various elements of early 20th Century pop culture for most of his life. He is the author of several books on old-time radio, comic strips and pulp fiction. His first book—Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America--was published in 2004. Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Fiction and Literature on the Airwaves, was published in 2008. Tim also maintains a blog about comics, radio and pulp fiction.
Tim has also written magazine articles on military history and the American West. He regularly teaches several Bible studies and has served as a short-term missionary in Haiti and south Sudan.