I LOVE A MYSTERY
The Stairway to the Sun
by Martin Grams, Jr.
(From Radio Recall, October 2003)
The 'Stairway to the Sun' is considered by many I Love A Mystery fans as one of the best adventures of the series. With the exception of 'Temple of Vampires,' most of the adventures Morse presented on Mystery were straight-forward situations set along the California Coast, tropical islands and desert locales. With this adventure, Morse gave the detectives a larger task: to explore an unexplored country, rumored to be a myth, and save the lives of the expedition. Doc Long and Jack Packard are hired to pilot and service an expedition into the South American jungle, headed by Dr. Karl Haugemann, scientist, and his two daughters, Frieda and Gretchen.
The initial object of the adventure was a safe landing atop the great, four-hundred-square-mile, pre-historic plateau rising straight up out of the Venezuela jungle a mile high. After making a successful landing with the first load of food and equipment, Jack learns that Dr. Haugemann is not capable of leading such an expedition. With the plane undamaged, the crew could fly out of the jungles (if it weren't for the fact there is no room for a successful take off.)
Forced to trek back to civilization by hacking their way through the savage tangle of jungle and floating down the river, the expedition encounters numerous obstacles including a mile-high waterfall, deep caverns and underground chambers.
GRETCHEN: It's too bad we can't see more too, because this must be a really tremendous cavern.
FRIEDA: That is obvious by the manner in which our footsteps and voices echo...
DOC: Yeah, listen to this fer instance... (back off)... Yoooweeeeee... Ride 'em cowboy...
JACK: Heeey, Doc, cut that out...
Most important is the discovery of a stairway cut out of the living rock that climbs higher and higher until it vanishes in the haze and clouds above. Doc takes one look and dubs it the 'Stairway to the Sun.' It served undoubtedly as one way to reach the great plateau above. The continual drag upward (while not beyond the endurance of the two girls) creates a pull on muscles and delicate organs, which leaves them in an agony of stitches and cramps after every twenty or thirty steps. After the long climb upwards, which takes two days and one night (a total of four episodes), the party reaches the top to discover evidence of natives whose intelligence is limited to Pagan taboos and poison darts and blow guns. A virtual city of cliff dwellers.
Prehistoric monkey men invade the cliff dwellers and jungle natives in search of the men and two girls. Jack arranges for the short-wave set in working order and contacts the Venezuela Government station and the Caracas police. Shortly after, a mass of ape men start to invade and Jack shoots over their heads with a machine gun. This only makes them angry and more ready for a fight. Dr. Haugemann insists on staying behind to explore the lost civilization, shooting his daughter Gretchen when she won't agree to stay behind. The rescue plane arrives. The expedition members are picked up and dropped off at the Caracas municipal airport. Gretchen's wounds are given a thorough examination and she is given the promise of quick recovery.
'The Stairway to the Sun' was the second-longest serial in the I Love A Mystery series, lasting a whole thirty chapters, twice the normal length of the serials Morse wrote for the program. The idea for the 'Stairway to the Sun' originated in Morse's second NBC Mystery Serial in 1930, The Dragon in the Sun (which also makes a brief appearance in episode forty-four of the Adventures By Morse serial, 'Land of the Living Dead'). No doubt originating from one of Morse's encyclopedias, 'The Stairway to the Sun' was based on real Mayan history. The Egyptian kings maintained the cult of the sun over the centuries. Building pyramids (symbols of the stairway to the sun or angled rays of the sun) and later solar temples in honor of the sun gods, the Egyptians believed these stairways also led to the afterlife. When a king or Pharaoh died, his actions were judged in the afterworld by Osiris, a form of sun god and ruler of the underworld. If they were considered just' during their lifetime, the king would be transformed into a form of the sun god. In Palenque, Mexico, at one of the most beautiful of the Classical Mayan sites, are large stone steps described as the 'Stairway to the Sun.' The civilization became prominent in perhaps 700 A.D. and flourished for a few hundred years. This large area of ruins lies in the Chiapas state of Mexico, near the Guatemala border.
'I had on my shelf a British Great Encyclopedia,' recalled Morse, 'and I used it in every I Love A Mystery story that took place out of the country. I used that Encyclopedia to find out what kind of forest they had, what kind of people they had, and it was all written reasonably and responsible. For example, 'The Twenty Traitors of Timbuktu' was laid in Africa way back there when Africa was a different place than it is now. I couldn't possibly do that show today unless I said it happened back in the 1930s. I even found out how big the little towns were, whether they had a railway through there, and what kind of trains they had. In great detail and it was in the Great Encyclopedia, letting the dialog take up the action.'
With 'The Stairway to the Sun' being as descriptive as it was, there can be no doubt that Morse used entries from the Encyclopedia for the foundation of this serial. As described by the announcer: 'As they watch Jack and Haugemann approach the falls, they see the flash of lightning and hear the crash and roll of thunder caused by the friction of the great body of falling water! The falls is completely surrounded by ring after ring of rainbows until it looks like a highly decorated may-pole reaching up into the clouds, and every few minutes the electrified air in the vicinity of the water explodes with the flash and crack of canon fire.'
During another time the announcer also got descriptive, before the approach of flying reptiles: 'They look down on giant rocky prominence and cliffs of unbelievable proportions and of every color and hue; all the colors of the painted desert are splashed over the age-old peaks and declivities. The greens of emerald; the lustrous sheen and shine of exposed ledges of gold; the orange and browns of sandstone and the purples of amethyst . . . A whole glittering peak of amethyst banked by ledge shining with unlimited out-crossings of gold, so that it shone in the tropical brilliance like a captive sun. And then into the blistering sky swarmed a flock of creatures with wings; creatures as ancient as creation itself; great monsters with teeth, bat-like wings and with snouts and jaws like alligators . . . Doc called them Flying Crocodiles at first and then he called them a lot of other things as they turned toward the airplane intent on destruction...'
DOC: (excited) 'They're a comin' Jack... four, six, seven. nine of 'em, and they ain't foolin'...
JACK: Well get up here in front along side of me. Gretchen, you'd better go back in the cabin with your father... You got both of those automatic rifles?
DOC: I got 'em, Jack... 'Scues me Baby...
GRETCHEN: I'm pretty good with a rifle... If I can be any help...
JACK: You can use an automatic rifle?
GRETCHEN: Yes, I've never shot from an airplane.
DOC: Well, we've never shot crocodiles from an airplane either, sister... Here, take this rifle and git over there on the other side of Jack...'
It might also be noted that Venezuela, the vast setting for this serial, was the inspiration behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), and actually contains the world's highest waterfall, flooded plains, and Andean peaks. Known as Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world plunges down from the western flank of a gorge in the middle of the Auyan-tepui. With a total height of 979 meters, and free fall of 807 meters, the water that leaves the summit takes fourteen seconds to reach the bottom, although in the dry season much of that water is blown away in a fine mist.
This also marked the first serial in which Morse began incorporating Christianity among the pages of scripts. Many references, descriptions and dialogue began to filter through the I Love A Mystery serials, hoping to remind the audience that horror was only fiction, not something to take seriously, especially in cult fashion. The Stairway was described as a veritable 'Jacob's Ladder to Heaven.' Later in the serial, the Island in the Sky was described as a 'Garden of Eden' when the descriptions of the flora and fauna still left in half-finished stages were represented.*
*Footnote: During the spring of 1930, NBC was broadcasting a series of Biblical dramas scripted by Carlton E. Morse, entitled Bible Stories. George Rand was the producer and director. Paul Carson supplied the music. The hour-long dramas were broadcast on Sunday mornings from 11 a.m. to 12 noon on the West Coast.
The initial working title was 'The Island in the Sky,' but Morse changed the title to 'Stairway to the Sun' before he completed the serial. Also of interest is the character of Dr. Karl Haugemann, described as a German scientist. At the time this serial was being broadcast, the United States was still at war with Japan and their allies, including Germany. So why have a German scientist leading an expedition? (If nit-pickers really wanted, they could ask themselves how the opening gong in each broadcast setting the time of events, came into the picture. Are there any hidden natives with a gong at every corner?) Due to the popularity of the favorable fan mail, Morse would write a sequel to this thriller five serials later entitled 'The Hermit of San Felipe Atabapo.'
Storrs Haynes of Compton (the Agency representing the sponsor) wrote to Morse on July 23, 1943, days after 'Stairway to the Sun' ended: 'What the hell happened to 'Stairway to the Sun?' Haynes expressed his opinion that the story started nicely, then frazzled. He wondered if Morse was having trouble with CBS. The loose ends of the story worried him, and he wondered if Morse shouldn't work these stories out more completely before starting to write them. 'They have to add up as a whole . . . this would also protect you from Columbia.'
On August 16, 1943, Morse wrote to Haynes: 'CBS did not give me trouble .' and continued to explain his thinking on 'Stairway' basically defending the story. Morse said he hadn't received any negative feedback. (He also mentioned that he recently received a letter from John Gordon about a Street and Smith I Love A Mystery comic book. Morse was very opposed to this, 'it's cheap and childish, and it would harm the program.'
On September 13, 1943, Haynes wrote back to Morse. 'K, you win, it seems listeners don' agree with me on 'Sairway.' This just goes to show that the radio listeners still have the final say regarding the quality of an audio performance. Fans of I Love A Mystery to this day still consider 'Stairway to the Sun' one of the best serials ever broadcast on network radio.
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author and co-author of numerous books including: Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion and The History of the Cavalcade of America. Material for this article was reprinted with permission from Martin's book The I Love A Mystery Companion. All rights to the written scripts of Carlton E. Morse and derivative works are held by MORSELCO, INC (a California Corporation), c/o Richard Ferguson, trustee, Morse Family Trust.