INNER SANCTUM MYSTERY: BEHIND THE CREAKING DOOR
by Martin Grams, Jr.
Inner Sanctum Mystery, a national favorite among mystery lovers for more than a decade, went on the air in January 1941 and was quickly chosen among the 10 best dramatic features on the air in both the Scripps-Howard and Radio Daily polls.
Specializing in hair-raising murder and mystery dramas, Inner Sanctum frequently delved into the supernatural, complete with ghosts, ghouls and spooks of every variety. It featured as host Raymond Edward Johnson and Paul McGrath, both well-known radio and Broadway actors. Johnson, the initial host, identified as “Raymond” on the show, was a debonair character beloved by his audience for his saucy commentaries and his ability to keep them in a state of constant but pleasurable suspense. The introductory and final note of the program was the familiar creaking door, which has since become as popular a byword as Raymond’s expression, “Pleasant dreams—hummmm!” Himan Brown, one of the most competent and experienced producers of topflight radio dramas, assured magnificent productions.
Fan mail ranged from poetic endeavors of clever kids trying to immortalize the creaking door to rambling epistles from listeners of many ages. Raymond received letters written in blood, the majority of them from women. Submissions included cans of oil for the creaking door.
What Inner Sanctum cannot make up for, however, is its lack of preservation. It’s estimated at present that only one-fifth of the Inner Sanctum radio broadcasts exist in recorded form. Very few scripts are in circulation, and interviews with those involved are few and far between, compared to lesser known radio horrors. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Inner Sanctum Mystery is best remembered not for the stories it dramatized, but for the signature opening and closing of the creaking door. (Quite a number of Inner Sanctum scripts were dramatized on Murder at Midnight but when you ask someone to name a horror program that aired during the “golden age of radio,” which of the two come to mind first?)
As a curio, let’s look back at the impact Inner Sanctum Mystery made on the listening audience, through reviews, fan letters, and other assorted trivia. (This is just a “small” sampling, mind you.)
Assorted trivia . . .
The January 22, 1941, issue of Variety reported: “Through this series Carter’s Little Liver Pills makes its bow in network broadcasting. As a contributor of radio entertainment the account has not done itself proud. Perhaps the product found it gratifying enough to be admitted to network respectability and figured that its purpose would be amply served so long as it could get the CLLP plug over such a hookup. In any event, the plug is deftly interpolated and most innocuously phrased. As for the mysteries themselves, they are not only poorly adapted but they reek, from the production angle of 1930 radio. The narrator, who seems to be gumming up the proceedings most of the time, talks about excitement, suspense and chills but what the program should guarantee is a sure cure for insomnia.”
It was once quoted by someone (and now popularly “known” among Inner Sanctum fans) that there was a total number of thirteen script writers who wrote for the mystery program. This is not true. Inner Sanctum featured scripts penned by more than twenty authors during the twelve years on radio.
The radio actors who appeared on the horror program week in and week out in supporting roles were known as “stock players.” Many were residents of New York and surrounding areas. Raymond Edward Johnson lived in Chappaqua, New York; Richard Widmark lived in Bronxville, New York; Anne Seymour had a residence in Greenwich, Connecticut; Santos Ortega lived in Dougleston, Long Island; Betty Winkler and Leslie Woods resided in New York City.
The February 26, 1941 issue of Variety reviews “The Case of the Strangled Snake,” broadcast on February 18, 1941: “Inner Sanctum Mystery hasn’t improved since its faltering start a few weeks ago … a pitifully spurious whodunit by Frank Gould. Scripting was pretentious and clumsy, production and directing were inept and the acting, except for Myron McCormick’s vibrantly direct performance as the detective, were hoke-bound. Carter’s Little Liver Pills commercials were broad, but unobjectionably worded.”
According to the April 8, 1942 issue of Variety, the Inner Sanctum series had the next-highest rating to Winchell of any program on the Blue Network.
Organist Lew White supplied the music for the radio program during most of the run. He even furnished music for the television series in 1953. His signature build-up and eerie chords opening each episode was featured from episode one. But not until December 1, 1942, almost two years after the program began, did White actually copyright his composition titled “The Inner Sanctum.”
Three episodes, August 15, 22 and 29 of 1943 did not feature Raymond Edward Johnson as the host during the early years. Raymond went on vacation for a little rest and relaxation. Berry Kroeger was substitute for Raymond, who did return for the broadcast of September 4, 1943.
Robert Newman’s “The Man Who Hated Death,” broadcast on March 22, 1942 was a vehicle for horror actor Boris Karloff. The script was included in Max Wylie’s Best Broadcasts volume of the year.
Cost per episode of Inner Sanctum Mystery as reported in January 29, 1941, issue of Variety: $850.
Cost per episode of Inner Sanctum Mystery as reported in October 22, 1941, issue of Variety: $1,500 to $2,000.
Various fan letters reprinted below . . .
“Although your program is slightly on the grotesque side, I find it a refreshing change from the ordinary. However, in the past weeks it fails to be unusual and drops back into the commonplace. Let’s have more gore.”
(Alden Murphy, Des Moines, Iowa)
“I do not believe a program such as yours is fit for children to listen to. I know that children do not use shave cream but they used to listen to your other program.”
(Mrs. Weber Brown, Portland, Oregon)
“We have elected Inner Sanctum Mystery the most outstanding program of its kind.”
(Mr. Edmund Cooke, Princeton University)
“Best wishes for your continued success. We love your silly interruptions. Speaking of ‘lather gloves,’ why not use this one … ‘A Pretty Ghoul Is like a Malady.’ We think your commercials are very well done, and my husband certainly switched to Palmolive Shave Cream because of them.”
(Mrs. E. S. Rogers, Port Chester, New York)
“I must compliment you on your program of February 5th. In twenty-five minutes you killed off twenty-seven victims. These are the kinds of programs we love. Plenty of gore—so give us more.”
(Edward Sulzer, Los Angeles, California, 1944)
More assorted trivia . . .
The strangest sound effect that ever evolved, recalled Sanctum’s sound man Ted Slate, was that of leeches eating a man. To accomplish the effect, he kept beating a hunk of liver on a marble slab—and the effect was terrific.
Raymond Edward Johnson shattered the 19-year record of True Detective Magazine by appearing on the cover in connection with his choice of a favorite “Inner Sanctum Mystery.” The editorial policy of the magazine, until then, had been to use only factual police records.
Warner Brothers created a short Bugs Bunny cartoon in 1946 titled Racketeer Rabbit with Bugs performing the usual antics on two gangsters (caricatures of Peter Lorre and Edward G. Robinson). In one scene, a creaking door opens slowly after which Bugs Bunny refers to Inner Sanctum!
Robert Bloch’s 1959 mystery novel Psycho was initially released as “An Inner Sanctum Mystery.” As a result of the 1960 Hitchcock film version, the novel went into more reprints than any other Inner Sanctum release and outsold the others. Such reprints are no longer attributed as “An Inner Sanctum Mystery.”
When Universal Studios filmed the six “Inner Sanctum” movies from 1943 to 1946, the leading actor was paid more than the director. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s salary was $10,000 per movie, which is not a bad take for a low-budget “B-class” picture, especially since director Le Borg went home with a $1,500 paycheck for directing Dead Man’s Eyes.
Inner Sanctum Mystery had a long course of out-of-this-world interests. The horror program was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988 and, even today, “lost” episodes of broadcasts not known to exist in recorded form are sought by collectors and promptly sold for top dollar before they spread through circulation.
During the early 1940s the radio program had a devoted follower in one of the inmates at Auburn Prison. Every week (during the months of 1943 to 1944) saw at least one gruesome story outline heaped on the batch of incoming mail. Himan Brown never used any of them, but that didn’t stop the Auburn resident from submitting proposal after proposal.
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author of the book Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door. Excerpts and trivia above are reprinted with permission from both the author and the publisher. If you think the various trivia above is fascinating, then this book comes highly recommended. A must-have for even the casual old-time radio fan. Grams is the author and co-author of many books about old-time radio including The Have Gun-Will Travel Companion, The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen’s Adventures in Radio and Invitation to Learning.