When Did Sherlock Holmes First Go On The Air?
By Henry Zecher
Sherlock Holmes entered a new world in 1930 when William Gillette played him on the radio.
Gillette (1853-1937) was the first great actor to portray Holmes on the stage, but he was far more than the man who brought the great detec- tive to life. He invented or developed several aspects of modern theater that we take for granted today. He helped boost the careers of some of our most distinguished thespians, par- ticularly Ethel Barrymore, Charles Chaplin and Helen Hayes. He built Gillette Castle in Con- necticut, one of the most eccentric homes in America. And he singlehandedly created the public image of Sherlock Holmes. In a career that spanned six decades and paralleled both the Industrial Revolution and the Jazz Age, the meteoric growth of cities and the rise of the United States of America as the most powerful nation on earth, he became a towering figure in
an age of towering figures, a celebrity beyond the scope of all but two of the neighbors and friends of his youth: Samuel Clemens and Har- riet Beecher Stowe.
He is best-known today as the living person- ification of Holmes, having given living sub- stance to this fictional hero, lifting him off the printed page and infusing into the character a life that would never end. The primary reason why he is remembered today is that he estab- lished for all time the Holmes image with the three items most associated with the master sleuth: the deerstalker cap, the calabash pipe, and the world famous profile, thus creating ar- guably the most instantly recognizable icon in the world. And it was from Gillette's Holmes, not Doyle's, that Hollywood film-makers derived four of the most famous words ever spoken in the English language, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”So, if Doyle gave Holmes to the world, it was Gillette who made him seem so real that even today many people.
Many today believe that he was the first to do Holmes on the air, but he wasn’t. Holmes first hit the airwaves in 1922 over radio station WGY in Schenectady, New York. Program director Kolin Hager had given a 40-minute slot to a group of community-theater actors from Troy, New York, called The Masque, headed by one Edward H. Smith. The Masque performed con- densations of recent stage plays in the weekly WGY Players, radio’s first dramatic series, which had been Smith’s idea, suggested to Hager.1 During their initial broadcast – of Eugene Wal- ter’s The Wolf on August 3 – Smith became the electronic media’s first Foley artist when he slapped a couple of two-by-fours together to simulate the slamming of a door, producing radio’s first known sound effect.
This was not simply a local broadcast limited to a dozen owners of build-it-yourself crystal ra- diophones. By the summer of 1922 there were nearly three hundred radio stations across the land, and more than three million radio sets in people’s homes,4 with more being sold every day – not cheap if purchased retail but easily and cheaply built from household products by
anybody who knew a screwdriver from a spat- ula. Early tube sets with both earphones and horn speakers were also available about this time, and the medium’s growth was meteoric. By 1922 it was felt to be such a serious
threat to the phonograph recording industry that recording studios for a short time forbade their performers from appearing on the air. Radio’s sound quality, if not good high fidelity, was still better than the sound reproduction from acoustically-recorded records, and it had some- thing else going for it: after initial purchase of the radio receiver, it was free (except for occa- sional replacement tubes and batteries, not triv- ial expenses in those days). Entire families could be entertained at no cost in their own homes, with the added convenience that they could hear entire hour-long programs without having to jump up every three minutes to change the record. And, just as their fingers did the walking through the Yellow Pages, they could criss-cross the entire continental United States with a simple turn of the dial. “Permeat- ing domestic settings just when the country needed a homogenizing force,” Joseph Lanza and Dennis Penna observed, “radio eventually surpassed sheet music, vaudeville and records as a musical disseminator.”When by 1930 the Great Depression had all but wiped out the recording industry and left more theater seats empty, radio would become completely solvent within only another year and would just then be entering its Golden Age. When Gillette stepped before the radio micro- phone, he was standing before a truly massive audience.
The new craze had already taken hold when, on November 9, 1922, the players on WGY put on The Sign of the Four, starring Smith as Holmes,6 and the world’s only consulting detec- tive hit the airwaves for the very first time. The WGY Players presented 43 dramatizations that first season, continuing to lead the industry in radio drama; and six years later they would per- form an old spy melodrama titled The Queen’s Messenger in the world’s first dramatic program broadcast simultaneously over both radio and the new medium called television.
Occasionally other radio programs featured Holmes, particularly the Retold Tales broadcast by NBC; but on October 19, 1929, Clive Brook, having just completed the first “talking” Holmes film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, did a dra- matic presentation of a scene from the film over
the CBS Theater Hour on the Paramount-Publix Radio Hour. This made Brook the first to play Holmes on both film and radio. So far, how- ever, the detective’s appearances had been sporadic, but by 1930 radio was about to reach its full potential. Soap operas had begun in var- ious forms but were beginning to take shape as modern soaps, and comedy and drama pro- grams had been launched. So much was ex- perimental at this time, but musical programs had proven popular and were beginning to evolve into variety formats; and, in the more lurid arena, among the serial programs becom- ing popular since 1929 were True Romances and True Detective Stories.
Radio was therefore looking to become a fertile field for detective mysteries in general and Holmes in particular. Among the major moving forces bringing him to the chameleonic airwaves on something like a regular basis was Edith Meiser, a Vaudeville and Broadway had a hood that went back. On one of the trips he re- vealed that he didn’t own a car himself. We knew, of course, that he had that big castle up in Connecticut, with a railroad running around the property, and my husband said, ‘But youhave a horse?’ ‘Certainly not,’ he replied, ‘I have my motorcycle.’ And he did!”
Gillette thus became the first to play Holmes as part of a regularly-scheduled series, doing the first broadcast in a 35-program series on Monday night, October 20, over WEAF-NBC in New York, flagship station of the National Broad- casting Company’s Red network, fast becoming the most prestigious broadcasting station in America, and the “radio” from which Radio City got its name. The story was The Adventure of the Speckled Band, converted to a half-hour script; and a potential audience of twenty million heard the half-hour playlet that night, more lis- teners in that half hour than the total number who had seen Gillette on the stage over the span of his entire career.
At 10:00 pm, the announcer intoned:
Tonight the makers of the new G. Washington Coffee present the first of a series of dramatiza- tions from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle. It is a great honor to announce that for this first performance the part of Holmes will be played by Mr. William Gillette himself, creator of this role on the stage and Dean of the American Theatre.
After rhapsodizing over the great thrill await- ing the listener each morning upon discovering “coffee made in the cup without work or waiting,” the announcer discovered the genial Dr. Watson sitting in his study, by the fire, with “the fra- grance of after dinner coffee still in the air.”
Not after-dinner tobacco, mind you, but “after dinner coffee.”
But the good doctor appeared flustered. After all, the announcer informed us, “this is the first time he has addressed a radio audience.”
As always, however, the doctor remained steadfast and true, and acquitted his duty ad- mirably, doubtless with his trusty old service re-
volver in hand. He told the story mostly as Doyle wrote it, with some improvisation from Meiser and Gillette, and then concluded by of- fering the announcer a cup of George Washing- ton Instant Coffee and concluding, “Wouldn’t it be jolly if we could share our coffee with the radio audience?”
Although, considering Gillette’s age, Meiser had arranged for a table and chairs for him to sit and do his broadcast from, he surprised everybody by standing throughout, so “crisp and alert that we came off the air a full minute ahead of time,” she recalled.
Finishing early, they had to fill in the gap with music.
The New York Times reviewer wrote, “To one unacquainted with the magical hocus-pocus of a broadcasting studio, the occasion was one to
shake a puzzled head over. Gone was the Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle’s printed page, gone the shuffling, masterful figure behind the footlights; in his place only a voice – clear, pre- cise, vibrant, but still just a voice.”
Gone, too, were the old stage trappings, the deerstalker and the pipe. “The Sherlock Holmes of the air, attired in easy-fitting tuxedo, and read- ing his script from a stand in front of the micro- phone, seemed utterly unfamiliar and remote. Yet, he is worth knowing.”
And, when that voice had spoken its last line into that strange contraption called a micro- phone, the three-ton glass curtain, having been lowered to shield the performers from studio in- terruptions, was raised. The announcer read his closing “continuity,” taking the audience along to the next commercial, and the tall, lean figure in the tuxedo stepped out from behind the “black cube on a pedestal,” and quietly walked away.
Gillette would make one more appearance on the airwaves. By 1935, one of the classic radio series of all time, the Lux Radio Theater,
was in full swing. It had begun as a mere Broadway stage anthology, playing on Sunday afternoons, and its approach had been simple: “Buy the rights to a fine play, hire the biggest names available, and hope the public will listen.”
From the beginning, they procured the best talent available, even if they had to kidnap it, as they did Leslie Howard one night. Because competition in New York for a visiting star’s time was fierce, Lux agents resorted to some devi- ous means of snaring them, which in Howard’s case (and certainly others) meant snatching up his luggage when he arrived and procuring a taxi. When Howard finally asked where they were going, he was told he would be appearing on the Lux Radio Theater the next day.
Having spent its first year (1934-35) on the NBC Blue Network, it had now switched to CBS, where it would reign as the most impor- tant dramatic show on radio for the next twenty years. From its simple beginning, its focus was soon enlarged to include feature films, all scripted to one-hour episodes, and it wouldhave the highest budgets and the most critical and public acclaim. After a year, the talent in New York was beginning to run dry up and rat- ings were failing, so the program would soon shift to Hollywood, where the greatest names on radio, stage and film would appear on the pro- gram.
While the Lux Theater was still a Broadway showpiece, the producers naturally latched on to Sherlock Holmes, and they approached Gillette. As a retired star from generations further back than most listeners could remember, Gillette did not have to be kidnaped as Howard was. Hav- ing been off the stage for three years at this point, and perhaps relishing another payday, he faced the radio microphone for the last time on November 18, 1935, performing a one-hour radio broadcast as Holmes over WABC in New York. It would mark the sixtieth anniversary of his first appearance on stage, and the thirty- sixth year since he had first played Sherlock Holmes.
The script was written by Edith Meiser, who had written his script in 1930 and had since be- come both the most accomplished and highest paid script writer in radio. This would be a radio adaptation of his play, a type of thing beginning to be done at a time when radio was not yet a fertile ground for dramatizations of works by major playwrights. For one thing, it didn’t pay well enough to make it worth their while. As James Hilton declared, “They cannot afford to waste a good idea, the value of which will be greatly reduced after once being handed to the microphone. And why should they when the show might run in the theatre for a year and make a fortune?”
Broadcasters could not agree on how long a radio dramatization should be. “The ear tires,” Hilton explained. “In the theatre the eye comes
to the assistance of the ear and the audience leaves the auditorium refreshed, but a two or three hour play on the radio would leave a jaded audience. Of course, it might be possible to split a drama into a serial for broadcasting.”
Radio would do that before long, but right now dramas were being shrunk into half- hour and one-hour time slots. So, too, were books, but there was one thing Hilton had to concede: a best-selling book might reach 150,000 readers, and if each copy is read by eight people, that means it reaches an audi- ence of about a million, tops. That was a small number compared to the audience that could be reached by one radio broadcast.17
For Gillette, this was not a concern.Sherlock Holmes books were everywhere, and his play had already made him wealthy, even if most of that wealth was nearly gone. The pro- gram – the fifty-fifth production by the Lux The- ater – was for one hour, from 9:00 to 10:00 pm. Reginald Mason portrayed Dr. Watson, Betty Hanna was Alice Faulkner, and Charles Bryant was Professor Moriarty. It worked quite well and, when it was over, announcer Douglas Gar- rick reinformed his listeners that they had been listening to Sherlock Holmes performed by William Gillette, and the performers on the Lux Radio Theater all had to have soft, smooth skin and “complexion loveliness,” courtesy of Lux Toi- let Soap. He then introduced Gillette, who ad- dressed his listeners:
Thank you, Mr. Garrick... And now that you have referred to the matter, I’m going to confess that I have noticed some of these very lovely stage and screen beauties and it is certainly very nice of the Lux Toilet Soap people to have helped them out on this. And I want to say to the audience – if you are listening in – if not no matter – that it was most kind of the manage- ment to give me this chance to speak to you – and ask how you are – and tell you how I am. Also to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and many happy returns of the Fourth of July. It has been a great pleasure to do “Sherlock Holmes” in the Lux Radio Theatre – and how...do we know but we shall all meet again sometime?...and now I’ll add to your pleasure by saying goodnight and goodbye.
Gillette’s performance was praised by the critics, who saw in him, at age 82, not only the old nuances but some fresh, new improvisa- tions. His ability to perform had certainly not changed, but it was not the only thing that had not. Refusing to break “a precedent of sixty years and make his views public,” he had
slipped out without talking to reporters, and the Times wondered “Well might the gaunt ebony- cane-bearing Sherlock Holmes himself have tried through his boundless ingenuity to extract from William Gillette a few of his impressions of the portrayal of the rôle of the famous detective on the air. But it is very probable that Holmes would have had to resort to very known deceit, which he looked upon with distaste, to attain his purpose.”
This was the last reading of Sherlock Holmes Gillette would ever make, but he had left a real impact on the airwaves. Mystery guru Drew Thomas noted that his “standard for Sherlock Holmes permeated the theater, films, and radio. Subsequent actors emulated him – you can hear it in their voice inflection. If you listen to the scrap of dialogue that Gillette recorded, then listen to Richard Gordon (who followed him on radio), Clive Brook (in film) and OrsonWelles (who later played Holmes in Gillette’s play on The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio dramatization) you cannot help but be struck by the profound influence that Gillette generated.”
And he received many letters from fans who, hearing him over the airwaves, could “see” him as he performed. “Years ago,” a listener in Mas- sachusetts wrote, “my husband and I in our early married life saw and enjoyed you in Sher- lock Holmes, then later in everything else you played that we could get to see. We want to tell you how we loved hearing you again in Sherlock Holmes over the air, for having seen you, we could still see you in our ‘mind’s eye,’ and every minute of the play was a joy.”