Sarah Montague, Senior Producer, Selected Shorts
Sarah Montague is in her seventeenth year as producer of the fiction series Selected Shorts for WNYC.
If the much-quoted tag line from “The Shadow,” “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!” (followed by sinister chuckle) is your idea of Golden Age radio, you don’t know Lucille Fletcher, who was born 100 ago today. A demure Vassar graduate from a working class family, Brooklyn-born Fletcher was the author of two of the most famous radio dramas of all time — “The Hitchhiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Radio drama in the 1930s and 1940s was male dominated, and Fletcher initially got an entry-level job at CBS as a typist, but eventually began submitting work of her own. Once accepted into the ranks of radio dramatists, she helped to transformed the medium.
Orson Welles is associated primarily with Golden Age radio’s most notorious broadcast, “The War of the Worlds,” but he was a presence in a number of other seminal works. He voiced the early Shadow dramas (and the network kept that trademark laugh), and was the lead in Archibald MacLeish’s anti-totalitarian drama “The Fall of the City.” He also starred in Fletcher’s “The Hitchhiker,” which first aired in 1941. Welles later reprised the broadcast as part of his own Mercury Theatre, beginning with this tribute to Fletcher:
We of the Mercury reckon that a story doesn’t have to appeal to the heart, it can also appeal to the spine. Sometimes you want your heart to be warm, sometimes you want your spine to tingle. Well the tingling we hope will be quite audible as you listen tonight to classic among radio thrillers. Its author is one of the most gifted writers who ever worked for this medium.
He went on to refer to “The Hitchhiker” as “a terrifying little tale of grue.”
There was plenty of “grue” in radio, which was the country’s dominant entertainment medium. Millions of people tuned into gritty crime dramas, and spooky series like “Suspense,” and Arch Obler’s “Lights Out,” as well as to antic comedies and heart-swarming family fare.
But Fletcher took the form to a whole new level. She knew instinctively that sound drama wasn’t simply sound effects, but a psychic space in the brain, a landscape of the unknown. As she said in an interview with entertainment critic Leonard Maltin (cited in his book The Great American Broadcast), “The audience provided a good part of it; if you could excite their own imagination, they filled in the rest.”
From the opening lines of “The Hitchhiker,” you know that, even though the narrator describes his location, you are actually in terra incognita: “I’m in an auto camp on Route 66 just west of Gallup, New Mexico. If I tell it, maybe it will help me. It will keep me from going crazy.”
And then, Fletcher pulls back the weird, and gives us the quotidian, because she knows that radio is the place where the membrane between the two is very thin, and the slow build from the known to the unknown is where the frisson lies.
The premise of “The Hitchhiker” is simple: Ronald Adams, a nice boy from Brooklyn, takes leave of his anxious mother to embark on a cross country drive. Early on in the journey, he is hailed by a hitchhiker, who thereafter appears to him over and over again: “I saw a man leaning against the cables. He seemed to be waiting for a lift. There were spots of fresh rain on his shoulders. He was carrying a cheap overnight bag in one hand. He was thin, nondescript, with a cap pulled down over his eyes.”
As Adams’ initial bemusement — how did the guy beat him to the next location?—gives way to panic and dread, Fletcher deftly turns an innocuous journey into an existential nightmare.
She writes so that a tableau opens in your mind. She was helped by Welles’ nuanced delivery — a boy from Wisconsin who nevertheless had what he called “a king voice” so that even the most ordinary remarks compelled, and the dramatic ones thrummed and haunted us.
The mood of the piece was also enhanced by the musical elements created by Fletcher’s then boyfriend, Bernard Hermann, whom she subsequently married. Hermann, later to terrify us in “Psycho,” was the CBS network’s resident conductor-composer, and for “Hitchhiker” he offered an eerie unresolved score that mirror’s Ronald’s sense of displacement and isolation.
Another thing that Fletcher knew instinctively was that drama is often most powerful when the audience is a step ahead of the characters — in “Hitchhiker,” Ronald is clinging to normality by trying to rationalize the figure’s presence. But we know, before he does, that something ultimate is happening here.
When Fletcher does deliver the blow, it is through a mind-jangling device. At the time, coin-operated pay phones were everywhere, and Ronald’s painful insertion of coins into the slot, so that he can call his mother and be reassured about the world, leaves us tense with expectation.
And when he does get through, it is only to be plunged — irrevocably this time — back into the nightmare. Ronald Adams, he is informed by the stranger who picks up the phone, died six days ago crossing the Brooklyn Bridge: “The vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa and mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me—somewhere. Somewhere I shall know who he is. And who I am.”
Oh, those last lines. Camus could not have done better.
Fletcher used a phone to even more terrifying effect two years later, in what Welles called the “greatest radio play ever written,” “Sorry Wrong Number.” Since it’s original broadcast, on “Suspense,” which starred Agnes Moorehead, it has been performed all over the world, in at least fifteen languages including Zulu.
In that interview with Maltin, Fletcher said that part of radio’s power was in its “spareness”. If “Hitchhiker” is a horrible dream being played out all across the American continent, “Wrong Number” is the opposite — a triumph of the ordinary turned macabre, its only landscape the bedroom of a peevish invalid who slowly realizes that she is the intended victim of a murder:
Both “The Hitchhiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” were adapted — the former for a “Twilight Zone” episode, the latter into a film, starring Barbara Stanwyck, with a much more elaborate plot. But the plays lost some of their power once images took the place of our own agonized imaginings.
Fletcher is largely forgotten except by old-time radio buffs, but her legacy remains—in the works of sound artists such as Joe Frank and Jad Abumrad, who conjure up place with voice and sound, and in all of us who know that radio’s whisper can be more powerful than a shout.