Once upon a time, there was a popular TV Western called Gunsmoke. The show ran for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, making it the longest running dramatic TV series ever. Over 630 episodes aired during that time span, not including 5 made-for-TV movies. The show frequently received top ratings and the series won 15 Prime Time Emmy awards. It outlasted NBC’s Bonanza and survived CBS’ infamous “rural purge” of the early 1970’s when it cancelled its Western-themed shows. A few years later, in 1975, without any advance notice to the show’s cast, producers, or the viewing public, CBS unceremoniously pulled the plug on Gunsmoke.
Many of you probably remember the series or have at least heard of it. What some of you may not know is that Gunsmoke the television show was adapted from a radio series by the same name. It was 71 years ago this month when Gunsmoke the radio series first took to the airwaves on the CBS Radio Network. The Western drama aired on the radio every week for 9 years.
For the varmints who don’t know, Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, and centered around Marshal Matt Dillon’s efforts to enforce law and order in the wild west. Other key characters included Dillon’s Deputy, Wesley Proudfoot, Kitty Russell, owner of the local saloon (and Dillon’s love interest), Chester Goode, Dillon’s assistant, and Doctor Charles “Doc” Adams, the town physician.
Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim.
During the entire 20 year run of the TV series, actor James Arness played the lead character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. The 6’2” tall Arness looked and acted as if he was born for the part. He bore a slight resemblance to John Wayne and even sounded a bit like Duke. Legend has it Wayne was offered the starring role but turned it down.
In the radio series, however, William Conrad played Matt Dillon. You’ll remember Conrad as the 5’7″, 260 pound detective in the popular 1970’s TV detective series, Cannon. Nobody could’ve looked more the antithesis of an 1870’s Marshal than Conrad. I pity the horse that had to transport him. But this was radio, not television. Conrad had extensive experience in radio and it was his voice, as deep as Hells Canyon, that rightly earned him the part.
Rocky and Bullwinkle
Since I’m focusing on the Gunsmoke radio program and he was the star, allow me to devote a few sentences to Conrad. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1920, the son of movie theater owners. He became a fighter pilot in World War II and was a producer-director of the Armed Forces Radio Service. He directed numerous films and TV episodes and acted in many more over his 5-decade long career. He was the narrator for The Fugitive, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He married 3 times and had 1 son. His last starring role in a TV series was Jake and the Fat Man, a crime drama that ran on CBS for 5 seasons. Conrad died in February 1994 of a heart attack.
From Mark to Matt
Before the Gunsmoke radio series began, two different pilot episodes were recorded, both in 1949. The Marshal’s name for the pilot episodes was Mark Dillon and Conrad didn’t play the lead role in either episode. Neither ever made it on the air and the hero’s name was later changed from Mark to Matt Dillon.
For Adults Only
Unlike other radio Westerns of the era such as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke was strictly geared for adults. It tended to be somber and often featured explicit and violent content, yet is generally regarded as more realistic than its television counterpart. From the radio show’s introduction: “There’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers and that’s with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gun smoke!” Or as William Conrad as Marshal Dillon put it in his baritone voice: “[I’m] the first man they look for and the last they want to meet.”
Being the radio geek that I am and having been employed in said industry for years, I’m continually amazed at the work that went into these old time radio productions. Listening to the Gunsmoke radio shows, I put aside the story lines and concentrated on the other elements…the quality of the scripts, the music, and of course, the all-important, multilayered sound effects. An enormous amount of effort went into each and every weekly episode and the quality still shines through 7 decades later.
Watch and Listen
If I’ve managed to inspire you to catch Gunsmoke the TV show, you’ll find the series airing weekday afternoons on the MeTV network (which, incidentally, also airs Cannon). Can’t get enough? The INSP cable network airs Gunsmoke episodes multiple times throughout the day and evening. Tarnation! On the other hand, if you’d prefer to acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with the original radio show, check out Internet Radio station WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke, streaming out of Virginia. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Dodge City, Kansas anymore.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Most OTR (Old Time Radio) Internet stations play a variety of old time radio programs. Some OTR stations are genre specific like mystery/science fiction or comedies. There aren’t too many that dedicate themselves to one specific series like WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke does. With WRCW Radio, it’s all Gunsmoke, all the time. I’m talking hundreds of episodes all broadcast on one radio station. You’ll even hear vintage adverts for Vicks cough drops and the original sponsor, L&M cigarettes. Interestingly, L&M was founded in 1873, the same time period the Gunsmoke episodes were set in. It’s bizarre to me to hear cigarettes advertised as having “flavor” and being “light and mild” with an “easy draw”, not to mention the white “miracle tip” filter. The L&M brand still exists today unlike some of their customers.
25 Years of Gunsmoke Radio
There are other Gunsmoke-only Internet radio stations like a similarly named radio station, Home of Gunsmoke. That station only streams at 64 kbps and it’s been my experience that this is typical of the majority of OTR Internet radio stations. WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke streams at 128 kbps. It’s a minor point since the quality of the old time radio mono recordings aren’t exactly high fidelity, but I applaud WRCW Radio for going above and beyond. They’ve also been streaming Gunsmoke longer than most. The station celebrated its 25th Anniversary just last year. In 2005 it was nominated as Live365’s best station.
I spit-shined my Marshal’s badge, hopped on my trusty horse, and tracked down Marlene Micele, WRCW’s Founder. I asked the little lady what her inspiration was to start WCRW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke. “The inspiration to start the station came from my memories of hearing the show on the radio when I was only a few years old”, Micele wrote me. “I didn’t like the TV version of Gunsmoke”, she added.
As I mentioned, WRCW Radio plays all the Gunsmoke shows, well over 400, with one exception. “I air all the episodes that are available”, Micele told me. “There were many repeats during the show’s run, and I have removed them from the broadcast as to not be repetitious.”
Pull Up A Chair
One mystery that still endures…why William Conrad didn’t get the starring role in the Gunsmoke TV series after successfully playing the lead for 9 years on the radio. It’s been implied his girth was the reason behind the snub. Micele commented, “I quote from hearing Dennis Weaver [who was in the TV series] tell it: ‘The scene called for Conrad to jump up from the chair, and when he did, he got stuck because of his weight.’ It was clear Gunsmoke the TV series was either going to need bigger chairs or a thinner Marshal.
Just the facts, ma’am.
WRCW has some sister stations worth noting which also stream at 128 kbps. If Gunsmoke isn’t your cup of wild west whiskey, there’s WRCW Presents Dragnet, dedicated to Dragnet, another very popular TV show that began life as a radio series. WRCW Radio 2 Home of the Old Time Westerns airs Westerns in general, and WRCW Crime Story streams vintage radio crime dramas. Perhaps the “RCW” in WRCW stands for Radio, Crime, Westerns.
“Unlike other radio Westerns of the era such as ‘The Cisco Kid’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Gunsmoke’ was strictly geared for adults.”
Without getting ornery, I have two quick cons about this Internet station. First, it’s not non-commercial, so be prepared to hear 2 minute commercial sets beyond the original vintage sponsorships. The commercials help reduce the station’s cost of the streaming platform and is often a necessary evil for Internet stations to exist.
The other quibble I have is that KCRW Radio’s metadata doesn’t identify the original air date of each Gunsmoke episode. The title of every episode is displayed but it would be interesting to know when they first aired. This information is readily available so I don’t understand why it’s not included. To be fair, the other Gunsmoke Internet stations I checked out also failed to indicate the broadcast dates.
Gunsmoke still looks and sounds pretty darn good at 71 years old. Without it, one has to wonder whether shows like Yellowstone, 1883, and 1923 would exist. Unless you’re yellow-bellied, rustle up some Gunsmoke on WRCW Radio or get out of Dodge!
Trivia: William Conrad wrote Gunsmoke radio episode #59, “Sundown”, which aired on June 6, 1953. He also directed two episodes of the TV series.
Trivia: James Anress, who portrayed Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke the TV series, had a famous brother…Peter Graves, who starred in his own hit television series, Mission: Impossible.
Trivia: The Gunsmoke TV character, Festus Haggin, played by Ken Curtis, released several records. Long before Gunsmoke, Curtis was a professional singer and had a brief stint as lead singer with the Tommy Dorsey band in 1941 after Frank Sinatra’s departure.
A sampling of metaphors by Festus Haggin from the Gunsmoke TV series:
He ain’t got the gumption to pound sand down a rat hole.
I thumped him ’till his ears rang like the liberty bell.
Crookeder than a dog’s hind leg.
Hold `yer taters.
I’ll get onto you like ugly on an ape.
He can’t see past the brim of his hat.
This here stew will put muscles in your whiskers.
It’s hot enough to fry a horseshoe.
Tighter than the feathers on a prairie chicken’s rump.
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