This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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CRIMINAL CASEBOOK: Radio's 'Whydunit?'
by Michael J. Hayde © 2009
(From Radio Recall, August 2009)
As show business “marriages” go, it was certainly one of the oddest.
On the one hand, there was Edwin J. Lukas, lawyer, author and criminologist who, tired of “greedy private disputes,” gave up his practice in 1942 to become executive director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime. As such, he maintained that “crime is an emotional fever, a symptom, not a disease. A criminal is a sick person, who must be treated as a doctor treats a patient.” He was particularly interested in juvenile delinquency: “It comes as often from well-to-do homes as from poor ones. The chief cause is the defective relationship between children and the adults who surround them.”
On the other, there was Bob Maxwell, producer of radio’s most popular children’s program, Adventures of Superman, as well as Hop Harrigan and Adventure Parade. Maxwell’s past, however, wasn’t as squeaky clean as his shows. He began his career as a writer of lurid pulp fiction; his stories packed with blood and thunder, and more than a hint of sex. His work so impressed his publisher, “Spicy” pulp magnate Harry Donenfeld, that when Donenfeld’s Action Comics character, Superman, showed signs of becoming a merchandising blockbuster, Maxwell was invited to join the “brain trust” that became Superman, Incorporated – the DC Comics subsidiary designed solely to publicize the Man of Steel. Handed the task of bringing the character to radio, Maxwell bullied his writers, lied to the actor he wanted for the lead, and slowly built Superman into the hottest thing on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Lukas, with the Society’s backing, created a radio program that debuted on Mutual in January 1946. Produced by Carl Eastman, I Was a Convict began as a series of 15-minute interviews with former prisoners about their upbringing and subsequent turn to crime, each episode ending with a brief soliloquy by Lukas that addressed the specific ways in which society had failed to identify and curb the criminal tendencies of the week’s subject. Scripts, such as they were, were prepared by Lukas’ sister. The result was droll and straightforward, and few people noticed because the program aired opposite the second half of Bob Hope’s show.
But Mutual’s educational director Elsie Dick believed the Society’s work was important and deserving of attention. For the fall of 1946, she took over production, expanding I Was a Convict to a half-hour and adding writers Murray Burnett and Bud Fischel. Each show began with a brief dramatic recreation of the crime, leading to the Lukas - ex-convict interview segment, followed by a second interview between Lukas and a noted criminal psychologist, during which studio audience members were welcome to add their own observations and questions. Mutual scheduled the program in the 10:30 pm Thursday slot, but its flagship station, New York City’s WOR, refused to yield the Longines Symphonette Program to a sustaining show. They aired I Was a Convict on Saturday mornings, after independent station WQXR aired it the previous Sunday at 7:30 pm.
It was on a Sunday in January 1947 that Harriet Van Horne, radio critic for the New York World-Telegram, first heard the show: “It is not a cops-and-robbers thriller. There is no tense and trembling bridge music, no high shrieks, low moans or dull thuds… I recommend it over both its opponents, Phil Harris and Blondie. Radio, which has been shouting its anxious intention to enlighten, instruct and serve, might do society a splendid service if it turned its attention to the forces propelling men and women to crime, rather than the derring-do of the sleuth who solved the triple murder with only an initialed cigaret case, a wallet, a topcoat and an address book as meager clues.” A reviewer for the trade publication Variety was also impressed: “A sensible, well thought-out show, I Was A Convict is ample proof that listeners can get meaty entertainment from a public service program.”
Despite such plaudits, the changes brought no new listeners and I Was a Convict departed in June. In a letter to critic John Crosby a few months later, Lukas admitted, “because of a somewhat pedantic approach and a woeful lack of dramatic values, [the series] failed to reach a large enough audience. The Society now realizes that in order to effectively ‘sell’ crime prevention via radio, the program vehicle… must first equal or surpass the dramatic appeal of its competition.” This realization led Lukas to Maxwell.
The Superman program had recently made significant changes in its approach, pitting the Man of Tomorrow against the real-life perils of racial and religious intolerance, school absenteeism and juvenile delinquency as a whole. Maxwell freely took credit in the press for the “new Superman,” even though the idea originated with the sponsor’s advertising agency. The Society took notice of the positive press and civic awards the show was receiving. In November 1947, Maxwell paid Lukas $200 to review and advise on a series of scripts entitled “Pennies for Plunder,” in which Superman, both in and out of his guise as reporter Clark Kent, worked to expose the punch board racket that introduced children to the evils of gambling. At the same time, the pair were hammering out a new version of I Was a Convict, one that didn’t forsake “dramatic appeal.”
In this new program, the emphasis would be on recreating the ex-convict’s entire life history, as well as the actual crime(s), then Lukas conducted a brief interview with the criminal, prior to delivering a scripted moral. After hearing the pilot, Mutual passed, but ABC agreed to underwrite it for the summer of 1948, as a replacement for Ellery Queen. Lukas brought his I Was a Convict writers, Burnett and Fischel, with him. As they were doing for Superman, John Gart provided music and Jessica Maxwell directed. Several of the ex-convicts from the former series returned for the latter. Thus was born Criminal Casebook.
Saul Carson, in his “Report to the Listeners” column for Radio & Television Best magazine, wrote, “It wasn't a bad show, when it was on Mutual, but it lacked real interest and excitement. Now, under Maxwell's production, it is a top show. When the [criminal's] career has been relived – by a cast of actors as good as any on the air – (announcer Nelson) Case switches the doings over to Lukas. The picture becomes whole. Lukas does not preach; he does not scold; he merely assembles the pieces of the human puzzle, lets it underscore the moral.”
John Crosby, in the New York Tribune, gave Criminal Casebook a qualified thumbs-up: “It's a rather unusual whodunit with the emphasis on the psychological motives of crime rather than on gunfire between cops and robbers…. Criminal Casebook is not, I'm afraid, destined for wide popularity. Good is not rewarded and evil punished as is customary in most whodunits. In fact, the two are hopelessly intermingled.
“In the first of these dramatizations of the lives and crimes of actual people, a boy with an excessive love for his mother got into trouble when he tried to procure five dollars for her. His method for doing this, highly illegal in this state, was to pry open the coin box of a pay telephone. Later, still trying to get money for his mother, he got involved in a stickup, got caught and served four years in prison.
“It was a sordid and rather pitiful tale, not much different in outline from many another whodunit, but wholly different in tone. Following the dramatization, the actual ex-con was interviewed by Lukas. He spoke wistfully of his early ambitions to be a doctor, thwarted by lack of money. He had learned ‘exactly nothing’ behind bars and was still, I gathered, in pretty much of an emotional mess. Lukas wound up the broadcast by blaming the boy's plight on his Oedipus complex. That sounds dangerously over-simplified, but I think Lukas and the program deserve an A for honest effort.”
Harriet Van Horne, having heard the same episode, was more impressed than her colleague: “Last Thursday, when Criminal Casebook had its premiere over the ABC, we heard the story of Tony. As crime programs go, it wasn’t very exciting. But having the actual Tony (last name withheld) in the studio for a personal interview, was. He vouched for the facts of the dramatization and told how he drifted into crime.”
Van Horne was especially impressed at Lukas’ summation, as follows: “At an early age, Tony showed every indication of an emotional fever which should have been recognized, if not by his parents, certainly by his teachers, his priest or the judge who gave him a suspended sentence for breaking into a telephone coin box. Strangely enough, when a child runs a physical fever, we immediately take precautions or seek medical advice. But for the most part, we ignore emotional fevers until, as in Tony’s case, they explode into criminal behavior. Criminal behavior is a disease that must be treated at the point of infection.” Van Horne added her own summation to the review: “Of all the dozens of crime programs on the air, the SPC’s Criminal Casebook is the only one honestly deserving your respectful attention.”
Lukas was just as passionate in the morals presented in future episodes, such as one concerning an adopted, illegitimate girl, who was called “Miss Nobody” in her childhood and resolved to become a “Miss Somebody” when she grew up. Alas, she chose to do so by shoplifting fancy clothes, so that for once she could look and feel important. Lukas asserted that her criminal life could have been prevented with more security in the home.
In another tale, a young boy with poor eyesight, restrained by his parents, taunted by classmates and ignored by his teachers, eventually built up enough rage to commit a series of crimes, culminating in murder as an adult. “What did society, faced with [the] criminal problem, do? It isolated him in reformatories and prisons. But he had accustomed himself to isolation as a child. It punished him again and again. But he had been punished before….
“Crime is the symptom of an emotional illness. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to wait until the criminal symptom becomes evident. We must learn to recognize emotional illnesses early, for then – and only then – can we be certain that the illness is treatable and the crime preventable.”
Radio critics kept drawing attention to the series over the summer. In July, the New York Post’s Paul Denis wrote, “If you are tired of worrying about who-dun-it in crime programs, try something just as stimulating tonight: a why-dun-it. Criminal Casebook is the only crime program on the air that starts with the crime, and works backward to show why the crime was committed…. It shifts the emphasis from the mechanics of the crime and crime-detecting to something basic: why the crime was committed and what can the community learn from it.”
In August, a reviewer for The Billboard, wrote: “The Society for the Prevention of Crime recently returned to the air with this new moral-pointing series…. The story was dramatized and acted very capably, with the opening using a sequence in which the reformed criminal, now a candy store operator, told the story of his life to a kid he caught swiping a few packs of butts. Whether one agrees with the ultimate premise of Lukas and his society or not, it must be acknowledged that he is touching fresh territory in taking the psychological approach instead of the stock whodunit line.”
Again, critical praise wasn’t enough. Lukas sent several letters to ad agencies and manufacturing concerns seeking sponsorship, but was politely rebuffed every time. Opposite Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons on CBS and New Faces of 1948 on NBC, Criminal Casebook got lost in the ratings shuffle. ABC, which was channeling its meager resources into television, served notice that the run would end at the close of August. Maxwell and Lukas scrambled to save the show, agreeing to literally slash the budget in half, from $1,500 weekly to $750. But that state of affairs couldn’t last very long.
Curiously, the day before the September 9 broadcast, Lukas sent a letter to Walter Winchell, in which he claimed, “Robert Maxwell, the producer, and the Society withdrew the program from the ABC this morning because of the network’s refusal to broadcast the script involving the crime of prostitution. It is the feeling of the Society that unless such aspects of so-called criminal behavior can be aired, that the purpose of the program is not fulfilled.” Lukas had presented this same case on I Was a Convict, but of course without a lengthy recreation of the prostitute’s life and crime. No such script exists in the Society’s archives at Columbia University, although one for every other program is there, filed in exact chronological order.
With the demise of Criminal Casebook, Lukas and Maxwell went their separate ways. Lukas and the Society tried again to bring their philosophy to radio, once more in a 15-minute format. Crime Letter, which was to have aired over New York’s independent station WMCA, would consist of Lukas reading a letter “addressed to a public official or other person on the prevention of crime, treatment of criminals, and conditions affecting crime in the U.S.” The program was expected to start in January or February of 1949, but WMCA ultimately decided against it.
The previous December, the Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample ad agency, which handled the General Mills cereal account, requested an official endorsement from the Society for the Lone Ranger’s “Deputy Code of Honor,” in which members pledge to always do the Ranger proud with their behavior, school performance, etc. In a letter to the Society’s legal counsel, Lukas had clearly weighed the pros and cons of the request: “There can be no doubt that the public relations value to the Society of having its name mentioned from day-to-day can be enormously helpful. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that the youngsters who subscribe to the ‘pledge’ are necessarily going to be delinquency free.” The lawyer opined that such an endorsement “would be a mistake,” so Lukas declined the request.
In 1950, Lukas resigned from the Society and joined the American Jewish Committee, serving as their general counsel, heading up the civil rights and social acting department, and encouraging the organization to condemn the congressional investigations into alleged Communist activity during the early part of the decade. He remained with the AJC until his 1968 retirement, and died in 1973.
Maxwell, too, had other matters to focus upon. In February 1949, Adventures of Superman changed from a 15-minute daily serial to a half-hour thrice-weekly self-contained episode format, which proved to be unsuccessful. After 20 weeks, Mutual dropped the program from its lineup; all of Maxwell’s other shows had already been cancelled by then. Figuring that grownups enjoyed the Man of Steel’s exploits as much as children, he retooled the program for adult listeners, which ABC scheduled for Saturday evenings at 8:30 pm that October. Although the experiment didn’t last beyond 13 weeks, the show provided Maxwell with a format he would use to great success in 1951, when he produced the first 26 episodes of Superman on television.
In 1953, Maxwell paid $2,000 for the rights to produce a Lassie TV series; three years later, he sold out to Jack Wrather, the entrepreneur who also purchased The Lone Ranger, for over $3 million dollars. He went on to produce other TV series, although nothing as successful as those with the Man of Steel or the boy and his collie. Maxwell died in 1971.
Since 1956, the Society for the Prevention of Crime’s only activity has been an annual grant to Columbia Law School for research into penology. Columbia University houses the Society’s historical papers including, as previously noted, scripts for Criminal Casebook. In 1978, with the Society’s blessing, the Citizen’s Crime Commission of New York was founded, and in 1994 their strategic plans to reduce the City’s crime rate were enacted by the Police Commissioner, Mayor and State Governor to tremendous, and lasting, success.
Surprisingly, no recordings of Criminal Casebook are in circulation, even though it was transcribed and Lukas occasionally sent copies to organizations that requested specific episodes for educational purposes. From the evidence that exists – scripts from June 3 through September 2, 1948, along with the newspaper and magazine reviews cited here – the series was indeed a milestone. The dramatization of true cases would be the hallmark of a very successful program the following year: Dragnet – although the emphasis there would be on catching the criminal, not rehabilitating him.
Although perhaps a less pedantic program than I Was a Convict, Criminal Casebook was not without its own flaws. The writing was pretty simplistic; barely a step above that for Maxwell’s juvenile shows, and the stories were obviously slanted in favor of the criminal, since it was he or she that provided the details behind the drama. Supporting characters – doctors, teachers, parents, siblings – were officious stereotypes that existed solely to torment the convict-to-be. The cast was drawn from Maxwell’s Superman/Hop Harrigan supporting player pool: Mitzi Gould, Bill Keene, Mason Adams, Ben Cooper, among others. Perhaps with such talent at the microphone, the episodes sound better than they read.
Regardless of the final result, Lukas and Maxwell’s attempt to bring a “whydunit” to a medium drowning in “whodunits” stands as a notable achievement. A man who passionately believed in reducing juvenile delinquency and crime through “dynamic social therapy, with the help of recognized psychiatrists, social workers, clergymen and teachers,” because “jail and prisons never stopped a criminal,” and a man who brazenly capitalized on these very issues with a beloved, and soon to be legendary, comic book hero – two odd bedfellows indeed – combined solely to advance each others’ agenda and ended up making a little radio history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael J. Hayde, archivist and past president of the MWOTRC, is a freelance author. His latest book, “FLIGHTS OF FANTASY: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman,” was released by Bear Manor Media in June 2009. Portions of the book were used in this article.