On This Day in 1950: Stand-in Saint Saves Pooch, Solves Puzzle, Then Stumbles to Pulpit

Well, today I am taking the opportunity my “On This Day” column offers to revisit one of my favorite radio sleuths—the most debonair adventurer to go on the air, the mystery man about town known as . . . the Saint. When I discovered the thrills of old-time radio back in the early 1990s—while listening to Max Schmid’s Golden Age of Radio on WBAI in New York City—the Saint was the first behind-the-mike crimefighter that caught my ear. Voiced for several years by the inimitable Vincent Price, The Saint did not only crack cases—he also solved the conundrum of radio whodunits. He did so again on 24 September 1950 in a routine romp titled “Dossier on a Doggone Dog.”

As I remarked previously, radio mysteries are rarely as engaging as murder puzzles in print. There simple aren’t enough culprits to be dragged into a small studio reading a sufficiently twisted yet clue-strewn script worthy of the term “whodunit.” The way out never found by stodgy detectives like Mr. Keen (Tracer of Lost Persons) was a solid dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. On screen, Nick and Nora Charles did wonders with that approach to the rather predictable Thin Man mystery. Ill-suited to no-nonsense flatfoots like Philip Marlowe, wit and whimsy worked well when delivered by the urbane and nonchalant Simon Templar (alias the Saint).

Though initially involved in the adaptation of his thrillers for radio, Saint creator Leslie Charteris (above, on the back cover of a rare radio thriller anthology) had little more to do than to collect the royalties as his “Robin Hood of Modern Crime” went through a series of reincarnations. Listeners tuning in to the 24 September 1950 broadcast were in for another metamorphosis. They were told that Mr. Price had been “delayed in Paris,” and that film actor Barry Sullivan would be heard instead in the title role. Well, the delay had already been announced in the previous broadcast (17 September 1950). Not that the Parisian detour was quite so prolonged; the shows were transcribed, as was common for post-WWII radio, and apparently taped in pairs for economy and convenience.

“The Dossier” is a zany caper involving the shaving of a Pekinese, a jewel robbery, a screwy industrialist with a fortune in nuts (nuts and bolts, that is), his self-absorbed wife, ne’er-do-well offspring, and haughty butler-turned-stiff; as well as a smart-aleck ten-year-old skilled in judo. While not much of a mystery, the episode, penned by Jerome Epstein, is thoroughly diverting, an irreverent deflation of bourgeois values and assumptions about the anchor of family life, the innocence of childhood, and the nobility of capitalism. As if to curtail such light-hearted tomfoolery, however, an incongruously sober appeal was appended in the form of a curtain call.

Having donned the undoubtedly smart suit of Simon Templar, Barry Sullivan was asked back before the microphone to read the following message:

Ladies and Gentlemen. A long time ago it was written that man shall not live by bread alone. In this often-quoted line from the Bible, bread is merely a symbol of all material values. And although we in America have the greatest material advantages in the world, they are not enough to bring us complete happiness. We must find that happiness in our spiritual as well as our material lives, in faith as well as bread. In America one of our most precious heritages is the right to worship as we please, to know the spiritual pleasures of our churches and synagogues. The doors of your places of worship stand open to you and your religious leaders will welcome you to their services. They also offer you personal and family guidance and the opportunity to become a firm part of your community. Through our churches and synagogues that community and the families within it can find stability. And as an individual you can find the peace that only religion can bring. Thus the religious organizations in America invite you to find yourself through faith. And come to church this week. This is Barry Sullivan inviting you to join us again next week at the same time for another exciting adventure of The Saint. Good night.

In this and similar public service announcements we find compacted the troubled story of the McCarthy era, an era of consumerism, bigotry, and xenophobia; an age of picket-fence dreams, witch hunts, and manufactured menaces—double standard times no more innocent or enlightened than our own terrifying present.

The “Dossier” closed, the Saint stepped down from the pulpit, leaving listeners to grapple with the implications, to examine the state of their spirituality, or to reach for a cool drink and twist the dial in search of further immaterial pleasures.

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