“You are at the end of a journey you’ve committed murder to make,” radio announcer George Walsh told those tuning in to the long-running CBS series Escape on 25 September 1954. While addressing the escapism-craving public, he was referring to the protagonist of “The Heart of Kali,” the play scheduled for that day. The prologue in the second person was a signature device of Escape, an invitation to identify with the main character of the story, hero or villain, who was faced with a life-threatening crisis and in desperate need of . . . escape. On that particular evening, however, the announcer might very well have referred to the program itself, which, too, had reached “the end of a journey,” a journey strewn with corpses and the butchered remains of many a literary classic.
Yes, it was the end of a twisted on-the-air-off-the-air passage for Escape (1947-54), and “The Heart of Kali” opened like a weary reminiscence of the experience: “It’s been a long time. Exactly how long I don’t know. The years pile up and it’s hard to remember.” No, that wasn’t the producer talking, but play’s protagonist, a disillusioned veteran whose callous hankerings for wealth left him trapped and abandoned. Unfolding as a dramatized flashback, the narrator’s tale of greed, deception, and murder takes the listener on a hunt for the eponymous treasure, at the conclusion of which the self-serving raider is being cornered into serving as the guardian of the sacred object he sought to possess. “How long ago was that?” the ensnared man reflects, “How many lifetimes?”
Escape had ransacked the Western library of adventure stories; but, being tossed from one timeslot to another, it never managed to catch on with the listening public, a lack of a following that, in turn, caused sponsors to turn a deaf ear. At the conclusion of this last episode, the despairing narrator made a final pitch in hope of an audience, a redeemer—or anyone foolish enough to take his wretched place: “Why not you?” The ruby, he insisted, was there for the taking: “Take it, come and take it! Please! Please, somebody come and get me. Please!” It was too late to salvage or hawk this gem of a show.
“You know,” William Conrad told listeners at the close of the broadcast, “today marks the last of the current series of Escape programs and I know you will miss it as much as I shall. However, I would like to think that all of you who have listened to Escape these many months will now be able to take your pleasure in listening to Gunsmoke.”
The narrator’s plea had been answered after all. There was a suitable placeholder and successor for Escape: a Western to release a westerner caught in an Indian temple, a westerner suspicious of an Eastern “attitude of non-violence,” an ex-soldier who shot his way to a sacred object he describes as being “as big as a hand grenade.”
It wasn’t Escape alone that went up in Gunsmoke during the mid-1950s. The theater of the mind was being taken out, a carcass abandoned by audiences and sponsors alike in favor of television. Western-centric, ocular-oriented, matter-over-mind—it was a far more American medium than radio had ever been.
To date, aural treasures like “The Heart of Kali” (written by sound effects artist Ross Murray) are largely forgotten, left behind in the dim and quiet alleyways of our cultural past. “Take it, come and take it! Please!”