An anniversary is always a convenient occasion to call to mind a certain person or event. It is also a neat way of declaring someone or something significant, simply by virtue of her, his or its longevity. It can also be a cover-up, an excuse for serving stale cake, made to look (or sound) impressive by sticking a considerable number of candles in the cracked icing. Just what kind of confection was being delivered to the listeners of The Shadow on this day, 26 January, in 1941?
‘Today’s broadcast marks The Shadow‘s tenth anniversary on the air,’ the announcer declared. ‘On this festive occasion the Blue Coal dealers of America are proud to present an unusually thrilling adventure of The Shadow.’ The drama to follow, the creakily Victorian murder mystery “The Ghost of Caleb Mackenzie,” was neither thrilling nor unusual. It is the story of an aged grouch who gathers the ‘vultures’ of this family around him once a year so that they might convince themselves of his reasonably good health and continue to crave his fortune. With an evil laugh to rival that of The Shadow, he further torments his next of kin with the announcement that he has written his will.
The alter ego of the mysterious crimefighter, man about town Lamont Cranston, is introduced into the household after his ‘constant companion, the lovely Margot Lane’—who happens to be a friend of the Mackenzies—summons him there in anticipation of something unpleasant. Before she can leave the dreadful get-together, old Caleb is found with a knife in his chest. He leaves behind a riddle, which is to lead his relatives to the hidden will: ‘Attention Vultures! He who will have will to find the will will look inside,’ the envelope reads. Inside, this cryptic note: ‘To find the one who’s passed the test, / Search the place where my soul will rest.’
Caleb’s sudden if hardly unexpected death calls for a detective; but The Shadow’s supernatural power to cloud men’s minds—the ventriloquist act by means of which Cranston intimidates suspects and forces confessions—is not particularly effective in this somewhat bungled case. Its two twists notwithstanding, Jerry Devine’s pseudo-gothic hooey is a routine affair. The question, however, is not whether it was worthy of an anniversary broadcast, but whether this broadcast truly marks an anniversary at all.
Now, The Shadow received several makeovers and voiceovers through the years (one of which I discuss here); he may well have suffered both an identity crisis and a loss of memory as a result.
According to some sources, The Shadow was first heard on the Detective Story Hour in 1930. Blue Coal, the sponsor of the ostensible birthday bash, became associated with The Shadow on 6 September 1931, when the Blue Coal Radio Revue reportedly had its premiere. Beginning in October 1931, The Shadow was also featured on the Love Story Drama (or Love Story Hour) program, while The Shadow Magazine was first published in April 1931, contrary to the announcer’s insistence that it, too, was celebrating its tenth birthday that day.
So, just what were the producers of the show commemorating on this day, 26 January, back in 1941? Sorry, answers beginning with ‘The Shadow knows’ simply won’t do this time around.