Zero Hour

Written by  on October 8, 2014 

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Rod Serling is known to most people as the TV host (and some times writer) for The Twilight Zone. A decade later, he returned to TV to host the spooky Night Gallery series. The series was sold to the networks on Serling’s name and reputation, but in reality, he had signed away creative control. A few of his scripts were produced, but others were rejected for being “too thoughtful.” (We can’t have any of that on television, can we?) He was banned from the casting sessions and had no real say on the show. Despite the shabby treatment by hot shot execs, Serling grit his teeth and did his duty. He continued to lead TV viewers through a darkened museum every week, looking at paintings with even darker themes. (It was very similar to the role Orson Welles served two decades earlier as the host to The Black Museum.) When Night Gallery was canceled in 1972, Serling was probably happy to retire from TV and move to upstate New York. He taught at Ithaca College, not far from where he grew up.

However, retiring from TV is one thing, and retiring from story telling is quite another. Serling agreed to be part of a new experiment in entertainment– at least by 1973 standards. He signed on as host to Zero Hour, a mystery/ adventure anthology for radio. Hollywood must have thought he was crazy. Conventional wisdom believed that radio drama was dead, because the last series ended in 1962 with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. They must have been pretty surprised when they saw the fad the new series ignited.

Zero Hour generated a lot of interest and spawned a mini-resurgence of radio drama. Stations began playing some older shows from the OTR days, and CBS joined the fray with Himan Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Unfortunately, Zero Hour was not long lived. The first season discouraged some listeners with penalties for bad attendance. Each week, a story was divided into five installments and a different chapter was played Monday through Friday. If you missed Monday, you missed the beginning. If you missed Friday, you missed the ending. Miss any of the shows and you were bound to feel cheated for the rest of the story.

But the format was changed for the second season. A new formula in which one star was featured in five different stories was instituted. This meant listeners who missed various installments were not lost at all. Unfortunately, there were other problems. “They forgot to sell it,” according to director Elliott Lewis. “Everybody sat in the office and waited for someone to call them up and buy the show.” (Dunning, 745) Lewis left and the commercial requirements became too oppressive. The second season was its last, but all of them are still available to collectors and the featured stars are impressive. (Old radio veterans included Edgar Bergen, Howard Duff, and Lurene Tuttle, while newer talents included John Astin and Patty Duke.)

Much of the writing was worthy of note as well, including “The Blessing Way” by Tony Hilerman, and several scripts by Rod Serling. (Radio must not discriminate against scripts that are “too thoughtful”.)

Zero Hour lit the fuse to drama’s last big explosion onto radio. One year later, Rod Serling died of complications following open heart surgery on June 28, 1975. He was fifty years old.

Category : Drama