Monday, March 5, 2012

Gunsmoke on radio (1952-1961)

William Conrad
“Around Dodge City and in the territory on west, there's just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers and that's with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.”

So began the weekly half-hour western series Gunsmoke on CBS Radio, with its first broadcast on April 26, 1952. Film actor William Conrad played the U.S. marshal, Matt Dillon, who grimly did his best to maintain law and order in Dodge City, Kansas, in the years of the cattle drives and homesteaders.

The series was rather noir adult fare for a medium that mostly played to a family audience. Like Gangbusters and Dragnet, it explored the dark and violent side of American character—not in the urban jungle but the open prairies of the mythic West.

Out here there’s a criminal element, easy access to liquor, and every man carries a sidearm. An episode may begin with a lynching or the desperate cries of a distraught woman, “Matt. . . Matt. . .” Gunslingers drift through town, some with reputations, like Doc Holliday on his way to Tombstone. Indians may turn out to be more noble and honorable than the average white man.

We didn’t get TV at our isolated farmhouse in Nebraska until about 1954. Raised on radio, I was only ten when Gunsmoke started and probably failed to see the drama in some episodes, where dialogue was often layered with subtext. How would a ten-year-old know that the woman Matt once knew in Louisville was more to him than a “friend”—or sense his regret at seeing her happily married to someone else.

But I remember liking this show, as I did much of what was on radio at the time. It was my lifeline to a world beyond fieldwork and milk cows. It fed my imagination, so much that I entertained myself while doing chores and riding tractor with “radio shows” of my own invention.

Dodge City Times, Dec. 28, 1878
It’s been a curious pleasure to find the old Gunsmoke shows online now, where you can listen to them for free and appreciate the craft that went into the scripts, the performances, and the sound effects. They are often spare stories, with unexpected subject matter, turns of plot, and character types. Credit for this goes to the show's creators, Norman MacDonnell and John Meston.

The central core of characters, Matt, Chester (Parley Baer), Kitty (Georgia Ellis), and Doc (Howard McNear) became more than just the familiar voices of the show’s weekly cast. They were a close-knit group of decent people thrown together by history and circumstance, providing each other the solace of friendship in a cold, hostile, and dangerous environment.

That balance between the lone lawman and a small handful of loyal friends accounts, in my opinion, for the longevity and the continuing appeal of Gunsmoke. As most reading this know, the radio and TV shows (with different casts) continued side-by-side for much of a decade, and the TV version lasted until 1975.

While James Arness made Matt Dillon an icon of pop culture, I have to say that William Conrad is my favorite of the two. Could be that I enjoy him in any movie I’ve seen him in. He’s a shameless scene-stealer. But the dark and brooding side of his Matt Dillon is more in tune with the world we’ve come to know, a world of “killers and spoilers” who need corrective handling, whether or not they live to get a fair trial.

Further reading:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Alan Ladd, Whispering Smith (1948)


  1. My family didn't watch GUNSMOKE, so my introduction to the characters was through the radio show. I knew Conrad from ESCAPE (not TV's CANNON), the embodiment of dark, gritty radio. I admit to never thinking of the show as an ensemble piece, but your post puts me in the mood to listen with such an ear.

    1. I vaguely remember ESCAPE. I see that it's available online, too.

    2. ESCAPE had some terrific literary adaptations, perhaps a few qualifying as westerns. I recently listened to a good one about a cavalry unit called "Command" (Episode 69).

  2. Just sampling an episode at random...sounds witty and a little racy.

  3. I SO enjoy this series. I own the first three years and have listened to them several times. I need to collect the rest.

  4. I did not know William Conrad was Matt. He had a great voice.