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Arch Oboler, 78, One of Early Radio’s Top Writers, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Arch Oboler, one of early radio’s leading writers who stirred imaginations and set millions of listeners on edge with such suspense shows as “Lights Out,” has died, it was learned Friday. He was 78.

His was a familiar name in American homes during the 1930s and ‘40s when he held his audiences spellbound with vivid verbal images and introduced his plays in a dead-calm, resonant voice that ordered, “Lights out, everybody!”

A staff member at Westlake Community Hospital in Westlake Village said he died there Thursday after suffering a stroke at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the Malibu hills where he had lived for 47 years.

Oboler estimated that he had written at least 850 radio dramas. The stories, he conceded in an interview with Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin last year, were “not for the timid soul.”

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Listened to Plays

With the vanishing of that time when almost everyone sat by a radio every night to hear plays and comedy programs--sometimes with the lights out, as ordered--Oboler bemoaned what had happened to audiences. Because they were no longer asked to put their imaginations to work, he observed, they had become nothing but a grandstand crowd.

“It is all done for them,” he said. “They no longer need to give of themselves.”

Radio, he said, was “the theater of the mind.”

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Oboler was the first playwright to have his own network radio series and the first to have a coast-to-coast show in prime time.

Although forgotten by much of the public despite some writing for television and films (he produced the first major three-dimension movie, “Bwana Devil,” in 1952), Oboler’s work has recently been revived on radio through audio cassettes issued by Metacom, a Minneapolis firm.

The energetic, short and stocky Oboler discovered a stack of old acetate recordings of many of his World War II shows starring Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and others. He had been busy preparing them for release by the same company.

Late at Night

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The “Lights Out” show, which in the old days was broadcast late at night, is heard every Friday at 9 p.m. on radio station KNX here.

In addition to helping with the re-release of his old radio shows, Oboler had also written novels in recent years. His films included “Bewitched,” “Amelo Affair,” “Five” and “The Twonky.”

He was born in December, 1909, and grew up in Chicago, where his boyhood ambition was to be a naturalist. His bedroom was a small zoo of snakes, toads and insects. It inspired him to write a story about an amorous dinosaur, which he sold to the Chicago Daily News. But when he went to collect the money, the editors saw that he was only 10 years old and gave him a camera instead.

“I never forgave them,” he told Champlin last year.

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Although interested in science and engineering, he continued to write, and while enrolled at the University of Chicago, he sold a fantasy radio script to NBC. That was in 1934.

He went on to write short plays for the “Grand Hotel” program, which featured such stars as Don Ameche, Henry Fonda and Joan Crawford. He also wrote for “First Nighter” and for Don Ameche’s “Chase and Sanborn Show.”

Prime Time

He began writing “Lights Out” in the mid-1930s, then moved from that late hour to prime time with “Arch Oboler’s Plays.” Many of his plays were concerned with World War II.

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During his early radio writing days, he married a fellow University of Chicago student, Eleanor Helfand.


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