HEART AND SOUL OF RADIO DAYS : America’s First ‘Family’ of the Airwaves
About 40 miles down the peninsula from San Francisco, just off Interstate 280, a narrow, twisting road practically turns into the front door of Roberts Grocery.
It was hard to miss the tall, elderly man in the beret, standing near the entrance, his eyes sweeping the area as if he were on a stakeout. The man who practically invented the radio “soap opera” looked tense, a bit apprehensive, then finally relieved as his visitor drove up, leaned out the window and identified himself.
“I’m parked in the back of the store,” he said. “Drive around and you can follow me to the house.”
Follow him --Carlton E. Morse, the writer of all those old radio programs half a century ago, “One Man’s Family,” “I Love a Mystery” and dozens of others almost no one remembers?
Shouldn’t this man be in a rest home somewhere? At least in a wheelchair? One simply does not drive a car through rolling hills and around hairpin turns at age 85.
Actually, he didn’t. Behind the store and behind the wheel was Millie Goodman--Morse’s live-in nurse/companion/housekeeper and, apparently, chauffeur. But that’s not to say Morse couldn’t have driven.
He wears a hearing aid, horned-rimmed glasses, has more hair over his lip than atop his head and is a bit overweight. But his mind is sharp. He cooks great teriyaki chicken, plays dominoes and poker with the boys at his two clubs in San Francisco, belts down a slug of Jack Daniels now and then, moves with the vigor of a much younger man and says he’s reasonably healthy.
More remarkable, half a century later, he is still writing, still hustling, still excited about his career--his new career as publisher and novelist. In May, his newly formed company, Seven Stones Press, will publish his first book--"Killer at the Wheel,” a newspaper tale set in the 1930s.
An Oregon farm boy who started his writing career with the Sacramento Union, Morse joined NBC in 1929, two weeks before Wall Street came tumbling down. He was a one-man gang. He produced, wrote, directed and cast his shows, maintaining full control, with little or no interference from anyone.
Inspired by John Galsworthy’s novel, “Forsyte Saga,” Morse got the notion to create a family soap opera for radio--although to this day he refuses to label it that.
“I punched a guy right in the nose for saying that,” the author exploded. “I never wrote a soap opera in my life. I wrote radio dramas.”
Actually, Morse--a rather shy, gentle man--never became physically abusive with anyone, he later admitted, but his point was well taken.
“For soap operas, they think of a plot and then drop people in to tell the plot,” he explained. “In my shows, first came the characters. Their relationships to each other is what made the plot.”
Whatever the terminology, Morse came up with an immediate winner.
“In 1929, there weren’t any sort of dramatic shows about people’s intimate lives,” he continued. “There were Westerns and murder stories only. I was terribly interested in ‘Forsyte Saga,’ and I thought, why wouldn’t a good family story be of interest?
“I wrote three episodes and presented them to the powers that be. They were dubious. They wanted action shows, but agreed to put it on the air for six weeks. That was April 29, 1932, and it never went off for 27 years.”
Slotted between the Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy shows during its peak years (1935-42), “Family” was born in San Francisco and was carried by a small West Coast NBC network. Thirteen months later, it expanded coast to coast.
Among its sponsors were Wesson Oil-Snowdrift, Royal Gelatin and Tender Leaf Tea. At the outset, a national cigarette company signed a 13-week option, but because so many letter writers protested, the company asked out after nine weeks. The result was that Standard Brands signed on and remained for 15 years.
Initially, the show proved a pleasant, temporary diversion from the economic woes of a mostly grim, stay-at-home society digging itself out of the Great Depression. As the years passed, the program became a listening habit for millions.
Usually laced with strong sentiment and often fashioned into sermonizing soliloquies, Morse’s scripts brought laughter and tears to the almost fanatical followers of the Barbour clan of Sea Cliff--an actual, affluent neighborhood that overlooks San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
“Morse created an American dynasty with his famous serial,” wrote radio historian John Denning. “Generations watched themselves grow up and grow old with the Barbours; they watched the Barbours grow, too.
"(There) was a feeling of reality that no other radio show could duplicate. ‘One Man’s Family’ moved with the slowness of life itself, working on tiny pieces of characterization and subtle, underlying conflict. The people came alive; they grew up, married, grew old and some died.”
For a program that had endured almost three decades, its official demise on May 8, 1959, was shockingly sudden, Morse recalled.
“Some silly guy at NBC in New York wrote and said, ‘Will you bring the show to a conclusion on such and such a date?’ And I wrote back and said, ‘The show’s been on 27 years. What kind of conclusion except that people are just not there anymore?’
“I never heard any more from them, but that’s the way the show ended. It was just there one day and the next day it was gone.”
With television in its infancy, “Family” seemed like a natural. It wasn’t.
A prime-time TV version, written by Morse but with an entirely different cast and produced in New York, was broadcast by NBC from Nov. 4, 1949, to June 21, 1952. The show also was seen as a daytime serial from 1954-55.
“The TV version was a flop,” Morse recalled. “And we made one picture (movie), but it was never released.
“I didn’t like New York. I came back to Hollywood. I’m a loner. I couldn’t bear writing a show and having a director, producer and light man . . . 10 different people. By the time you got through, it wasn’t your show at all. I got spoiled doing radio.”
Morse’s second longest-running drama, “I Love a Mystery,” was on the air in various formats--mostly 15 minutes, five nights a week--from 1939 to 1952.
There were numerous other serials--43, according to one report--including “The Woman in My House,” “His Honor, the Barber,” starring Barry Fitzgerald, “Family Skeleton” and “Adventures by Morse,” to select a few.
It has been said Morse has written more words than William Shakespeare, which may or may not be an exaggeration. Nonetheless, he estimates his output at 10 million words for “Family,” possibly 3 million for “I Love a Mystery” and another million or so for other shows.
Between 1939 and 1945--when “Family” (half-hour, weekly) and “Mystery” (15 minutes, five nights a week)--were being aired concurrently, he hammered out scripts with machine-like regularity seven days a week. Rising before dawn, he would be the first person at the studio and usually wouldn’t get home until 9 at night.
“I would sit down at a typewriter with a blank page a few minutes, and--I don’t know if it was self-hypnosis or not--all of a sudden the world would fade out. Two hours later, I would snap out of it and there would be 15 pages of script.”
On Mondays through Fridays, Morse would ensnarl his three soldiers of fortune who made up the A-1 Detective Agency--Jack Packard, the team leader; Doc Long, the likable Texan who had an eye for the ladies; and Reggie York, a prim and proper British er--in hair-raising adventures. And on weekends, the writer would grind out the coming “Family” episode.
Seemingly, the words flowed almost effortlessly for Morse, who had virtually no serious competition in the industry.
“Nobody knew how to write for radio,” he recalled. “They tried to translate old stage shows. I learned to write for radio by . . . writing for radio. To write just for the ears turned out to be a special technique.”
Morse was famous for “winging it,” according to historian Denning. “Often he had no idea who the killer was until near the end, but he plotted carefully and left enough motivations for everybody.”
The author likes to relate an incident he says occurred almost half a century ago. It’s about a man on Death Row in Colorado--Harold Leopold, a 31-year-old killer.
According to Morse, the convict tuned into “I Love a Mystery” on Dec. 9, 1939, and heard the last chapter of one of his serialized stories two hours before he was executed.
As he was led to the gas chamber, the condemned man was quoted as saying, “It was great. I got the final solution to the story just in time. ‘I Love a Mystery’ is my favorite radio program.”
The road to Morse’s house winds like a coiled snake, mostly through heavy foliage and thickly flanked by pines--a beautiful, peaceful area with expensive price tags.
In 1933, Morse bought 50 acres in this rustic community at $900 an acre and had a house built with his first earnings from “Family.” Over the years he has sold off parcels and late last year sold his final 13 acres with the stipulation that he could remain in his home for the rest of his life.
He didn’t disclose his selling price, but said, “One acre here now goes for around $40,000. If you had 13 acres, it would be worth a lot more than that.”
Morse’s home--a large place surrounded by giant Christmas trees and one particular redwood where blue jays chirp and woodpeckers peck--is filled with books, scripts, mementoes and, no doubt, countless memories of his radio days. Bound volumes of his original “Family” scripts were donated to nearby Stanford University.
During their years in Los Angeles, the Morse couple lived elegantly in a Hancock Park home they owned for 20 years and sold in 1960 for $500,000.
In 1983, his wife of 60 years died after a lengthy illness, and, as he talked about her, his eyes became misty. He has been comforted considerably by the companionship of Millie Goodman, the nurse who sleeps in a bedroom on the second floor. Morse no longer goes upstairs since his wife’s death; he has a hospital-type bed in the living room next to picture windows.
In the evenings, the two watch TV together. His favorite shows are “Cosby,” “Simon & Simon” and “MacGyver.” He seldom watches the soaps, but rated “Dallas” “better than most.”
He dropped a log onto an already crackling fire and looked at the flickering flames a moment. Then he indicated the seven stones across the face of the large fireplace that dominates the living room.
“My wife suggested that as a name of the publishing company,” he said.
“After she died, I thought I was supposed to die, too. That was for about three or four months.” Then the writer who had produced script after script on a daily deadline for years, thought, “Why the heck should I die? I should go on living. I thought if I was going to do something, I had to do it fast.”
He did. Less than four years later, Morse’s company published its first book, “The War According to Anna,” by Kamilla C. Chadwick, a woman Morse had tutored.
Next month his first of several completed manuscripts, “Killer at the Wheel,” will be off the presses, and he couldn’t be more excited.
“I never had a book published,” he said. “I never even tried.”