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The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

When I was a kid I’d stay up late Friday nights and listen to a radio show called “Inner Sanctum.” It scared the hell out of me.

A man named Raymond would enter the room from behind a creaking door and tell the kinds of stories meant to terrify: footsteps coming up the stairs, an organ playing suddenly in the night, whispers from shadows on the ceiling.

I’d sit alone in the darkness listening and when it was over I wouldn’t move, afraid if I did it would reveal my position on the floor and something fanged and horrible and smelling of the grave would pounce on me.

When I finally made my way upstairs to my bedroom I’d spend a night cringing in sweat and fear, knowing that at any minute the claws of the smelly thing would dig into me and I’d be carried to a place of death and pain.

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God, I loved that show.

It triggered my imagination and stirred all of my emotions to such an extent that I could hardly wait each week until 10 o’clock Friday to hear Raymond emerge from behind the creaking door.

I mention it today because I’ve been talking to Charles Michelson, who has been involved with these kinds of shows for more than half a century, distributing them to radio stations across the country and around the world.

“Inner Sanctum” isn’t among his shows, but there are a lot of others, like “The Black Museum,” “The Sealed Box” and “Gangbusters.”

We sat together listening to them one day in his small Beverly Hills office and I could tell by the expression on his face that here was a guy who knew the value of imagination. He’s part of a dying breed.

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Hardly anything is left to the imagination anymore.

Special effects, computerized images, costumes and mountains of makeup blast us in the face on the big and little screens with enough sound and fury to render a whole generation comatose.

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Recently, for instance, I went to see a movie called “Mimic,” hoping that even if it didn’t terrify me I’d find something in it to remind me of the terrible thing at the top of the stairs.

Instead I found an almost comedic tale of giant cockroaches, looking faintly like Michael Jordan in a cape and a hat, walking around on their hind legs and preying on us humans until, lo, Mira Sorvino, cute as a sprite with a dirty face, did them in.

It made radio look good.

For years Michelson, an active 88, has been promoting old radio shows both as a love and as a business. He owns or distributes 28 of them, representing 1,500 hours of air time.

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He doesn’t care how old they are. “A good story well told,” he likes to say, “will live forever.” Once he had 120 radio outlets across the country, but that’s down to 12, and he’s planning on merging the business with a larger company.

Radio station KNX plays the old shows at night and sometimes I turn them on to restimulate my imagination, the way reading poetry ignites imagery and solving crossword puzzles increases the vocabulary.

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Michelson has been involved with distributing the shows since the Great Depression forced him into a new career. He was working with a stock brokerage company when the market crashed. The company folded and he went out looking for something else to do.

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And even though he’s been doing it a long time, you can tell he’s still amused by Jack Benny and intrigued by what’s coming next on “X Minus One.” The expressions on his face say it all.

After I spent time with Michelson I talked with John and Larry Gassman, 42-year-old twins who are members of the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy.

Larry is the society’s ex-president and both men are involved in its yearly conventions. Radio is important to them not only because it’s a pipeline to the past, as John likes to say, but because they’ve been blind since birth and imagination is critical when that’s what you’ve got to work with.

“The shows also represent a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore,” John said. “You can almost tell what America must have been like back then. For some the shows represent nostalgia. For us, they’re history lessons.”

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I don’t live in the past and I’m sure that someday a movie’s going to come along whose visual impact, not its paralyzing sound or ludicrous special effects, will blow me right out of my sneakers, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe it’s just that terror is so much a part of living now. There’s too much to be afraid of on the streets, too much horror in the real world, to be unnerved by vague and shadowy things that go bump in the night.

Fear was more fun then. I miss the kid who, listening to a radio, could conjure up strange and terrifying monsters waiting at the top of the stairs and know they only came around on Fridays.

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Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com


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