Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mystery of the Radio Spirit -- Solved!

[Announcer] In the previous episode, our intrepid detective was last seen  staring at his computer screen, intently pondering the puzzle before him. His decades long search for information about the fabled Spirit radio program had produced little other than a single crumbling letter found among the late Will Eisner's correspondence. The futility of his quest left him no choice. Setting pride aside, the humbled gumshoe made a plaintive cry for help into the vastness of the Internet. A cry that was heard and answered in this exciting conclusion of...The Mystery of the Radio Spirit!

     I have always been thankful for the help I've received from other comic fans. Kindred souls who share the same interests and passions as I. But for once, the help didn't come from them, it came in the form of a Schadow. Specifically, Karl Schadow.
     Karl, a brilliant radio historian and writer, happened to read of my request for information regarding the legendary Spirit radio show on an old-time radio chat list. Not long after, he emailed me.
      "There definitely was a program on WFIL in Philadelphia from 1940- ca. 1942," he wrote as he briefly recounted a few details he had retrieved from various trade magazines. "I'll be more than happy to send you copies of the reviews and anything else I find on this program, " Karl promised. And true to his word, he did. 

     "THE PHILADELPHIA RECORD, in a swap deal with WFIL, Philadelphia, inaugurated on Oct. 26 a weekly 15-minute dramatization based on the three crime-fighting comics carried in a Sunday special comic section. Each Saturday, the program will alternate between  "The Spirit", " "Lady Luck", and "Mr. Mystic," comprising the Sunday comic special. Although every newspaper in the city has special swap deals with every station, the Record is the first to tie in a regular newspaper feature with a with a regular air show, all others using the time for institutional and spot campaigns."[BROADCASTING, Nov. 1, 1940]

     Amazing. My years of searching for clues about this program had returned naught. Yet Karl had found this revealing mention that answered most the questions I had about the show.
     It premiered much sooner than I had speculated; actually not long after the strip debuted in June, 1940. To be sure, the PHILADELPHIA RECORD was one of the earliest proponents of Eisner's creation, as demonstrated by this ad.

[image courtesy of Charlie Roberts]
     Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the clipping Karl sent, was the revelation that not only did The Spirit strip get a radio drama-tization, but so did his Sunday section partners, Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic
     Given the date, it follows that the first Spirit episode was based upon the October 27th strip, which found him contemplating joining the military.

THE SPIRIT section (Oct. 27, 1940) 
[as reprinted in the 1973 "Spirit Bag"]
     Karl's research didn't end with that one clipping. Included as well was a full-blown review of The Spirit from THE BILLBOARD, by legendary music critic, Maurie Orodenker. Orodenker (who would soon coin the term, "rock and roll" ) was effusive in his praise of the show.

     Considering the The Spirit, crime adventure comic in the paper's Sunday editions, is fast chasing Dick Tracy into a rumble-seat position in popular favor, this stanza has practically a ready-made audience for itself. And the the dramatic efforts of the actors are worthy of the advantage.
     Each dramatization is complete, based on the following morning's story. When caught, a frantic telephone call tells of a corpse in a college dormitory. The Spirit (Sam Serata) with his down-South Ebony (Salvatore Benigno) comes thru with his usual flair, battles the criminals and winds up with lipstick all over his face.
     Interest is sustained thruout. Mill Spooner at the organ tying together the scenic changes. Enid Hager, of the Record staff, scripts and produces. Gal was formerly with the station's production department, and does an excellent job. 
     Commercial palaver limited to bally on the paper's Sunday comic section.

     While Orondenker's estimation of The Spirit's popularity may be a bit off (it never truly challenged Dick Tracy), his evaluation of the program is enlightening. Now we know the actors who played the lead--Sam Serata--and Ebony--Salvatore Benigno. The characterization of Ebony as "down-South" is a reflection of Eisner's own portrayal; at once unfortunate, but consistent with contemporary media (e.g., Amos 'n' Andy). Since the lead to the review lists just The Spirit, it appears that somewhere along the way, both Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic lost their turns in the Saturday at 7:00 PM line-up.
     Not stopping with just this one review, Karl found yet another, from the February 4, 1942 issue of VARIETY.

     The Philly Record has evolved a novel method for plugging one of its prize Sunday comics by dramatizing part of the sequence the night before over the air and leaving  the Spirit, hero of the strip, in dire danger at the end of the dramatization. If the listener wants to know how Mr. Spirit gets out of this jam he has to buy the Sunday Record. Simple.

     The use of a cliffhanger not only took a popular device from the movie serials of the day, but provided a clever newspaper selling technique, which after all, was the purpose of the program in the first place. The date of the VARIETY piece reveals that the show ran well over a year; not as short-lived as its obscurity would indicate.
     But the search goes on. Karl is continuing to follow-up on several leads, and I can assure you, my quest will not stop.
     Do any recordings of  The Spirit program exist? And what happened to the scripts Hager sent to Eisner as mentioned in his letter? 
     Who knows what revelations are yet to come?
     If I had to bet, I'd bet Karl Schadow knows.


     It has been suggested to me, by Denis Kitchen and others, that the 1987 Spirit Picture Disc record may contain excerpts from the radio program.
     Alas, this is not so.

The Spirit Picture Disc  (1987)
      The clips heard on the record come from a short-lived 1948 Spirit television show. This show, produced by Alan R. Cartoun Associates, apparently used panels from the strip accompanied by voice-overs by actors. Once again, the incredible Karl Schadow comes through with the info.
     A series of five, five-minute television productions, for an across the board weekly schedule, has been completed by Alan R. Cartoun, radio and television producer, Scarsdale, New York. An animated version of the syndicated comic strip, "The Spirit", the open-end package is available to local advertisers and TV stations throughout the country. 
     The episodes are delivered as a unit on specially prepared film strip with voice and sound track effects.
[BROADCASTING, Nov. 8, 1948]

     While there is undoubtedly a story yet to be told behind THAT venture (as well as the proposed 1966 Irwin Allen Spirit show), it is a story for another day. One mystery at a time, please.


  1. Wow! Great detective work Ken (and Karl!). So now we know a lot more about the radio show...and learn about a 1948 Spirit TV show (!!!!)as well. That TV show sounds a lot like the no-animation mid-60s Marvel cartoons. You've answered some questions I had about the 1987 Spirit record in the process. Thanks!

    1. Karl's masterful research has connected a lot of dots for me as well!

  2. That 1948 show sounds almost like the "Tele-Comics" that ran on NBC - which featured static drawings accompanied by a radio-style soundtrack.

  3. It does indeed. As you are probably aware, The Spirit program pre-dated the 1949 Tele-Comics series. Too bad it never caught on.

  4. I don;t think your quest is over. I think I've seen the records of the radio shows you are talking about on large and thick LPs in Will Eisner's archive when I was researching those.

  5. The records you saw at the OSU collection, Benjamin, were likely the transcription discs from the 1948 TV show. I and several others have been in contact with the OSU library about this and they have confirmed that they don't have any of the audio tapes/records from the radio show.
    HOWEVER, is anyone ever does come across an audio recording from the radio program, please contact me!