Sunday, January 3, 2010

From Radio to Television: Gunsmoke and the Real West.

Almost everyone today has seen or at least heard of the popular 1950s western, Gunsmoke. The show had the distinction of being one of the longest running western series (1955-1975) in television history. To the western aficionado, Gunsmoke had all the important characteristics of the western genre—a bigger than life hero, who, along with his sidekick, fought for the good of the townsfolk against the forces of evil.

Good versus Evil was a popular theme in the 1950s, largely due to the Cold War and American’s fight to contain communism. And like many shows debuting on the new medium of television, there was a certain emphasis on clean wholesome non-violent programming that upheld the 1950s image of a prosperous consensus society. So, imagine my amazement when I finally had the opportunity to listen to the radio version of Gunsmoke, to find a different West than the one portrayed in the sanitized TV western.

Radio Cast of Gunsmoke

When I first listened to a Gunsmoke radio play, it immediately became apparent that this was not the Dodge City, Kansas, of TV lore. Instead, I found the infamous western town a hard, sometimes cruel, place. There were few if any heroes, only men and women who were lucky enough to survive the inhospitable environment. And, instead of happy endings, pessimism about life and one’s fellow man permeated each show—a realism that the writers worked hard to create. This tone is set from the very opening when the announcer introduces the program with, “The story of violence that moved west and the man that moved with it.”

Click on Matt for Shows Opening

John Meston created Gunsmoke and wrote 183 of the radio plays that aired between 1952-1961. His style and penchant for detail set the tone for the show; his chief trademark was authenticity. The writer believed that the West was a tragic violent place where people had a hard life, didn’t live long because of a lack of medication, sanitation, and nutritional food. According to Meston, “it [the West] was just heat and sand.”

One of the most authentic aspects of the radio play was in the characterizations of the town Marshall, Matt Dillion his deputy Chester, Doc Adams, and of course, Miss Kitty. TV’s Matt Dillion, played by James Arness, portrayed a strong determined man with a quite demeanor who swore an oath to protect the townspeople. William Conrad’s radio Matt Dillion was a pessimistic loner; he saw very little about life and man that he liked.

The town doctor, Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), of the TV series was a kind old soul who mourned each death as if the deceased was a family member, the radio Doc(Howard McNear) was greedy and looked forward to the next body that he could cut apart in one of his “autopsies”. Doc waited anxiously for the next killing or street shoot-out so that he had another “customer,” of whom he was paid to ascertain the cause of death and prepare for burial. Doc’s character is so greedy that listeners cannot help but wonder if the good doctor was selling body parts on the side.

Click on Matt for a snippet of Doc

And then there is Miss Kitty. Television viewers never really knew for sure what Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Marshall Dillion did behind closed doors. Well, in the Radio version, listeners have little doubt that Miss Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis), owner of the Long Branch Saloon, was a prostitute and of her relationship with Matt Dillion. In many episodes she is virtually begging Matt to come by and spend the night.

Click on Matt for Kitty's approach to Matt.

Meston not only tried to portray the American West in an authentic manner, but he also brought to radio a more colorful landscape by introducing more realism through sound effects. There were two soundmen working on the set and they shared Meston’s quest for authenticity. For example, instead of using the typical gunshot sound found in most plays, which had sort of a pop/dud sound, the sound men went to the California desert and fired different guns that were typical of the 1870s and recorded their effect. So, in a gunfight on the streets of Dodge the radio listeners would hear the report of several different guns, which sounded more authentic than the pop sound of a blank in the studio. The soundmen also were methodical in providing background sounds that imitated life. For Example, when Marshall Dillion moved, each step was accented. The soundmen knew exactly how many steps from Matt’s chair to the coffee pot to the door leading outside. Once on the boardwalk, Matt’s steps were augmented by the sound of spurs hitting the wood, which distinguished him from anyone walking with him. Other sounds effect included the creaking of leather as Marshall Dillion lifted his hefty frame into the saddle, the different sounds between Indian horses (unshod) and those of the townspeople (shod), and the difference in sound between day and night.

Click on Matt for sound effects. The scene evolves around a massacre at a homestead. Matt and Chester have just found the wife and daughter, notice the night sounds and foot steps.

Gunsmoke was the first really adult western on radio and television. The authenticity and realism of the American West, as portrayed by the John Meston and staff of his writers, appealed to mature audiences, and moved the western away from the adolescent male audience who made The Long Ranger and Hopilong Cassidy popular. But, somewhere in the transition from radio to TV, some of the gritty character of the western was lost to a blander romantic West.

Click on Matt for full episode, 27 min.


  1. Thank you for opening the eyes of Gunsmoke fans to the original radio series. For those who knew only of the TV version, listening to one of the radio shows can be almost shocking. Radio beats the TV show hands down. I suggest listening to a middle of the series episode for the best account of the four main characters. Doc was greedy and even a little creepy in only the very earliest of episodes. Meston quickly developed his character into a deeply caring doctor who would work hard and travel far to help anyone in need. He treated Indians, criminals, and animals along with anybody else even if it put his life in danger. The "greedy" Doc actually only lasted less than ten episodes during which other writers mostly contributed to that trait. Once Meston fully took over the creation of the show the real characters came to life.

  2. The radio shows are some of the best entertainment ever made, and well worth watching. Shawn is correct that the image of the town doctor was quickly corrected, but the initial show, Billy the Kid is one of the best. CBS did the best they could with the TV set, but the picture in my imagination was so much more grand than CBS could reproduce, and the radio shows got away with adult themes that could not be portrayed at all on TV.

  3. Unfair. By television standards (then or now), TV's Gunsmoke (which Meston was involved with for eleven years) was a bleak, at times almost neorealistic exercise in pessimism, albeit with a stronger hero in Arness, and a more sympathetic set of supporting characters. But more often than not, the ending of each episode was dark.

    The show simply could not have run on television then the way it was on the radio. It's amazing they got away with as much as they did on the radio--probably only because television had largely supplanted it as popular entertainment by 1955.