THE NICK OF CRIME
Nick Carter, Master Detective, was born in the pages of American pulp fiction in 1886, which would make him older than Sherlock Holmes, whose Study In Scarlet was published in London a year later. And like Holmes, Nick Carter became a popular hero in movies and on the Mutual Network over 50 years later. (1)
Both Holmes and Carter were of a successful genre that Mutual mined like no other network - recognizable heroes from popular fiction found on newsstands. (2) In the early 1940’s Mutual on Sundays was a mixture of paid religion, some sports, a bit of news and The Shadow, the latter being a proven money maker and audience favorite. (See The Shadow Nos. on this site.) Mutual added Bulldog Drummond to LaMont Cranston's Shadow in its 1941 Sunday lineup. Nick Carter was a natural addition in 1943.
When it first hit the air in April, 1943, the show was titled The Return of Nick Carter, a bow to those listeners who remembered his days in the 30’s when he, (with a slight resemblance to Dick Tracy), was on newsstand covers of Nick Carter Detective Magazine, published monthly by Street & Smith, Inc. (3) Early episodes of Nick Carter resembled his gory pulp fiction days, too, as evidenced by An Angle On Death from October 25, 1943, and from March 25, 1944, The Drums of Death.
The role of Nick Carter belonged from the start to finish of the run to handsome young actor Lon Clark who hailed from the unlikely town of Frost, Minnesota, and landed the role of the detective when he was 32 and also featured on the CBS weekday serial, Bright Horizon. Clark’s was also a frequently heard voice on Mutual’s Mysterious Traveler from 1943 to 1952.
Nick Carter’s secretary and crime solving companion was Patsy Bowen, a role played by Helen Chote from 1943 to 1946, then taken by Charlotte Manson for the rest of the run. (Patsy was also the person charged with answering the door every week early in the series with what has to be the cheesiest opening ever devised for a program.) John Kane played Scubby Wilson, newspaperman pal of Carter’s and Ed Latimer was Police Sergeant Matty Mathison. And that was the little clique of actors around which every plot developed. Add several New York free lance actors every week and the surprising result was Mutual’s highest rated prime time program. (4)
Nick Carter first appeared in the ratings in the 1946-47 season when the show moved to 6:30 p.m. and was sponsored by Cudahy Packing’s Old Dutch Cleanser. The first year was promising when the detective’s 7.0 average season Hooperating trailed Kate Smith on CBS by only 2.8 points and NBC’s Bob Burns by just 2.4. Then came the windfall that not even the Master Detective could sense coming.
The 1947-48 season was Network Radio’s last hurrah and for Nick Carter it was louder than the shout at the beginning of his program. His 13.0 won the time period for Mutual, beating NBC’s Hollywood Star Preview, (11.4), Andre Kostelanetz’s Pause That Refreshes concerts on CBS, (10.8), and ABC’s Biblical dramas, The Greatest Story Ever Told, (8.9). The other networks had to have been shaking their heads that an inexpensive studio production based in pulp fiction could have beaten their Hollywood glitz, symphonic works and award winning religious drama. But it did.
Nick Carter lost numbers the following season like most everyone in Network Radio. But the show was a close second to NBC’s hot sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet which registered a 10.5 to the detective’s 9.0. Nevertheless, Mutual could claim runner-up, beating Percy Faith’s Pause That Refreshes’ 8.6 on CBS and ABC’s 6.4 with The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Network Radio ratings continued to fall in the 1949-50 season but CBS found the winning sitcom formula in Our Miss Brooks, which actually gained audience for the 6:30 time period on CBS. (See Our Miss Arden on this site.) The perky schoolmarm pushed the CBS rating up to 11.0 while Nick Carter held second place with a 7.8 and NBC’s expensive givaway show, Hollywood Calling, flopped with a 3.9 and Music With The Hormel Girls on ABC trailed with a meager 2.9.
Eve Arden’s Miss Brooks kept her lead for CBS over the next two seasons 9.8 and 8.6 to Nick Carter’s 6.7 and 6.4. Both led NBC’s expensive failure in the ratings, The Big Show, which for all of its stars, glamour and promotion, could only manage a 5.5 Nielsen rating in 1950-51 and a 5.2 in 1951-52. (See Tallulah’s Big Show on this site.)
Speaking of expense, these were the comparative show costs in 1951-52: NBC’s 90 minute Big Show with Tallulah Bankhead hosting a stage full of stars plus Meredith Willson’s full orchestra and chorus cost between $30,000 and $35,000 a week to produce. Our Miss Brooks, recorded in Hollywood with Eve Arden and Gale Gordon heading a top flight cast with Wilbur Hatch’s CBS studio band, cost between $7,000 and $7,500 per show. Meanwhile, Nick Carter, Master Detective, with its small cast and organ accompaniment cost mere $2,500 a week to produce in the studios of WOR in New York City. (5)
More samples of Nick Carter cap our visit with the Master Detective. From March 11, 1945, Webs of Murder sets the pattern for these shows carried through by The Poker Murders of May 21, 1946. Notice the trend here? All of the episodes have “murder” or some connotation of death in their titles. It continued on the January 11, 1948 show, The Graveyard Gunman and August 1, 1948’s The Midway Murders. We conclude with The Candidate’s Corpse from September 26, 1948.
And so it went, with Nick matching wits with masters of murder, manslaughter and mayhem for a dozen years. Oddly, in all those years no group can be found who complained about its violence and bloodshed. Perhaps they thought that no one was listening. How wrong they were!
(1) The actor most identified with Holmes, Basil Rathbone, (with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson), starred in 14 Sherlock Holmes films from 1939 to 1946. Walter Pidgeon portrayed Nick Carter in three MGM films in 1939 and 1940. Rathbone and Bruce took Holmes & Watson to NBC in 1939 and spent their last four years on Network Radio with Mutual beginning in 1942. Lon Clark played Nick Carter on Mutual from 1943 until 1955.
(2) Although claimed to be based in fact, True Detective Mysteries, lifted from Bernarr Macfadden’s magazine, also fits into this category for Mutual’s Sunday programming.
(3) Street & Smith also supplied scripts for the radio show to boost its periodical sales. The publisher was also behind Chick Carter, Boy Detective, a weekday quarter hour starring Leon Janney as Nick Carter’s 15 year old adopted son whose adventures matched Nick’s for dealing death and torture. Two programs from the series’ two season run are posted, from July 13, 1943 and January 12, 1944.
(4) Although Nick Carter won its time period in 1947-48, the program never reached Sunday’s Top Ten or a ranking in any season’s Top 50.
(5) Among studio dramas Nick Carter was a bargain to produce at $2,500 a week in 1951-52 compared to Casey, Crime Photographer, Dragnet and Mr. Keen which cost $4,600 per episode. From there it was a leap to Mr. District Attorney’s $7,400 and Mr. & Mrs. North’s $7,500 weekly production cost.
Copyright © 2018, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org