Fort Laramie Old Time Radio Show

Instead of ending with a whimper, the Golden Age of Radio went out with a bang. Many of the best network and syndicated shows began in the 1950’s, even after the public interest and advertising dollars shifted to television. FORT LARAMIE  was certainly one of the finest shows on the air at the time. Were it, not for GUNSMOKE, it may have been deemed the best adult Western radio program ever to hit the airwaves.

FORT LARAMIE and GUNSMOKE are closely related. Both shows had many of the same staff members, including the producer-director, writers, sound effects men, and actors. FORT LARAMIE was brought to CBS by Norman Macdonnell almost four years after the beginning of his original hit program, GUNSMOKE  Macdonnell’s newest show was noted for its attention to detail and gritty portrayal of the conditions in the developing west, qualities that also drew audiences to GUNSMOKE.

Fort Laramie, Wyoming and Dodge City, Kansas were both real and significant locations in the expansion of the United States out west. Located on the eastern prairies of Wyoming about 100 miles from where the city of Laramie sits today, the original town of Fort Laramie served as an important fur trading post from 1834 to 1849. From 1849, the location served as a US Army post near the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers for the next forty years. The base was directly in the center of the homeland of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.

The fur trade in the area declined significantly from 1841 to 1849, but the fort remained a prominent resting place for wagon trains of settlers travelling west on their way to Oregon. In 1849, the US Government purchased Fort Laramie to house a military force focused on protecting the nearby part of the Oregon Trail from hostile Indians. Other purposes for the fort include its use as a station for the Overland Stage, a stop for the Pony Express, and as a supply station for the drawn-out military operations launched against the Cheyennes under Sitting Bull and Sioux Indians in the 1870’s.

Paintings dating back to 1837 show the fort to be a log enclosure with high walls and raised blockhouses. By the time it became a military station in the 1840’s, the old structure had disappeared, and Congress denied requests to appropriate more money for a new and larger stockade. In the twenty years the Army occupied Fort Laramie, it was never once enclosed by walled fortifications. The ‘fort’ was merely several military structures huddled around a flat parade ground.

The military post was eventually deserted and allowed to fall into decay in 1890. For years, no significant restoration was attempted to repair the old fort. Finally, in 1937, the state of Wyoming chose to purchase the 200 acre site and later handed it over to the National Park Service. Currently open to visitor year round, the location is administered as the Fort Laramie National Historical Site under the Department of the Interior.

When Norman Macdonnell made it extremely clear to his writers that the historical accuracy of FORT LARMIE was an essential part of the 1955 program. Precise geographic names, authentic Indian practices, accurate military jargon, and correct use of actual names for buildings residing in the old fort all created a sense of realism on the show. Whenever the radio characters referred to the Sutler's store (the name of the old trading post prior to 1970), the surgeon's quarters, Old Bedlam (the housing for the officers) or the old bakery, they were naming buildings that actually existed in the original fort.

Even though Macdonnell planned to use the same, soundmen, writers, and supporting actors in his new program that he utilized in GUNSMOKE  he naturally chose to select different actors for the lead roles. Raymond Burr, a 39 year old native Canadian with a long history in broadcasting and film headed up the cast of the program. Burr began his career in 1939, moving between acting on the stage and radio before eventually turning to Hollywood. From 1946 until 1956, the year he earned the role of Captain Lee Quince in FORT LARAMIE  he made an appearance in thirty-seven different films. Some were excellent (“Rear Window,” “The Blue Gardenia”), a few were merely mediocre (“Walk a Crooked Mile,” “A Place in the Sun”), and many were just plain awful (“Bride of Vengeance,” “Red Light,” and “Abandoned”).

Macdonnell selected two other actors to support Burr in his leading role: Vic Perrin, who starred in the role of "Sgt. Goerss," and Jack Moyles, who played "Major Daggett," the commanding officer of the fort (the original Fort Laramie’s C.O. usually was a Lieutenant Colonel,, but Macdonnell probably wanted the character to have a shorter military title). Perrin, a 40 year old experienced radio performer, had been in numerous productions, but he only achieved name recognition through his appearances on THE ZANE GREY SHOW, where he starred as "Tex Thorne." Moyles was also an active radio actor, getting his start in 1935 in the show HAWTHORNE HOUSE. He later moved on to major roles in ROMANCE, TWELVE PLAYERS, and NIGHT EDITOR, in addition to lead in A MAN CALLED JORDAN. Beginning in 1947 he made regular appearances for the next year on THE ADVENTURES OF PHILIP MARLOWE, a program directed by none other than Norman Macdonnell.

When FORT LARAMIE began in the mid 1950’s, many of the workers on the west coast were involved in other television programs and movies, so the show was practiced and recorded for transcription in the evening. Every week, the cast and crew assembled at CBS Studio One in Hollywood to record the show. In 1956, Studio One was the final radio studio still in use in California. The broadcast premiered on January 22, 1956 with an episode titled "Playing Indian."

FORT LARAMIE had one of the most talented group of supporting actors in the history of radio. It was comprised of Sam Edwards,John Dehner, Barney Phillips, Virginia Gregg, Ben Wright, Larry Dobkin, Harry Bartell, and Jeanette Nolan. Many of them also performed regularly on GUNSMOKE  While Bill Conrad ("Matt Dillon") and Georgia Ellis ("Miss Kitty") never made it to FORT LARAMIE  Howard McNear (Doc Adams) and Parley Baer (Chester) both did. They had significant roles in the 7/29/1956 production of "Nature Boy," and McNear had a recurring role as "Pliny" the sutler.

Later, to create a quartet of the main cast members, Macdonnell presented "Lt. Seiberts" in the seventh episode of the program which aired on 3/4/1956. Macdonnell gave the role of Seiberts to Harry Bartell. This show’s title, “The Shavetail,” was based upon the moniker that men enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry in the 1800’s gave to new officers that had just graduated from West Point. The term came about from a tradition of shearing or docking the tail of an inexperienced horse to alert troopers to be cautious around the animal.

Bartell, who in 1956 was 42 years old, older than both Perrin and Burr, said recently that he had doubts about being able to create the voice of a fledgling junior officer. Anyone who has experienced Bartell in his role can immediately tell that his fears were baseless. He was able to accurately portray a young, inexperienced, but enthusiastic college graduate.

For the next 33 episodes, the expanded regular cast was made up of four characters: “Capt. Quince” (Burr), "Major Daggett" (Moyles), “Sgt. Goerss” (Perin), and "Lt. Seiberts" (Bartell). Even though, there were many other soldier of rank, enlisted men, scouts, and citizens in FORT LARAMIE  many of the actors who voiced them were in the studio for only one or two installments. Much like Howard McNear, who had a recurring role as the sutler, Sam Edwards made several appearances as "Trooper Harrison."

Like its counterpart, GUNSMOKEFORT LARAMIE had strong female characters, accurate and compassionate portrayals of Native Americans, and an emphasis on the regular struggles of the Western frontier. FORT LARAMIE was an authentic reflection of the complications of life on a remote military fort in the early 1880’s.

Four different writers created almost all of the scripts for the series: John Meston, Kathleen Hite, Les Crutchfield, and John Dunkel - the same group that produced most of the storylines for GUNSMOKE. Hite, who died in 1989 (the same year as Vic Perrin), was recently pronounced by Harry Bartell as "a hell of a writer.” She played a major role in writing some of the best episodes in this remarkable series.

There was almost no space for humor in the gritty, emotional Western program of FORT LARAMIE  but Hite was able to fit it into all of her scripts in a genuine and reasonable manner. Her stories provided small surges of zest and levity that were entangled in dark themes of treachery, death, regret, and, in one notable episode, rape.

Regardless of who was creating the script, the storyline for each episode truthfully reflected military life at the original Fort Laramie. The 8/26/1956 broadcast "The Chaplain" examined the constant threat of scurvy, the 3/25/1956 show "The Coward" explored the lingering pain left by the Civil War, and the 2/5/1956 episode "Food for the Indians" depicted the catastrophe of the waning buffalo.

Occasionally, a real incident from Western history would be reused in fictional form. In the 8/5/1956 episode, labeled "The Massacre," John Dehner stars as Major Petrie, a religious zealot who commands his troopers to murder a huge group of peaceful and innocent Indians. This particular episode closely follows the historical actuality of the Sand Creek Massacre, an event that took place on November 1864. Col. J.M. Chivington (a former Methodist pastor) and his Colorado volunteers assaulted a docile group of reservation Cheyenne and murdered 150 of them. Most of the Native Americans killed were women and children.

Ray Kemper and Bill James, the soundmen for the show, were often assisted by Tom Hanley during their time with the program. The trio was simply second to none in their field. Just as they had done on GUNSMOKE  Kemper and James created some of the most life-like and ingenious sound effects on radio, ones even the most critical radio listener could appreciate. Every single crack of a rifle, squeak of the McClellan saddle (standard Cavalry issue in the mid-1800’s), and footstep going across the dusty parade ground, travelling on the gravel path, and moving up the wooden steps was done with jaw-dropping precision. The sound quality for the program truly transported listeners into the world of FORT LARAMIE.

At the time, the sound effects for the show were produced so well that a regular listener wouldn't even comprehend the skill required. But now, of course, many seasoned old time radio listeners have ears to fully appreciate the abilities of the talented threesome.

Kemper, James, and Hanley never passed up an opportunity to color the feel of a scene with the perfect sound effect, whether they had to produce it manually or chose to retrieve it from their catalogue of audio discs. Every time a character stood up from a table, listeners could hear the legs of the chair scuff across the wooden floor before the footsteps started.

FORT LARAMIE was around for only ten months, but most of the regular cast members became great friends, if they had not already come into the program as friends. In late 1956, Burr burst gleefully into the night recording session and proclaimed, "Men, we're all going to be rich!" He went on to explain that he had tried out for the role of a district attorney on an upcoming TV series, “Perry Mason.” He was instead given the title role.

Unfortunately, Burr overemphasized the clout of being the leading actor in a TV program to get jobs for his friends. Even though "Perry Mason" ran for nine years in prime time, Bartell only obtained one day's work on the series, and Perrin never worked once.

The final transmission of FORT LARAMIE  the 40th episode “Army Wife,” aired on October 28, 1956. Many of the normal cast members persisted in seeing each other outside of the show, both in social and professional atmospheres. Ben Wright and Vic Perrin were both attached to Harry Bartell, and their friendship was unbroken after the ending of FORT LARAMIE.

Radio dramas had almost disappeared now as television rose quickly to take its place. FRONTIER GENTLEMAN (with John Dehner playing the lead role) lasted 41 episodes in 1958, and GUNSMOKE anaged to stick around until 1961. Many of the former cast members of FORT LARAMIE were able to find work on these shows, among others. Sadly, the golden period for network radio drama was quickly coming to a close. Far too soon, it was all over.

Luckily for old time radio fanatics, every episode of FORT LARAMIE was recorded and is currently in trading currency. The few remaining cast and crew members of the esteemed series are surely proud to know that their work will continue to be loved by generations to come.