Supernal Dreams: Vincent Price on radio acting

Vincent Price is rightly noted for his fine speaking voice and suave, polished presence through which he can convey eerie graduations of a sinister motivating force.

—ROGER CORMAN

My voice has sort of been my trademark and I don’t know why, because to me, I sound like everybody else in America. My brother, who wasn’t in the theater at all, had exactly the same voice I had.

—VINCENT PRICE

Introduction by Lawrence French

The following interview with Vincent Price was transcribed and edited from the radio show, THE GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO, that was first broadcast on the Hartford, CT radio station WTIC, in November of 1972 . Many years ago I got an audio tape of this broadcast from a collector, but it only included excerpts from Price’s answers. It was also, unfortunately, after CFQ published it’s special Vincent Price issue in 1989, so I couldn’t include any quotes from this interview in our special Price issue! But, even in it’s truncated form, I felt it was Vincent Price at his best, talking expansively about what he himself called his “favorite entertainment medium: Radio.”

Only recently, through the miracle of the internet, did I actually hear the entire show, including the questions posed by interviewers Dick Bertel and Ed Corcoran. You can now hear the original show online here

Vincent Price, is of course, known primarily for his film career, but he was also highly sought after to appear in radio dramas during the forties, due to his excellent speaking voice and fine diction. Fortunately, when Price was starting out as an actor, radio was in its heyday, so we now have a treasure trove of Price’s radio shows available for our listening pleasure.Interestingly enough, Price seems to have been destined to become a horror star, even on the airwaves, as many of his early radio assignments proved to be neurotic killers in highly melodramatic thrillers. In fact, most of Price’s appearances on radio shows like SUSPENSE, ESCAPE, OBSESSION, LUX RADIO THEATER as well as many others, were done well before he was firmly typed as one of the cinema’s great movie villains after appearing in HOUSE OF WAX (1953).


In line with Price’s often stated views about acting in melodramas, he adopted his trademark “larger than life” acting style for radio, which was particularly well suited for this approach, as audiences who were listening at home might easily lose interest if a performance was too understated or realistic. A perfect example of Price’s radio acting is provided by the “Rave Notice” episode of SUSPENSE (written by James Poe), which strangely enough seems to have anticipated THEATER OF BLOOD by 15 years. Price played Sam, a ham stage actor who decides to kill his director after he has been dismissed from an important role in said director’s latest play. Upon hearing the bad news, Price says, “you must be kidding, that’s my role! You fat pig! What do you know about acting?” The director replies, “I know actors and you’re no actor—you stink!” The enraged Price screams, “I’ll kill you for saying that! – I’m going to kill you!” The director taunts Price saying, “You see, you can’t even deliver that line. You stink!” Obviously such a melodramatic situation called for the kind of larger than life style of acting which Price became the consummate master of, on stage, screen and especially on radio.

QUESTION: You started your radio career right after your 1935 debut in VICTORIA REGINA on Broadway, appearing in a scene from THERE’S ALWAYS JULIET, with Cornelia Otis Skinner (on June 18, 1936) and then on RCA’s MAGIC KEY THEATER, doing a scene from VICTORIA REGINA with Helen Hayes.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, I could get radio jobs because I was in a hit play. So I would take advantage of that, and I worked on radio every single week, and maybe did five or six shows a week, playing in these different kinds of radio dramas. I learnt my business, how you really create a part orally, and it was an exciting and wonderful experience. I felt that on radio, the one experience that I really could get and afford to do was to work on soap operas. Marvelous things, like JOHN’S OTHER WIFE or SAM’S OTHER MOTHER. Extraordinary soap opera stories, and I would go and work on these without a name, without anything, because I was not a part of the radio group (of actors).

Q: Did you keep copies of any of the radio shows you did in the thirties and forties?

VINCENT PRICE: No, but there are lot’s of people around the country collecting old radio shows and putting them on tape and bringing them up in sound quality. They’re doing a really marvelous job. I think I must have done well over 2,000 radio shows in my life, but I don’t have many of them, because at the time it cost a lot of money to put them on acetate records, and you didn’t get paid very much in radio. So unless it was a very special show, you didn’t order it taken off the air.

Q: Of course, nowadays you can make copies quite cheaply.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, but back then, if I wanted a show like THE SAINT taken off the air, it would cost about $60! That was a lot of money in those days, and you weren’t paid that much. I did have some shows taken off the air, mostly the LUX RADIO THEATER shows, because all the actors gave their services to LUX RADIO THEATER, since the money was then given to the motion picture home and relief fund. So they always gave us recordings of those shows and I have all the one’s I did on LUX, like THE LETTER, with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, and DRAGONWYCK, with Gene Tierney and Walter Huston. And I did a show with Tallulah Bankhead on the PHILLIP MORRIS PLAYHOUSE, and she was marvelous. Really superb actors and great memories they are.

Q: LUX was one of the biggest radio shows on the air during the forties.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and Cecil B. DeMille was the host and they had very distinguished directors, like William Keighley and different people. The fact that the money went to the Actors fund was also very impressive. Besides, I suppose it had one of the biggest listening audiences of all time. And these radio dramas were rehearsed like plays. You rehearsed a full week, and some of the most exciting ones I did were THE LETTER, with Bette Davis. That was kind of an extraordinary story, because of Bette—being as volatile a lady as she is. You know, she was a wiggler, and wiggling was something that you weren’t meant to do in radio. You were meant to keep your distance from that mike. They finally built an iron circle around the mike, to keep Bette’s distance from the mike, because she’d fall in love with it. She’d get up close to it and it would pop and hiss and do all the things that happen when you get too close to a mike—which I’m probably doing right now.

Q: So you had plenty of time for rehearsal—you didn’t just come in and have to read the script cold?

VINCENT PRICE: That’s right, there was a very long rehearsal period and you really worked. You maybe started at 10:00 in the morning, working right straight through, until you did the show at 9:00 that night. It was long hours of work. The extraordinary thing about radio was the care that went into the shows. There was a kind of perfection about the radio actor that was extraordinary. It was a very small group of people, and I always felt myself enormously privileged that I was able to join that group, because they didn’t take everybody in—not by a long shot! If you liked radio as much as I did, you depended on these people. People like Lurene Tuttle and Hans Conreid, who could do anything! They really could do anything. If somebody who was doing a Greek suddenly got sick, you’d say, “Hans, how about it?” and he was a Greek in two seconds, or he was a Russian, or whatever you wanted him to be.

Q: You acted in some very scary radio shows, like SUSPENSE and ESCAPE.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, I did a show called THREE SKELETON KEY (first broadcast on ESCAPE, November 15, 1949), which was about three men who were trapped in a lighthouse when the rats invaded this little island, and it still is one of the most exciting radio shows I ever did in my life. It was tremendously thrilling. The young fellow who wrote it, I challenged him to write it. He was sort of trying to get into movies and his name was James Poe. He’s since been (nominated) for about five Academy Awards, but he couldn’t really get started. He and his wife were great friends of ours, so I said, “why don’t you write me a radio show? He said, “I don’t know how to write for radio.” I said, “What do you mean you don’t know how to write for radio? You write. You create visual effects. So he searched around and found this short story and he adapted it to radio and it really made his reputation, this story, because it became one of the really great radio shows ever done.

Q: You did several different broadcasts of THREE SKELETON KEY on both ESCAPE and SUSPENSE, but they never made the show into a movie.

VINCENT PRICE: No, it should be, but where are you going to get that many trained rats, except in New York! I also did radio plays like ANGEL STREET (with Sir Cedric Hardwicke), which was about a fella who was trying to drive his wife mad. It was a very exciting play, which ran for five years on Broadway.

Q: What other radio shows did you do in the thirties, besides those soap operas?

VINCENT PRICE: I did the Rudy Vallee show, and I did the first show Edgar Bergen was every on, with Charlie (McCarthy). It was tremendous because you fell in love with this dummy, and when he set him down afterwards, it was just something dead sitting there. It was really frightening, because this thing came to life! Edgar was really brilliant! I’ve got to tell you a marvelous radio story. For years and years I always listened to Jack Benny, who was really the greatest single performer on radio there ever was. He was absolutely brilliant. He could take ten minutes of dead air and make you fall on your face laughing. If you remember, Ronald Colman was always the next-door neighbor of the Benny’s (on his show). The Benny’s were always so chintzy and cheap they never had enough of anything so they were always going over to the Colman’s to borrow a cup of sugar, or eggs, or something. So lap dissolve a few years later, when I did a film with Ronald Colman (CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR), and he and his wife asked my wife and me over to dinner. Well, we always knew where Jack Benny lived; it was one of the sort of landmarks of Hollywood. So we got in the car all dressed-up, went down next to Jack Benny’s, went up to the front door, rang the bell and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Colman are expecting us,” but they didn’t live there at all. (Laughter). Nor did we know where the hell they lived! We finally had to call the Screen Actors Guild to find out where the Colman’s lived. That shows you what a radio fan I was. I always took it for granted that the Colman’s lived next door to Jack Benny, and in his basement was a vault with all those chains around it!

Q: Since actors were usually under contract to a studio in those days, did you have any trouble getting permission to do freelance radio shows?

VINCENT PRICE: Well, when I first went out to Hollywood as a movie actor, I had it written in my contract with 20th Century-Fox that I had the freedom to do radio. Of course, there was no television at that time. But they were really very sticky about this. They were kind of angry that I should want this. I said, “I feel radio is my training ground, and that’s where I want to work,” so they let me do it. But of all the contract players, I was one of the few allowed to do radio, anytime I wanted to, as long as it didn’t interfere with any filming. Then Fox finally put their own radio show on the air, HOLLYWOOD STAR TIME with Hedda Hopper as the M.C. We did a lot of adaptations of Fox pictures: I did LAURA, THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE. Anyway there was one show where they had two little starlets. Two pretty girls who were very sweet who were up and coming stars. And there was a character actress on the show, and none of them could do radio, because radio is not just getting up and reading, it is acting. Well, Lurene Tuttle was playing the mother on the show, and after a day of rehearsal they told one of the little starlets she would have to go, so Lurene took over that part. Then the following day they got rid of the next starlet and Lurene took her part. It ended up with Lurene playing five or six different parts. Lurene was a great friend of mine, and had been a great leading lady on THE SAINT a long time with me, but it ended up with me being absolutely hysterical, because she was playing a woman 80, a woman 50, a woman 40, a child 13, any part that came up. So it was only Lurene and myself in a show that should have been seven people! I finally had to work on a separate mike because I couldn’t look at her. She changed her whole characterization. She was brilliant!

Q: You didn’t appear in the movie version of either THE LODGER or HANGOVER SQUARE, but were in both of the radio shows.

VINCENT PRICE: No, it was Laird Cregar who did the movies. I did Laird’s first film with him, which was a thing called HUDSON’S BAY and Laird and I became very great friends. Then he died very young. I think he was only 31, or something. But he had done THE LODGER and he had done HANGOVER SQUARE. I think the reason I got to play the parts was because they did the radio shows after he had died. It was an extraordinary feeling playing those parts, that were so much identified with Laird Cregar.

Q: Those two radio shows, along with your appearances on SUSPENSE and ESCAPE really started you on your path as an actor specializing in macabre roles.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, sort of; either that or comedy. I love comedy and it’s very easy to turn the macabre into comedy – it really is. I think of the horror films I have done that have been successful it’s perhaps because I have done them a little bit “tongue in cheek.” I think I have to find them as funny as the audience does.

Q: Did you find that some film actors were afraid of doing radio?

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, some of them were terrified of it. Most of the stars at Fox, and I mean the great stars like Tyrone Power and people like that, when Fox had it’s own show, there were very few of them who knew how to work on radio. They didn’t know how to read. They couldn’t sustain it, they couldn’t give it a variety and it had to have a variety and a tremendous excitement to it. Even if it was a very calm performance, it had to have an inner excitement.

Q: Radio’s heyday really came to an end with the rise of television in the late fifties.

VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and when we finally did the last SUSPENSE show in Hollywood, with all the people who had been on every radio show you ever heard from Hollywood in the old days, we were all sitting around and Virginia Gregg, who was one of the great ladies of radio (and the voice of Norman Bates’s mother in PSYCHO), finally looked around and said, “isn’t it awful—if only television was going out and radio was coming in.” It was true, too—we all felt that way. I still think radio is probably the greatest entertainment medium ever invented. It made the audience work, and I think television audiences don’t have to work—that’s why they fall asleep half of the time. I really think the commercial people, who ever they are, who say whether we work or don’t work, are making a big mistake. In California, you drive enormous distances and I have the radio on all the time and I’d like to hear something good.

Q: When you lecture at different colleges across America, what advice do you give to aspiring actors?

VINCENT PRICE: We don’t have the marvelous repertory theaters that England has, and we don’t have state theater, so there is really no place for the young actors to go. But in the colleges there is always a radio and television dept. So my advice to the young actors is always to get on radio and do as many dramas on radio as you possibly can. I know some of the colleges I’ve been to have now started to begin doing some of the great radio dramas, and to write new material for themselves, as well. Radio imposes on the actor the necessity to create everything: the sets, the costumes, and the expressions, to create everything! I think one of the great drawbacks of television is it is really just visualized radio shows, where they really should write television shows. Then they run out of material, it’s a big monster they have to feed, but radio had superb writers, absolutely extraordinary writers, and I don’t think television has that all the time.

______________________________

VINCENT PRICE

ON

SUSPENSE

A CBS RADIO SERIES

______________________________

THE STRANGE DEATH OF CHARLES UMBERSTEIN 11-23-43
Director: William Spier.
Original script by E. Jack Neuman.

FUGUE IN C MINOR
6-1-44
With Ida Lupino. Director: William Spier.
Original script by Lucille Fletcher.

THE NAME OF THE BEAST
4-11-46
Director: William Spier.
Original script by Robert Tallman.

HUNTING TRIP
9-12-46
With Lloyd Nolan. Director: William Spier.
Original script by Paul Bernard and Lee Horton.

BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
7-17-47
Director: William Spier.
Original script by Douglas Whitney and Ben Hecht.

THE HANDS OF MR. OTTERMOLE

12-2-48
With Claude Rains. Director: Anton M. Leader.
Script by Ken Crossen, from a story by Thomas Burke.

THREE SKELETON KEY
11-11-56
With John Dehner, Ben Wright. Director: William N. Robson. Script by James Poe, from a story by George Toudouze.

PRESENT TENSE
3-3-57
Director: William N. Robson.
Original script by James Poe.

THE GREEN AND GOLD STRING

6-9-57
With Jeanette Nolan. Director: William N. Robson.
Script by Sylvia Richards, from a story by Philip MacDonald.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
11-10-57
Director: William N. Robson.
Script by John Dickson Carr, from a story by Edgar Allan Poe.

RAVE NOTICE
6-1-58
Director: William N. Robson.
Original script by James Poe.

THREE SKELETON KEY

10-18-58
With John Dehner, Ben Wright. Director: William N. Robson. Script by James Poe, from a story by George Toudouze.

AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
7-19-59
With Cathy Lewis, Barney Phillips, Sam Pierce, Roy Glenn.
Director: William N. Robson.
Script by William N. Robson, from a story by Ambrose Bierce.

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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