"The saga of fighting men who rode the rim of empire..."
With the introduction of "Gunsmoke" to the airwaves on April 26, 1952, network radio ushered in what came to be known as the era of "the adult western." "Gunsmoke," it can be argued, was definitely not your father's western -- particularly in light of the fact that previous radio oaters concentrated on kiddy-oriented fare like "The Lone Ranger," "The Cisco Kid," and "Hopalong Cassidy."
Old-time radio fans are practically unanimous in their agreement that "Gunsmoke" was the greatest radio western of all time -- but as to what would follow it in the Radio Hall of Fame...well, spirited arguments will usually be the result of such discussions. OTR historian John Dunning has nominated the short-lived 1958 series "Frontier Gentleman," a truly fine program and one of the bright lights in radio's declining years. But in the opinion of this author, "Fort Laramie" is a more-than-worthy contender; this series, heard over CBS Radio beginning January 22, 1956, should be seriously considered for the runner-up position, for reasons that will be outlined below.
To paraphrase a popular horse racing term, "Fort Laramie" was sired out of "Gunsmoke's" stables; its producer-director was Norman Macdonnell, and many of Laramie's high-quality scripts were contributed by the same scribes who wrote for "Gunsmoke": John Meston, John Dunkel, Kathleen Hite and Les Crutchfield, just to name a few. The realistic sound effects or "sound patterns" that made "Gunsmoke" a mesmerizing listening experience were also a big part of its sired show, thanks to the moonlighting efforts of Bill James, Ray Kemper and Tom Hanley.
"Laramie" also took advantage of the 'repertory company' of actors that worked frequently on "Gunsmoke," notably the likes of Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, John Dehner, Virginia Gregg, Ben Wright and Jeanette Nolan. "Gunsmoke's" lead actors, William Conrad and Georgia Ellis, were conspicuous in their absence on "Laramie," but co-stars Parley Baer and Howard McNear made the crossover; McNear, in particular, played the recurring role of Pliny, the fort's "sutler."
It was producer-director Macdonnell's intention to cast different performers in the roles of the main characters he created for "Laramie," and hiring Raymond Burr to play the part of the lead, Captain Lee Quince, is certainly evidence of that. At the time he was working on this series, Burr was a year-and-a-half away from the role that would make him a household name, that of Perry Mason on the long-running CBS-TV series. Pre-Mason, he was primarily recognizable on the silver screen in various villainous and (if you'll pardon the pun) "heavy" parts ("The Blue Gardenia," "Rear Window") but in the meantime he'd also built up an impressive radio resume, frequently cast alongside his good friend Jack Webb on programs like "Pat Novak for Hire" and "Dragnet."
Appearing alongside Burr in the supporting role of laconic Sergeant Ken Gorce was "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke" veteran Vic Perrin, and Jack "Rocky Jordan" Moyles essayed the part of crusty Major Daggett, the fort's commanding officer. (In a rare break with the authenticity for which "Fort Laramie" was noted, the real commanding officer at the fort was a Lieutenant Colonel, but Macdonnell apparently preferred a shorter title.) Later, Macdonnell added another character to form a foursome: a not-yet-wet-behind-the-ears officer named Lieutenant Richard Siberts, played by another frequent "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke" player, Harry Bartell. Siberts was originally a minor player introduced in Laramie's debut episode, "Playing Indian," but his presence was considerably "beefed up" by the seventh episode, "The Shavetail." (A "shavetail" was an epithet bestowed upon officers newly minted out of West Point; it was borrowed, according to radio historian Jack French, from the custom of "shaving or docking the tail of an untrained horse so the troopers would be wary of such a mount.") Bartell was forty-two years old at the time he took on the role of Siberts, but it's a testament to the man's talent that he could convincingly play the youthful and inexperienced junior officer.
Although "Fort Laramie" was larded with the same talent that made "Gunsmoke" a radio classic, it was sadly overlooked during its all-too-brief run in 1956. In his book "On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio," author John Dunning points out that "Laramie" wasn't quite as intense as its sister program:
Producer Norman Macdonnell saw "Fort Laramie" as "a monument to ordinary men who lived in extraordinary times"; their enemies were "the rugged, uncharted country, the heat, the cold, disease, boredom, and, perhaps last of all, hostile Indians." Men died at Fort Laramie: some died of drowning, some of freezing, some of typhoid and smallpox. "But it's a matter of record," Macdonnell said on the opening, "that in all the years the cavalry was stationed at Fort Laramie, only four troopers died of gunshot wounds."
Perhaps the series' lack of gunplay contributed to its muted reception; after all, sitting around and listening to a half-hour of men dying of typhoid probably doesn't make for compelling radio. Still, though its run was short-and-sweet, "Fort Laramie" proved to be every bit as grand as the critically acclaimed "Gunsmoke." The gods of old-time radio must have recognized Laramie's potential as well; all forty episodes (forty-one, if you include the pilot) of the series have survived the ravages of time and are available to be enjoyed by new audiences today. And with that, Radio Archives is pleased to present the first twenty broadcasts of this outstanding series in this ten hour collection.
Sunday, January 22, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Boatwright's Story
Sunday, January 29, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, February 5, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Woman at Horse Creek
Sunday, February 12, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, February 19, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Captain's Widow
Sunday, February 26, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, March 4, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, March 11, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Beasley Girls
Sunday, March 18, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, March 25, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Lost Child
Sunday, April 1, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Stage Coach Stop
Sunday, April 15, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The New Recruit
Sunday, April 22, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, April 29, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Never the Twain
Sunday, May 6, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, May 13, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Sunday, May 20, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Sergeant's Baby
Sunday, May 27, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
Don't Kick My Horse
Sunday, June 3, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Young Trooper
Sunday, June 10, 1956 – 30:00 – CBS, sustaining