Basil Rathbone narrates “Tales of Fatima” over at NBC
The elegant gentleman in the announce booth finished his reading, stretched, and collated his discarded pages back into an impeccable order. The year was 1966 and they still blew up the Bullwinkle and Underdog balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade two cross-town blocks away along Central Park West. John Lennon yet flourished and Strawberry Fields was still called The Sheep Meadow. The actor looked up, as if for approval. “I wonder what the hell that was all about,” Basil Rathbone said. Well into his seventies his voice had the ring of authority. He kept supple practicing fencing moves in Central Park; it was just that cold reads were not his cup of chamomile. The program being recorded was “Beyond the Green Door,” a radio series written—mostly—by Robert Sheckley.
Approval was given. “Terrific…” the engineer’s voice, made thin and unconvincing, drizzled out through the talkback speaker. The writing was masterful, the reading insightful, spellbinding. I nodded enthusiastically. Of course he got it—I was sold. For the engineer—me, house slave and gopher-general at ServiSound, Inc., successor to Dolphin Productions and Replica Transcriptions at 37 West 57th Street—it had been a brilliant reading.
Time passes. I just love it when I read that. It usually means the writer is running out of toner. I can recall only one of the stories read that day. It concerned a disgruntled skier who booby-traps a downhill slalom with taut piano wire to decapitate a rival. Fate’s fickle finger shuffles the starting lineup and said perpetrator’s head goes lobbity-lob on down the hill, end of story. Straightforward enough.
Anyway, many years later I shot Robert Sheckley an e-mail to pass along the anecdote: that Basil Rathbone didn’t get it—not a word of any of his stories—all the while coming through with a bone-chilling reading. Sheckley wrote back immediately. He had written the series, sixty scripts in all, under the gun of a last minute production schedule. Mr. Sheckley would have liked to have had a full collection of all the literary children he set loose in the world. In the panic of the moment the carbons had been sent long with the originals. He asked if I had kept any of the tapes. I hadn’t. And, according to Bob Sheckley, he had even gotten paid for his work… eventually. The producer, Bill Mellor of Queen Bee Productions, had a lot of irons in the fire and didn’t pamper his writers. Or his actors.
But back to 1966. The Green Door was a mite out of the mainstream, but one hell of a show (all five minutes worth, counting a sixty-second spot and 20-second open and close). A library of music was composed by Alex Steinert (he had made a splash with the music for Strangler of the Swamp, a low-budget 1945 thriller) who supervised its recording. The mixes were done at Servi by Mike Shapiro; I did the voice track editing.
Maverick billionaire John Kluge still was the hands-on owner at WNEW and gave the series a fly. No soap—the Make-believe Ballroom listeners were not into the outré. This was the luck of the draw, we figured. The guys from Queen Bee SOLD radio; they cut their teeth on Lights Out and Inner Sanctum. They pounded the pavement and we had a hit. Queen Bee nailed a sale to NBC’s weekend network radio magazine show, Monitor. The Green door was sui generis, and a fine Sheckley showcase. WNEW dithered with formats after John Kluge’s departure and finally pulled the plug in 1992. 1130 AM is now WBBR, Bloomberg Radio, with business news. If there is any connection, real or imagined—a Green Door curse, whatever— it would take a Bob Sheckley to tell the story.
I turned these stories in each week, five of them. My entire life became a matter of looking for plots all day, then writing furiously half the night. That was very much my idea of the sort of thing a pulp writer ought to do, so I didn’t resent it. But at the end of sixty days I asked for some time off. The producers were unwilling to grant that, so I quit. I stayed quit despite a very nice telephone call from Mr. Rathbone himself, requesting me to go on. He was one of my heroes, but I refused to work any longer at that pace, even for him. And the $60 they paid me per story was not a huge inducement.
Robert Sheckley died in December 2005 at the age of 77.
At a time when science fiction was just starting to grapple with the social implications of technology—from atomic bombs to missile-carrying rockets—Mr. Sheckley turned a satirist’s eye on the genre and its concerns.
Like Ray Bradbury, he was interested in the scientific apparatus of science fiction—space travel, time travel, extrapolated futures—only so far as it served his purpose. While Mr. Bradbury poetically mourns the failure to live up to our dreams of the future, Mr. Sheckley mocked the self-delusions that lead to dreams in the first place.
— excerpted from the New York Times Obit
Times and places change, not faces: for a pithy visual depiction of 57th Street and the studio, you can check out the film Legal Eagles from your nearest DVD archive. Our former studio space gets torched by a psychotic Chelsea Deardon (Darryl Hannah). In Manhattan, the buildings all had names. Our place was called the Vogar Fur Trading Building in its palmier days. This was a holdover from the Deco days of Dashiell Hammett, everyone knew: “The Barclay, driver and step on it,” and the Continental Op slips into a waiting livery. On Friday the thirteenth of October 2006, ServiSound, in its latest incarnation as Palace Digital, closed for good. “Well… that’s it for this week,” said Basil Rathbone forty years earlier. He would die the next year.
In the hope of getting something for Robert Sheckley, I rattled the cages of my engineer friends for spare tapes or scripts left behind with the closing of ServiSound, but again, no soap.
Here are a trio of surviving airchecks of Beyond the Green Door. They had been moldering in forget-me-not drawers, cherished by Dx-ers and old-time radio fans. Under a tidal wash of tape noise, scrunched by magnetic compression and AM radio processing, and often joined “in progress” by an audiophile jealous of the last remaining tape at the end of a cassette, you will find Basil Rathbone reading Bob Sheckley’ s tales. Enjoy.
If there are widows and orphans who will be put out of countenance by my slight infringements here, I figure they’ ll get in touch with me. Till then, here they are. There was journeyman work, if not great art being done in radio 40 years ago and, for those of us who cut our chops in the shadow of radio’s “Golden Age,” it was one hell of a time.
The New England Science Fiction Association (www.nesfa.org)
has published collections of Bob Sheckley’
s novels and short stories:
1-886778-29-9 NESFA 1/2002 Robert Sheckley Dimensions of Sheckley (edited by Sharon Sbarsky and Mike Resnick)
1-886778-60-4 NESFA 8/2005 Robert Sheckley The Masque of Mañana (edited by Sharon Sbarsky)
Reborn Again, a Sheckley story:
The Official Robert Sheckley website: www.sheckley.com/
Basil Rathbone: www.basilrathbone.net
Robert Sheckley bibliography: www.fantasticfiction.co.uk, www.wikipedia.org
Free Sheckley stories online: http://www.freesfonline.de/