Gunsmoke: The hard-boiled cowboy classic

By John Wharton

The Gunsmoke series, first heard on radio then seen on the small screen in millions of American homes, was the logical outgrowth of the national love of gruff, no-nonsense detectives. Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25 at 7pm at Shelter Theater, the Saint Mike Radio Players will recreate two of the best episodes of the series starring John Wharton, Michael Erickson, Jim Newell, Evie King and Lee Harris.

Live theater:
Radio play
Gunsmoke radio drama
Fri and Sat, Jan 24 and 25, 7pm
Shelter Theater
Vicente Guerrero 4
Colonia San Rafael
50 pesos

In the late 1940s, CBS chairman William S. Paley, a fan of the Philip Marlowe radio serial, asked his programming chief to develop a hardboiled Western series, a show about a “Philip Marlowe of the Old West.” The creators wanted to make a radio Western for adults, in contrast to the prevailing juvenile fare such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, during the thriving cattle days of the 1870s. The show drew critical acclaim for unprecedented realism.

Gunsmoke’s producers relished the upending of cherished Western fiction clichés and felt that few Westerns gave any inkling of how brutal the Old West was in reality. Many episodes were based on man’s cruelty to man and woman, inasmuch as the prairie woman’s life and the painful treatment of women as chattels were touched upon well ahead of their time in most media. As originally pitched to CBS executives, this was to be an adult Western. Chief writer John Meston Meston was especially disgusted by the archetypal Western hero and set out “to destroy [that type of] character he loathed.” In Meston’s view, “The hero, Marshall Dillon, was almost as scarred as the homicidal psychopaths who drifted into Dodge from all directions.”

The show’s radio version (including the two programs to be presented at Shelter Theater) ran from 1952–1961 and starred William Conrad as Marshall Matt Dillon. The television version starring James Arness ran from 1955 to 1975 with an incredible 635 episodes, making it the longest-running TV show in history.


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