After he was passed over for the role of Matt Dillon on TV's "Gunsmoke," William Conrad enjoyed many years of success on CBS-TV and other networks. He made over 100 episodes each of "Cannon" and "Jake and the Fatman," both for CBS, and acted in or narrated dozens of shows and motion pictures. He died in 1994.

Programs | Gunsmoke - The Radio Show

"Gunsmoke...starring William Conrad. The story of the violence that moved west with young America. The story of a man that moved with it: Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshal. Around Dodge City and the territory on west, there is just one way to handle the killers and spoilers, and that's with the U.S. Marshal...and Gunsmoke!"

You may not be old enough to remember the radio version of Gunsmoke. It began in 1952, when there was still a weak breath of life left in radio drama, and ran for nine years, until mid 1961, when there wasn't. In '52 only about 35% of households had a TV set and broadcasters, including Jefferson Standard, were still hedging their bets with the kind of radio programming—the old kind—that had always worked.

It may be hard to believe that serious actors stood before microphones and uttered lines like "Aw, shucks, Mr. Dillon, that consarned mule kicked me agin," but they did. Here's the cast at a rehearsal conference in 1954. That's producer/director Norman MacDonnell at far left. Third from left is the lead of the show, William Conrad, who played Matt Dillon. Fifth from left is Howard MacNear, who played "Doc" (and later "Floyd, the barber" on The Andy Griffith Show). At MacDonnell's right, at the near side of the table, is Harry Bartell, who often played character parts on the Gunsmoke series and many other radio dramas. And at the far right is Parley Baer who played Chester Proudfoot, and who also was a recurring character (the mayor) on The Andy Griffith Show.

The rehearsals—complete with orchestra, announcer and sound effects— were held on Saturday ("dirty Saturdays," they have been called). The first run through was usually profane, suggestive and raucous, with everyone trying to break up everyone else, especially Conrad. Ray Kemper, the sound effects man, was especially merciless toward Conrad. In one scene, Chester was to ride his horse up to Matt. But Kemper never stopped clip-clopping, Chester kept on riding, and Conrad kept waiting—and laughing. Another cruel treatment of the star involved a bass drum. Ordinarily, whenever Matt walked, Kemper simulated a heavy step with spurs ajingle. But occasionally, during rehearsals, he would instead use a booming bass drum beat for Matt's footsteps, suggestive of Dillon's manly assets. This dirty trick was enough to put Conrad out of action for the next several pages.

There is a recording of one of these rehearsals for an episode titled "New Hotel," which aired in 1956. The plot involved a wealthy rancher putting up a new hotel in town. The owner of the Dodge House threatens to thwart the rancher's plans, and does—he burns the new hotel to the ground, and puts the onus on Marshal Dillon to prevent any ensuing violence. You can hear that recording using the links below

One of the many books on Gunsmoke cites the recording as "an excellent example of the 'dirty Saturday' rehearsals Gunsmoke was notorious for. Everyone was quick to ad-lib, including musical director Rex Koury who played 'I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire,' while the new hotel was burning. Koury topped off the show with 'There's a Small Hotel' from the musical Pal Joey. Not to be outdone, the sound effects technicians made sure that they were part of the fun, as dogs barked, frogs croaked, birds sang, horses rode endlessly, guns misfired, and a melange of other sundry and suggestive noises echoed through the sound studio. No one was immune from the insanity, and no one was able to get through the rehearsal without breaking character and laughing."

As you listen to the rehearsal of "New Hotel," you'll hear the voices of these actors, who you've probably heard or seen dozens of times. From left, Vic Perrin, John Dehner and Harry Bartell.

Go Listen


Photos of the cast and crew members

William Conrad (right) chats with producer Norman MacDonnell, who with John Meston, created Gunsmoke. He produced the radio version and eight years of the TV version.
Sound-effects man Ray Kemper with Conrad. Note just some of the tools of Kemper's trade: coconut shell hoofbeat-makers and a gravel box. He's holding a spur (for jingling).
Parley Baer ("Chester"), Georgia Ellis ("Miss Kitty") and Howard MacNear ("Doc Adams") gather 'round an old standup piano, probably used for that subtle saloon ambiance.
William Conrad and Georgia Ellis. In the mid'50s, when plans for a TV version of the show unfolded, the radio cast hoped to become the TV cast. That hope was dashed.

Photos and recording courtesy Jim Scancarelli