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King Kong on The Radio—Who Knew?

Radio City Music Hall-King Kong

I am amazed at the discoveries that continue to be made in the worlds of film and popular culture. The latest issue of the Vitaphone Newsletter cites an astonishing number of silent and sound films that have only recently surfaced. But my favorite "find" is more of a tease, because it doesn’t really exist. Until recently no one was even aware of it: a 15-part radio serialization of King Kong from 1933.

The man who made the discovery is the prolific pop culture chronicler Martin Grams, Jr., whose many books include The ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ Companion, The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program 1930-1954, and The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade, to name just a few. Unlike most people who research what is generally referred to as "old-time radio" or OTR, Martin moves mountains to get to primary sources. (Network radio programs were generally produced by advertising agencies, not the networks themselves. Some of these companies still exist, although not all of them welcome inquiries from historians.)

Combine his detective skills with a bit of luck and you have the makings of an intriguing footnote to King Kong history. I will quote from Martin’s blog post: " Until recently, the radio serial, produced from March 18 to April 22, was considered ‘lost.’ Among the Holy Grails of vintage radio broadcasts, no recordings were known to exist, produced from air checks. An LP record, produced many years later, has often been distributed over the Internet and mistakenly labeled as a chapter from the 1933 radio serial. To date, recordings of the 1933 broadcasts still do not exist. Few would not even know of its existence if it was not for a brief mention in the RKO press book for King Kong, and a number of newspaper listings. A collector residing in Virginia, however, who buys and sells radio scripts on eBay, apparently had in his possession originals of all 15 radio scripts – safely protected in a cardboard box –this discovery a historic find indeed.

King Kong on the Radio (1933) 680

"From careful examination of the scripts, it is learned that New York stage actors played the roles. None of the Hollywood elite reprised their screen performances. The serial was originally slated for 16 broadcasts, twice a week, and while newspaper listings confirm this, further digging proved that a major news item (coverage of a major earthquake in Los Angeles) pre-empted one of the broadcasts. This forced the script-writer to combine two chapters into one.

Gaurman's King Kong Advertisement

"The adaptation was handled by William S. Rainey, who was hired to adapt the screenplay and/or novelization into 16 chapters, each running 15 minutes in length. For the most part, Rainey remained faithful to the material. Rainey also doubled as the narrator for the opening and closing of every radio broadcast, and on occasion supplied voices of natives, sailors and spectators when action called for it. It was not uncommon during the thirties for radio actors, writers, directors and sound men to double for roles before the days of unions and guilds. Alois Havrilla, the director of the serial, was an accomplished radio announcer in his own right and it appears he also doubled for roles of natives, sailors and spectators."

To read more, including detailed breakdowns of all 15 episodes and a transcript of the spider pit sequence, which was famously deleted from the movie, go to Martin’s website… and prepare to spend time there. 
To hear an extended 7-minute radio commercial for the 1933 RKO Radio Picture, visit this YouTube post: King Kong Radio Advertisement.

And who knows? Perhaps some day someone will stumble onto a cache of transcription discs, just as treasure hunters continue to find rare prints and negatives of long-lost movies.

4 comments

  1. John B. says:

    There’ll never be another "King Kong" to compare to the original. Though the plot was simplistic and innocent, there was always a sense of wonder and adventure to the film that’s hard to replicate today. I hope someday they’ll find an original, pristine, and uncut copy of the film in some faraway vault. I’d even settle for a scratchy copy of the spider sequence, like some of the scenes in the restored "Metropolis". Until then, gems like the radio scripts will have to do.

  2. JLewis says:

    At least we still have the Jack Benny homage to Kong in the Chevrolet Program "Who Killed Mr. X?" (NBC Red, 6-2-33).

  3. Norm says:

    Simply amazing…the past stsys alive..even under stranger circumstances than most scifi…

  4. DBenson says:

    Publication of the scripts would be nice. A serious attempt to re-record them from the scripts would be really cool. Presumably the music and sound effects would have been fairly straightforward.

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