Himan Brown, 99

Himan Brown, producer of radio dramas including 'Dick Tracy,' dies at age 99

Himan Brown, right, directs voice actors Betty Winkler and Frank Lovejoy in a CBS radio studio in New York.
Himan Brown, right, directs voice actors Betty Winkler and Frank Lovejoy in a CBS radio studio in New York. (1943 Associated Press Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Himan Brown, 99, a producer of popular radio dramas in the 1930s and 1940s including the series "Dick Tracy" and "The Adventures of the Thin Man," and who continued to tell stories in sound long after the rise of television, died June 4 at his home in Manhattan. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Brown's classic mystery and detective shows kept families huddled around their radio sets during the Depression and World War II, hooked on tales spun through actors' voices and the inventive use of organ music, foghorns and other mood-making sounds.

He is perhaps best remembered for the creaking door he employed to open each episode of "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," an anthology of mystery, terror and suspense stories that ranked among the top 20 shows during its run from 1941 to 1952. Each episode ended with the host issuing a creepy invitation to his listeners to enjoy "pleasant dreammms, hmm?"

"I am firmly convinced that nothing visual can touch audio," Mr. Brown told the New York Times in 2003. "I don't need 200 orchestra players doing the 'Ride of the Valkyries.' I don't need car chases. I don't need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination."

In 1974, he resurrected his creaking door for the ghoulish tales of "CBS Radio Mystery Theater," which aired seven nights a week for nine years and won a prestigious Peabody Award.

"He's one of the great storytellers in radio," said Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York. "And he was the only one who was able to take that golden age, when radio was the primary means for mass dramatic entertainment, into the 1970s."

By his own estimation, Mr. Brown created more than 30,000 radio shows over seven decades. He helped many young talents break into radio, including the actress Agnes Moorehead and the writer Irwin Shaw, and worked with performers as varied as Orson Welles, Helen Hayes, Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck.

Mr. Brown was a self-described "one-man operation," tinkering with scripts as well as producing and directing. In an instant, he needed to set character and place without visual aid. London's tolling Big Ben set the scene for "Bulldog Drummond." A chugging steam engine told listeners there were tuned into "Grand Central Station," an anthology show about the lives that intersect at New York's railroad hub. And a belly laugh revealed the voice of the 286-pound sleuth Nero Wolfe, who solves crimes without leaving his apartment.

"Now think," Mr. Brown once told The Washington Post. "What is the most distinctive sound of a fat man? His laugh, of course."

Hyman Brown was born July 21, 1910, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine. He later changed the spelling of his first name to make it more distinctive, he said. As a teenager with an interest in theater, he was entranced by the possibilities of radio. "You bring in a Quaker Oats box and wrap copper wire around it and you heard WLW in Cincinnati," he once recalled. "What a revelation that was right here in Brooklyn."

One of his earliest breaks came in the late 1920s, when actress and writer Gertrude Berg hired him to play her fictional husband, Jake Goldberg, on what would become one of the most enduring serials in radio and later on television. He needled NBC executives for a year before they agreed to air what became "The Goldbergs," about a Jewish family in the Bronx.

Six months later Berg fired Mr. Brown. "I was naive and trusting," he told The Post. "Gertrude Berg decided to push me out when the series became a success."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company