Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, is dead, and a lot of us feel a little older.
It turns out the fabled radio character's name was Bret Morrison, and he was 66 when he died in his car Monday of a heart attack.
In the '30s and 40s hardly nobody knew his real name, and none of us will ever forget his voice, that eerie acho-chamber basso, intoning the formula that was the high point of his Sunday evening adventures:
"Whooo knooows what Eevil LURKS in the hearts of men? The SHADOW knows! The Weed of Crime bears Bitter Fruit . . . CRIME does NOT PAY!"
And then that laugh, that ugly, mocking, malevolent laugh, so confusing to us kids because it didn't fit Lamont Cranston's persona as a fighter for justice.
Where we just a little threatened by this ambivalence, this hint of some dark strain in the man himself? Certainly we all copied the laugh (until the Three Stooges parodied it to dead).
Every Sunday he would snigger in the presence of some evil-doer, and every Sunday the evil-doer would cringe and shudder and stammer, "W-w-who are you?" Evidently evil-doers never listened to his program.
As we learned from the litany of the prologue, delivered by a brisk announcer just after the commercial for Blue Coal, Lamont Cranston was "a wealthy young man-about-town" who "while traveling in the Orient" learned a mysterious "power to cloud men's minds," enabling him to become invisible at will.
Apparently he never was invisible to his companion Margot, who would stumble upon at least one dead body every Sunday, only to be horrified afresh, moaning, "Ohhh, Lamont." She never seemed to get used to them.
Radio heroes rarely worked alone. Lamont had his Margot, the Green Hornet his Cato, the Lone Ranger his Tonto, and so on. The reason had to do with the nature of radio: Sometimes the very simplest actions required explanation. For instance:
"What are you doing there, Margot?"
"I'm opening this door, Lamont."
On the other hand, radio could raise your hackles with effects that would only look silly in the movies.
One half-hour episode concerned a mad doctor (mad doctors were very big in the '30s) who specialized in transplanting larynxes. I forget why, but in any case he kept vicious mastiffs in the shubbery outside the horrid stone mansion where his laboratory was. (How did we know it was a horrid stone mansion? Ah, that was the magic of radio).
The fellow had put kittens' voice boxes in the mastiffs' throats. Trespassers would hear a kitty in the shrubbery, and when they investigated they would be torn to pieces by the mastiffs.
I remember to this day the sound of trespassers being torn to pieces by mastiffs. When the movies tried to show you the same thing in "the Hound of the Baskervilles" it wasn't half as scary.
The Shadow couldn't hack it in the world of television which decreed that invisibility was funny - beginning with "Topper" - and besides, nobody used Blue Coal anymore. So Lamont retired, maybe died.
And now, a generation later, untransplanted, his voice has died too. The world's most famous "Heh heh heh" exists only on some records and in the memories of a few million former kids.