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Overview

Gunsmoke (1952-1961) was an OTR western drama, sometimes called the best radio drama ever. Everything about the series strove for a sense of historical accuracy and realism seldom achieved on radio. As an "adult" Western, episodes were mature, brutal, and explicit, overturning Western fiction stereotypes.

Significance

Several radio Westerns aired before Gunsmoke, all aimed at juvenile audiences. Produced by Norman Macdonnell and written by John Meston (both had worked together on Escape), Gunsmoke was made for adults.

Episodes deal with the hard realities of life in Dodge City and the Kansas frontier from 1872-1885. They overturn Western fiction stereotypes, are mature, brutal, and explicit, with violent crimes and deaths, massacres, scalpings, racism, opium addicts, and poor treatment of women. For example, Miss Kitty is a prostitute working at the Texas Trails Saloon; other women are treated as chattel. (Gunsmoke explored these issues well ahead of other media. Writer Katherine Hite was one of the first women writers to work regularly on a western.) Criminals are not always caught. Episodes often end unhappily. But, the writing and storytelling is superb, as is the music (theme "Old Trails", aka "Boothill," composed and conducted by Rex Koury), the acting, and especially the sound effects. The soundscapes are subtle, and realistic. The gun shot in the opening sequence is a legendary industry standard.

Broadcast on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for a total of 480 performances from 413 scripts, 1952-1961, Gunsmoke is one of the longest running OTR dramas, and arguably, radio's last great dramatic series.

Background

Around Dodge City and in the territory out west there's just one way to handle the killers, the spoilers and that's with the U.S. Marshal and the smell of Gunsmoke.

Dodge City, Kansas, aka the "Queen of the Cow Towns," the "Wicked Little City," the "Gomorrah of the Plains," had a reputation as a hostile, lawless town where the "fastest gun" ruled during the settlement of the American West. Cowboys herding cattle up from Texas, drifters, criminals, psychopaths--the mix was volatile. US Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), Sheriff Bat Masterson (1856-1921), Sheriff Bill Tilghman (1854-1924), and Sheriff Charlie Bassett (c. 1847-1869), all real lawmen, worked without reservation to keep Dodge City under control until civilization could take hold.

Marshall Matt Dillon (played by William Conrad, already known for narrating Escape) is modeled after these lawmen. He is a loner, isolated, hard as worn leather saddle. There are only two ways he can go: be an outlaw, or be a Marshall and rid the territory of the mad-dog characters drifting through Dodge, spreading misery and death in their wakes. He is also scared that everyday could be his last.

Gunsmoke was developed in the late 1940s by Harry Ackerman. A pilot episode was written and recorded in two versions, both in 1949. The first, a hardboiled version, starred Michael Rye (credited as Rye Billsbury) as Marshall "Mark" Dillon. The second, a lighter version, starred Howard Culver as "Mark" Dillon. The role went to Culver, but he was unavailable because of his contract as the star of Straight Arrow. The project was shelved until 1952 when it was revived by producer Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston who were working on their own Western series. William Conrad was cast as Marshall Matt Dillon and the series drew praise for its realism right from the start.

Plot

Marshall Matt Dillon deals with a different human dilemma in each episode. Sometimes he can find a solution, sometimes he cannot.

Cast

Marshall Matt Dillon (William Conrad)
Chester Wesley Proudfoot (Parley Baer)
Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis)
Charles "Doc" Adams (Howard McNear)
Norman MacDonnell (producer/director)
John Meston (writer)

Resources

Gunsmoke radio logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs
Episodes at Internet Archive website
Episodes at Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library
Episodes at Old Time Radio Westerns website
Plot summaries and credits at Radio Gold Index website

Episodes

Totals

Total episodes: 480 (+ 2 auditions)
Surviving episodes: 479
Listen to episodes at Internet Archive website

Timeline

26 June 1952-18 June 1961
Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

Inventory

Information and description for each episode of the series. Learn more.

Exemplary Episodes
  • Episode 00a1

    Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye
    Audition #1, 11 June 1949
    Michael Rye (credited as Rye Billsbury) as Marshall "Mark" Dillon

  • Episode 1

    Billy the Kid
    Episode 001, 26 April 1952
    A young boy gives Marshall Dillon leads on a murder, but it turns out to be his first murder as Billy the Kid.

  • Episode 12

    The Boughten Bride
    Episode 012, 12 July 1952
    A young woman is kidnapped in a stage robbery while on her way to meet her fiance, Mr. Carter in Dodge. When she is returned to Dodge, she would rather be with her kidnapper than the man who "bought" her.

  • Episode 21

    Home Surgery
    Episode 021, 13 September 1952
    Marshal Dillon is forced to amputate the leg of a settler on the prairie. It is the only way to save him. But the man still dies. Repeated 23 June 1957.

  • Episode 32

    Kitty
    Episode 032, 29 November 1952
    Marshal Dillon insists on bringing Kitty to a Dodge City dance, despite what the "decent" folk think. But Kitty knows what trouble her appearance will cause.

  • Episode 36

    The Cabin
    Episode 036, 27 December 1952
    Entering a cabin during a blizzard, Matt is imprisoned by "Hack" and "Alvie," two mad-dog killers who plan to murder him in cold blood!

  • Episode 41

    Cavalcade
    Episode 041, 31 January 1953
    Doc Adams past comes back to haunt him. He is, in reality, Calvin Moore, a murderer! Repeated 8 November 1959.

  • Episode 50

    Jayhawkers
    Episode 050, 4 April 1953
    A band of Jayhawkers has been preying on a cattle drive from Texas. The Marshal lends a hand and earns the cowboy's respect. Repeated 11 August 1957.

  • Episode 59

    Sundown
    Episode 059, 6 June 1953
    Marshal Dillon and Chester find an Indian squaw dying of exposure on the prairie, a victim caught between two cultures.

  • Episode 62

    Flashback
    Episode 062, 27 June 1953
    A retired Calvary Officer learns too late that he cannot treat his trail crew like a military outfit. He also learns that his son is a better man than he thinks, but is the lesson too late?

  • Episode 111

    Blacksmith
    Episode 111, 5 June 1954
    Emil, a good-natured German blacksmith, is picked on by Gil Tallman. But when his pretty new wife is threatened, the blacksmith serves up justice in a way that meets the Marshal's approval.

  • Episode 155

    Bloody Hands
    Episode 155, 2 April 1955
    Marshal Dillon gets sick of killing and resigns his job. Script available here. Repeated 14 July 1957