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ON THE RADIO

Unplugging 'Heartbeat Theater'

January 15, 1985|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

"Heartbeat Theater," the last live, regularly scheduled radio drama produced in Hollywood, suffered cardiac arrest last October and finally goes off the life-support system this week.

"They had all sorts of famous people on it," radio buff Bill Osteck mourned recently. "They always told a story about somebody famous who goes down to Skid Row on the bottle and the Salvation Army saves 'em."

The final show, featuring Daws Butler and hosted by "Days of Our Lives" soap-opera doctor MacDonald Carey, was taped Oct. 10 at Studio House in Hollywood, just after producers George Galbraith and Don Hills got word that the Salvation Army had written them out of their 1985 budget.

That last half-hour melodrama, which Hills summarizes as "two old fogies up to no good because they'd rather not work for a living," airs this weekend over KNOB-FM (97.9) and KBPK-FM (90.1). KNOB schedules the program at 5:35 a.m. Sunday, KBPK at 8:30 a.m. Friday and 7:45 a.m. Saturday.

"How long did it run? Too long," Hills jokes. "The first one was produced in December of 1955 and released in March, 1956. I think Preston Foster was in the first one. Raymond Burr did some, Greer Garson--everyone's done a 'Heartbeat' at one time or another."

The Salvation Army saved "Heartbeat" eight years ago, according to Hills, when it underwrote his plan to update sound effects and dramatize social issues.

Until then, everything about "Heartbeat" had been anachronistic, down to the pre-television dialogue. "You'd have six pages of absolutely boring dialogue leading up to 'Yes, Mom, I'm pregnant,' " Hills recalled.

After the 1977 transformation, Hills' new "Heartbeat Theater" wallowed in prostitution, incest and homosexuality with the regularity of a 1980s TV sitcom. At one point, Hills had to discourage an overenthusiastic would-be TV writer from submitting "Heartbeat" plays with a Kojak-like Salvation Army captain climaxing final acts by chasing down villains in a squad car.

"I guess it got to the point where we were running out (of ideas)," Hills said. "It was like, 'What are we going to say about the Army this week? Is he going to sober up? And, who cares?' "

Hills, who cranked out 52 morality tales a year for the show, said the Salvation Army spent half its annual media budget on keeping the half-hour drama alive for the 500 U.S. radio stations on the "Heartbeat" distribution list.

At the end, it was questionable how many of those stations were actually airing the show, even though it was given to them free. Hills said that KLAC-AM (540), the loudest and longest Sunday-morning advocate of "Heartbeat Theater's" weekly parade of loser characters, dropped the program several weeks ago.

"It is true that the great heartland of the U.S. is touched by this show," host Carey, who got his own start 48 years ago in Chicago radio, told The Times. "It's the only access some people have to urban America. It's striking at an awful lot of people."

Carey theorized that the show lost its popular edge after New York City Mayor Ed Koch and the Salvation Army hierarchy had a falling-out over the issue of gay rights several years ago. The Army's publicized refusal to tolerate homosexuality may have cost it donations, which in turn cut deep into its media budget, Carey said.

Carey, host and narrator of the program for the last seven years, performed for scale, as did the actors and writers.

"The Salvation Army is not known for its generosity as far as its broadcast budget is concerned," Carey said. "But maybe it's a compliment to them that they try to get their contributions directly to the people who need it. And that's good too."

Hills said the voice-over actors earned $72 a show, "and that includes rehearsals." For years writers were paid $175 a script, until Hills and Galbraith got the ante raised above the $400 mark. Hills kept an "A" list and "B" list of hungry Hollywood writers and actors who depended as much on the Salvation Army for work as transients depended on it for shoes and supper.

Taking pity on his "A team," as he called it, Hills would try to assign each of them a tear-jerking part or a script every five or six weeks.

"They'd save face by saying they did it for the love of radio, but you'd be surprised," Hills said. "The few bucks came in handy between jobs."

Carey praised "Heartbeat" for testing new talent and giving the old and out-of-work a place to practice.

"I read it cold in the studio, but those things--if they're written well and written with music in the background--they work.

"My daughter did a couple of shows and she had never done it before in her life," Carey said. "Using your voice and using it honestly are just as important a part of the actor's craft as any other aspect of an actor's life. 'Heartbeat' was also very good for writers."

Not always, according to Hills.

"It was a rough show to write because it had to be resolved at the end and you had to have a major or a captain from the (Salvation) Army in there solving it," he explained.

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