Oboler was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Leon Oboler and Clara Oboler, Jewish immigrants from Riga, Latvia. He was brothers with Eli M. Oboler. Arch Oboler briefly attended the University of Chicago prior to dropping out to pursue a full-time writing career.
Oboler sold his first radio scripts while still in high school during the 1920s and rose to fame when he began scripting the NBC horror anthology Lights Out in 1936. He later found notoriety with his script contribution to the 12 December 1937 edition of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. In Oboler’s sketch, host Don Ameche and guest Mae West portrayed a slightly bawdy Adam and Eve, satirizing the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden. On the surface, the sketch did not feature much more than West’s customary suggestive double-entendres, and today it seems quite tame. But in 1937, that sketch and a subsequent routine featuring West trading suggestive quips with Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy helped the broadcast cause a furor that resulted in West being banned from broadcasting and from being mentioned at all on NBC programming for 15 years. The timing may have been a contributing factor, according to radio historian Gerald S. Nachman in Raised on Radio: “The sketch resulted in letters from outraged listeners and decency groups… What upset churchgoing listeners wasn’t the Biblical parody so much as the fact that it had the bad luck to air on a Sunday show.”
When Oboler took over Lights Out in 1936, the show was already a sensation because of creator Wyllis Cooper’s violent, quirky scripts, and Oboler continued in a similar vein. In 1939, Oboler introduced another series, Arch Oboler’s Plays, on NBC. In addition to horror tales, the dramas on this series often employed more topical material, especially regarding early World War II events, and the cast featured many leading film actors. After a year on NBC, it returned for a short run on Mutual in 1945. The series was syndicated in 1964.
In making a leap from radio to film, Oboler was sometimes compared to Orson Welles. His screen credits include Escape (1940) and On Our Merry Way (1948). By 1945, he moved into directing with Bewitched and Strange Holiday, followed by the post-apocalyptic Five (1951), filmed at his own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.
Oboler made film history with the 3-D film effects in Bwana Devil (1952). The Twonky (1953) was adapted from the Lewis Padgett short story in the September, 1942, issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Oboler returned to films with another 3-D feature, The Bubble, in 1966.
Sidney Lumet directed Oboler’s Broadway play, Night of the Auk, a science fiction drama about astronauts returning to Earth after the first moon landing. The play was based on Oboler’s radio play Rocket from Manhattan, which aired as part of Arch Oboler’s Plays in September 1945. Produced by Kermit Bloomgarden, the play ran for only eight performances in December 1956 despite a cast that included Martin Brooks, Wendell Corey, Christopher Plummer, Claude Rains and Dick York.
In 1949, Oboler helmed an anthology television series, Oboler’s Comedy Theatre (aka Arch Oboler’s Comedy Theater) which ran for six episodes from September to November. In the premiere show, “Ostrich in Bed,” a couple awaiting the arrival of a dinner guest find an ostrich in their bedroom. In “Mr. Dydee” a dim-witted horse player inherits a diaper service.
Audio horror gained an added dimension with Oboler’s stereo LP recording, Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror (1962). It features the following tracks: “Introduction to Horror,” “I’m Hungry,” “Taking Papa Home,” “The Dark,” “A Day at the Dentist’s,” “The Posse,” “Chicken Heart” and “The Laughing Man.” The cast featured some well-known radio actors: Edgar Barrier, Bea Benaderet, Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, Virginia Gregg, Jerry Hausner, Jack Johnstone, Jack Kruschen, Forrest Lewis, Junius Matthews, Ralph Moody, Mercedes McCambridge, Harold Peary, Barney Phillips, Bill Phipps, Olan Soule and Chet Stratton.
His work was collected in Free World Theatre: Nineteen New Radio Plays (Random House, 1944) and Oboler Omnibus: Radio Plays and Personalities (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1945). Night of the Auk: A Free Prose Play was published by Horizon Press in 1958. His short story “And Adam Begot” was included in Julius Fast’s Out of This World anthology (Penguin, 1944), and “Come to the Bank” was published in Weird Tales (Fall 1984).
Oboler also wrote non-fiction, such as his “My Jackasses and the Fire” in the June 1960 issue of Coronet. His fantasy novel, House on Fire (Bartholomew House, 1969) was adapted by Oboler for radio’s Mutual Radio Theater in 1980.
Edited by alcobeat on 13 Nov 2010, 19:27
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