Thursday, January 19, 2017

Gunsmoke: Chronicling Dodge City, from Radio to Television

Troy D. Smith

Boy- how about that John Meston?

Some of you are nodding silently. Many of you, though, have never heard of John Meston. Not many people have, anymore, or know what a big influence he had on popular culture.

Meston started working for CBS radio in the 1940s, initially in the program practices department and soon thereafter as a writer. By the early 1950s, Meston and his friend Norman MacDonnell (a director and producer) set out to create a new kind of radio program: a western, but not one like The Lone Ranger and other popular shows aimed at kids. The two men, both in their late 30s at the time, were charged by their boss Hubell Robinson (CBS programming chief) to do a western series for adults, a serious drama rather than a melodrama.

They discovered a project that had been shelved for three years, meant to be a cross between westerns and hardboiled detective stories starring a tough lawman named Mark Dillon. They kept the "hardboiled" approach, and made a slight change to the hero's name: he would be Matt Dillon, and the program would be called Gunsmoke. It would be a tough, hard-bitten show, reflecting the rigors and vicissitudes of frontier life. Sometimes the innocent would suffer. The hero would be brave, but flawed in some ways and afflicted with occasional self-doubt and a good bit of cynicism (like any good hardboiled detective). The germ may have appeared in earlier scripts that never made it to the airwaves, but everything else was created by Norman MacDonnell and John Meston. This included the supporting characters: Doc Adams, Miss Kitty, and Chester.

Gunsmoke debuted on the radio in 1952, and was a hit. It was praised for its realism; it was one of the most explicit (for the time) programs on radio. McDonnell produced and directed, and Meston was the head writer. He wrote roughly 80% of the scripts in the show's first four seasons, fleshing out the characters (other episodes were written by McDonnell, Les Crutchfield, Kathleen Hite, John Dunkel, and a handful of others... Marian Clark would later also join the team and write many episodes).

What little the audience learned about Matt Dillon came from the mind of John Meston. Matt had been a wild young cowboy who spent several years on the border in Arizona and New Mexico. He could easily have become an outlaw, considering the company he kept -many of his old friends did- but he was inspired by an older lawman, who turned him onto the right path (in those early years it was common for Matt to meet old friends from his border days, and they were always extremely surprised that he had become a lawman.) Another marker of a Meston story: he often found ways to work his home town of Pueblo, Colorado into the dialogue. A surprising number of guest stars were on their way to or from Pueblo.

CBS decided to turn Gunsmoke into a television show, which debuted in 1955 with an all-new cast (and a new last name for Chester, who went from Proudfoot to Goode). The radio show continued simultaneously, and would run until 1961. Meston and most of the other radio writers started producing scripts for the TV show as well, many of them adapted from past radio episodes. This was relatively easy to do, as both the radio and TV versions ran for 30 minutes, Sometimes the radio origin of a TV episode is obvious in the title; the updated versions often changed the names of guest characters who appeared by their original names in the title.

MacDonnell, however, did not get to run the TV series, at least not at first: the netork hired Charles Marquis Warren as producer (and director of most episodes), with MacDonnell subservient to him. Except MacDonnell was NOT subservient to him, and the two feuded vigorously, leading Warren to quit halfway through the second season, at which point MacDonnell took over the reins completely.

The radio program was canceled in 1961, after nine seasons. The TV version underwent major changes at the same time: with season 7 (1961-1962), they expanded to a full hour. This meant the stories were no longer as tight, and in the eyes of many, no longer as dramatic and affecting. More emphasis was put on the guest-star-of-the-week, and gradually some of the show's hard edge wore off. The stories no longer tended to be as dark and somber as they had been in the first several years. Another notable change: Marshal Dillon no longer moped around the graveyard as much. During the half-hour era, many episodes started with a voice-over monologue by the marshal as he wandered through Boot Hill. We learned more about Matt's internal life and thought process in these scenes, probably, than in the rest of the series put together. Turns out Matt was cynical, and even bitter at times. He seemed to hate his job, and the necessity of killing so many people and dealing so much with the ugly side of human nature. He also had a pretty low opinion of the riff-raff with which he was forced to fill up the cemetery. Of course, those monologues added to the hardboiled atmosphere and helped set the dark tone for the stories. If one were to view the series from the inside out, as a progression of stories instead of a TV production subject to external forces, I think it would be safe to assume that the fact Matt quit going to the graveyard and agonizing so much over his part in filling it indicated he had either found internal peace and accepted his role, or that he gradually became more hardened to it.

In all, Meston wrote 183 of the radio episodes (out of 413). He went on to write 196 (of 635) TV episodes. That is 44% of the radio shows (mostly in the first four seasons) and nearly a third of the television episodes... plus 64 more that were adapted by someone else from his original radio stories. The very first episode of the TV show ("Matt Gets It") was a Charles Marquis Warren adaptation of a Meston radio script; the last episode of season ten was the final original teleplay by Meston ("He Who Steals," which centered on Festus). The first half of the show's 20-year run, and the entire Chester era, bore the heavy mark of Meston, who died in 1979. Norman MacDonnell, who also left Gunsmoke in 1965, passed away in 1979 just a few months after Meston.


  1. Knew why his name rang a bell, Pueblo is 30 miles from where I live. Go there frequently and one of my stories takes place there. It has some great history. I can see why he would reference it often. In fact Charles Good night's barn, built in the 1870's is still standing. Did enjoy the post and still watch the 30 minute episodes. Doris

  2. What a great show. Thanks for the low-down on the history of it's creation--always good to know. In the later years, the show definitely flattened, but I watched it anyway. Couldn't not. Matt needed Miss Kitty, though.

  3. Great information, Troy. I've always been a big fan of the show. I started watching in the late 60s and early 70s, when they were an hour long. I always loved the show at that length but when I went back later and watched the earlier episodes, I was blown away by how much darker...and better in some ways...they were.

  4. Just watched a Season 1 episode last night. Thanks for giving Meston his due and for providing an interesting history of a great show.

  5. One of the best ever. Still like the half hour episodes where Matt starts on Boot Hill the best. Last few years story lines became softer, but I still watched.

  6. Pete- ditto on everything you said. I watched the last several seasons "in real time" as a kid, and saw the earlier color ones over and over in syndication.... but those first couple of seasons could be dark and powerful.

  7. Such a wonderful series. Troy, I'm so glad you gave these guys their "due"--too often we forget that SOMEONE had to pen those lines--whether they brought us laughter, tears, understanding, or just plain ol' made us CRINGE. LOL This was one of my all time favorite shows. I thought Miss Kitty was the most beautiful woman that ever lived. Remember in the earlier eps where you could see the cowboys and the "ladies" going upstairs? That went away, too! LOL

  8. Kitty started as a saloon girl and quickly became the main saloon girl, then partway through the second season became co-owner (with Bill Pence). By season 7, the first season of one-hour episodes, she had bought out Pence and become sole owner. The real reason the saloon girls quit taking the cowboys upstairs is that with the transition to one hour the show also started trying to be more family-friendly... but if you wanted to find an in-story explanation, you could say that when Kitty became co-owner she made Bill curtail the prostitution somewhat, and when she took over all the way she eliminated it completely :-)

  9. Gunsmoke remains one of my favorite shows. Thank you for the information on its writers. I wonder if any of those radio shows are still accessible anywhere.