Oboler, Arch, 1909-1987

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Arch Oboler (1907-1987) was a radio writer and producer during the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote and produced a number of popular radio shows during the 1930s and 1940s, including "Arch Oboler's Plays" (1939-1940, 1945), "Plays for Americans" (1942), "Everything for the Boys" (1944), and "Arch Oboler Special" (1945).

From the description of "Arch Oboler's yesterday, today, and tomorrow" audio tapes, 1939-1945. (University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center). WorldCat record id: 85386999

Biographical Note

Best known as a writer and director of radio and movies, Arch Oboler was born in Chicago on December 7, 1909. He developed a keen interest in radio during its formative years in the 1920s and made his first big sale with a radio play entitled Futuristics . When Wyllis Cooper, creator of the radio series Lights Out, left that program in 1936, Oboler took the helm as writer and director. Using stream-of-consciousness dialogue and innovative sound effects in his broadcasts, he proved as adept with social consciousness, comedic, and dramatic topics as he did with the horror genre for which Lights Out is best remembered.

As the United States moved closer to entering World War II, Oboler’s radio drama, at times anti-war in tone, became increasingly focused on world events and alarmist about the rise of global totalitarianism. With direct American involvement in the conflict, the playwright gave his full support to the war effort with radio series such as Plays for Americans, To the President, and Everything for the Boys .

Oboler’s prolific radio play output numbered in the hundreds, and he worked with many notable actors and actresses of the 1930s and 1940s including Boris Karloff, James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Claude Rains. By war’s end, however, demand for his radio programs, and the popularity of radio in general, waned, as motion pictures and television became dominant forces in American entertainment. Oboler had moved to California in the late 1930s to seek his fortune and there he found work in film writing and then directing. Throughout his career, much of his work underwent constant revisions, and during and immediately after the war he adapted several of his radio plays for the movie screen. None were commercial successes, but Oboler remained determined to make the switch from radio to motion pictures. His subsequent six films, scripted and directed by him, were independent productions, covering such themes as post-nuclear war apocalypse ( Five ) and human sexuality ( One Plus One ).

Oboler’s greatest commercial achievement was the 1952 3-dimensional movie Bwana Devil, a dramatization of real-life events involving man-eating lions holding up railway construction in East Africa. The film spawned a short-lived 3-D movie craze and earned Oboler much money, but its release was not without legal battles over distribution rights and other matters. It was also during the making of Bwana Devil that a professional partnership was firmly forged between a one-time script girl named Jerry Kay (real name Geraldine Klancke) and Oboler. Bwana Devil, like many Oboler endeavors, had its challenges, and by proving her mettle in helping Oboler meet them, Jerry Kay became Oboler’s longtime and faithful personal assistant.

Following Bwana Devil, Oboler carried on in filmmaking and, with growing public nostalgia for old time radio programming, he rebroadcast and released on record and tape many of his early stories. Some of his radio dramas had been published in book form as anthologies during his heyday, and in later years he wrote numerous articles for magazines such as Reader’s Digest . He drafted thousands of pages of novel scripts but, with the exception of the horror thriller House on Fire, was unable to get them into print. A few forays into television, which during Oboler’s lifetime threatened both the motion picture industry and radio, brought him little gain. His major stage play effort, the 1956 Night of the Auk (about a manned spacecraft returning to an earth devastated by nuclear war) was a Broadway failure. True to Oboler’s revisionist formula, an adaptation was broadcast on public television in 1960.

Oboler married Eleanor Helfand in 1937 and they had four sons. In the 1940s he corresponded and became friends with noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Oboler greatly admired and about whom he wrote published articles and a proposed biographical television treatment. Wright designed a residence for the Obolers near Malibu, California. Only partially built, the completed portions, which incorporated stones from Oboler’s mineral collection, became Oboler’s beloved home. Located in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains, the home served as an effective budget movie set for his post-nuclear war film, Five .

By the time of his death on March 19, 1987, Arch Oboler, had left an indelible impression on American entertainment culture, working with and inspiring show business luminaries from the 1940s and 1950s as well as later stars such as Bill Cosby, one of whose comedy routines centered on the terrifying effects of listening to the radio play "Chicken Heart," an episode from Lights Out . Innovative and creative, Oboler was a highly sought-after and award-winning radio playwright at the height of his career. Though his commercial success diminished with radio’s decline in American life, he never wavered in turning out ideas and stories and became in the end an icon to those who remembered the Golden Age of Radio.

From the guide to the Arch Oboler Collection, 1916-1992, 1936-1989, (Recorded Sound Reference Center, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Library of Congress)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Lothar and Eva Just Film Stills Collection. Harvard Film Archive, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Paul Muni collection, 1908-1980 (inclusive), 1932-1959 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn The Bell Telephone Hour collection of sound recordings [sound recording], 1940-1968 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Frederic Dannay Papers, ca.1920-1982. Columbia University. Rare Book an Manuscript Library
creatorOf Oboler, Arch, 1909-1987. "Arch Oboler's yesterday, today, and tomorrow" audio tapes, 1939-1945. Univerisity of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
referencedIn Ivan Black papers, 1887-1979, 1937-1978 The New York Public Library. Music Division.
referencedIn Bridson, Douglas Geoffrey, 1910-1980. Mss., 1934-1980 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
referencedIn Dannay, Frederic, 1905-1982. Papers, ca.1920-1982. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Black, Ivan, d. 1979. Ivan Black papers, 1887-1979 (bulk 1937-1978) New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Arch Oboler Collection, 1916-1992, 1936-1989 Library of Congress. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division
referencedIn Adato, Perry Miller. Papers, 1940-1974. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Adato, Perry Miller. person
associatedWith Allan Scott person
associatedWith Arch Oboler person
associatedWith B. C. Schoenfeld person
associatedWith Black, Ivan, d. 1979. person
associatedWith Bridson, D. G. 1910- person
associatedWith Budd Schulberg and Jerome Lawrence person
associatedWith Dannay, Frederic, 1905-1982. person
associatedWith Don Quinn, Ira Greshwin, Jay Gorney, Henry Myers, and Edward Eliscu person
associatedWith Fanya F. Lawrence person
correspondedWith Green, Aaron G. person
associatedWith Hector Chevigny, Anne Anthony, and Jerome Lawrence person
associatedWith Howard Estabrook person
associatedWith Irving Ravetch person
correspondedWith Karloff, Boris, 1887-1969 person
associatedWith Kay, Jerry (Jerry J.), 1923-2002 person
correspondedWith Leakey, L. S. B. (Louis Seymour Bazett), 1903-1972 person
correspondedWith Masselink, Eugene, 1910-1962 person
associatedWith Milton Merlin and Clarence Muse person
associatedWith Pearl Buck person
correspondedWith Peters, William Wesley person
associatedWith Richard Collins and Everett Tomlinson person
associatedWith Samuel Raphaelson person
associatedWith Stephen Longstreet person
associatedWith Talbot Jennings person
associatedWith William Kozlenko person
correspondedWith Wright, Frank Lloyd, 1867-1959 person
correspondedWith Wright, Iovanna Lloyd person
correspondedWith Wright, Olgivanna Lloyd person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
Malibu (Calif.)
World War, 1939-1945
3-D films
Horror radio programs
Motion picture authorship
Motion picture plays
Paranormal fiction, American
Radio authorship
Radio authorship
Radio producers and directors
Radio plays
Radio plays
Radio programs
Radio serials
Radio stories
Radio writers
Science fiction films
Architects and builders
Dramatists, American
Motion picture producers and directors
Radio actors and actresses
Radio producers and directors
Radio writers


Birth 1907-12-07

Death 1987-03-19




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