Sherlock Holmes Theatre
Basil Rathbone was not the first or only actor to play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes, but to many fans of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, he was the quintessential one. As explained by Holmes afficionado Stephanie Bell, “Basil Rathbone closely matches Conan Doyle’s physical and emotional descriptions of Sherlock Holmes—dark, cerebral, analytical, brusque, and relentless…[his] regal features, resonant voice and elegant bearing made him perfectly suited to playing [the character].”
Along with his co-star Nigel Bruce (as Dr. Watson), Rathbone made two Holmes films for Twentieth Century-Fox in 1939, followed by an additional twelve for Universal (1942 to 1946). Further cementing their association with the characters, Rathbone and Bruce also starred in a Sherlock Holmes radio series during the same period. In fact, the association was so strong that Rathbone came to resent his typecasting. He had, after all, been nominated for two Academy Awards in other roles and won a Tony Award. But Rathbone’s Holmes films remained popular for years after their initial release.
Fast-forward to 1965, when independent station WGN-TV, channel 9 in Chicago, acquired the rights to air the 12 Universal films. That in itself was unremarkable, considering that stations all over the country had been running the same Universal package for years. WGN chose to group them into a weekly series called “Sherlock Holmes Theatre.” Even that wasn’t unusual, as other stations had used the title before. But what made this program singular (as Holmes would say) was that the Chicago station had managed to engage the services of Basil Rathbone himself to provide introductions, bridges, and closing remarks.
Since 12 episodes weren’t enough to fill out a season, WGN reached into its library, pulled out 12 of the Charlie Chan movies it already owned the rights to, and added them to the mix. Of roughly the same vintage and genre, the Chans fit in well with the Holmes films. That made a total of 24 episodes which, combined with a few pre-emptions and reruns, gave them almost seven months of material.
By 1965, Rathbone had aged, felt underappreciated, and was no longer receiving the prestigious roles he believed he deserved. But in August of that year he flew into Chicago, and over the weekend of the 21st and 22nd, videotaped his “wraparounds” for Sherlock Holmes Theatre. The segments were written for him by Michael Murphy, a longtime member of The Hounds of Baskerville, “Chicago’s original, senior, and most singular Sherlockian society.” Columnist and author Vincent Starrett, a founder of the Hounds and mentor to Murphy, attended the taping and recalled the scene: “He wore one of those suits you would recognize from his films, the double-breasted pin stripe with wide lapels; it was like 1939 again when he walked into the set; and then 1895. Outside the studio it was raining. But in the dry warmth of the set Basil converted a casual commentary into a theatrical event. He was happy to be performing, and even happier when the fan mail on that series told him he was remembered and revered.”
Sherlock Holmes Theatre premiered on Monday, September 13, 1965 from 8:00 to 9:30 pm and continued in the same time slot until April 4, 1966. In the fall of 1967, a couple of months after Rathbone’s death on July 21, WGN brought the show back, rerunning several episodes of the series on Saturday nights when there were no sports games. (One episode in this latter run, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was a Twentieth Century-Fox film not originally part of the Sherlock Holmes Theatre.) TV listings for subsequent years and decades show a Sherlock Holmes Theatre running on stations all across the country. But while those shows featured the same Rathbone movies, they lacked the actor’s unique WGN intros.
It's not believed that any of the Rathbone segments exist anymore. It was common at the time for TV stations to erase and reuse their videotapes, due to the cost of the tapes and of storing them. But many lucky Chicagoans (myself included) who got the chance to see Basil Rathbone host Sherlock Holmes Theatre remember the show fondly, even today.
“Rathbone sat in front of a fireplace and introduced kids like me to 12 of his Sherlock Holmes films and 12 of the Charlie Chan films,” recalls Ralph Schiller. “I was in mystery heaven.”
Don Mankowski notes, “I lived in Chicago then, and I remember that series, though I don't recall watching it all that often. I do remember Rathbone saying, ‘Next week, our old friend Charlie Chan...’”
“I watched all those Sherlock Holmes (not so much Charlie Chan) movies back in the day, when I was a lad,” writes Lawrence Nepodahl. The music they used...was the title music from 1965's The Ipcress Files. The show started with a close-up of a fire on the hearth, then panned back to reveal Basil Rathbone standing beside it…Being so young, I never associated that man with the same man in the movies, because he wore black rimmed glasses and was now old. Then one time, he took off his glasses and read, what I recall, was a poem. I remember turning to my parents and saying, ‘Hey, that's the same guy playing Sherlock Holmes!’”
Ralph Schiller relates an incident involving a character Rathbone played in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): “WGN-TV had Basil Rathbone do a personal event at the studio where school children met him as he recited Shakespeare and talked about Mr. Holmes. He signed autographed photos, and most of the kids were calling him Mr. Holmes. One boy got the autographed photo and said, ‘Thank you, Sir Guy Of Gisbourne!’ Basil Rathbone suddenly looked up with a beaming smile and chuckled!”
"It was great TV!
Alas, gone forever,” laments Allen Champion.