'NBC University Theater (also known as NBC University Theater of the Air, NBC Theater of the Air or NBC Theater) was a radio series directed by Homer Heck that presented adaptations of classic novels, often described as "Anglo-American literature." The show was born The World's Great Novels on WMAQ, Chicago, and NBC from 1944 to 1948, and adopted its better known name when it relocated to Hollywood in July 1948.
It initially aired Saturdays at 7:00 pm CST during the first 1944-45 season and then moved to Fridays at 11:30 pm. Music for the series was composed by Emil Soderstrom and conducted by Bernard Berquist.
The Chicago-based programs were a production of The NBC University of the Air. Through agreements with the University of Louisville, the University of Tulsa, Kansas State Teachers College, and Washington State College, listeners could receive college credit through accredited, radio-assisted literature correspondence courses. A study guide, The Handbook of the World's Great Novels, was available for 25 cents.
The series began October 28, 1944, with Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, followed by Voltaire's Candide and Jane Austen's Emma. Over the next four years, it aired adaptations of such novels as Kidnapped, The Last of the Mohicans, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities and War and Peace. Since this was a half-hour program, many of the novels were serialized in multi-part adaptations of two to six 30-minute episodes.
The group of Chicago actors heard on the series included Larry Alexander, Ernie Andrews, Everett Clarke, Johnny Coons, Maurice Copeland, Harry Elders, Sidney Ellstrom, Charles Flynn, Donald Gallagher, Hilda Graham, Ken Griffin, Jonathan Hole, Geraldine Kay, Eloise Kummer, Jack Lester, Ken Nordine, Hope Summers and Lee Young. Some episodes were narrated by Nordine. The announcers were Charles Chan, John Conrad and Dave Garroway.
Some shows in the series had guest speakers. Amy Loveman, an editor with The Saturday Review of Literature, was the guest commentator with the 1944 adaptation of Emma. The novelist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie was the guest commenting on Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. The adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's Free (July 9, 1948) featured a brief talk by the Dean of the University of Chicago.
On July 23, 1948, the final program featured readings from different works by Thomas Wolfe.
The series was retooled and renamed NBC University Theater (aka NBC University Theater of the Air, NBC Theater of the Air and NBC Theater) and moved from Chicago to Hollywood. That series was heard from July 30, 1948, to February 14, 1951. In the new format, the program also included adaptations of short stories and plays in addition to novels and occasionally featured commentary on the original work by distinguished writers and critics. The new series won a Peabody Award and was considered one of the most distinguished radio programs of its day; all of the episodes from this period still survive.
The NBC University of the Air also produced a summer replacement series, American Novels, which was broadcast when The World's Great Novels was off during the summers of 1947 and 1948.
Some sources give the title of the 1944-48 series as The World's Greatest Novels, but there is no evidence this title was ever used.