Erle Stanley Gardner

Mystery writer, Erle Stanley Gardner, made his home on Rancho del Paisano in Temecula from 1937 through his passing in 1970.

Gardner is best known for writing Perry Mason novels, the basis for the Perry Mason television show.

You can take a step back in time by visiting a model of Gardner's ranch located at the Temecula History Museum.

Perry Mason on Television, 50th Anniversary
by John Hunneman

For nine years and 271 episodes, beginning in 1957, American audiences were glued to their television sets each week as the smooth, crime solving lawyer, Perry Mason, the creation of long-time Temecula resident Erle Stanley Gardner, solved case after case. Now, 50 years later, “Perry Mason” reruns remain a fixture on television and the entire series is available for sale on DVD.

The Perry Mason TV Show Book by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill chronicles in great detail the history of the show and it’s well known characters.

Gardner, a lawyer by trade, began writing mystery stories for pulp magazines in the early 1920s to supplement his income. His first published story, “Nellie’s Naughty Nighty” appeared in 1921 in the magazine Breezy Stories. Gardner was paid $15. His mother refused to read it. Gardner had more failures than success in his early writing days but worked hard at the craft. A literary agent saw some talent in the young writer but suggested Gardner move away from his pulp fiction stories and concentrate on tales that were more believable.

As a boy growing up near Boston, Gardner had subscribed to a magazine called Youth’s Companion. The publisher’s name was printed in big letters on the front of each issue. That name: Perry Mason and Company. Gardner’s stories of the crime-solving attorney, he would eventually write 82 Perry Mason novels, caught America’s attention during the 1930s.

During that 1930s, Warner Brothers bought the film rights to several of the novels. However, Gardner hated the movie versions of his characters. It is really little wonder... In one movie the studio cast a bit actor who portrayed the Mason character as a Latin-lover. In another, a Western, a furious Gardner had the Perry Mason character pulled from the script.

After the sour movie experience, Gardner decided to have his famous lawyer try his hand at another medium, radio. Gardner sold the radio rights to his characters to soap and detergent king Proctor & Gamble. They decided to put the series on in the afternoon, one of a series of shows that would become known as “soap operas.” For a time, Gardner tried his hand at writing the radio scripts, but soon realized others could do a better job. The radio show debuted in October, 1943, and aired five days each week. In 12 years, and more than 3,200 shows, dozens of actors gave voice to the key characters in the show, including at least four who played Mason.

The success of the radio show meant that by the 1950s television wanted the famous lawyer. Offers in the million dollar range were dangled at Gardner. Desiring complete control over the project, the author created his own company, Paisano Productions, named for his Temecula home and insisted on final approval of all scripts. At casting, dozens of actors tried out for the lead role as the world’s most famous lawyer. Actor Fred MacMurray, who would later go on to star as the father in the television show “My Three Sons,” was said to be one of the leading contenders. A Canadian actor, Raymond Burr, read that auditions were being held for “Perry Mason” and went to tryout for the part of prosecutor Hamilton Burger. At that audition Burr also requested to read for the lead role. Gardner was in the audience when Burr auditioned and is reported to have said “Raymond Burr is Perry Mason” over the objection of several of the show’s producers. But, of course, what Gardner wanted, Gardner got. William Hopper was chosen to play sidekick Paul Drake, Barbara Hale was picked for Della Street and William Talman would play District Attorney Hamilton Burger.

In 1957 a deal was struck with CBS for a half million dollars plus half the profits and creative control for Gardner. First to air, the “Case of the Restless Redhead” premiered on Saturday, Sept. 21, 1957. CBS decided to put the new series on Saturday night up against the very popular “Perry Como Show.” At first, the “Perry Mason” show got mixed reviews. Variety wrote: “it was deftly handled, never far fetched, and unraveled with simple clarity.” However the same would not be said of the cast. Burr as Mason looked like “a wholesome resident of suburbia on his way up the executive ladder,” the magazine reported. Hale as Street seemed to only “fetch coffee and sandwiches for her boss.” “Perry Mason,” the critic concluded, “would not offer serious competition for Mr. Como.” Variety was wrong. Perry Mason soon became a hit and by the end of the second season it was Perry Como who was looking for a new time slot.

Like Gardner’s books, each television show followed a similar formula. A case was introduced, Mason and Drake investigated, Mason’s client was wrongly accused, Mason investigated more, the trial began, Mason reversed the case by introducing new evidence and the culprit was exposed in court. People ate it up. By 1960 Perry Mason had climbed to No. 10 in the Nielsen ratings despite going head to head with a new show NBC had introduced, “Bonanza.” Burr won the best actor Emmy Award for the role in 1959 and 1961 and Hale won for best supporting actress in 1959. Despite rumors that swirled around Tinseltown, about the lawyer and his secretary, according to most sources, they were never more than friends both on and off screen. Mason battled Hoss, Little Joe and the rest of the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa for two seasons before NBC moved the western to Sunday nights in 1962. The following season, Perry Mason climbed to No. 5 in the ratings. Each show cost about $100,000 to produce, quite a sum for the time.

Many actors and actresses who would go on to greater fame made appearances on the drama. Among them were Barbara Eden, Burt Reynolds, Adam West, Dick Clark, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Leonard Nimoy, James Coburn, Ryan O’Neal and Cloris Leachman. During breaks in the shooting, regular cast members were invited to spend time at Gardner’s Temecula ranch.

However, like everything else on television, “Perry Mason” soon began to fade. In 1962 “Perry Mason” was moved to Thursday night opposite “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave it to Beaver.” The lead-in show to the courtroom drama was a light comedy about a talking horse, the famous “Mr. Ed.” The ratings plunged. Several more days and time slots were tried, including another head-to-head battle with “Bonanza”, but the magic was gone and some, including Burr, said the cast was burned out.
In November 1965, CBS announced it would be dropping the show at the end of the season. The last show that aired was called “The Case of the Final Fadeout.” On that show Dick Clark was the murderer and Erle Stanley Gardner played the part of the judge.

However, this was not the end of Perry Mason. Television stations across the county were still anxious to air the drama and paid big money to do so. A half dozen years after it finished filming, “Perry Mason” was still being shown in more than 130 television markets across the country. The drama also aired, after being translated, in almost 60 countries around the world. An attempt to revive the drama was made in 1973 with actor Monte Markham playing the lead role. The show lasted just one season.
William Talman died in 1968. William Hopper passed away in 1970 as did Gardner who died at his Temecula ranch. Burr went on to play a wheelchair bound detective Robert T. Ironside on “Ironside” which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1975. In 1993 Raymond Burr died. Of the original cast only Barbara Hale, 87, now remains. She lives in California.
Today, with the proliferation of cable channels, the original “Perry Mason” is still shown on many television stations around the country.