Audio drama PDX: Curated nostalgia

In the first of two parts – and before a Tolkien birthday bash on Saturday – a look at the old-time radio roots of a modern media movement

For most of my life I’ve been chronologically out of step. I was born in 1965, and my favorite clothes were out of fashion by 1930, my favorite authors were all dead by 1945, and one of my favorite artistic mediums, audio drama, culturally peaked in about 1950 and was until recently virtually extinct.

As a kid in the isolation of small-town Alaska, I would stay up late to hear, via the hit-and-miss bouncing signals of AM, re-broadcasts of the radio dramas from the 1930s and 40s, shows like The Shadow and Inner Sanctum. For a while anyway in the ’70s there was also the five-a-night broadcast of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a project helmed by grizzled radio veterans that featured fun performances though generally mediocre scripts.

Promotional photograph from November 1930 for the CBS Radio series “The Detective Story Hour,” the program that introduced The Shadow to radio audiences. The character was initially played by James La Curto. Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the general hokiness of many of the shows, new and old, for reasons that were clearly thought peculiar to my friends and family I was hooked. How did they do so much with nothing more than a script, a few actors, and some carefully placed sound effects? (The answer, of course, is that the listener’s imagination does the work. As radio pioneer and general funny guy Stan Freberg once said, “the monitor of our head is limitless.”)

Though I felt alone in my obsession, I wasn’t. There were plenty of people who listened to what was known as Old Time Radio, or OTR to its fans. But as it turned out, I was 30-40 years younger than most of them. This I learned when in Seattle in my 30s I joined a group called “The Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound.” These lovely septu- and octogenarians remembered the original broadcasts from their childhood, and swapped cassette recordings via U.S. mail. (Remember, youngsters, this was the 1990s, at the very dawn of email.) They’d host annual conventions where I would stand around with my senior citizen pals, arguing about our favorite shows and being awestruck when OTR celebrities of advanced years would good-humoredly participate in live re-creations of the classic episodes.

Reimagined Radio, live at the Kiggins in Vancouver, May 2016. Willamette Radio Workshop photo

From about 1930 to 1950, radio had a huge impact on American culture, bringing for the first time live performance into people’s homes. During the Depression, when even a twenty-five cent ticket for a movie was a luxury, it was also virtually free entertainment—and that made it insanely popular. On summer nights, it’s reported, you could walk down streets in many American cities and hear a popular comedy show like Jack Benny or Amos and Andy from start to finish without a break, playing from the parlors and living rooms of neighbors.

The early shows were little more than music with a host who’d crack a few toastmaster-style jokes, but they rapidly diversified and became the templates of a whole series of genres. The police procedural, the crime show, the satirical news review, the quiz show, the weekly anthology, the situation comedy and the soap opera all were born in radio, and comedies like Our Miss Brooks and Life of Riley, Westerns like Gunsmoke, and cop shows like Dragnet migrated over more or less completely from radio to TV.

Photo of Eve Arden from the radio version of “Our Miss Brooks.” CBS Radio, November 1949, via Wikimedia Commons

And this, by the way, explains why so much of early television was not particularly distinguished—the scripts. One of the uncomfortable truths about OTR is that most of it wasn’t very good. Even fabled comedians like Jack Benny and Fred Allen sound pretty creaky by contemporary standards—when they’re not either racist (hello, Amos and Andy!) or eye-rollingly sexist. Most of the scripts of shows like Lights Out and The Lone Ranger are just as lousy as the fare of ’50s television. There are some notable standouts, including the gentle but brilliant absurdity of the comedy Vic and Sade, the radio experiments of geniuses Norman Corwin and Orson Welles, and the rip-roaring adventure series I Love A Mystery. But in the main, most of the “Golden Age” of radio is pretty leaden stuff.

So it’s an awful irony that in the post-war period, just as audio drama began to feature increasingly sophisticated scripts and nuanced acting, the advertising dollars all fled to television. By 1955 the form was effectively dead in the United States, with a handful of shows hanging on through the early ’60s. In the 1970s there was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and a few public radio outfits like ZBS kept the torch flickering with serials like The Fourth Tower of Inverness and Ruby The Galactic Gumshoe, along with diehards like Jim French’s Imagination Theater out of Seattle. But by 2001, the medium was basically dead.

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Willamette Radio Workshop performers and live-performance “Hobbit” fans at McMenamins Kennedy School. Photo: Willamette Radio Workshop

WHICH IS THE YEAR Portland actor Sam Mowry attended a meeting about forming a new audio drama company.

“There was a notice in the paper saying that there was an informational meeting at the library about starting up a radio drama group,” the veteran actor recalls. “I’d loved the form since I was a little kid, and had listened to it my entire life, through re-broadcasts. At the meeting there were 10 other people who I knew from here, and a couple that I hadn’t met but had been doing audio drama in Florida. They explained to us that the plan was for actors to record remotely, then edit it all together. As it turns out, that’s how a lot of podcasts are done now, but for us back then it sounded strange. So instead, we came up with this alternative plan.”

This plan evolved, and quickly, into the Willamette Radio Workshop, where after a few meetings it was decided to jump right in with an inaugural performance on October 30 at the CoHo Theater, with the most famous OTR script of all, The Mercury Theatre’s production of The War of the Worlds. Like many “staged radio shows,” the microphones were fake and the staged sound effects a rough approximation of the original, but the audiences were real enough. “There were people lining up as we were loading in, and it was completely packed.”

Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic. Acme News Photos/31 October 1938, via Wikimedia Commons

Given this sort of reception, the company realized they were on to something. Mowry himself had cut back from stage shows for voiceover work to get more time to spend with his son, so the short rehearsal and run time of audio drama was an attraction—as it was to the other actors in the troupe. Yet it was hard at first to imagine how they would be able to create audio drama without access to a full-size recording studio.            So they decided to build one.

Back in this pre-podcast age, home studios were exceedingly rare, more the province of successful rock musicians than voice actors. “I’d already been a voice actor for some time, and at that point, no one had home studios. The tech was too pricey. If you went in to a studio to record, they didn’t want you as much as touching the mike stand.” But he and his wife, Cindy McGean, had a mostly empty two-car garage, so they got to work and converted it into a studio. “It’s way too big for a single voiceover, and my projects are sometimes too big for it. But it’s good for 4-6 people.”

They also had an opportunity to do some live on-the-air radio theater with KBOO Community Radio, which Mowry admits was a challenge—starting with the time.

Sam A. Mowry: The Voice, under the lights. Photo: Willamette Radio Workshop

“We would do a live show at 10:30 in the morning on Tuesdays, which rather limits which actors you’re going to have,” he said with a laugh. “At that time the studio had three working mikes, no working headphones, and the CD player was a nightmare. It was everything that you expect live audio drama to be: exciting, terrifying and hysterical.” (Having recently visited KBOO’s studio for an audio drama meet-up, I can attest that they’ve had at least a couple of upgrades.)

From early on the company produced a mixture of live performances and recorded projects, as well as more OTR revivals and brand new scripts. While live audiences were more inclined toward well-known scripts like Dracula and Flash Gordon, the small but growing national audience for original audio drama was paying attention to their original recorded work, which soon garnered the company awards and critical praise. Mowry’s deep connections to Portland’s theater scene meant that the Workshop quickly became known to a lot of different projects and groups, so from early on they were collaborating with different arts organizations like OPB and Filmusik and arts-friendly organizations like McMenamin’s. Now their live shows tend to be split into stand-alone events (such as their annual production of A Christmas Carol) and collaborations with other events and festivals, including their upcoming production of what they call The Hobbit’s Greatest Hits, featured at this Saturday’s Tolkien Birthday Bash at McMenamins Kennedy School.

“Because the Tolkien event has people wandering around, we came up with this idea of randomly selecting with the audience a series of different scenes from The Hobbit, adapted into radio. We’ll do a scene and then when we draw for another, people can stay or go. It suits the nature of the event.”

Another element that Mowry has brought into the live shows is projected images related to their shows. “At first I was a little hesitant, but then we noticed a lot of people would be playing with their phones while they were listening. I do that myself. Having something to look at helps keep their attention on the stage, and that focus is invaluable for the actors.”

A crowd of kids, waiting for “The Hobbit” to begin. Photo: Willamette Radio Workshop

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THIS DOES, OF COURSE, prompt the question: why do audiences buy tickets to go sit and watch a bunch of actors standing around a bunch of microphones?

This was pretty much what David Koff was wondering when he first attended a production in 1998 of something called Fake Radio, a series of live staged radio scripts that Koff discovered as an actor in Los Angeles. Staged monthly in the back of a Border’s Bookstore, the show pulled in an audience about the size of the volunteer cast, but something about the brilliance of the scripts and the freedom given for actors to improvise around the material hooked him. He joined up with the group, and in 2003, when the creators left for the East Coast, they gave him the show as a parting gift.

Talon Bigelow (left) and Dan Kinsella of Fake Radio: an old-time aura, hats and all. Photo: Lucy Hobbs

Now Fake Radio, still based in L.A., performs anywhere from four to a dozen live shows a year, matching up classic OTR scripts, some original material, and music in a production where actors are encouraged to improvise around the scripts to their level of comfort. (The actors include comedians, improvisers and both stage and film actors—a reflection of Koff’s background in comedy and improv.)

Fake Radio had its Portland premiere last month of the radio adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life, which packed the houses for two nights running at the Alberta Rose. The cast, drawn from both Portland and L.A. (and including Mowry in a narrator role), dressed the part in ’40s costumes, and Koff was adroit at moving the production along, though another couple of songs from guest crooners The Libertine Belles would have been welcome.

The evening were a pretty good argument for Koff’s contention that while there aren’t any sets or lights involved, a bunch of quick-thinking actors and a solid script can certainly hold one’s attention. “Some of these scripts are amaze-balls,” he says, and not only as drama. “They’re historical documents, including the commercials. They provide real insight into the way people actually lived. It’s American history, and it’s worth keeping alive. Even if that means, in our case, we play a little loose with the script.”

Koff instructs the actors to not push the improv too hard, and to work it slowly into the evening, to help the audience get used to the characters and the world. When it begins to show up, it feels refreshingly spontaneous. The night I attended, George Bailey (Jonathan Stark) parroted back Mr. Potter’s (Dave Cox’s) lines to him in mocking imitation of the villainous coot, leading to Cox doing a pretty good imitation of Stark’s Jimmy Stewart imitation. This went on for a couple of minutes to the delight of the crowd, and became a running joke for the rest of the evening. “We’ve done this script over a dozen times before, and it was the first time that particular joke occurred,” says Koff. “It showed up, it happened, and now it’s gone. That’s part of what makes what we do different and appealing.”

The Portland reception means that Fake Radio will be back this year, though dates and program are TBD. Koff is also interested in finding a regular broadcast source for Fake Radio, as well as a more permanent home in Portland, where he’s been back and forth for the past three years. “The reception to our work really made me excited about the future. The right theater, the right script, the right guest star, I think Portland will love this.”

Jonathan Stark and Julie Millett: It might be Fake Radio, but the laughter is real. Photo: Lucy Hobbs

While Koff and the programming at Willamette Radio Workshop draw a lot of their audiences from the inherent nostalgia for OTR, they’re not the only Portland artists who are interested in the potential of audio drama. Fueled by the omnipresence of cell phones and the success of such crime documentaries as Serial, podcasts have exploded in the last few years. In the second part of this series, we’ll look at some Portland artists creating original dramatic works, and who despite their minuscule budgets are creating some pretty amazing worlds for the ear.

 

2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. David Loftus says:

    Thanks for the great overview. I grew up listening to Stan Freburg, “The Magnificent Montague,” and Frank Brazee’s (sp?) “The Golden Days of Radio” (where I learned about Jack Benny, Fred Allen, The Bickersons, and “It Pays to Be Ignorant,” among other shows) on the Armed Forces Network station out of Frankfurt circa 1969-1971.

    I’ve been a performer with Willamette Radio Workshop, in their live shows and recordings, for many years. I hope you’ll mention C. Christopher Hart’s science-fiction comedy “Exoplanetary,” a podcast modeled on old-fashioned-style radio shows that’s based here in Portland as well. I can hook you up with the free online shows (ten episodes have rolled out so far) as well the creator.

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