Although it is April, my thoughts are preoccupied with June. This happens every year now. The reason is simple enough: in June each year I travel to Seattle to attend the annual celebration of Old Time Radio called the REPS Showcase. Now in it’s twenty-first year, the Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound (REPS) hosts a three-day event bringing together remaining veterans of the Golden Days of Radio and their loyal fans (and hopefully a few new ones, too).
This year I will be directing three shows: “Gunsmoke,” “Duffy’s Tavern” and “Inner Sanctum Mysteries.” In order to pull this together months of planning and preparation take place. For instance, my first meeting with the other directors and REPS organizers took place last October. We all got on Skype and discussed what projects we’d all like to do and then balance that with the talents of the projected guest stars and then balance that so as to present a pleasing variety for the fans attending. Following that meeting, I knew which series I was doing but not yet which episode of each.
Next I set about listening to recommended or suggested episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “Duffy’s Tavern” and “Inner Sanctum Mysteries.” Since each series is very different in tone and execution, I chose to listen to “Gunsmoke” first. Most people of my generation remember only the TV series starring James Arness for 20 seasons (1955-75). The radio series ran from 1952 to 1961, overlapping with the TV version using a different cast. Radio’s Matt Dillon was none other than William Conrad, later TV’s Cannon. The radio show was gritty and realistic. Sound patterns were created with a depth and care seldom heard before. Additionally, many of the episodes were dark and bleak in tone and was certainly an adult western. It really was something special. After listening to several episodes I settled on “The Cabin.” I like this suspenseful tale of Matt Dillon taking refuge in a cabin to escape from a howling blizzard. Inside he encounters two murderers who have taken the woman who owns the cabin hostage. They see Dillon’s US Marshal badge and mark him for death. The key to this recreation (in addition to the high caliber of acting required) will be the sound effects. The effects need to be subtle and realistic, but not intrusive. Not an easy task, but it will be fun.
“Inner Sanctum Mysteries” was a series very different in nature and tone. It ran from 1941 to 1952 and featured horror and mystery stories that were accompanied by ever present organ music designed to drive the action and raise the tension. Directed and produced by Himan Brown and featuring a slow creaking door at the opening and closing of each program, it was the forefather of Brown’s later creation: “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater” (1974-82). The episode I selected is called “Lonely Sleep” about a shy man who dresses department store windows with displays featuring mannequins. When the object of his affections, a female co-worker, derides him one late evening with mocking laughter, the poor man snaps and murders her. Not knowing what to do with the body, he temporarily places her in the storefront window display replacing the mannequin sleeping in a bed featuring a mattress on sale. The trouble is, the display is a hit and sells so many mattresses that he can’t find a way to remove the body! This radio play calls for a bit of melodramatic acting—but not in a mocking way. It’s heightened reality, but real nevertheless. It’s only scary if the performances make it that way. The music is vital and I plan to have live organ accompaniment. The music and actors intertwine in this type of show. This genre of radio shows was my first love in Old Time Radio. Thrills, chills and even some laughs!
Lastly, I am directing a recreation of an episode of the comedy “Duffy’s Tavern,” a series set in a neighborhood bar “where the elite meet to eat.” It ran on network radio from 1941 to 1951. Interestingly, it was co-created by Abe Burrows whose son James helped create the TV sitcom “Cheers,” also set in a neighborhood bar. For this show I was sent copies of Ed Gardner’s original scripts, marked with his edits and notes. (Gardner co-created the series and starred as Archie the bar manager.) I selected one of the five scripts titled “Guest: Larry Adler.” I know one of the actors at REPS plays the harmonica, which was Larry Adler’s famous skill. A couple others sing very well and one of them can play Bob Graham, the featured singer on the show. The rest of cast is comprised of funny characters that are great fun to play, especially when the script is so good. This will be the first recreation that I’ve directed that is a comedy/variety show. The challenge here is mainly pacing. Comedy works only when the timing is right—not too fast and definitely not too slow. Energy is key here, to include me as the director standing at the podium throwing the cues and keeping the show rolling.
Right now I am busying working with the scripts. I am retyping “Duffy’s Tavern” into Microsoft Word, adjusting the font size and incorporating Ed Gardner’s penciled line changes. The scripts for “Gunsmoke” and “Inner Sanctum” are transcribed by REPS volunteers from a copy of the original radio broadcast audio. I then tinker with it to have it conform to the format I use. 14 point courier font, 1.5 inch hanging indent, etc. I number and underline my sound cues and my music cues. Eventually I will highlight them as well. I then make a separate Music and Sound Cue Sheet listing the cues in the order that they appear, noting whether the music or sound effect is live or recorded. When the show is performed in front of an audience I will have the sound engineers with the recorded cues next to me on my right, whereas the live sound effects artists are across the room in front of me. Live music is performed to my left. The actors are before me elevated on the stage. Now you can imagine why a director in radio is very much being like a traffic cop.
Since I also am responsible for producing my shows in addition to directing them, I must locate, create, and edit any and all recorded cues to bring with me to the Showcase in Seattle. So I fire up my Mac “Tower of Power” and commence to working in Soundtrack and even Final Cut to blend the final tracks. It takes time, can be tedious, but is also a lot of fun. Besides, I want to do my best work and not disappoint the actors, musicians, sound specialists and all the Showcase attendees.
If you’re interested, come join us in Seattle June 21-23, 2013 for the REPS Showcase! http://www.repsshowcase.comGuests include: Stan Freberg, Terry Moore (see photo above), Bob Hastings, Don Hastings, Leslie Denniston, Tommy Cook, Ivan Cury, Frank Ferrante, Gloria McMillan, Stuffy Singer, Beverly Washburn, Esther Geddes McVey, and my fellow directors Tim Knofler and Gregg Oppenheimer.
Come for the fun, come for the old time radio, or come for the ice cream social! Personally, I go there for all three.
I’m just saying…