December 2014

HERE NOW, THE NEWS FROM HEAR NOW!

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I have always loved audio entertainment, specifically old time radio shows. When I was a kid “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater” was on the air nightly, seven-days-a-week, and was part of my routine. I loved the show so much that I even wrote its producer-director Himan Brown a fan letter asking how I could make a career doing what he did. Mr. Brown wrote back. He appreciated that I loved the show and the art form, but told me that radio drama was not likely to provide me a career. Unperturbed, I wrote and directed radio dramas for high school state competitions, co-created a 50-episode comedy series called “Anytown USA” while in the Army, more radio dramas for “The University Radio Theater” while in college, eventually directing old-time radio recreations at conventions featuring some of the very same people who originally appeared in radio’s golden age and on “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.” I even directed Norman Lloyd in 2011 reprising the very same role he had played live on the air in 1945! But, alas, Himan Brown was correct. Radio drama would not sustain a career for me.

 

For me. Not for some others, however!

 

1371306357In June of this year I had the privilege to travel to Hear Now! – an audio theater/entertainment festival. I was there representing Audio Cinema Entertainment (ACE), an Orange County based company run by audio producer Tim Knofler. Here in Kansas City, MO, the hotel was filled with audio artists with years of experience and credits. They have been making audio drama for decades and show no signs of stopping.

 

The event was a revelation to me since I had drifted away from the art form over the years that I had devoted to my own acting and filmmaking career. I stopped by the local movie theater where excerpts from contemporary artist from around the world played through its massive speakers. Acting, writing, music, sound, editing, and all sorts of artistry was there for my eye to behold. Among my favorites were “Sid Guy, Private Eye: The Case of the Mysterious Woman” – Siren Audio Studios and “The Card” – The Theater in Your Mind. I had the opportunity to meet producers Linda Coulombe Royal (Siren Audio Studios) and Jon Holland (The Theater in Your Mind) to discuss the state of the art form and possibilities for its resurgence with the listen-on-demand culture currently being created by the Internet. The challenges are real but the potential for success is also very real. We agree that “Discoverability” is key for audio entertainment’s future. People must know how to discover these great shows.

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Linda also brought along actress-narrator (and comedienne) Jessica Osbourne to perform a section from the audiobook “Symptoms of Death” by Paula Paul. She brilliantly played all of the characters in a very entertaining piece. smirk-shotIt reminded me how gifted a performer must be to work vocally. Even as I watched her face and body language change before the microphone as she shifted between characters, I noted that everything she was doing was poured into her voice. The facial expressions and posture adjustments were not for the audience’s sake, but rather for the life of the vocalization. We had the privilege of watching a voice artist at her craft and, at the same time, close our eyes and really absorb the impact of her efforts. ‘Nuff said. Jessica is good.

During that weekend in Kansas City I listened to clips featuring audio artists from Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the UK. Bob McGraw’s short comedy piece “Tales of the NSA” was another standout for me. Actress, narrator Robin Miles performed a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” was commanding and moving. It reminded me at times of the power radio legend Norman Corwin could wield with words.

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Also appearing at Hear Now was actress and narrator Barbara Rosenblat (Miss Rosa on “Orange is the New Black”). She was was a revelation: her comedy, drama, accents, and singing – even scatting, was one of the event’s highlights. Another highlight was the Kansas-based comedy troupe “Right Between the Ears.” Their stuff was top-notch. Good writing, performing, and pacing. Effect and music were spot-on and no one ever flubbed a line. It was recorded for broadcast over Kansas Public Radio, which they do every week. I was simply in audio geek heaven.

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I firmly believe that the future of professional audio dramatic and comedic entertainment is bright. With the right platform to assemble these outstanding creative artists, with the right place to discover all of this, it will spread into our daily lives again and become part of our culture in the way that it never vanished in Britain and others places.

 

I’m just saying…

I MET ABBOTT AND COSTELLO WHEN THEY MET FRANKENSTEIN

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Not too long ago I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite films the way I’ve never seen it before. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” screened at the Aero Theater in Glendale, CA. Special guests at the screening were Lou Costello’s daughters Paddy and Chris. Before the screening they greeted fans entering and then told some stories on stage before the film began. I have been a devoted fan of A&C since I was about 7 years old, so I had heard many of the stories before, except for the time Lou Costello got so mad at Errol Flynn that he punched him in the face! What a gem that one was! And, for the record, Flynn had it coming.

 

What was so special about this screening was the fact that I had never before seen this movie on the big screen with an audience. It was great to laugh out loud with a crowd who, like me, knew when the laughs were coming and still reacted naturally. My favorite line in the movie got the biggest laugh! Lon (The Wolfman) Chaney to Lou Costello: “Soon the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.” Lou: “You and twenty million other guys.”

 

IMG_0503Growing up in Metuchen, NJ, just outside of New York City, my Mom and I would sit and watch the old classic monster movies playing on television every Saturday afternoon. So I loved Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and King Kong. Well, one afternoon I thought I was watching another Frankenstein movie when suddenly Bela Lugosi appeared as Dracula! Lon Chaney was Lawrence Talbot, the man once bitten by a werewolf and now cursed. Glenn Strange was the Frankenstein Monster just like in “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula.” This was truly another classic Universal horror film… but then again… the heroes of this epic were clearly in way over their head! It was the first time I saw Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in a movie. I fell in love with chubby Lou right away. Who wouldn’t? His performance was masterful, hitting all the right notes, and made me laugh out loud! I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Bud Abbott, his doubting pal, also charmed me. He tried to be the voice of reason, but eventually the truth about Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman proved Lou was right all along. Even the tag line ending the movie was perfect, with Vincent Price voicing the Invisible Man.

 

It turned out that WPIX Channel 11 in New York ran most of the A&C films each and every Sunday morning at 11:30am. They did this for years in the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. So that’s where you could always find me. I rarely missed a Sunday well into my teens, long after I had seen every one of the Universal comedies that they played. I thoroughly loved their verbal patter, physical comedy, and special bond they clearly had with each other.

 

While in the US Army my friend Phil and I learned their classic routine “Who’s on First?” We won second prize in a talent show at Fort Ord back in 1984, losing out to break-dancers. Phil was Bud and I was Lou. Later, we served together in Okinawa and added more A&C routines to our repertoire, playing the roles again at the local community theater.

 

Years later I met a lively woman while standing in a long line at LAX one morning. We started chatting. My wife and I were were going to the Friends of Old-Time Radio convention in Newark, NJ. I love old radio shows, I told the red-haired woman, and naturally mentioned that Abbott and Costello were among my very favorite performers. She burst into a smile. “Lou Costello is my father.” Instantly I recognized her as Chris Costello! I had purchased her biography of her dad, “Lou’s on First,” way back in 1981!

 

Over the ensuing years we have become great friends. Chris and her sister Paddy are such wonderful and funny people to spend time with! My wife and I adore them! Naturally, I sometimes have a hard time believing that they are among my personal friends. It seems so unreal.

 

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All of this leads me back to the Aero Theater and watching Bud and Lou, flickering larger than life, playing out one of their best comedies for an appreciative crowd of movie-goers in 2014. In the darkness of the old movie theater it could have been 1948, the year of the movie’s release. It was still a great classic Universal monster movie and Bud and Lou were still making me laugh out loud. I kept thinking about first watching this same movie on a tiny black and white TV in a Metuchen. Sitting here in a classic movie palace in 2014, for a moment, I am 7 years old again and meeting Bud Abbott and Lou Costello for the very first time. The magic is just as pure.

 

I’m just saying…

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GRANDER THAN LIFE: “CITIZEN KANE” AT THE ORPHEUM THEATER

IMG_0489Have you ever seen “Citizen Kane”? Ever see it on the silver screen? Ever see it on the silver screen in an opulent 1926-built theater called “The Orpheum”?

 

I first saw “Citizen Kane” while taking a film appreciation class and it was projected in a theater. Awesome! I mean, I went in with high expectations. It’s only called the greatest American-made movie ever… still! Of course we could argue for days and weeks as to the validity of the claim. (I side with… “Yes,” by the way.) But the point is that it is a film worthy of appreciation. The background story of its creation and the parallels with its auteur director’s own life are just bonus material. This film is beautiful, stark, joyful, pitiful, and grand!

 

Prominent on my L.A. Bucket List was to see a film in The Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not like there is a movie playing all the time. In fact, the window of opportunity each year is rather small: June. The Los Angeles Conservancy each year sponsors “Last Remaining Seats,” wherein moviegoers can take in selected films at historic downtown theaters that are otherwise used for select events.

 

I eagerly seized the moment and purchased two tickets for the Saturday screening! I preened before my wife, basking in the glory. Citizen Kane ProgramThen she told me that she couldn’t go with me. She was teaching a class that day and I was suddenly left to contemplate a lonely visit to the Orpheum. Luckily, I had a friend who was available, my wife was okay with the substitution, and I was once again preening.

 

Best of all, my friend had never before seen “Citizen Kane.” Heard of it, of course; knew it was a famous movie, but never saw it. “Rosebud,” I said to her. Her eyes lit up. “Ooh, that’s from that movie?” Yes. “What’s it mean?” That’s what the movie will explain, I told her.

 

So we arrive, stand outside in line, and then enter this incredible theatre. It opened in 1926 as part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, and it was designed in the French Renaissance style of the sixteenth century French King Francis I. If you’ve seen the 2011 Academy Award winning silent film “The Artist,” then you’ve also seen the Orpheum. Jack Benny played here, so did Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and, yes, even Gypsy Rose Lee. It has a working Mighty Wurlitzer installed in 1928 and organist Tony Wilson entertained the incoming audience beautifully.

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We walked in and I gasped. Not an over-the-top hammy-actor gasp, but a tiny one. “Oh my…” was all my throat could generate. My friend nailed it when she said, deadpan, without a gasp, “This is architecture porn.” Yes. It was larger than reality, a bit shocking even, and to trying to wrap my head around it all took a couple of moments. All the while I had a great smile on my face. “Oh, yeah, this is memorable!”

 

She later recalled the Orpheum as “dripping in elegance oozing from every orifice.” (She clearly has a way with words.) Her perfect observation of the Orpheum was that it was “grander than life.” I love that.

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And as for the movie? What of “Citizen Kane” and “rosebud”? She enjoyed the scratchy print (the Blu-Ray has me spoiled, of course) and said it made the whole film feel like a classic. She spent the 119 minutes recounting the life of Charles Foster Kane leaning over at steady intervals, whispering, “Is that rosebud?” “Is she rosebud?” It was all I could do to contain myself at the end when it appears that no one will be able to answer the famous question. “Keep watching,” I said.

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When the moment came, she fell silent. My friend is rarely subdued. She effervesces, you see. I suppose she can’t help it. But as the credits flickered all she could say was “That’s so sad.”

 

On the way back, we chatted about the film and what made it so original in 1941 and why it caused such intense controversy. I got to ramble on about Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst. I mentioned that Welles had come to regret the portrayal of Susan Alexander because it unjustly mocked Hearst’s real-life love Marion Davies. The film’s negatives were nearly purchased by the other studios bosses so that it could be destroyed before the film’s public premiere. All of the movie trivia I have come to know and love connected with “Citizen Kane.” I did however, stop short of telling her where the name “rosebud” allegedly came from. And why, if true, it would have truly angered and mortified Hearst and Davies.

 

You don’t know that story? That’s all right, it’s probably not true anyway.

 

I’m just saying…