Live on the Radio

A new group brings new life to an old-school form of theater

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something ... pretty cool.

This is no bride's checklist. It's a spot-on description of Old Time Radio Theatre, a fairly new addition to the impressive variety of theatrical offerings which abound in our town.

Hosted by Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, the group has been shepherded by Sheldon Metz, who took the idea to the Beowulf Alley folks last fall. Metz would "borrow" authentic radio scripts and develop a company to bring these classic scripts to life, complete with sound effects created just as they were back in the day. The Beowulf Alley leadership gave him a green light, and Old Time Radio Theatre has been "broadcasting" on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

"It's a type of presentational theater," says Metz, a theater pro who moved to Tucson a couple of years ago from Los Angeles. "And I'm a huge fan. It was the way we were entertained in the '30s and '40s and into the '50s. We used our imaginations. Nowadays, television and movies are so explicit, they practically tell you what to feel. Old-time radio gives you sort of an outline, and your imagination has to do the rest. And that's a good thing."

On a recent Tuesday, a small audience gathered to enjoy a couple of scripts: the light-hearted Easy Aces and the more serious The Maltese Falcon. The performers, dressed to suggest the period, took their seats in chairs situated behind three standing microphones. Also onstage was a table loaded with a rather bizarre collection of seemingly random items, staffed by three folks who were to create the sound effects. There was even an "applause" sign which flashed when appropriate, prompting the audience to do their bit.

Michael Saxon sat at a table manning a laptop computer, a convenient anachronism, which would be the source of the music so important for effective radio storytelling.

Metz offered some background on what we would be experiencing during the evening, encouraging us to close our eyes so we could simply hear and imagine, sharing an experience similar to that of the listeners of the original broadcasts.

He then took a seat in the front row. The group onstage had their eyes locked on Metz, poised for their cues. Metz pointed to Saxon to bring in the music, then cued the announcer to begin speaking while gesturing that the music's volume fade, fade, and out.

The announcer finished his introduction; a couple of performers stood ready with scripts in hand at the other two microphones; and the Old Time Radio Theatre "broadcast" was underway.

Mark McLemore was making his debut with the group that evening, although he is no stranger to radio. The senior radio announcer and producer/host of Arizona Spotlight on local public-radio station KUAZ FM 89.1/AM 1550, McLemore says he has always been a fan of old radio, often listening with his wife to KJLL AM 1330 on Sundays when the station broadcasts old episodes.

"This is really fun," McLemore claims, referring to his new gig. "I'm even more impressed with the original radio performers who did such an amazing job of making it sound like they weren't reading from scripts. That is a special skill."

Metz has collected a group of 20 or so who form the company, and he's willing to add others if they have the talent to function as part of what some members call a family.

Janet Bruce, a part-time actor and full-time nurse practitioner, saw an audition notice last fall. She was selected to contribute her talents. "I just love it," she declares. "You get the opportunity to do a variety of roles, and you don't have a lot of rehearsal time—you just go. I really like the sense of immediacy."

This approach appeals to many who enjoy acting but don't want to commit to several weeks of rehearsals and performances. "And for those of us who have a little trouble with memorizing," says Metz, "this is a perfect fit."

The group rehearses two hours each on Saturday and Sunday the weekend before each Tuesday performance. That means working on the scripts, developing the sound effects and pulling all the pieces together quickly.

The group produces two old-time shows during each performance. Metz himself has a big collection of scripts, and some can be found on the Internet. "Many are in the public domain, but there is a move toward charging royalties. We're actually talking with Old Pueblo Playwrights (a local group which nurtures developing writers) about having some of their folks create some scripts for us. We get some new scripts; their writers get produced. It's a win-win."

Though Old Time Radio Theatre has had audiences averaging between 40 and 50 folks, there's plenty of room for new fans.

"We're pleased that we've had quite a few children in attendance," says Metz. "This is great family entertainment. No bad language to worry about. It was a simpler time."

Old Time Radio Theatre is scheduled to perform through the summer, featuring episodes of classic series like Father Knows Best, Doc Savage, The Bickersons and My Friend Irma.

Tech wiz Saxon, a student at the University of Arizona studying to be a theater teacher, loves the creative challenge and the sense of camaraderie the group has developed. "It's hard work, but it's also really fun," he says.

And that's pretty cool.

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