Decades before HDTV — or even plain old television, as a matter of fact — millions of Americans huddled around the radio every evening.
This nightly ritual took listeners along for the ride with the Lone Ranger and the crime fighter Green Hornet, elicited laughs at the antics of Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and drew sobs at every melodramatic turn in many popular soap operas.
“From Orson Welles and the thrilling Mercury Theatre broadcasts of the 1930’s to Guy Noir and the hilarity of ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ the radio play has been one of America’s most beloved art forms,” said John Watts, producer of Arts Garage Radio Theatre. “Our productions give life to classic movie screenplays while visually presenting the unique art form of radio drama. It’s a treat for the eyes as well as the ears!”
Radio plays again take center stage at Arts Garage in Delray Beach, thanks to Watts and his creative cast. Last year, the company produced “A Star is Born,” “It’s a Wonderful,” “Casblanca” and “Sunset Boulevard,” to critical and audience acclaim.
“We were thrilled with the response,” said Watts, who insisted the season be expanded with additional performances of each production.
The second season, which kicked off in August with “The Philadelphia Story,” will continue with “Dracula,” Oct. 22-23; “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Dec. 17-19; “Rebecca,” Feb. 11-12; “You Can’t Take it With You,” April 8-9; and “The Thin Man,” May 27-28.
Watts, a former on-air personality with WXEL radio, first became involved with these elaborate production at Arts Radio Network, a website devoted to the Palm Beach County arts scene.
Watts became interested in the old radio plays after listening to recordings that belonged to his father: “As I did research, it was exciting to learn that these radio plays were being made right there in the studio. All the sound effects, all the music, every play had to be written that week (for the broadcast).”
He and his wife, Caroline Breder-Watts, a familiar WETA radio personality, originally produced Orson Welles’ legendary “War of the Worlds” as a pledge drive break for WXEL in 2002 and would later produce other shows for the Kravis Center starting in 2007.
“We start off with the historic scripts. A lot of the scripts are still in existence. Orson Welles donated his whole collection of CBS scripts….and a lot are available online,” explained Watts.
Noting that each production includes three elements — dialogue, music and the all-important sound effects — Watts also consulted three encyclopedic books on sound effects from the 1940s.
“That’s about all there is, as much information today as there was then,” he said, noting he had assembled a number of car and house doors, bed springs, bells, telephone ringers and special effects to mimic the sounds of a car engine running and even screeching to a stop. All are painted bright colors so the audience will recognize when they are in use.
Just as was done decades ago, Watts and his cast and crew must put the shows together in just days, a task made easier by the lack of scenery and staging, and of course, the ability of the actors to read their lines from a script. But, he points out, the biggest challenge remains timing as the actors often must portray multiple characters and navigate the myriad sound effects.
For tickets and more information about Arts Garage Radio Network at Arts Garage, 180 NE 1st St. in Delray Beach, go to ArtsGarage.org.