Off-Ramp®

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Veteran actors and producers in Palm Springs bring back the Golden Age of radio

by R.H. Greene | Off-Ramp®

Rehearsing "It Pays to be Ignorant" for "On the Air." (L-R) Peter Marshall, Sal Mistretta, Valorie Armstrong, Gavin MacLeod, Andrea McGuire and Phil Proctor Clark Dugger

In the glory days when Palm Springs was the Bel Air of the desert, the stars who lived there were as much radio celebrities as they were film people. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore and even Frank Sinatra first broke through as radio comics or variety performers fronting the biggest of the big bands.

Maybe that’s why the tradition of Golden Age radio has found a recurring home in the desert, where we spent a day with the cast and crew of an annual revue called “On the Air.” 

Because they tell stories in sound, they call “Golden Age” radio plays of the mid-20th century “theater of the imagination.” So imagine a  long table in a large room. Veteran actors gathering around it for a rehearsal, scripts in hand. A white-haired musician limbers up on an electronic keyboard, while the show director and his sound effects artist work out the soundscape for a sci-fi spectacular.

Dezart Performs

For the fourth time in four years, the players of Dezart Performs are imagining a night in the life of KDZT, a fictional 1940s radio powerhouse. “On the Air” is a live revue built from classic American radio dramas and comedies. Clark Dugger, the show’s co-producer, says “We wanted to come up with an idea for a show we could do where we’d bring in some actors, some celebrities from Los Angeles. And when you do that of course there’s no time for rehearsal. So we thought, old-time radio, they had the scripts in their hands. There was no memorization, there’s no blocking, there’s not really a set. So why don’t we do old-time radio shows?"

Sound effects artist Andrea McGuire rehearing for "On the Air"
Sound effects artist Andrea McGuire rehearing for "On the Air" Clark Dugger

Already, the crew is being challenged to exceed its skill set. Sound effects artist Andrea McGuire was just handed a new prop. It’s a Theremin, the proto-synthesizer operated by disrupting the magnetic field between two antennae, without ever touching the device. You've heard one in the score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but Andrea has never even seen a Theremin before, let alone played one. “It’s kind of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head," she says, "because you have to do volume with one hand, up and down, and you have to do pitch with your other hand, in and out.”

Artistic director and co-producer Michael Shaw and director Gregg Oppenheimer during rehearsal for "On the Air"
Artistic director and co-producer Michael Shaw and director Gregg Oppenheimer during rehearsal for "On the Air"

“It is terrifying a little bit," laughs Michael Shaw, the company’s artistic director. “It’s really about mechanics right now.  What microphone do you have to move to? On what line? You know, we’re working with professionals like Peter Marshall. Gavin MacCleod’s in this, with Joyce Bulifant, and Millicent Martin. We have to trust that they know how to do this.”

That's Peter Marshall of “The Hollywood Squares,” Gavin McLeod and Joyce Bulifant of “Mary Tyler Moore,” Millicent Martin from Broadway and “Frasier.” With the median age well above 70, nearly everyone in the production has a personal connection to Golden Age radio.

"My Favorite Husband," a radio hit, was the prototype for "I Love Lucy."
"My Favorite Husband," a radio hit, was the prototype for "I Love Lucy." CBS Radio

Take director Greg Oppenheimer. His Dad Jess created “I Love Lucy,” basing the series on “My Favorite Husband,” a radio comedy he oversaw for Lucille Ball. Oppenheimer says, “When I was eleven years old I discovered a transcription disc of a show my dad wrote in 1939. As soon as I discovered radio, I just loved it.  And he loved it too. He really missed it when he was in television.”

Oppenheimer has forged an unlikely career as a director of radio re-enactments. He estimates he’s recreated between 60 and 70 radio shows for the stage: “The scale of my commitment is much greater than the scale of my compensation. I just think it’s the greatest medium that ever was for storytelling. It’s very clean too, because we’re going by the rules they had back then.”

At the table read, the company rehearses its show opener.  It’s a satirical game show that was a big hit in the mid-1940s, "It Pays to be Ignorant." A knowing self-parody, “It Pays to Be Ignorant” feels both ancient and very contemporary. The segment announcer is performed by iconic TV game show host Peter Marshall—still spry and charming at age 90, and a living connection to radio’s glory days. “To me," Marshall says, "radio was the most powerful medium of all. I had been a page boy when I was 15 at NBC in New York. Well, NBC—that was the network. I used to page Stokowski on the weekend, and Toscanini. I was even around when Mayor LaGuardia used to do his comics on the weekend.”

Marshall is joined in “It Pays to Be Ignorant” by veteran voice artist Phil Proctor. “On the Air” is a showcase for Proctor, who’s featured in three of the show’s four sequences, from a brash boyfriend in the comedy “My Friend Irma,"to a traumatized Holocaust survivor in a chilling adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic “Mars is Heaven.”

That kind of vocal range could have meant stardom during radio’s Golden Age, where actors were never limited by physical type. Nowadays, most of his work comes from voicing characters in video games. It’s a skill Proctor honed as a founding member of Firesign Theatre, the psychedelic audio comedy troupe launched on KPFK in the  late 1960s. “With the Firesign Theatre," Proctor says, "when the four of us got together, we were all radio children, children of the audio media. We wanted to expand that experience into the modern age.  When I was listening to the radio as a kid, like on Saturday morning, I had my radio receiver right by my bedside, and I’d turn it on and listen kind of in a half dream state if you will. It’s a very personal form of entertainment. And I use the word ‘psychedelic’ accordingly, in that it’s mind-manifesting."

Back at the table read, the cast is running into an unexpected problem. “Mars is Heaven” is supposed to be eerie, but the company is finding it hilarious. Partly this is nerves, and partly it’s the antique syntax of a 70 year old radio narrative. But mostly it’s the easy camaraderie of veteran actors who’ve worked together across decades.

“Oh it’s fun," says Joyce Bulifant. "We all love each other. And we look forward to getting together to do it.” Bulifant plays the title character in “My Friend Irma,” about two roommates. The only thing they have in common is their drive to get married. "I grew up in the 50s," she says, "and I’ve been married a lot, because I thought if you wanted to go to bed with someone you had to marry them. I did ‘My Favorite Husband’ before with Gavin, and it was very different. I don’t mean women were different, they wanted the same things. But they were suppressed.”

The Golden Age shows of “On the Air” offer glimpses of a vanished world. But one that may not be so lost after all. At least one company member has dreams of bigger things. He’s Gavin MacCleod—age 86, and – for his roles on "Mary Tyler Moore" and "The Love Boat" - perhaps the most familiar face in the show. This year’s revue has given him an epiphany: “I just had the dream this morning when I was looking at the script before I came in to rehearsal. I said, `Why don’t I tell Princess about this? Why don’t we do radio shows? We have all kinds of shows.’ So I made a call—cause I think it would be wonderful. A 7-day cruise, do 6 or 7 shows. I think people would eat it up.”

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