Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of … a sound effects man with a pair of coconut shells.
Radio theater, which was killed off by television, is being resurrected on the air — and the internet — across the country and across the state.
In International Falls, Icebox Radio Theater produces a twice monthly podcast about a tiny northern Minnesota town isolated by a meteorite strike. “Weird stuff keeps happening,” said playwright Jeff Adams of the fictional town of Icebox, Minn. “Comedy and science fiction and maybe some dark touches now and then.”
St. Cloud’s “Granite City Radio Theatre” serves up inside humor plus cameo appearances by the police chief and the university president. “Imagine ‘Prairie Home Companion’ was about your neighborhood,” said Jo McMullen-Boyer, station manager of KVSC, which has produced the skit-and-music show four times a year for six years. “It’s hyperlocal. It’s poking fun at ourselves, but also with pride.”
And in the Twin Cities, the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society embraces nostalgia by turning recordings of old radio shows into scripts, which it stages as live performances (including sound effects and commercials) before audiences at the James J. Hill Center in downtown St. Paul.
It recently resurrected a 1952 play about a down-on-his-luck journalist on the trail of fugitive Nazis in South America. The reporter gets kidnapped in a motorcar (a kazoo inserted in a vacuum cleaner hose), gets shot at (a tennis ball on a stick smacked against a sheet of metal) and narrowly escapes the collapse of a rickety wooden bridge (balsa wood snapped into pieces). In the end — spoiler alert! — Adolf Hitler falls into a river and gets eaten alive by a swirling mass of piranhas (a water bottle, vigorously shaken).
“This is a marriage of all the things I love,” said Eric Webster, one of the Listening Society actors and writers. “It’s theater and theater of the mind.”
Gather ’round the computer
Once upon a time, families across the country gathered around the radio to listen to plays such as Orson Welles’ 1940 version of “The War of the Worlds.”
That’s when radio theater was the main form of home entertainment, featuring the voices of showbiz stars in scripted dramas and comedies brought to your living room by national broadcast networks. It came to an end in the early 1960s, when networks shifted their efforts to producing shows for a new invention — television.
But now, almost anyone with a laptop and a story to tell can write, record, mix and post an audio play on the internet. That DIY technology is fueling a grass-roots resurgence of the old art form.
In Minnesota, playwrights, professional actors and everyday folks are creating horror and suspense shows, experimental sci-fi, “Indiana Jones”-style adventure serials and variety shows. Some are performed in front of a live audience. Some exist only on the internet, riding the rising wave of audio storytelling in podcasts. Others are broadcast live on local radio stations, following in the footsteps of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
But unlike “Prairie Home,” these shows aren’t vying for a national audience. Instead they function as a sort of community radio theater, tailored to appeal to local listeners.
Chills from the Icebox
“I really fell in love with some of the uniqueness of the art form,” said playwright Adams, who started a radio theater nonprofit in International Falls after moving from Oregon to Minnesota in 2004.
Adams’ Icebox Radio Theater began creating plays with northern Minnesota themes for the local radio station, KXBR. (One award-winner, “The Thing on the Ice,” is about a fisherman who gets stalked by a mysterious creature while trapped in a Rainy Lake fish house during a blizzard.)
In Alexandria, Michael Roers, a community theater actor, created Lakes Area Radio Theatre in 2010 to provide more performance opportunities for fellow amateur actors in his town.
Once a month, Roers directs two half-hour audio plays — G-rated comedies, detective stories or westerns — before an audience. Local residents act out original scripts by playwrights from around the country. The recordings are aired on 15 radio stations in small towns statewide, typically locally owned AM talk stations. “Sometimes they have church on Sunday morning, and they play us after church,” Roers said.
While popular, it’s a low-budget operation: It costs $8 to see the plays; the voice actors do it for the experience and the radio stations get the recordings for free.
“The writers are the only ones who get paid,” Roers said. They make $30 a script.
“Granite City Radio Theatre,” which airs on the St. Cloud State University public radio station, includes performances by musicians and segments from an adventure series called “Shade’s Brigade.” Mayor Dave Kleis also makes regular appearances, albeit in parody form as played by show host Jay Terry.
The real Kleis is “a calm, sincere man,” Terry said. But the show’s eccentric, high-living version of Kleis has a British accent, flies around town in a helicopter and lives in a local landmark, an over-the-top mansion called Poseidon’s Fortress.
“People love the character,” Terry said. “They can’t get enough of it.”
Aaron Brown creates something similar as host, producer and writer of “The Great Northern Radio Show,” a variety show broadcast live on KAXE in Grand Rapids and KBXE in Bemidji since 2011.
Staged in front of live audiences in northern Minnesota towns, the show features “somewhat sophisticated humor about places often believed as being unsophisticated,” Brown said, citing a recent a skit about the anxiety caused by a traffic roundabout in Hibbing.
“We get what we are, and we’re willing to laugh about it,” he said.
A new golden age
Emily Larson and Don Ness, Duluth’s current and former mayors, have appeared in that town’s radio theater program, “Take It With You.”
Started in 2014 by musician Blake Thomas and his wife, actor Mary Fox, the hourlong comedy shows are recorded monthly from April to November in front of a live audience, then released as a podcast. A typical episode, “The Golden Guitar,” is a sort of a tongue-in-cheek, musical version of “Gunsmoke.”
“We want to take the art form and bring it into a new age,” Thomas said.
Tim Uren, a performer with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, credits the 40-plus year run of “Prairie Home” for making the “theater of the mind” relatable to modern listeners. “It’s easier to say to someone, ‘Come to this and watch us stand in place and make a story with our mouths.’ ”
In addition, audio storytelling has found new life in podcasts, such as “Serial,” the hugely popular true crime series launched in 2014.
But not all podcasts are nonfiction. “There’s a lot of audio drama on the internet,” said Elena Fernández-Collins, a writer in Portland, Ore., who covers audio drama for the Bello Collective, an online publication.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people making it all over the world,” said Jerry Stearns, a Minneapolis producer of radio plays with the Great Northern Audio Theatre and host of a KFAI radio program on audio theater. “I would venture there are more people making radio drama now than there were in the heyday of radio theater.”