It was the first time I performed in a comedy revue while wearing a bowtie.
I wore a faux bowtie t-shirt under my jacket for “Goodtimes” — my first-ever comedy revue in Cleveland in 1975. That’s me on the far right. I was still in high school. (In fact, my high school drama director, Mary Ann Zampino, is seated above me.) But, 43 years later, the bowtie was real.
At the suggestion of our musical director Steve Rashid, in cahoots with Chicago FM jazz station WDCB, we took up the creative challenge of adapting what we’ve been doing in our popular holiday shows for an audience of radio listeners.
First — we scheduled shows on December 28 and 29, 2018 at Studio5 in Evanston, Illinois.
Then, two months before those curtains were scheduled to go up, Victoria Zielinski, Dana Olsen and I began the process of becoming The Practical Radio Theatre Company of the Air.
The Practical Theatre has played a lot with comedy revue formats since our first improvisational comedy revue back in 1980 — but this was the first time we were having fun with the radio show format.
To begin the process, we focused on sorting through which of the sketches and songs in our repertoire would work best on the radio. Most PTC sketches feature a lot of words (some might say too many) — and the material we developed for The Vic & Paul Show and The Vic & Paul & Dana Show is particularly loquacious. So, that was good. Certain beats needed some tweaking, especially topical jokes that had to be updated, but it was creatively stimulating to take a fresh look at some of our favorite sketches.
One of the happiest re-discoveries was the revival of the “Marine Comedy” sketch, which made its summer of 1980 debut in the running order of Bag O’ Fun– the PTC’s first improv comedy revue. I play a boot camp drill sergeant leading a group of comedian cadets through their comic paces. The call and response of a veteran DI grilling his green troops lent itself well to radio. But keeping in mind that the live cabaret patrons aren’t the primary audience we must serve — how do you simulate a pratfall for the radio?
Questions like that lead to the biggest revelation in our writing and rehearsal process: the sound effects.
Of course, we agreed right away that we wanted to employ traditional hand-made radio show sound effects: the kind we remembered so fondly from the classic radio shows of the 1930’s and 40’s. (And no, we’re not thatold.) My dad, who was born in 1927, introduced me at an early age to the classic radio shows of his youth: classics like “Fred Allen’s Alley” and “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Fibber McGee’s closet – the quintessential old time radio sound effect – would not have been as famously funny in any other medium.
Steve Rashid’s son, Daniel, embraced the critical job of making the sound effects come alive. Daniel’s a fine young actor — and he’s also a drummer. That’s good. Radio sound effects punctuate moments in the sketches like drum fills in a song. Plus, the gig requires imagination and ingenuity – and Daniel showed plenty of both. As everyone came up with more ideas for sound effects, Daniel’s SFX job grew and grew and…
With about a month to go before opening night, we began to develop some sketches specifically for radio, including two episodes of “Fred Knoblock: Secret President” — a retro radio mystery about a former Walmart greeter pressed into service as a body double for a thinly disguised Mango Mussolini.
For the past few years, we’ve normally featured a corps of dancers in our revues – and Victoria insisted that we include a dance number in the show. But how do you perform dance on the radio?
Dana came up with a script that evolved into one of the show’s freshest and funniest sketches — in which Daniel and his brother (also a drummer) put thimbles on all their fingers and became a tap dancing troupe breaking out show-stopping moves. It became the sound effects highlight of the show.
As occupied as we were with the creation and execution of all the sound effects, another vital radio show element never troubled me: the music. That’s because maestro Steve Rashid was in charge, and the band he assembled was first class.
Steve was on keys, of course, as well as harmonica and trumpet. His Studio5 All-Stars were composed of the great Don Stiernberg on guitar and mandolin, the flawless Jim Cox on upright bass, and Steve’s son Robert on drums and percussion. (Tap-dancing thimbles, too!)
Among the musical wonders Steve performed were the composition of theme music for the show, Practical Radio Theatre On The Air, and all the shows within the show, including “Middle Aged Jeopardy”, “Fred Knoblock: Secret President” and “This Old Man”.
We also brought in two more musical ringers: vocalists Paul Marinaro and Eva B. Ross. Paul is a Chicago jazz favorite with a rich, dynamic voice that makes the Great American Songbook come alive. Eva is an up and coming singer-songwriter who shares Steve and Paul’s passion for jazz.
Whether singing solo or in duet, Paul and Eva gave us two more musical aces in the hole.
So, on the day after Christmas 2018, we returned to the familiar cabaret confines of Studio5 to prepare for a presentation that was not at all familiar to us. We had just two days to set up the sound and lighting and stage the material we’d developed over the previous two months.
Luckily for us, we had audio master Sam Fishkin handling the complex task of not only making sure that the cabaret audience could hear everything – but recording it all for the radio, too. And making the lighting of the show seem effortless, as usual, was Charlotte Rathke. It’s a joy to work with two pros that do beautiful work and never miss a cue– especially when so much of what you’re about to do onstage is new for everyone involved.
I’ve often said that The Practical Theatre Company is like Brigadoon, the mythical village in the classic Broadway musical. We appear for a brief time – and then we vanish. What follows are some glimpses into the process and performances that brought Practical Radio Theatre On The Air to life over four magical days in Evanston. (Many of these photos were taken by guest vocalist Paul Marinaro — a man of many talents.)