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.
Bag O’ Fun at Noyes Cultural Arts Center (1980)
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.)
Early on the first day in Studio5. Don Stiernberg practices on guitar while Steve Rashid steadies the ladder for Sam Fishkin, who is hanging microphones. Robert Rashid and Eva B. Ross hang out in the audience while Victoria Zielinski practices her lines in from of Daniel Rashid’s sound effects tables.
Some critical sound effects props. Note the horn and siren whistle. Vic and Dana and I used these two items to censor our profane words in real time. The damn horns could be really funny — but often misbehaved. The siren whistles were more dependable fun. Get one for yourself and see!
Early rehearsal on the second day. You’ll note that Charlotte’s lighting plan is underway. With our backs to her work most of the time, we had no idea what Charlotte achieved until we saw the photos later. It was a very pleasant surprise too see how good she made everything look.
Another view of rehearsal. Sam (at left) listens as Dana, Victoria and I work our way from sketch to sketch, while Charlotte (who can be seen way back in the upper right) dials in the visual splendors of her lighting plot.
Steve goes through his script during rehearsal. He had a ton of music cues, a band to lead, two guest vocalists to work with, his own songs to perform — and very little time.
Daniel Rashid and his lovely assistant, Eva B. Ross, work on the sound effects for “This Old Man” — firing up a circular saw and a belt sander. Kids, don’t try this one at home!
Dress rehearsal in the hours before opening night. See? I’m wearing a bowtie!
Another pre-opening moment — this time with a glimpse of Jim Cox playing the upright bass (upper left) which is just about the coolest instrument that exists. Note the upside-down bicycle (at right). The bike was used to simulate the motorcycle Dana rode onstage. How? A very old trick: baseball cards in the spokes.
The cast gathers just before going onstage for the first show. Paul Marinaro (bottom left) is taking the selfie — and why not? The dude’s way more than 6-feet tall! He sounds even taller when he sings.
A shot from the house as the audience begins taking their seats for opening night. In the background, Daniel and Eva go over some last-minute sound effects notes.
You can tell by the audience in the foreground that the first show is underway. We enjoyed two sold-out, overflow shows in the 150-seat Studio5 cabaret theatre. Radio shows work best with a lively, smart and enthusiastic live audience. Our audiences were all of that and more on both nights.
A view of opening night from the wings. I like these black and white pics (shot by Paul Marinaro) because they look like they might have been taken in the 1950s or early 60s.
Guest vocalist Eva B. Ross performs on opening night.
Daniel and Eva, his lovely assistant, perform sound effects for “This Old Man”. Eva runs the belt sander to approximate the sound of an electric generator — as Daniel blows bubbles to indicate a pump at work.
Maestro Steve Rashid in control at the grand piano. Note the socks. Steve is clearly a jazz guy.
Eva B. Ross and Dana perform “Baby It’s Cold Outside” — with Dana singing in Norwegian.
Fun after the show.
Cast and crew photo at load out on the day after the second show.