'It's pure entertainment': Freeport Players pay homage to radio's bygone era
FREEPORT — The stories, songs and gags of the golden age of radio will take center stage this weekend when the Freeport Community Players perform their 10th annual “WFCP Home Time Radio Hour” in the performing arts center at Freeport High School.
The variety show, which features a cast of more than 40 amateur actors, bounces from classic comedy bits, a la Abbott and Costello, to original sketches in the style of vintage radio plays, to hit songs from the 1930s through the early '60s.
“Radio Hour” was conceived in 2004 as a cheap-to-produce show that wouldn’t force people to memorize many lines, since the actors could hold their scripts in front of them like voice actors in a radio booth, said Elizabeth Guffey, managing and artistic director of the Freeport Players.
But over time, the show became a favorite of both audiences and the Freeport Players, which formed in 1989.
“I do have a great deal of affection for the show,” said Guffey, who helped create the original “Radio Hour.” “Many of us are fans of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ and those sorts of shows, and (in 2004) we were starting to see an increased interest in the golden age of radio that has really blossomed over these last 10 years.”
This year’s production – with performances Dec. 6-8 directed by John Albright and Alicía Ouellette Belmore – will serve as a retrospective, reworking and revisiting the best songs and sketches from the show’s first nine years, while adding a couple of new musical numbers.
The singers are supported by a swing band that includes a horn section, pianist and drummer, as well as Rob Babson and Sandy Pardee, guitarist and bassist, respectively, of the long-running local band the Delta Knights.
Some of the original bits that are making a comeback include "Joe Tanner, P.I.," a riff on the noirish detective stories of the 1940s, and "Rocket Space Quest," a spoof of 1950s sci-fi kids shows.
David Wallace, who acts in the show and wrote the sci-fi sketch with his wife, Judy Lloyd, said there was an optimism in that era of broadcasting that people find inspiring today.
“I think people put their best foot forward and you saw a really positive view of American life,” he said. “A lot of these shows were performed during the Depression and World War II, so a lot of it was morale boosting and keeping the nation’s spirits up. It was very contagious to experience that.”
Guffey said audiences enjoy the show for its nostalgia factor and sense of humor, but conceded that many people come for something else: the sound effects.
“We’ve carried all sorts of very strange things onto the stage with us for various and sundry sounds,” said Sam Hunneman, one of three women responsible for the show’s aural accents.
During “Radio Hour,” the sound effects crew stands stage left beside a Foley table covered in seemingly random odds and ends. They conduct research online and wander their homes and local hardware stores, picking up items and rattling and clanging them, until they find the right noises for the show, Hunneman said.
That could be anything from tennis balls in cigar boxes to golf balls in bedpans.
“We literally write into the Joe Tanner script opportunities for someone to get shot and die so they can drop a bunch of turnips in a burlap sack off the front of the stage,” Guffey said. “The audience loves that thud.”
One element of community theater that always tickles audiences is the familiarity of the cast. This year’s “Radio Hour” features former state Rep. David Webster. Last year’s cast included Town Councilor Melanie Sachs.
“When you see your insurance salesman up on the stage wearing a gold lame suit and singing ‘Blue Moon,’ that’s very entertaining for our audience,” Guffey said.
“And it doesn’t make you think too hard,” she said. “It’s pure entertainment, and I think that’s why a lot of people come back year after year.”