EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 22, 2014

A decade of drama

Old-Time Radio Players' show marks 10th anniversary

By James Pouliot

---- — To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Seabrook Old-Time Radio Players will re-create the greatest hits of the bygone Golden Age of Radio.

The primarily comedic show, which will be presented twice on Wednesday at the Seabrook Library, will feature a first act composed of sketches and radio scenes that troupe director Don Bagley describe as “a celebration of our actors and some of the old shows themselves.”

Anticipation is part of the second act, which is being kept secret until opening night. The group has offered only a few clues, hinting that it will feature an “iconic radio character” who is a “crime fighter.”

Bagley reveals one additional tidbit: The secret crime fighter has “the power to cloud men’s minds.”

The Radio Players is a troupe of about one dozen amateur and professional actors. They perform live without scripts, wearing costumes and standing before a set of microphones in the style of a classic radio show.

The group began in 2004 with librarian Maureen Cullen, who wanted to create a space for members of the public to read movie scripts together, according to fellow librarian and Radio Players member Anne Ferreira.

When Cullen realized that two-hour scripts were too long for a mostly elderly audience, Ferreira remembered her enjoyment of old-time radio shows during car trips and suggested a change.

The group started small, with fewer than 10 members sitting together in the library. But it wasn’t long before they realized they had more than just a social outlet, according to Bagley, who joined the group soon after its creation.

“After three months, being an actor, I said, ‘Why don’t we do these onstage? Let’s do them for the public,’” Bagley said. “There was a lot of, ‘We can’t do that, we’ve never done that before!’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s easy.’

“I lied.”

Soon, the core group of seven to eight was crowding before microphones in the historical Brown Library, playing sound effects off a cassette tape. Despite the bare setting and amateur performers, the show was a hit. They added additional performances when their initial offerings sold out, and soon, those sold out, as well.

“Pretty soon, we couldn’t fit the people who wanted to come, we only could fit 30 people,” Bagley said. “I knew the turning point had come when my mother came to see the show, and I had to turn her away. ‘Sorry, Ma, we’re sold out!’”

By 2005, the group had moved into one of the main library’s concert rooms and were admitting crowds of up to 100 with every show, up to four times each year. Bagley gathered friends of the show to build a stage with lumber donated from Amesbury’s CP Building Supply Inc. and bought a basic lighting system with money from the library’s Board of Trustees.

Since then, they’ve taken the show on the road, performing for civic groups and assisted-living facilities full of nostalgic crowds. Any revenue was put back into the business for better lighting, sound and other technical elements.

Although the Radio Players use the classic set of standing microphones at the front of the stage, it’s a delicate balance between the spectacle of live theater and faithfulness to the historical format, according to Bagley.

“We try to play to the microphones as much as we can,” he said. “Sometimes, we’ll use a little more of the stage, and we’ll disregard standing right up at the mike for the sake of entertainment value, but we try to keep it geared toward the microphones because that’s what radio was.”

That balance is sometimes strained by the liberties taken in old-time shows. While a radio actor can conjure up an elephant or alien city, it’s harder to convince a live audience.

Another major challenge is finding shows with lasting appeal among modern audiences. Bagley has tried for years to incorporate 1940s star Fanny Brice’s beloved “The Baby Snooks Show” into the program, only to be thwarted by an antiquated family dynamic between the titular Baby Snooks and her father.

“I think he’d be arrested today!” Bagley said with a laugh. “There are times when you listen, and you cringe. You say, ‘Wow, this is like child abuse, the way they talk to the kid!’ So we’ve shied away from doing that.”

And the actors themselves got a big upgrade as they practiced with the group.

“At the beginning, we had people who hadn’t done it before,” Bagley said. “Some of them became really good actors, they got into it. ... The last two years have been really exciting, we’ve had people who’ve acted at other theaters come in.”

At least one amateur member, Michael Carpenter, has turned his beginning with the Radio Players into a series of professional roles. And more practice meant a major upgrade for the show, according to Ferreira.

“We used to just stand there ... we would always have the script in our hand,” Ferreira said. “A lot of times, now, people would memorize things, because a lot of it is fast, you have to come back quickly. So now, we memorize.”

If you go

What: Seabrook Old-Time Radio Players’ 10th anniversary show

When: Wednesday, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. Doors open a half-hour before each performance.

Where: Seabrook Library, 25 Liberty Lane

How much: Free. Donations accepted.

More information: 603-474-2044