The Grand Tradition of Radio Theater
It’s A Wonderful Life, SM Playhouse, Dec. 13-16

by Fredric Dannen

From its origins in the 1920s until the advent of television, radio drama was an immensely popular form of mass entertainment. It relied on superior acting, sharp dialog, atmospheric music, and vivid sound effects. When Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theatre presented live drama over the radio from 1938 to 1940, starred in an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Welles fretted over the getting exactly the right sound for a scene in which a stake is driven through the heart of a vampire. The sound-effects artist tried puncturing a Savoy cabbage with a sharpened broomstick. “Too leafy,” Welles decided, opting instead to squish a watermelon with a hammer.

The growing popularity of podcasts notwithstanding, we live in a video age. It is difficult today to comprehend the impact of Welles’ most famous, and notorious, radio drama, the Mercury Theatre’s October 30, 1938, adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Performed in news bulletin style, the broadcast persuaded some listeners who tuned in after the introduction that a Martian invasion was in progress, and panic ensued.

In recent years, the live radio drama has made something of a comeback , thanks in large measure to the efforts of L.A. Theatre Works and the BBC. The plays are usually recorded in a theater before a live audience. A good part of the fun for the audience is the sound-effects table, at which the sounds of slamming doors, ringing telephones, shattering glass, and other live sound effects are created.

San Miguel resident Chuck Rubin, a multiple award-winning television director and radio producer, has a particular fondness for the radio drama, and he has been involved, as director, technical director, and sound-effects artist, in several live productions of radio plays, including two presented at the San Miguel Playhouse, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Tooth and Claw. Rubin’s most popular radio play production is a stage adaptation of the Frank Capra holiday film classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Rubin directed productions of the adaptation in 2010 and 2011, at the Santa Ana Theatre, for which Doug Robinson composed and performed an original score. Here is a brief excerpt from the 2010 production.

After a seven-year hiatus, Rubin is reviving his production of It’s A Wonderful Life at the San Miguel Playhouse. In a sense, the stage adaptation used by Rubin is a play within a play. The stage becomes a radio studio in the 1940s, and the actors are radio performers recreating the story (and much of the dialog) of Capra’s movie. As an “On Air” sign flashes, announcing the start of the play, more than a dozen costumed actors perform thirty-six different roles, bringing the screen story to life.

One may be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not know the plot of It’s A Wonderful Life, undoubtedly the most cherished of all holiday film classics. It is the story of a suicidal man named George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, is granted a wish to have never been born. Bailey returns to his town of Bedford Falls as a walking spirit and discovers that his family and friends have led miserable lives due to his absence. A second wish is granted, restoring his life and gratitude. Capra based the 1946 film on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, entitled “The Greatest Gift.” The movie was not initially a big success – it placed twenty-seventh in box office revenues for the year – but by the 1970s it became a television staple of every Christmas season. No one was more delighted, or surprised, than Capra himself, who in a 1984 interview said, “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

For this revival production, the lead roles of George Bailey and Mary Hatch Bailey will be performed by David Galitzky and Jocelynn Sunrise, who made her San Miguel Playhouse debut in October as Aunt Bella in Lost in Yonkers. Rounding out the cast are Martin Grapengeter as Clarence; Geoff Hargreaves as Boss Angel; John Wharton as Mr. Potter; and Jim Wright as the Announcer. Other roles will be performed by Frank Simons, Marthe Fraser, Henry Vermillion, Maggie Bunce, Mike Keefe, and Howard Bach.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, Rubin is donating all proceeds of the production to the Casa Hogar orphanage for girls.

There will be four performances, Thursday, December 13 through Saturday, December 15, at 7pm, and a final matinee performance on Sunday, December 16, at 3pm. Tickets are 200 pesos advance sale, and 250 pesos at the door, starting one hour before showtime. The box office is Boleto City, Mercado Sano, 2nd Floor, Ancha de San Antonio 123, Monday through Saturday, 11am to 5pm. Tickets can also be purchased online for $10 US, plus a $1.50 online fee, by visiting boletocity.com or sanmiguelplayhouse.com.

Tickets

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Fredric Dan­nen is a jour­nal­ist and author with a spe­cial­ty in crim­i­nal jus­tice. He has been a staff writer for the New York­er and Van­i­ty Fair.

In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the Amer­i­can music indus­try and the influ­ence of orga­nized crime, spent a mon­th on the New York Times best­seller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Van­i­ty Fair arti­cles prompt­ed the Six­th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Jus­tice Dept. for fraud­u­lent­ly with­hold­ing excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence in the case of Cleve­land auto work­er John Dem­jan­juk, who was extra­dit­ed, wrong­ly con­vict­ed, and sen­tenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Ter­ri­ble.” He secured the only inter­view given by Los Ange­les police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infa­mous Rod­ney King beat­ing, and the only inter­view ever given by crime boss Loren­zo Nichols, the crack king­pin of New York City.

While con­duct­ing research for a forth­com­ing book, Dan­nen uncov­ered lost evi­dence in the case of Calv­in Wash­ing­ton, a Tex­an wrong­ly con­vict­ed of homi­cide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calv­in Wash­ing­ton won a full par­don for inno­cence, the first ever grant­ed by Tex­as gov­er­nor Rick Per­ry under the state’s DNA statute.

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