Scenes from a golden age
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:15 PM
"A creaking door. Ominous footsteps. A scream. A murder.All inside your head.That was the power of old-time radio, when a few foreboding words and a well-timed sound effect could chill a million listeners to the bone.A lot of people my age remember it, and a lot of people have no idea what real radio was able to do, said Frank Buxton, local stage and screen veteran and collector of old radio programs. We get a lot of young people who are just fascinated.Buxton and company bring the magic of a bygone entertainment era back to the island this weekend, with their annual autumn production of On the Air: From the Golden Age of Radio. Two shows are slated Saturday at the BPA Playhouse.As in past years, the stage becomes a 1940s radio studio, with actors attired in period costumes and speaking into authentic old-time microphones. In this setting, classic radio programs are re-created, commercials and all, giving the audience an insider's view of the production process as well as a chance to hear once-popular classics reclaimed from memory and dust.While the set pieces bring to life the vintage studio milieu, half the fun is closing one's eyes once in a while, to let the voices and sound effects work their peculiar spells inside your skull.No outlandish visuals, no digital trickery, none of the calculated, in-your-face bombast that Hollywood films rely on for cheap thrills.Just the fertile field of your own imagination, where the real bodies are buried.The troupe achieved a brilliant coup two years ago, recreating Orson Welles' legendary Mercury Theater of the Air production of War of the Worlds - 50 years to the day after that famous broadcast panicked thousands of Americans with a fictitious Martian invasion.This year, the drama comes first, leavened by levity later in the program.First on the bill is a scene from The Right to Happiness, a 1944 radio soap opera, followed by a chilling tale called The Butcher Boy from the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series that originally starred a young Richard Widmark. When I was a kid, my haunt was radio studios, said Buxton, who was in the studio one evening in 1945 when Widmark brought his sinister countenance to the microphone. I used to get into the wastebaskets and dig out the scripts, Buxton said. This is one of them.He still has the script - signed, Dick Widmark.A salute to the 40-year comedy team of Bob and Ray is up next, and the evening's fare wraps up with a half-hour traipse through the zany world of Fibber McGee and Molly.The residents of 79 Wistful Vista, Buxton says, will be visited by a host of neighborhood goofballs, including Mayor LaTrivia and Wallace Wimple, and will make a noisy and hilarious trip to McGee's notoriously overstuffed closet.This year's cast includes local theater stalwarts including Roger Belieu, Elizabeth DeQuine, John Ellis, Nina Echols, Linda Jensen, Bob McAllister, Mike McLaughlin, Barbara Stuart, Robert Zinn and others. Don Baubrand provides live organ music, while sound effects - those indispensible, ever-evocative little flourishes that bring the production alive - are by Miles Vancura and Miles Yanick.They'll be running up and down stairs, ripping phones out of the wall, and having knife fights, Buxton promises. Remember to close your eyes and let your imagination run wild at least once - just for the full effect.* * * * *On the Air: From the Golden Age of Radio plays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, at the BPA Playhouse. Tickets are $10 general, $8 students/seniors. Information: 842-1301. "