Radio Days

Born too late to remember radio drama in its heyday, I fell in love with it anyway, even though it was too old for me.

Somewhere before adolescence I was given an LP of the notorious 1939 radio version of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles, and spent too much time thrilling to the convincing sound of Martian war machines running amok in New Jersey.

Not long after that I acquired another treasure trove on vinyl: a collection of scary plays from Arch Oboler's Lights Out! series—including the shocker Chicken Heart, made famous by Bill Cosby's memorable recounting—and that clinched it.

Radio drama could do what TV and movies, especially then, could not, namely anything at all. It could depict the destruction of a planet just as easily, and just as vividly, as it could depict a play at the plate in baseball.

At around the same time in my life, I fell in love with the desert, or rather, with the idea of the desert. I lived in Pennsylvania, and had never been west of the Mississippi. But I had seen the desert in the movies and on TV. It was where cacti grew, where cowboys and Indians roamed free, where coyotes chased roadrunners, and where giant mutant ants and tarantulas and scorpions and leftover dinosaurs regularly rose up in reaction to modern science.

As it worked out, I eventually came to live in the desert, and I got to do some radio drama as well. First, as the host of two consecutive Halloween specials on KTAR, I acted in spooky audio works based on the tales of H.P. Lovecraft and W.W. Jacobs.

Then, almost three years ago, I saw my friend Tim Reader play the lead in a performance of a vintage radio comedy called My Client Curley, staged live as a benefit for the reading service Sun Sounds of Arizona.

As part of the enthusiastic audience, I was struck by a theatrical paradox—it was a particular delight to see the actors reading from their scripts, and the effects mistress bustling around with props, gadgets and geegaws to generate the sounds. Radio drama, it turned out, could be fun to watch.

Inspired by this performance, and abetted by a devoted cast of similarly geeky and success-phobic area actors and by the excellent producers Margie Zebell and Ron Red, I went on to direct and act in several vintage radio plays for Sun Sounds, produced at their Tempe studios.

Earlier this year one of these productions received an award from the International Association of Audio Information Services at its annual conference in Toronto. And shortly after that came an offer from KJZZ/KBAQ, the area's NPR affiliates, to stage an original live radio play the Arizona Biltmore.

Needless to say, I accepted.

In a little over a month, I had a completed script, a preposterous send-up of Western and sci-fi serials into which I had squeezed as much of my affection for Arizona and fever-pitched radio drama and cowboy swing music and gunslinger lore and creature feature spectacle as I could fit.

Called Scorpion City and set in and around that fictional Arizona town in the early '40s, it centers on an intrepid singing cowboy and his desperate struggle to save his radio show, not to mention the civilized world, both from outlaws and from a subterranean empire bent on world domination.

I named my protagonist, Dick Scott, after a friend of mine who introduced me to the music and movies of singing cowboy Eddie Dean, and who faced a string of devastating personal losses so courageously that he deserved to be the namesake of a latter-day singing-cowboy hero.

Packed with thrills, chills, tunes, two-fisted gun-blazing action, sneering villains, bold-hearted heroines, bumbling sidekicks, blustering town fathers, terrifying mechanical monsters, groan-inducing jokes, heavy-handed satire and futuristic weirdness, it's a family-friendly epic with a seriousness content of exactly zero percent.

Featuring a cast of less than a dozen actors playing more than two dozen roles, as well as live music and sound effects, Scorpion City will be foisted on the unsuspecting public for one performance, on Thursday, Aug. 19, at the Arizona Biltmore, as part of KJZZ/KBAQ "Summer To-Do" series, designed as a fund- and profile-raiser for the stations, and also to respond to the oft-voiced complaint that there's nothing to do in the Valley during the hotter months.

Tickets, which are $10, may be had by going to kjzz.org or kbaq.org or by calling (480) 834-5627.