Whatever happened to plays-on-radio? Or radio drama itself? Sixty years ago, plays were ubiquitous on American radio. Now, not so much. But Los Angeles has generated more activity in this arena over the last few decades than most of the rest of America. The well-known Los Angeles Theatre Works (LATW) is still a prolific producer of classic and modern plays for radio broadcast and other audio formats. And then there’s the lesser-known California Artists Radio Theatre (CART).
CART’s godmother is 88-year-old Peggy Webber, a native of Texas, who came to Southern California via Seattle and Central California when God was young. Webber became, if not a star in the traditional sense, one of the hardest-working actors in radio from the Depression years through the 1950s. She also began working with a group of actors on early TV in the ’40s, not only as an actor but also as a producer, director and writer. According to the CART website, this was “the initial CART company,” which Webber re-constituted in 1984 as the modern CART, focusing on audio-only recordings.
Since then, CART recordings have been heard locally on KUSC, KPFK and KPCC and nationally, for a dozen years, on NPR. Internationally, World Space sent 40 hours of CART programming to Africa, South America, and Asia. And in the 21st century, CART programs were heard on SiriusXM satellite radio’s Channel 80.
Just as LA Theatre Works opens its recording sessions to the public — in recent years at UCLA’s Bridges Theater — so has CART. Originally it recorded the plays at colleges and universities. Then it moved to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, recording before audiences twice a month for eight years. In 1999, Beverly Garland, who was a regular actress in CART shows, invited the company to perform on a specially-built stage at her hotel in Studio City. That’s still the CART performance site, but Garland died in 2008, and the hotel is now the Holiday Inn Universal Studios-Hollywood, “also known as the Beverly Garland hotel,” according to the description on its reservation website.
Garland’s influence had greatly lowered CART’s overhead, but after her death, the rent at the hotel went up, reports Webber. The company recorded Pride and Prejudice there in March but lacks the funds to edit and release it. CART no longer has a regular radio outlet either. SiriusXM recently stopped carrying CART programming under the Book Radio title, which was replaced on its channel 80 by Rural Radio (although, as of this morning, the channel 80 web page still says “Books & Drama” at the top).
CART sells CDs of its programming from its website but hasn’t yet made the transition to selling them for direct downloading from the site. LATW, by contrast, now offers 335 plays for downloading — almost as many as the 349 LATW plays that are available on CD.
When Webber was young, the number of Americans who heard plays on radio — without buying tickets — probably was larger than the number of Americans who saw plays in actual theaters. Webber performed in more than 8000 radio shows, such as Dragnet (Jack Webb specifically wrote the role of Ma Friday, his mother on the show, for her); Fibber McGee and Molly; The Great Gildersleeve; a Harold Lloyd comedy series; daytime serials such as One Man’s Family, Doctor Paul, and The Woman in My House; a Joel McCrea series, Tales of the Texas Rangers; three years on Herbert Marshall’s The Man Called X and five years on Gruen and Elgin Watch Christmas shows.
Director Ted Wick, then with David O. Selznick, hired her for the lead in Mutual’s Mainline, her first network series. Mercedes McCambridge, Edna Best and Wick ran out to congratulate her for her audition, promising a bright future for her. She was also featured on Suspense, Escape and The Whistler. It was Wick who hired her to imitate Ingrid Bergman, beginning with a radio adaptation of Intermezzo, and other radio shows (she also looped for the beloved actress for promos on some of her films).
Webber had a tough upbringing, with a father who died when she was young, forcing her to become the breadwinner. So, starting at age 11, through age 15, she wrote and produced her own children’s radio series, for 15 bucks a week, helping out the family. After graduating from high school at age 16, she moved to Hollywood to try and break into radio and was admitted to USC.
“When you are a trouper, and having to go to work early to help support your family, really, it never leaves your blood,” she says. “And, as research has proven, working hard in acting helps keep senility at bay.”
A Radio Drama and Distribution Pioneer
Early on, Webber was recognized as a leader in her field of radio acting. She worked with the biggest and the best, including Orson Welles (she appeared on his Mercury Theatre radio shows before he hired her for his 1948 film of Macbeth as Lady Macduff, which had to be completely redubbed over three years before its release in America), the late Norman Corwin (she created his 100th birthday celebration and has the rights to sell the 11 shows they did together), and the recently departed Ray Bradbury (she recorded 15 of his stories, and she says she was honored to create his 75th and 80th birthday celebrations).
In August 1946, she received a tip of the hat from Time magazine when it followed her from studio to studio for a week, watching her perform completely different characters in 21 different network radio shows, ending up with a feature article (and a photo).
It was at LA station KFI-TV 9, the first commercial TV station in the area, that she pioneered in writing, directing, producing and acting in television in 1948/49. She won an award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Treasures of Literature, the first drama series on a for-profit TV station in LA — an early version of Masterpiece Theatre. She was able to bring in top actors from radio and film. She also wrote and directed the first filmed Colgate Comedy Hour on CBS in 1949. She appeared in around 200 TV shows, starring in 60 or so — opposite Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, and James Whitmore.
There were movies, too. Webber performed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and John Farrow’s Submarine Command.
When she created the contemporary CART in 1984, she used many of her former colleagues, some of whom have now died (Kathleen Freeman, Les Tremayne, James Whitmore, William Windom, Roddy McDowall, Jeanette Nolan).
In the early ‘90s, she invited new additions to the company, including actors of the stature of David Warner (who appeared in 30-plus shows), William Shatner for one show, Samantha Eggar, David Ogden Stiers, and Norman Lloyd. Among the current CART members are Leslie Easterbrook, Linda Henning, Marvin Kaplan and JoAnne Worley.
The plays usually clocked in at 90 or fewer minutes. CART currently has a catalogue of about 150 shows available on disc.
After all outside funding dried up, the company has been forced to survive on the largesse of its founder, ticket sales, and some increasing CD sales. Such businesses need agents and marketers, which CART has not yet acquired. But the company has had some academic acknowledgement when in 1993 the Oxford University Dons commended it on its David Warner Macbeth. Webber personally was awarded two awards (one for direction/producing, the other for technical expertise) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — gratifying, but with no money attached.
A Repertory Company of Radio Actors
So, can a remnant of old-time radio still exist in today’s interactive media field? Ask some of the performers, beginning with Webber herself: “While we have an aging company, we are bringing in younger performers. But, in truth, as long as one’s voice is flexible, age in and of itself shouldn’t impede. I played Jim in Treasure Island in my late 50s and Peter Pan when in my late 60s, winning an award — one of many — from the International Radio Festivals, and few listening knew how old I was, aside from the many fan clubs that exist.”
Her biggest fans, though, have been the actors and directors she has hired over the years. Norman Lloyd (St. Elsewhere and an actor in Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre/NY and, later, in the Orson Welles/John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre/NY), 98, has worked with her many times, both as actor and director. “She’s been amazing at forming this company,” he says. “Peggy wasn’t a star — that is, bankable — but she was and is a first-class radio actress, a skill that she made into an art form. She loves radio as a favorite medium. She’s good at it, earning the respect of her actors. The best of radio and directors and actors is an amazing tradition that may die out with her.”
He adds that among Webber’s skills is her ability — honed after seven decades of writing, directing and performing -– to know how the voice is registering, to recognize the quality of tone, to pace shows, to blend at the right pitch, to cast the shows. “Peggy does it with great ease. She knows music too — its timing. There is an overall quality to her shows that are the essence of radio. She can do it in her sleep.”
TV and theater writer Jim Geoghan (Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Amen, Family Matters) was quite pleased when Webber recorded one of his plays, Light Sensitive, a romantic comedy, with Mariette Hartley. “I believe that whole concept of theater-on-the-radio shouldn’t die. It allowed me another way to look at what I wrote and how and where it can work.” Geoghan drove a cab in NYC during the 1960s and heavy traffic allowed him to listen to GE Mystery Theatre and other plays on the radio, which sharpened his taste, he says.
Another writer, Willard Manus, is also concerned with radio plays as an endangered species of art. “Europe, especially Britain, has a great tradition of radio drama. I’ve been lucky to have five or six of my plays done as radio shows. Peggy is keeping that tradition alive in America. I love its freedom of form — there’s a lot of freedom in writing radio drama. If more people knew the quality of her work, there’d be funding available. The audio-effects guy and her composers are top people, but they’re aging by the minute.”
One of her favorite actors is the British and American Samantha Eggar (The Collector, 1965, Commander In Chief, 2005-6, Ender’s Game on radio and CD), who has performed in Webber’s radio plays for over 25 years: “Peggy’s one of a non-existent kind. Her physical and mind energy are lessons to us. Her dedication and love of what she does is so amazing. All of us at CART trot along like little ducklings behind her. Her eye for everything is so filled with experience as she has had so many great actors work with her: David Warner, Michael York, Roddy McDowall — a cadre of grand actors, with new ones added every five to seven years. We’re a repertory company — sharing a communal, theatrical love of the art form, under her leadership. As it’s a tricky art, it’s been difficult finding trained younger actors. I’ve always felt one applauds those actors who can act without visibility. You have to relate to that microphone. All the visuals of film and the drama of the theater don’t exist; it’s your voice, your mind, and that mic.”
One of the younger actors is Irish-born Johnny O’Callaghan, who writes and performs in one-man shows, such as the recent Who’s Your Daddy? He joined the company at age 23, a decade or so ago. “Peggy has me performing old as well as young characters. She’s a wise old bird — been around. She wants her actors to bring their own personalities to the parts. Our casts are an ensemble — one line or the lead, it’s all the same. She’s a dynamo — keeps on going. She gets us to do stuff you normally wouldn’t think you could do, as she’s loving and supportive, with a strong understanding of actors.”
Companies such as CART and LATW are keeping this art form alive, but barely. Expenses, especially rents, are high and trying to use union actors (with union wages) adds up.
But professionalism must be kept at peak strength, and the best way to do that for actors is to perform. As Laurence Olivier stated in his autobiography, “As a writer must write very day to be considered a writer, so must an actor act every day.” Hard to do, but radio theater is one viable way to stay alert. Long may it and they survive.
Dale Reynolds, a SoCal Native, has been an arts journalist, actor, and Emmy Award-winning producer for years and years. He reviews plays and European DVDs for www.stagehappenings.com and tours with his one-man Thomas Jefferson show, The Man From Monticello.