Televisions, movie theaters, and stages beware. The resurrection of radio is at hand. The RadioActive Players named for their proximity to Diablo Canyon and for the fact that they produce radio plays are airing their first show, The Petrified Forest, on KCBX on May 28. Their goal is to not only entertain listeners, but also to re-introduce people to what was once a household's primary entertainment source. And the yarn that will act as the vehicle for this resurrection? It's the story of everything (dreams, gangsters, love, racism, money, the past) and nowhere: a diner in the middle of the Arizona desert.
- PHOTO BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH
- BEHIND THE MIC : Meet (front row, left to right) Jerry Burge as Pyles and Roy Henry as Joseph, (center, left to right) Don Wallis as Duke Mantee, John Pillow as Alan Squier, Wendy Knight as Gabrielle Maple, and Gomer Cool as Gramps Maple, (back row, left to right) Gene Strohl as the newscaster, Scott Grocott as Boze Hertzlinger, Mike Kaplan as Jackie, and Rob Kimball as Jason Maple.
# The RadioActive Players began work on The Petrified Forest a little more than six months ago, after Gene Strohl, a host for KCBX's Composer's Parade program, which airs on Sundays, decided that he wanted to organize a theatrical group that would produce a new radio play every six months.
"I'd always been fond of The Petrified Forest as a play," Strohl explained. "I was in an acting workshop that Gomer Cool was in and something clicked when I heard him read, and I said 'That's Gramps!'"
Cool, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, was a member of The Texas Rangers, a group of musicians who performed in westerns some 70 years ago. The character of Gramps Maple is one of the play's liveliest, despite also being the oldest. Living in a diner in the middle of nowhere, Gramps is the only member of his family who's content to remain where he is in part because he's sustained by memories of a wild past. Ironically, he's the only one who has enough money to leave. But he's by no means the lead. His granddaughter Gabrielle (Wendy Knight) and Alan Squier (John Pillow), a failed writer who happens to visit the diner, are clearly the central characters. Still, that doesn't mean Strohl's beginning the process of casting the play by identifying Cool as Gramps wasn't the best possible start.
The account of the rest of casting process sounds like a Biblical passage tracing an entire tribe's genealogy. Knight is Strohl's neighbor, as is Mike Kaplan, who plays a gangster named Jackie. Strohl met Don Wallis when he first moved to SLO around 20 years ago. Wallis plays Duke Mantee the role that launched Humphrey Bogart's career in the 1936 film version of The Petrified Forest. Roy Henry (Joseph) he met through a mutual friend, and Jerry Burge (Pyles) was referred by Kaplan. Theo Jones (Mrs. Edith Chisholm) recommended Scott Grocott (Boze Hertzlinger). Rob Kimball (Jason Maple) and Pillow are fellow KCBX hosts. Kimball hosts Classical Showcase on Wednesday and Pickin' Up the Tempo on Tuesday, and Pillow hosts The Classical World on Monday. Of the entire cast, only Cool and Wallis have prior experience producing radio plays.
"It took a long time to fill all the roles," Strohl said. "Gabby was an especially difficult role to cast. It almost sank the show."
In this apple pie, slice-of-life play featuring gangsters, racism, sacrifice, and failed dreams, Gabby is the link between the nothingness of the desert and an unclaimed future. The young tomboy lives in a world where her beautiful name, Gabrielle, is shortened to Gabby and she longs for the sophistication and art of Paris.
"Gabby represents the future of America," Pillow said. "She's full of desire to create beauty and expand the American consciousness."
- PHOTO BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH
- THE GANG'S ALL HERE : Don Wallis (seated) plays the role of an infamous gangster named Duke Mantee and Mike Kaplan (left) plays one of his assistant gangsters, Jackie, while Jerry Burge (right) plays Pyles, another of Mantee's cohorts.
# The actors had six months to work on their lines and though they didn't need to memorize them, they had to be capable of expressing as much with their voices alone as other actors can with their bodies and voice. Rehearsals involved meeting once or twice a week during the six months that the actors were familiarizing themselves with their characters and lines. Strohl added a few lines to the script which wasn't written for use as a radio play and, as far as he's aware, has never been performed as one.
Two of the actors Henry and Burge struggled with the play's inherent racism. Though neither wants to pretend that racism didn't exist in the 1930s, calling another character "master" or "boss" is still a painful experience, even in the "make believe" context.
"It's hard for me to act subservient to anybody, but that's the time and that's the way it was," said Henry, whose character, Joseph, is a rich man's chauffeur. Burge's character, Pyles, is in a greater position of power as a gangster armed with both a bad reputation and a gun. But that doesn't change the fact that he ultimately answers to Mantee, his white boss. Burge recalls arguing about a particularly racist line with Strohl for 45 minutes during rehearsal one day. Ultimately, Burge refused to say the line, and the play went on without it.
Actually recording The Petrified Forest took about a week, and was an unusual experience for the players who've participated in community theater.
"It was really different from doing a live play because then you do 12 performances and you get that adrenaline again and again," said Knight, who was in SLO Little Theater's production of West Side Story.
"When we would rehearse we would do the play from start to finish, but when we recorded, it was more like a film, a little fragmented," said Grocott, who participates in improvisational theater but is still somewhat new to the local acting scene.
The editing process required an additional two weeks, during which sound effects like ballroom music, an old cash register, a telephone, gunfire, and a Duesenberg horn were added to the dialogue.
Whether people will appreciate the revival that the RadioActive Players are bringing to the table is difficult to say. It may be that people have forgotten how to be entertained by the radio. Or it may be that their imaginations are no longer capable of stepping into the breach and supplying the images that other entertainment media like film and television so amply provide. But the players, especially Cool, don't expect this to be the case.
"I think this is an event because we're not only resurrecting a remarkable play, but we're resurrecting radio itself, something we've almost forgotten," he insisted. "Radio has so much to it that I don't understand why we don't have it more. It has something that the stage doesn't have."
As for how best to enjoy the play, Wallis recommends finding a comfortable chair, dimming the lights, heating some cider, and popping some popcorn. It might not be the worst thing in the world to listen to a radio play without popcorn, but disregarding the orders of Duke Mantee, infamous bank robber, killer, and desperado, would constitute a mistake of magnificent proportions.
INFOBOX: Petrify yourself
KCBX-FM will air RadioActive Players' production of The Petrified Forest on May 28 at 7:30 p.m. Be sure to pop some popcorn and grab a comfortable chair for the show, which clocks in at about two hours and 15 minutes. The RadioActive Players are currently accepting suggestions for their next radio play. Send suggestions to Gene Strohl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach hears Petrified Forest and thinks "petrificus totalus." Call her a nerd at email@example.com.