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Radio Days

On the Air Radio Players teach local audiences how to watch with their ears.


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A musician sits behind keyboards. Actors, clad in black, with script notebooks in hand, take their seats. The on-the-air sign lights up.

The main thing a live-radio virgin notices is the sound crew. The people who slam, batter and knock on fake doors, blow train whistles and make the sounds of tracks, shake tambourines when gypsies are mentioned or shoot blanks at the ceiling.

Tinkling piano music might simulate a party or a heavy organ signals a coming dramatic scene. But when crew members simulate giant worms crawling for "War of the Worlds," they slowly stir cake batter with a spoon for a moist, inching effect.

The On the Air Radio Players are a throwback to the golden days of live radio, complete with music and imaginative sound effects. Spring, summer and fall, the volunteers perform classic radio plays right down to the original commercials.

The show begins with a 21st-century audience getting a crash course on its role in a 70- or 80-year-old script. Primarily it's to clap when the "Applause" sign lights up — preferably quickly, because fast clapping simulates more people — and to stop talking, but to feel free to laugh when the on-the-air sign is lighted. And for the love of all that's sacred, silence cell phones so there'll be no anachronistic sounds on the podcast.
Any family-friendly radio plays are fair game, with such gems as "The 39 Steps," a Jack Benny program and a "Superman" episode presented in the past few years. The fall offering, "Noirvember," will feature "The Saint" and "Sam Spade" episodes. An annual script-writing contest has become a major draw, prompting submissions from across the country with the winning entry produced during the summer.

Most shows cast actors to play multiple roles using different voices. The actor who plays hero Sam Spade might also play the henchman, giving him a chance to show off two distinct personas. Open auditions attract those with voice talent as well as people eager to create sound.

 "It's like theater with training wheels because you don't have to memorize lines," says Jack Mooney, president of the players' board. When he started in the early '90s, he brought only high-school theater experience. "With film, theater and TV," he says, "an actor can use many physical components to portray a character. By and large, with radio it's all done with voice."

Mooney recalls the group's early days in the '90s as a mixture of radio enthusiasts and theater veterans. "Over the years, we've become more a part of Richmond's larger theatrical community," he says. Sponsored by Henrico County's Department of Recreation and Parks, the group holds its free performances at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen.

They players again will participate in the annual collaboration between the religion and theater communities, the 2015 Acts of Faith Festival. They're using Lux Radio Theater's original script for "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," he says, including "lots of great Lux commercials interspersed."

Commercials are a big part of the entertainment of a show, whether it's cringe-worthy cigarette spots or a couple sitting on the porch extolling the virtues of spark plugs. Fun fact: When daytime radio series began in the early '30s, they became known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap products and detergents.

"They're so different from commercials today," Mooney says. "They're very casual, suggesting you pick up their product whenever you happen to go shopping. There's no urgency." S

"Noirvember" runs Nov. 11-12, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen.


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