Radio Days Newly Ablaze

The heyday of live radio drama is history, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many who fondly recall the breathtaking feats of superheroes, the goofy ditties from show sponsors hawking toothpaste and soap, the forerunners to TV sitcoms, and the weepy soap operas. Producer-director-actor David Koff is tapping into this nostalgia market while introducing young people to the delights of a gone-but-not-forgotten art form. His Fake Radio series recently launched its third season of monthly staged re-creations of vintage radio programs, complete with old-time commercials that have since entered the realm of camp.

Koff, whose resume includes plays, musicals, improv comedy, and TV shows such as The West Wing, inherited the mantle of running this company from actor Robin Jones, a die-hard nostalgia buff who conceived the project four years ago and recently moved away from Los Angeles. About three years ago, Jones cast Koff in his presentation of It's a Wonderful Life, and Koff was instantly hooked on the concept. He says the troupe of performers includes standup comics and actors from stage, film, and TV, all of whom work for no pay, lending their talents out of their love for the enterprise. There are currently 10 to 15 actors in the fold, most of whom have been with the project since the beginning. The sizes of the casts vary, so the full company doesn't perform every time.

The shows, presented at the Fake Gallery in L.A., resumed, after a short lapse following Jones' departure, with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The current roster, through December, includes Jack Webb's Dragnet and the infamous phenomenon The War of the Worlds, which caused a national panic in its original broadcast when listeners believed its tale of invaders from Mars was news, not fiction. Hitchhiker's Guide and War of the Worlds are shrewdly timed to tie in with blockbuster summer film releases.

Says Koff, "The thing that really grabbed my attention was not just the scripts, which we transcribe from the original radio broadcasts, but the original advertisements we find from the era. This is real Americana, providing a slice of American history alongside tongue-in-cheek comedy. Because the style of writing in the 1940s and '50s was so vastly different from today, there's a natural sarcasm and kitsch that comes with the material."

The shows, presented one time only, are recorded, so Koff, who directs and performs, can promote the endeavor and so the actors have a record of their work. He notes that the actors perform in costume, and stand with microphones and scripts in hand. The goal is to create the atmosphere of an old-time radio studio. He adds, "As with anything, whether reading or memorizing, and having costumes or not, it takes a talented actor to take something that's just words on a page, and turn it into a fully realized character in front of an audience." There are no advance rehearsals aside from one run-through right before each presentation, in which Koff provides notes to the actors. He works out all the technical cues in advance. The effort doesn't require a huge time commitment from any of the participants, who all work on other career endeavors, sandwiching in these monthly productions.

The operation has not yet filed for nonprofit status. Koff, who took over the project three months ago, says, "Robin did this just for the fun of it and never considered moving it toward the structure of a formal company, but that is something I intend to pursue. I'm trying to negotiate a tie-in with the Museum of TV and Radio. I also want to do a fundraiser for some of the radio preservationist groups to help them rescue and repair material. I'm trying to spread the word on what we're doing and fill houses, and get people who aren't normally interested in theatre involved. The folks now coming to the show are really into comedy, in the age groups, I would say, 20 to 40. I'd love to take the shows to places more accessible to seniors...and to veteran radio actors of that period. It would be great if some of them appeared as guest stars." He concludes, "We have been lulled into a sense of complacency by computer technology, led to think that computers are more important than anything else. The radio is still an exceptionally powerful form of media and of entertainment, and will continue to be so, now being tied into satellite technology."

"Fake Radio" performs at Fake Gallery, 4319 Melrose Ave., L.A. Sun. 7 p.m. One show per month. $10; $8 for 10 or more. (323) 661-0786.