Actors bring old radio dramas to the stage

Joshua Scrimshaw, Tim Uren and Eric Webster
Joshua Scrimshaw, Tim Uren and Eric Webster are the hosts of The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society podcast.
Joe Weisman

Fans of old-time radio dramas will have the opportunity to see them brought back to life Sunday at the James J. Hill Center in downtown St. Paul.

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society will offer a live reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story, "The Diamond as Big as The Ritz." The society's five actors met recently in the basement of Shanan Custer and Eric Webster's Minneapolis home for a rehearsal.

Webster, the sound effects master, used a kid's bicycle wheel and a beer coaster to create the sound of a motor. A box of macaroni and cheese, shaken properly, sounds like a steam locomotive.

"We're very geeky about old time radio dramas," he said. "If there was a convention, we'd go dressed up as radios."

Webster ran and toured his own original radio drama for years, and was a professional radio announcer. Three of the actors host their own podcast dedicated to old radio dramas, especially those in the mystery-horror genre.

Actor Joshua Scrimshaw said the podcast is designed for fans of old-time radio, "but also, if you're a newcomer, it has everything you need: the actual episode, historical information, and our analysis helps people who've never heard old-time radio know how to listen to it."

"The Diamond as Big as The Ritz" was initially broadcast as part of the "Escape" radio series in July 1947. Such dramas are a rarity in radio today.

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society performs classic radio dramas.
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society performs classic radio dramas at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul.
Courtesy James J. Hill Center

"When radio came on — like the internet now — people didn't know what to do with it," Webster said. "And they created all this wonderful art, this amazing theater of the mind. And then radio changed. It became ... a place for people to yell at each other or listen to music you didn't choose. And the idea of creating theater on the radio disappeared."

Not long after starting their podcast, the actors saw an opportunity to bring some of the historic dramas to life on local stages for new audiences. Actor Joshua Scrimshaw said podcasts, which have trained listeners to download a series of episodes just as they do with television, have changed the playing field:

"People are again looking at audio as an entertaining thing to do and seeing how it can fit into your life — because you can listen to them in the car, you can listen to them while you're cleaning house, you can listen to it in bed and have the lights off."

Minnesota is particularly ripe territory for live radio shows, said Custer, "probably because of those little shows like Prairie Home Companion."

Scrimshaw pointed out that a lot of the common tropes in horror and suspense films and television — the evil child, the mad scientist — originated in radio dramas.

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society performs "The Diamond as Big as The Ritz" and "The Shadow People" Sunday afternoon at the James J. Hill Center in downtown St. Paul.

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