This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
A RADIO EVENING IN 1949: MWOTRC Performs at the Library of Congress
by Sally Stephens. © 2015
(From Radio Recall, October 2015)
The Library of Congress' Packard Campus Theater literally buzzed with excitement and stage lights on the afternoon of August 8, 2015. Members of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club hauled bags of gravel, tiny doors, three- note chimes, and empty cans into the theater, prepared for any aural need that evening. They carried Fibber's closet, Lucy's curls, and Sgt. Friday's fedora; bits of an era that to augment the 1949 radio re-creations that would delight a packed audience.
They were at the perfect place to promote the preservation of sound recordings. The Library of Congress' Packard Campus of the National Audio- Visual Conservation Center, located in Culpeper, Virginia is the home of the library's sound and image holdings - ranging from presidential speeches to early radio dramas to Edison company films and beyond. This ivy-covered former-bunker complex boasts over 90 miles of shelving, 35 climate-controlled vaults, and additional storage and processing space on the 45-acre campus. Over 6.2 million recordings are processed, conserved, and stored at this facility, and are available to the researching and curious public by appointment.
The Packard Campus doesn't just tailor to researchers and students. The Theater on site?hosts a myriad of events, showing rare films and?items from the collections year-round. An intimate, 206-seater, the theater is reminiscent of the Golden Era of Hollywood - warm lighting and gilded paneling, plush seats, and a theater screen with?velvet curtains and a small stage. A stage that is just large enough to fit a dozen people, microphones, and a full sound effects table. The setting was enough to draw the breaths of MWOTRC members as they arrived to transform the theater from a moving picture house to a radio studio.
The gears had been in motion to partner the MWOTRC with the Library of Congress (LOC) for several months. After a successful performance with WAMU in November 2014, interest in the club's next show increased exponentially. The plans for a radio recreation in Culpeper began in February this year, coordinating with Matthew Barton, Recorded Sound Curator, and Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator, both coworkers of the club's Audio librarian, LOC Preservation Specialist Rebecca Jones. Following months of coordinating, it was determined the club would perform two half-hour programs and present a sound effects demonstration on the evening of August 8 in Culpeper.
A caveat for the show was the programs needed to be recognizable. Michael Hayde, club Treasurer and Membership Coordinator, worked with Jett Whipple, club Vice President, to determine which shows would be enticing to the casual listener and exciting for the passionate fan. They settled on the first Dragnet episode and a Valentine's Day episode of My Favorite Husband, both originally aired in 1949. These were purposeful choices - no recording survives of the first Dragnet episode, which would make its recreation memorable and significant to radio preservation. The My Favorite Husband episode was previously presented by the club at an in- house recreation in 2013 and would require less lead preparation. With two enthusiastic directors, a dynamic cast, and a set program, the production was gaining momentum as August approached.
After a whirlwind of practices, coordinating costumes, and hours of perfecting timing, performance day had arrived! The day was beautiful as club members made their way to Culpeper, upwards of a 90-minute journey for most members. The cast all arrived early afternoon, leaving plenty of time for set up and run-throughs, and even a peek into the LOC vaults for some! All afternoon, the theater experienced a transformation from 2015 to 1949 in sight, sound, and occupants. As show time approached, performers were offstage literally stepping into their characters as their outfits, attitudes, and voices now reflected a time that lives forever through radio.
As the performers prepped, the audience was gathering and growing. The theater was packed full of excited radio fans - some members of MWOTRC attended to support the club, some?were family and friends of performers, but most simply enjoyed radio and believed in its need for preservation. Every seat was filled in the theater when the lights dimmed and suddenly, it was 1949.
Rob Stone led the program with a brief introduction of the LOC, and presented some samples of the work done at the Packard Campus, including a sound clip from a recently conserved lost episode of Gunsmoke. Rob then introduced MWOTRC President Fred Berney, who explained the club and its goals before the cast of Dragnet filed onto the stage. Michael Hayde introduced the episode, explaining minute variances in the first Dragnet script from the popular show's canon, including Sgt Friday's badge number The club utilized creative license during this performance as well, using the popular Dragnet theme music in this presentation, even though it was not used in the first few episodes.
Following a successfully closed case by Friday and Romero, the performers left the stage as the club's sound effects gurus were given the spotlight. Mark and Marsha Bush led an animated demonstration of sound effects in radio, including recreating Fibber McGee's famous overflowing closet, the inventive methods of radio fights, and the mystical sources of everyday sounds. The sound effects demonstration was a crowd favorite and had the audience warmed up for the final portion of the program, the My Favorite Husband recreation.
Jeff Whipple introduced the episode and directed from the first row. The cast arrived or. stage in costume; Wendy Wilmer stealing the limelight as she emerged truly as Lucille Ball - in full curly red wig and a polka-dotted A-line dress. Comedy with a live audience can be tricky, but this performance, full of mistaken identities and ridiculous puns, actually received more laughs than the original program did in 1949! In addition to those mentioned above, other performers appearing in these re-creations were: Henry Ickes, John Abbott, Sally Stephens, Jack French, Rob Farr, Denis Roma, Edgar Farr Russell Ill, Bert Rude, Chuck and Joanie Langdon. The cast received a standing ovation at the end of the full program, a special moment tor all performers.
The program was a success, as evidenced by the enthusiastic audience response, the professional performances by sound effects and actors, and the generous praise by Matthew Barton. He called the evening "one of the most enjoyable and gratifying times I have ever had working at the Library of Congress," and there are already discussions for a future club presentation back at the Packard Campus!
The evening was truly magical for everyone involved. For one night, the Packard Campus Theater was transported completely to another time and place, where imagination takes over and anything is possible - to the wonderful world of radio