My guest today is William Brown, the founder of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, an organization (as you know) dear to my heart.
First, tell a little about yourself.
WB: William L. Brown, some 32 years ago, got together a group of friends in both radio and community theater to form The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. Was the group’s Executive Producer and Announcer until 1996. Remain active with the group today and will be back on the Board of Directors for 2016. Have been in broadcast radio since 1977, having worked for WKRW in Cartersville, Ga., WGKA and Georgia Public Broadcasting as well as Supermarket Radio Network in Atlanta, Ga., and did a stint as Fine Arts Radio Director for Valdosta State University. For over 10 years I traveled the State of Georgia recording concerts and recitals for Georgia Public Radio and hosted the program “Peach State Performance Showcase on the 11 station network. I was a founding member and officer for the Pumphouse Players of Cartersville, was a founding member of The Neighborhood Playhouse in Decatur, Ga., and was on the board of the Cartersville Creative Arts Alliance for the year 2008. Today I record and do various independent audio projects.
How did the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company come about?
WB: I had wanted for some time to experiment with radio drama as an acting experience, for I had studied Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater, being quite fond of the acting quality of production (which was limited to what was needed to flesh out the scene). Despite my trying with several theater groups, none were interested, and when I tried to get broadcasters interested in the idea, they all had said, “Oh, that OLD format doesn’t work anymore,” and left it at that. That made me all the more determined to do it. By 1983 I had convinced my friend and theater director Patrick Stansbury to try doing a demo tape and using it to find a sponsor and a radio station that was willing to broadcast a series. He, at the time, was producing The Joe Torre show on WGST. When we did the demo, after listening to it, Patrick told me we could do it much better. So we redid the demo, with Patrick paying much more attention to acting and timing. He took it to WGST and they said they would be willing to broadcast it, and he took it to C&S Bank, who said they would broadcast it. Meanwhile, I was trying to put together an organization to do it. I would handle production (in my spare bedroom) but felt that we needed a writer to be in charge of the scripts. My roommate at the time suggested Tom Fuller, who I was aware of because of his reputation in the theater community, so I called him up and briefly told him what I wanted to do. He was extremely enthusiastic and told me he would come over and bring some samples of his writing. He brought me over two radio play scripts (which he had done for Joyce Leigh’s company Ariel Productions) and 3 of his stage plays (one of which was All Hallows Moon). I was astounded at the quality of his writing, and said to him, “I want you to be in charge of producing new scripts for the company.” We then talked about the structure of the organization and what all we would try to do. I wanted as much original material as possible, knowing we would not be able to get the rights to classic old time radio shows. The mistake most people make is trying to do this from old scripts; they would get a show or two in and then find themselves being sued by the owners of copyrights on those shows. I figured we would use recorded music, although you have to be careful here too or you’ll get sued by the music licensing companies or the musicians union. Everything got put in place, and in January of 1984 we started on the air. Within a week of our first broadcast, Henry Howard called me up and said to me, “I’ve got a recording studio, do you guys want to come play?” Henry was the engineer Patrick had do the Joe Torre show for him, and had done the production for Joyce Leigh (using Tom’s scripts-I said the theater community was small). So quality wise, my home studio couldn’t compete with Henry’s professional studio, so I handed all the production work over to Henry, so we were off on what would turn out to be a 19 week run. Then Joe Torre got fired from the Braves because he won the Pennant but lost the World Series, so no more Joe Torre show and WGST abruptly canceled us. We moved to WABE and reformatted for public radio. I said I would try not to ramble, but I wanted you to get the full picture of our gestation.
What I wanted when I formed ARTC was to perform radio drama; that was my only goal. I told I think both Patrick and Tom that I thought we might get a couple of years out of it and it might be fun. That was 33 years ago. Who would have thought it would be in its 33rd year, with people all over the world as fans? I didn’t. But due to the hard work of so many, many people it has become one of the most prolific groups of radio dramatists in the world. I’ve enjoyed it, and I will be a part of it until my death, when I will meet with Tom Fuller and God to decide how radio drama will be in heaven. Tom’s death actually brought us closer together, and I think it is fitting that Tony Fuller, who grew up with us, is one of the movers and shakers behind us. For the period from the accident till Tom’s death some two weeks later, the waiting room of the hospital in Duluth was invaded by the same group of people who invade Bill’s basement every Wednesday. Some of them never actually left. That is family.
What helps hold ARTC together in its present age?
WB: It really isn’t one thing that holds it together, but a blend of loyalty from fans, and the extremely hard work of Bill Ritch, David Benedict and Tony Fuller. Also the fact that we do not rely on broadcasts, but developed a fan base in the sci-fi and horror communities with our live performances and recordings. It is only quite recently that we have gotten back on the air. Plus we have gotten into online work, having a website and doing podcasts (which we plan to expand). And the members of ARTC itself: never have I had to explain to its members the appeal of performing in this medium. Over the past 32 years we have had an uncounted number of actors, writers and musicians involved, probably about 500.
What, for you, are some particularly memorable moments in ARTC’s history?
WB: More memorable things have happened for me than any one person has a right to. Getting to work early on with some old folks from the golden age of radio (who started coming out of the woodwork when we got on air). Dennis King Jr. who had been a director on the Lux Radio Theater (hosted by Cecil B. DeMille) and was Sam the bartender on the radio version of Gunsmoke. I remember sharing my peach cobbler with him while he brought me his peach chutney, and hearing him talk of those he had worked with. Also Zeke Segal, retired southeast chief for CBS news (he had been in charge of the coverage of the Cape Canaveral flights through Apollo 13) indulged his early background for CBS as a writer and director of radio plays with us. Tom, Henry Howard and I attended several sessions of the Midwest Radio Drama workshop in Columbia Mo., where we met and got to work with David Ossman (of the Firesign Theater), and producers and directors from the BBC. At one of the sessions we had a telephone conference with the great Norman Corwin, already over 100 and a judge for the Mark Time awards, who told the group that “you must listen to the fine work that Henry Howard and Tom Fuller are doing down in Atlanta.” I was sitting next to Tom who was both blushing and beaming over this compliment from perhaps the greatest man in radio drama. A few years earlier both Tom and myself went to a couple of sessions at The University of GA (Tom’s alma mater) with Himan Brown who had produced the CBS Mystery Theater and who was my idol. With him at both of those sessions was Mercedes McCaimbridge (who I actually learned more from than Hi). Orson Welles had called her the greatest radio actress, and in our second session, we were doing a recreation of one of his Mystery Theater shows. During rehearsal we had a problem with the script and Hi said he didn’t know what to do as he couldn’t just call him up as he was dead. I spoke up and said, “Well, I’ve got MY writer here and he can fix most anything.” Tom glared at me with his “I could kill you” look, but went off with Hi to work on it. At this point Mercy leaned over to me and whispered, “You know, he reminds me a lot of Orson.” I told Tom that night what she had said, and he told me, “Well, my life’s complete now.” I must include some of the things that happened to us at DragonCon. For the very first DragonCon in 1987 its founder had asked Tom if we might perform something live. Gerry Page said that he would adapt Lovecraft’s “Call of C’thulu” if we would perform it. We had never done a live performance before, so we rehearsed it at Tom’s house and performed it for an audience of about 1000 with some recorded music and a few foley effects. The audience was totally silent, and I began to think we were boring them, but after we finished there was an ovation which lasted about 10 minutes. Never had I experienced that kind of reception from such a large audience. When I directed a production of Tom’s “the Passion of Frankenstein” we were introduced by Anthony Daniels (CP3O from Star Wars), and one of our shows there was introduced by Ray Bradbury, and featured Harlan Ellison, who had been one of his proteges. We had Harlan also in one of our Lovecraft pieces, The Rats in the Walls (which was for many years our best seller). Also Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space (in a Rory Rammer)* and John Rhys Davies (Guards! Guards!). These are just a few of the things I remember. If you have a spare couple of weeks, I can tell you much more.
What’s your favorite thing about working with ARTC?
WB: I have always liked the sense of family that the group as a whole has had. When our first show was broadcast on the last Monday night of January, 1984, I had the cast of the show over to my house to listen to it. I made some party food and most of the others brought a dish or two and we listened to the show, and everyone left feeling good. The next Monday night, people from that cast as well as many from the first, just showed up with food unprompted. It was like that through the rest of the WGST run. Plus Tony Fuller was born a few months later, so he has grown up with us. Many of the people in the first few shows I had done theater with around Atlanta, but all became my family in this.
What’s your favorite thing about radio theater in general?
WB: Radio drama is, for me, the ultimate expression of the theater arts. I love the fact that the spoken word, combined with judicious use of music and sound effects can create in the mind of a listener a full picture, an experience will be different from every other listener. A child once told a radio actor that “the pictures are better on the radio.” People used to gather around an old radio and stare at the speakers, which I found to be true when our first cast gathered to hear our first show.
*(Rory Rammer: Space Marshal is an ongoing original ARTC series, an homage to 1950s sci-fi action/adventure serials, written primarily by eminent ARTC writer Ron N. Butler.)