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Radio show moves to stage Listen: An Ellicott City theater group will re-create the atmosphere of two 1940s radio programs for Annapolis' First Night celebration.


Nothing sounds quite like a firecracker, but for radio, the pounding of a rubber mallet on an empty footlocker followed by the rattle of nails in a stainless steel bowl does the trick.

Sound effects like those made 1940s radio programs realistic to devotees. This New Year's Eve, Gerald Riley and Karen Lambert will revive the characters, clothes and sounds of the golden age of radio in a new comedy at First Night Annapolis.

The Ellicott City-based Wheatfield Theatre Company is one of about 30 local groups that will participate in the arts celebration. First Night Annapolis made a commitment this year to increase the number of local performers involved in the show. This year, local artists account for about 33 percent of all performers.

The 3-year-old Wheatfield company is made up of Riley, of Ellicott City, and Lambert, of Annapolis. They are traveling players who specialize in one-time performances in unusual venues. They often perform for retirement communities, fund-raisers and private parties.

Jeffrey C. Pringle of Annapolis will join them on New Year's Eve as the announcer and sound effects technician.

"An Evening with the Bickersons and Baby Snooks" is the newest addition to their repertoire. The 45-minute show, which will be staged in the county courthouse, is a hybrid based on two popular 1940s radio programs.

The Bickersons were the squabbling couple that predated Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners," and "Baby Snooks," about a holy terror of a 7-year-old girl whose father had to bail her out of trouble, was an earlier version of "Dennis the Menace."

The script for the First Night show is pieced together from seven-minute episodes of those shows. Commercials from the time -- some for products that don't exist anymore -- fit between episodes.

Riley and Lambert are the actors, using their voices and sound effects to convey their story. The story is in the script, but the show is in the sound effects.

"The sound effects are really exciting because it took a lot of work to think up those effects," said Lambert. "Being able not just to hear it, but watching it unfold is interesting. It's very colorful, very animated."

The sounds the actors need most often are common outdoors, but not in a studio.

So how do they get that tweeting bird sound? With a metal screw squeaking as it's twisted inside a wooden peg. Ever wonder about the crash of a chair breaking over someone's head? It's a wooden paint stirrer snapped and splintered near a microphone. And no one set off firecrackers in a studio, but footlockers were pounded in those days.

But for a traveling theater company that prefers not to rely on recorded sounds, some sounds couldn't be faked, like a closing door. So Riley cut a full-size door to about 2 1/2 feet high, installed a knob and built a miniature frame.

When the script mentions a chemistry experiment, empty test tubes provide that specific clink. If the script calls for a broken glass, there's only one thing to do.

"If you want it to sound like broken glass, you've got to break a glass," said Riley, displaying one of the Coca-Cola glasses he bought by the caseload at discount this year. During the show, Pringle puts a glass in a wooden box, pulls on a thick rubber glove and smashes the glass with a large stone.

The sound effects are not the only thing done the old-fashioned way. Riley, Pringle and Lambert dress in 1946 clothing -- fedoras included -- and the set includes an "On Air" sign and vintage microphones.

"The older people will be caught in the revelry, but younger people will get a sense of what it was like to live back then," Lambert said.

A First Night button buys admission to all New Year's Eve performances. Buttons are $14 and available at area Giant Food stores, Annapolis Zany Brainy, Annapolis Marriott, Bay Trading Co. in Annapolis Mall, Starbucks Coffee at the Harbour Center and First Night Annapolis offices on Cathedral Street in Annapolis.

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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