DELAVAN — Over 100 years ago, theatrical entertainment first came into the homes of American families through the airwaves.
From the 1920s to 40s, radio shows were performed live on the air by actors, musicians and sound effects artists in a studio.
On Saturday, Dec. 14, the tradition continues as WGTD Radio Theater’s Annual Holiday Extravaganza broadcasts live from Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan.
WGTD, a radio station owned and operated by Gateway Technical College, will air the performance Dec. 14 at 11 a.m.
The station is located digitally at 91.1 FM.
Calling back to the Golden Age of Radio, the 91.1 Players will perform “The Detective Christmas Cavalcade,” a holiday show done in real time before a live audience in Lake Lawn’s Great Room.
Steve Brown and Mike Ullstrup — co-founders, producers and writers behind the award-winning radio performance group — discussed what audiences can expect with the new show and more.
Note: The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Resorter: What was your first experience in radio?
Mike Ullstrup: I never had any radio experience, except listening, until I got involved with these shows.
Steve Brown: My undergraduate degree from the University of Florida was in broadcast journalism. Ever since my late teens, I have been involved in some way with radio broadcasting, both at public radio stations and commercial stations. Probably my first real experience with what was old-time radio was when I was growing up. My Uncle Leo and Aunt Ethyl lived in Beverly Hills, California, and every holiday season my family would visit them. They were very close friends with Mel Blanc — the voice of many of the Looney Tunes cartoon characters — and his wife, Estelle. Mel would always take the time to try to show me and my cousins just how to use our voices to imitate many cartoon characters. Unfortunately, I was not very good at it!
How did you get into live radio theater?
MU: Steve and I had written several screenplays, and although there was some interest in them, we had not been produced, so nothing ever happened. Steve was working part-time at WGTD-FM as a news producer and suggested to the general manager, David Cole, that the station broadcast live and updated old-time radio shows — and we would write and produce the scripts. Fifteen seasons, 123 shows later and 17 awards, here we are! None have been made into a movie, but we can dream!
What should audiences expect from “The Detective Christmas Cavalcade?”
MU: We’ve been doing big Christmas shows at Lake Lawn for several years now. Everyone likes a big show at the holidays, so that’s what we give them! The Dixie Dudes and Bill’s Little Big Band out of Antioch, Illinois, are usually a part of it and so are fun skits, different acts, dogs — whatever will make it fun.
SB: We change the theme for each season every year. For instance, last year, the theme for the 2018 season was World War II, so the show had a 1940s flair and we called it the “Stage Door Canteen.” This year, our theme has been detective stories, so we have detective characters in it. We’ll be featuring Stan Freberg’s “Christmas Dragnet,” which is a parody of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” series.
How is “Cavalcade” different from your previous shows?
SB: This year, we will feature Racine resident Joe Van Hulle, whose stage name is Joey Van. Joey Van has worked every facet of the entertainment world, from concerts, conventions, state fairs and major cruise lines to top supper clubs. His television credits include national networks shows (like) the “The Merv Griffin Show.” … One of his many highlights was performing for the 65th annual White House News Photographers Association, honoring President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Three years ago, Joe retired after 20 years of performing on major cruise lines. Because of the many singing and speaking voices Joey has impersonated over the years, he is usually billed as “Joey Van: A Man Who Hasn’t Been Himself Lately.” The WGTD Radio Theater and the 91.1 Players are truly fortunate to have Joe as a member of our troupe.
Performing live, how do you handle mistakes during the show?
MU: Of course, stuff happens! The way you help minimize it is to prepare well and learn from what didn’t go so well in the past. But again, it’s not unlike stage productions — actors miss lines, sound cues go wrong, props don’t work right. The actors and crew, though, are all experienced and smart and know how to make things work in the end. For instance, once, a microphone started to drop down while the actor was speaking into it. He just started to bend his knees so his mouth could follow the mic! It was fun for the studio audience to see but the listening audience never knew what happened. … Where radio is different than the stage is in the timing. Our shows must start and end at specific times and, of course, we want the story to finish before the radio station moves on to the next program! That’s where the actors and crew have to pay attention to Steve, who acts as the stage director, to get direction to either speed up or slow down. … It’s that sense of a deadline that makes it exciting for all of us to be a part of.
SB: For the actors, the radio shows provide a different acting exercise for them. When they are on the stage, they can tell the characters’ stories through facial and body gestures and costumes. In radio, they have to get that same story across only through their voices. We tell them if they need to make a gesture or wear a certain costume, that’s fine — just keep your mouth near the microphone!
Doors open at 10 a.m. “The Detective Christmas Cavalcade” rehearsals proceed until the broadcast goes live at 11 a.m. Admission is $10, which includes a $5 discount coupon to use the day of the show for breakfast or lunch at Frontier Restaurant at Lake Lawn Resort, 2400 E. Geneva St., Delavan. Visit lakelawnresort.com to purchase tickets and for more details.