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The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society recreates the golden era of radio plays for a modern audience

21February 2021

Eric Webster was standing in a Fleet Farm when he saw a flexible metal sheet. He grabbed it and after he started shaking it, his face lit up with glee. That’s when a confused-looking employee stepped in and said, “Sir, can I help you?”

Webster’s excited response: “Doesn’t this sound like thunder?”

As a member of the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, Webster is always on the lookout for tools to create the sound effects for the classic radio dramas the group recreate live on stage. Given the ongoing pandemic, they’re staging a virtual performance each month through May in conjunction with St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre.

The shows take place at 7:30 p.m. on Zoom and are scheduled for Feb. 22, March 15, April 19 and May 24. Tickets are $18 or $36 for a three-show package and are available via parksquaretheatre.org.

As for that metal sheet, it turned out to be a rain gutter guard. Webster didn’t end up buying it, but he’s got a “giant wall of junk” in his office full of similar pieces. When he first started recreating the radio plays, figuring out how to make the sound effects was a challenge.

“It took a while, but after years of doing this, I am not stumped anymore,” he said. “I’m always looking for things that will work. It’s been grabbing a lot of items as I see them, banging things together and looking for stuff that makes noise. It’s a lot of hit and miss. Once, I was sitting at the bar at Bennett’s (Chop and Railhouse) and the stool was squeaky. It’s really hard to make a squeaky door sound, so I got the owner of the bar to sell it to me.”

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society began thanks to Webster’s lifelong love of classic radio shows. Seven years ago, Joshua Scrimshaw approached Webster and Tim Uren with the idea of doing a podcast about old time radio.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Webster said. “We decided we’d pick a show, give information about it, play it and then talk about it from the point of view of being playwrights and actors. We kept doing it because it was a lot of fun.”

Two years later, they came up with the idea to restage classic radio shows in front of a live audience, with the added help of Shanan Custer.

“We tried it out at Bryant-Lake Bowl for Halloween,” Webster said. “They sold out and the shows were really great. That’s when the podcast ended up with this secondary umbrella of live shows.”

The foursome continued to stage the live shows and eventually added original dramas written in the style, In early 2020, the group was set to perform live shows at Park Square once a month. The first two shows sold out quickly and the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society realized they had found a great partner in the St. Paul theater.

Then the pandemic hit.

Like other Twin Cities performers, they went virtual and began doing audio-only recordings over Zoom. For the holidays, they added video to a recreation of Orson Welles’ “A Christmas Carol,” which earned a warm response and led to the shows this winter and spring.

“We figured out a lot of things tech-wise. Cameras, lighting, we figured out all this stuff just in time to never use it again,” Webster said with a laugh. “We recorded ourselves in our own houses doing what we would usually do on stage.”

That includes creating the sound effects live on camera. “It’s really fun to see the sound effects on video,” he said. “And we’re not hitting a button and hearing a car crash. We don’t use any electronic sound effects. It’s all junk we find around the house. The idea was that you could watch it, but also if you wanted to close your eyes you would still ‘see’ the whole show in your mind.”

Who is the audience for all of this?

“Most people say, ‘Old time radio? Yeah, that’s for old people.’ And it was for a long time,” Webster said. “But what happened was podcasts reinvigorated the idea of being told an audio-only story. ‘This American Life’ brought this idea that you could be told a story in a really compelling way. After podcasts took off, people realized there was this whole world of theater of the mind from the golden age of radio and pretty much all of it is public domain and online for free.

“Some of it doesn’t stand the test of time for a number of reasons, including racist overtones. But there’s a lot of work out there that is just immaculate in its production and performance and writing. There’s a whole new generation of people who have discovered it.”

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