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Radio Fliers

Re-creating old-style broadcast dramas allows kids' imaginations to take flight.

April 11, 2002|VALERIE J. NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a small, modern room overflowing with antique sound-effects props, a game of Clue has sprung to life. Mothers scream. Fathers do their best Monty Python imitations. A handful of children stand at the center of a whodunit, surrounded by the sound of dead bodies dropping faster than you can say "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

Or "Inspector Rufflethorpe," the 1938-style radio show that's a respectful salute to the detective genre. A cast of 18, more than half of them children, is taping the show as part of the "Re-Creating Radio" family workshops that take place Saturday mornings at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.

Casting kids in adult roles is part of the fun, says Tony Palermo, producer of the shows. "In our Rick Lowell series, the femme fatale is going, 'What do the Nazis want with me?' And the answer is, 'It's not a manicure, sister.' To hear a 9-year-old say that, it's just unbelievable."

Thousands of children have gone through the program since it started six years ago as an offshoot of the long-established workshop at the museum's New York location. The dozen or so original radio dramas they produce are mainly thrillers but include tales of superheroes, western adventures and outer space sci-fi.

"We've had an 83-year-old lady doing 'The Shadow.' The grandparents really love coming to this," Palermo says. "People have this idea that radio's old-fashioned. It's a wonderful, imaginative exercise. It's what kids do, make noises or use voices."

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Cecil Castellucci, the show's director, begins the 90-minute session by driving home the need to create a "mental picture" using voices and sound effects. Film clips show how a 1939 "Tom Mix" radio program was produced and relive the fallout of 1938's "War of the Worlds."

When the kids are asked to voice act, three make creepy, evil-alien sounds. One 8-year-old, whose mother swears she's never done this before, is an over-the-top damsel in distress.

Half the kids want to do special effects, so they are led to the recording studio to become familiar with authentic props donated by NBC and CBS, as well as time-honored effects techniques.

"You can act out an entire war using a box of metal popcorn cans, dishes, stones, pennies, spatulas and mixing spoons," says Palermo, who got his start in radio in a class show at age 8. "In radio you can do anything, and that's what we try to do."

The young "sound effects artists" will work with two tables full of props. They'll use a wind machine, a wood cylinder that rotates with fabric attached, to conjure up wind during a seance; tap on a coconut shell with a drumstick to imitate rapping on a secret passage; and crinkle a plastic grocery bag to mimic the crackle of fire. (My 11-year-old son's favorite will be "the body slam," where he bangs two "caveman clubs" on the floor to simulate the sound of bodies dropping.)

In the 40-seat screening room, the director is sizing up the kids, trying to determine who's a good enough reader to take on a big part. Everyone was handed a casting sheet when they showed up, and some will be asked to read from it. But reading perfectly is never really the point.

"I feel really, really strongly that kids should be allowed to do what they are interested in," Castellucci says. "Everyone who wants to read gets a part. Whether it's big or little is the difference."

My 14-year-old daughter snags the lead, but it's not because she oozes star potential. Because she's the oldest kid in the room, the director knows she'll be able to handle Inspector Rufflethorpe's lines. Once the children are cast, the adults fill out the bill. (In a bit of family typecasting, I am Elsie the maid as well as Col. Frothingham, "a retired military man.")

We run through the 24-page cliche-filled thriller written by Palermo, who admits, "I've read more Agatha Christie than I should have." We go over a pronunciation guide of characters' names and a glossary of about 20 potentially unfamiliar words (harum-scarum, potassium cyanide). We learn to do "walla wallas" (idle background chatter) and to follow the director's cues.

We're nowhere near ready to perform, considering we've been an ensemble for a little more than an hour. Yet it's show time for this Inspector Rufflethorpe episode subtitled "The Twitshire Murder Case."

In the studio, the voice actors gather around three microphones while the special-effects artists flank their own director and props. "Something always goes wrong," Castellucci says of the taping. "There are always funny things that happen, like horses galloping before the people get on them."

We're so busy running through the script, almost no one seems to notice our big flub. One of the child actors is on the wrong page when it's his turn to deliver a big monologue. "Usually, you just move on," Castellucci says, "but everybody was frozen in that situation. We stopped the tape and rewound so we wouldn't have two minutes of dead air."

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After the taping, "Countess Valeska" (a.k.a. Sara Corcoran, 8, of Culver City) says, "I loved it. It was really fun. I liked doing an accent." Her mother, "Lady Bensington," is equally enthusiastic. "It was unexpectedly really fun," says Christy Humphrey, 42. "It was a pleasant surprise."

For Castellucci, another of the 200 shows she'll direct this year is in the can. She has no doubt that we'll all be pleasantly surprised when we play the tapes that will be mailed to us in a few weeks--bad British accents and cross-gender roles notwithstanding.

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"Re-Creating Radio" workshops, Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Children should be at least 9 years old. $5 tickets must be purchased in advance. Private group workshops $125. 10 a.m. Saturdays through June 15. No workshop May 25. Workshops resume in fall. Call (310) 786-1014.

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