The magic of sitting in a studio audience watching voice actors produce live radio theater in the 30s and 40s isn’t entirely lost forever, thanks to The Society To Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy (SPERDVAC).
A non-profit organization, SPERDVAC was created in the1970s to honor the Golden Days of radio. Their 2017 old-time radio convention was held on Jan. 20-21 at the New Orleans Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas.
“I’ve been involved with SPERDVAC for eight or nine years and we usually do the shows in Los Angeles,” said Beverly Washburn from Las Vegas, where she has lived for over 20 years. “It will be great having this year’s convention at home.”
Washburn, who worked on Jack Benny’s radio show as a child, was one of several special guests attending this year, including Tony Dow (“Leave it to Beaver”), Paul Petersen (“The Donna Reed Show”), Gloria McMillian (“Our Miss Brooks”), Richard Herd (“Seinfeld”), and others (see www.sperdvac.com).
“We re-enact old radio shows which are very popular with seniors who remember the original programs,” said Washburn. “A lot retire to Las Vegas, so we’re hoping for a nice turnout.”
The format for the re-creations closely follows the originals.
“The performers are up on stage in front of a big microphone and we have live music and sound effects like the originals,” explained Washburn. “So if we’re doing a western, someone will be slapping coconuts together to sound like horses hooves! The audience gets a kick out of that because they get to see how it was done back in the day.”
Born in 1943, Washburn says her parents would sit around the radio listening to shows like “The Whistler” and “The Jack Benny Show.”
By the time she was nine, and already a veteran of several films, little Beverly was working alongside Benny on the radio. She would go on to appear as a child actress in films throughout the 1950s developing a reputation for crying on cue, and later as an adult become known for her work on television in the 60s and 70s (see www.beverlywashburn.com).
“The title of my (2009) autobiography was ‘Reel Tears’ because just about every film role I got as a little girl I had to cry,” she laughed.
Washburn worked with many big stars such as Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Lou Costello, Loretta Young and Lon Chaney Jr.
“But of all the people I worked with, Jack Benny was probably my favorite,” she said. “I worked with him first on his TV show, then later on TV and radio, The Hollywood Palace, and even toured with him into the 70s. Contrary to the stingy character he would play on his shows, he was the most wonderful and generous man. So working with SPERDVAC brings back great memories.”
Richard Herd has performed in plenty of old-time radio re-creations, too, but also worked in some originals (see www.richardherd.com).
“I got into radio in its final years,” said Herd from Los Angeles. “I did plays on ABC Theater and WQXR and worked with Peter Ustinov when he did ‘Billy Budd,’ the old British naval story, where I played one of the crew members. Then when Cyril Ritchard did ‘Visit to a Small Planet’ with Dina Merrill, I was one of the leads.”
Herd says this was his third SPERDVAC convention.
“I’ll be doing a Ray Bradbury story that was adapted for radio years ago,” he said. “We generally have anywhere from 100 to 300 people in the audience and I just love it because it’s so much fun. And so does the audience, because they have to use the voices, music, and sound effects to picture the story using their imaginations!”
Several organizers of SPERDVAC must rely on their imaginations, too, explained Washburn.
“Three of the men who run it – Larry and John Gassman, and Walden Hughes – are all blind,” she said. “They are amazing and quite fearless, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. If we’re all going out to dinner, one of them will invariably say ‘Would you like me to drive?’ They are just adorable and have such huge hearts and a great passion for old-time radio.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See www.tinseltowntalks.com.