Interview With a Modern Radio Star

Quick trivia question. What American radio actor  has played Allan Quartermain, Perry Mason, and John Barrymore? If you’re thinking Orson Welles, Elliot Lewis, Howard Duff, or some other golden age figure, you’re wrong.

The answer is  Jerry Robbins, who was born as the golden age of radio was ending. His Colonial Theatre on the Air has been producing radio dramas for fifteen seasons, bringing life such familiar characters as Zorro, Perry Mason, the Wizard of Oz, and Father Brown. In addition, the Western Series Powder River ran for four seasons from 2004-2007 and is coming back for a fifth.

What Colonial Theatre does is remarkable, both in longevity and quality. Most well-known radio revival efforts since 1962 have been splashes in the pan. More than their existence, they’ve rediscovered the art of radio drama. Whether you’re walking through the Noirish world of Perry Mason, travelling into darkest Africa with Allan Quartermain, or running with Jessica and Logan in Logan’s Run, the Colonial Radio Theatre (CRT) takes you there as only radio can.

Actor, Writer, and Director Jerry Robbins graciously granted my request for an interview in which we discussed Perry Mason (in which he plays the lead), the production of radio dramas and what the future may hold for the Colonial Theater:

Question: How did the Colonial Theatre get started and how long has it been in existence?

Jerry RobbinsJerry Robbins: We started as a business in 1995; although I started producing radio plays as a hobby in 1988 (a feeble attempt at A CHRISTMAS CAROL) and by 1990 I was making re-creations of the old time shows on a regular basis; shows like THE LUX RADIO THEATRE, SCREEN GUILD PLAYERS.  In those days – before home computers were commonplace and before the internet, the only way I could get a radio script was to buy an old LUX show on a cassette, then transcribe the script out on the typewriter, then recording and editing. The early shows were horrid, but after a while they were getting a lot better! By the time it was decided we would do “Colonial Radio Theatre” for commercial release in 1995, I had already done well over a hundred or so of those old time programs.  By transcribing all those old programs into scripts, I learned how to write for radio drama that training came in very handy when I wrote my first original dramatic program, BATTLE ROAD. This week we are recording out 425th production.  We are in our 16th year as an official company.

Question: You play the role of Perry Mason in four radio dramas so far. As an actor, how do you approach a role that’s been defined so much by Raymond Burr’s iconic performance? Has Perry Mason been a role you’ve always wanted to play?

JR: I’ve actually done five so far – CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE will be released in December.  Approaching the role was easy – you will not believe this, but I have never seen a complete PERRY MASON episode with Raymond Burr. Just a clip here and there over the years.

The first story we did, VELVET CLAWS ,  takes place in 1933, and I was thinking of Clark Gable in the role – and that is who I have in mind when I play Perry – Clark Gable! I think he would have made a great Perry Mason if MGM had made the pictures.  I can’t say I always wanted to play Perry, but I am thrilled to be able to in these productions, you can be sure on that!

Question: Also, when you’re adapting a story like Perry Mason or Zorro that has appeared in other medias so often, do you try stick closely to the book or do you influenced by previous adaptations?

JR: On our ZORRO productions, which I adapted for audio, we stayed with the original books 100% as far as the storyline goes.  I am pretty sure that we were the first audio company to produce a modern ZORRO recording since the BBC did THE MARK OF ZORRO in the 70’s. I decided to pass on doing yet another remake of MARK OF – and thought a more obscure story that was not so legendary would be fun – thus ZORRO AND THE PIRATE RAIDERS and then ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

The first script took seven drafts, as the Zorro people were very picky on how the role would be written (we were working off of the original book THE PIRATE RAIDERS, but they wanted Zorro portrayed more as he is today – so we went through a lot of changes to make that happen, as I was trying to stay as close to the book as possible.  I am not a Zorro fan, so I didn’t know that “Zorro doesn’t do this, Zorro doesn’t do that, Zorro’s horse is this, not that” – I was just going by the book they sent me – I was not inventing new things for Zorro to do – but they were not happy with the way Zorro was portrayed in the book, thus the re-writes. Anyway, draft seven was approved and we went into production.  Now it seems like everyone and his brother is doing a ZORRO audio production and the owners of ZORRO do not seem as picky with the stories as they were with the first one.

Our PERRY MASON programs also stay with the original books, however I know in some cases M.J. Elliott (who writes our PERRY MASON scripts) sometimes combines / condenses scenes so they will play smoother in a radio drama format – but we do not add our own ideas regarding story into the script. As far as I am concerned, these stories were wonderful long before we ever came along. Why change what already works?

Question: One thing I was kind of curious about is that I see you’ll have the third volume of Father Brown mysteries coming out soon and one of the cases is, “The Oracle of the Dog.” In the story, Father Brown solves the crime without ever going to the scene or interviewing the suspects. How did you deal with that in adapting that story?

JR: Since M. J. Elliott writes all the scripts for our FATHER BROWN series, I sent the question along to him. His response:

“It was best, in the interests of drama, that he should be there to witness events as they unfold, without making any substantial alterations to Chesterton’s excellent tale. We therefore had Father Brown visiting the house where the murder occurs in order to study its extensive library for a sermon he’s working on. He’s right in the thick of things from the start and, unknowingly, almost witnesses the murder. We had a similar problem with the classic The Invisible Man, because Father Brown appears surprisingly late in the adventure. In order to keep him at the forefront (these are, after all, The Father Brown Mysteries), we had him apparently narrate the story, although we learn at the end that all this time he’s actually been explaining his deductions to the killer.”

Question: From start to finish, how long does it take to produce a drama like Zorro or Perry Mason?

JR: Every show is different. ZORRO AND THE PIRATE RAIDERS was recorded in one day. Post production on ZORRO took three months – mainly due to the fact that the score was being written at the exact same time.  ZORRO RIDES AGAIN was recorded in a single session as well, in about four hours. Post production was just shy of three months, and the music from PIRATE RAIDERS was re-used, which also saved time. Our ZORRO productions had about 70 or so music cuts.  On the flip side, we just released our fourth production with Ray Bradbury – THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. That one took 21 recording sessions and was edited over seven months. A half hour episode of a series episode, like POWDER RIVER can a week, or two weeks, depending on the episode. On a series, we tape three or four episodes in a single session.

A PERRY MASON production is also recorded in a single session, and editing can take about a week – sometimes a week and a half.  Seth Adam Sher is our producer on the PERRY MASON series, and he does great work. He also produced our ZORRO productions. They are not easy to edit, trust me!

Question: How many people work regularly for the Colonial Radio Theater?

JR:  We currently work with 5 Producers (post production), 4 writers, two illustrators for cover art, myself as artistic director (I oversee all productions and final release product), and Mark Vander Berg who handles the business end of things. Jeff Gage is our music composer and has been with us since day one.  From 1995 till about the middle of 2006 I edited and wrote all the productions. It wasn’t till we were into the third season of our western series, POWDER RIVER, that another editor came onboard. I haven’t edited a show since.  It gave me more time for my writing and developing the production end of the business. We have an active list of 65 actors who work with us on a regular basis.

Question: Looking back over all the programs you’ve recorded, do you have any favorites? Also, as an actor was there any role that you particularly enjoyed?

JR: I don’t know as I have any special favorite production; but I would have to say those we did with Ray Bradbury are at the top of the list, as is the production we did with Walter Koenig, BUCK ALICE AND THE ACTOR ROBOT.  I am also partial to THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and CAPTAIN BLOOD.   Favorite role would be Peter Blood in CAPTAIN BLOOD, and John Barrymore in William Luce’s BARRYMORE, which he adapted for audio for us from his Broadway play.

Question: Have you ever played a role over the radio that would have been hard for you to play in a movie or on television?

JR: Probably Britt MacMasters in our POWDER RIVER western series. I am not the worlds best horseman, but I sure can ride a radio horse!

Question: There are a lot of fans of Nero Wolfe in my audience. Have you given any thought to adapting Nero Wolfe stories to the radio?

JR: M.J. Elliott, who writes our PERRY MASON scripts has pitched that idea. I never looked into it, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. It’s not for lack of interest; we just have a schedule that is already into 2013.

Question: You have a very good list of many of your planned released into 2012. Outside of this list, do you have any projects that are in the planning and production stages, particularly in the detective genre?

JR: We are continuing with the FATHER BROWN series. We have 16 recorded, currently being released in sets of four from Brilliance Audio.  I am also hoping to continue the PERRY MASON series.  We talked with the folks who own the Agatha Christie works, but they did not seem very interested in getting back to us (and we were looking to do the titles not produced by the BBC – as I don’t want to step into someone elses territory).  We looked into Charlie Chan, and were a week away from recording when we were warned off because, although the book HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY is in Public Domain, the character of Chan is not. We then contacted the owner of the name to make a deal for the audio rights, but never heard back, so we put everything on the shelf. I am not going to chase anyone around, no matter who they are.  We also spoke with a very famous author / director who was interested in us producing one of his books, however we had to get clearance for it from one of Hollywood’s top studios who still held film rights (the picture had been made years ago); well, that was about four months ago and we’re still waiting for that phone call.  A reminder call to the studios law rep. was met with a ferocious growl from someone’s assistant; so if that’s how they do business, I’m not playing ball.  It would have been a fun project to work on, but we can also survive without it.

I was very excited when we went into production with PERRY MASON, and thought we could come up with a whole line of cool mysteries and detective shows, which are perfect radio listening, and trust me, the fact that we are not producing as many as I would like is not from lack of trying.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to add for our audience?

JR: Just for them to know that radio theatre isn’t dead. Radio drama, comedy, musicals, adventure, history  – it’s still here – it never went away. Sure, we may have hit a bump or a pot hole here and there, but there are some great producers of modern mystery and detective shows still in full time, active production; Jim French for example, and his IMAGINATION THEATRE, Angelo Panetta and his RADIO REPERATORY COMPANY OF AMERICA produce some great adventures. The “Golden Age” may be long gone – but someone forgot to tell us!

Thanks for sharing. We look forward to hearing more great radio from you for years to come.

Colonial Radio Theatre programming airs on Sirius XM Book Radio Channel 80. A full schedule is available on their website.  You can follow their blog and podcast online.

Note: If you are an Audible Member, digital downloads are available at bargain prices on most Colonial Radio Theater productions.

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