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 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.
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This was a very interesting interview with Jerry Robbins. I would wholeheartedly agree with you that CRT has longevity. There quality has improved over the year but the it’s not always the best. No one can argue that Colonial’s music and sound effects are amongst the best in the business but at times their acting and script quality leave something to be desired.
Jerry’s absolutely correct, CRT’s Zorro is fun but it doesn’t quite hit The Mark and neither does he when he states “it seems like everyone and his brother is doing a ZORRO audio production.” There’s only one other group who has made a Zorro audio production and that was Hollywood Theater of the Ear. HTE’s production of The Mark of Zorro is easily one of the best radio dramas ever made. CRT’s ZORRO productions though nicely done could have taken a giant step toward greatness had they cast Duncan Regehr in the title role of their shows. And for those who’d like to know how it was Zorro came to return to the world of audio drama, it’s thanks to a gentleman named Daryl McCullough. He has worked hand in hand with Zorro Productions to return the original caped crusader to this wonderful entertainment medium.
I’ll add that CRT’s Perry Mason productions are quite good. Those who like good radio drama will definitely want to add Captain Blood and Buck Alice to their collections. If you like westerns CRT’s Little Big Horn is very well done and among the best. However, Powder River leaves much to be desired. I’m sure there are those who enjoyed it. However, for those who like their westerns to have that authentic western feel the Louis L’Amour radio dramas were highly entertaining, great productions.
CRT is certainly working hard to expand their library of productions. Chan would have been a nice addition but the owner to Chan is a tough nut to crack. As is the owner to Christie’s works. Though the rumor on the street is there’s a deal in the works for the Christie stories the BBC didn’t produce to be made by someone other than CRT.
I’d also second the fact that Jim French’s IMAGINATION THEATRE and Angelo Panetta’s RADIO REPERATORY COMPANY OF AMERICA produce some great adventures. You can also add to these great radio drama groups and producers to the list: Yuri Rasovsky (Hollywood Theater of the Ear: The Mark of Zorro, The Maltese Falcon), David Rapkin and Charles Potter (Louis L’Amour Western Theater), Dirk Maggs (Perfectly Normal Productions: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Superman, Batman), Peggy Webber (California Artists Radio Theater), L.A. Theatre Works, Enyd Williams, Michael Bakewell and Bert Coules from the BBC (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes) , John Ainsworth’s Big Finish Productions (Dr. Who).
Again, interesting interview with Jerry Robbins.
Sorry, I am correct about Zorro. THE MARK OF ZORRO was produced in 1995 by the BBC
Also, something called Zorro: The Legend Begins has been, or is being produced by American Radio Theater. So CRT and Mr. Rasovsky’s productions are not the sole audio presentations. Your comment on CRT not casting Duncan Regehr reminds me of a write in campaign that was attempted when we announced the production. I will also add this comment reads almost exactly like some of the other posts I have seen, but under different names. Sorry you don’t like POWDER RIVER – cheers 🙂
I have to add my two cents here. I’m the operations manager for Jim French Productions and like Jerry I am a professional actor and play several roles in our productions. The above condescending remark concerning “However, Powder River leaves much to be desired. I’m sure there are those who enjoyed it.” is unwarranted and to compare it to “The Louis L’amour Theater is ridiculous. Imagination Theatre carried the Louis L’amour show for several years and frankly it is far from being a radio show. Our original syndicator made the deal. This show is nothing more then an elaborate book on tape with most of the program being made up of a narrator and some dialog and described action scenes.
Powder River on the other hand follows the basic concept of what makes a full cast audio work. The shows tells its stories through the voices of the people, the music and the sound effects. No omnipotent narrator is heard. We’ve carried the show for around 4 years now on a once a month basis and of all the series we broadcast, and we’re on the air 52 weeks a year for over 15 years, Powder River is our third most popular. There are a LOT of people who enjoy it.
Thanks for the feedback. I’m not much of a Westerns guy, but I have to say that I’ve liked what I’ve heard of the excerpts of Powder River.
Just to clarify things about the Louis L’Amour programs — While it is true that we did start off doing what was essentially a transcription where Narration and Character Dialog was simply lifted verbatim from the short stories, we soon graduated into doing completely adapted scripts. It is also true that we use a “Narrator” in all of our shows. I made that choice to continue once we started doing full adaptations. The writing of character dialog tends to be better (unless you are REALLY good) if it doesn’t have to carry the weight of making you aware of everything in the scene, narration also keeps the characters from getting stuck with bad exposition or having to create awkward or over long scenes just to get that exposition out somewhat naturally. I admire the “dialog only” style enormously and wish that I and my group of writers were better at it. We tried a couple like One For the Mojave Kid where the Narrator doesn’t interrupt scenes to tell you what it happening, though he sets the general stage. In the end I chose to stick with a Narrator because it was working out better and because we had started the program with one. I don’t criticize anyone else’s taste, narrators just weren’t working for me and I didn’t want to forge ahead with something I wasn’t satisfied with for the sake of purity. I figure if people can like Theater, Film, Dance, Opera, Poetry and Performance art … well, they can certainly deal with a Narrator.
The history of it all went like this — Around 1985 the newly formed Bantam Audio Publishing wanted to do some of my Dad’s stories as a audio book product. They were very cautious, he was their first foray into the business, and wanted to start with short stories (why this was safer still makes no sense to me). He thought his old short stories didn’t offer enough value and, as a compromise, the idea of dramatizing them was born. After the first couple of shows were produced he was “unhappy with the quality of the actors” and asked me to look into it. My take, after some investigation, was that the actors were as good as any we could possibly hire, New York professionals who were doing film and TV and ads and theater every day. The problem was the writing.
Now since they were exact transcripts of Dad’s stories that bit of information went over rather poorly at first. Eventually, however, I convinced him that prose and performance were two completely different mediums and I convinced the people at Bantam to pay for writers, screen writers, film students, playwrights, myself … whoever we could get. Some were better than others. The medium of audio/radio is laden with stereotypes. Same with the Western genre. Both reduce the IQ of writers phenomenally. Getting good scripts was very challenging. At the same time the original team was also continuing to produce scripts in the original “transcript style.” There were a couple of series about certain characters (like Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie) that had been started as transcripts so we continued them that way to maintain the style. So, anyway, the sources of scripts, transcript and adaptation, are all mixed up in time … there is no one moment when we clearly changed over.
Though I worked on many shows in many different roles I am particularly proud of Merrano of the Dry Country and (though the sound effects production is wimpy) Unguarded Moment. The last program we did came out in 2004 and is called Son of a Wanted Man. It is longer and I like it even more. Now, being as arrogant as anyone, I like my own work … and being as insecure as anyone, I’m embarrassed with it’s many faults. The last thing I would do is to suggest that what we do is superior to anyone else’s efforts, that’s up to the listener to decide. I would suggest that the inclusion of a Narrator is like the difference between black and white or color, it may appeal to some people’s taste or be appropriate to certain creative choices but it doesn’t make or break a story. I freely admit that if I could always achieve my storytelling and acting performance goals while NOT using a Narrator I would accept it as the higher expression of art. I am in awe when it works well but I cringe when it doesn’t. We all approach projects differently. That’s what makes horse races.
We are still producing material, albeit at a vastly slower pace. We are currently working on our first non western since Unguarded Moment 20 years ago. It is called The Diamond of Jeru and is based on both a L’Amour novella and the screenplay I wrote for a USA Network movie of the same name. We only get about 9 weeks a year to work on it (both Paul O’Dell and I have other careers now) so it’ll be a year or more before we are done with it.
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