The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Ten: The Nineties, Part One

Continued from Part Nine

Jim French Returns

The change in format on KVI radio that had brought French’s first run (see part five) of audio dramas to an end back in 1978 that he had a recorded episode of Harry Nile that didn’t make it to air. “Favor a Friend” finally was aired in 1990. The play featured old time radio actors Jerry Hausner and Hans Conreid (who’d passed away during the intervening period.) The play was broadcast over radio station KIRO, which would become the new home of French’s radio dramas.

Harry Nile star Phil Harper was still available and stepped back into the role for three new episodes in 1991. That year, French produced far more new episodes of his anthology series Movies for Your Mind. However, Harry Nile was popular and production of new episodes ramped up. In the course of time, Harry moved from Los Angeles to Seattle where intricate research and knowledge of Seattle history and geography would give the series a unique flavor and feel. While New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco all had radio private eyes during the golden age. Seattle had been left out, and French remedied that. Harry was joined by his secretary (later partner) Murphy (initially played by Jim French’s wife, Pat.)

The series featured mostly local Seattle talent, although there were a few notable guest stars such as Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island) and Harry Anderson (Night Court and Dave’s World.) Harry Nile episodes were not told in strict chronological order. An episode might be told from the mid-1950s followed by one from the late 1940s. Episodes could be set after Harry has been settled in Seattle for several years or they could be set back when he was in Los Angeles with his office over a tailor’s shop.

175 of the 271 Harry Nile episodes French recorded from 1991 on were done before a live studio audience. Generally these live recording would include Harry Nile and an episode of another series.

While Harry Nile would become French’s flagship show, it would be far from his only one. In 1996, Jim French productions launched Kincaid the Strange Keeper about an investigative journalist that uncovers supernatural goings on. In 1998, French launched a Sherlock Holmes series with The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (not to be confused with the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.) The series initially starred John Gilbert as Holmes, but he was replaced with John Patrick Lowrie in 2000. French would then produce The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes beginning in 2005 and eventually would cover ever story in the Holmes canon.

French also launched Imagination Theater. He  successfully syndicated the series across the United States. It would become an hour-long program that would not only serve as a vehicle for French’s programs (both old and new) but also works by other producers of audio drama, including Louie L’Amour and Colonial Radio Theatre.

In 2003, Harper passed away at age 64 and Larry Albert, who played Watson in Sherlock Holmes, took over as the second voice of Harry Nile after 156 episodes. In Albert’s run as Nile, there was a separate series of adventures called War Comes to Harry Nile. In Harper’s run, Pearl Harbor had been touched on, and then there had been two non-War related episodes during World War II. II. War Comes to Harry Nile did a lot to fill out what happened to Harry during those crucial war years.

At the same time, French continued to launch new programs in the mid-2000s. Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief followed the famous criminal character A.J. Raffles on his escapades. There was also The Hillary Caine Mysteries focusing on a “girl detective” working for a magazine in the 1930s and Kerides the Thinker, focusing on a young philosopher who finds himself drawn into all kinds of mysteries in Third Century BC Greece. French’s audience thrilled to new historic detective stories, but modern tales tended to be shorter-lived. (The exception to this was Kincaid the Strangeseeker.) Most of these series were produced at an episode or two per year. There were nineteen episodes of Raffles released over twelve years, twenty-two Hillary Caine episodes released over twelve years, and eighteen Kerides episodes released over ten years. Over the course of a couple different specials, it was established that all Jim French series existed in a shared universe.

Of course, French didn’t do this all by himself. He built up a solid group of talented actors, directors, and other creative professionals to bring the series together. British writer M.J. Elliott, and Larry Albert and Pat French, who could direct in addition to writing were among those who helped maintain the creative output.

In 2012, Pat French retired from the role of Murphy and passed away in February 2017 and Jim French productions closed its doors in March with the last Imagination Theater released in February 2017 with an implied huge shift in the relationship between Harry and his long-time comrade in, “Harry and Murphy,” the 294th episode of Harry Nile. French himself died in December 2017. His family gave old time radio seller Radio Spirits the rights to produce CDs and audiobooks of his books and episodes of Harry Nile began to appear on Radio Classics.

Yet, that wasn’t quite the end of the road for French’s creations. John Patrick Lowrie had an idea and was able to persuade Larry Albert and others to revive Harry Nile. With the blessing of the French family estate, Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes returned to the air with new adventures produced by a new company called Audio Visions LLC. Harry Nile returned in October of 2017 with the episode, “Once More with Feeling.” The first episode of 2018, “A Guy Named Jim” paid Tribute to the show’s creator.

Since then Audio Visions LLC has produced new episodes of both Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes. There have now been more than 320 Harry Nile episodes released. They’ve also created their own modern series featuring an adult mother-daughter detective duo in Murder and the Murdochs. While they enjoy a much more limited syndication than Imagination Theater did at its heyday, Audio Visions continues the tradition Mr. French began of producing beloved audio dramas from the Pacific Northwest.

LA Theatre Works

L.A. Theatre Works has actually been in existence since 1974 but began as a conventional theatre. However, in the 1990s, it moved towards producing audio plays and has continued to operate in that way for the last quarter of a century.

The company has produced a wide variety of different plays. These have ranged from well-known plays by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, and Noel Coward to adaptations of great works such as Dochotevsky’s The Idiot and The Brothers Karmazov to more modern plays and even some works designed for younger audiences. They also adapted plays from the legendary golden age of radio writer Norman Corwin including a new take on his play The Undecided Molecule as well as works he wrote for the stage.

Over the years, they’ve worked with well-known actors such as Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Calista Flockheart, Carolyn Seymour, Annette Benning, and Michael York. They’ve released more than 500 different plays as audio drama, available through audible.com as well as for free listening through libraries that use the Hoopla app.

They also do weekly broadcasts that are syndicated to fifty different public radio stations in the United States and Internationally. They continue to operate to this day, producing a typical mix of plays for their virtual audience.

 

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