As in true with any technology, when something comes along to displace it, the people who keep the old technology alive are artists, artists who are interested in its peculiarities and strengths in and of themselves. By 1971, radio drama had been displaced completely by television. The so-called Golden Age was clearly over and had been for almost ten years. Just as clearly it was never to return. American radio drama was at a lull.
Yet a lot of artists were turning their radios back on. The Firesign Theatre had been working on their albums, surrealistic pastiches of radio, since 1968. Tom Lopez had founded ZBS in 1970. The most renowned American audio drama series of the post-OTR period, Earplay, had begun modestly in 1971 and Yuri Rasovsky had just aired his infamous Chicago Language Tape in 1972.
This was the environment at the time when KVI radio took a chance and hired Jim French. Under the watchful eye of Jack MacDonald, Mr. French wrote up six scripts for something called Tower Playhouse, an attempt to upgrade their Theater of the Mind radio drama series. The upgrade worked. Mr. French’s “Beacon 3699” was recognized immediately as the best thing ever aired in the series, faster-paced, more imaginative, crisper by far than anything else. Shortly thereafter Mr. French was writing two more radio drama series, Dameron and Crisis under the Theater of the Mind umbrella. It was in that latter series on New Year’s Day 1976 that a detective named Harry Nile made his first appearance and quickly took over the series.
That date may be the unofficial beginning of Jim French’s Imagination Theater, which airs its 1,000th weekly episode (counting, apparently, repeats) this week. Officially, however, the series began on the 21st of February, 1999, taking over from The KIRO Mystery Playhouse, where Mr. French had produced Harry Nile and added The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Kincaid The Strangeseeker. Under its new banner, Imagination Theater has since added even more alternating series: Raffles, The Gentleman Thief; The Hilary Caine Mysteries; Kerides the Thinker;The Anthony Rathe Chronicles; Phoenix Rising; and Mr. Darnborough Investigates.
To celebrate their millenary radio broadcast, the maestro himself and his all-star cast are performing a special show live before an audience at Kirkland Performance Center.
With a script especially written for the occasion by 2014 Moondance award-winner M. J. Elliott entitled “The Three Gifts of Malebolgia, or Three of Our Actors are Missing” Mr. French has pulled out all the stops. The cast includes the voices of virtually all of Mr. French’s classic characters: John Patrick Lowrie of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, David Natale of Mr. Darnborough Investigates, Terry Rose and Kathryn Shield from Kincaid, the Strangeseeker, John Armstrong of Raffles, the Gentleman Thief, Rachel Glass of The Hilary Caine Mysteries, and of course Larry Albert, Jay Green and Mary Anne Dorward from The Adventures of Harry Nile.
One suspects Mr. French would never have imagined such success after KVI fired him in 1978 along with program director Jack MacDonald. I can remember distinctly as a kid hearing the news and being severely disappointed. But after a twelve-year sojourn in the world of industrial and educational film, Mr. French came back to radio drama, this time on KIRO. Since then he’s gone from KIRO to their sister station KNWX to KIXI where his show has remained since 2003.
Too, since then, the Internet has created a completely new audience for audio drama. Amateur productions of OTR-sounding genre work litters the pages of the iTunes podcast listings, and even a few outstanding ones can be found there. But Imagination Theater have been the ones showing the new jacks how it’s done for years now. Some people appreciate this. Mr. French has found a larger audience via the Internet as well as through syndication.
It’s no mean feat to produce such an eclectic programme of high-quality work week after week. But Imagination Theater have done so for sixteen years now. They have become one of the shining lights in Seattle’s performing arts and certainly in Seattle media. Jim French deserves much more credit than he gets for keeping the flame lit. The recent Moondance award for their excellent version of Hound of the Baskervilles is a start. Perhaps people will finally take notice.
Even if they don’t, however, Jim French keeps on producing and waits for others to catch up.
16 March 2015, 7:30pm, Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Ave, Kirkland, WA 98033. Tickets available from kpcenter.org.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net