By day, Don Ramlow is a mild-mannered political science instructor.
By night, on certain Saturdays, he is an intrepid radio theater producer.
Ramlow has had a longtime passion for the preservation of classic radio theater. An offhand comment about his hobby led to the formation of All Ears Theatre, now in its 13th season of presenting radio plays before a live audience.
In conversation with Richard Hughey, who was then the program officer of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and is now CEO, Ramlow mentioned that he frequently traveled to conventions where he took part in recreating radio plays. He says that Hughey responded, “I think it would be kind of fun if we did something like that in Kalamazoo.”
What resulted from that conversation is a collaboration between Ramlow, as producer, and several area organizations. All Ears Theatre is a program of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, with funding from the Gilmore Foundation. Free live performances are held at First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo and are later broadcast over public radio station WMUK, 102.1 FM.
Attending an All Ears Theatre performance is a unique entertainment experience. “I couldn’t quite visualize it until I actually saw the first show,” says Beth McCann, deputy director of the Arts Council. She says that once you attend a performance and listen to it later on the radio, “you’re really hooked.”
All Ears Theatre has developed a solid local following, appealing to adults with nostalgic memories of the golden age of radio as well as to young families. “It’s really good for us to see younger people there because that means the love of the art form and everything else will continue in a younger generation,” Ramlow says.
In addition to its live performances and recordings, All Ears Theatre provides outreach programs to various community organizations to introduce kids to radio theater.
By the end of the current season, Ramlow says, All Ears Theatre will have presented about 170 plays since its inception. A typical season features a combination of comedies, mysteries and science fiction. Productions have included such classics as The Bickersons, The Shadow and The War of the Worlds as well as many locally written plays.
“I’m proud to say that … about 75 percent of what we’ve done over the years has been either original plays or original adaptations,” Ramlow says. Local writers who contribute original scripts or adapt existing plays for radio are just some of the many community members who make All Ears Theatre possible. About 85 people each year, including actors, musicians, sound engineers and sound-effects specialists, contribute to the production of 12 shows each season.
All Ears Theatre holds four auditions per season, casting for three shows each time. Ramlow says about a quarter of the people who are involved in each season’s productions are trying out radio theater for the first time. Sometimes actors who have never worked in radio have a hard time getting away from acting techniques used in traditional theater productions. “Our main focus is on getting a good quality recording which the audience is able to see us do,” Ramlow explains. He tells actors, “Don’t let your body tell the story. Let your voice tell the story.”
In addition to getting to see acting that is normally only heard, Ramlow says, “people … love the fact that we have the live music and the live sound effects. I think that really adds to the fun.”
Sound-effects specialists sometimes have to find creative ways to produce particular sounds, and equipment malfunctions can add unexpected humor. In recalling a scene from The Shadow in which a gunshot was to be followed by the thud of a falling body, he says that when the gun didn’t fire but the body fell, “our actor playing the Shadow goes, ‘I got to tell you, Margo, it was sure a good thing I brought my knife along to take care of that.’ And the audience, of course, seeing that the gun misfired got the joke. They really laughed over it.”
While there are many radio theater clubs across the country, Ramlow says, “very few do what we do, which is to have a regular schedule of programs and, more importantly, have them broadcast over a radio station.”
Also, some radio theater groups record separate tracks for music and sound effects after the performance, whereas “here we do it truly the traditional way, recording it live, with everything being done at the time.”