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Don Ramlow Keeps Old Time Radio Alive

(Originally published in October 2005)

In radio theatre, imagination seizes control. Through dramatic voice, sound effects and musical bridges, time stands still, mon­sters roar, squeaky doors open to reveal villains, and space cadets zap aliens. In Kalamazoo, radio theater is alive with All Ears Theatre. And All Ears is doing very well, thanks to the talent and expertise of Don Ramlow, the troupe’s co-originator, producer and one of its directors.

When Don Ramlow directs, he first addresses the live audience, setting the stage for the show about to be per­formed. He might describe a unique sound effect or offer a word of caution if a loud noise, such as a gunshot, will be heard. Then, Don turns his back to the audience and sits. From his chair, he con­centrates on the talent in front of him: two sound effects artists with their array of instruments, voice actors, synthesizer keyboardists, and an audio engineer.

Extending his arms high and wide, Don commands attention. He starts his spring-wound antique stopwatch, throws the first cue, and the performance of All Ears begins. For the next 29 minutes, the audience experiences an entertainment genre that originated with the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930s but continues today through a blend of nostalgia and modernity. Some All Ears shows are re­creations of classic comedy and drama, and some come from new scripts by current authors.

“Radio theatre bridges the gap between the old and new,” Don says. “It’s a living art form that’s just as entertaining today as it was 60 and 70 years ago.”

And while thousands of people listen to All Ears on WMUK-FM on Sunday evening, a growing number —  usually 200 to 400 per show — come to First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo on Saturday night, January through May, to watch performances live. Why? Because of sound effects. “Everybody is enamored with sound effects, watching them being made,” Don says. “The trick in doing radio theater, especially in front of a live audience, is to maximize the number of sound effects produced with physical props.”

And those sounds – serene or omi­nous noises that bring drama to life in the mind –  come from imaginative artists. “Sound-effects people don’t just produce sounds,” Don says. “A true sound-effects person will look at a script and say, ‘We need another sound here,’ and they’ll come up with a way to pro­duce it. Or, they’ll say, ‘The script calls for a weird buzzing noise.’ If we put an electric shaver inside a glass, we’ll get a weird buzzing noise.” He praises percussionists for their sense of timing and ability to strike an object in just the right manner to create realism.

With voice talent, imagination supersedes age and physical appearance. “That’s the beauty of radio,” Don says. “If you’re doing a stage show, you have to cast actors according to their age, but with radio theater, that’s not an issue.” Indeed, stout men become superheroes, plain women evoke glamour, teens transcend into adults, old men play teenagers, and middle-aged women assume the voices of children male and female. A classic example was radio actress Mercedes McCambridge who read the part of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” and then gave birth to a son four hours later.

Another benefit of performing in All Ears is the minimal time investment to create a show – only six days with four rehearsals and one performance. “Actors don’t have to memorize lines. They can use their acting skills full force and not make a six- or eight-week commitment,” Don says.

But while All Ears Theatre is the local application of Don Ramlow’s expertise, he also directs re-cre­ations of shows from radio’s Golden Age at national conventions where he has thrown cues to stars of radio classics, early television and modern movies. He enjoys deep friendships with some of the genre’s celebrities, and he has earned highest awards from organizations dedi­cated to preserving the glory and glam­our of old-time radio. And that part of Don’s story begins in his early youth, in the 1950s, when his mother, Janet, intro­duced him to radio and television drama.

Don, the eldest child of Janet and Ralph Ramlow, was born on April 20, 1949, in Kalamazoo. He recalls sit­ting, at age 4, with his mother as they listened to radio episodes of Gunsmoke and The Shadow and enjoyed science fiction, mys­tery and horror shows such as Dracula and Frankenstein

on The Saturday Night Creature Features. These programs were, for Janet, her way of steeping her children in entertainment, which was a major part of her family heritage.

Janet’s mother, Helen Mundy, was 16 in 1927 when a Hollywood director discovered her at an Appalachian soda fountain and cast her in the lead role of Stark Love, a landmark film about a young mountain man and his father who fight over the same woman. Shot in North Carolina, Stark Love became one of the top silent flicks that year. The movie company, a forerunner of Paramount Pictures, offered the beautiful starlet a five-year contract with the provision that she play minor roles while taking acting lessons, but the teenager had an ego and refused. Instead, she enlisted her innate singing and dancing skills with the George White Scandals, a theatrical troupe comparable to the Ziegfield Follies. There, she performed with the likes of Ray Bolger and Rudy Vallee.

After leaving the Scandals, Helen became a freelance performer, touring with various bands, one of which was Don Barringer and His Wolverines, who played gigs throughout the United States

and Canada. The band hailed from Michigan, and trumpeter Barringer had graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School. When Don and Helen married, they quit touring and settled in Schoolcraft, where Don obtained full­ time employment and played multiple instruments in local bands while Helen reveled in her forsaken acting career.

As a young boy, Don Ramlow heard his grandmother’s stories about Hollywood stars and received guitar les­sons from his grandfather and piano instruction from his great-grandmother Mary. While attending Vicksburg schools, Don performed with five musical groups: the high school choir, varsity choir, men’s glee club, a barbershop quartet, and a rock ‘n’ roll band called Doctors of Sound. He also played supporting roles and worked behind the scenes for The Music Man and Brigadoon.

After graduating in 1967, Don attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where he had lead roles in musical versions of Shakespearean plays — Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and villainous Angelo in Measure for Measure. He sang in the Starlight Symphony Chorus that per­formed atop the Gilmore parking garage in downtown Kalamazoo on summer nights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And he was among a small group of KVCC singers who gave a private per­formance for music lover and philanthropist Irving S. Gilmore.

After marrying and going to work for the City of Portage, where he had taken residence, Don’s activities leaned away from entertainment, but he remained an avid reader of science fiction and mysteries. In 1973, Don joined Pulpcon, an organization dedicated to preserving the pulp magazine genre from the early 1900s. Through Pulpcon, he rediscovered radio. “If you love to read, you love radio because they both require imagination,” Don explains. “You have to be able to create characters or images in your head in order to enjoy both art forms.”

Through his attendance at Pulpcon conventions, held primarily in Dayton, Ohio, he met others who had linked pulp fiction with radio drama. These people introduced him to Friends of Old Time Radio (FOTR), which held annual conventions in Newark, N.J. Don attended his first in 1982 and observed a re-creation of The Green Hornet, performed by voice actors, sound effects artists and keyboard players, some of whom were stars of the original shows. He was thrilled — and hooked. “I loved the whole process. l was meeting and dining with actors who had been on radio and who I saw, when l was growing up, on TV.”

Two years later, Don approached the Portage Senior Center with the idea of producing a radio recreation, using residents as talent. “By any standard, it was crude,” Don states with laughter, “but it was an absolute ball and everyone had fun. People sat at a table, reading from scripts. We had a tape recorder with sound effects. They had two microphones that they passed back and forth. But it was my first time directing a re-creation, and I liked it. I found I had a knack for it.”

Thus motivated, Don proposed to officers of Pulpcon that he direct a re-creation at the annual convention. Obtaining their approval as well as legal permission from the publisher, he selected an episode of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, which was a popular radio show that originated in pulp magazines and was later, in 1975, made into a movie. Don cast actors from the convention and put on the show with minimal sound props and audio equipment. In quality, “It was very similar to what I did in Portage,” he says, “but what a ball!”

After doing shows at four Pulpcon conventions, Don received an invitation from FOTR to direct a show in Newark. Don, the only amateur, found working with professionals to be both thrilling and awesome. “Sometimes it was hard to stay focused because I was throwing cues, by pointing a finger, to actors I’d been watching on TV for years,” he comments. In addition, he gained their friendship. “I got to know them behind the scenes, which was different than asking for an autograph or making small talk at a dinner table.”

As Don’s reputation as a good director spread, the organizers of Cincinnati Old Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention invited him to direct a recreation at their fifth anniversary gathering in 1991. By that time, Don had built sound effects instruments and purchased a public-address system, which he utilized in the show. The voice talent was an amalgam of professionals and convention attendees. Don directed two radio episodes the first year, three the following year, and he now does four annually in Cincinnati as well as one each at Pulpcon and FOTR.

He also directed a re-creation of The Lone Ranger in Mt. Carmel, Ill., the birthplace of Brace Beemer, who was the best-known radio Masked Man. At the Lone Ranger Festival, Don and his second wife, Mary Orr, met Fred Foy, the announcer for The Lone Ranger series from 1948 until 1955. Mary, an employee of Western Michigan University who proofreads Don’s scripts and works as a volunteer at radio conventions, rode with Don in the festival parade.

After that celebration, Don received an invitation to direct re-creations at the Memphis Film Festival in Memphis, Tenn., an event that features past and present film actors. There, Don directed Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire), William Windom, (Murder She Wrote, The Farmer’s Daughter and My World and Welcome To It), and David Hedison (Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill).

That led to an invitation from the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy in Hollywood, where Don directed a re-cre­ation of Richard Diamond, Detective, and had the opportunity to work with actors who normally don’t attend East Coast conventions.

Don’s involvement in these vari­ous venues led to treasured memories and friendships with

major stars: Willard Waterman (The Great Gildersleeve on both radio and television); Parley Baer, (Chester in the radio Gunsmoke and nearly 200 TV guest appearances); Ezra Stone (What a Life on Broadway, The Aldrich Family on radio, and director of numerous tele­vision shows), Rosemary Rice (I Remember Mama), Jeanette Nolan (Macbeth on radio, The Virginian, The Horse Whisperer, and others), Bob Hastings (Archie on radio, General Hospital, McHale’s Navy, Batman cartoons, and others); John Archer (numerous guest appearances in early tel­evision), and Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot).

In performing these re-creations, some actors voiced roles they had played as professionals decades earlier. After a performance of Ancient Sorceries, a highly suspenseful horror episode of Escape, John Archer and Jeanette Nolan told Don the re-creation was “as good as anything we had ever done on radio.”

Another of Don’s friendships result­ed from an episode of Suspense titled The Diary of Sophronia Winters in which, as Agnes Moorehead is being chased by her husband, an axe murderer, she says to him, “Why do you want to do this to me? I’m just a little girl from Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Then, the Moorehead character lists details of Don’s hometown that people elsewhere would not know. That caught Don’s atten­tion, so he wrote to, then telephoned, the show’s scriptwriter, Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number and Hitchhiker). Fletcher revealed she had a college roommate from Kalamazoo. Don later invited Fletcher to a FOTR convention where he interviewed her as part of the program.

But, for Don, the highlight of high­lights was a re-creation of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, which he directed at a FOTR convention in October 1993. As a science-fiction fan, Don grew up watch­ing the program on television, which aired for six years in the 1950s, then, interestingly enough, went to radio. The program starred Frankie Thomas Jr. (Boys Town, Nancy Drew Mysteries) in the title role. With permission from FOTR, Don contacted Thomas as well as Jan Merlin, who played another space cadet, and invited them to participate. Those men located five of the remaining cast, who also came to Newark.

The result was a reunion of professionals who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years. When the actors assembled to read the script, the session was fraught with anecdotes and laughter over blunders that had occurred during original shows that were broadcast live. Don found this session to be an exciting challenge. “I had to keep them focused on the task, but, on the other hand, I wanted to let them talk because I was eating their sto­ries up,” he says.

With these experiences under his belt, good fortune led Don to a chance conversation with Rick Hughey Jr., of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation in 1999. “At the time, I was working on cultural programming for the City of Portage, and I dropped off some papers at the foundation,” Don recalls. “Rick happened to mention he had an idea about starting a community-oriented radio theater group, and I said, ‘Well, I direct radio re-cre­ations at old time radio conventions.'” That understatement stirred Rick’s interest, and the two men then engaged others who collectively planned goals and requirements for what would become All Ears. The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo obtained funding from the Gilmore Foundation, and All Ears produced its first shows in 2001. In four seasons, the growing pool of local talent has generated 44 shows, which have been aided by Don Ramlow’s unique national experience.

From his association with Ezra Stone at FOTR, Don learned how to position actors and himself to best record voices and sound effects while presenting an aesthetic arrangement for live audiences. “Ezra told me, ‘Be sensitive to your audi­ence; don’t block their view,”‘ Don says, which is why he and other All Ears direc­tors sit during performances.

But, even while sitting, Don is a visual entity. “I’m a dynamic director,” he says. “My hands are up in the air, and audiences see that. I’m very clear when making my cues.” When cueing the sound of a gunshot, for example, he puts his hand over his head with thumb and forefinger extended. “By holding my hand in the form of a pistol, I remind the audience of when the shot is about to happen and they’re not startled. I developed that technique from Ezra Stone.”

To All Ears, Don introduced his friend and professional voice actor Bob Hastings, who conducted an acting clinic in 2001. And Don learned how to best operate sound-effects props from Golden Age of Radio pros Robert Mott, Ray Ehrlenborn Jr. and Barney Beck.

Beck was a special influence. Having worked at WOR Radio in New York City for over 40 years, he built or acquired numerous sound-effects devices from full-size doors to an Oriental gong to a custom antique telephone with switches that generate dial tones, rings and buzzes on demand. Beck donated many to the North American Radio Archives in Los Angeles but gave some props directly to Don, who utilizes them in All Ears produc­tions.

Since his first re-creation in July 1984 at the Portage Senior Center, Don has directed over 200 shows and viewed many more than that. He has met over 300 performers. Now that he has retired from his city of Portage employment, he will finish a book, for which he has a publisher, about the radio series Suspense. He will also play rock ‘n’ roll with the band Chaos Theory, con­duct sound effects demonstrations with the ensemble Radio Kings, and continue entertaining Kalamazoo audiences as pro­ducer and a director for All Ears.

But another benefit of Don’s re-creations runs deeper, within his family to the roots of his love for radio drama. As Don began to interact with professional talent at con­ventions, he took his moth­er with him and intro­duced her to stars she admired. Photographs of Janet with Jeanette Nolan, Bela Lugosi Jr., Parley Baer, Match Game host Gene Rayburn, and Sara Karloff, the daughter of Boris Karloff, hung in her home prior to her death in 2000. Don describes this collec­tion as “a smattering of the people she met.” By introducing her to the stars, Don repaid to his mother the gift of cul­tural art and, as he says, “gave her the opportunity to enjoy even more some­thing she really loved.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at

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