A ghost of broadcasts past: Silverthorne Theater Company’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ recalls old-time radio shows

  • Michael Haley will play Ebenezer Scrooge in Silverthorne Theater Company's radio play of "A Christmas Carol." GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The cast and crew of “A Christmas Carol”: Director John Reese who also plays Marley’s Ghost, second from right; sound designer John Iverson, top left; Michael Haley, center, stars as Ebenezer Scrooge; and other cast members, who all play multiple roles, from left, David Rowland, Joan Haley, Sharon Weyers and Ann Steinhauser —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Joan Haley, left, and John Reese go over the script for Silverthorne Theater Company's production of "A Christmas Carol." —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Bulletin
Thursday, December 15, 2016


Before Netflix, before cable networks and even before black-and-white TV, people tuned into broadcast radio for entertainment.

Some might still recall their favorites — perhaps “Fibber McGee and Molly” (1935-1956) or “Our Miss Brooks” (1948-1957) or “The Lone Ranger” (1931-1942) and “The Burns and Allen Show” (1937-1950).

Although those shows, and others like them, were designed for the listening pleasure of the radio audience, many were performed in front of live studio audiences.

In the spirit of those times, the Silverthorne Theater Company will present “A Christmas Carol: A Radio Play,” a mock radio broadcast of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, performed by six actors voicing 33 characters.

Three weekend performances, at three locations, will feature local actors, including Emmy-Award winner Michael Haley as Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted, mean-spirited miser who detests Christmas and all its charitable traditions.

Haley, 74, of Conway, who has worked on multiple Hollywood films, won his Emmy for his role as executive producer for HBO’s “Angels in America” (2003).

Dressed in clothing from the 1930s, three actors and three actresses will gather around period microphones to deliver a radio version of the play at each venue: The Arts Block in Greenfield, The Centennial House in Northfield and The Deerfield Inn in Deerfield. For the men, double-breasted suits and wide ties will be the attire, while the women will don stylish hats and period dresses.

To be clear, this is a mock radio broadcast; it won’t actually be heard over the airwaves. Instead, it’s a piece of theater, really, “for kids and even adults who didn’t grow up with radio,” Haley said in a recent phone interview. “The show is for people to get exposed to a Christmas classic without too much muss or fuss.”

But, the actors will present the play just as if it was going out to radio listeners. And that, Haley says, presents some unique challenges.

“In a radio play, you have to tell [the audience] what is in the room rather than letting them see with their eyes,” Haley said. “You have to somehow describe the mood of the room, and through sound effects, let people’s imaginations fill in the blanks.”

An iconic tale

Most know the plot of the wildly popular Dickens novella. Since it was first published in 1843, it’s never been out of print, and it’s been adapted dozens of times, including in film, opera, ballet, musical theater and animation. But for those who don’t:

On the eve of Christmas, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley (John Reese), who clanks his way into Scrooge’s bed chamber to serve up a warning: Scrooge must change his miserable, penny-pinching ways or risk walking the Earth for eternity bound in chains as a ghost, himself.

Other ghosts follow: of Christmas Past (Ann Steinhauser), of Christmas Present (David Rowland), and of Christmas Yet-to-Come (Steinhauser). Each reveals scenes of Scrooge’s life, including of his future, that illustrate how his selfish ways have affected (or will affect) others.

“Some people get so self-insulated that they look at the world in a bitter way and this story shows that faced with our ultimate demise, we start to look back and think, ‘Did I screw this up?’ ” Haley said.

Ultimately, says the play’s director, John Reese, it’s a gripping story of a man’s redemption. “It’s the chance for a renewal of someone.”

Memories of his youth

Reese, 76, of Greenfield, says he remembers listening to radios plays as a youth, and based this production largely on those memories of sitting in his living room, or in bed, seeing the stories in his mind’s eye.

“You create the images in your imagination and in many ways its much more creative than what you see in some movies today. They do not leave anything to your imagination,” Reese said. He’d even once heard a radio production of “The Christmas Carol.”

“The ghost scared me even without seeing him,” he said.

Two years ago, Reese and Haley worked together on a full-length, theatrical production of “The Christmas Carol” that was performed at the Academy of Music and involved some 100 people. In contrast, other than the director and the six actors, this production employs just one other artist: the very-important sound engineer, John Iverson.

Iverson, 59, the technical director for the Silverthorne Company and a Bernardston resident, will create the sound effects, live and onstage, that follow the story’s narrative.

Called Foley effects, these were integral to those old-time radio shows, Iverson says, because they richly enhanced the storytelling.

Iverson says listening to a radio play is much like reading a book because the audience has to supply the images themselves, and the sounds will make for a fuller experience.

They will include doors opening and closing, jingling bells, footsteps and a howling winter wind. Iverson will create that last effect with a machine he constructed for the purpose — a canvas-draped wooden cylinder with a crank. When Iverson turns that crank, the wood rasps on the canvas, producing a sound that is reminiscent of a blowing winter wind.

To further add to the auditory experience, Haley came up with the idea of handing out sleep masks, like those offered on airplanes. Cover your eyes with those, he says, and you’ll have to rely on what you hear, not on what you see — just like in those old-time radio plays.

The family-friendly radio play will be presented Friday, at 7 p.m. at The Arts Block 4th Floor, 289 Main St., Greenfield; Saturday at 7 p.m. at The Centennial House, 94 Main St, Northfield; and Sunday at 4 p.m. at The Deerfield Inn, 81 Old Main St., Deerfield.

Tickets cost $10; $5 for youth 10 to 18; children 9 and under are free. To reserve, call 768-7514 or visit the Silverthorne Theater website: www.silverthornetheater.org.