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 RFD    (Reprinted form Chesapeake Life Magazine)

Not That Far From Art

Live from the Avalon Theatre: It's "Radio From Downtown"

By Doris Valliant
Photography by Ryan Hulvat

It's a blustery January night outside Easton's Avalon. Passers-by hurriedly dart past the theater, preoccupied by the teeth-chattering, skin-shivering cold. Meanwhile, inside the theater the audience is just getting warmed up, barking, howling, quacking, and occasionally honking like a goose. Not to be concerned-it's just another night at "Radio From Downtown." And at this live radio show, anything and everything goes.

"Radio From Downtown" is a totally different kind of show," says Ellen General, manager of the Avalon Theater who from the get-go thought the show was perfect for the theater. "Radio From Downtown" ("RFD") is a nationally acclaimed two-hour, live-to-tape music/variety radio program that combines its creator Van Williamson's love of music with his love of 1930s- and 1940s-style radio. "If you don't like what you're seeing on stage," says Williamson, "wait 15 minutes, and the next thing up will be completely different."

The Vision

By day Williamson is part of the production staff "Radio Expeditions", a coproduction of National Public Radio (NPR) and the National Geographic Society. But every other month he takes a week's leave to organize "Radio From Downtown." A tall, thin man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Williamson describes "RFD" as a blend of talk, music, radio theater, and comedy, like an Eastern Shore version of a 1940s radio program and similar to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."

"Radio From Downtown" began in 1988 as a two-hour jazz and blues show on WSCL, Salisbury State University's National Public Radio affiliate, where Williamson was the news director. Williamson began to see the show as an opportunity to do live radio and so he organized some musicians who wanted to play jazz on the air. "We played very extemporaneously," he recalls, "and had lots of fun." The first show alternated short live sets with recorded music from Williamson's CD collection-20 minutes in the booth spinning tunes, 20 minutes in the studio playing live. The next show was all live, with improvised "bits" in between the short music sets. He produced the show, did his own sound effects, and recruited his old friend, Jack Purdy, a writer and fine arts critic for the Baltimore City Paper, to help him write a radio play for the broadcast. Not only did he produce, but Williamson also directed, wrote, and booked advertising and all live acts. Save for technical help from NPR engineer Jim Smith and his mobile sound truck, the program was a one-man operation. Eventually, Williamson added some comedy, invited guests, and expanded the band. By fall 1989 a well-balanced format had been developed for a live radio program dubbed "Radio Free Delmarva" that was broadcast in front of a usually packed studio audience at Salisbury State's Caruthers Hall auditorium. In 1995, after a two-year hiatus, "Radio Free Delmarva" moved to Easton's Avalon Theater and changed its name to "Radio From Downtown." Today "RFD" is both a live and taped production, broadcast over WCEI (1460 AM) and WKHS (90.5 FM), as well as televised on Mid-Shore Community Television, Comcast, and Falcon.

Great Minds

Williamson, an avid follower of the old days of radio, learned his craft from listening to radio performers such as Jack Benny, who rose to stardom first in radio with his immensely popular "Jack Benny Show." The wry humor of Bob and Ray, the popular radio duo who started their broadcast in the 1940s, also influenced Williamson. Some gags in the "RFD" plays and other comedy bits Williamson and Purdy have used are reminiscent of the popular radio music-variety show, "Riders Radio Theater." Williamson also listens to Harry Shearer's "Le Show," broadcast from Los Angeles. Fans of television's "The Simpsons" often hear the voice of Harry Shearer as Mr. Burns and other characters. "The whole idea," Williamson says, "was to do live radio the way I heard in my head and occasionally heard on the radio."

Williamson and Jack Purdy write all the original two-act radio plays. "We've written forty-five to fifty of these plays," Williamson says, "with six to seven or twenty-five characters." What began as collaboration between Williamson and Purdy, written in longhand on legal pads, has become computerized, faxed, and now edited by Greg Smith, a former NPR editor and "RFD" actor.

Jack Purdy describes his association with Williamson as a "creative partnership that works." They brainstorm ideas, outline, and then separate and write. Eventually, they put the script together. Purdy likes the process because, he says, "You get to cast yourself in the play." Their partnership was "organic," Purdy recalls. "It developed gradually" and fit into a friendship that's lasted more than twenty-five years. Teaming with Williamson is simply "working with an old friend," Purdy remarks. "There's no pressure."

A Laughing Matter

Using characters that can only be described as good old Eastern Shore boys and girls, "Radio From Downtown" is foremost a program about the Delmarva region, with scenes set in soybean fields, diners, and double-wide trailers. Mixing whatever news is simmering nationally with the Delmarva flavor, the plays are always "pertinent to the area," Williamson remarks. "Scripts are based on whatever is in the news," Greg Smith says. It has become a given that almost all story lines will include the ubiquitous muskrat and nutria. The muskrat is so much a part of the local environment that the fictitious International House of Muskrat is one of the "RFD" "sponsors." Tom Horton, author and native Eastern shoreman, believes, "It's far and away the best muskrat humor to be found north of Louisiana."

Other show "sponsors" reflect life on the Delmarva peninsula. Bob's Bait City that promises "We're at the Bottom of the Food Chain So You Don't Have To Be." The Institute for Cardboard offers seminars on using cardboard, because "Sometimes You Just Need a Good Stiff Piece of Paper." And then there's Slim Dusty's Miniature Dude Ranch, "Where Expectations Have Been Lowered For Your Protection."

A high point of the Purdy-Williamson collaborations was the 1998 Halloween radio play, "Invasion of the Strangers Walk by Night, Part VI-The Terror Continues," a script that parodied Orson Welles's "The War of the Worlds" 1938 broadcast using quirky Delmarva characters and the ever-present muskrat and nutria. Usually the play is a part of the show, but the October 31, 1998, Halloween show was part of the play. Williamson and Purdy stayed as close to Orson Welles's script as possible. Among many hilarious moments: instead of invading Martian spaceships, giant cucumbers took over Delmarva as they marched onto soybean fields somewhere near Dover. That show also featured the thirty-piece American Originals Fife and Drum Corps performing in Halloween costumes; Roger Piantadosi, The Washington Post "Escapes" page editor who introduced his book, Escape Plans: Quick Getaways within Easy Reach of Washington; and well-known author Helen Chappell who read a ghostly tale from her latest Oysterback book, Oysterback Spoken Here. "I've been doing the show since it broadcast from Salisbury State," says Chappell, "and 's always been great fun and a learning experience. Van's given me an opportunity to get up in front of large groups of people and try to make them laugh. Happily, "RFD" audiences are terrific, and they do laugh when I read my short tales." On their first show of the millennium, Williamson featured Tim Junkin, an Easton High School alumnus who now lives and practices law in the Washington area. Junkin talked with Williamson about his book, The Waterman, and shared a passage with the audience. Williamson even books politicians. Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest played the piano during the June 21, 1997, show. On the March 20, 1999, program Williamson talked about taxes with State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Environmental writer Tom Horton stops by from time to time to chat with Williamson and read from his latest book. "It's the one show my eighteen-year-old daughter and my eighty-five-year-old mother equally want me to take them to," Horton says, "and I like to even if I'm not in it. I don't know any other radio host who would include a ventriloquist (although you could see his lips move)."

The May 13, 2000, radio play-complete with original cowboy tunes-used a traditional western theme, except the rivalry wasn't between the sheep ranchers and the cattlemen. In "The Good, The Bad, and The Chicken," Clint Eastwood was replaced by Big Red Kincaid, the leader of the Snakeboys. The scene to this musical play is set in the Wild East, described in the opening number:

Now listen while I tell you, and others who might care about a land where snakes roamed free and snakeboys breathed the air that was clean and pure as driven snow, especially near the groundWhere snakes crawled bellies up and down without making a sound. And life was good and clean and sharp, especially the clothes With snakeskin shoes and belts and suits and boots with pointed toes.

One of the most popular features on every show was the Bellows Babes, accordion players Brenda Miller and Rita Foust. They were "a big part of the show for a long time," Williamson says. Their performance, Williamson adds, "was a monster act. Brenda can really play the accordion, and Rita can sort of play it, and that's the charm of the act."

Williamson read lyrics while the Babes played accordion music, which might or might not go along with his words. It didn't matter. "It was two minutes of great comedy," Williamson says. Every Bellows Babes number ended with Williamson reflecting, "Because like my pappy used to say, it ain't show business unless there's a little accordion music." Sadly, the Babes are now retired, but Williamson says they can "have a spot whenever they want it." Williamson declares, "I like off-the-wall stuff." To be funny "it doesn't have to make sense." According to Ellen General, the majority of the "RFD" audience comes from Washington and Baltimore and not the Eastern Shore, the area around which Williamson's quick-witted story lines focus. "Because much of the comedy is based on local humor," she says, "Some people get it, some people aren't supposed to get it, and some people never get it." But that doesn't keep loyal audiences away.

Music Acts

Musical acts including opera, pop, ethnic, rock and roll, blues, classical, jazz, country-everything but hip-hop-have performed on "RFD." Williamson would book a hip-hop act if he could find one, but so far no one has called. Williamson says, "The music is really good. I have no limits to what type of music I will have on the show." The November 20, 1999, show featured John Ross, who whistled classical music. Williamson booked him after hearing Ross perform on NPR's "Morning Edition."

From the very first show, Williamson included live music. The "RFD" band "Swing Shift" has been part of the show through most of its ten-year run. A professional musician himself, Williamson says the band has always been the glue that holds the show together.

Providing the musical background is no small chore, according to Williamson. "They are on the stage the whole time. On the day of the show they put in a nine-hour day. They can make three times the money on a three-hour gig than on this show that takes nine to ten hours." As with the other "RFD" professionals, it is a labor of love that keeps bringing them back.

The band leader is Jim Miller, a medical doctor who is also a professional trumpet and flugelhorn player. His wife, Pam, occasionally sings with the band. Frank Mahoney, saxophonist; Bruce Chappell, bass player; and Mickey Toperzer, drummer, are long-standing band members. Saxophonist, Otello RFD Live The 2000-2001 Radio From Downtown season includes shows scheduled for November 18, January 20, March 17, and May 19. The November 18 show will feature author Richard Ben Cramer talking about his new book about Joe Dimaggio; composer and musician Bill McQuay will play some selections on the waterphone; the Wanamaker Lewis Blues Band from Philadelphia; and part two of "Bif Delmar, Detective at Sea, and the Case of the Tsunami Tslushee." Other guests to be announced. "RFD" will be broadcast live on the Internet at www.freshwav.com or visit the show's Web site, www.radiofromdowntown.com.