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."
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,
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"
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
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
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.
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
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
The band leader is
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.