When WALT JONES was growing up around Falls Church, WPGC was his favorite radio station. He listened faithfully to "Big Old Fat Old Dino" (Dean Griffiths) and other WPGC stars, and he would hang around the station, waiting for the occasional gofer assignment.
In Jones' play, "The 1940s Radio Hour," which opens Wednesday at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, there's a similar kid who hangs around the studio of WOV, a 5,000 watt New York station. This character, according to the description Jones has written in his script, "continually inches closer and closer to the central action. He is in love with the idea of being in love with it all."
Jones is inching closer to the central action himself. From his WPGC days he moved up to four years as a college deejay in Florida. Then he was accepted at Yale Drama School. Then he co-created "1940s" (with Carlo Lees) as a cabaret show and guided it through eight different versions, set during eight different periods at the World War II years, until the professional Yale Repertory Company picket it up. Now he has rejected Broadway offers in order to direct his show at Arena (with a cast that's completely new to Arena). And television producers have indicated interest.
The kid in the play, however, has one big advantage over the author. THe play depicts the ambitions and the disappointments and the laughs and the loves at a little radio station on Dec. 28, 1942 - before, during and after the live broadcast of "The Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade." World War II is raging. "We don't dwell on the war," says Jones, "but it breezes in and out." Jones, who is 30 now, was not yet born in 1942. But he wishes he had been 16 or 18 years old then, just like the kid in the play.
"I would have liked to have been involved in the war," he says matter-of-factly. He means W.W.2? That worldwide conflict with all those bombs and bullets? Not quite, admits Jones. He's thinking more in terms of "the Technicolor version of the war." But, he adds, "in the '40s you lived movies," so it was more or less the same thing.
He is especially drawn to December 1942 "because it was an incredibly patriotic time - something we don't understand right now. People were scared to death. When the war had begun a year earlier (for Americans), no one dreamed that it would drag on like it did." But nearly everyone pitched in - "There were more enlistments then than ever before," says Jones - and the times were exciting.
How does Jones know all this if he wasn't there? Well, he has read the books, seen the movies and he owns a copy of every issue of Life magazine that was published between 1939 and 1946. And then there was radio.
Jones was introduced to '40s radio when he was 8 years old and staying with his grandparents in South Carolina. Grandma's bed had a radio built into the headboard, and Walt would lie there and listen to some of the '40s shows that were still around - "Dragnet," "Superman," "The Lone Ranger." He was entranced, and ever since then, "The spirit of the '40s is with me always.
"Radio was a tease," says Jones. "People would turn out all their lights and look at that amber dial," and faraway sounds would drift into their homes. To Jones, the limitations of radio made it more romantic and challenging than the literal images on the TV screens that were sprouting throughout the land. He was particularly intrigued by the ranks of largely unknown "working-class entertainers" on little stations like WOV. These people were waiting for a Big Break on the networks (in "1940s" the characters got a rare chance to perform on a nationwide broadcast), but generally they sang and acted and told jokes primarily for the people in their home towns. Nevertheless, they were pros and they were imbued with a touch of glamor by radio.
The only comparable peformers today are dinner-theater actors, not radio personalities or TV stars, says Jones. "Most radio is just music and news now. There's nothing creative about it any more, and radio people would be the first to admit it." Jones was a radio person himself while attending the University of South Florida, and he tried to be creative, he says. He presented plays over the air, he concocted sound effects, he snipped together excerpts from all of the Beatles' songs into one 40-minute whole, he did some of the stuff associated with the "progressive" radio movement a decade ago. But he was broadcasting an all-night show on a campus radi station. In the '40s the creative radio artists were working in prime time, with all America listening.
As for TV, Jones remembers fondly some of the comedy series of his youth, but the only contemporary series he has a good word for is the defunct "Mary Tyler Moore Show." He has avoided watching the Moore company's new "WKRP in Cincinnati," which happens to be a TV show about a radio station. But he knows exactly what he would do if someone were to agree to make a TV series out of "The 1940s Radio Hour." In fact, he claims he could say right now what each character would be doing in the third episode of the second season.
Jones is big on details. He's delighted that many of the members of the big band that has been assembled for this production of his show are from the Army Band "because they all look so military, which is perfect." Still, he's having a few of them cut their hair and he's ordering new glasses frames for a few.
Arena technicians are creating sound effects "like you're not supposed to be able to do them anymore," says Jones. Old-time sound-effects artist Sydney Brechner has conducted several sessions with cast members showing them some of his tricks. Brechner worked on Fredric March's and Lionel Barrymore's renditons of "A Christmas Carol," and the "1940s" characters do their own "Christmas Carol" during the "Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade" (as did Jones on his Florida program).
Not everything is accurate, however, Jones acknowledges that liberties have been taken in the number of sponsors whose commercials are presented on the "Cavalcade." There was a WOV, but it didn't exist in 1942 and didn't broadcast from the Astor Hotel like the one in the play. The Mutual Network, which is presenting WOV's show nationwide, actually didn't dabble in variety shows very much, says Jones.
The music in "1940s" is more electric than a typical show's would have been in 1942. "Everybody we could think of is represented," says Jones. "I want to show where swing came from, so we have some Dixie sounds, and I want to show where it went, so we have some jazz sounds that didn't really come in until later."
I want to hear it all," says Jones. "I want to pack it all in."