By Adam Yuster
Carl Amari is a Chicago-based radio host. Alongside co-host Lisa Wolf, he emcees two programs – a local show called The WGN Radio Theater and a nationally syndicated show called Hollywood 360. Both shows feature classic radio dramas like The Lone Ranger and The Jack Benny Program. In honor of the 30th anniversary of Woody Allen’s Radio Days, I caught up with Carl and asked him a few questions about himself, Radio Days, and the history of radio theater.
Q: How did you get into radio theater?
Carl Amari: I had no idea about it growing up. I used to watch a lot of television, but I had no idea that there was this whole other way of being entertained. One day when I was about 12 years old, I was spending the night at my friend’s house. We were being rowdy and we wouldn’t go to sleep, so my friend’s father got out some 8-track tapes of classic radio shows. He played a scary one for us, and I was just mesmerized by it.
Q: Do you remember what the tape was?
CA: Yeah. It was an episode of Suspense, and it was called “On a Country Road”. I was completely blown away by it, because that was the first time I used the “theater of the mind” to envision what was happening. After that, I became obsessed with radio. When I got into college, I started reaching out to [radio stars like] George Burns – actually, George Burns took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the business. He introduced me to Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle and Red Skelton and all these people, and I started licensing their shows.
Q: In addition to the two shows you host, you produce The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas. How did the idea come about to adapt The Twilight Zone for radio?
CA: Well, many of the classic radio shows made a transition to television in the 1950s. So I always thought it would be interesting to do the opposite. My favorite show growing up was The Twilight Zone. I thought there would be no better show than The Twilight Zone to do on radio because it had all the genres – there were episodes that were Westerns, sci-fi, comedy. It had everything. So I contacted CBS and I pitched them my idea. They loved it. I got Stacy Keach to host – he’s a good friend of mine. We’ve made 100+ episodes, and we’ve used some incredible Hollywood celebrities. They were all familiar with The Twilight Zone, and they thought this was the coolest idea to turn it into a radio drama.
Q: Moving on to Radio Days. The film, set in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, is essentially a series of vignettes about young Joe (Seth Green) and his family. I found it interesting that Joe’s parents scold him throughout the movie for his love of radio, arguing the violence in radio shows will “rot his brain”. I wouldn’t have guessed that this volatility toward violence in entertainment media stretched all the way back to the days of radio. Was this a real belief that people at the time had?
CA: Yeah. It’s all relative, you know. It’s like, back then, the littlest things – it’s completely benign today, the violence in these radio dramas. It was so minor compared to what you see on screen, even in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But back then, you know, the sound of a gunshot killing somebody, they went, “Oh my gosh, that guy killed this person!”
Q: In one scene in Radio Days, Joe’s Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) and her date are enjoying an intimate moment when Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds comes on. The broadcast freaks Bea’s date out so much that he runs off, leaving her alone in her car. Did The War of the Worlds really have that big of an impact on its listeners?
CA: Well, here’s what happened. There was a show on NBC radio back in 1938 called The Chase and Sandborn Hour. Probably 30 or 40 million people listened to that. And then there was this unknown show at the same time on CBS called The Mercury Theater on the Air that was produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman. And it was just a dead hour, it didn’t even have a sponsor. But one week in October of ’38, Howard Koch, a writer for Mercury Theater, he said, “Hey, let’s do the H.G. Wells story The War of the Worlds.” He wrote a script, and Orson and John read it, and they thought it was the most boring thing ever. But then they said, “Why don’t we make it like it’s happening right now, with news bulletins and that kind of stuff?” So they decided to do it that way. At the very beginning of the broadcast, they gave listeners a heads up that this was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells story. But nobody heard that, because everybody was listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour. 8 minutes into The Chase and Sanborn Hour, they brought out [opera singer] Nelson Eddy, and people started dial turning. They came on CBS right at the time that there was a news bulletin saying that there were meteors being shot from Mars towards Earth. They were listening to this, and they were thinking it was real because they didn’t hear the opening that said it was a dramatization, so they just thought it was news coverage of meteors landing all over the Earth and of Martians with death rays who were just annihilating everybody. So yeah, the show caused pockets of panic across the country. And because of that, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] had to make rules against doing stuff like this on radio.
Q: Radio Days mainly focuses on Joe’s family, but the film occasionally makes reference to “radio legends” – behind-the-scenes stories about radio celebrities. Do you have any real-life radio legends that you can tell?
CA: Oh my gosh, yeah. Richard Crenna, who played Colonel Trautman in the Rambo movies, he did a lot of radio shows. One time he was on an episode of Suspense. His line was “I’m going to take this gun and I’m going to shoot you.” So he takes the gun out, he says the line, but the gun won’t shoot. There was something wrong with the blanks. The producer’s looking at him, and he says, “Oh, my gun won’t work. Well, I’ll just take this knife and stab you then!” [laughs] He ad-libbed it, you know. But that was the beauty of radio. People weren’t watching you, so you could do that kind of thing. With radio, you never had to memorize your lines, never had to wear make-up. You just came in, did one or two rehearsals, and that was it. You could play anything, because it was just your voice. You could play someone that looked completely different than you. It was just a wonderful time, a 30-year span of time that was very magical. I’m doing my best to keep it alive.
For more on Carl Amari, you can check out his website: http://www.hollywood360radio.com. Downloadable editions of Hollywood 360, The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, and Amari’s library of classic radio shows are available for purchase at his online store.