Warming Up the Crowd:
The PEMCO Imagination Theater Warm-Up with Jim French

Transcribed by Stewart Wright

Originally published in the September, 1999 issue of Return With US Now. . ., the newsletter of The Radio Historical Association of Colorado. Updated December, 2000.

Ever wonder what goes into recording a radio drama? Read on and you will find out!

Jim French is no stranger to numerous radio drama fans. Many of us regularly listen to Jim's syndicated Imagination Theater over their local radio station or on the Internet. Do you know that Jim records some of his radio dramas in front of a live audience?

At the time this article was first written, these sessions, under the name of The PEMCO Imagination Theater, took place on the last Monday of the month at the auditorium of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, WA starting at 7:30 PM. (See the Update at the end of the article for information regarding the changes in the recording sessions.)

I attended the June 28, 1999 recording session. There were about 325 to 350 people in attendance, about one-third were children and teenagers. The actors and Foley artists (sound-effect people) are on stage, and the engineer is in the booth. The audience is primed for a unique experience. What you are about to read is the warm-up Jim gave prior to the recording session.

Jim French: What this is all about is for the ear and not for the eye. I wanted to explain to you that we're asking you watch us do the work you will be hearing when we put the shows on the air.

It isn't just to entertain you here tonight in this auditorium. But rather, you're watching us work in such a way we hope will entertain you when you hear it on the air. Having mentioned that, I know that you would like to know when these shows are going to air locally. First of all, we are recording a new Adventures of Harry Nile, "Who Killed Harry Nile," tonight. This show will be aired on August 8, 1999. The second show we will be doing tonight is called "The Weatherman" which is a mystery of sorts and will run on September 12, 1999. (Note: this was the air date for the local-broadcast, not the internationally-syndicated Imagination Theater broadcast).

I thought that I would mention to you now that you won't see a full-fledged production because we are actors standing in front of microphones and sound effects people making the sounds. There are some sounds that can't be produced manually and they are done from recordings that are played from the booth.

Do you have any questions about the show or about the series before we begin and I introduce the cast? (At this time Jim answers questions from the audience.)

Audience Member: Does Murphy (Harry Nile's assistant) have a first name? And where did she grow up?

Jim French: Her first name is Mary. She, for some reason, doesn't want to go with the name of Mary. She's got quite a story about it if you gave her half a chance. She grew up in Southern California.

Audience Member: How long have you been doing local radio drama?

Jim French: The first local radio dramas I did were on KIRO (a Seattle radio station) in 1965. I did two original shows hoping they would stir up some interest. I had to talk the station management into doing them. So I wrote, directed, recorded, and broadcast two half-hour radio plays. Nothing happened; there was no great stampede or clamoring for "More, More" as I had thought there would be. It was wasn't long before that the CBS radio network canceled the last of the soap operas and great night-time radio mysteries and dramas.

In 1973, at KVI in Seattle, they started broadcasting Old-Time Radio shows and called it Theater of the Mind. I was so bold as to as to say, "I used to write radio plays. I could write one for you." The station staff said, "Go ahead." They were very free and easy. It was a wonderful operation. That's how it started.

They got a little reaction and they said, "Could you do another?" I said, "Yes." Pretty soon we started doing them every week, then two a week. We did Dameron (an international trouble-shooter) starring Bob Hardwyck and Douglas Young and The Tower Playhouse which was a random collection of programs.
Note: Jim's Crisis series and the first episodes of The Adventures of Harry Nile were also broadcast on KVI.

Audience Member: Are your shows broadcast outside of Washington State?

Jim French: Yes. We are in about 150 markets nationally.

Audience Member: Is a station listing available?

Jim French: There is station listing available in the lobby or from Transmedia in San Francisco (1-800-BAY- RADIO), who is the syndicator.

Audience Member: You are unique in this business because you write, direct and produce the shows. Is there anybody teaching what you are doing?

Jim French: You must understand that radio writing is a distinct process. It's different from screen writing and stage writing. You really need to learn what all of the requirements are. I have two or three people who seem to be promising as radio drama writers. Even though these people might become able to turn out a script every now and then, I haven't found anyone who can write four scripts a month, which is what I have to do.
I don't want radio drama to die when I do. I would like to see it go on because of the youngsters who get a kick out of it. They realize that there is something about the "Theater of the Imagination" that is way better than a television show or a video game. You can see pictures in your own mind; Radio does that!

Audience Member: Why was the program's name changed from the KIRO Mystery Playhouse to Imagination Theater?

Jim French: The main reason is for the name change is we are no longer on KIRO, we are on KNWX. The reason why we chose Imagination Theater is because that is the name that our syndicator uses for these shows all over the country. So since we had to change it, I thought it would be a good idea to make it standard all over the country.

Audience Member: Are there any books available on writing radio scripts and adapting stories for radio?

Jim French: If there are books, they're out of print. There used to be some books written by people who wrote radio scripts, but they are 40 to 50 years old. I have developed a few techniques for writing. As far as adapting an existing story, I don't do that; they are all original stories. It's a perfectly possible thing to take an a play, not a long play, a one-act play and turn that into a radio play.

There's nothing stopping you from doing a play on the air that takes you to the farthest distant galaxy or into the past or into the future, because it's all done with sound. The limits are only your imagination. But, as far as a text book that tells you how to adapt a work for radio, I know of none.

You see, there's no money in writing radio dramas. (Audience laughter.) That's a simple fact. Maybe, someday this will be a money-making proposition. I am the only producer of a commercial radio drama show on a weekly basis in America. (Audience applauds.) I do consider it a real privilege to do radio drama. Even though we have good ratings in many of the markets where Imagination Theater is aired and has been for three years, it's still not recognized as a vital, valuable radio program format.

You know what is on the radio. It's a talk show, music, news or sports. Where does radio drama fit in the format of a commercial radio station? The answer, it doesn't. So how are we on 150 radio stations? I suppose it's because those radio stations have found a little niche, on the weekends generally, that they would like to fill where it won't do them any harm if Imagination Theater fails. That's frequently the philosophy of radio programming. They're not going to build a big frame around Imagination Theater and feature this show. They have done it in Seattle, but that's because we have had a twenty-some year head start. This idea has been on the air for all these years, but it's brand-new in other areas.

Tonight, I would like to have you meet the people who are going to be doing the show for you. Let me turn the tables and do it backwards.

First, the people that you never get to see or hear, but people that we could not possibly do the show without. The engineer, who stationed up in the booth in the back of the auditorium. She's the person who maintains the proper volume levels on all the microphones. I sit next to her and regulate the music and recorded sound effects which go into the show. The engineer is the person with her hands on the master controls. I would like you to give a nice hand to Peggy Stokes.

Doing live sound effect is an art. We have two practitioners that we are very proud of. I'd like you to meet them - Scott Anderson and Cheryl Jacobs. By the way, they are going to involve you in at the end of these two shows; they will give you a cue for applause. (The sound effects artists raise applause signs.)

Tonight's Adventures of Harry Nile episode is essentially a story written by Larry Albert. Larry is an actor who has worked on dozens and dozens of shows for me. In fact, he works everyday for me as Operations Manager for my company. He has a remarkable gift, not only as a dramatist, but he also is learning what is necessary to write a radio drama. He is doing a great job. This a script that I thought needed to be broadcast, "Who Killed Harry Nile?" No, Harry doesn't get killed, but for a minute or two it looks like he is dead. This whole story, especially a wonderful series of scenes with Harry's cousin, is all the work of Larry Albert.

Here is the person who is Murphy. She is also the director of all of the shows I do. And for 49 years she has been my favorite, long-suffering wife, Pat French.

An actor appearing tonight in both of the shows we will be doing is a veteran star. He has appeared in such movies as "Wild One" with Marlon Brando and "Stalag 17" as an actor and the Narrator. He has also done so many radio acting parts that it would be impossible name them. He was the voice of the Los Angeles Rams for many years. Ladies and gentlemen, Gill Stratton.

Working with us tonight for the very first time is a man who is the morning Jazz host on KPLU. He has much more going for him than being good Jazz host. We have discovered that he is also a fine actor. He doesn't have too much to do on these two shows because it is his first time on Imagination Theater. I am writing a piece for him in which he will have a major role in the next Harry Nile. Will you welcome please Nick Morrison.

That covers everybody but the old grouch himself, the old private eye. The very first word I ever wrote in a Harry Nile script, I thought about you. This guy never knew he was an actor. To this day, he's really convinced that he is not an actor. That's funny because all over the country, in Australia, on cassettes and CDs' he is gaining a real reputation as HARRY NILE. Would you welcome...Phil Harper!

Now one last technical word and we'll get underway with the recording session. The loudspeakers that you are hearing my voice through are going to be turned down a little bit for the actual recording because they cause a bit of a hollow sound. You can imagine that would not work if we were doing a scene that was supposed to take place out-of-doors. You will have to listen a little more carefully. I hope you will be able to catch it all. If we need to stop for any reason, it's no big deal these days. What we do is just stop everything, pick the spot in the script where the mistake occurred and start from there on a new track. We are recording digitally, we don't use tape anymore. Are there anymore questions before we start?

Audience Member: Why do you record it now and play it a couple of months later?

Jim French: There are post-production activities, additional work that must be done. Also, I like to have plenty of shows lined up ahead of time.

Audience Member: Was radio drama ever done as a live broadcast?

Jim French: In the old days of network radio program were done live because there was no really good way to record them. There were transcription disks that most networks would not allow to be played on the air. They were made as reference recordings of live shows; they were not meant to go on the air.

I lived through the renaissance from transcription disks to tape recordings. It is my belief that Bing Crosby broke that taboo. ABC wanted him to a show. He said, "I'll do the show, but I'll do it on tape." They said, On tape? No, it has to be live!" Bing said, "I'll only do the show if you let me tape the shows ahead of time." Then they could scissor out anything that was undesirable. They could make it perfect. So finally, ABC put The Bing Crosby Show on tape and that broke the taboo. Pretty soon, every show was on tape. Originally, because the techniques of recording had not been perfected, radio shows were done live. In certain places in the world they still do it live.

That's all the time we have, we are going to start our shows. After the Harry Nile adventure, we will take a 10 minutes intermission. I hope you will enjoy yourself.

(At this time, Jim goes up to the booth and the recording of "Who Killed Harry Nile?" begins. After the intermission and a prize drawing, Jim begins the introductions of the cast and crew for the second show.)

Jim French: Our second show is called "The Weatherman." It's a fantasy and takes place in a little New England town.

The gentleman who will be leading you through this story, plays the part of a weatherman. I would like you to meet the actor playing him - Bill Brooks.

Here is a man you hear frequently on our show, but not as frequently as I would like because he is a busy guy. He has been a television director, comedy writer, and author. Please meet Frank Buxton.

Next is the gentlemen who comes up from Southern California to grace our local Old-Time Radio club's (Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound) Convention. He has been kind enough to spend another day here to do a radio show for us - Gil Stratton.

We will also bring Larry Albert and Nick Morrison back.

Finally, an actress who has been with us from practically since the beginning, doing some wonderful work. Would you please welcome director, actor, teacher - Lee Paache.

We can't start until the director is on stage. So Pat, where are you? (The director of the show, Pat French comes on stage.) Now we will do the show.


  • The recording of both shows went smoothly; there was only a single, minor fluff of a line in each show and they were immediately corrected. The recording session is completed by 9:00 PM and the audience goes home. They are looking forward to the broadcasts (local and national) of these shows. These people were part of an all too infrequent entertainment phenomenon: the recording of radio drama.
  • The program is no longer locally called The PEMCO Imagination Theater. It now uses the same Imagination Theater title as the syndicated network run.
  • As of the end of January 2000, recording sessions are no longer held at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Most of the new shows will be recorded at Jim French's studio in Bellevue, WA. However, Jim French Productions does have an arrangement with The Kirkland Performance Center in Kirkland, WA to record in front of audiences at least once a quarter in their facility. The Kirkland facility is a modern, performing arts complex with a 400-seat performance hall. The admission charge for the Imagination Theater recording sessions is $4.00 for Adults and $3.00 for kids.
  • In June, 2000, the first Imagination Theater recording session was held there and was sold out two weeks in advance. And this sell-out was with NO advertising. The next recording date was Monday, September 18, 2000 and was another sellout. A Harry Nile episode and a Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes episode were recorded.
  • Imagination Theater'sWeb Site where you can listen to some of Jim French's shows, find individual show listings and summaries, find radio stations that carry Imagination Theater, and purchase Imagination Theater shows on cassettes and CDs.

Copyright 1999, revised December, 2000 by Stewart Wright.

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