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RuyaSonic Radio Program Notes

by Tony Palermo


Notes regarding several of the radio programs created by Tony Palermo for his own productions and workshops including the Museum of Television & Radio's Saturday family Re-creating Radio series. 

NOTE: These scripts and scores are available for purchase and downloading through The RuyaSonic.com Depot. Royalties are scaled for the venue and purpose

You can also see descriptions of all my available Radio Drama Workshop scripts.


Grim Scary Tales - Crusade of Terror!

An original radio drama written & scored by Tony Palermo

Grim Scary Tales is an original horror anthology series similar to Lights Out or Inner Sanctum. This episode, “Crusade of Terror!,” takes place in Turkey in 1204 A.D. with Crusaders conquering a city, but finding something truly terrifying in the caverns below. The series itself is set in 1955, so the horror is not as gruesome as contemporary films or fiction. In a nice twist, the story serves as a subtle allegory for the political “witch-hunts” of the McCarthy-era.

This program  is a mid-1950s horror anthology written especially for the MT&R Re-creating Radio workshop. The genre, music, sound effects, and themes are all period-authentic. What's more, the series itself has a back story that's also an education in radio drama.

In the mid-1950s, network radio was dying because television was luring away the game shows, sitcoms and dramas--and their big audiences. That left radio open to more “eccentric” programs--things that you couldn't do on TV such as horror and science fiction. These genres were also in vogue with the emerging teenage culture of the time. So our program is a contemporary of those irony-filled E.C. comic books such as Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt, as well as movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Thing.

Our fictional series, Grim Scary Tales is what was called a “sustaining” show--meaning it was being produced by the network without a commercial sponsor. Orson Welles’ famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio drama was also a sustaining show--which sparked such ratings that Campbell’s Soup immediately signed on. Sustaining shows often tackled controversial subjects and were much artier than sponsored shows since they were free from advertiser meddling or ratings anxiety. This freedom was attractive to radio dramatists and produced interesting programs. However, as desirable as artistic freedom may appear, most radio shows aspired to being sponsored, since the alternative was low budgets and eventual cancellation.

So, our fictional producer of Grim Scary Tales is trying desperately to turn his sustaining program into a sponsored one. Luckily, he has talked the makers of Rid-Go, a rat poison, into a trial sponsorship. Rid-Go has little need for radio advertising, however they will sponsor the show, on the condition the program deal with rats and motivate listeners to rush out and buy Rid-Go rat poison. They not only want to run a commercial, they want the whole show to be a commercial for Rid-Go.

Our fictional radio writer agrees to do a rat-themed horror story and decides to use the Bubonic Plague, which was carried by rats, as an angle. Since Biblical epics and Knights of the Round Table films were popular in the mid-1950s, he decides to write a story about Crusaders bringing plague-ridden rats back to Europe from the Middle East. In Medieval times, witches were burned at the stake, so there are some nice horror elements already available here. But witches bring to mind the anti-Communist “witch hunts” of the McCarthy-era. Our fictional 1955 writer--and let's go ahead and make him a blacklisted screenwriter slaving for a low paying “sustaining” show--decides to write a parable about Senator Joe McCarthy getting a divine comeuppance. This inspires the writer to add a political subtext to this tale about rats. So he writes a story where you have a zealous despot torturing confessions out of “un-believers”, burning a lying politician at the stake, and forcing people to “rat” on their friends. The Crusaders even discover a “long, black list of names, written in blood--the names of the damned!” Our writer concocts a horror drama that ties all these elements together with the highly infectious Bubonic plague (payback for intolerance and persecution) and of course, the all-important rats that Rid-Go insisted upon.

So, in the Grim Scary Tales episode, “Crusade of Terror!” we have a scarifying show with ghouls and demons and caverns and curses; a struggling radio producer bending to a sponsor's wishes; a black-listed writer with an ax to grind; and the political damnation of a persecuting zealot.

“Crusade of Terror!” relies heavily upon mood music playing underneath the dialogue and sound effects. I composed the music to sustain a sense of dread--which is key to producing horror.  In keeping with the 1955 setting of the series, the instruments used are all authentic--there are no synthesizers here, but that is a real (period-authentic) Theremin playing the Grim Scary Tales theme at the beginning and end of the show.

As a radio dramatist, I wrote the script with the music in mind, intending to create a story that was truly scary and not just a rehash of vampires, werewolves and other horror clichés that, by endless repetition, have lost much of their power to frighten. At the same time, I wrote a drama with 1950s levels of horror, since contemporary horror levels of gore would not be suitable for a family workshop. I don't think students performing the show will be frightened, but listening to it may be another story. Radio drama is a perfect medium for horror. I hope you enjoy telling this “grim, scary tale” as much as I did creating it.

NOTE: There is another Grim Scary Tales episode, called "The Pirate's Curse" It is set in 1720 and deals with Pirates finding the fountain of youth and it's terrible secret on the lost continent of Atlantis.


Life's Little Ups & Downs

An original radio drama written & scored by Tony Palermo

Life’s Little Ups & Downs is an original 1953-style soap-opera similar to The Guiding Light and Young Widder Brown. In this episode, Barbara Jones copes with her brother Raymond’s strange illness. In a clever use of radio, we venture inside Raymond’s head to re-live his Safari plane crash and jungle ordeal. Meanwhile, Barbara’s arch-nemesis, Audrey Snead, plots revenge, and a strange package arrives. Our lively show features classic soap-opera organ and several commercials for “Klenso--the modern way to clean.”

A short script, excerpted from this show is available at life_demo_script.pdf, in the Adobe PDF format. You'll need the free Acrobat reader to view or print that PDF file. You can also download and listen to a short recording of Life's Little Ups & Downs, as a three-minute MP3 clip. [1.7 Mb] This clip is very popular for how it demonstrates the imaginative range of audio theatre.

Introduction:

In this Radio workshop, we will produce a daytime serial. These were radio shows that ran Monday through Friday with a continuing story and were often sponsored by detergent and soap companies. That's why they were called soap operas. Like a musical opera, these shows were usually sentimental with exaggerated stories based around women characters, their heartaches and problems. On radio these shows ran 28 years,  from 1932 to 1960, but some of them moved to television in the 1950s. Another World, General Hospital,  and One Life to Live are some of the current popular soaps that were created by the same people who produced and wrote daytime serials for radio.

Millions faithfully listened to soap operas, which allowed them to live other lives and learn from others’ misfortune, and there was plenty to learn from. With all the divorces, betrayals and sudden illnesses, radio soap operas had so much heartache that we had to lighten up our workshop soap to keep it from being too depressing, but also to give the sound effects department more to do.

Radio soap operas had few sound effects. It was mostly just doorbells, telephones, pouring lemonade and baking cookies. Our program contains the traditional soap opera elements of a sudden illness, some plotting enemies and cookie baking, but we also have a radio montage of a man remembering a jungle ordeal--or is just a nightmare? The result will be a bit comic, but not all soap operas were humorless and that's why our soap opera is called Life’s Little Ups and Downs.

It's easy to laugh at the exaggerated situations and music in a soap opera, but that is not our intention here. We have a tragic story to which we are adding some adventure and that could be tricky to pull off. We will play our story straight and not make fun of the characters.


Life’s Little Ups and Downs - Back story

Our program, now in its eighth year, takes place in the quiet town of Seville, population 10,000-- “a town not much different than your own”, where everybody has at least heard of everybody else. The year is 1953. Our story concerns Barbara Jones, age 30, her family, friends and enemies.

When in high school, Barbara (then Barbara Brown), was engaged to Sterling Wood. Her best friend, Audrey Snead, helped them elope to New River City.  Barbara and Sterling were secretly married, but “something” happened and Barbara came home alone. Sterling disappeared and was never heard of again.

Soon afterwards, Barbara’s house burned down, killing her parents, but sparing Barbara, her brother- Raymond Brown, and dog, Fido. They went to live with Uncle Newton MacGillicuddy, who'd won the Irish sweepstakes, but didn't let anyone in town know, including his family.

After high school, Barbara got a job at Kay's bakery. Audrey was engaged to Adam Hamilton, Barbara’s next door neighbor. For Audrey’s wedding, Barbara baked the wedding cake herself. But to everyone's horror, Adam choked on the cake at the wedding banquet and died. To worsen matters, the hearse bearing Adam's body was stolen and the body was never recovered. Audrey harbors an intense hatred of Barbara to this day and has vowed to destroy her.

Barbara went to stenographer school and became a court reporter. That's where she met Sam Jones, who was on trial for drunk driving. Sam was very charming and very sorry for his offense--Barbara liked his humility. He was acquitted when the arresting officer couldn't appear in court.

After a brief courtship, Barbara and Sam were married and bought a house. Barbara had a son, Jimmy, now ten years old, and a daughter Sally, seven.  Sam is a workaholic at “the office” where his young secretary, Janie Allen, seems to have many problems. The Jones’ next-door neighbor is Susan Foley, the local door-to-door cosmetics saleslady. Susan was widowed when her fireman husband died in a blaze five years ago. Susan has a teen-age daughter named Mona, who has had some trouble at school. Barbara and Susan became fast friends. Susan is a mystery fan and suspects everything. What's more, she's secretly having an affair with Dr. Jackson Debbs, head internist at Seville Memorial Hospital.

Three years ago, Uncle Newton told Raymond of the secret fortune. Raymond stole some money, and married Gloria Meadows, a hostess at The Hi-Hat nightclub. A year later, Uncle Newton discovered the theft and confronted Raymond, who quickly left town on a Safari--leaving Gloria behind.  Raymond’s plane crashed in “the Jungle” two years ago and he was presumed dead. In the meantime, Uncle Newton died and Gloria had gotten a job at a realty company and married her boss, Steve Adkins.

Last year, on what would have been her 10th wedding anniversary, Audrey Snead tried to run down Barbara at a school crosswalk. Instead, she crashed her car and was paralyzed from the waist down.  She became a manicurist at the Jo-Dee Beauty Salon, where she was befriended by Gloria Brown, who took pity on her. Audrey is taking advantage of Gloria to exact her revenge on Barbara.

Raymond Brown was recently discovered alive after two years in the jungle and returned to Seville. Barbara was very happy to be reunited with her brother, but Gloria was not. Because Raymond wasn't dead, Gloria's marriage to Steve Adkins was annulled and she reluctantly returned to Raymond. They didn't get along, partly due to Raymond’s difficulty in adjusting to normal life after his terrible jungle ordeal. Just last month Raymond was caught at the apartment of Harriet Appleby, Seville's town librarian. Audrey tipped Gloria off, who caught him and sued for divorce--then, somehow, she found out about the secret fortune. Gloria tried to stop the divorce proceedings, but he refused. Lately, Raymond has become ill and is in the hospital.


Life’s Little Ups and Downs - Synopsis  for Episode #1829

As our current episode begins, Barbara Jones is visiting her brother, Raymond Brown, in the hospital. Dr. Jackson Debbs explains that Raymond is now catatonic, suffering from some unknown disease. Raymond can’t speak, but we learn of his jungle ordeal as he vividly remembers it. Barbara’s 10 year-old son, Jimmy calls to talk to Uncle Raymond.

Meanwhile, at the Jo-Dee beauty salon, manicurist/invalid, Audrey Snead and Gloria Brown are plotting to have Raymond committed to an insane asylum and Gloria declared his legal representative for the secret  inheritance. Gloria pledges to help Audrey pay for an operation that will allow her to walk again. Audrey sobs as she recalls how Barbara baked the wedding cake that her groom, Adam, choked to death on.

Meanwhile, Barbara is baking cookies with her best friend, Susan Foley. They discuss the seriousness of Raymond’s illness and Susan wonders if insanity runs in the family. Barbara gets another mysterious phone call from some man who wants to see her. She's very secretive about this and won't even share it with Susan. A strange package arrives at the house, containing a jungle idol. Barbara pricks her finger on a pin sticking out of the idol and passes out.

The next morning, Barbara’s husband Sam awakens her. Barbara is troubled by a nightmare. As Sam leaves, Barbara fears Sam is taking a little too much interest in his secretary, Janie, and her problems.


Rick Lowell - Private Eye

The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of (Parts 1-3)

An original radio drama series written & scored by Tony Palermo

Rick Lowell - Private Eye is an original 1940s-style detective drama series similar to The Adventures of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. This is a three part series of 20 minute episodes where Rick searches for the movie-prop of The Maltese Falcon movie and runs into Nazi agents, crooked dames, snooty art dealers, actors playing English detectives, and dangerous gangsters. This exciting and often humorous show is packed with classic 1940s Los Angeles settings, “hard-boiled” dialogue, and colorful characters. It examines the war time hysteria of early 1942 together with a deadly mix of screen fantasy and real crime. The musical score is in the tough orchestral style of 1940s detective films.

This three-part Rick Lowell series is called “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” which, besides being a paraphrase from William Shakespeare's The Tempest, is also the final line of The Maltese Falcon, the1941 detective movie classic starring Humphrey Bogart. In that film, several crooks seek a foot high statue of a falcon made of solid gold and covered with rare jewels. Several characters get killed over this Maltese Falcon statue. Rent the video. It's a marvelous film version of the classic detective novel by Dashiell Hammett.

This Rick Lowell series is related to The Maltese Falcon, except Rick is trying to find the prop man who worked on the Falcon movie. As it turns out, the prop falcon has disappeared and people are after it, thinking it's the real Maltese Falcon--worth up to a million dollars. Our story opens in February 1942, just after the movie has closed and World War II has begun. This is a Los Angeles rife with anti-Japanese paranoia, blackouts, and fears of imminent air raids--a time not unlike our own.

In the first episode, Rick Lowell is hired by Alice Reese to find her husband, Lyndon Reese, the prop man from The Maltese Falcon. After tangling with some gangsters, Lowell visits a movie set at the Warner Brothers studio  for a "golden age" British detective film, Inspector Rufflethorpe to the Rescue--a scene from which is performed, much to Lowell's hard-boiled dismay. Between takes, Lowell questions Reese's prop assistant and discovers Lyndon had a girlfriend--actress Gladys George from the Falcon film.

While running down her address, Lowell researches the Falcon story by visiting a snooty Beverly Hills antique dealer--who questions Lowell's detecting skills. Tracking down Lyndon's girlfriend, Rick finds her freshly murdered in her Wilshire Boulevard apartment--just as somebody starts pounding on the door--the police, the murderers, thugs? While there, Lowell gets a phone call from the victim's answering service with the message, “Time to deal. Bring your half at 9 p.m.” He searches the apartment and finds a package containing...a Maltese Falcon prop and a baggage claim ticket from Union Station, downtown. As he's leaving her building, a car pulls up and rains lead on Lowell. Episode one ends there with a cliffhanger.

Episode two introduces the mysterious Myrna Stanton, a tall redhead--trying to broker a Maltese Falcon. Rick tangles with a murderous thug, gets double crossed, and winds up at a prize-fight where he meets an expatriate German film producer, who may or may not be a Nazi-sympathizer. Later, Rick is abducted and taken to a crooked nightclub in the "Chiseltown" district, where he is reunited with that red-headed stick of dynamite, Myrna and her gangster friend, Johnny Valletta. The tables are turned--a couple of times--as Rick plunges into a gun fight with Valletta's gang for another cliffhanger ending.

Episode three opens with Rick and Myrna on the run. After framing Valletta for Gladys' murder, they head out to a cottage in the Hollywood Hills only to be surprised by Lyndon Reese, the missing movie prop man. Allegiances flip flop several more times as Rick ends up at the Warners prop house with plenty of gangsters, Nazis, double and triple-crosses, and a Japanese air raid in a fatal finale--fatal for some characters.  

The Rick Lowell - Private Eye shows are especially popular with adults and teenagers, but pre-teens like it too. Parents get a big kick out of kids spouting hard-boiled dialogue such as the femme fatale saying "Nazis? What do Nazis want with me?" answered by "It ain't a manicure, sister."



Inspector Rufflethorpe 

The Twitshyre Murder Case

A radio drama written & scored by Tony Palermo

Inspector Rufflethorpe is a 1938-style mystery drama similar to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This program is a classic British detective story, the type set in an English manor--with a fresh corpse and long list of eccentric suspects. In this episode, "The Twitshyre Murder Case," Inspector Rufflethorpe of Scotland Yard, and his assistant, Sgt. Frimly are called to a country manor in Margate to investigate the mysterious death of Lord Archibald  Farquhar-Bensington. There's a ghostly  séance, a series of baffling murders, and a monument to deductive logic when the culprit is finally unmasked.

This style of "whodunit" mystery was very popular from 1910 to 1940, when the American "hardboiled" detective story supplanted it in print, film, and on radio. While Agatha Christie's novels continue to be popular today, these drawing room murder-mysteries have largely disappeared. Inspector Rufflethorpe affectionately revels in the clichés of the genre—without resorting to parody. My scripts never make fun of the programs of the past and Inspector Rufflethorpe is no exception, however preposterous its plot twists may be.

A sub-genre of the "Golden Age" detective story was the puzzling "locked-room murder"— where
the victim is in a locked room. A murder, most foul, is committed, and yet, when the room is opened, the murderer is gone! Novelist and radio dramatist, John Dickson Carr specialized in this style and I've created a doozy of a plot for "The Twitshyre Murder Case."  In classic radio fashion, we first learn of the crime and later re-enact it--with appropriate sound effects--as the amazing solution is revealed.

At Twitshyre Manor, Detective-Inspector Rufflethorpe encounters a variety of colorful suspects. The names of the characters give a special flavor to this style of mystery; Lady Margaret Farquhar-Bensington, Colonel Cuthbert T. Frothingham, the mysterious Countess Valeska, Gretchen Laytherly--a West End ingénue, her beau, Ralph Stellsmore; the rakish personal secretary, Reginald Sklemsdale, and the family solicitor, Kirwood Crumpton, Esq. In radio drama, you must sketch characters quickly, and name and manner of speech are the only tools available. With a properly descriptive name, listeners can easily imagine the characters--costume and all.

I was inspired to create Inspector Rufflethorpe after reading hardboiled author, Raymond Chandler’s famous 1948 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” where he gleefully gores the carcass of English drawing room murders. Chandler wrote snidely of  ridiculous mystery novels with titles like, "The Triple Petunia Murder Case" and “Death Wears Yellow Garters.” I decided to add a Golden Age genre piece into Part One of my own hardboiled Rick Lowell – Private Eye series, “The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of.” For Rick Lowell, I created a scene on a Hollywood movie set for an “Inspector Rufflethorpe” Golden Age-style film and then used it to dovetail Los Angeles' WW II anti-Japanese paranoia into a ridiculous “least likely suspect” trick where the script has been re-written to make the Japanese gardener (on an English Estate!) the murderer.

This element was both funny and a meta-detective genre slap because later in the "Stuff" series, the cynical, 1940s tough guy detective winds up resorting to such Golden Age clichés as ashes and a banded Egyptian cobra to solve his own hardboiled mystery. The brief Inspector Rufflethorpe scene was so much fun, I expanded it into a full length program of its own—with any parodist elements removed.


Blast-Off!

Greetings from the Planet Killer

An original radio drama written/scored by Tony Palermo

Blast-Off! is an original 1957-style science fiction anthology series similar to Dimension X. This episode, “Greetings from the Planet Killer,”  takes place 40,000 years in the future where females have evolved into fierce space warriors.  The show features a spy mission to "Planet X," evil blob creatures, a doomsday machine, a space battle and startling twist ending. The electronic musical score is done entirely using 1950s-style synthesizers.

In our re-created radio-universe, this Blast-Off! episode, “Greetings from the Planet Killer,” is being broadcast just two months after the Soviet “Sputnik” satellite was launched. The Cold War is in full swing, with the Space Race just starting up.

“Greetings from the Planet Killer” is an example of the “Space Opera” genre of science fiction--two fisted good guys, an older scientist and a pretty girl meet evil aliens intent on destroying the world, but this particular story puts a unique spin on the genre. It is set 40,000 years in the future, where evolutionary changes have resulted in a female-dominated society. The two-fisted good guys are large, fierce female she-warriors while the males are the weaker sex and assigned to lower-status positions such as medics and advisors. The story is full of retro-futuristic lingo about “electronic brains,” “proton-pistols,” and “visi-plates” as well as other Sci-Fi staples such as blobby aliens and "Planet X."

Our heroine, Commander Tal, is first heard admitting guilt in the destruction of the world. She then recalls the events leading up to the catastrophe. In flashback, we see Commander Tal and her crew approaching Planet X to destroy an  alien super-weapon, but they are captured by the evil Zoppulzians. Zopps are refrigerator-shaped quivering masses of protoplasm who can form tentacles at will. They butcher most of Tal’s crew and torture Dr. Kriov, the male medic. To test their weapon, they subject Tal and young nurse Lore to radiation. However, the Zopps begin melting. Discovering this, Central Command orders Tal to tow the giant space craft/weapon to their home base, where disaster follows when the device is used to destroy a Zopp invasion force, but then explodes in a nuclear holocaust that incinerates the world.

As her flashback ends, Tal’s science-robot translates memory banks from the alien spacecraft and they discover its makers were “hideous” TWO LEGGED beings. A taped message is played back identifying the “Children of the Earth” as the monsters who unleashed this doomsday weapon on these unsuspecting, but hardly innocent aliens.

The "evil" doomsday space-craft is actually a 1950s-90s space probe which traveled for 40,000 years to arrive at the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Once power was supplied to it, the probe resumed its programmed tasks--drilling a core sample and scooping up rocks. The craft only appears huge and deadly because the aliens in the story are tiny--by human standards.

This is a precautionary tale about using nuclear power in space probes, the danger of the arms race and even works as a parable about letting children play with guns.

The musical score keeps to vintage mid-1950s “electronic tonalities” using a Theremin and other early synthesizer-type sounds. The cues follow the lead of the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, with collections of “space noises” and few recognizable musical themes. However, I do model portions of the score after Bernard Herrmann’s scary 1951 space soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Science fiction sound effects are difficult to produce manually, so by having plenty of space sounds in the score, it enhances the outer space atmosphere and helps depict the strange planet-scapes and alien laboratories.

For dialogue, I rely on a telephone filter to mimic space suit radios and use a reverb to portray Zopp telepathy. The Zopps also speak in a blubbery way by having the actors flick their lips with their fingers as they talk. The robot voice can be through a filter mic or an actor imitating an stiff, monotonic robot. Here's a link to information on a variety of ways to produce the filtered voice effect

I used female space warriors to give my classic-based repertoire its first women action characters. Most old radio genres (Westerns, Detective Shows, Super-heroes) excluded women from powerful or exciting roles. Whereas a science fiction show can do anything and so, our star is a female--although, not human. The entire reversing of men's and women's roles in the story is actually a red-herring to distract the audience from realizing the characters are not from the Earth. The Zopps and the robot are un-sexed.

Science fiction is often a horror story that substitutes technology for the supernatural. I've treated it here as a scary action show that tackles important ideas: (nuclear power, sexism, Pandora's Box, the U2 incident, Communist infiltrators, the Cuban Missile Crisis, terrorists spies, etc) in a science fiction style that is so old it is new, especially to young people.

The program was envisioned for a Jet Propulsion Laboratory workshop to illustrate how teachers can use radio drama to teach science. A ten-minute version of this show, Tales of Outer Space, was derived from the full-length Blast Off! script for use in shorter workshops.


A Christmas Carol

written by Charles Dickens and adapted & scored by Tony Palermo

NOTE: My adaptation and pre-recorded musical score CD are available for other groups to perform. I offer a 60-minute version that is very complete, and makes full use of  Dickens' Victorian dialogue,  and also a 40-minute version that omits several minor scenes (the businessmen, the rag and bone shop, the covered corpse), trims the scenes of Nephew Fred's party and the boy told to buy the prize turkey, and has simpler renderings of Dickens' dialogue.

Contact for more information.

Writer/Director’s notes

My radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol  restores this oft-told tale to its source in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. In the 160-odd years since this story appeared, it has been bowdlerized and cut to fit the conventions of the day--resulting in widespread mis-perceptions and simplifications of its true meaning. Most people are only familiar with second-hand retellings and any accusations of triteness and cliché against this story are most likely attributable to poor adaptations.

With this in mind, I've endeavored to create a version that is both faithful and fresh. The dialogue is nearly verbatim from Dickens' text, however the emphasis and psychological shadings are my own as I sought to reinforce Dickens' original message. This "Ghost Story of Christmas" is particularly well suited to the medium of radio--where the audience's imagination provides an unlimited special effects budget. Please take note of my intentions when producing this script.

Charles Dickens's major literary themes were memory and forgiveness. He believed that through experiencing the joy and sorrow of memory, you could learn to live properly in this world. Accordingly, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption is carried out by memory, example, and fear.

Scrooge has often been mistakenly presented as an evil man with no redeeming characteristics who suddenly gets converted--overnight! That perception has been fostered in many of the film and animated versions produced over the years and often results in a rather boring fable for children. However, this instant redemption--what critics call “the Scrooge problem,” can be overcome. There must be motivation for Scrooge's miserly behavior and he must be permitted to change little by little, so the final conversion isn't totally unbelievable. The elements of a convincing transformation are in Dickens' book, but hardly anywhere else. It boils down to understanding the character of Scrooge.

First, Ebenezer Scrooge isn't just evil--that’s one-dimensional. He's got a tough shell on the outside to protect his squishy soft interior. He holds terrible, anti-social attitudes, but has them for a reason. His character is based upon Charles Dickens’ regrets for his own personal behavior--in not being kind enough to his fellow man, in not being charitable enough to unfortunates. In fact, Scrooge's history is modeled upon Dickens’ early life.

Memory: Scrooge's Tortured Past

Through the Ghost of Christmas Past, we learn that Scrooge was raised in the country, where they observed an old-fashioned Christmas. He was sent away to a dismal boarding school and (like Dickens) was left there over several Christmases by a remote and cruel father. The schoolboy Scrooge sought escape in books---fantasies that protected him from the cruel world--and took him out of it.  He loved his sister, the angelic Fan, who later died giving birth to Fred--which explains Scrooge's  resentment for his good-natured nephew.

The young Scrooge was taken out of school and put to work in a warehouse run by the jolly Mr. Fezziwig--who serves as one of several models for Scrooge's re-education.  In the world of business, Scrooge/Dickens sought financial success as a way to fortify himself from the harsh realities of  loneliness and a rapidly industrializing Britain. Unfortunately, Scrooge's wish to make himself invulnerable also shut him off from humanity--which is why his fiancée, Belle, breaks their engagement. This further isolates him until he is entirely alone, “as secret and solitary as an oyster.”  His partnership with the similarly cold-blooded Jacob Marley reinforces Scrooge's miserly ways.

However, despite the warped personality, Scrooge retains a keen intelligence--he is a successful businessman--and has a biting sense of humor. He doesn't see himself as evil--he’s just being "practical." Here he personifies modernism and Puritanism--ideas firmly in place when Dickens wrote the story. (Please note that British Puritans discouraged “pagan” Christmas celebrations and had largely succeeded in eliminating the holiday as a feast of any kind by 1800. Their social engineering of the workhouses separated families and produced thousands of “orphans” when the parents were still alive. Dickens sought to change society.)

Scrooge's Saving Grace

Humor is the key to my interpretation of Scrooge--not jolly, but snide humor. I've left Dickens’ dialogue alone,  but I freshen it up by having Scrooge deliver it as biting sarcastic jokes to show his sense of superiority and utter disdain for the fools of the world. Think of him as a nasty, wise-cracking cable TV pundit--smart, but twisted.  He's a self-made man who can’t see "making idle people merry.” 

There's a hidden laugh behind his most famous lines. He's thinks he's being clever when he asks the charity seekers, “Are there no prisons?” He thinks he's being  funny describing how idiots should be “boiled with their Christmas pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their heart!” In my view, Scrooge doesn't believe this in a literal sense. He's making mean-spirited jokes--chortling to himself. I even have him laugh as he delivers these outrageous pronouncements. Here, Scrooge is being provocative and very entertaining--to himself. He's in his own world. It's the self-satisfied smugness of somebody who has it made. He's laughing all the way to the bank.

Scrooge's ill-humor is a way to leaven his misanthropy--otherwise he comes off as a monster--someone beyond hope. However, that's just the way many adaptations portray Scrooge--as evil incarnate. The trouble is, the harder you make Scrooge appear, the more unconvincing his eventual conversion becomes--the "Scrooge Problem".

The "Wicked Scrooge" approach ignores Dickens' themes of memory and forgiveness. Scrooge knows the difference between right and wrong, but feels contempt for those that don't share his values of thrift and practicality--so he lampoons the "losers" with self congratulating put-downs. Think of Scrooge as a smarty-pants who finds himself endlessly clever. In my view, if Scrooge has a sense of humor, then he is human--and therefore, has a possibility of redemption. The various ghosts wipe the smirk off his face and through hocus-pocus psychoanalysis and example, pave the way for his eventual salvation.

Example: How to Keep Christmas

On the example side, I make sure to show how Scrooge should “keep Christmas” by vividly depicting the celebrations at Fezziwig’s, the Cratchit home and Fred's party.  When Dickens wrote the story, the Christmas holiday was celebrated the way Easter is today--you go to church and there are a few gifts for children. Dickens converted the 12 day Yuletide feasts (of pagan origin) which had been held in large country manors, into smaller scale celebrations that could be held at work, home and among friends. The feasts, children's games and punch were popularized by the story and revolutionized the way we celebrate the holiday. If you view Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present as a variant/prototype of a pagan Father Christmas/Santa Claus, nearly everything about our modern Christmas comes from Dickens's tale--a fact I highlight in the announcer's introduction.

Fear: The Ghost Story of Christmas

Fear is the final motivator for Scrooge's conversion. Once softened up emotionally by the first two ghosts, he now reviles the callousness and materialism of the businessmen and the rag and bone shop grotesques. The dead body and Tiny Tim’s passing move him to compassion, leading him and the Sprit to the graveyard scene, which is the most difficult in the story.

Most adaptations of the "Carol" fail right here. They show Scrooge quaking in fear and then, somehow, he is saved. Several versions even have him fall into the grave, but at his own tombstone, Scrooge wouldn't just be afraid of dying. After all, everybody dies. The crypt alone isn't enough motivation for the miser to change his ways. He is saddened by the death of Tiny Tim, but must also undergo his own demise to be re-born.

To finish him off, Scrooge must be reminded that he's headed for Marley’s fate--eternal damnation! So, I bring back the rattling chains and hundreds of  phantoms from Marley’s visit. Now, that could scare him into being a nice guy--and gets us past the implausible “Scrooge problem.”

Scrooge repents, of course, but is only saved when he says, "I'll change! I'll change... I pray! I beg you." It's the word "pray" that turns things around and this miser's submission to God is a fitting Victorian Christian touch. With it, the phantoms vanish and Scrooge is saved.

Why a "Ghost Story of Christmas" anyway? It was an English custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve--stemming from the old Yule celebrations of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, and Dickens wrote several other supernatural Christmas tales. My adaptation seeks to play up the ghostly aspects of the story--but in the context of 19th century Christian beliefs. Marley’s Ghost is truly scary, as are the hundreds of phantoms.

Likewise, to increase Scrooge's fear, I use thunder and wind sounds to add real menace to the graveyard scene. To get a ghostly flavor where necessary, I use a slight reverb for the spirits--and also for Scrooge, when he accompanies them. I employ the reverb to depict the spiritual realm as distant, yet nearby. And Scrooge segues from the graveyard to his bedroom by the reverb becoming drier and drier--a nice radio touch. Afterward, the cacophony of church bells announce both Christ's birth and Scrooge's re-birth.

Social Protest

The last area I restore, is Dickens’ beloved soap box preaching about the children, “Ignorance and Want”--a scene missing from many versions. Charles Dickens was a liberal social reformer--he’d been poor and knew firsthand the horrors of life in the workhouses, the factories, and the streets.

In most adaptations, this social message gets deleted in favor of more sentimental scenes--some actually turning “Tiny Tim” into the star, but charity is what is central to Dickens’ Christmas--Goodwill towards men. Charity despite the hard weather and economic pressures. Dickens takes the metaphor of Christ's offer of heavenly redemption and literally brings it down to Earth. His Christmas is a utopia and Scrooge's journey there is Dickens' model for us all. Without this plea for charity to the less fortunate, the story becomes too materialistic as a paean to feasts and games--hardly what Dickens, the moralist, intended.

What Christmas Is All About

Some object to Dickens’ Carol  for its lack of references to religion, but they fail to see Tiny Tim as a metaphor for Christ--Tim’s crutch is his cross; his death redeems Scrooge; his creed is  “God bless us, every one”; Marley’s ghost and the chained phantoms are damned souls to whom Christ is unknown; Scrooge is a "wise man" who travels far before bestowing his gifts; Scrooge’s death and resurrection, etc. Charles Dickens was too much an artist of symbol and myth to tell his story any more directly than he did. Those who can’t see Christ in this Christmas story, have perhaps a bit too much fundamentalism clouding their eyes. This subtext informs us as we produce the play.  Paradoxically, with the religious themes being only in the subtext, the play can be presented in government-subsidized theaters and schools without being seen as overtly advocating an exclusively Christian message. Charity and goodwill are after all, prized by the secular and non-secular alike. The “Carol’s” message is truly universal.

Music

In scoring A Christmas Carol, other than my own ghost and suspense music, I adapted real Victorian carols throughout. I tried to use less well-known carols, to avoid cliché or sentimentality, without sacrificing the authentic characteristics that period music could lend to the drama. I employed the carols to reinforce emotional and structural connections in the story.

For example; Belle's theme ("The Coventry Carol") is played by a music box--a gift from Scrooge--that winds down as their relationship crumbles. "In The Bleak Mid-Winter" plays under Scrooge's visit to his boyhood and his good-hearted sister, Fan. This theme returns after Scrooge's redemption, played by a heavenly harp at the party where he is welcomed back into the family by Fred, Fan's son. 

In radio drama, sound effects are motion and music is emotion, and Christmas music has a powerful effect on audiences, evoking both fond memories and reverence. I can't understand why other composers have not used this approach in scoring this story--it being so naturally obvious and highly effective.

In my pre-recorded musical score, the instrumentation is strictly Victorian:  brass choir, pipe and reed organs, hand bells, church bells, chimes, cymbals, timpani, fiddle, concertina, music-box, wine glasses (glass harmonica), choirs and strings. I think this musical underscore adds greatly to the production.

Sound Effects

Bells are central to this story and I use plenty of them in the score and as sound effects. The bells serve as punctuation and as a metaphorical "wake up call" to Scrooge--who lost a fiancée named “Belle.” The program's sound effects begin with jingling bells and the tiny bell on Scrooge's office door, and work their way through clocks, wind chimes, death-bells, and finally, to a cacophony of church bells when Scrooge is saved.

There is also a great deal of background walla walla to paint the parties and streets. The story doesn't have many sound effects, but I rally plenty of them for the graveyard as Scrooge must battle the elements of doom before he prays and is redeemed.

Sounds such as doors and dinner dishes, toasts and Marley’s chains will be produced by the actors on stage. Other sounds such as wind, thunder, clock chimes, Marley’s off-stage bashing, cymbal flourishes for scene transitions and the otherworldly screech of the third Spirit can be rendered by the live sound effects team or triggered from a CD of pre-recorded SFX. I offer professional sound design tracks for $25—which can be downloaded as MP3 files.  See the ENG pages in the truncated sample script PDF for more information.

Directorial Approach

There are a number metaphors I use in my interpretation of this material. First, I seek to convey an edge-of-the-seat quality by urging a vigorous delivery and slightly fast tempo. Christmas celebrates the pending birth of a child and always carries anticipation and mystery, as does the unwrapping of a Christmas gift, and so too, the best ghost stories. With that in mind, there is surprise everywhere and I endeavor to keep the audience always guessing “what’s next,” even though this material is familiar. I stress mystery being revealed repeatedly--in Scrooge’s comic toying with the charity seekers, Marley’s arrival, the hiding of Martha Cratchit, Fred’s “twenty questions” game, the contents of the charwoman’s bundle, the shrouded body on the bed, and the otherworldly “voice” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

The second metaphor I pursue is the contrast of delight amidst awfulness--the laughing crowds despite the  privations of winter’s cold wind and crunchy snow; the boy carolers being interrupted mid-song by the angry Scrooge; the abrupt change from Fezziwig’s gay fiddle-driven party to Belle’s sadly winding down music box. There’s a defiant mysticism about celebrating life on one of the shortest days of the year. The idea that hope can spring from such bleak surroundings is at the heart of Christmas--and Dickens’ fable.

Lastly, I seek a gusto from the many grotesques in the story, starting with the unreformed Scrooge. He relishes his misanthropy. He’s not suffering in the counting house. He loves it there. He enjoys punning with Fred and the charity seekers. He even jokes with Marley’s ghost--for a while. The chained Phantoms inspire compassion in Scrooge, while the Spirits teach him the sad fate of all those other exuberant ogres. Scrooge’s loony joy at the end seems that much higher for all the fright and suffering that preceded it.

I hope to encourage cast and crew to dive headlong into their roles and leave behind all the gloomy and moralistic “Carols” they have seen before. This is a miraculous birth, not a fatalistic funeral. Let’s laugh good and hearty! Just like Scrooge!

Preparation

The only other advice I could give regarding producing the program would be to read Charles Dickens’ original story to refresh your memory as to what is really going on. It would also be very helpful to view the video of the excellent 1951 film version starring Alastair Sim. It goes under the title of either A Christmas Carol or Scrooge and is available in original black & white or in a colorized version.

On radio, the 1939 Campbell Playhouse version, titled A Christmas Carol, was produced by Orson Welles and stars Lionel Barrymore as an exceptional Scrooge. Barrymore’s vocal mannerisms and delivery are perfect--unfortunately the script, in my opinion, deletes many important scenes and doesn't exploit others enough. However, for my version, I've modeled my ending introduction of the cast and crew after theirs, as an especially fitting and fun closer.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a great story for all ages and should be an enjoyable production. It will teach people things they didn't know about Christmas and Scrooge and themselves. And its fantasy elements are perfectly suited to the magic of radio. To those who seek to produce this wonderful story as a radio drama I can only echo Tiny Tim's credo, "God Bless you, every one!"

Here's a link to a 4-1/2 minute MP3 clip from a production of my adaptation of Dickens' "Carol": Scrooge and Marley.mp3 (2.1 MB)


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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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