Given immense popularity of the radio variety show back in the so-called Golden Age of Radio, you might wonder why the appeal faded. It might be because these shows are really hard to produce, or maybe it’s because media consumers today can tap a seemingly endless universe of entertainment sources.
The Strand Theatre in Rockland, however, has decided to embrace the challenge, and will stage an original variety show, “Strand on the Air,” on Sunday that will also air live on a local radio station.
Show Director Liz McLeod is house manager of the Strand Theatre, but has several roles in the show — producer, director, writer and master of ceremonies.
Keith Shortall spoke with McLeod, who says the holiday-themed show is in some ways a tip of the hat to her radio heroes.
McLeod: I’m basically following the format of a stage review. The review form was very popular in Broadway theater and grew out of Vaudeville. It was a variety of different acts held together by the persona of the master of ceremonies, which is the role that I’m fulfilling in the show.
We have a running gag between me and the announcer, where the announcer is constantly trying to come up with ideas for an act of his own. None of which are appropriate in any way for radio. So we do that throughout the show to bridge the acts. And then we say, ‘Here’s a real act for you,” and you’re able to sustain the interest of the audience and guide the audience along by doing that.
Shortall: This was once an extremely popular format that people sat and listened to.
McLeod: Exactly. The heyday of the variety program on radio was the years just before World War II. There were many impressive hourlong network programs. Rudy Vallee, a Maine boy, had a show on Thursday nights that introduced literally dozens of stars who later became famous. He’d introduce the acts and do a number himself.
Fred Allen had a variety show called “Town Hall Tonight” and the fiction of the show was that it was being put on in a small town hall. He would introduce the performers, feature amateur talent. Frank Sinatra appeared on the show. There’s a lot of that format in what we’re doing here.
Shortall: Is this a tip of the hat to some of these pioneers?
McLeod: There is some of that. Allen was a New England guy. I have a bit of that sensibility as well, being born and raised here. As far as comic influences, there’s quite a bit of Allen, Jack Benny, a few others.
Shortall: Can we talk about some of the acts?
McLeod: Brittany Parker, the education coordinator at the Strand, is music director and she plays with the Blake Rosso Band, a bluegrass quartet from Mount Desert Island. We’ll also feature a young singer who will do an a cappella version of “Silent Night.” It will floor you. Then tossed among all this are sketches by our own group of actors, the Strand Family Players.
Shortall: How much is admission?
McLeod: There is no admission. It was traditional in the days of radio. You didn’t charge audiences to come and sit. You wanted a lot of people, and loud applause was used to mark the end of an act and the beginning of another. The best way to let people in was to offer free tickets. This led comedians to become critical of these audiences. One comedian says, ‘Here I am standing on a stage performing for 300 people who just wanted to get out of the rain.’
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Originally published Dec. 14, 2018 at 5:37 p.m. ET.