Santa Barbara City College actors and crew produce filmed, radio play
Jenna Scanlon loves to listen to old-time dramas on her car radio.
So much so that the Santa Barbara resident jumped at the chance to play Nora Charles in a live radio presentation of “The Thin Man.”
“I’m a fan of old movies that feature fast-talking, smart people,” said Ms. Scanlon, whose all-time favorite is “My Girl Friday” (1940), the newspaper comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.
“The Thin Man” movies starred Myrna Loy and William Powell as wealthy couple/sleuths Nora and Nick Charles in mysteries in which the dialogue was witty, steady and quick. In fact, you could snap your fingers to the beat of the words.
That kind of rhythm, classic costumes and the sheer fun of old-school but imaginative sound effects lured Ms. Scanlon and others to perform in a filmed, radio version of “The Thin Man.”
The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College turned to a 1934 Lux Radio Theatre script based on the first “Thin Man” movie and filmed the actors together in costume while they stood in front of their radio microphones on the college’s Garvin Theatre stage. Sound effects artist Rene Hooper used various devices to create the effects.
The program will stream Wednesday through May 8. Tickets vary from $5 to $15 and can be purchased at www.theatergroupsbcc.com.
Although filmed, the show will have the feeling of a golden age radio drama, right down to the commercials.
Not that the modern pandemic didn’t intrude. To remain COVID-19 compliant, there was no audience during the filming, and the actors stayed socially distant and enclosed in Plexiglas shields, director Katie Laris told the News-Press.
She said now felt like the right time for “The Thin Man,” author Dashiell Hammett’s mystery, which first appeared as a magazine serial in 1933.
“I was looking for something that was entertaining, light-hearted and happy,” Ms. Laris said. “I think we need to travel right now. Even if we can’t travel geographically, we can travel back in time and go back to another era — an innocent, easier time.”
Ms. Scanlon told the News-Press she loved working on the play.
“It feels more like a play than anything I’ve done in the last 16 months. I’ve done things purely on Zoom. This felt like being in a play,” she said. “It was challenging and so rewarding.”
Ms. Scanlon added she loved the costumes and the shoes (even though standing in heels for a long stretch proved difficult). “They’re beautiful. Everybody looks spectacular.”
Sharing Ms. Scanlon’s enthusiasm is Matthew Tavianini, who plays Nick Charles. The Santa Barbara actor said he went into his role with a focus on the rhythm and cadence of Nick’s language. “Our language today is not used nearly in that kind of way.”
Director Laris said she, Mr. Tavianini and Ms. Scanlon talked about the connection between Nick and Nora and decided to focus on the love between them, which stays strong as they dive into the mystery.
Fans of the “Thin Man” movies will remember Nick and Nora’s dog Asta, and he’s part of the movie thanks to a “wonderful puppeteer,” Ms. Laris, a Santa Barbara resident, said, referring to Laksmini Wyantini.
The play gets much of its distinctive radio sound from the sound effects and music. Ms. Hooper created the effects live during the filming of the play.
The genre is Foley sound effects, and it’s named after legendary sound effects artist Jack Foley (1891-1967), who developed the use of techniques performed live in sync with movie footage.
“There was a whole genre back in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s when people made sound effects live for radio plays,” sound designer Barbara Hirsch told the News-Press. “Sometimes they would use the actual devices — a gun with blanks, a phone.
“Sometimes they would come up with devices that would work,” Ms. Hirsch continued, referring to things such as thunder sheets and mallets hitting surfaces.
“The Foley table in radio shows would be large with many different sound sources,” said Ms. Hirsch, who lives in Santa Barbara.
“Live Foley effects are a big part of the play,” she noted. “I worked a little bit with the Foley artist to come up with the sounds.”
The camera stays focused on the actors, but Ms. Hooper performing the sound effects appears in a couple shots, Ms. Hirsch said.
Ms. Hirsch added that as the sound designer, she had the easier task of finding recorded music and musical sound effects from the 1930s.
“Like costumes and makeup, people have a very strong association with music,” Ms. Hirsch said. “I have to say the music from the ’30s was really happy music.”
In addition to the sound effects, music and snappy dialogue, “The Thin Man” offers viewers a mystery with a minimum of violence and a maximum of intrigue.
“You’re wondering who did it,” director Laris told the News-Press.
“There’s a lot of possible suspects,” she said, but added, “Nick and Nora are up to any challenge.”