The delightful talent that Philip Proctor has been able to impart to his audiences—be it as an actor, singer, writer, composer, director or producer—has taken him from his native town of Goshen, Indiana, to Canada, France, Ireland, England and even as far as the former USSR.
He’s performed in films, TV and on stages from Broadway to the Mark Taper Forum. As a voice-over artist, he’s been a member of the groundbreaking, Grammy-nominated Firesign Theatre for forty-three years and is heard as the Drunk Monkey in the Dr. Dolittle series, Howard in the Emmy-winning Rugrats cartoons, and Seahorse Bob in Finding Nemo, as well as characters in scores of interactive games, commercials and the Stories from the Golden Age audiobooks.
Phil has also performed in and directed multiple shows for the Golden Age Theater at Author Services, Inc. in Hollywood. ASI caught up with him to tell readers about the colorful history of Old-Time Radio, and how it’s affected today’s performing arts.
ASI: Please give us a brief history of the birth of radio.
PROCTOR: “What hath God wrought?” These were the first words transmitted between Washington and Baltimore through an experimental electromagnetic telegraph line invented by Samuel F. B. Morse on May 24, 1844. Then in 1885, Marconi, an Italian inventor, figured how to do the same thing with wireless radio signals. The next milestone was made in the early 1920s when one of the first radio stations, KDKA, was established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer who ran KDKA, revolutionized the radio format. He created talk shows, played music, ran news coverage of elections and introduced commercial sponsors.
It didn’t take long for radio to catch fire and blaze across the nation as stars of stage and screen flocked to this new medium. It had everything—with tales of adventure, romance, fantasy, humor, music and drama.
It is this art form that is being revived in the Golden Age Theater today as stories by L. Ron Hubbard, originally written in the 1930s and 1940s, lend themselves perfectly to this type of performance, complemented by sound effects and music.
ASI: How did acting for radio theater differ from performances on the stage or screen?
PROCTOR: Some of the great actors I listened to were Kenny Delmar, Everett Sloane, Bill Johnstone, Elliott Lewis and Hans Conried. In some cases they never rehearsed, but just from a description of a character, they pulled off a flawless performance live on the air.
Everybody thinks they can use their voice to financial advantage, but it’s really a skill acquired by natural talent, hard work, study and opportunity. The major challenge is to convey a character through one’s voice, but also to be flexible enough to offer differing interpretations that are still true to the role. Stage performances have the benefit of long rehearsals, and TV and films allow for repeated takes, but live audio presentations are much less forgiving and thus much more rewarding. One of the things I enjoy about acting and directing at the Golden Age Theater is being able to guide actors in discovering what is needed to perform specifically for a listening audience.
ASI: When did live audiences get introduced to radio programming?
PROCTOR: It wasn’t until the 1930s that radio programs provided live audiences as more and more broadcasts emanated from theaters, instead of studios. That was the advent of “radio theater” —a form of entertainment where a few hundred lucky fans could watch a live broadcast of The Bob Hope Show, Amos ’n’ Andy, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, or Duffy’s Tavern, while millions of Americans listened on their receivers at home.
When I lived in Manhattan as a youngster, I remember going to see Arthur Godfrey Time, sitting in the sponsor’s booth. I also saw The Aldrich Family at Radio City and attended live symphonic performances including Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Later, the Firesign Theatre recorded our first album at Hollywood’s historic Columbia Square on Sunset in the original radio studios where artists like Bob Hope had broadcast their live shows. Since an audience attends every performance of the Golden Age Theater, it has a very similar feel.
ASI: How have the Old-Time Radio shows influenced your professional career?
PROCTOR: I have always enjoyed acting live to demonstrate of the power of the imagination because, “on the air,” the word rules and the tongue is mightier than the sword! You can play multiple characters and you don’t have to learn lines or worry about costumes and makeup! What freedom . . .
My long experience in creating audio pieces of distinct complexity and density with the Firesign Theatre led naturally to a career as a voice-over artist in commercials, cartoons, animated features, documentaries, games and audiobooks. I’ve also added voices in different dialects and languages to feature films and television shows and matched famous actors’ voices upon occasion.
ASI: Is radio theater experiencing a comeback?
PROCTOR: Indubitably. Not only did the digital and Internet revolution allow for easy access to music, but comedy and spoken-word product benefited as well. Combined with an increasingly mobile population, it’s a perfect time for the audio arts to be embraced by an ever-expanding audience.
ASI: You have performed in many of the audiobook recordings of L. Ron Hubbard’s Stories from the Golden Age. What attracted you to these stories?
PROCTOR: Hubbard’s stories are packed with audio references, from the roar of a rocket or a fighter plane, to the blast of a six-shooter or a ray gun! His work is full of realistic and drama-invoking detail, from the surge of wind and waves, to sounds of men and animals in varying circumstances. His imagination and scope are so wide-ranging that for an actor, the depth and breadth of his characters are endlessly challenging and satisfying.
ASI: As a director and performer at the Golden Age Theater, what do you think sets apart these live shows from other forms of theater?
PROCTOR: The Golden Age team has spent years refining the dramatic presentation of these amazing tales. Utilizing original music, sound effects and background voices painstakingly created for each story, they have the ability to accompany a live performance with a coordinated background of supportive effects unlike any other audio show I’ve ever done. Add to this the innovative use of costumes and lights, a company of extraordinary actors and directors to draw upon and a technical staff with well-practiced skills—and the result is an immensely satisfying and totally unique evening in the theater.
Come see for yourself, and you’ll come back, I guarantee.