If John Watts looks out over the audience during his upcoming production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and sees many eyes are closed, he won’t take offense. In fact, he’ll be quite pleased.
This version of the wintry Bedford Falls heartwarmer is from Arts Garage Radio Theatre, which will create a live radio play complete with the kind of nondigital special-effects bells (literally) and whistles that have entertained audiences from the heyday of Orson Welles to Guy Noir on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Creating a world out of sound is a tricky task, but Watts seems to revel in the challenge.
“Like with any play, you watch for the reaction of people, in a way that lets you know they are enjoying it, that you’ve done your job,” says Watts, acknowledging that getting immersed in his Bedford Falls may be done best with eyes closed.
By day, Watts, of Boynton Beach, produces a podcast on the Arts Radio Network dedicated to the arts in Palm Beach County with his wife, WLRN radio host Caroline Breder-Watts. The pair introduced Arts Garage Radio Theatre in August with a production of “A Star Is Born,” which drew a sellout audience and prompted the Delray Beach arts center to add a matinee to its one-night-only Dec. 12 performance of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Watts, 51, grew up in Nebraska, where his father’s affection for old radio shows such as Welles’ Mercury Theatre and the comedy of “Fibber McGee and Molly” filled the air. Watts has remained obsessed with this style of storytelling ever since, and once drove to the University of Indiana just so he could touch some of Welles’ old screenplays.
The “It’s a Wonderful Life” audience will hear a measure of Watts’ commitment to sound in a pivotal scene in which George and Mary, during a hurtful disagreement over their future, must share a phone for a conversation with old friend Sam Wainwright, which ends with a life-changing kiss.
The tension-cutting ring of the phone in that scene had to be just so, Watts believed, and the 1940s-era phone he had left from “A Star Is Born” had the wrong bell tone (“the bells were bigger,” he says). So he scoured eBay and found a two-piece “candlestick” phone that might have been used in the 1930s, and a circa-1915 ringer. Cost: $150.
“No one in the audience would have noticed, but I would,” he says.
Along with a “great” cast of voices — Matt Stabile (George), Niki Fridh (Mary), Robert Olsen (Clarence) and, playing a variety of roles, WLRN’s Chris DiMattei, Ken Kay, Kim Cozort, Mark Kirschenbaum and Dan Leonard — Watts is quick to salute the sound-effects work of Daniel Eilola and Rachel Reizberg.
Tools of the trade onstage for “It’s a Wonderful Life” include a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle car door, a full-size screen door, a full-size sash window, a period phonograph and a water tank to simulate George's diving from the bridge.
And you’ll hear a car.
“No way I could have a combustible engine onstage,” Watts says in a way that suggests he didn’t rule it out entirely. “But if you take a metal fan with 8-inch blades and stick it inside a 1950s ice chest, to act as a resonating box, and you get it going at the right speed, it sounds like the hum of a car engine.”
IF YOU GO
The Arts Garage Radio Theatre production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” will be performed at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Arts Garage, 180 NE First St., in Delray Beach. Tickets cost $15 and $20. Future Arts Garage Radio Theatre productions include “Casablanca” (Feb. 6) and “Sunset Boulevard” (April 3). Call 561-450-6357 or go to ArtsGarage.org.