Before we had phones and screens and instant streaming, a dresser-sized radio set was your home entertainment hub. Families gathered around to listen to shows like the Western Gunsmoke (whose episode count has still not been surpassed by The Simpsons), and detective drama The Adventures of Sam Spade. Then television took over and the form dwindled, as our love affair with home screens became a global obsession. But all is not lost: in fact, two Portlanders are bringing such old-style entertainment back, with Tesla City Stories—live radio dramas for the podcast generation.
“What we are trying to do is a combination of straight-ahead, straight-faced, very invested presentation of radio entertainment of yesteryear,” says Tesla City Stories writer and director Brendan Jones. “At the same time, our knowing wink at perhaps a lot of the superficiality, the corniness, the whole different attitude to commercialism and patriotism of that time.”
Jones, together with producer Jerry Chrisman, began Tesla City Stories in 2014. They present a rotating stable of shows, including thriller The Wraith and dusty Western Shepherd’s Trail. The first show of the new season is set to broadcast Saturday, November 12 at the Fremont Theater, and will feature episodes from noir series The Wilde Card Mysteries and rom-com Blevins to Betsy. Onstage actors with scripts in hand perform the show backed up by the Foley sound rig—basically a huge table covered in musical instruments, wind machines, typewriters, and any other object to help create an audio landscape—manned by David Ian.
Expect a variety show-esque structure, with two half-hour-ish segments drawing on a spectrum of genres from Westerns to sci-fi, using the same storytelling tools found in old radio shows. According to the show’s website, all the scripts come from the now-defunct Tesla Broadcast Company. You may find it hard to track down any other reference to this particular company elsewhere, but the backstory compiled by the producers makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. Between shows, AnnaPaul and the Bearded Lady play vintage jazz and swing. You’ll even find a cigarette girl slinging wares to the audience.
Yet one of the things that separates Tesla City Stories from its old, studio-bound forefathers is the audience. “They are crucial,” says Chrisman. "They are the ones who provide the juice.” For Jones and Chrisman, who both have a background in theater and comedy, the audience interaction adds to the energy of the performance. “Plus, they are a part of the recording,” says Jones. Sometimes, Jones and Chrisman say, audience members even turn up in period costume themselves.
The latest season will also be recorded as a podcast, on offer online.
Tesla City Stories is at the Fremont Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 12. Tickets for the rescheduled October 15 show will still be honored at the door.