Director Steve Carlisle, musical director Bruce Frazier and producer Don Connelly promise a once-in-a-lifetime event when they present the 1938 Campbell’s Playhouse radio classic “A Christmas Carol.”
The show will star Arthur Anderson of New York, who will reprise his role of the Ghost of Christmas Past when the show originally aired.
Carlisle is associate dean of the Honors College; Frazier is WCU’s Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music; and Connelly is head of the department of communication. The trio calls its productions academic-based entertainment; this is their third collaboration. They presented “The War of the Worlds” in 2008, the 70th anniversary of the original Orson Welles broadcast. “On the Home Front, Nov. ’44” was presented on Veteran’s Day 2009 and received national accolades from the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts.
Like the first two shows, “A Christmas Carol” will raise money for student scholarships. The performance is presented through special permission of Campbell’s Soup.
Campbell’s Playhouse, founded in 1937 by Welles and John Houseman as the Mercury Theatre, was a part of the golden age of radio, Connelly said. “Imagine being able to listen to a World Series game as it was happening. Through World War II, radio was what kept people up to date. Radio was that generation’s television,” he said.
During his research, Connelly, who wanted to mount a production close to the holiday season, discovered that the script for “A Christmas Carol” was not readily available. His sleuthing led him to Indiana University, where many of Welles’ papers are kept. There in the files was Welles’ personal script. The library provided digital images of the script with the caveat that Connelly secure permission from Campbell’s.
Connelly’s research on the production was what led him to Anderson. “It’s just so incredible to have that resource,” Connelly said. “We can look at pictures and make assumptions, but Arthur was there.”
Anderson, now 87, was only 16 when he first played the Ghost of Christmas Past. He started in radio at age 12, after a friend of his mother’s recommended him for a role. “They needed cute little kids who could read lines,” said Anderson, who later provided the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun for Lucky Charms cereal commercials. “In those days, I didn’t have to look for work. It came to me.”
The work still comes to him. In late July, he had a crew in his Greenwich Village apartment, filming a three-and-a-half-minute movie with a group of experimental filmmakers from New York University. Although he was not familiar with WCU before Connelly’s call, the idea of a live radio show intrigued him. “I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful idea,’” he said. “We hope they will fill the theater.”
During his visit to WCU — his first trip to North Carolina — Anderson will present a seminar to students about his life and his experiences. “Actors always like to talk about themselves,” said Anderson, a walking encyclopedia of the early days of radio. Anderson will travel with his wife of 46 years, Alice, who worked in live radio and live television.
“Radio is called the theater of the imagination,” Anderson said. “Radio involves you in the story.”
“A Christmas Carol” will be performed exactly as it was done in 1938, including live sound effects and an orchestra. Frazier is assembling vocalists and faculty musicians for piano, bass, drums, guitar, keyboard, strings and woodwinds.
Even over the summer, Frazier was working on the music a little bit every week. The show will begin with a 30-minute musical program, featuring traditional holiday music and favorites from the era. Frazier also is busy composing background music. “We’re trying to be as accurate as we possibly can,” he said.
Carlisle is charged with selecting a cast. He envisions a company of five or six to handle the dozen voices. He calls the production “somewhat daunting” but also characterizes it as a labor of love and an opportunity for faculty and staff to showcase their talents and abilities. “We are saying, ‘This is our work on the campus that we love and where we work,’” he said. “We’re working with history. This is something that you will see once in your lifetime. You will never see it again.”
The show must run exactly 60 minutes, so timing is everything. “The audience is watching a radio production. We don’t play to the audience. We play to the microphone,” Connelly said. “It’s a fun thing to do. What’s neat is to expose people to this unique form of storytelling.”
The project will have involvement from the departments of communication and English, the School of Music, School of Stage and Screen and Honors College. A number of students will be involved in behind-the-scenes support roles.
“A Christmas Carol” will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in WCU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center. The show will be broadcast over WWNC-AM in Asheville and WMXF-AM in Waynesville. For more information or tickets, call the FAPAC box office at 828.227.2479.
Susan Shinn is a writer based in Salisbury.