WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — They weren’t called big bands for nothing, and many of the biggest names in the music and entertainment industry booked establishments in the Delavan Lake area as part of their Midwest tours in the 1930s and ’40s. Read the current edition here: http://www.server-jbmultimedia.net/CSI-WalworthCountySunday
That included Lake Lawn’s Victory Ballroom, which hosted weeklong performances from the likes of the Lawrence Welk Band. Live radio broadcasts also were popular, including the Mutual Broadcasting Network through its Chicago affiliate, WGN.
In addition to music, many classic programs attracted audiences nationwide to find their favorite stops along the radio dial.
Writer-producers Steve Brown and Mike Ullstrup have been pushing their individual and collective creative envelopes in rekindling pieces of that tradition and nostalgia for nearly 10 years through their WGTD Radio Theater shows, based out of Gateway Technical College’s studio in Kenosha.
And three of their four fall productions in 2013 are being held at Lake Lawn. In mid-September, they premiered their ongoing Professor series with “The New Jack Benny Show.” They have a holiday program planned Dec. 14.
However, the 91.1 Players’ next event on Saturday, Nov. 16, will be “The Kane Shadow: The Walworth Murder,” which stars Kenosha native Orson Welles. The film noir-style show features three women approaching Welles about finding a close friend who is missing.
“We take the original characters and shows and write our own scripts,” said Brown, a professor at Gateway. “We are one of the few theater groups doing new old-time programming.”
Their efforts have earned seven awards from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, so they’re obviously doing things right and providing quality entertainment for audiences — both live and across the airwaves.
“Kane Shadow (Welles’ character) always comes back to Kenosha and stumbles onto some kind of mystery, and in this case three women approach him about a missing friend who was last seen at Lake Lawn, and so he goes there to get to the bottom of it.”
Brown explained that the name is a combination of Welles’ characters.
“Many people know about ‘Citizen Kane’ from 1939, but on the radio from 1937-’38 he did a wonderful job in ‘The Shadow,’ and so we combined the two for the name.”
Christine Brookes of Lake Geneva portrays historical characters and performs for organizations such as libraries. She earned the part of Ronald Colman’s wife, Benita, in the radio theater’s September production and will perform in the show next weekend.
“I met Steve and Mike because they had done several murder mysteries for JaNelle Powers in Lake Geneva,” Brookes said. “I went to their ‘Sherlock Holmes’ live studio show and asked about joining the group, and then auditioned for the take-off of the Jack Benny show.
“I’m experienced, and I’m used to getting into character,” she added. “I researched Benita using YouTube clips and listening to her. And with all of my costumes, I used a 1940s-style one to help me play the part and worked on the English accent. I learned a lot about that from doing the Bristol Renaissance Faire for seven summers. Doing my historical portrayals and these shows in front of a studio audience isn’t much different.”
However, bringing the characters and stories to life involves a lot of technical and behind-the-scenes preparation and organization — and Brown and Ullstrup have mastered their craft.
“The Saturday before we have about a two-hour rehearsal for the cast and do a technical rehearsal, too,” Ullstrup said. “Then Steve and I usually show up about 8:30 a.m. to set up the sound board, microphones and speakers, and we have computer and live sound effects, so we check all the sound levels. We also may do a quick run-through. We may have a musical group involved. We do about a 30-minute segment beforehand to introduce the cast members and we train the audience to get into the spirit of the show … tell them when to applaud and when to be quiet. We let them hear the live sound effects. It’s definitely a full morning.”
And then it’s show time.
The live broadcasts start at 11:15 a.m., but Lake Lawn offers a breakfast buffet starting at 9 a.m. Tickets for the show and meal are $20, or $10 for just the show.
Gerard Prendergast has been the director of food and beverages at Lake Lawn for the last 19 months, and his job also involves handling the entertainment.
“We wanted to offer more art and entertainment, not only for lodge guests, but for the local community,” Prendergast said. “This is such a beautiful place and offers such an expansive canvas, and with the history here, we felt it offered so many opportunities for diverse entertainment.”
The facility has hosted “The Nutcracker” and murder mysteries and big band music, and the WGTD Radio Theater has added to the mix nicely.
“We want to keep tradition alive, but we want to move it forward,” Prendergast said. “Their first show was fantastic and people loved it. We’ll have the holiday show and hopefully do more next year. We would like to start building a schedule of set dates and have things going all the time, things that we can become known for.
“I love the old-time programs, and these guys do a great job.”
Brown said they have drawn close to 150 people, but the average crowd ranges from 50 to 60 people.
“The facilities at Lake Lawn are incredible and the response for our first show was terrific,” Brown said. “This proves that old-time radio is alive and well at Lake Lawn and in Walworth County, and we want to bring it back. We’re proud and humbled to be performing there.”
After all, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? …”