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Old-time radio drama fires up the imagination

Gerwin Sturm/Flickr

"You're in a dark room you've never been in before. And it's very late at night."

Larry Albert is casting a spell. Cue up the sound of a creaking building and suddenly, you're transported to a slightly terrifying place.

Albert is one of the behind-the-scenes talents of Jim French's "Imagination Theater," which produces old-time radio dramas.

It is a misty march morning in 1959 and while most of Seattle is having a second cup of coffee, the SPD homicide squad is already tending to business. – The Adventures of Harry Nile

For decades, the production studio has created mysteries and stories of suspense in weekly broadcasts and sent them out over the air. In a studio behind a Bellevue home, a cast of professional actors stand at microphones and record the stories.

Four times a year, they tape the show before a live audience, like they'll do Nov. 21 at the Kirkland Performance Center.

From piano to voice

Jim French has been working in radio for 50 years, as a broadcaster, writer, producer and actor.  And he's considered broadcast royalty. For years, he could be heard on KING, KIRO and KVI.

As a teen, French got a job playing piano for a radio show, but all along he had been practicing his broadcast voice.

"I would take reading material into the bathroom. I would sit on the only thing you could sit on in the bathroom and read like a radio announcer. That’s what I wanted to do."

In 1943, a disc jockey gave him his first break. French was 16 and broadcasting live big band shows from Southern California.

He wrote radio dramas about the week’s news while in the Army, and he wrote his first scripts for CBS radio dramas in 1948.

Since then, French has written and produced nearly 500 original shows.

"I like the idea of being able to tell stories and embellish them with sound effects and music, fine actors and I know this will automatically create vivid pictures in the minds of listeners."

A ticket to adventure

Larry – or Lawrence Albert – plays Harry Nile and Dr. John H. Watson in "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

"Being a radio actor or an audio actor allows you to go places no other media allows you. I’m 5-feet-6. On radio I can be 6-7."

And what's a 6-feet-7 guy sound like?

"Like a guy who’s 5-6 only more confident," Albert says.

Cue the cabbage

Albert has acted in more than 400 radio dramas. He helps French with the post-production of each show, putting in sound effects to really make the stories come alive.

Which is when a head of cabbage really comes in handy.

Want to signal the sound of a head being bashed in?

Hit the cabbage with a pipe.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.