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Acting troupe stages old radio dramas

Mary Aversano, founder of the Archstone Players, has

Mary Aversano, founder of the Archstone Players, has long been tuned in to drama. (June 7, 2013) Credit: Daniel Brennan; Newsday illustration/ Ned Levine

Edgar Allan Poe would have appreciated the turbulence created by teeming rain and blustery winds on this June night.

But Mary Aversano, 78, not so much -- despite the many Poe radio dramas her acting troupe, the Archstone Players, has brought to life. This night, thanks to Mother Nature, Aversano is concerned that a few of her actors are running more than an hour late for rehearsal at the Bayport-Blue Point Public Library.

When the stragglers finally check in, Aversano puts the actors through their paces, practicing scenes from "The Necklace," a Guy de Maupassant tale of deception. It was the first drama the group had staged, radio style, four years ago when Aversano began the troupe while living at the Archstone development in Westbury.

At a time when television and technology provide detailed images and immediate news updates, it may be hard for today's younger people to imagine a clunky radio as the centerpiece of family entertainment. But those of a certain age remember the Golden Age of Radio, when listeners clamored for music, dramas, comedians, quiz shows and more, transmitted over the airwaves. The most popular programs ran the gamut from "The Lone Ranger" to "Little Orphan Annie." Even soap operas such as "The Romance of Helen Trent" and "Ma Perkins" had faithful listeners who could rival Susan Lucci fans.

Radio dramas were a staple in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s. One of the most discussed examples of the medium's hold on America was Orson Welles' Oct. 30, 1938, broadcast of "War of the Worlds." Dramatized as though it were a live newscast, Welles and company excitedly announced that Martians had invaded Earth, which created panic among thousands of listeners.

According to a 2005 article from the National Geographic news website about the broadcast, "Thousands of people, believing they were under attack by Martians, flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city or how they should protect themselves from 'gas raids.' Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment for shock and hysteria."

The next day, newspapers across the country printed Welles' statement that the program was pure fiction.

But it wasn't just scarefests that kept audiences tuned in. Programs such as "Lux Radio Theater" and "The Screen Guild Theater" featured top film stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in hourlong radio adaptations of popular movies. "Mercury Theatre" and "The Campbell Playhouse" presented adaptations of literary and theatrical classics from "Les Misérables" to "Our Town."

The plays selected by the Archstone actors are much less ambitious and are generally performed before audiences at libraries and nursing homes.

After her second husband died, Aversano sold her condo in Sayville and moved to Westbury. She now lives in West Sayville. Aversano, a licensed real estate agent, helped her son run his real estate business in Garden City, but she still wanted to indulge her creative side. A few years earlier, while doing temp work at Stony Brook University, she was given about 20 old-time radio scripts by a co-worker who shared her passion for the medium.

"Most were by Edgar Allan Poe or Eli Glass, and were in the public domain, so I didn't have to be involved with royalties," she says. "I had put them in the garage and forgot about them," but during a move, she found them and placed a "cast call" notice in Newsday. Aversano was heartened by the response. Local actors who had performed everywhere from Arena Players in Centerport to Hofstra University applied.

"They read a scene from the script, and I usually interview them alone," she says, describing the auditions. "I pick the ones that I like."

Aversano no longer acts ("I have trouble remembering lines") but does everything else -- casting, directing, publicity, bookings and marketing. The Archstone Players now perform together about once every two months. Their next program is at Sayville Library (see box).

 

CORNERSTONE OF ARCHSTONE

Starting an acting troupe seemed like a natural step for Aversano. At 7, she studied piano and later took drama at Moser Conservatory in Manhattan, a long-gone school for the arts where fellow classmates included "West Side Story" Oscar winner Rita Moreno and actor Sal Mineo ("Rebel Without a Cause").

Even after marrying at age 21, and having five children, she never stopped acting. "I lived in Staten Island, and my first speaking role was in 'The Crucible' in a group headed by a dentist there," she says. "My husband was not a lover of the arts, and that put a strain on it. I never gave up. When I moved to Long Island, I got involved with many, many theater groups and did many shows."

Aversano says she often got stereotyped playing Jewish or Italian mothers, and even landed parts in some Off-Broadway shows and had a small role in the 1952 Broadway musical "Wish You Were Here."

At age 69, she decided to get her associate degree in theater, film and voice-over from SUNY Empire State College, which she earned four years later. In 2011, she wrote her self-published autobiography, "Mary's Journey."

To re-create that old-time radio ambience, Aversano has the actors perform behind a white screen so they're visible in silhouette. "I want the audience to get the feel that they're listening to the radio," she says. "We have the narrator at the podium, who you will see, because he does a lot of the reading." The cast is seated and usually have a hand mic on the table with them.

 

WHO'S IN THE CAST?

Cast members share Aversano's passion for the arts. At 89, Ed Murnane, a retired insurance claims manager and a community theater veteran of about 65 shows, is the oldest of the group's actors, and says there's at least one advantage to this form of entertainment. "Right now, I'd rather do radio dramas than have to memorize lines," says Murnane who lives in Bayport.

For Harriet Baker of Woodmere, a former guidance counselor who retired from Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, performing has helped to conquer her shyness, she says, and has been doing community and regional theater since the '70s.

"I was a very good dancer as kid, but when I had to perform I would literally get physically sick, and I said I had to overcome that," says Baker, who doesn't like to give her age because it may affect roles she's offered. "Then in college, I realized I had to get over that. Now, I get onstage and I can do anything, but I literally can't do it as myself."

While most of the Archstone actors are older, musician Austin Barry, at 30, is the exception. He recently moved from Babylon Village to the Bronx and often sings at clubs in Manhattan. Though he's not seasoned onstage, he feels comfortable performing with the Archstone Players because, unlike other actors, he enjoys the anonymity. "I feel more confident around people I don't know," he says. "Here, I don't know the people I'm performing in front of. The chance of seeing them again is slim to none."

Ted Fleissgarten, 67, who taught German and English at Sachem High School before retiring, says there are benefits to spending time with people who have like interests. "My best friend is someone I met through a group, and I've known him for about 12 years," says Fleissgarten, who lives in Yaphank. "That is a definite, definite perk to doing things like this. And there's also the mental stimulation. It keeps the gray matter working."

And some say there's that satisfying feeling of being in front of an audience -- even if these actors are mostly heard and not seen, says Baker. "Certainly, you're not making money. Just getting up and entertaining people and having them showing their appreciation, it makes you feel very good about yourself."

 

COME LOOK AND LISTEN

WHAT Archstone Players perform the radio dramas "The Strange Orchid" by H.G. Wells and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe

WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Aug. 7, Sayville Library, 88 Greene Ave., Sayville

INFO 631-589-4440,

sayvillelibrary.org

 

RADIO REDUX

Do you have memories of listening to soap operas, music shows, variety hours or newscasts on the radio? Tell us about your family's radio time, favorite shows you rushed home to hear or stunning events that unfolded without benefit of TV. Email your story to act2@newsday.com, or write to Act 2 Editor, c/o Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include your name, address and phone numbers.

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