Once upon a time Fred Allen strolled down an alley, Fibber McGee opened a closet, Jack Benny started his Maxwell and Gracie Allen confused George Burns.
Now Buck Naked, Frontier Scout, roams the West without his clothing and white people whine on "Whining White People.''
The tradition of radio comedy that includes the 1930s clowns, the 1950s satirists Bob and Ray and the 1970s National Lampoon Radio Hour continues in Lawrence when the Imagination Workshop goes on the air. What started out as an exploration of radio drama has turned into a program thick with laughter.
"The show has changed so much in the last couple of years,'' said Darrell Brogdon, the show's producer and writer. "It's much more a free-wheeling comedy show.''
THE NEXT Imagination Workshop production comes up at 8 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. It's presented live both in front of an audience and broadcast on KANU 91.5, as well as other National Public Radio outlets. The upcoming show is billed as the "Not-Quite-10th-Anniversary-Gala,'' but the workshop won't be 10 years old until 1993.
"The first time we did this kind of production we didn't do it live,'' he said. "We didn't do our first live broadcast from the (Lawrence) Arts Center in until 1985, so it's not quite our 10th anniversary.''
The show won numerous awards from radio groups, including two for Best Live Entertainment Show from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a 1991 Gold Medal from the International Radio Festival as best comedy program.
THE COMEDY sketches come fast and furious; regular features include "Incompetents Hospital,'' "Buck Naked'' and "Whining White People.''' Brogdon and two or three other cast members cough up the scripts for each performance, with Kathy Fain and Mary Ellen Kriegh doing the sound effects. The acting ensemble now numbers seven or eight, Brogdon said.
"When we started doing radio plays, we needed a somewhat larger company, and at one time we had about 12 to 15 people,'' Brogdon said. "Now we have seven, so it's half what it once was.''
Brogdon draws his cast from Lawrence and Kansas City actors, some of whom do free-lance radio ads as well. They need voices plastic enough to play a variety of roles and minds fast enough to attack the scripts.
"WHAT WE'VE always said when we hold auditions is we looked for actors who can do different voices and accents and who could give life to characters very quickly because of our compressed rehearsal period,'' Brogdon said in a recent interview. "It's important for the actors to be quick on their feet. The character has to be there. We work very fast, and I think the actors also need a sense of popular culture. They need to know what's on TV right now. It helps that they've seen `thirtysomething' when we're doing `Whining White People.'''
David Greusel performed with improvisational comedy troupes in Manhattan and Wichita before he started riding the airwaves with the workshop about two years ago.
"I really enjoy the Sherlock Holmes takeoff we do called `Mobile Holmes,''' he said. "I play Holmes, and Rick Tamblyn (another company member) plays Dr. Flotsam. We have really enjoyed how it's developed.''
THE SHOW usually originates from the Lawrence Arts Center, where about 200 people pay to see the show. Being live keeps the performers on their toes.
"I think the audience gives us back a lot,'' he said. "I think the actors all get a charge over the fact we're doing a live broadcast. It's invigorating. We've done a few things on tape, but you don't get the same energy.''
It's hard to say how many people listen to the workshop nationwide, Brogdon said. He estimates that between 50 and 60 stations pick up the workshop on National Public Radio network.
"We get a lot of reports, but the count is inexact,'' he said. "A lot of stations pick it up off the satellite and forget to inform us,''
EVEN HIS local radio audience can be hard to count. The show routinely sells out at the Arts Center, but he doesn't know how many people tune in to listen.
"It's very hard to tell, because the show is on so sporadically,'' he said. "Without digging into the diaries it's hard to figure out since we're on every eight weeks. But we get a lot of word-of-mouth that people our listening. We've polled our audience at the Arts Center, and most of them have listened to us before they came to the show.''
Brogdon started working in radio theater during the 1970s while he was a student at North Texas State University. He cites Bob and Ray, the comedy team that featured Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott, Chris Elliott's father, as his biggest influence.
Despite the success of the Imagination Workshop, Brogdon seems sad that radio comedy and drama fell by the wayside in the United States. The form still thrives in Great Britain and Canada, but not here, where people listen to the car radio for headlines and songs rather than prolonged sagas.
"THERE'S AN old saying within public radio that the best place for radio drama is 1938,'' he said. "There really isn't a significant output, just because of the money it takes to produce it. The problem is that there is no consistent source of good radio theater and there isn't enough of an audience to listen to it.''
Nevertheless, radio offers dramatic possibilities that television and film don't. Radio drama appeals directly to the mind, and scriptwriters are limited only by their imagination. Take Buck Naked, the nude plainsman. Try doing that on network television.
"That would be very hard to do on TV,'' he said. "You could hide him behind things or cover him up some way, but on radio you don't have to do that.''
IF BROGDON has his way, he'd bring radio comedy back single-handed. He'd like to make the Imagination Workshop a live weekly program of topical comedy and place the actors on a professional footing.
"What I'd like to see happen is that we'd become a weekly, nationwide broadcast,'' he said. "We could do a lot more topical humor. We can't do that now, because there's a six- to eight-week gap between when we broadcast here and when it goes over the satellite. We don't really have anything like that that's heard nationally.''