It was a Wednesday evening early in 1996. As on so many other Wednesdays before, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company was preparing for a rehearsal. (We are a theatre group devoted to the performance and revival of radio drama as it was practiced in what has come to be called the Golden Age of Radio. There's plenty more about us elsewhere.)
We took a break to watch a little television. This is definitely not a part of our routine. After all: "Theatre is life; radio is art; television is furniture."
(Okay, we're not THAT bad. Some of us watch quite a lot of television; many of us are addicted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to pick a conspicuous example.)
But we had heard that the first episode of a new series would be on later, a comedy series set in a radio station. "Like WKRP?" somebody asked. "No, it's set in the thirties or forties."
TRhat caught our attention, but we had no reason to expect great things. Television had let us down far too often. "What channel is it on?" "AMC." "Who?" "AMC. American Movie Classics. The cable channel." "I KNOW what it is, but they don't run situation comedies. Are you sure you heard correctly?" (The show had actually premiered the previous Saturday; Wednesday was a rerun of that first episode. Our host had taped it, but not watched it yet.)
When the appointed hour came, we settled down in the living room to see what TV was going to do to us. And much to our surprise, we saw ... echoes of ourselves. The full spectrum of radio, as practiced in the Age of Norman Corwin, Orson Welles and Jack Benny.
"And therein lies the magic. Tens of thousands of people, out there, listening; each envisioning their own motion picture of the mind. And that is what we give our audience, Miss Roberts. We give them dreams. We give them towers and landscapes, secrets and revelations. We give them a warm hearth in the dark ... or a cold shiver up their spine. And we do it all here, live, on the sparest of threadbare budgets. With a troupe of actors who -- underpaid, under-rehearsed, and overwhelmed -- have yet to learn that this simply cannot be done."
This is almost WORD FOR WORD what Thomas Fuller has always said about ARTC's first wave, eighteen weekly hours on commercial radio. Most local radio theatre companies never achieve a regular show, even on the traditionally-cooperative public radio; we had an hour a week in prime time on a commercial AM station. Nobody told us it couldn't be done.
We watched with fascination as the sound effects man created the incidental sounds that suggest the world in which the characters move and live. (I am ARTC's sound effects man; I have a trunk full of props just like those seen on the show. Although, we are jealous of its larger props, authentic and perfect.)
"Let's ... let's just listen to the river."
Well, that never happened to me. In my tenure with our group, we've never been so close to the deadline that the script was still being written as the performance began. I have had props fail me in the middle of a stage show, though: The electric doorbell simply refused to ring no matter what I did. Fortunately, we were in the middle of a broad, self-referential soap opera parody at the time; Since I was clearly visible to the live audience, and I was obviously Having A Problem, I simply took the mike and said, "Pretend you heard a doorbell." There was no dramatic tension to break, I got the cheap laugh, and the show continued.
But now I have two electric doorbells.
We watched spellbound through to the closing credits. Then chaos broke loose.
"That's us!" "Who sold our lives to AMC?" "They stole your 'nobody told us it was impossible' speech."
And finally, we agreed, there was but one question to ask:
Who, other than us, could possibly "get" this show? It can't possibly last; who would appreciate it other than ourselves?
I'm delighted to have been wrong. I'm amazed when I am reminded HOW wrong.
WENN struggled on for four seasons on AMC. It wandered from weeknight to weeknight, winning awards despite the neglect it received from its host channel. For the fourth season, AMC demanded that the 30-minute episodes be shortened to 24 minutes – a demand creator Rupert Holmes was able to satisfy by sacrificing much of the character dialog that made the show unique. Still, even the weakest of Remember WENN was better than most.
And then, at the end of the that season, with more cliffhangers packed into that final episode than most hour-long series would have had time for, AMC abruptly cancelled the show.
We fans of the show don't know exactly why. We're not sure who actually owns the show now, so we don't know if it can be sold to another cable channel. We do know that its non-standard length must make it difficult to sell in syndication. Those 30-minute episodes are a full thirty minutes, with no allowance made for the commercial breaks that AMC doesn't take. (Or didn't take, until recently. But don't get me started on that.)
But these fifty-four half-hours (and one hour-long Christmas show) yet live in our VCRs, and someday we'll find out if diva Hilary Booth was telling the truth when she told Jeff Singer she was already married; if lovely Betty Roberts chose the intellectual Victor Comstock or roguish Scott Sherwood; and if silent Mr Foley ever got the last word.
I'll meet you then, if you Remember WENN.