I've been getting too much attention for reviving O'Toole From Moscow, Rod Serling's "lost" 1955 baseball comedy about the Cincinnati Reds for WVXU-FM.
The stars of the show are, well, the stars of the show: Eight very talented University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music students. The manager of our Team O'Toole is director Richard Hess, who teaches acting and directing at CCM. Our recording guru is WVXU engineer Josh Elstro.
I want you to meet them and see them in action before O'Toole From Moscow premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday March 23 on WVXU-FM.
So here's a brief video I shot when we were recording a scene when lowly Embassy staffer Mushnick (Frankie Chuter at right, in light blue shirt) is grilled by suspicious comrades (played by Cameron Nalley at left, and Lucas Prizant center) about his absenteeism to attend Brooklyn Dodgers games.
Serling's O'Toole was broadcast only once, live on NBC television in 1955. It was not recorded, filmed or taped. Serling lived here 1950 to 1954, when the Reds changed their name to the Redlegs after "Reds" became headline shorthand for Communists.
O'Toole is a Serling comedy – not a drama – about confusion between the Russians and Cincinnati Reds at the height of the Cold War in which a Russian Embassy security officer ends up playing outfield for the Cincinnati Reds. It's been a dream of mine for 30-plus years to produce an O'Toole revival for Cincinnati.
Hess agreed to be Cincinnati Public Radio's dream team manager last summer, as he was stepping down after 25 years as CCM Acting Department chair. He's a Fulbright scholar who has directed shows in New York, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Nairobi, Buffalo, Chautauqua, Dayton and Cincinnati.
But he had never done a radio play. None of us had.
Hess hand-picked his lineup, choosing students with "great energy and the ability to create interesting characters… who I knew would be quick studies, and who were facile with dialects." Their names are Chandler Bates, Austin James Cleri, Matt Fox, Dustin Parsons, Jack Steiner, Chuter, Nalley and Prizant.
Sammi Grant, a master's student from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, tutored the cast so they would be authentically Russian – and yet comprehensible for the radio audience.
"Every character in O'Toole From Moscow needed to be voiced with confidence, a sense of humor … and a dialect or specific speech pattern," Hess said. "Grant has such a good ear, and she instinctively knows how to make dialects accurate and understandable."
The tsar of our show, to me, is Frankie Chuter, who plays Mushnick, the Embassy's "ninth secretary" whose love of beisbol starts Serling's caper. Mushnick and Joseph Bishofsky, a young security officer, refuse re-assignment to Moscow and hop a train to Cincinnati, where "Joseph O'Toole" impressed the Cincinnati manager at a try-out. And this one belongs to the Redlegs!
With his bushy black mustache, Chuter looked like a Mushnick. Turns out he's a Serling fan, too.
"I started watching The Twilight Zone when I was about 13 years old so I was very familiar with Rod Sterling by the time Richard approached me with this script. I am still a very big fan of the original series. Meeting Anne Sterling was also such a huge treat for me," says Chuter, 21. Serling flew in from New York to be our host/narrator.
The son of a Texas high school theater teacher, Chuter has been performing "for as long as I can remember." Watching lots of Saturday morning cartoons got him "totally sucked into such a wild and wacky world filled with color and distinct voices, so I started picking up on voices very early in my childhood."
Long-time baseball fans will enjoy Serling's O'Toole script. He mentions 1950 baseball stars still familiar today because they're in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider and Dizzy Dean.
"The humor of the play holds up well," Chuter said. "While some of the references are dated -- and you should probably have a fair amount of baseball knowledge going in -- but I think the show is just incredibly charming. I think that’s what helps strengthen the show's sense of humor. If you place yourself in the time in which the play was written, then I believe you can start to enjoy the play in its fullest."
Says Hess: "I loved helping the actors embrace the 1950's aura of the piece, and finding the Rod Serling sense of humor. I know listeners will enjoy discovering this lost gem."
Our baseball diamond gem was assembled by Elstro, who often engineers Cincinnati Edition. He was tasked with stitching together the best of multiple takes into a one-hour show. Then he had to find sound effects for ringing phones, footsteps, file cabinets, train trips, city traffic, drunks passing out and re-arranging photos on a wall. He found the Russian folk music we needed as an audio cue when the scene shifted back to the Russian Embassy. He also recorded Anne Serling's O'Toole introduction, done in the staccato style of her father's Twilight Zone openings.
When Elstro could only find sounds of batting practice with aluminum bats, I called my friend Jeff Gray, assistant softball coach at Badin High School, and he told me about a couple of Badin alums who hit in the school's batting cage with wood bats. I taped the sound on my iPhone. The reverberation in the metal-roof gym provided an explosive sound, perfect for O'Toole's monstrous home runs.
After I interviewed Reds organist John Schutte for Around Cincinnati, Elstro advised Schutte on what kinds of ballpark organ music he could provide for the show. (I always wondered what a "producer" of a show did and now I know: A little bit of everything and anything to get the program on the air.)
After Hess, Elstro and I listened to the rough cut last month, and decided we needed better sound effects, the three of us were like giddy college kids experimenting with making sounds in the studio for switching portraits on the wall, pouring vodka and clinking glasses for toasts.
CCM was the perfect partner for our Serling project. As a Cincinnati resident in the early 1950s, Serling taught in the old College of Music Radio/TV Department on Elm Street. The College of Music merged with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1955, and that school became the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music in 1962.
After watching O'Toole in 1955, Cincinnati Post TV columnist Mary Wood called it "delightfully fantastic" in her review the next day:
"The Reds – both Cincinnati's favorite baseball team and the Moscow variety – were mixed up in the most hilarious comedy Rod Serling has written so far . . . As a matter of fact, it was such a funny play that I hope it will be repeated for a night-time audience so the male baseball fans can share the laughs."
It's taken 65 years, but O'Toole From Moscow is coming back to the airwaves for the night-time audience – at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, on WVXU-FM (91.7) and Oxford's WMUB-FM (88.5) and streamed at wvxu.org. After that we're going to share it with the rest of the nation's public radio stations nationwide.
"I think my dad -- for the first time in his life -- would have been speechless to know that after all these decades his script has come back to life," Anne Serling said before taping her part in November. After reading recent stories by the Associated Press, Enquirer and Business Courier about our production, she emailed me to say, "This is all so exciting… Thanks from me (and my dad)."
"O'Toole From Moscow" premieres 8-9 p.m. Wednesday March 25 on WVXU-FM (91.7) and WMUB-FM (88.5) and streamed at wvxu.org.