Encore Michigan

Tibbits airs radio memories from a bygone era with grit and style

Review July 26, 2020 Julie Linderleaf

COLDWATER, Mich.–Summer is known for theatre. When the temperatures start to rise and the nights get longer, theatre companies, professional, community, and college, all seem to fill the summer nights with opportunities to venture out and see the creative displays of plays and musicals.

COVID-19 threw the theatre world for a loop. Outdoor and indoor summer theatre festivals and seasons are canceled, and even Broadway is dark until the new year.  However, there are some determined theaters trying to find a safe and successful way to bring live stage entertainment back into the light. Just like a line from the movie Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, Michigan is just one of those determined theatres.  Situated in a quaint little town near the Michigan/Ohio border and about an hour drive from Lansing, for 45 years Tibbits Opera House has prepared summer performances. This pandemic was not going to put a stop to that historic run. Obviously it had hoped to be able to use its majestic opera house to stage a summer show schedule, but the Governor’s orders are still restricting inside entertainment activities.

So, the company moved outside. It moved to a local outdoor event location called The Ponds.  It’s a pavilion situated among gardens and ponds, with golf-cart escorts to get patrons to the pavilion from the parking lot. It’s a far cry from the usual number of seats and patrons that the Opera house can actually hold, but padded folding chairs are positioned with social distancing and party sizes in mind.  On Wednesday evening, there were about 53 people in attendance.

When Radio was King is actually Tibbits’ third show this season. The production was arranged and compiled by the company’s artistic director, Charles Burr, along with Bobb James and P. Todd Fox. The production was a compilation of various skits, commercials, news broadcasts, and songs that were actually broadcast over the airways in the early 40’s. The actors enter the stage from the sides and begin to prepare for a night on the air. The show begins with a test of the Applause sign to test their live studio audience. The production is a string of favorite iconic radio broadcasts of shows like the “Bickersons” and “Baby Snooks,” as well as“Fibber McGee and Molly.” They are interspersed between random new reports from 1943 and 1944 about the war overseas expertly announced by actor Ken Delaney and various 1940’s songs like “Thanks for the Memories,” as well classic commercials like Johnson’s Glo-Coat: “Revolutionizing old world cleaning.”

Paul Kerr and Peter Riopelle give an admirable run at the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” skit. When Radio was King displays all the responsibilities an on-air radio actor had to handle in nightly shows: Singing songs, skits, news reports, sound cues and sound effects, as well as performing commercials. Ovaltine, Wheaties, and Chiquita banana snuck advertising into programming with subliminal messages as easily as we currently watch an actor in a TV show eat a Reese’s Peanut butter cup.

All eight actors move about the stage with silent stage business as if the show is truly live and they still need to handle business with another cast member. Actors Michael Motkowski and Liz Davis send each other love notes and longing gazes at each other across the studio and sneak quiet moments to chit chat away from the microphones. Stephanie Burdick’s character sings the song, “Mean to me,” directing all the angst of the song across the studio to Peter Riopelle’s character.

It might the effects of many months of Netflix, but I honestly kept hoping that something was going to really play out through their stage business; Spoiler alert! It doesn’t. The show is just an entertaining mix of memories from a by-gone era.

Tibbits is still continuing their summer season every weekend through the end of August. Their new tagline: Conquering Covid OneShow at a Time. Tickets are $20 each and can be ordered online attibbits.org or call 517-278-6029.