published Friday, April 18th, 2014

Out of the shadows: Chattanooga author on the case of missing radio dramas

Dakota Brown, the voice of Horace Kentucky; Eric Wyatt, the voice of Attila the Hun; Andrew Woomer, the voice of Death; and Jeffrey Parker, the voice of War, from left, record an episode of the podcast “Horace Kentucky’s Chronal Detective Agency."
Dakota Brown, the voice of Horace Kentucky; Eric Wyatt, the voice of Attila the Hun; Andrew Woomer, the voice of Death; and Jeffrey Parker, the voice of War, from left, record an episode of the podcast “Horace Kentucky’s Chronal Detective Agency."
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

HOW TO LISTEN

The first seven episodes of "Horace Kentucky's Chronal Detective Agency" are available to stream or download for free from iTunes or via Podmatic at www.dakota-brown.podmatic.com.

THE CAST

Kevin Bartolomucci: Winnie Wheatworth

Amanda Brown: Guardian of the Edge of the Universe and Nerd No. 3

Dakota Brown: Horace Kentucky, Steve the stand-in Horseman of the Apocalypse, Nerd No. 2, Woman and Hun

Lizzie Chazen: Queen Victoria

Casey Keelen: Joymart Greeter

Jeff Parker: War, Albert Einstein, Smitty Cobblestone and Man No. 2

Hunter Rodgers: Ranch Hand Rickey and Famine

Andrew Woomer: Death, Roanoke Colonist and Man No. 1

Eric Wyatt: Customer and Attila the Hun

Judged solely by its opening monologue, locally produced radio serial "Horace Kentucky's Chronal Detective Agency" sounds like just another boilerplate noir drama stapled together by a series of cliches.

All the expected elements are there: the overwrought, ham-fisted metaphors; a cynical, gravelly voiced detective; the sudden appearance of a damsel in distress. If he'd bothered to mention it, author Dakota Brown undoubtedly would have described the office door as frosted glass emblazoned with the agency's name in bold, black letters.

To fans of classic radio serials, titular gumshoe Horace Kentucky initially sounds like a pretender grasping at Dick Tracy's trench coat and fumbling with Philip Marlowe's revolver.

But that sense of run-of-the-mill familiarity disappears as soon as the beautiful damsel -- reclusive, former silent-film actress Winnie Wheatworth -- opens her mouth. Instead of the expected sultry contralto of a femme fatale, local actor Kevin Bartolomucci's baritone booms out of the speakers.

"Are you Horace Kentucky? I need your help," she (he) growls in a voice so many octaves lower than expected that you can almost hear the beard.

It's an intentionally jarring moment that Brown, who voices Kentucky, says he still laughs at, no matter how many times he's listened to the episode since it premiered on his Facebook page in late January and later as a free iTunes podcast.

"[Wheatworth] was going to have a weird voice because there had to be a reason she didn't translate from silent film to talkies," the 26-year-old explains. "Kevin has such a great vibrating bass that I couldn't deny it when the idea popped in my head."

The absurdity of Wheatworth's delivery is only the first hint that all is not as it seems in "Horace Kentucky." Soon enough, singing cowboys are traveling through time using the magical power of goose eggs and Queen Victoria is engaged in a discussion of quantum physics with Albert Einstein. Yes, really.

"Horace Kentucky," it turns out, is as much a science-fiction adventure as a detective drama -- a Trekkie traipsing about in a fedora.

LEARNING CURVE

The episodic -- occasionally cockamamie -- tale of a time-traveling private eye is Brown's first attempt at a radio drama. His writing career began in an entirely different medium in 2008, when his first script, "Abandon All Hope, Mikey-Mike," won an award for Outstanding Play by a Young Playwright from the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. He since has had three other plays picked up by Kentucky-based Black Box Theatre Publishing Co.

When he conceived of "Horace Kentucky," Brown says, he initially was hesitant to play up the science-fiction elements, but he ultimately decided that traveling through time didn't necessarily have to be completely out of touch with reality.

"I think exploring space and time is a great way to show people that, no matter where they've been or where they'll go ... where they are in the present moment is just fine," he says. "Sometimes, it's greater than anywhere else they could be."

Since coming to that conclusion, he has moved forward with wild abandon, sending Kentucky and company on adventures that are less "The Maltese Falcon" than "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," more "Doctor Who" than "Sunset Boulevard."

In the seven episodes of "Horace Kentucky" now available, Kentucky joins forces with a time-traveling Queen Victoria, discovers the fate of the lost colony of Roanoke and is kissed by Attila the Hun.

The six actors who have helped breathe dramatic life into "Horace Kentucky's" eccentric story largely are stage-trained but most had never tackled a radio drama before, with the exception of Jeff Parker.

Parker, 33, is an associate professor specializing in voice and speech at Chattanooga State Community College. He also teaches courses through its Professional Actor Training Program, from which Brown graduated in 2007. While living in New York City, he kept himself afloat by accepting voice-over contracts, mostly for DVD narration and Web series, but these days, he's more picky and only takes on projects that genuinely interest him.

He says he "fell madly in love" with Brown's work after seeing one of his plays during a festival through the Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga and offered to help him with any future projects. When Brown brought him a draft of the first five episodes of "Horace Kentucky" last fall, Parker jumped at the chance to be involved.

He has portrayed a handful of characters on the show so far, including the villain of the first story arc, a time-traveling shopkeeper named Smitty Cobblestone, but his favorite is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Like most of Brown's writing, the usual ominous depiction of the Horsemen has been absurdly twisted.

Apparently, the Horsemen are a man short -- Pestilence is on vacation -- and his stand-in, the innocuously named "Steve," spends most of the time talking about his line of designer socks. For his part, Famine doesn't say much at all, and instead of spreading destruction to herald the end times, War and Death bicker incessantly about metaphysics.

"When I read the script, I thought, 'This would be fun to do,'" Parker says, laughing. "It's not quite Statler and Waldorf, but it reminds you of an old comedy duo."

RADIO ANACHRONISM

In a sense, "Horace Kentucky" is as much an anachronism as the historical figures who randomly appear in its chronologically confused scripts.

With the widespread adoption of the TV in the '50s and '60s, serial radio dramas such as "The Adventures of Philip Marlowe" and those produced by Orson Welles' "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" fell out of vogue with American audiences. Thanks to the ease of digital recording and self-publishable podcasts, the conditions are ripe for a resurgence of serials like "Horace Kentucky," says WUTC radio personality Richard Winham.

"To try and visualize the story would be complicated, but in people's imagination ... you can conjure all kinds of worlds, and that's what [Brown] is trying to do," says Winham, who was one of Brown's earliest technical consultants for the project.

"He's taking an old form and reinventing it, which is where good ideas come from, isn't it?"

Brown describes the dormancy of American radio drama as "heartbreaking." Last fall, he approached Winham to discuss the possibility of writing and producing one of his own, with the goal of airing it episodically on WUTC. Because Brown lacked experience with the necessary equipment, Winham offered to give him some pointers on production and provide supervised access to WUTC's recording studio.

Within a week of his first exchange with Winham, Brown embarked on a writing spree that yielded the story arc that makes up "Horace Kentucky's" first five episodes, which he and his cast recorded over the course of several sessions at WUTC. Those episodes were released to iTunes in February. Two episodes of a subsequent three-arc storyline were released last week.

SWITCHING GEARS

Brown admits the transition from writing for the stage to writing for radio was not without its hiccups.

Raised on a diet of Charlie Chaplin films, he learned to love physical comedy early on and later incorporated it into his theatrical work. Those scripts, however, relied heavily on highly choreographed stage direction and sight gags that were impossible on radio. This led to setting the scene through unavoidably awkward dialogue, Brown says, but ultimately, "Horace Kentucky" has proven to be creatively liberating.

"It's just such a freeing medium in the sense that the audience is left to their own devices," he says. "There's such a level of trust there that creates a more powerful connection between artist and audience."

Although he saw potential in Brown's work, Winham says he had reservations about playing it in its early form, which lacked traditional radio drama ornamentation such as sound effects, music or an intro and outro sequence.

With some post-production polish, Winham says, the play could still air on WUTC.

Serializing it "is still in the cards," he says. "The potential is there, for sure."

In the meantime, Brown is electing to have it "broadcast" on Wednesday nights through WAWL.org, Chattanooga State's Internet-based radio station.

In the future, Brown says, he would love to transition to working on "Horace Kentucky" full-time, but that likely would require either an endorsement deal or a successful fundraiser through a service such as Kickstarer or Indiegogo.

As it stands, "Horace Kentucky" can be produced for next to nothing, he says. The recording is now being done at Chatt State, where Parker has access to the college's studio, and the cast members are all volunteers.

For the moment, he says, he's content to keep churning out adventures on a shoestring.

"The show can be done with zero dollars each time, except for gas costs and repaying my cast with a nice dinner every once and a while," he says, laughing. "There are no set goals, so it's hard to develop a clear-cut mission statement at this point other than, 'Listen to this and have a good time.'"

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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