Junior Peter D’Auria walks up to the microphone. Onstage at the Cat in the Cream, dressed in an oversized tan trench coat cinched around his waist, D’Auria’s voice mixes with the jazz music in the background as he reads from his script.
“There are a lot of reasons to hire a private detective these days,” says D’Auria. “I’m not one of them. Hardin Lovelace, Private Eye.”
Cue the big band music, and the announcer steps up to the mic — “Coming to you live from the Cat in the Cream, The Dead Hear Footsteps!” — to introduce the live season finale of Oberlin’s weekly radio noir show. Now in its 22nd season on 91.5 WOBC, Oberlin College and community’s freeform radio station, the show airs every Sunday at 5 p.m.
“The Dead Hear Footstep is a send-up of the old detective radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe,” says Charles Cohen, a junior biology major. Along with junior psychology major Joel Ginn, who’s in charge of sound, Cohen is one of the two unofficial leaders of the radio troupe. “Depending on the episode and the current writing group, we go back and forth between playing it fairly straight and being fairly parodic.”
Set sometime after the end of Prohibition but before the start of World War I, the plot centers around Hardin Lovelace (pronounced love-less; “It always takes the new guys a while to break the “love-lace” habit,” says Cohen), a private eye in the fictional city of Bayside, somewhere in southern California.
“Hardin goes back and forth between being a borderline alcoholic and an out-and-out alcoholic,” Cohen says of their main character. “And he’s often fairly bumbling.” Around Lovelace is a motley crew of supporting characters, including Lucy Lodge (“she’s your Lois Lane, a tough feminist reporter; she’s usually the brains of the operation and Hardin is the luck”), Lieutenant Miles Fandango (“the grumpy but honest cop, the one honest cop on the force”), and Ian McNasty (“the bartender at Hardin’s favorite bar”). Any episode can feature many more; in the December finale, the seven performing cast members did the voices of 10 named characters and a sizeable assortment of bit parts.
With several generations of college student writers under its belt, The Dead Hear Footsteps has evolved since its conception in the early 2000s.
“We dug up some really old episodes of the show that were very different from the what we have now,” says Cohen, who’s been involved with The Dead Hear Footsteps since his first year at Oberlin. “It used to be a very dark, very noir show. In the last couple of seasons, we’re started with fairly light episodes and gotten darker by the end, but we usually try to keep a lot of character humor and lighthearted situations.”
The change in the show’s tone has especially manifested itself in the character of Hardin Lovelace.
“Hardin used to be a lot more of a straight, classic, Chandler-esque detective instead of the booze-soaked train wreck that he is now,” says Cohen. “But I think we’re trying to make Hardin a little more competent — more of a straight man in a weird situation than a joke in a weird situation. But it sort of varies with who’s writing it.”
A small group of students is entirely responsible for the production of The Dead Hear Footsteps, from planning the episode to writing the script to the live recording in WOBC’s studios. At any given time, the team is working on different stages of two episodes.
From conception of the story to live broadcast, an episode takes about 10 days to complete. The team meets to toss around ideas and map out an episode’s plotline, and the story is split into four quarters, each one assigned to a different writer. Over the following week, the writers finish their sections and send them to Cohen, who assembles the final script. That Sunday, the cast rehearses the show once through before performing live immediately after.
“And I said, ‘Frances, you don’t get it — I can’t interview him because he’s been dead for four years!’ Frances just got this look on his face and says, ‘Lodge, what do you think we pay you for?’”
That’s a line in the season finale from Lucy Lodge as played by Kaitlyn Price, a junior majoring in computer science, mathematics, and East Asian studies, who has been a part of the writing team since her first year. She took on the role of Lodge just this past fall; as an avid noir fan since childhood, Price jumped at the chance to be more involved in the show.
“Writing these stories is so much fun,” says Price. “It’s a great way to give light to all the jokes you have playing in your head, but don’t have a situation in real life to use them.”
Writing is also D’Auria’s favorite part of the creative process. As a creative writing and neuroscience major, he has many opportunities to write stories and poems, “But writing for The Dead Hear Footsteps is very different. It’s a chance to write things that are very goofy,” he says. “Writing the openings is my favorite part of The Dead Hear Footsteps. But it’s also great to hear something you’ve written being performed on the radio. It’s even better when you’re the one performing it.”
The sheer enjoyment they get from working on the show is what keeps the students involved in The Dead Hear Footsteps, even though the hours can add up each week and they don’t earn any credit for their time. In addition, says Cohen, not as many students listen to the show as they would ideally prefer.
“We don’t have the print budget to run up a lot of posters to advertise for the show,” says Cohen, although they do put up posters for the season finale at the end of every semester, performed live in the Cat in the Cream in the cast’s best 1930s-style costumes. “But none of us are planning to do radio as a career. It’s cool when people listen, but mostly we’re doing it because it’s fun to write, it’s fun to do silly voices. It’s just a fun thing to do.”
To listen online to The Dead Hear Footsteps, go to wobc.org. Interested in getting involved in the show? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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