Originally Published March 3, 1997
Here’s how long it’s been since radio was the predominant form of entertainment in the world: Rupert Holmes turned 50 on Feb. 24 and he missed the heyday of that era altogether.
The significance of this? Holmes is the creator of “Remember WENN,” an American Movie Classics sitcom that harkens back to a time he never knew, when everyone listened to programs such as “The Shadow,” “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Suspense!”
“Remember WENN” is the story of a fictional Pittsburgh radio station and its employees circa 1939. WENN — those are the station’s call letters — is the home of radio shows such as “Valiant Journal,” “Amazon Andy,” “It’s Your Nickel” and “Bedside Manor.” The TV show operates on a higher budget than the station it portrays, but just barely.
It recalls a time when an audience met entertainers halfway. “But the lack of a picture was not a weakness,” Holmes insists. “It became the most muscular part of the concept. Everyone listening had to add some of the ingredients themselves and personalize every detail. And your mental cinematography, the shots that you framed in your mind of what was going on in a scene — yours was completely different from mine. That was really a magnificent thing.”
Looking back from 1997, radio’s golden age seems an ever shrinking wistful vista on modern media. It began in the late 1920s, seized the nation in the ’30s and ’40s and was almost a memory by the time TV took hold in the ’50s.
But as far as the characters in “Remember WENN” know, radio is still the center of the universe. They’re a hard-working bunch, with the same three actors playing virtually every part on every show for hours on end. Of course, it helps that Mackie Bloom (Christopher Murney), the “Man of 1,000 Voices,” is one of them.
Fun comes in the multitude of things that go wrong at the radio station, from pranks such as lighting someone’s script on fire while they’re reading it, to an accused murderer taking control of the station and insisting the staff of “Remember WENN” prove him innocent. There’s sudsy romance, too, although it’s usually inconvenient, meaning Jeffrey Singer (Hugh O’Gorman) and any woman his wife, Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins), catches him with.
Everybody on the show cracks wise and the scripts are littered with sarcastic repartee, vitriolic innuendo and asides.
Yet this is a hit show with everything going against it: it appears on a little-known cable network that never produced a sitcom before; it features no stars or breakout performers; no catch phrases; no commercials; and no laugh track. Holmes still thought it would work.
“I always had a feeling that people could adopt this show,” he says. “The thing people love about continuing series or sitcoms is not just the high of one particular episode. It’s not a guest star. Rather, it’s this family of people that, thank God, you’re not related to, but you can join every week and be a part of it. Radio is, by its nature, a cozy medium. I purposely picked a window of time when things were about as good as they were going to get before all hell broke loose with Pearl Harbor.
“It’s a cozy time in America,” he says, “that perhaps I recall more fondly because I didn’t have to be there.”
Holmes writes the stories, scripts and music for virtually every episode. “That’s usually me playing the music as well,” he says. “I’m the clarinetist you hear in the opening theme. And when the organist plays stuff, I add that in post-production. I tell her to mime whatever she feels works and I’ll match that.”
Beside its setting, “Remember WENN” is unusual for its length — anywhere from 28 to 34 minutes per episode versus 20 for the average network sitcom — and the atmospheric gains made by being recorded on film and not videotape. Better still, there is no prerecorded laugh track guffawing at every punchline, real or imagined. If you think something’s funny, you laugh at it.
“I don’t know that there will be a marketing breakthrough where you’ll buy ‘Remember WENN’ freeze pops,” Holmes jokes. “I don’t know that there is a music video to be made. Maybe there is no spin-out; maybe this is what it is. And maybe that’s its appeal. The things that are financial handicaps are also the charm of the show. These are personal friends of yours and not of all America. Doesn’t there come a point where maybe you feel the friends on ‘Friends’ aren’t your friends anymore?
“We would never be able to do this show on a network,” he says. “I would have so many memos from so many vice presidents saying we need to introduce someone to appeal to 12- to 16-year-olds. But if we get much more successful, rest assured there will be a ‘Remember Then’ on ABC.”
What is success these days? There are several World Wide Web sites already devoted to the show. “When I need to remember some trivia,” Holmes says, “like who was our mythical sponsor in episode three, it’s all cross-referenced online. It’s fabulous. There’s an episode titled ‘Klondike 9366’ and somebody realized the numbers spelled ‘W-E-N-N’ on the telephone dial.”
As for Holmes, while not a household name, most people know his work. He was the singer and songwriter of the 1979 hit “Escape,” better known as “The Piña Colada Song.” A tonier crowd may recognize him for his work on Broadway, as the creator of the 1986 Tony Award-winning musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Holmes is that rare creative talent who jumps from one medium to another and is known for hits, not misses. What song did he sing after “Escape”? What play did he write after “Drood”? And don’t expect another sitcom, either. Even as “Remember WENN” revs up for a third season, Holmes has written a backstage murder mystery/comedy movie for NBC called Trapped , starring Bette Midler. He’s also finishing up a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray for the stage and a novel for Random House.
“I’ve always wanted to do lots of different things using the same building blocks — words and music,” he says. “I’ve gotta be the only guy who has two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and who has sung on ‘American Bandstand.'”