"It's a Wonderful Life" takes you back to the day of live radio productions

By Dori Modney
December 5, 2018 - 6:52pm Updated: December 6, 2018 - 10:33am

LETHBRIDGE --  "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." Most people could name the movie from which this famous quote comes.  It's a quintessential piece of film work that still draws viewers every Christmas.

While the film was produced and directed by Frank Capra in 1946, it's actually based on a short story entitled "The Greatest Gift," written by Philip Van Doren Stern around 1939.

Van Doren Stern couldn't find a publisher for the story, so in 1943 he made it into a pamphlet and gave it out as a Christmas card. One of those cards wound up in Capra's hands and the rest is history.  Part of that history, is the fact that the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the American Film Institute has ranked it among the 100 Best American films ever made. It is number one on the list of the most inspirational American films.

Lethbridge residents get another chance to see - and hear - the story produced as it would have been done on a live radio broadcast.

Fran Rude, the Grande Dame of Lethbridge theatre, is directing the production for the second year in a row, because so many people wanted to see it again.

"Rotary Sunrise contacted me last year about doing a fundraiser for them for Christmas, and they had asked me to do "A Christmas Carol," which is a musical and I knew it was already going to be done that Christmas by another group -  I have always, always loved radio, and I have always loved this story so, I suggested it to them and they considered it and thought it was a wonderful idea."

"We did the production at Immanuel Lutheran Church last year and it was very successful, so we were asked to do it again."

In terms of taking the approach of doing the production as a radio presentation with a live audience, Rude says she hadn't done this before. But, growing up with radio as the main form of news and entertainment, she was excited about the opportunity.

"I've always been fascinated by it (radio), because I love it when an audience has to use it's imagination. I have actually wanted to do it for years, but the script wasn't available until a few years ago - Lunch Box Theatre in Calgary has done it and they're going to be doing it again this year - it's a really big success for them."

As the Director, Rude notes there are some challenges involved in this type of production.

"You have to remember that you are not performing before a radio audience - in those days, most radio broadcasts were done live, where an audience was used, and they didn't use laugh tracks and so-forth, like they can do sometimes today, and all sound effects were done live. 

"It was just a challenge that fascinated me. We do well over 100 sound effects live, on-stage, but also, the actors in this particular script - there are only seven of them but, they play 54 different parts, so that is hugely challenging."

Rude says those numbers were not uncommon in the old days of radio.

In spite of the challenges that come with this type of production, Rude says there were tremendous rewards, as noted in comments from those who attended last year.

"Many wanted to see it again, not only because they loved the story but, also because there is so much going on, they wanted to see it again to fully digest the whole effort because one can get caught-up with the sound effects, which are almost worth the price of admission in itself, and they just want to get a full appreciation of the entire piece."

"But, mainly, people just love this story - which is iconic. It's a faithful re-creation of the radio broadcast of 1947, which was done live by Jimmy Stewart and the rest of cast of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life."

The cast performing in this year's production is the same as last year, and Rude said she wouldn't do it again without them, who she says are just like family. They include Tony Deys, Morgan Day, Mark Campbell, Stephan Graham, McKade Hogg, Jordana Kohn and Sheila Matson.

As for the quality of the acting? They are beyond believable. During one particularly poignant section of the production last year, audience members were so caught up in the story, some could be heard sniffling and others were seen wiping tears from their eyes.

If you want to know what portion of the production elicited that depth of emotion, you'll have to attend and find out.

Rude is not surprised by the reaction and explains that the mind takes over.

"You don't need a lot of fancy scenery or anything else. It's the story that really counts and the way that the actors portray the characters - you have to be very believable when you're on radio, because if the person is sitting at home listening to you, they have to believe who you are."

"People really get caught up in the story because it has everything - at times, it's exceedingly funny, at times it's very heart wrenching, at times, it's very romantic. It focuses a lot on family and certainly has a focus on redemption."

In other words, it has everything that impacts how people respond emotionally.

Rude also had high praise for the venue - Immanuel Lutheran Church on University Drive and Rocky Mountain Boulevard west.

"We absolutely love the venue we are working in and I would not do this in a main theatre because this church is such a warm, welcoming church, the people have been wonderful to us, and the church itself just makes you feel good being in there. I'm so glad that we have had the opportunity to do this a second time and that the church is actually welcoming us back because we certainly enjoy the people there."

The show runs Thursday and Friday night at 7:30, with a Saturday matinee at 2pm.  Immanuel Lutheran Church is located at 20 Rocky Mountain Blvd. West. Tickets are just $20 and are available at the Enmax Centre or on line at www.enmaxcentre.ca

Proceeds from the show will go support local charities.

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