Heroes like the masked Red Panda (“that scourge of the underworld, hunter of those who prey upon the innocent, that marvelous masked mystery man”) and his partner Flying Squirrel, who in the 1930s patrolled the streets of Toronto with unbreakable will–not to mention static shoes, miniature wireless transmitters, and gas grenades–taking on the city’s toughest gangs.
Heroes like tough-guy private eye Black Jack Justice (“that master of mystery, that sultan of sleuthing, Martin Bracknell’s immortal detective”) and girl detective Trixie Dixon, who find that people get some pretty strange ideas about just what a private detective does. As Justice puts it, “On the deliberately rare occasions when I meet someone new, their eyes light up with visions of murder and mayhem dancing in their heads.” These two were always looking for a case in post-World War II Toronto, even when it looked like one that couldn’t be solved.
Wait a minute, you say. You don’t remember them? Heck, the CRBC (predecessor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) wasn’t even formed until 1936.
Whodunnit, then? The clues point not to some Canadian pirate station from the 1930s, but to Decoder Ring Theatre, a group that does modern radio drama in the Old Time Radio tradition, using podcasting technology to bring their retro-stylish adventurers to life.
Retro Players Find a High-Tech Home
Red Panda, the theatre troupe’s first podcast series, actually evolved from a gag-filled World War II-era spoof in its first six episodes–with poison concealed in flasks of maple syrup and the Red Panda swallowing a bullet to smuggle it home and hoping the in-flight meal wouldn’t set it off–to a more serious homage to classic radio adventures, like The Shadow and The Green Hornet.That’s because the Red Panda episodes originally started out as a pilot project for commercial radio put together in 1999, about five years before they made a splash on the Internet.
“We were trying to prove we could make something like this happen,” says Gregg Taylor, president of Decoder Ring Theatre, who writes, produces, and stars in Red Panda Adventures.
Taylor found that commercial radio was too format-driven to give the series a chance, and what outlets his Decoder Ring Theatre could find didn’t pay enough to make the show feasible. Taylor and his cast of thespians turned their attention to traditional theater and festival productions, but eventually put the original Red Panda episodes in MP3 format on the Decoder Ring Theatre website in 2004 — “almost as an afterthought,” Taylor says. E-mails soon started coming in from all over the world from people wanting more of Red Panda.
In its current incarnation, the series has a more serious tone, and the setting has moved to the 1930s rather than sticking with the original backdrop of World War II. The advantage of the new version — that its heroes can pursue any type of adventure, rather than being confined to war scenes — won audiences over.
The new episodes also are streamlined, since the original Red Panda Adventures had an unwieldy six characters, four of whom never left the studio. The Red Panda now has a partner, though, in Kit Baxter (Clarissa der Nederlanden), otherwise known as the Flying Squirrel.
Eventually, Decoder Ring Theatre will work out a crossover episode (“like the Flash of Two Worlds,” Taylor says, referring to the two versions of the famous DC character) to bridge the two versions.
A New Noir Hero
As 2006 began, Decoder Ring fans found Red Panda joined by a decidedly noirish kind of hero in the form of private dick Black Jack Justice. The eponymous series got its start as a play-within-a-play for the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2002.
“It was a farce set on the broadcast day of a fictional old-time series. The writers come off a three-week bender and they realize they’ve run out of scripts,” Taylor explains. The play, also titled Black Jack Justice, finds the writers working on the script even as the show airs, and the personal dramas of the company weave their way into the drama.
Although it spawned another successful series for the Decoder Ring Theatre, the original 2002 “Black Jack Justice” story hasn’t been used in the podcasts. “I’m saving that one for a rainy day,” says Taylor. “It worked well in the context of the play, but I’m not sure it would be the strongest stand-alone episode. It was one way of satisfying the radio bug” before the podcasts emerged, he says.
Catching the Vintage Radio Bug
Taylor has been fascinated with Golden Age radio dramas since hearing several classic performances in reruns in the 1970s on a Toronto radio station.”Some [plays] drove me crazy until I tracked them down,” he says, recalling one find, The Lives of Harry Lime, with Orson Welles recreating the role of the antihero from The Third Man.
The Decoder Ring Theatre aims to recreate the feel of these original radio plays, setting a retro scene in sound for a modern-day audience.
Says Taylor, “We’re trying to do the shows close to the spirit of the 1940s, although the female characters are more active than in the times. Kit [Baxter, alias the Flying Squirrel, in Red Panda Adventures] is what I wish Margo Lane ever was.”
While early Red Panda sessions were done before audiences and Black Jack Justice originated on stage, the podcasts are produced in Taylor’s “palatial Decoder Ring studio” in the basement of his Toronto home.
The possibility of doing the shows live ran into problems, Taylor says, among them the need to sell “a ridiculous number of tickets” to cover rental costs. One location that was affordable turned out to have another problem — the subway ran too close, causing a noisy rumble every five minutes, a definite problem for radio taping.
“I’d like to take some of them live,” he says of the vintage inspired performances, adding that he wants to do “Fall of the City,” a favorite episode of CBS’s “Columbia Workshop,” as a live performance someday.
The casts for the podcast radio plays generally run up to about eight characters. The current incarnation of Black Jack Justice features Christopher Mott as Jack Justice and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective, while the Red Panda Adventures stars Taylor and Clarissa der Nederlanden. In addition to the series leads, the Decoder Ring Theatre ensemble includes Shannon Arnold, Scott Moyle, Steven Burley, Peter Nicol, Johnathan Llyr, Lesley Livingston, Michael Booth, M. John Kennedy, Julie Florio, Gregory Z. Cooke, Brian Vaughan, Andrew Merzetti, and Dave Kynaston.
New podcasts go on line every other Saturday, alternating between six-episode runs of each series. The first series of Black Jack Justice has been completed, and the new series of Red Panda Adventures starts up April 1, 2006. After that, six more Justice episodes will be podcast. If you’re looking to catch up, a dozen Red Panda adventures and several Black Jack Justice episodes are available in Decoder Ring Theatre’s podcast archives. To listen online, visit www.decoderringtheatre.com.