Sunday, March 12, 2017

Media: Thank You Imagination Theatre

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This is the one thousandth post to this blog.  The looming significance of such a milestone was a significant factor in the decrease in entries to this space--I wanted to find something significant to mark the event.  In the end, it was obvious--something else that had reached and surpassed a much more significant one thousand milestone--Jim French's "Imagination Theatre."

Way back in 1990, as the CBS Radio Network once more cancelled the distribution of its "Radio Mystery Theater" series (which had stopped recording new episodes in 1982), KIRO radio in Seattle wanted something to replace the series, which remained very popular in the Pacific Northwest.  Management didn't need to look very far.  They had on staff as their late morning "Midday" host someone who had been doing radio dramas since 1965, Jim French.

Before long, the "KIRO Mystery Playhouse" was born, producing both new radio dramas and re-playing classic episodes from French's earlier work on KIRO and KVI, including series like "Crisis" and "Dameron."  Even early in his career, French had the foresight to retain the rights to these works, so rather than being lost in station archives, he could bring them back for further broadcast at his discretion.  As time went on and the radio landscape changed, the show would shift to sister station KNWX in 1999 and away from the then-Entercom cluster to KIXI in 2003.  Most importantly, though, it had been picked up in syndication in 1996 by Transmedia as "Imagination Theatre."  French felt this was a much more descriptive name, as what the shows were doing was engaging the listener's imaginations, not necessarily solving a mystery.  Transmedia and Jim French Productions amicably parted ways in 2006, and Jim French Productions would handle syndication for the remainder of the show's run.

Syndication brought "Imagination Theatre" not only to hundreds of stations and satellite radio across the United States over the years, but to other English-speaking nations, foremost Australia and Canada.  Internet distribution would bring it to the entire world.  What had once been a Seattle phenomenon perhaps also experienced in places like Alaska where KIRO could be heard at night grew to attract attention from radio enthusiasts all over the planet.  French secured the rights to record classic and original "Sherlock Holmes" dramas, and this brought attention from British writers who would contribute to other series airing on "Imagination Theatre."  Live tapings, which initially occurred at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle, Washington, moved to the Kirkland Performance Center in Kirkland, Washington in 1999 and continued on an approximately monthly basis.

These radio dramas were one of the reasons I became interested in radio.  In my teenage years, I would go out of my way to be at a radio that could receive KIRO 710 AM at 9 pm on weekend evenings.  I was able to catch a live taping of the "KIRO Mystery Playhouse" at MOHAI in 1992, and would enjoy an "Imagination Theatre" taping in Kirkland in 2006.  The familiar voices from Seattle radio that acted in various dramas created a link to my childhood, never mind the setting of many of the Harry Nile detective stories in a post-World War II Seattle.

While series as diverse as "Kerides, the Thinker" set in ancient Egypt, "Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief" set in Victorian England, and "Kincaid, the Strange Seeker" set in contemporary America appeared regularly on "Imagination Theatre," arguably the most iconic series was "The Adventures of Harry Nile."  Regular listeners know the entire history of the character, from his time in Chicago as a policeman and his interracial marriage, to his time in Los Angeles where he would meet his partner Murphy and have many adventures during World War II, to his time in Seattle.  Originally started as a KVI series in 1976 with haunting theme music by David Shire, "The Adventures of Harry Nile" featured Phil Harper as Harry Nile and Pat French, Jim's wife, as his partner Murphy.  (Murphy's first name, mentioned in only one episode in the entire series, would become a marker of devoted fans--if you knew Murphy's first name, you were in the club.)  After Harper's death in 2004, Jim French's right-hand man, Larry Albert, would take over.  Mary Anne Dorward would start voicing Murphy in 2011, leading to one of many inside jokes on the show as her first appearance was marked by Harry saying "You sound different."  "The Adventures of Harry Nile" was so preeminent in the "Imagination Theatre" world that its web site was promoted as "harrynile.com" rather than "jimfrenchproductions.com".

Pat French's retirement was a warning that all good things do not last forever.  Jim French's health began to decline, and it was announced that the January 30th, 2017 taping at the Kirkland Performance Center would be the last live taping.  At the taping, it was announced that the last new broadcast would air at the end of February, and Jim French Productions would close for good at the end of March.

The final episode could be nothing other than a final episode of "The Adventures of Harry Nile" and the ending could only be the outcome that some fans had been waiting forty-one years to hear--even longer than the fictional Murphy had been waiting.

So, in this one-thousandth blog entry, I thank Jim French and his many associates for 1,093 official weeks of "Imagination Theatre," and in reality many more hours of quality broadcasting over the years.  As E.G. Marshall would say at the end of each "Mystery Theater," may you have "pleasant dreams" forever.

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