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Radio Drama Celebrates Tom Swift’s 100th Birthday

Audio

Aired 7/16/10

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the classic young adult books featuring boy inventor Tom Swift. A convention will be held in San Diego, and will include live radio dramas based on the books. Culture Lust's Angela Carone went to a rehearsal and brought back this audio postcard.

The cover of "Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope" (1939), from the original Tom Swift series
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Above: The cover of "Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope" (1939), from the original Tom Swift series

It's hard to imagine young boys of today tinkering around in garages, inventing the vehicles and gadgets of the future. I imagine them sitting at computers, inventing apps, video games, and training to be hackers.

The young inventors of the past had a role model in Tom Swift, the hero of the young adult novels first published in 1910. Five series of books would follow, all produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer), the same outfit that produced the popular Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books.

Stratemeyer would come up with the concept and outlines, and then hire ghost writers to produce the books.

It was in the family garage, the Swift laboratory, where Tom Swift (and later his son) invented airships, "G-force inverters"(?) and "photo telephones." The books became very popular and, over the years, have inspired writers (Isaac Asimov), scientists and inventors, such as Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak.

They also inspired James Keeline, a San Diegan who began collecting the books when he was 8 years old. He's organized a Tom Swift convention to be held in San Diego this weekend to celebrate the books' centennial mark.

Keeline says there's a real difference between the original Tom Swift books, and the later series featuring Tom Swift, Jr.

"It's interesting that the original Tom Swift series (1910-1941) was not perceived as science fiction. A lot of readers thought that a young person working in their garage could be achieving the kinds of things they were talking about in the stories. The Tom Swift Jr. series (1954- 1971) though, he's going into space, meeting aliens, traveling underwater and those sort of things were more in the class of science fiction."

The cast of the Tom Swift radio dramas. From left to right: Scott Paulson, Kevin Koppman-Gue, Veronica Murphy, and Walter Ritter.
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Above: The cast of the Tom Swift radio dramas. From left to right: Scott Paulson, Kevin Koppman-Gue, Veronica Murphy, and Walter Ritter.

Scott Paulson, the outreach coordinator at UCSD's Arts Library, learned about the books from his father, who was an avid reader. Paulson is a writer and producer of radio dramas, and a sound-effects artist in the tradition of 1940s radio drama.

Paulson decided to create radio dramas out of two of the Tom Swift books: "Tom Swift and his Airship," and "Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X." Both will be performed live, sound-effects and all, at the Tom Swift convention.

James and Kim Keeline. Authors, collectors, and organizers of the Tom Swift convention.
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Above: James and Kim Keeline. Authors, collectors, and organizers of the Tom Swift convention.

I recently went to a rehearsal for the radio plays at the Geisel Library on the campus of UCSD. I found Paulson and the cast in a room surrounded by theremins, toys, musical instruments, coconuts, bubble wrap, and other noise-making devices. In addition to playing a few roles, Paulson creates all of the sound effects.

He says the theremin is particularly useful for the 1961 sci-fi themed "Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X." Paulson demonstrated the eerie sounds for me, moving his had in a fluttering motion to create a vibrato, and then lowering it to create a spookier sound.

The husband and wife founders of WriteOutLoud are collaborating with Paulson on the radio dramas. Veronica Murphy is directing the plays and also acts. She says, "working on a radio program is very different than working on a stage, so you have to constantly keep reminding actors to keep up the pace, to hit those adjectives, hit those verbs and really work overvivid instead of real life."

Paulson agrees. He says "a real actor doesn't want to do an old man's voice (in an exaggerated way) because it's beneath him." Paulson laughs, "it's not beneath me. It's not just that I'm acting, I'm schmacting."

The baritone voice of Walter Ritter is perfect for the role of the narrator. He explains, "narrators are often almost singing their lines and it has to do with the time in our history when radio dramas were popular."

After the cast, including Kevin Koppman-Gue, the young actor playing Tom Swift, finished rehearsing, Paulson demonstrated more sound effects. I then embarrassed myself by asking about a set of split coconuts sitting on the table. Paulson rolled his eyes as if I asked the most obvious question in the world and then playfully smacked them together. Horses! The perfect clip clop of hooves emanated from the coconuts.

Paulson explained that he gets the audience to participate at his shows by giving them items like the coconuts to help with the sound effects. So if you're handed two coconuts, wait until someone mentions a horse before you joyfully bang them together.

You can hear all of the sounds, rehearsal, and interview clips in the "audio postcard" I produced from my visit (see above).

Tom Swift Centennial Events:

Friday: 4pm at UCSD's Geisel Library there will be a FREE performance of a live radio drama of "Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X."

UCSD Arts Library will have a month-long Tom Swift exhibit.

Saturday & Sunday: The Tom Swift convention will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Mission Valley.

Saturday: 7:30pm at Sheraton Mission Valley there will be a FREE performance of a live radio drama based on "Tom Swift and his Airship."

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