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MARVEL COMICS IN THE MEDIA

Dr

DR. STRANGE (COMIC)

DEFENDERS IN THE MEDIA

MIDNIGHT SONS IN THE MEDIA

TRACKS:[]

EPISODES
01. The Origin of Dr. Strange
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17. The Baron Mordo Show

WHAT WE KNOW: The Secret History of the Doctor Strange radio show[]

At the Atlantis Fantasyworld event last year celebrating the release of Starstruck, I presented little tastes of the CD to wet people’s appetites in between readings of scenes. Everyone knew that that was coming. What they didn’t see coming was five minutes of something that hadn’t been heard, to my knowledge, since 1967; in fact, nobody in the room even knew it even existed. So you should have seen everyone’s faces when I announced that I would play a few minutes, just a few minutes, of the first episode of the Doctor Strange radio show.

Yes, Superman was a radio show from 1940 – 1950. A few other characters adapted from comic books came and went like the buffalo during its time: The Blue Beetle, The Black Hood, The Green Lama; there was even a Blackhawk show for all of four months. But by 1962, while BBC continued to keep the torch burning (not too brightly, mind you), radio drama in the United States was all but a thing of the past with the final airings of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense. Until 1967, when WBAI in New York City aired seventeen episodes of an honest-to-God radio show, close to twenty minutes in length per episode: Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange.

I first met co-Producer Charlie Potter at the National Audio Theatre  Festivals 2005 Audio Theatre Workshop; he was the origanization’s President at the time. I knew of his work for Random House Audio, as the Producer and Director of a fantastic series of dramatized Louis L’Amour stories starring Broadway talent Reathel Bean (that year he was the NATF’s special guest, along with Bill Dufris) as lawman Chick Bowdrie. What I didn’t know until that week, as what is now AudioComics was still a gleam in my eye with a potential project in the pipeline, was that his start in audio drama came in the psychedelic 1960’s as co-Producer and voice actor in a Doctor Strange series. “Doctor Stephen Strange? Master of the Mystic Arts? Are you kidding me?” I knew of Marvel’s short-lived Fantastic Four series in the mid-1970’s (hosted by “Stan the Man” and featuring a pre-SNL Bill Murray as The Human Torch), and later heard some episodes through Archive.org, and of course there was Dirk Maggs’ Spider-Man serial for the BBC in the 1990’s (featuring our own Bill-O as Peter Parker with music by Brian May of Queen, and no technical slip-ups or concussions or broken backs), but Doctor Strange? Are you kidding me? Did anyone else know about this? Apparently not!

Anyway, I am now one of the few in my social circle, or any circle for that matter, who has heard the first 6 episodes of the series, which very closely followed the first series of stories in 1963. I’ve played a few of the 6 eps for friends, and of course five minutes of the first episode was heard by a group of true believers in a store in Santa Cruz, eyes shut, listening to the first Strange story in sound. Recently I interviewed Charlie for this blog about his experiences with the Master of the Mystic Arts; Charlie’s still one of the nicest guys in the world, still working with the National Audio Theatre Festivals, and now teaching in France half of the year. And yes, he remembers that time in New York City fondly. Herewith goeth the Spirit of the Amulet:

Charlie, how did the show originally come to be?

The discourse on the rebirth of radio drama in the US aside, in 1967 I found myself kicking around a radio station – WBAI in New York – hired to do light admin, but soon discovered if you were patient and flexible we could get studio time to try and do things, and I had been missing radio drama since about 1952 at this point. I was on my second tape recorder of my own, and was greatly helped from the start by the technically brilliant and wit extraordinaire David “Sparx” Rapkin. After doing a couple of documentaries (one Krishnamurti interview and a piece on a talented musician at the the NY Yoga Society’s ashram), I was ready to take on Doctor Strange. I had been spending a lot of time in the 156.4 section of the Columbia University library, and I was very interested in Eastern religions. A bunch of friends from Columbia met in the apartment of Martin Gleitsman and we took the comic book and started talking about how we would do it. Martin was already an on-air host at WKCR and had a great voice for Dormammu. It took us a while to sort out casting, but this was the start.

By a couple of weeks later we had had a recording session, and had made show number one – probably the “Doctor Strange meets Nightmare” episode? – in two longish edit and mix sessions. I got the idea for the electronic music from listening in on the Music Department’s activity over one tall bookshelf away from the switchboard where I had a shift.

Steve Ditko. There I’ve said it. His name was Steve Ditko. He drew Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. Ditko had drawn fantastic supernatural comics from back in the 50’s already, although I certainly was not aware of him then. By the time he drew Doc Strange he was weilding a fantastic pen charged with pulp fantasy decontructed pages, dazzling art nouveau lines that would stop Aubrey Beardsley’s breath, excellent caricature. One cannot underestimate the importance of the artistic design of the cartoon series itself in inspiring us to really create sometthing from another dimension. Then there was Stan Lee’s story line – made to order for Ditko’s art. We called Stan Lee and asked his permission to do the series, and he went us one better, he came over to the studio and wished us the best of luck with the series in person! I am sure that kind of thing would never happen again. But I trust that the Eye of Agamoto will preserve and protect Doctor Strange’s new family…

I remember reading somewhere that Doctor Strange had become an unintentional counter-culture symbol; was that reality part of the reason why you wanted to do the show?

Simply put, no. If Doc Strange became one after this started at WBAI, that is due to the enormous vitality and mystique of Dr. Stephen Strange himself. We may have contributed to this development, but we absolutely didn’t view him as a counter-culture hero at the time. A bit too esoteric for that, I think.  And I think Ditko was well on his way to inventing psychedelic art before anyone ever heard of acid.

Had you considered doing any original stories or did you know from the outset that the episodes were going to be straightforward adaptations?

No, I hadn’t started writing original radio dramas when we decided to make Doctor Strange. These are absolute first works from all of us. I immediately began doing other adapted stories in alternation with the Doctor Strange episodes, and did a lot of stuff by John Collier, then short sci-fi episodes of all sorts. It wasn’t until about a year of doing adaptations that I began to throw in original scripts, both mine and ones by my friends here in NY. That is how the final episode of Doctor Strange came about, of course — the Baron Mordo Show…

Was WBAI up for it from the git-go or did you have to do any convincing? The last time a comic book character had been on radio was Superman in 1950.

WBAI was very encouraging from the git-go. It was a kind of media commune and everybody knew everybody. The Drama and Literature Department at the time was in the hands of Baird Searles, who knew and loved F & SF quite well and was very much amused by the whole Doc Strange thing. My friend David Rapkin was also on work-study at WBAI by this time, working as an engineer, and he wanted to work on it, so we found a time when there was a large chunk of time when no one usually used production (Friday nights) and we just started doing it. I had made a couple of good docs and was learning to produce: soon I was getting the script into shape each week and cajoling actors into joining us. After Friday nights spent recording tracks from 7 pm until midnight, David and I would come in on Sunday mornings and edit and mix the shows. We made one episode of about 10 – 15 mins each week this way for quite some time.

Getting the rights to do Doctor Strange: easy, hard? Pain in the you-know-what?

I got permission to make the shows, as a gift to WBAI, directly from Mr. Stan Lee. I think at this time (1967) Marvel Comics was pretty much his baby, and WBAI was just around the corner from Lee’s office. We asked, he said yes. In fact he said he’d love to drop over and meet us and see what we were up to.

Okay, what was it like meeting Stan Lee?

We were already editing tracks for the “Nightmare” episode, which was our first. Gary Huehner was playing Dr Strange in these early eps. I was the Ancient One from the very start, and Martin Gleitsman played Baron Mordo.  David Rapkin recorded and edited, he and I did the mixes together. The music was my doing. So Stan Lee comes over to 30 East 39th Street, where BAI was still located, and he came up to the studio. Very New York all of this, and very New York was he, with a snap brim hat and spiffy 60’s styled suit and all, and we were really a bunch of scruffy Ur-Hippies. Lee was so enthusiastic and wished us all the best. We felt deeply honored.

Decribe for us the recording and editing process in 1967.

At this time we recorded voice tracks on 1/4 inch tape and edited them down to get best takes and everything in the right order. We usually assembled them starting at the last take of the last line first and worked back towards the beginning. Then we pulled SFX records and music records, as in vinyl, right, and started to mix pieces starting at the top and working towards the tail. The recording of actors for a 15 minute segment, followed immediately by the edit of the voice tracks, would take us one longish evening. (7 pm to midinight, minimum.) Rapkin and I would come back in on Sunday mornings and mix the shows from 9 am until 1 or 2 p.m.  After some indeterminate number of years of working this way, our old pal James Irsay returned from wandering around India and Pakistan and he joined us as the music director. But by then we weren’t doing Doc Strange anymore, but he was there for all of our 5.5 hour – 19 episode Count of Monte Cristo series.Only 17 episodes were made; had you thought about doing more?

Only 17 episodes made, yes, but these took a couple of years, maybe three even, partly because WBAI moved from its original home at 30 East 39th Street to “the Church” – on East 62nd St. near 1st Avenue in the middle of our doing it, and so we moved into stereo around episode 12, I think. I would have done more, maybe, but it wasn’t easy to hold the cast members together, and some of them I viewed as essential.  The guy who played Dormammu, David Wilson, I believe his name was, was fantastic, and I remember losing a lot of my energy when he moved on.  But we trooped on.  We also got into making an alternate feature each week, and running the episodes as double features – two fifteen minute segs per week in a half-hour show.  So we got very involved in lots of other scripts and authors  and they led us down different by-ways.

Okay, with the final episode it became “The Baron Mordo Show”…

One of the essential players was Martin Gleitsman, a great voice, and a dear friend in the founding group.  I remember thinking that it would be funny if his character, Strange’s nemesis Baron Mordo, finally won one of the encounters, and so we wrote the Baron Mordo Show as a final send off.  It is still so vivid in my mind as a comic book that I imagine actually seeing frames of the strip with Doctor Strange accosting a child on a tricycle on a street somewhere in the midwest, and someone calling the police to arrest him, but of course none ever existed.

What are your thoughts about Doctor Strange, looking back on it all these years later?

I loved doing the series, it was my introduction to producing audio drama – although I had been in a lot of plays from childhood on trough college, and recall getting the kids in my neighborhood to put on plays when I was 10 – did I already mention this? – so I guess I had something very much like this “burning inside me” all along. And then I got into Occult Science through Rimbaud and Co., and then came 1964 and The Psychedelic Experience and we were all on the Path to somewhere.  Doctor Strange, the radio series, was a way for us all to play together in this vein.  It just happened that some of us stayed with the radio drama thing.  I did.  I know David Rapkin did, too.  I think that Martin is still in Audio Production, though I don’t think he continued to produce drama.

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