Richard Fish is the head of More Sugar, Firesign's product label, produced the Back From The Shadows CD for Mobile Fidelity, runs his own production studio and tape duplicating service, hosts a weekly radio program dedicated to Golden Age Radio and heads Lodestone, a mail order audio tape catalog business out of Bloomington Indiana.
FIREZINE: How did you meet David Ossman?
RICHARD FISH: I first met David at the Midwest Radio Theater Workshop. That was an event which started in 1979 at KOPN in Columbia, MI, a community station there. It was an event that I heard about. Their guests at their first one was Jim Jordan who played Fibber McGhee back in the 40s, and also David Ossman and Peter Bergman of The Firesign Theatre. Firesign had been responsible for my getting into this whole field. Back in college, they were like the modern gods and "Fibber McGhee and Molly" had become one of my all time favorite shows from the golden age, so this was a chance I just couldn't pass up. It was quite an overwhelming experience because it was a very intense week long event. I kept coming back year after year and only missed one of those workshops in the 16 years since. David was back every year and became a very influential person in the development of this workshop, and really turned it into kind of a family endeavor. That's his approach to it, and it worked extremely well.
FZ: Did you work in some of his productions?
RF: Yes, as a matter of fact he cast me in a production he'd written called "Max Morgan, Crime Cabby". He himself was playing Max Morgan and he cast me as Fergis, the bartender to whom he is telling all this. First of all he insisted that I find a different voice. I had to come with a brand new voice. I started ad-libbing and I'm much complimented that he later wrote some of my ad-libs into the script., mostly some very bad puns.
FZ: What was David like as a teacher in radio theater?
RF: David is a wonderful teacher. He really does understand, not only the subject, when he teaches radio but the people who do it and how they are looking at things. He has gone into it so deeply himself and he has such a great understanding of people, that he is able to really get on your wavelength. He's just excellent at it. He's able to draw things out of you. As a teacher he explains clearly, he answers questions, he knows what kind of information people want and the kind of answers that they really need. As a director, he has a wonderful ensemble style of getting everybody together and getting everybody to understand what's going on. And he is quite clear about what he wants but he's very warm about the whole thing. It's a lovely experience to work with him on stage. It's a delight. He has a marvelous literary background and is so thoroughly grounded in the words and concepts that he knows right where it's going.
FZ: Did he inspire you to heights you didn't know you had in you?
RF: Oh yes, he stretched me several times. Every time I worked with him, he wanted me to do something I hadn't done before. Every year the staff does a little performance at the opening reception, a just sort of in- house fun thing. In 1990 David was preparing that and he called me up before the workshop and said, "Richard, can you do Ronald Reagan?" (Reagan voice) "Well I don't know David, but I suppose I could try." He was getting this idea for the George Tirebiter Murder Mystery series, so he wrote this "Ronald Reagan Murder Case" thing, partly as a pilot for that and partly as our in-house playlet. He wrote for me not only Reagan but half a dozen Hollywood characters, like Chico Marx and Curly Howard. Now the thing is at this time I did a lot of voices and impressions, but I never did them in public, always just in a microphone where I could do 14 takes and edit out the good one. He not only forced me to do these things in public but he forced me to switch instantaneously from one character to another because he wrote me talking to myself. When we got to the workshop that year, one of the plays scheduled for the show got dropped at the last minute and this one was hurriedly substituted and became part of the show. So I not only had to do it in public but I had to do it in front of a big audience.
FZ: So you developed a rapport with him over the years?
RF: Very much so. I worked with David in various ways in the workshop and got to know him. I was production coordinator and every year I would go through my own collection of radio shows, I have 1,200 or so from the golden age, and I would try to find something that was somehow similar. I would send it off to the directors and say, "Hey, here is something, just for fun, that is in a similar genre'. Maybe you'll enjoy it, or maybe you'll get an idea for your production."
In 1988, David's play was called "Heaven As Usual". George Tirebiter came in and starred as God. It was in God's office and it was the universe as bureaucracy. Anyway I looked through my collection and came up with a similar thing which was a play called "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" by Norman Corwin and I sent it to David. He called me about 5 days later and said, "Richard, I put this on and I had to stop the tape after about 5 minutes. All these memories came flooding back to me. I was 8 years old when this was broadcast. This is the broadcast that made me want to go into radio." And since David's work with the Firesign, the first couple albums, had been the work that had the same experience for me, that was a very remarkable moment.
So David decided that he wanted to do the play at the next year's workshop. He contacted Norwin Corwin and asked him and he said, "Yes certainly you may do the script. I don't want you to change it if you want to do it." The following year David was producing it and it was the first and only time the workshop has done a script from the '40s. There's a script contest every year and the scripts that are performed are all brand new ones, except for this one. This was our 10th anniversary and was quite a spectacular production all around, got awards and things. It was just wonderful. And we were sittin' around late one night at the workshop that year, and I had found at a used book store, a copy of "More By Corwin", a book of scripts. And flipping thorough it over a glass of something, I noticed a script that said performed originally December 1941. I said, "Gee, look at this. Here's a script that's coming up for it's 50th anniversary in a couple of years. Maybe we could do this or something like that." It was "We Hold These Truths, The Bill Of Rights". People were interested in it right away.
Well, Mike Packer was sitting with us and he said, "Gee, let me see what I can do. Maybe I can find some funding." Michael then proceeded to get down in the trenches and write something like 150 grant applications over the next year and a half, and they were every last one of them turned flat down. Some felt that the Bill Of Rights was controversial. Packer couldn't find the money but somehow Judith Walcut and Mary Beth Kershner performed a miracle in resuscitating a dead project and pulled it out of the waste can at the Pugh Charitable Trust, saying "Wait a minute, you don't want to reject this one," and they somehow got money, 75 thou. So this was now September, 1991 and the program had to go on in December. So arrangements were hurriedly completed and Norman Corwin started at that point re-writing. In fact I think he was word processing the script and faxing it page by page to David, as David was travelling around the country.
We did the workshop that year and about a week later David called me and said, "Richard do you want to help on this thing. I could use an associate producer." I said, "Great, how much do I have to pay?" I was astonished to find out that they would pay me, and throw in an airline ticket and a hotel room. I flew out to Hollywood on December 1st and the broadcast had to be on the 15th and up-link on the 13th. It was one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. When I got there Judith was busy casting this amazing million dollar cast. We were casting up until the night before we started recording. All these people came in on just a few days notice for, good God, $500, or something like that. Slightly more than for scale but far less than what these people command. But they all said, "For Norman Corwin, sure." All these people were in the studio at the same time over 2 days. It was a totally amazing experience. I had to be Mr. Efficient with a clipboard and met them all at the door. I was given credit as associate producer and I've always spelled that g - o - f - e - r.
Norman Corwin wrote it and he allowed David to direct it. This is rare for Mr. Corwin as he almost always has directed his own things but he hadn't done radio in a while and he was not familiar with the multi-track production process, which we were using. The show had to up-link Friday at noon. Wednesday afternoon it was discovered the show was 12 minutes, or 20%, too long. Good gravy, I'm glad I didn't have to get in the middle of that one, but David solved it. Then we ended up doing a 27 hour marathon to finish it up in time for the satellite and we made it by 40 minutes. That was astonishing experience and I could go on for about an hour on it but the main significance of it here was it being an intense relationship with David.
His birthday party was held at Mooso and Frank's Restaurant and that's where I met Phil Proctor. I must say I instantly felt a rapport with Phil, and not just the Indiana connection. We had a glorious time and at the end of the birthday party David and Phil said, "Richard come on I want to show you something." And they took me out and walked me down Hollywood Blvd., you know the street with the stars on the side walk, and suddenly we found ourselves looking down at the Orson Welles star and Phil threw himself on the ground and attempted to hug the star. A block or so later they said, "Richard, look up there." They pointed to a second floor window and said, "That's Nick Danger's office! This is the building where we always visualized where his office was. Right up there."
The "We Hold These Truths" thing was kind of key because while we were working on that Proctor and Bergman were across the hall in another studio and I did a little extra voice stuff for them on occasion. They were doing some Congressmen Bob Wilson things. At this point I had not met Phil Austin. Then came the reunion concert and that looked like it was going to be the only one, when it was first announced. They were just going to do this one concert and indeed that was the idea. I just looked at myself and said, "This I can not miss." So I flew out for it. It was the most expensive theatrical performance I think I ever attended, but well worth every penny. When I arrived, David said, "Just come over to the theatre, we'll probably be rehearsing," and indeed they were. I eventually had a chance to shake Phil Austin's hand and meet him, finally.
I watched them rehearse and work on the show and then returned that evening for the performance which was a knock-out, absolutely a knock-out. They didn't know how many people would be interested. They wanted about a 1,500 seat venue and couldn't get it. The only venue they could get in the right time frame was The Paramount which was 3,000 seats or more. They were afraid it would be a half empty house. Ha, ha, ha. It was sold right on out in 10 days and good Lord the audience showed up, the curtain opened and there they were and the audience gave them a 5 or 6 minute standing ovation before they said a word.