Monday, September 06, 2010

The Peter B. Lewis Interview

Still on the road, still pulling blog material from my archives. This is an interview I conducted with Peter B. Lewis back in 1999. Who is Peter B. Lewis, you ask? He was the producer the Marvel Comics Radio Series back in 1975! Yes, there was indeed a Marvel Comics radio show once upon a time! Read on, but be warned that this one is NOT censored like when I first published it and contains some harsh language...

Peter B. Lewis worked as a disc jockey for several west coast radio stations before moving to New York in 1964. While writing radio jingles, he stumbled into the idea of a Marvel Comics Radio Series. Before long, he was talking with Stan Lee about the project and in 1975, the Fantastic Four's adventures were being broadcast nationally five days a week. Due to a lack of proper funding, the show was cancelled after only a 13-week run, but it is fondly remembered by fans and Lewis himself. Lewis is currently investigating the possibility of re-releasing the stories for contemporary audiences.

S Kleefeld: When I first heard about the FF radio show, I was very surprised. I had never heard of it before obviously, and it really didn't strike me as something Marvel would really go for. As I understand it, the original idea came from Richard Clorfene and the two of you were able to take the idea to Stan Lee. Would you mind explaining what that meeting was like and how you pitched the idea? I've also heard that you were actually more interested in the Silver Surfer, but chose to start with the FF, thinking it would be a better introduction to a Marvel Radio Series. Was the decision to go with the FF made before you actually approached Marvel?

Peter B. Lewis: Wow, what a lot of great questions! It sent me off to the vault and I've heard several of the old shows for the first time in years. It was quite an experience.

As I recall, Richard Clorfene, fresh from being head creative writer/producer at Mel Blanc & Assoc. in LA where he created Super Fun, a brilliant series of radio comedies that was syndicated to many "pop" stations in the mid-late 60's I think it was. Anyway, Clorfene usually worked with my recording engineer mentor, Rich Petersen in NYC and when Clorfene moved from LA to NYC, he had too much work for Rich to do, so he came to me (and I begged him, too) with a radio drama pilot for a series called, "Tales of the Energy." We produced the coolest hour-long deal ever, really. It was great! Went nowhere. We played it for several radio advertising and programming people and it was exciting but eminently unfruitful. Never even got as far as being a "turntable hit" -- just a great tape that only probably 200 people ever heard! Incidentally, the Editor at Cream Magazine heard it at the studio one evening and laffed his ass off. He subsequently paid for several hour-long sessions to play it for his friends.

Richard was really into Silver Surfer and wanted to do it as a radio series. Experienced the SS cult in S. Calif. and knew it would be popular with them. We talked about it (and millions of other possibilities) through the production of the pilot.

In my day gig, I was a jingle engineer/mixer at a popular NYC studio, National Recording. Suddenly, through some light conversation and what you'd only call a Coincidence of God, I found myself talking with the wife of a song writer who was working as a jingle singer on a gig I was doing. The wife, Ann Robinson, was in charge of licenses at Marvel Comics Group. She (and her hubby, singer/songwriter Tommy West) had heard and loved the Tales of the Energy pilot, she really loved the idea of the Marvel Comics Radio Series and she could grant me necessary license. She could also deliver Stan Lee. And she did.

Another part of my day gig was working at 21st Century Communications, producers of the National Lampoon Radio Hour. Remember that? It's really the precursor to Saturday Night Live. I worked on some bits of the show, but mostly I worked on the other stuff they were developing, such as editing the Mary Travis Show, interviews with Bob Dylan, etc. I got to hang out with the cast and crew of the Lampoon, and got to know the guy who put together the group of stations on which Nat'l Lampoon Radio Hour as distributed, Bob Michaelson. Since the Lampoon show was kinda winding down, Bob thought the Marvel show would be a good product to cycle into his network of stations.

Clofene was nowhere to be found. After we finished Tales of the Energy, Richard went back to LA and I couldn't reach him as things started coming together. In fact, we've only spoken a couple times since, and now not in decades, I guess. He's in Israel, last I heard, a Rabbi. Religion was a very big deal to him when we did the pilot. He wrote an inspired book, "The Book of Hype." This was just before we did the pilot. There are 4000 copies of that book somewhere and I'd love to have one now. I was quite affected by the book's content and the whole experience of being around a person who is being inspired. He had no interest in doing the Fantastic Four and said he'd do the Silver Surfer when it came time. "Good luck, Peter," he said, and that was it.

I didn't know shit about nothing when it came to production management, business, funding, sponsorships, budgeting any of that stuff. Bob Michaelson was quite eager to have a show, thought Marvel was a good Idea. We both thought getting an advertiser would be easy with a demo, I wrote a demo. A dear friend of my family, a great and famous voice talent and (then) the boss of my girlfriend (now wife of 30 years) is Bob Maxwell. I called Bob up, told him the idea and what I needed, that I wanted to do this ensemble style, where we have the FF and a villain, five principles, able to do a couple voices each, at least, I considered having the villains played by "guest stars." He suggested Jerry Terheyden because he is so versatile. He (Jerry) is a great team player, too. I thought we only needed him for about half of the time but he was to every minute of every session, because it was such fun for him! Bob, who was actually acted in the golden days of radio (the Lone Ranger, in fact), really loved the notion of the Marvel Comics Radio Series and pretty much put the cast together for me!

I wanted to have a National Lampoon flavor to the sound. I actually didn't want it to sound too much like the Lampoon - we recorded in their studio at 21st Century, I used their offices to do the editing of the dialogue, I dubbed dozens of sounds from their effects library. I thought Bill Murray would do great as Johnny Storm, Bob Michaelson is the one who actually made the contact and signed him up. He was the most versatile of the Lampoon cast. He agreed to work for scale. More on this sessions later, I'm sure. Back to getting the ball rolling.

We needed a cast for the demo and Maxwell was the guy who knew who could do what. He knew Cynthia Adler, Terheyden and Pappas. Pappas had some experience, you saw him kinda doing himself in commercials. I was unsure until I heard him do the transformation from Ben Grimm to the Thing. He really understood how to make that change. A very tough thing to do live. He also has such a sweet sound as Ben and can maintain focus (mostly) for Rockman. We got some seed money. And I went to work,

Why we started with the FF: Really I guess it was my decision. I agreed with Richard (Clorfene) that SS would be great. In retrospect, we maybe should have done that... For me, I truly believed this would be successful from the get go. We would get on these stations with these innovative REAL RADIO radio programs of COMIC BOOKS! Get it. This was, I thought, a Fantastic way to make a decent living, doing what I love to do: audio, radio, sound things.

We would lay the same foundation Stan laid when he started out: characters with "Feet of Clay" and amazing powers. The foundation, our test-ground if you will, would be the FF. After 26 weeks we'd get on to the SS. It gave Richard time to recoup, get energized by the success of the project, and get to writing on the SS. We'd also have the much needed funding - we always thought we'd have a national advertiser. What a mistake.

Well anyway, I was basically on my own with the thing, Marvel was ready to grant a license, I had a cast, a studio, access to the Marvel library and Xerox copies of anything I wanted. For the demo, I picked the section in issue one where they take over the space ship and get hit by the cosmic rays crash and learn of their powers. It's good exposition and demonstrates the idea pretty well. It also ran about five minutes.

So I never met Stan until we did the first session. I never really pitched anyone. Ann Robinson, liked me, liked the idea, talked to Stan, he must have liked the idea - she got him to agree to be the Narrator! And Excelsior!!

I didn't know anything about Marvel, or Stan Lee, or the Comic book biz or any of that stuff. For example, I didn't know that the Comic book industry was beginning it's first decline since birth! Look at sales starting in the 60's and through the 80's just about 1975 - 76 the curve starts it's decline!

And to your first point, no, I don't think it is the kind of thing Marvel would do on their own. If we hadn't brought this to them, it never would have been considered.

And to the last in that first barrage(!), both options were discussed with Ann. She presented them to Stan who didn't seem to have an opinion. We got rights to about a dozen characters (including SS, of course), just to be on the safe side. In my grand vision of the future of the Marvel Comics Radio Series, I choose to lay the foundation and do the first 13 weeks on the FF and see what to do next (FF or SS or something else) after the series is released.

SK: Once the idea was given the go-ahead, how did you proceed to write scripts? They were adapted from the original Lee/Kirby comics, I know, but how did you go about translating those into a completely non-visual medium?

PBL: How did I translate the original Lee/Kirby scripts in to a non visual medium? What a great one!! Thank you!

To understand the process, we'll start with the setting. After I recorded the demo, an opportunity to move to Seattle came up. I had been researching the idea of getting out of NYC for some time and this opportunity came up. I was kinda torn because on one hand I knew I could do the Marvel series in either place and there hadn't been any previous Seattle opportunities (in 2 years of trying) - well, I took the Seattle deal. Cyndy and I moved to Seattle in December of '74 and starting in January of '75 I did the "translations" as I grew to call them. It took several weeks, I drank gallons of Starbucks coffee (really) and smoked a lot -- probably drank heavily too, but I can't remember! Kind of a Jack Karoak experience. I really knew about radio. The sound effects, word pictures, scene setting and changing, rhythm, alternating voices, continuity stuff like that. I had been working in NYC as a senior guy at the best recording studios commercial audio production with the best most creative minds in advertising and audio production and their clients. I had also just spent several months under the guidance of Clorfene and I kinda knew how it had to read.

I tried to follow the exact quotes from the books, then I added visual descriptions of the scene and the action. After I wrote it, I did heavy editing and my wife typed the final scripts. I think it was about 600 pages, many had to be done a few times. Listening back today, the images seem to work pretty well. The actors really brought a lot to the characters. Cynthia Adler as Ant-Man, Princess Perla, Alicia and Susan Storm in the same episode! Just great, and Bill Murray as the black news reporter, WOW - it's cool what the actors brought to it.

SK: Another thing I found surprising was the cast you were able to put together. Bob Maxwell was fairly well-known already and Bill Murray, while not the household name he is today, wasn't a complete unknown either. While Cythnia Adler and Jerry Terheyden were pretty experienced as well. Did that talent pool make recording the show easier, do you think, or did it become a case of "too many cooks"?

PBL: Did the talent pool make it easier or "too many cooks". The talent was just a great cast. They worked hard, put themselves into the characters, made suggestions, volunteered for roles, understood the medium very well. I have very fond and painful memories of the sessions - it took a week to record all sixty-five episodes. They were not done in sequence, they were done film style - in this case, at the convenience of the cast, rather than set-ups. We had champagne when I said, "Ok, this will be number 10K" It was Thursday! The script was 2 inches thick and we did 12,106 takes!

SK: Conversely, Jim Pappas and Stan Lee had virtually no broadcasting experience. Did either of them inadvertently hinder production because of that?

PBL: Stan was done completely separately. He and the cast never met. I did Stan in about three or four sessions. At the first session, he was concerned for his nasal quality. He brought some nasal sprays with him -- two or three different brands. He would read a while and then hit the nasal spray, then read some more. He did quite a lot of the nasal spray that first day... and we had to postpone the next session for several days. He really fucked up his sinus passages. It's probably what he remembers most about it! Later, I heard that he has (had) a deviated septum. He was very easy to work with, a real trooper, understood his role completely and clearly spent time preparing himself for the sessions. Usually nailed the first or second take. I never heard from him after the series was produced. I sent 'review copies' to Marvel and never heard from them either. It was like being in a vacuum after I left NYC.

So I had done the demo with the NYC actors and now I've got this big script and I live in Seattle and we don't have much money. Should I fly to NYC to do the cast or should I find a new cast in Seattle? Well, I puzzled over that one for weeks, really. I picked NYC because I felt so much more comfortable with the cast, and each of them individually wanted to do the project -- and they all wanted to do it with the other cast members.

Also, Stan was in NYC, so was Bob Michaelson, the Marvel home office, Ann Robinson and maybe, we thought, we could get an advertiser in NYC. Well, I got the cast recorded and edited back into proper sequence, edited by me and my pal Richie Becker (now Sr. Sound Designer for Fox TV Sports) and I got Stan recorded, but we didn't get no sponsor. We did get seed money, $25,000, from Ann Robinson's husband's music production company -- It was an awful experience. We needed $65K and we had $25K

After I came home to Seattle from the cast recordings, I got to work on building shows. Bob had lined up about 30 stations and we were to start broadcasting in September. It was June.

Why 5 minute shows daily rather than 30 minute weekly?

In Bob's view, after doing the Lampoon as a half hour, half hours were getting harder to place at the stations. They wanted shorter. We decided that the books are kinda broken into segments (or some of the ones I saw are!) and they run about half an hour. Five 5 minute shows made sense. They were also set you so the stations, with a little dicking around, could make them into a half-hour deal on the weekends. And many did.

Would it have been more viable as a half hour? Who knows - I don't think the five minute format was the problem.

SK: One of the things I found interesting is that, aside from the cast, you did much of the work yourself, truly making it your production. You wrote the scripts, found the voice talent, made the recordings, created the sound effects... It was very nearly a one-man operation from the sound of things. I'm curious to know if that was more due to a personal attachment to the project or simply a matter of budget constraints? Either way, I gather it's something you're very proud of to this day, which I have to assume is at least in part because of the amount of time and energy you put into it.

PBL: Sean, the show was a financial disaster. I did all the work because I'm good at it and because we couldn't afford anyone else. I hired a local fella, P. Craig Turner, and he taught himself how to program an ARP 2600 synthesizer. Sometimes we even used two of them. Many of the sounds were from that. He worked with me tirelessly, everyday for several months. The national advertisers never materialized and we ran out of money. Michaelson put in his life savings, I begged at the studio for time. We ran out of money again, so we got shut down by the studio (because we couldn't pay). I had no job and no credit standing in Seattle, so no bank would loan me money. We were just fucked. Somehow, we got all 65 episodes done and mastered on disc and sent to the stations. My wife and I were evicted from our nice rental house, we answered several threatening phone calls from bill collectors and we were generally devastated. Didja every play Monopoly and completely loooose? That's what this was for, my family and Bob Michaelson. Cyndy and I were on food stamps and Bob was driving a cab in Manhattan. A total bust. I drove the bus the best I possibly could all the way but we still crashed. And burned. Like the Phoenix, we all did recover and today we have nice houses in the burbs of Seattle (me) and San Francisco (Bob). Cyndy and I have daughters and grand-kids. We live like workaholics, trying to avoid that poverty deal. Bob lives outside San Francisco. Everybody is doing fine, kinda.

SK: After the first 13 weeks' worth of shows, I understand that you planned to do only four or five more episodes before switching over to either Silver Surfer or Hulk stories. How far into those did you get before you found out the show would no longer be continued? For that matter, how did you find out the show was cancelled?

PBL: How did I find out the show was cancelled? I cancelled it myself. I hoped against hope that we could get funded somehow and start up again. It never happened and I couldn't proceed without OPM, so I just had to stop working on it and move on with my life.

SK: What happened after the show? I know you had worked as a DJ and jingle-writer prior to the series; did you return to either of those? What are you working on currently?

PBL: After we stopped production, Cyndy and I moved into a really cheap place (all we could afford), I helped Turner build a sound studio and together we did commercials, jingles and I produced several tracks for his band, EARS. We had a great time and did some wonderful stuff. We bought a Neumann mixing desk from Chess Records in Detroit. Turns out it was used to record all of Chuck Berry's hits, Rolling Stones and lots of other people. It had a great sound and we did that for a couple of years. Slowly we recovered.

Then in about 1979, I was offered a real job with real money and a real future. Senior Sound Engineer at the video facility in Seattle. I couldn't refuse. That was the end of the EARS studio. I started building a reputation as the guy for sound for radio and video. In 1989, I started my own "sound design firm" with two co-workers from the video house. We had several highly visible clients. In 1990, we were chosen as Sound Designers for the new NikeTown retail store. We went on to do sound design and creative audio production for a dozen NikeTowns.

The sound design firm is AUDISEE/Seattle, (www.AUDISEE.com) and today we produce soundtracks and design sound systems for large spaces, such as museums, retail stores like NikeTown and prime tradeshow exhibitors like Nintendo's 40,000-sq. mega-booth at the annual Electronic Entertainment Exhibition (E-3). Local ad agencies and others hire our Seattle recording facility for sound postproduction.

We also produce, CarToursTM(www.CarTours.com), a series of interpretive driving tours. These are timed audio programs for the most popular driving routes within our National Parks. This non-profit project is dedicated to inspiring environmental stewardship through education.

The whole experience was quite traumatic to all of us. Until the past few months, I haven't really been able to consider the project anything other than a big black evil-time in my life. Thanks to support from some great friends and the help of a couple psychotherapists, I now have a better handle on much of it. I can listen to the programs and actually enjoy them!

SK: Have you ever returned to Marvel to suggest starting a new show (radio, internet, or other)? Sort of a "Here's why it didn't work before; I can do it more successfully this time."

PBL: I've not considered re-connecting with Marvel until this recent time. After speaking with Bob Michaelson and others, and hearing back your interest, it seems like the thing to do is at least investigate the market potential to determine if such a re-issue would be viable.

SK: I know I, for one, would be very interested to see those old shows re-released and I hope that you'll be find a way to do so. Good luck and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

PBL: As I finish these answers to your questions, here in my office in Seattle on my 56th birthday, I'd like to express my gratitude to you Sean, for your interest. As you have read this you have seen me come to have a new relationship with the traumatic events of the late 70's. And now it's time to go onward... into the next century! Or, as Stan would say,

Excelsior!

5 comments:

Matt K said...

Note for anyone in the Cleveland area who may experience a moment of confusion: this is apparently another Peter B. Lewis, i.e. not this guy. :-)

Jim T. said...

Terrific interview that does so much to reveal information about this series. They did a fine job with those 13 episodes. A couple of things, though: Jack Kerouac's name was spelled incorrectly here, and Chess Records was in Chicago, not Detroit.

Anonymous said...

Oh...the comment about "five days a week" broadcasts...does that mean some stations segmented each episode further? There were only 13 of them, so five days a week of full episodes would only (in theory) be like 3 weeks of shows.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Each episode was divided into five minute segments, one segment airing each day. So 13 episodes = 65 segments.

tutru said...

I worked for Peter in Seattle for a few years in the early 80's. I have been a life long Marvel fan and never knew this about him. Very Cool!