Much of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's success is traceable to a little-known chapter in the mid-20th century when its performances were broadcast nationwide by NBC radio, attracting the attention of top talent and serious theater-lovers from big cities.

Much of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's success is traceable to a little-known chapter in the mid-20th century when its performances were broadcast nationwide by NBC radio, attracting the attention of top talent and serious theater-lovers from big cities.

Gathered about a microphone on the Elizabethan stage, actors would read from condensed scripts, creating their own sound effects, such as swordfighting and footsteps, said actor Mark Murphey, and have it aired to subscribing stations, from 1951 on, much like the Metropolitan Opera is aired to this day.

"It was great — not as exciting as performing before a live audience," says retired Festival actress Shirley Patton. "You focused on the vocal quality, instead of the physical movements."

Without the sophisticated market analyses of today, Patton says, the Festival had little idea of the impact of the radio shows, which were virtually unique — no other theater got to be on network radio.

"It was one of those things. You keep casting your bread out on the water. People heard them and were intrigued, but who knew what they would do?" Patton said.

The broadcasts won favorable reviews from critics in East Coast cities and in 1952, the Festival had a big increase in tryouts and, for the first time, audience members from all states, according to a history by Mike Jensen of Ashland.

The shows got their start when Jennings Pierce, the manager of KMED, the valley's first radio station, brought an old Hollywood friend, Andrew Love, here to vacation in the summer of 1950 and to check out the Festival. He loved it and launched into production of the shows for radio, with a panel of commentators, over several decades, Jensen wrote.

The first show, in 1951, was a 30-minute abridgement of "King Lear," done from the outdoor stage, complete with truck noise from Main Street (the main state highway before I-5), 50 yards away.

Traffic was later detoured a few blocks north.

After 1970, shows could be recorded in the quiet Bowmer Theatre or at KSOR studios at Southern Oregon College.

The show, featuring one play per year, was carried by more than 100 stations and became international in 1954, when it was aired on Armed Forces Radio (to all military forces in the world).

Love did hands-on direction of the sessions and brought experienced actors to Ashland. Bowmer, the creator of the Festival in 1935, commented, "Andy's impact here is almost immeasurable; because, literally, he has carried the story of the Festival around the world."

The shows began with the intro to the Festival and Ashland by Bowmer, a few key scenes from the early and middle part, bridged by narration, then climactic scenes in full.

The fame from NBC led in 1957 to a Life Magazine story and coverage of the Festival opening by CBS Television, wrote Jensen.

Love kept the radio show on during the nation's shift to television but it was finally canceled in 1973. Refusing to roll over gracefully, the Festival kept the radio shows going in syndication with independent KPFA radio in Berkeley — a key part of the audience base — and it was picked up by Armed Forces Radio and Radio Free Europe.

Audio recordings of all productions at OSF became standard for use in classrooms and possible marketing as LP records, says Jensen.

KSOR stepped into the gap in 1979 with live broadcasts of the Festival's Feast of Will and opening night performances, piped nationally to public radio stations.

However, says Jefferson Public Radio Executive Director Ron Kramer, these were very expensive, "nerve-wracking," aired after prime time on the East Coast and went out on undependable telephone lines, so they were dropped after four years.

Live radio can be harrowing and Jensen's history (he also lectures on it) tells the tale of the very first radio broadcast by Festival actors, at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.

The lead female only learned at the last minute it would be a national NBC broadcast and, suffering a panic attack, was rushed to the hospital. The stand-in took over. In addition, the abridged scripts didn't arrive and had to be hand-typed in a fury by a flock of stenos, arriving on the set three minutes before air time.

Kramer, who worked briefly with Andy Love, describes this key supporter of OSF as "soft spoken, gracious, erudite — and you had the sense he'd done it all and came through with a deep love of the Festival."

The Festival's prestigious Tony Award in 1983 was made possible, said Jensen in an interview, because voters in New York got a feel of the show from radio.

The radio shows, he adds, helped build a base of tourism here that made the commercialization of Ashland possible — "and if there were no commercialism here, there'd be no place to stay, eat or shop.

"Radio made Ashland what it is today."