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What’s a Radio Music Theatre, you ask? Well, it’s not the first time we’ve heard that question. Radio Music Theatre is: three people doing multiple comic characters and playing multiple musical instruments. It’s the singing Fertle family; it’s Houston satire. It’s sketch comedy and full length plays. It’s a man doing wildly creative sound effects while he plays keyboards; it’s a man running lights and slide projectors while he flies in props from the ceiling. It’s controlled chaos. It’s hard to characterize. Many times we hear audience members say, “We were here last month, and we came back tonight and brought friends with us. We tried to describe Radio Music Theatre to them, but they just looked at us. You can’t describe it. You just have to see it.”
Actor, musician, writer, director Steve Farrell and his wife, actress, musician, business manager Vicki Farrell, formed Houston’s Radio Music Theatre in 1985. Actor and musician Ken Polk, musician and sound effects man, Pat Southard, and lighting director, Mark “Chops” Cain joined them in their new venture. The first location was in a large corner of the now defunct Second Verse Restaurant on Washington Avenue (the building has since been razed and replaced by apartment buildings). Early audiences were sparse, but enthusiastic and evangelical about this talented group.
After a brief stay at the Second Verse, Radio Music Theatre moved to its own space in a storefront on Westheimer near Dunlavy. The theatre was intimate (read very small), seating under a hundred. RMT began to develop a cult following—word of mouth was the only advertising (as it still is). Critics and audiences alike began raving about this “new form” of “old style” radio entertainment, combining sketches, music, and sound effects. Early fans will remember shows beginning with the “On Air” sign lighting up, and the “RMT Living Radio” jingle being sung by the cast. RMT soon outgrew this cramped facility as its popularity soared. These years also saw the development of the “Singing Fertle Family,” largely based on Steve’s own relatives in rural Iowa. The “Fertle Family” has since become a mainstay of RMT.
In 1988, Radio Music Theatre relocated to a custom-tailored performing and recording facility at 2623 Colquitt near Kirby. RMT’s original comedy was becoming well known coast-to-coast. After their work was featured on “Saturday Night Live” and MTV, the trio was given its own one-hour variety show on Pacifica Radio. Their work was seen on USA Networks “Night Flight” and on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. RMT also branched out with two Off-Broadway runs and a series of performances at Hollywood’s Callboard Theatre. Still, Texas was its home—and RMT became known as “Houston’s Home Team For Comedy.”
In 1992, Ken Polk left Radio Music Theatre to pursue a film and television career in Los Angeles. An old friend of the Farrell’s—Rich Mills, replaced him. Mills and the Farrells had moved to Houston in 1977 as the original company of The Comedy Workshop. The changeover required Steve to rewrite music to accommodate Mills’ sax instead of Polk’s guitar, and although audiences missed the popular Polk’s portrayals of Fertle family members, Mills’ new take on those characters was warmly received.The Republican Convention came to Houston in 1992 and gave RMT another shot at the national spotlight. That summer’s production, “Unconventional Behavior,” was the most popular in RMT History; clips from the show were seen nationally on programs such as NBC’s “The Today Show.”
In 1995, RMT was tapped to create a pilot for the Nashville Network. Farrell wrote the premiere episode, which starred the three RMT cast members.
Into the new millennium, Radio Music Theatre continued to delight Houston audiences until its’ closing night, April 30, 2011. Over the years, fourteen Fertle family comedies were produced on a rotating schedule, as well as numerous Houston satire shows, and a few sketch-based shows. Four productions were mounted over the course of fifty weeks each year, giving Houstonians and their guests from out of town ample opportunity to enjoy that “controlled chaos” which was RMT. RMT thanks all its loyal fans for their outstanding support for over twenty-six years.