Radio Phenomenon: 30 Years of ‘Footlight Parade’

Bill Rudman and TMTP Trustee Robert Conrad celebrate the 30th Anniversary of “Footlight Parade.”

Happy Anniversary!

It was 30 years ago in June that Bill Rudman launched his weekly celebration of musical theater, Footlight Parade, on WCLV 104.9 – and it’s been on the air in Cleveland ever since.

The Musical Theater Project will mark the occasion with a special edition of the show on Saturday, June 29 on WCLV, but TMTP Co-Director Heather Meeker asked Bill to reflect a bit on this auspicious milestone.

HM: So does 30 years feel like a long time?

BR: It seems like I started the show last week – it’s that much fun! – but actually the history can be traced back to 1969, when I did the first version of it throughout my student years at Hiram College. By the way, at Hiram we asked WCLV’s Robert Conrad to do a radio “clinic” for the announcers. That’s how I met Bob, who more than 40 years later is on TMTP’s Board of Trustees.

HM: And how did you make it onto the WCLV airwaves?

BR: By taking Bob out to lunch in May 1983 (or maybe he took me out!) and asking him to let me do a show like the one he used to do for WCLV when I was a teenager. He said he’d try me out – that I’d start in two weeks, and that he’d pay me the munificent sum of $35 per week. I leaped at the chance. I owe Bob my career in radio.

HM: The show is known not just for playing songs but exploring themes.

BR: That’s what keeps me so interested. I want each show to feel as though there’s something that really ties it together – songs about unrequited love, for example, or songs about writers I call “Broadway Philosophers,” or songs from musicals produced in a certain year. What’s always on my mind is how to help listeners make a personal connection to this material, which as you know goes back 100 years. Actually I should say “listener” because when I tape these programs I always feel as though I’m talking to just one person.

HM: Of course the program is now heard all over the country. When did that happen?

BR: In 1998 with support from the Andrews Foundation and PlayhouseSquare. We’re carried by about 100 public stations, and for the past six years we’ve also been a twice-a-week feature of the Broadway Channel on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, where the show runs as On the Aisle.

HM: What can people do if they miss an episode they wanted to hear on WCLV?

BR: Easy. We’ve licensed the show to Public Radio Exchange, whose mission is to make special public radio program- ming available to all. Just go to prx.org, register free of charge and type in Footlight Parade. You can stream more than a year’s worth of the shows that way, and we update the platform every week.

Robert Conrad and Bill Rudman at a 1996 taping at Cain Park

HM: What do you like about the medium of radio?

BR: It’s what I said a minute ago: the intimacy of feeling as though you’re visiting with one person. For me it’s sheer bliss to share this art form. That’s the personal mission that gets me up in the morning to do all we do at The Musical Theater Project.

HM: I’ve been noticing more interviews on Footlight Parade.

BR: That’s a very conscious decision. They take more time to arrange and coordinate and edit, but a conversation between two people is usually going to be more fun than just hearing from me. Our anniversary show on June 29 will be bits and pieces from my favorite interviews, including one I did with Broadway director George Abbott a month before he turned 100.

HM: Give us a sense of how you produce the show.

BR: Well, as you know, I script them, and it’s always a challenge to find the right mix of songs and the right mix of talk and songs – and to make the whole thing come in at 57 minutes on the dot. We’re so lucky to have as our engineer an amazing collaborator, Mark Logies. His job title doesn’t begin to describe what he contributes to the show. He’s a musician in his own right, and he has such good taste that he and I make a lot of artistic decisions together. We get many comments from stations about our “high production values.” That’s Mark doing his thing.

HM: What are you proudest of?

BR: The fact that this is truly an educational program – though I’d like to think it doesn’t seem like a classroom. Mark and I want to engage the listener’s mind, sure, but also the heart. Actually I believe that’s the best kind of education anyway.

HM: Do you have a favorite show that you’ve done in these past 30 years?

BR: Depends on what day you ask me. But today I’d say it’s the three-part program we did on composer-lyricist Hugh Martin, who’s best known for the score for MGM’s classic musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Those installments are loaded with excerpts from my interview with him in San Diego when he was 88 or 89, and he was so willing to open up to me: what he loved about songwriting, sure – but how his work also made him feel insecure and sometimes afraid, even after a 60-year career in the theater. And isn’t that true for all of us, no matter what we do in life?

HM: Do you ever get worried that you’ll run out of ideas for shows?

BR: Never! There’s such a wealth of material to draw on, and I can mix and match these thousands of songs in countless ways. I’m sure that if and when I retire, I’ll have a long list of ideas I never got to.

HM: As long as I’ve been listening, you’ve closed the show by saying, “Thank you, as always, for your good company.”

BR: That goes back to 1969 when I did my very first program at Hiram College. It’s all got to be about the listener and me – and what we’re enjoying together.

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