WBFO’s Theater Talk celebrates twenty-five years
Jim Santella and Anthony Chase
Photo courtesy of Anthony Chase
Silver anniversaries are rare in broadcast history, and nobody is more surprised than Theater Talk cohost Anthony Chase that he’s recorded more than 1,300 episodes of the Friday morning show. And yet, Chase is so ensconced as Buffalo’s preeminent theater critic that it’s hard to imagine him with recently established Queen City roots, and just about a year into his tenure as founding theater editor for Artvoice. What’s not hard to imagine is WBFO’s then news director Toni Randolph taking notice and encouraging him to share his prowess on-air.
“When I began to appear in print, I was immediately a presence that attracted attention, because theater coverage is a specialized area,” says Chase, founder/host of the Artie Awards and assistant dean of humanities at Buffalo State College. “Yes, anyone can go to the theater, but, from a critic, you expect a certain level of expertise, passion, and enthusiasm for the specific topic. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the theater, and it’s not difficult for me to talk about it, but they put me on the air alone, and I hated it. I told them, ‘I can’t see myself continuing to do this,’ and they said, ‘What if we gave you someone to talk to?’ ‘Like who?’ And they said, ‘Do you like Jim Santella?’”
It seems—and memories of the principal players don’t precisely align—that somewhere around that same time, Santella, a Buffalo Broadcaster Hall of Famer known in town as the “Father of Progressive Radio,” was also interested in theater radio. “Grant Golden was doing a theater show, two minutes to review a play or two, and he didn’t want to do it anymore,” recalls Santella, a theatergoer who’d been writing his own entertainment reviews for the Buffalo News and Nightlife. “So, I pitched a theater show to [then news director] Mark Scott.”
Scott remembers getting the call—if not the details—vividly: “It was early afternoon, and our receptionist tells me Jim Santella is holding for me! I’m a radio geek, and Jim Santella is calling me. I’m really excited, so I pick up the phone, and try to be cool. ‘This is Jim Santella, and, to make a long story short, my friend Tony Chase and I have an idea for a weekly theater show where it would be conversation between Tony and me…’ After that, my memory is hazy, but I remember getting that phone call clear as day.”
Santella was more than a decade into his legendary career when he became Chase’s first cohost. Despite Scott’s recollection of their friendship, Santella and Chase had never met and knew each other only by reputation; nonetheless, Chase says they “immediately hit it off” and were surprised and delighted to discover they lived across the street from each other. (Later, Santella’s mother, who lived with him at the time, would leave soup or cucidati—Italian fig cookies—in the mailbox for Chase and now-husband Javier Bustillos.) According to Chase, they proposed calling the show Theater Chat, which was nixed in favor of the more NPR-sounding Theater Talk. The show, which now runs five minutes, began with just two and a half.
“It was primitive radio,” Santella remembers. “There would be times when we first started when, as good as I was with tape and editing, it took us three hours to do a couple of minutes. The audience didn’t know because we knew how to take care of it. What was amazing was that people thought we came into the studio at 6:30 a.m. and did the show live. That worked because Mark Wozniak would listen to the show before playing it and he’d pick out a moment [to highlight], so it sounded as though he was in the studio with us.”
“They were great from the get-go,” says Scott. “The show was a little unusual at a time when The Morning Show was scripted, nationally and locally, and the commentaries were written; [e.g.,] a reviewer would see a show and read the review on the air. Two people talking extemporaneously was an experiment, and it took a while to connect with the audience, but Jim and Tony really worked.”
Santella took on the role of “announcer, sort of like a sporting event. The announcer says who’s coming up to bat, and the color person provides a lot of the background and information. We covered all kinds of local theater as well as Broadway, so we got to be succinct, but we brought a lot of personality. I was the jokester, Tony would keep the facts straight, and we’d exchange ideas. No doubt Tony was the theater maven, but we both knew enough about theater to make it interesting, entertaining, and informative. The show benefited from the sum of the two parts.”
“People felt they knew us and knew the relationship between us,” says Chase. “It was clear we liked each other, and that was important; these two men who could not be more different from each other liked each other. It established the brand.”
Regular listeners know that, “And I’m Anthony Chase,” the show’s sign-off, also became part of the brand, not only making the show recognizable but also Chase—by voice alone. “People started to recognize my voice when I was checking out at Premier Liquor, or arriving at dentist appointments, or job applicants at Buff State,” he says. “They began to repeat it to me, and then Spree published it: ‘It’s fun to say.’ [Chase was named Best Media Personality in 2012.] I still get a laugh anywhere if I say, ‘And I’m Anthony Chase.’ It really weirds you out when you’ve been having a conversation with your husband in a theater and someone taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Are you Anthony Chase?’ And then you think, ‘What were we talking about?’”
Chase may have had the edge on theater knowledge, but it was Santella who knew radio, and ran the show. “That sounds strong, but all Tony had to do was sit there,” he says. “I would take care of editing, timing; if we did a good take that just needed some editing, I’d tell Tony to go home, and I’d take care of it. At some point, I realized that Tony was going to have to learn how to do the show, because I thought my days were numbered. I didn’t want to tell him in that phraseology, so I would just say, ‘Let me show you a little bit of how this goes, push this button, or do this or that.’ Eventually, he knew how to do the radio things. He always knew theater, but now he had both skills.”
“Anything I know about radio I learned from Jim Santella,” Chase praises. “He taught me everything, patiently, week after week, not just the mechanics of editing, but the aesthetics, and what makes good radio. The edit has to be merciless with the mind that we’re not a community calendar, what is most interesting, most useful, but also preserving our personalities. He taught me about the intimacy of radio: ‘Tony, envision our listeners. You’re in someone’s car, bedroom, bathroom, at the breakfast table; envision these people as you talk.’ With that, he taught me a powerful broadcast ethic, a responsibility to and respect for the listeners.”
For his part, Chase knew his job was to educate the WBFO editors and news directors about the importance of arts and cultural coverage. “They never believe that theater or the arts are as important as you know they are, that the arts are news, the news of our time,” Chase contends. “It always took WBFO by surprise that Theater Talk was the number one broadcast. It took WNED|WBFO by surprise that the number of hits on the Artie nominations surpassed the Putin/Sessions controversy.” (To their credit, the station was quick to act on it, granting Theater Talk an additional thirty seconds—that’s a lot in radio—and rebroadcasting the show at the top of the new Broadway and Hollywood show, Footlight Parade: Sounds of the American Musical at 5:55 p.m. on Saturdays. This, in the wake of WNED|WBFO’s January commitment to a dedicated Arts and Culture News Desk, and taking on the role of presenter of the Artie Awards.)
More than twenty years after Theater Talk began, Santella recorded his last segment in 2013. He’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and, while his shows—he was still hosting WBFO’s Blues—weren’t technically affected, over time, Santella, a consummate radio man, became self-conscious about how he sounded. “One of the qualities I’d always been associated with was being articulate, soft-spoken; when I didn’t sound like I was prepared, I couldn’t deal with that. It was better for me to quit than to wait around until people started saying, ‘Oh, that poor Jim.’ I miss doing the show with Tony. For twenty odd years, we did the show every week, and we looked forward to it.”
After Santella retired, Chase had a rotating series of temps—Mark Scott, Gabe DiMaio, Eileen Buckley, Omar Fetouh—before the station proposed Peter Hall, Theater Talk fan, occasional theatergoer, and host on Classical 94.5. “He’s devoted,” says Chase. “I advised him that Theater Talk would make him a celebrity very quickly, and he doubted this.”
“I heard from more people after my first Theater Talk than I had ever heard in fifteen years of broadcasting!” confirms Hall, who embraced the responsibility by increasing his theater attendance, becoming an Artie Awards committee member, and writing reviews for buffalorising.com. “I feel the need to try to keep up with Anthony—impossible, by the way—and have been discovering the smaller Buffalo theaters, sometimes enjoying five in one weekend. What’s that line? ‘It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.’”
As Chase and Santella did, at the start of each week, Chase and Hall “sit down and look through Artvoice’s ‘On the Boards,’ talk about what we’ve seen, and make a list of between three and five things we want to hit, what we feel is important for the week. Santella and I were careful to allocate a certain number of seconds; we came close to time because he had an interior clock that was uncanny. Peter is never willing to do that, so we tend to run over, and have to whittle away after the fact. [Fortunately, digital editing technology makes this easier than the razorblade and tape days.] Something we’ve seen takes precedence over something we haven’t, something we can recommend takes precedence, trends take precedence over everything else.”
The Hall/Chase dynamic has recalibrated the tenor of the show, and Chase says it’s all part of the evolution of both Theater Talk and the theater scene it has influenced. “I never wanted to be the community calendar that just lists what’s up this week; you have to have something to say about those things, or you’re merely a tipster, you’re Nero: thumbs up, thumbs down,” says Chase. “I wanted greater insight, whether it’s trends, personalities, individual productions, information that better enables people to get something out of their cultural experiences. Through repetition, we gauge if something is important: the arrival of [new Shea’s president] Michael Murphy, the closing of Studio Arena, the arrival of new theater companies. Also, I bring in national perspective by seeing things around the country, and technology means we don’t have to cancel the show because I’m in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York. We’ve even had some scoops. When Brian Wyatt, the managing director of Studio Arena, abruptly left, somebody called us. We’d already recorded for the week, but went back to rerecord. The employees of Studio Arena heard the news before they’d even been informed. That’s the immediacy of radio.
“If I’ve had longevity, it’s because of things Jim Santella taught me about how to talk to people at the station, what to reveal, what to keep to myself,” Chase continues. “The best lesson: radio is personal. You are in the home of your listener. Somebody has allowed you into their personal space. They trust you. It puts pressure on you to be good. You don’t phone it in. It’s like somebody asking for your opinion, your insight, your advice. ‘Help me better understand this.’ By listening, that is the assumed contract. ‘Don’t just trash this, don’t just blow smoke, confide in me. I’m going to trust you. I have confidence that your opinion matters.’ Therefore, you have to make it matter.”
And it does. In the theater community, people talk about Theater Talk, what was mentioned, what wasn’t, how much time it was given, and what was said—and not. “People enjoy what I don’t say as much as what I do,” Chase muses. “And that I won’t trash something in a vulgar way, that I withhold enthusiasm; people find that entertaining. They have no illusions about what I have and have not liked, and I think that withholding support is a more withering condemnation than anything mean I could say.”
That says a lot about the respect Chase—and Theater Talk—has earned since 1992. “I’m always looking to the future,” he says. “People tell me it’s twenty-five years, and it doesn’t seem possible. But I remember productions I’ve seen vividly, and doing [Theatre of Youth cofounder] Rosalind Cramer’s memorial [in June], I looked around at the people on stage and thought, ‘Well, I’ve known some of you for twenty-five years,’ and also thought of the people who aren’t here anymore. I can’t quite believe it.”
Playwright Donna Hoke first recognized Anthony Chase by his voice.