As actors rehearsed a scene for “This is Rock and Roll! The Alan Freed Story,” the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre was littered last week with cables, tool boxes, and pieces of unfinished plywood.
With just over a week before the show’s opening, the theatre was undergoing a major makeover – one that will transform the simple, tiny space into an ambitious multi-media event.
“We have two screens that almost envelope the audience,” said Kevin Harris, managing artistic director of the theatre, who is directing “The Alan Freed Story.”
“This is not going to move like a revue show. This is a very fast-paced show that is dependent on that technology. It’s a complete experience of several different mediums, and we’re really throwing everything out there to best tell the story.”
For the past several years, the theatre’s major fundraiser has been the annual Legends show, a musical revue paying homage to artists like Ray Charles, Elvis and Patsy Cline. But when development director Mary Meserve – the creator of the Legends shows – left amid artistic differences, that posed a new challenge: On the one hand, the Legends shows were big Little Theatre fundraisers. On the other hand, Harris didn’t want to use the same Legends formula.
So while the Legends shows featured more of a revue format, Harris said this show is more of a dramatic telling with live music, covering the life of Freed, a pioneering DJ credited with coining the term “rock and roll.” But there’s a lot of biography to cover in Freed’s life – so two 22-by-30 foot screens have been cast in a supporting role.
“To tell it in less than two hours, we just can’t do it in a traditional form,” Harris said. “His life is so rich, and there are so many twists and turns, we need to augment it with some videos.”
While Freed isn’t the household name that famous DJs like Dick Clark and Wolfman Jack were, his contributions are arguably greater. After working as a DJ while in the Army, he worked in various stations, eventually spinning records in Cleveland and New York. While working as a DJ, he introduced R&B music to white audiences and arranged concerts that mixed the races.
“He really was an early advocate for civil rights,” said David Vienna, a former Tribune and New Times reporter, who wrote the play.
But like all good dramatic subjects, Freed wasn’t perfect.
“The not-so-great part of his life was that he was pretty greedy,” Vienna said. “He was advocating for these artists while at the same time making money off of them – often screwing them.”
In the late 1950s, Freed was implicated in the payola scandals, during which DJs were accused by Congress of taking payments from record companies to play their songs. Six years later, Freed, then 43, died of complications related to cirrhosis.
While many have forgotten Freed’s contributions – which have been credited for exposing bands like the Beatles to early rock – Vienna is a ’50s music buff.
“I have been into golden oldies since I was in junior high,” he said. “When my friends were all into Suicidal Tendencies, I was listening to Eddie Cochran and Elvis.”
Vienna was actually writing a screenplay about Cochran, an early rocker, when Harris, a friend, mentioned that the theatre was looking for a subject for its spring fundraiser. Since Freed played such a pivotal role in the development of rock music, they both thought he’d make for a good subject. The story also provided an unexpected antagonist, one of America’s more endearing radio and TV personalities: Dick Clark.
Clark himself was implicated in the payola hearings but managed to escape relatively unscathed after cooperating with Congress. So while Freed’s career fizzled after the payola debacle, Clark’s flourished.
“Dick Clark really did throw Alan under the bus during those congressional hearings,” Vienna said. “So we sort of turned him into the Vaudevillian, mustache-twirling villain.”
Casting for Freed went to a logical choice – longtime local DJ Chad Stevens, who has also had considerable experience in community theatre.
“It is the perfect part for me,” said Stevens, who first heard about Freed while studying communications in college. “I don’t have the 1950s radio voice, but I feel close to the project so I guess it was tailor-made for me. And I know who he was. And I certainly knew a lot about the music of that era.”
His first band, back in high school, played ’50s songs, Stevens said. And Stevens, a singer, toured with a ’50s group in the ’80s.
“I always had an affinity for ’50s music,” said Stevens, who became a DJ in the disco era – 1978.
To capture the ’50s musically, songs in “This is Rock and Roll” will be performed by the local band Oasis – not to be confused with the British pop-rock group – who have been playing ’50s hits at weddings and company parties since the 1980s. Meanwhile, choreography is being arranged by Drew Silvaggio, artistic director at the Civic Ballet in San Luis Obispo.
While some ’50s dances are just iconic – and will have a place in this show – Silvaggio said the choreography won’t all be about sock hops and poodle skirts. Harris, after all, wants the show to have a dramatic edge.
“The way the show is formed, it really left a lot to the imagination and it allowed me to stray from that stereotypical ’50s movement to be a little more contemporary,” he said.
The Freed show will recall a golden era for deejays, who could once make or break bands simply by playing – or ignoring – their records. But more importantly, it will call attention to Freed’s role in the genesis of rock and roll.
“I see why he was such an important figure and what he brought to the radio waves,” Silvaggio said. “He started the whole rock and roll thing.”