In Laidback, Arizona ...

Inspired by 'Prairie Home Companion,' resident brings old-time radio show to town

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When "Harmony Church of the Air" crackles over the radio for the first time on Sunday afternoon, it will be thanks to Mike Amundson, with a little help from his friends.

The concept of an old-time radio hour, complete with live actors and sound effects, was his brainchild.

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New to radio, River Johnson was not ready to admit he was a couple of years older than the part he is playing -- Jacob Taylor is 8 years old. Then Mike Amundson told him, "Age doesn't matter, as long as you can read and act you can be any age you want to be."

He and a cast of 17 will record their first show for radio at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 4, in the Studio Theater at Payson High School. An audience is welcome to attend. Doors open at 3:45 p.m.

"It is a free performance," Amundson said. "Everyone is invited."

Amundson, the pastor of Payson Bible Fellowship and owner of Servicemaster in the Pines, has been a fan of "Prairie Home Companion" for years.

"When I saw the movie, I thought someone should do a show similar to that, but in a gospel format," he said.

His friends jumped on board. Alice Natale and Su Connell developed the story line and Amundson wrote the script.

The story takes place in the 1920s in the town of Laidback, Arizona, population 250 souls.

Laidback is a place where the day's activities happen somewhere between Snoot Hill and Boot Hill.

Rumor has it that town busybodies, Miss Snoot, played by Shirley McGreary, and Mrs. Gabsalot, played by Sharon Collins, were cavorting with cowboys in Rattlesnake Gulch.

In small towns, neighbors know each other's business -- or at least think they do.

"The story line teaches people that the things we see wrong with others are usually the things we see wrong with ourselves," Amundson said.

He recalls squealing his tires in his small Minnesota hometown. His parents knew by the time he got home.

When the horn sticks on Mayor Edward Finkle's "Tin Lizzy" everyone headed to the church in hears about it.

At the south end of town, the horses are "a buckin' and a snortin' like they had burrs under their saddles."

The audience can expect sound effects, such as shoes hitting the floor, dishes being washed and the clippity-clop of a horse.

The players will sing gospel songs and the audience will be invited to join in on one of them.

Acting voices for the air are different than those used for the stage, Amundson said. They are less exaggerated and more conversational, like acting for motion pictures.

Brooks and Amundson both have radio experience; the rest of the cast is enthusiastic amateurs.

Rehearsing over the past several weeks has been "a lot of fun and a million laughs," Amundson said.

The show aims to make general Christian values easy for the general public to digest, according to announcer/director Ken Brooks.

"Harmony Church of the Air" is a nostalgic journey for Brooks. Currently, he is a DJ at KMOG, but, from age 12 to 18, he was a cast member on the daily radio soap opera, "Chandu the Magician."

"Radio is such an intimate medium," Brooks said. "If you would like to see how an old-time radio show is done, this is it."

The show will last 28.5 minutes to allow time for real advertisements should a local or other radio station pick it up.

Amundson has more plots in the works for these and a few more characters.

"I have a dream that "Harmony Church of the Air" could really turn into something," he said.

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