Hangman Radio haunts the airwaves with new takes on old Milwaukee tales
Considering its reputation as Milwaukee's haunted bar, Shaker's Cigar Bar, located at 422 S. 2nd St., certainly knows a thing or two about old stories coming to life. After giving plenty of historical tours through the years and guiding eager guests to some of the city's ghosts, bar owner Bob Weiss and marketing director Amanda Morden are hoping they've found a new way to resurrect some of Milwaukee's old tales of yore.
In addition to its Hangman Tours, Shaker's created Hangman Radio, an old timey radio noir show created last year and recorded live at the bar. Every episode – a joint effort between actors, the house band and a collection of foley artists creating the stories' life-like sound effects – tackles a different tale inspired by the Cream City's past, whether it's the tragic saga of the Newhall House fire back in 1883 or a doomed romance between a lowly barrel maker and the daughter of a Russian vodka mogul very loosely adapted from Shaker's own past as a cooperage house in the 1800s for Schlitz Brewery.
"We take these historical facts, and we varnish the jeepers out of them," Weiss said.
The idea for Hangman radio came to Weiss and Morden serendipitously a little over a year ago from a collection of unusual locales – the first one being Cleveland of all places. There, a visiting radio station was impressed by Shaker's, as well as the bar's embrace of local history, and wanted the Milwaukee spot to put together a paranormal-themed radio show for them. Weiss and Morden, however, turned down the request.
"Being a haunted establishment, the paranormal bit made a ton of sense, but it's kind of an oversaturated marketplace," Morden said. "We really wanted to do something more classic."
That more classic concept eventually revealed itself a little while later – and a long way from Milwaukee or Cleveland. While venturing through the Pyrenees Mountains in France, the duo somehow managed to stumble upon a retro radio noir program broadcasted in multiple languages and with a full orchestra backing up the stories.
"It was vaudevillian, it had a whole band and everything going, and it just kind of clicked," Morden recalled. "We brought the idea back and wanted to take some of the historical aspects of what we do with our historic tours and groom them into intriguing storyboards that tie everything together."
Luckily, many of the people necessary to bring Hangman Radio to life were right there at Shaker's already. Sarah Laak, one of the establishment's bartenders, turned out to have a secret radio theater background and helped craft Weiss and Morden's story ideas into actual radio show scripts, while the show's house band, Sir Pinkerton and The Magnificents, were already regular performers at the bar, ready to create some original old timey compositions for the tales. All that was needed was a crew of actors, and Hangman Radio was set to air, performing live stories right there in Shaker's.
"I look at restaurant kitchens as being controlled chaos, and I think about this production in much the same capacity," Weiss said. "You've got all the disparate parts coming together to write their different pieces and portions with Amanda working on the direction, and it all just comes together like a high-end dinner presentation would. And to that degree, in my mind, it's something that I've done forever. You can think about the jitters and everything else that goes on, but that's not a part of this because we have all pros who have all been working for many years – decades in fact – know the strengths and weaknesses of other people, know how to cover if necessary and just make things happen."
The debut season of Hangman Radio premiered last year and came to a conclusion after five hour-long episodes earlier this summer. However, its break will be short-lived, as the live program already has a collection of new stories ready for its second go-around, starting up beginning on Sunday, Sept. 27 at Shaker's. The source material for that first episode is the legendary story of Mary Ann Wheeler, who shot her duplicitous lover dead point blank in public and was found not guilty due to reasons of temporary insanity, the first case to use that defense in the state.
While the first season was almost entirely self-funded, save for a few sponsors, Hangman Radio has turned to Kickstarter for this second season in the hopes of keeping the show – and, most importantly, the stories and the radio art form itself – alive and healthy.
"These are stories that can translate into almost any American town anywhere," Weiss added. "The vast majority of our audience is not from the Milwaukee metropolitan area. We're heard throughout the country, but it's a kind of a shame in a way that we're known in a much better capacity nationwide for doing this really unique radio product than we are in our own town of Milwaukee, where everything is born, bred and created. We really appreciate a means to kind of accelerate the local interest because this is just a tremendous art form that unfortunately isn't supported – I just don't mean with us, but anywhere – and is just going to disappear."
"The goal is to grow the product and to create this fantastic theater of the mind," Morden said. "We really want to blow this up."
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