For nearly 25 years, Simon Geller ran a one-man radio station out of his cramped Gloucester apartment, enticing thousands of listeners with his classical music and eccentric style.
Geller’s story, as the last standing single-handed radio operator in the country, made national headlines that pitted the stubborn character against powerful forces of opposition. After he sold the station in 1988, for one million dollars amid pressure by the Federal Communications Commission, there were those who couldn’t let Geller go.
Missing the North Shore legend, Gloucester based documentary filmmaker Henry Ferrini interviewed residents about their memories of Geller, releasing Radio Fishtown in 1990. Ferrini’s writer on that project and many others, Kenneth Riaf, has written My Station in Life, a new one-man play about the last days of this reclusive siren. The play is part of the Gloucester Stage Company’s NeverDark Series and will enjoy a staged reading there on July 30.
Back when Geller was king of the local airwaves for 13 hours a day on WVCA-FM, Riaf was working as a commercial scalloper. When asked what drew him to Geller’s story, Riaf, a lawyer, artist and art gallery owner, said, “He’s shy, but he talks to thousands of people every day. Geller was heard but unseen, familiar but unknown. His station was just the quirky backdrop to any given day if the music fit the weather.”
The Gloucester Writers Center has located Geller’s tapes in a wet basement and devoted many hours to helping restore them. Flushing toilets and ringing telephones punctuated the civilizing music Geller chose for his diverse audience. The play is scored with this backdrop of transmitted beauty and chaos. It’s a condensed version of events towards the end of Geller’s run and takes place in his broadcast studio, where he lived. Ken Baltin, whose acting career spans many years and who teaches acting at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, plays the colorful character. The play is directed by Jeff Zinn, managing director at Gloucester Stage Company.
“Geller seems to have had an outsized influence on the community of Gloucester,” says Zinn. “He was loved, hated, appreciated, under-appreciated. Most of all, he was NOTICED. And now artists are telling his story.”
Geller’s story is perfect for a one man show because a radio broadcaster, by definition, works alone in a studio, says Zinn, and yet is required to talk endlessly to his unseen audience. “The conflict in the play hinges on the very real challenges he encountered trying to keep his head above water, while simultaneously beating back the temptation of selling out to larger corporate entities who lusted after his spot on the radio dial.”
NeverDark was introduced at GSC in 2015, filling in the “dark” times between major productions staged in summer and fall. The series allows the theater to bring many more projects in front of audiences and provides an opportunity for playwrights to present works in progress.
Zinn says a playwright might present a project, gauge audience reaction, process feedback from the audience and GSC artistic staff and then bring a revised script the next year to another NeverDark. That happened with this year’s The Chess Player by Richard McElvain while last year’s Flight of the Monarch is being mounted at GSC this season in a full production, opening September 8.
Perhaps Geller is so beloved by Gloucester artists because he exemplified a certain creative and independent spirit so particular to Gloucester, exposing an entire community to Mozart, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, using limited resources and accepting the donations of folks who dropped by.
“For some reason, legends take root here,” says Riaf. Gloucester is “in some cosmological cross-hairs.”
With nearly 100,000 devoted listeners spanning 35 miles out from Gloucester, In 1988, at the age of 68, Geller sold to a big station. He quit Gloucester too and moved to Manhattan. “Geller eventually gets washed back out to sea,” says Riaf, “but for years his radio station was like a window into his life and a mirror reflection of us here in town.”
Hear Simon Geller’s tapes at wvca.com. My Station in Life, a reading of a new play by Kenneth Riaf, is Sunday, July 30 at 7:30 pm. Free. No reservations required. 267 East Main St., Gloucester, (978)281-4433. NeverDark also presents: Thurgood, (June 27) starring Johnny Lee Davenport, a solo show about the first African American Supreme Court Justice, in a full production that was previously mounted at the New Repertory Theatre. Other finished work includes Jay O’Callahan’s Pill Hill Stories (July 18), Randy Noojin’s solo shows channeling Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (August 14 & 15) and Brendan Hughes’ The Pizzicato Effect, (August 28). For more information, see gloucesterstage.com.