Growing up in Charlottesville in the ’80s and early ’90s his name was Ben Jones. In the years since, he’s lived in many cities, and has been a cartoonist, a musician, a stand-up comedian, a member of an improv troupe, a professional illustrator, a small gallery owner, a radio show host, puppeteer, and owner of a comic book store. After finding a well-established artist with the same name in each city he moved to, Jones has returned to Charlottesville where uses his last name only, and is currently handling social media and executive assistant duties at Live Arts.
His latest creative project is “Raygun Radio.” Inspired by the popular radio serials of the 1930s and ’40s, the audio comedy “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet,” is a screwball homage to the naïve sci-fi adventures of the mid-20th century, as well as a chance for Jones to write harebrained characters and let the personalities bounce off each other with sidesplitting results. Douglas Adam’s original “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” radio serial is a significant inspiration, though Jones’ sensibility owes a lot to Abbott & Costello routines and the zany vaudeville-inspired antics of the original “Muppet Show.”
“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” is a loose rewrite of a vintage sci-fi film, which already has a storied history of re-interpretation. Originally a 1962 Soviet flick by the name Planeta Bur (Planet of the Storms), it was re-adapted for the American market by legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman, who kept the original’s charming sub-Harryhousen effects but shot new scenes to go between them.
The remake starred a slumming, late career Basil Rathbone, and was shot by Curtis Harrington, an avant-garde filmmaker trying to break into Hollywood. It was soon forgotten, but Corman tried again three years later, once more retaining the Soviet effects, and this time hiring a young Peter Bogdanovich to shoot new framing scenes. The second attempt was graced with the more saleable title Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Neither Harrington nor Bogdanovich wanted any director’s credit under their real names, and today both films are in the public domain.
“Originally it was the idea of taking an old science fiction premise that wasn’t very good, and using it as a basis for sketch comedy,” Jones said. “But then I found this movie, that had everything I wanted. I didn’t even know the history—I have one of those boxes of 50 old sci-fi movies that are all in the public domain. I flagged all of the ones that sounded promising, and had evocative titles. There were a couple I started watching, and I shut them off—‘This is too good,’ or ‘this is too visual.’ I wanted something that would translate to radio well.” Ultimately, Voyage won out because of the sheer number of classic sci-fi icons—rocket ships, robots, and rayguns, but also lizard men, dinosaurs, and an underwater hovercraft.
This rewrite is partly a spoof, but also a loving homage to now dated sci-fi tropes used as a framing device for his character-based comedy. The cast includes Richard Craig as a handsome, egotistical spaceship captain, and Dan Sterlace as his cheerfully boneheaded son. Alli Villines plays a lovelorn lady astronaut, and Josephine Stewart adds a much-needed dose of sanity and reason to the madcap idiocy surrounding her character. Jones himself plays the role of the narrator, and assorted minor parts. “I also gave myself the role of the robot,” he said, “because I wrote it to be performed a particular way, and it was easier to do it myself than to tell anyone else how to do it.”
Jones held an impromptu run through during his 38th birthday party in September, and was pleased enough with the results that he is performing the show publicly. “If people are digging it, we’ll see about recording it, maybe taking it to a radio station, or podcasting it. Or we might just say, ‘O.K., that was fun,’ and stop there,” he said. “We haven’t even had a rehearsal yet. Everyone involved is really busy. [All the players are from Live Arts.] The whole concept is to get together and do something fun that will scratch the itch of performance without taking up too much of our time.”
“That’s part of why this came together,” he said. “I have a big list on my door [of potential creative projects], and it’s a way of forcing myself to get things done. On pain of punishment, if I don’t do at least 15 minutes of something artistic every day, I have to give away a DVD from my collection. And writing doesn’t count—I have a separate rule for that one—if I don’t write, I can’t drink. It’s a way of incentivizing myself to be a responsible adult, by giving in to my childish desires. I have to be a grown-up every day, or I have to give up one of my toys.”
“Radio Raygun” is co-produced by Live Arts, and the live performances will take place at the Black Market Moto Saloon, on two consecutive weekends.
“For a few years, we’ve talked about trying to do more stuff off-site, and this seemed like a good opportunity to try that,” Jones said. “I always wanted it to be a cabaret-seating thing, with tables and chairs and food. It was easier to go somewhere where that was already set up than to try to create that at Live Arts.” Episodes one through three of “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” will be performed on Saturday, March 9 with episodes four and five on Saturday, March 16. The shows begin at 8pm, and Jones notes “the suggested donation is $3 to $5, but we also accept drinks.”