Al Villanueva deftly smoothes transitions from scene to scene
With 1940s radio theater playing in his Bluetooth headphones, Al Villanueva takes a seat at the antique piano in his cozy living room.
He’s on a quest for the sinister chords that cast the chilling aura of mystery over a Lux Radio Theater show from The Shadow—one of the most famous adventure series in radio theater history ... and the next production of Radio Redux (April 13-15, 2018).
Al’s role is to recreate the “musical bridges,” brief interludes that originally connected invisible scenes for radio theater listeners more than seven decades ago, and which Radio Redux reimagines on stage today.
“I try to transcribe it as close as I can to what they actually did,” Al says.
Radio Redux is Al’s newest gig, dating just to 2016. But Al had known Radio Redux founder Fred Crafts from Fred’s work reporting on the arts for The Register-Guard and KVAL-TV starting in the 1980s.
“We were always kind of circling around each other,” Al recalls.
Browsing a bookstore one day after he retired in 2015, Al struck up a conversation with Fred. Over coffee, Fred offered him a role creating musical bridges for a Radio Redux performance of It Happened One Night in early 2016.
Al Villanueva is on a quest for the sinister chords that cast a chilling aura over The Shadow. Photo by Bub Bishop.
Al jumped both feet first into the idea, creating musical bridges for nearly every show since. He loves it so much he even bought a special organ just to create the bridges. Barely two feet wide, the organ fits neatly onto the Radio Redux sound effects stage.
“The Yamaha synthesizer organ makes it so fun to work on the bridges,” Al says. “I knew the sounds would be more accurate with the synthesized sounds the keyboard can generate.”
Retired after 30 years as a theater and vocal educator in Eugene, Al says he now has time to do what he likes best—perform with Radio Redux, especially when he gets to play voice roles as well as music.
“Fred works so tirelessly to create these adapted scripts and sound effects. I don’t see ego in Fred. I see more of a dedication to excellence,” Al says. “He brings in the best people and gives them permission to have a blast. There’s more going on here than people just wanting to be in a show. It’s more like a family.”
Al uses a synthesizer organ to help develop musical bridges. “I knew the sounds would be more accurate with the synthesized sounds the keyboard can generate,” he says. Photo by Emerson Malone.
Al’s stage experience runs back to junior high. He can practically recite the catalog of local performers over the decades. Like many of his peers, Al traces his inspiration to the legendary musicals produced by Ed Ragozzino, the celebrated high school and college drama teacher whose two decades of work with the Lane County Auditorium Association stoked the community’s resolve to build the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in 1982.
Al was in third grade at Edgewood Elementary School when Ragozzino showed up with a high-energy high school troupe to perform a musical.
Al was hooked.
Three years later, Al had impressed his teachers enough that they gave a junior high guidance counselor a heads-up that Al was on his way. Although Al thought he might be joining the band, the counselor advised him that the choir really needed a pianist.
Choirs have had one ever since.
Nowadays, Al also serves as music minister for the St. Thomas More Newman Center at UO, working as accompanist and director. He also performs with Eugene Opera and works with the opera’s education academy and summer opera camp.
Sensing that music education would better pay the bills for his family than work in theater, Al had earned a master’s in music education and vocal performance then worked 30 years in the Eugene School District.
But on the side, he said, “I would always do as much community theater as I could.” That morphed into performing with Marin Alsop and the Colorado Symphony, the Eugene Symphony, Oregon Festival of American Music, The Treehouse Dinner Theatre and several shows directed by Ragozzino.
“I am thankful to have had opportunities to perform at the professional level, working with artists from whom I learned artistic disciplines and habits I could share with students.”
Al (from left) joins Achilles Massahos and Jane Brinkley on stage during Alice in Wonderland. Photo by Scott Kelley.
Besides working with Radio Redux, Al’s soaring tenor can be heard singing the national anthem at University of Oregon sporting events. Al is a serious sports fan, which is evidenced at most Radio Redux rehearsals, where Al is prone to wear one of his dozen or so sports jerseys.
“I have always had Willie Mays T-shirts,” says the lifelong San Francisco Giants fan. So when eBay materialized, Al seized the opportunity.
“My first eBay jersey was a Giants away replica jersey. Now I have a couple of Blazer's jerseys, a Seahawks jersey and three Oregon football jerseys—one Joey Harrington and two Marcus Mariotas.
"My two favorites are my replica World Series Madison Bumgarner bright orange jersey and my ‘nerd-jersey,’ a Giants jersey with my last name on the back,” he says.
Notes Fred, “Al’s one of those rare individuals who bridge both arts and sports equally well.
Al is known for his collection of sports jerseys, which he is prone to wearing to rehearsals. "My two favorites are my replica World Series Madison Bumgarner bright orange jersey and my ‘nerd-jersey,’ a Giants jersey with my last name on the back.” Photo by Fred Crafts.
“Al is a highly talented conductor, pianist and singer,” Fred adds. “He brings all that, plus keen acting skills, to Radio Redux, which greatly expands what we are able to do. With his boundless enthusiasm, he is a perfect partner for us.”
In addition to an interest in theater, Fred shares Al’s a love of sports; the two often attend Oregon games together.
“I am simply amazed at Al’s extensive athletic wardrobe,” Fred says. “He must have a million jerseys and caps—the lucky guy!”
— By Bub Bishop. Bishop retired as a reporter from The Register-Guard.