A Conversation with Cloak & Dagger’s Pete Fernbaugh

A picture of members and friends of the Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger Company, October 30, 2018. Pete and Bethany Fernbaugh are located on the right.

The Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger Company, which performs monthly in a variety of locations throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, provides audiences with exceptional adaptations of classic radio programs. In mid-September, for example, Cloak & Dagger offered two nights of exciting drama at Brooke Hills Playhouse: the first night featured the famous (and the more obscure, but no less absorbing) stories of Ambrose Bierce, while the second explored seedy tales of carnival life, which Director Pete Fernbaugh titled “Carney Cabaret.”

     Coming up on October 26, 2019, Cloak & Dagger will offer two performances. The first, at 1 p.m. at the Steubenville Public Library’s Main Branch (407 S. Fourth Street in Steubenville, Ohio), brings the Washington Irving classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to life. And at 7 p.m., the troupe will perform the adapted tales of Edgar Allan Poe at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center (3149 Main Street in Weirton, West Virginia) as part of the Arts in Weirton Group’s upcoming community event Halloween at the Museum.

     SoulFireWV caught up with Pete Fernbaugh to talk about his background, Cloak & Dagger’s genesis and mission, and his vision for the future.

SoulFire: I know that you were born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But did you grow up in the Ohio Valley? And if not, where did you grow up?

Pete Fernbaugh: I actually grew up in Duryea, Pennsylvania, an oddly named, blink-and-you-miss-it small town shuffled in between other small towns with names like Old Forge, Pittston, and Forty Fort, and of course, West Pittston (because you’re technically not recycling a name if you put East or West in front of it). It was much like the Ohio Valley, only coal was Luzerne and Lackawanna County’s fading industry of choice.

     The area is now most famous because of Scranton, which is where The Office was set. I’m always amused when I hear of people planning vacations to Scranton, because we never thought of ourselves as a tourist destination, and from what I hear, Scranton still doesn’t. I did know plenty of Michael Scotts, Dwight Schrutes, and Kevin Malones growing up, though. Most of them either went to my Pastor Dad’s church or to Jack Daniels’ church. Whether the churches outnumbered the bars in Duryea was always up for debate, but the number of backsliders rotating between them never was.

     We moved out here when I was 13, and I immediately wanted to leave. I soon learned most people in The Ohio Valley want to leave. And a lot of people I talk to now still want to leave. Leaving seems to be a favorite topic of conversation, which is incredibly depressing to me. How can you live your best life in a place you’re always wanting to get out of?

     I’m agnostic as far as leaving goes. I think the Tri-State is beautiful despite our economic travails, so I’m satisfied with being here and happy to stay . . . unless someone offers me a lot of money to leave. 😉 I suppose that makes me a mercenary. Or maybe just centered enough to realize anywhere in which you can see the sun rise and set is a good place to be.

SF: Where did you go to school? And did you study theatre arts, or was this an interest that you pursued outside your studies?

PF: I mentioned my Dad was a Pastor, but I should also mention that I was raised in a conservative fundamentalist home. We were a little beyond your average Evangelical in our strict adherence to The Bible. We were so strict, in fact, many of the leaders I knew routinely created amendments to the Ten Commandments, and based on my Christian school handbook, they didn’t stop at 10—amendments or pages. Everything was regulated in that culture, from what we watched to where we went to what we wore. See no evil, do no evil, wear no evil.

     The first playhouse I saw was Brooke Hills Playhouse. I saw it and asked what went on there. I was sternly told, “Raunchy stuff.”

     The thing was, I wanted to be in entertainment and the performing arts from a young age. I never missed an opportunity to perform in church (usually at Christmas) or to write a skit or a play (usually at Christmas) or to watch movies and TV shows and of course, listen to the radio (all the time at any time of the year).

     When I enrolled at West Liberty University, I desperately wanted to study theatre arts, but because “raunchy stuff” was done on stage, including swearing, I figured I would have to find another way. I studied journalism instead, which helped me develop my writing skills, and by my senior year of college, I had grown less wary of “raunchy stuff” and more intrigued. I was also challenged by a professor to go against my fears and pursue my true passions. The advice served me well.

     My first play was in 2007 in a children’s show called Briar Rose (in which there was no swearing . . . onstage anyway), and my character hammed his way to an untimely death as one of Sleeping Beauty’s suitors. My second was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which everyone but my character swore.  I’ve been involved in theatre, acting, writing, and directing ever since. Last summer, I was one of the main characters in The Full Monty, which should tell you two things: so-called bad words don’t bother me anymore and keeping clothes on in shows is optional.

SF:  What got you interested in live radio theater?

PF: One of the earliest forms of entertainment I discovered was a dramatic Christian radio series called Adventures in Odyssey, which is still on today. The fact that I loved Odyssey and other Christian dramatic programs so much sparked a natural curiosity in the medium. Then, Bill Buxton, a man in my Dad’s church, gave me a cassette tape of The Shadow, who was Batman before Batman only invisible and with hypnotic powers. I listened to that tape over and over again. I wanted to hear more and found out that libraries were good for cassette tapes of old radio shows.

     Listening to those cassettes made me want even more. Turns out, radio stations had to fill 24 hours of broadcast time in a day, and they’d often use odd afternoon and late-night hours to air syndicated shows like When Radio Was with Stan Freberg and The Golden Age of Radio with Victor Ives. My Mom realized her good fortune in having a son who wasn’t curious about drugs or alcohol or partying and supplied me with a steady inventory of cassette tapes on which to record these shows. I listened obsessively.

     Now, we have archive.org, various Internet radio stations, and a myriad of podcasts that curate old radio shows for you. But the way I had to do it made it feel like a treasure hunt. There was always some new pleasure from the past for me to discover, but the cloud cover had to be just right that night or the reception would be fuzzy and the cassette tapes had to have reels that wouldn’t get ripped out and tangled up by your player. There were obstacles beyond clicking “Download”. . . first-world obstacles, but to a teenager, obstacles nonetheless.

     My senior year of college, I asked one of the dean of the Fine Arts Department at West Liberty if I could use College Hall to do a live radio variety show, one that would be loosely based on another favorite radio show of mine, A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.

     The production in College Hall, unimaginatively dubbed West Liberty Live!, featured skits and music and guest singers and was aired live on the campus radio station. In fact, Karissa Martin, who is one of my regular troupe members and our sound effects director on Cloak & Dagger On the Air, was on that show, too. I knew I wanted to do something with live radio theatre, but I wasn’t sure what.

SF: Do you have any favorite vintage radio programs? For example, in our house, we play a lot of Gunsmoke, The Great Gildersleeve, and CBS Radio Mystery Theater. What are your favorites, and what makes them appealing to you?

PF: All three of those series are fantastic. Narrowing my favorite vintage radio shows down is tough. I love horror programs like Lights Out!, Inner Sanctum Mystery, and The Whistler and detective shows like The Adventures of Sam Spade and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. I love anthology series like Suspense and Escape and superhero shows like The Adventures of Superman and The Shadow. I love westerns like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Six Shooter, and Frontier Gentlemen and comedy series like The Jack Benny Program, Fibber McGee & Molly, and Burns & Allen. I love discovering shows that should be better-remembered today, such as I Love a Mystery and One Man’s Family and Vic & Sade. And I love any show that has Orson Welles, William Conrad, Vincent Price, John Dehner, Howard McNear, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Cathy Lewis, Virginia Gregg, and Agnes Moorehead front and center.

     Above all else, I love feeling a connection to that time period, when American pop culture was taking shape and World War II was influencing how stories were told. You hear our country evolving before your very ears. I also love that you can find just about any genre on old time radio. Listening back to those shows, you realize how much of a debt modern entertainment owes to radio and the writers of radio. Radio proved you can mass produce entertainment and still maintain a high level of quality from all standpoints of the production.

     Cloak & Dagger On the Air seeks to carry on that tradition, and I think we’re getting there.   

SF: What was the genesis of Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger?

PF: The Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger Company was started in 2008 by Wintersville actor and musician Kevin Dennis as a murder mystery dinner theatre company, and we still do original murder mysteries to this day (we’re available for bookings!). Kevin handed the reins of the company to me in 2015, and I began to look at other types of theatrical entertainment we could offer.

     In 2016, Jeffrey Holmes, then the artistic director of Striplight Community Theatre, asked me to fill a half hour of entertainment for a festival they were hosting. I realized this was the perfect opportunity to try out an old radio play. Cloak & Dagger On the Air was born from that.

     We performed “The Hitch Hiker” by Lucille Fletcher, and Chris Carter, Gretchen Carter, my wife Bethany, Rob DeSantis, Nancy Longo, Shayne Merideth, and Dave Zanieski were all a part of that performance. We received such tremendous feedback from both the actors and the audience that we ended up performing in the Spring of 2017 at the Music & Art Festival at Oak Glen. That was received well, so in September 2017, we did our first full-length episode of Cloak & Dagger On the Air, titled A Celebration of Suspense!

    Alecia and Pat Ford were in the audience that night, and Pat loved what he saw so much, he told Alecia we needed to perform one every month. Alecia came to me with the idea of having sponsors and a Community Guest Star for each episode. She and Pat did a lot to elevate the project and give it legitimacy within the community. For our first season, Alecia even manned the concessions stand. Here we are, in our third season, and it’s by far my favorite theatrical project to date. Many of our cast members feel the same way, and I’m hoping to continue adding to both our audience and our cast over the next several months. I have a wish list of local actors, both in the Valley and in Pittsburgh, whom I’d like to get on our show. And my wish list for audience members? Anybody and everybody.

SF: I know that your wife, Bethany Fernbaugh, is a tremendously supportive cast member, a fantastic and much-loved local teacher, and a wonderful actress and singer in her own right. Who else is part of the Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger family?

PF: Thank you for saying those kind words about Bethany. She’s all that and more, and she’s part of my core troupe of actors, The Wayward Saints. Bethany also plays our resident detective, Daphne Doolittle, the Dame with the Private Eye, in commercial and comedy skits.

     Lakin Weaver is our in-house accompanist and composer. The work he’s done over the past two years for Cloak & Dagger is incredible, coming up with numerous themes and scores for a variety of genres. Karissa Martin is our Sound Effects Director, and she leads our sound effects team, The Holy Foley Molies, which primarily consists of Noah Hilton and Bethany (we all wear multiple hats on the show).  Karissa has also played several roles over the years in our dramas. Noah is another one of our core troupe members. He’s relatively new to theatre, but it doesn’t show. He commits to every role he takes on and is able to go from one role to the next with ease.

     Chris Carter has been with me from the beginning. He’s also someone who just has a natural intuition for acting. In our skits, he plays Guy Blunt and Stinky Pink and is always hilarious. I’ve worked with Nancy Longo since I first entered theatre, and she has always encouraged me in my various endeavors. She’s a phenomenal actor in everything she does. And the underrated Rob DeSantis is another recurring cast member. Rob is one of those performers who can shuffle between character roles with ease. He doesn’t think he’s any good, but we have hours of evidence now to prove otherwise. And then, there’s Dave Zanieski, who has enthusiastically participated in Cloak & Dagger from the beginning and provided it with a platform and a wider audience through his podcast Midnight Scario. Dave is also versatile and gives his all to every production.

Nancy Longo performing in a September 2019 adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s story “The Eyes of the Panther” at Brooke Hills Playhouse.

     In the last year, we’ve expanded our cast to include John E. Reilly, who’s a classically trained performer and retired West Liberty theatre professor. John has long been heralded for his excellence and has appeared on stage around the Tri-State and beyond. He plays Sherlock Holmes primarily, but will do just about any other role you ask him to do. My favorite part of having John in our cast is the joy of watching him embrace the silliness of our skits.

     Robert Gaudio is also a core member of The Wayward Saints. He plays Dr. John Watson opposite John’s Holmes, but he’s also played several other roles over the years, including the sinister R.J. Ryan in our original radio play, “Murder at the Swim Meet,” back in the Spring. I can’t say enough about Bob and his contributions to Cloak & Dagger On the Air. He’s also a well-known musician in the area and will entertain our audiences before shows with a seemingly endless setlist of American classics. His wife, Clare McDonald, and son David Gaudio have also turned in stellar performances on our show.

     Then, there’s Emily Hores, who has been with us since Season One. She’s another one of those actors to whom you assign a role, and they just do it and do it well. She’s been in several episodes, but I think my favorite role of hers was in a skit for the Steubenville Public Library back in the Spring where she played Lillian the Librarian. Odessa Hores is another invaluable member of our cast. She’s an up and coming talent who is currently enrolled in West Liberty’s theatre program. The sky’s the limit for her, and I hope we’re able to keep working with her for years to come.

     Shayne Merideth is an invaluable member of our team. He manages the recording of the show, along with our mics for the actual performances and our atmospheric sound effects. I appreciated Shayne before our September shows, but his absence in the sound booth made me appreciate him even more, especially since I had to run the sound and am nowhere as talented or have as good an ear as he has.

     There’s also Gretchen Carter who appears whenever she can on our show and is always awesome, and Micah Underwood who has turned in stellar performances in several productions, including as Lizzie Borden earlier this year in a story titled “Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden.” There’s Evan Oslund, Terri Perry, Dr. J.K. Luthra, and Tyler Hores, along with child actors Kelly Salatino and Malachi McClendon, and I know I’ve missed someone, so my sincerest apologies to them. I’m so blessed to be surrounded by talented people of all stripes and ages who can help bring this vision to life. We cast actors who aren’t afraid to play in a nontraditional format and can master characters usually with a few rehearsals but sometimes at the last minute.

     I’d also like to mention classical musician Roberta Fedoush, who provided our music for the Ambrose Bierce episode. It was a marvelous score, made up of classical pieces and her own work. I hope to have her back as our accompanist again soon, and I know Lakin would also like to expand our pool of musicians.

SF: You’ve written some fantastic sponsor advertisements, which are often preformed between vintage scripts. Do you further adapt the classic radio play scripts themselves?

PF: Thank you. I love writing our commercial skits. I’m very careful about how I adapt the classic radio scripts. Most of the time, I’m transcribing from the original broadcasts, which is a task unto itself. However, because these scripts are from a different time, I will quietly adjust certain elements of scripts to be more in line, not so much with modern times but with what modern people understand and accept. I always do this in service of the story and its acceptance by the general audience. I want people to be engaged with the story, not appalled, and if something a character says or does will take the audience out of the story, I revise it ever so delicately and ever so slightly.

     That said, I have been known by my cast to rewrite portions of scripts that I don’t like or I thought were lacking or could have been better. There was one script where I thought the writer had a solid first act, but stumbled in where he took the second act, which left the twist in the third act feeling like a bit of a letdown. Because many radio plays are in the public domain, I can take liberties, so I rewrote the second and third acts, preserving as much of what the author had already written as I could. Another time, I rewrote a character in a way that didn’t annoy me, and a few years back, I overhauled a scene that was out-of-date in its sensibilities about people with disabilities.

      In each of these cases, the stories themselves or the ideas for the stories were wonderful. They just needed a bit of tweaking. However, I respect the source material so much, I would never go on record as giving specifics. If people know both versions, they could easily spot the changes (and the purists would hate me for them).

SF: During each production, I notice how much thought and planning goes into the sound effects that accompany dialogue. Particularly during the September 13th production of the three Ambrose Bierce stories at The Brooke Hills Playhouse, there was a tremendously creative use of water, chains, and elements that simulated the sound of a clockwork automaton. What are those meetings like with The Holy Folley Molies, your sound effects crew, headed by SFX Director Karissa Martin?

PF: Thank you for mentioning Karissa and The Holy Foley Molies and for noticing their stellar work in our Season 3 premiere, “By Ambrose Bierce” (which is now available through the Midnight Scario podcast for download on all podcasting platforms).

Karissa Martin (far right), making walking noises with men’s shoes at Brooke Hills Playhouse during the September edition of Cloak & Dagger on the Air.

     When we first started doing these shows, we would perform the “easy” sound effects live and use prerecorded effects for the rest, which is actually closer to the truth of how old radio plays were presented than not (although the sound effects men would use records, not digital files downloaded to a computer).

     We could have continued along that path, but our number one goal is to give our studio audience a unique theatrical experience. If our effects were recorded and our music was canned, then we’d basically be doing reader’s theatre.  Thank to our sound effects team’s creativity and efficiency and Karissa’s vast array of talents, we are now doing more live sound effects than prerecorded effects. In fact, I’ve dubbed our prerecorded effects “atmospheric sound effects,” mostly designed to flesh out the environment of a scene. Everything else is mostly performed live.

A few of the tools in The Holy Foley Molies’ arsenal.

     The Holy Foley Molies really grew with the Ambrose Bierce production. In addition to replicating the sound of an automaton (circa 1899), they created the sound of a regiment firing on an escaping prisoner in “Owl Creek” and the next night, the sounds of a wooden rollercoaster in our episode titled “Carney Cabaret,” which will be released sometime next year during one of our hiatus months.

Noah Hilton (far right) making clockwork-style noises for an Ambrose Bierce adaptation at Brooke Hills Playhouse in September 2019.

     Since I’m not a meeting guy, our dialogue about the effects is pretty informal. I try to delineate which effects we need within the script, Karissa makes notes at our read-through and adds other effects to the list, and then during the week leading up to the performance, the sound effects team and I research and brainstorm how to do each of the effects. Then, during one of the final rehearsals, we experiment with the effects to see what sounds best. It’s a hive mind of creative collaboration. The entire show is that way really.

SF: In October, you’ll be performing twice on October 26th, first at 1 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Steubenville Public Library and again at 7 p.m. at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center for Halloween at the Museum. Can you provide a glimpse of what adaptations are on the menu for that day?

PF: Yes, my team and I are in for a long day, but one reason I enjoy being a performer is providing holiday entertainment for folks. It engages both my creativity and holiday spirit. For the Steubenville Public Library, we’ll be performing a brand-new adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Our cast includes Ralph Parissi, Justin Swoyer, and Micah Underwood. Then, at the Weirton Area Museum & Cultural Center we’ll be presenting a full evening of Edgar Allan Poe stories, including “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” starring our core troupe members.

     We did the Poe show for a very small crowd last October, and it was the episode where I felt we leveled up across the board, from the acting to the music to the effects to the writing. So I’m hoping we have a bigger audience this year. We’re also excited to be involved with Halloween at the Museum. We love performing there first of all, and second, Dennis Jones has been incredibly encouraging and supportive of our work, giving us a space in which to perform whenever we need it. And Savannah, you and your husband are huge boosters of our work. We can’t thank you all of enough, especially for letting us be a part of Halloween at the Museum.

SF:  Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger, its mission, and future performances?

PF: Thank you! We’re an ambitious group that would be nowhere without the community’s support, whether it’s through sponsorship or attendance or both. Our goal is to take Cloak & Dagger On the Air beyond the Ohio Valley. In the Fall of 2020, we’ll be doing this with the launch of a weekly podcast that will feature a new episode every week, either original, an adaptation of a classic work, or a recreation of an old radio script. We begin production on the podcast in the Spring, and right now, I’m trying to find sponsors or grants that can help fund this project, especially since I need to be able to pay our performers and production team for the time they’ll be giving to it and for promotional costs.

     Next season, I’m also hoping to take our live shows to other cities in the Tri-State and hoping to make our way downstate at some point. Ultimately, I want to pitch Cloak & Dagger On the Air to NPR or one of its affiliates or self-syndicate it to radio stations who specialize in more eclectic content. I would love to have one of our local radio stations pick up Cloak & Dagger On the Air. We have a backlog of great shows that can easily be edited into a format conducive to traditional broadcast.

     I think we have an original and unique product on our hands that can stand out in today’s crowded  entertainment marketplace. Because our productions are self-contained, the time commitment is no longer than a single episode, which is unlike most entertainment these days. It’s also retro without being nostalgic. We’re not performing these shows as if we’re still in the 40s. The art of radio drama is alive and well in other parts of the world and online. Most people are just accustomed to receiving their entertainment through a screen. The name of our production company is Future Past Productions and our slogan is: “With an eye on the future and a nod to the past.” We want our shows to be timeless and evergreen, much like classic radio is.

     Our upcoming performances include Friday, November 22, at 7 p.m. at Striplight Community Theatre where John E. Reilly and Robert Gaudio will return to the roles of Holmes and Watson as we present our adaptation of “The Red-Headed League.” And then in December, we’re hoping to appear at The Bell Tower in New Cumberland with a trio of Christmas tales from old radio. We’ll be on hiatus in January, and the second half of Season 3 will commence in February and run through June. We’re looking for new venues in which to perform our show and we’re also looking for sponsors. Please feel free to contact us through our Facebook page, The Ohio Valley Cloak & Dagger Company or via phone at (724) 255-5911.

One thought on “A Conversation with Cloak & Dagger’s Pete Fernbaugh

  1. John (spouse) and I spent a tremendously entertaining evening with Ohio Valley Cloak and Dagger at Brooke Hills Playhouse. The talent in every area was exemplary. I remember being thrilled as a very young child with the “horror” tales as Pete stated; ” like Lights Out!, Inner Sanctum Mystery, and The Whistler” The sounds were eerie: so strange and frightening. I don’t think I ever moved during those shows as I listened intently from the radio my mother kept in the kitchen. I listened just as intently to the performance of The Ohio Valley Cloak and Dagger. The audience knew they were attending something very special.

    Liked by 1 person

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