The term "radio silence" is the last thing you'd attribute to cello-voiced actress and producer Peggy Webber, who for decades has been anything but silent. L.A.'s impresario of the airwaves, she's our reigning queen of radio theater — a lost art in an age of digital distractions. The 90-year-old founder and guiding light of the California Artists Radio Theatre, or CART, Webber has been a force of nature in the retro realm of old-time radio since it was, well, new-time radio.
CART specializes in producing classic tales from Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, Chekhov and Oscar Wilde, as well as contemporary pieces — most of them adapted for radio, produced and directed by Webber. Past and present CART repertory players include Michael York, Samantha Eggar, Roddy McDowall, Ed Asner, David Warner and William Shatner.
Her enterprise originated as a true radio-based repertory undertaking, some of whose actors — including Webber herself — actually date back to radio's Golden Age, when Orson Welles was one of its star practitioners. "He was my idol," says Webber, who worked with Welles on radio and film.
Born in Laredo, Texas, Webber jokingly characterizes her background as "somewhat nefarious." The daughter of an oilman, she made her mark as a dancer at the age of 2½, and once performed 21 encores for a dazzled audience. Then the Great Depression hit and oil prices plummeted, sending the family packing for points west. Growing up, Webber decided acting was her true calling. She started as a child vaudevillian, later graduating to radio and stage roles in Hollywood, where she excelled in character work. In 1946 Time magazine ran a story about Webber's astonishing range of portrayals.
CART programs have been broadcast on KPCC, KUSC, NPR and most recently Sirius XM, although currently it is between carriers. Webber soldiers on and is not discouraged, because she believes CART's body of recordings, all available on the company's website (cartradio.com), have a second audience in schools and tutoring programs.
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Almost every month, Webber drives from her Hollywood Hills home to the Garland Hotel in North Hollywood to oversee her productions, which are recorded before an audience of mostly "mature" patrons. The unstoppable Webber seems not to have heard of retirement. Actress Eggar observes, "There aren't enough adjectives to describe Peggy, but she's both strong and gentle, and serves as a beacon for how to conduct one's life."
"I've had a certain kind of dedication since I was young," Webber explains, "and that dedication is what keeps me going. It's like when you have a child. You've been given the trust to take care of this creature, and I've always felt the same way about the opportunities that have been given to me — it's a responsibility."
Who else but Webber would have thought to coax centenarian Norman Lloyd to be the lead in a recent production of "Heartbreak House"? Now that's dedication.