For many, Simon Geller symbolized Gloucester.
“He was independent. He was crusty and curmudgeonly. Those characteristics were also endearing, though.”
Ken Riaf is talking about the subject of his play, “My Station in Life,” the story of Geller, and his one-man radio station WVCA. The play gets its world premiere, beginning this Friday at the Gloucester Stage Company’s Gorton Theater, with Ken Baltin portraying the slow-talking, gravelly voiced Geller. Robert Walsh directs the production, which grew out of a popular 2017 NeverDark staging.
Geller ran WVCA—“Voice of Cape Ann”—out of his apartment from 1964 through his retirement in 1988. He played classical music—probably because he hated rock ’n’ roll. He solicited money from his audience once for each of the thirteen hours WVCA was on-air, every day of the week. When he went to the store, or ran other errands, he simply shut the station down. He was hopelessly unpolished as a radio announcer, and his foibles and style were well-known to his listeners—somewhere around 90,000 at WVCA’s height.
WVCA and Geller’s on-air personality were mostly a local curiosity until 1982, when the Grandbanke corporation attempted to buy his license and transform the station with more diverse programming. Geller nearly lost the battle—at first the FCC ruled against him—and his struggle gained national attention, with coverage in the New York Times, Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
In 1985 the FCC allowed him to keep WVCA on-air, but in 1988 Geller retired, sold the station for $1 million, and moved to Las Vegas—stunning the community. He eventually moved again, to New York City, where he died in 1995.
“It’s a local story, but a universal one as well,” Riaf says. “His story was portrayed as David-vs.-Goliath, and that’s part of it. He’s emblematic of the town, and this is a character study—a little slice of him, and of history.
“It’s Olsonian in a sense,” he says, referring to the poet Charles Olson. “It’s a microcosm. If you understand this little thing, you can extrapolate and relate to the larger world.”
Riaf’s script incorporates local voices, using dialogue from Gloucester residents whom many will recognize. “Peggy Sibley, Lewis Sandler, Sewell Hayes—there are clips of folks from town giving remembrances of Geller,” Riaf says. “It started as a one-man show, but then we added some characters to it.”
Because of the gruff manner, and on-air foibles—washing the dishes in the background, or flushing the toilet—and his seemingly constant requests for money, Geller was probably disliked by as many people as were amused by him.
“I found him sympathetic,” Riaf says. “In talking to him—Riaf interviewed Geller in New York, while working on a screenplay for the documentary “Radio Fishtown” with filmmaker Henry Ferrini—and to others, you get very different perspectives.
“What was interesting to me was the station, and the way he broadcast,” Riaf says. “It was small station, but his signal would carry. But with Simon it was like a window—you could see into this person’s life as well. It’s much different than some corporate station. You hear the phone ring in the background. You hear the toilet.
“Love-hate? It’s sort of in that realm,” he says. “Geller saw the things that make Gloucester what it is. It can be a lonely place, and then you have this little part in the summer where it takes on a different personality. I won’t give away the ending, but in some ways it’s about that decision—how you come to terms with the place, with sticking around, or with going away.”
The Gloucester Stage Company presents the world premiere of Ken Riaf’s “My Station in Life” from Oct. 12 through 28 at the Gorton Theater, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. For tickets and information visit www.gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.