Vol. 8 No. 2 (Fall 1987)

CKUA: RADIO DRAMA AND REGIONAL THEATRE

HOWARD FINK

This article details the contributions made especially during the late twenties and thirties to the history of theatre in Alberta throughout the West, and to the nation as a whole by station CKUA of the University of Alberta. It pioneered the broadcasting of drama and theatre education programmes, offèred an opportunity for dramatists such as Gwen Pharis Ringwood and Elsie Park Gowan, aided the founding of the Banff Theatre School (now Banff School of Fine Arts), and allowed for the development of Alberta's indigenous theatre.

Cet article détaille l'apport important que fit, surtout vers la fin de la décennie 1920-1920 [sic] et au cours de la décennie suivante, la station de radio CKUA de l'Université de l'Alberta à l'évol8_2ution du théâtre dans cette province, comme aussi à travers l'Ouest et à l'échelle nationale. Ce poste ouvrit la voie aux radioromans, aux radiothéâtres, et aux émissions pédagogiques dans le domaine, offrant à des dramaturges tels Gwen Pharis Ringwood et Elsie Park Gowan l'occasion de faire entendre leurs ouvrages, et en contribuant à la fondation de la Banff Theatre Scool (aujourd'hui la Banff School of Fine Arts), favorisant par ce fait le développement d'un théâtre authentiquement albertain.

'For most people on farms and in small prairie villages throughout the West, radio was their theatre'

- Elsie Park Gowan

Station CKUA Edmonton, founded by the Extension Department of the University of Alberta in the late 1920s, was one of the first unambiguously non-commercial Canadian radio stations, and a pioneer in arts and information programming, particularly in the area of radio drama. The CKUA Drama Department's large audiences were spread across Alberta and throughout the West generally; moreover, many of the leading Alberta theatre writers and directors contributed to its programs. It also had close relationships with the other major theatre institutions in the province, among them the University of Alberta Extension Department's theatre education structures, the Little Theatres in Edmonton and Calgary, and the Alberta Drama League. The CKUA Drama Department was an essential link in the chain of Alberta's theatre activities, which kept drama alive during the 1930s, when most of the professional theatres had closed down.

The task of reconstructing CKUA's history and its programming is not easy, because many of the broadcast scripts have not survived. The few still extant were written by the best-known CKUA playwrights, Gwen Pharis Ringwood and Elsie Park Gowan. The primary sources of information are the detailed descriptions of CKUA programming in the Annual Reports and some of the weekly Press Bulletins of the U of A Extension Department during the period 1927-40. More recent documents include Anton Wagner's 'Elsie Park Gowan: Distinctively Canadian' (Theatre History in Canada, 8, 1), with its excellent bibliography; a lecture by Ringwood at the 1979 ASCRT/AERT conference; Moira Day's doctoral thesis (Toronto 1987) on Elizabeth Sterling Haynes; and of course E. Ross Stuart's History of Prairie Theatre (Simon and Pierre: 1984), which latter work contributes the framework of prairie theatre and drama necessary for our understanding of the CKUA Drama Department's contribution.

The history of prairie theatre in the 'twenties and 'thirties, which can only be very briefly summarized here, invol8_2ves the decline of the professional touring and stock companies that dominated Canadian theatre until the mid-twenties. These companies, often originating in Britain or the Unites States, toured the established theatre circuits, offering for the most part a popular repertoire that degenerated towards the end of the 1920s into a series of badly-acted 'undisputed Broadway hits,' as Ross Stuart remarks. He adds:


 
Too often, visiting companies underestimated their public and downplayed its cultural needs. Many groups performed little other than lightweight popular material; few presented a more balanced repertoire including the classics and modern plays ... that touched upon the problems of society. They never encouraged indigenous playwriting ... For prairie theatre to develop roots, it had to begin again, at home (Prairie Theatre, p 78).


With the gradual disappearance of the touring and stock companies the theatres had been taken over more and more by films, particularly the 'talkies' at the end of the 1920s. But film theatres also began to decline rapidly as a result of the Depression, so that by the early 1930s theatre on the prairies was mostly a matter of amateur community and university companies. These two non-professional forms furnished the base for dedicated theatre people to provide entertainment and instruction to Depression audiences across the prairies. David Leighton describes this situation in his recent book on the Banff School, Artists, Builders and Dreamers (McClelland & Stewart: 1982, p 18). Moreover, in an atmosphere free of the commercialism of professional stock and touring companies, the new prairie theatre began to develop the 'roots' of which Ross Stuart speaks: local talent and experience in acting, directing, and particularly in the creation of dramatic literature, with a drama exploring local and regional issues. A genuinely original regional theatre was developing in the West, particularly in Alberta.

Among the most influential of these new prairie theatre institutions in Alberta was the Edmonton Little Theatre, the major amateur group whose first Director in 1930 was Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, the well-known stage director and co-founder of the University of Alberta Dramatic Society. Also important to the theatre community was the Alberta Drama League, founded in 1929 by E.G.S. Bennett with the help of Elizabeth Haynes, E.J. Thorlakson and others, which was the direct precursor of the Dominion Drama Festival. In the absence of a regular drama department at the University of Alberta, the Extension Department made a special contribution by creating, in 1932, a position for Elizabeth Haynes as Specialist in Drama and Head of the Department's educational theatre activities. Her position saw her travelling widely across the province, training large numbers of amateur groups. Another major theatre activity of the Extension Department in 1933 was the creation of the Banff Theatre School, now of course the Banff School of Fine Arts, the first such institution in Alberta. Among its first faculty were Mrs Haynes, the dramatists Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood, and the drama directors Emrys Jones, E.J. Thorlakson and Sheila Marryat. It is Marryat who forms the direct connection between these drama and theatre activities and CKUA Radio Drama.

The CKUA Drama Production Department, directed by Marryat from its second year on, was an integral, and in fact a unique element in this new growth of indigenous Alberta theatre. Ross Stuart mentions the general connections between prairie radio and theatre:


 
There was a close relationship between radio plays and stage plays in Western Canada. Because there was so little opportunity for stage productions, most scripts were composed or at least revised for radio. Even the luckier playwrights who managed to have ... their plays put on by amateur groups had to write for radio if they wanted a wide audience, a professional production, and remuneration (Prairie Theatre, p 135).


Stuart also mentions the effect on prairie audiences of these dramatic offerings on radio:


 
In Western Canada in particular, radio replaced theatre in many people's lives. Radio provided convenient, economical information, entertainment, and culutre [sic]; in effect it became Canada's national theatre for many years. Radio conquered the difficulties of distance and weather. it also [brought] widely dispersed audiences together (p 77).


In Prairie Theatre Sheila Marryat is mentioned only as one of the 'lesser-known' Edmonton theatre directors of the period. In fact, not only did she cooperate in the work of the Banff School with Haynes, Jones, Thorlakson, Ringwood and Gowan, but as Producer of CKUA Drama from 1929, she was also Haynes's colleague in the U of A Extension Department and directed radio plays by her other Banff colleagues. Indeed, the same Carnegie Foundation grants, from 1932 to 1937, which paid Haynes's Extension Department salary as the first full-time travelling Supervisor of drama education, and which helped to found and support the Banff Theatre School, also helped pay for CKUA broadcasting equipment and to support Marryat's productions. The CKUA Drama Department, as an integral element in the new prairie theatre movement, had particular advantages: by the nature of its radio medium it commanded very large audiences across the West generally. Furthermore, its immediacy, its regional concerns, its production of local and regional dramatists, made it attractive as a new stage for Alberta drama.

No other radio station on the prairies, not even the national networks of the CRBC and CBC, provided anything approaching the quality and variety of drama offered by the CKUA Drama Department in the period from 1933 to 1939. Station CKUA Edmonton began broadcasting from studios in the U of A's Extension Department in November 1927. In the early 1930s it became the senior member, in terms of program production, in an informal western regional radio network, available to listeners across Alberta and in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. Regular broadcasts of live radio drama commenced on CKUA in 1928. Sheila Marryat, the station's General Manager, also took over production and direction of drama broadcasts the following year. Productions included original radio plays and serials, a number of them by local authors, adaptations from the stage, dramatizations of prose fiction, and documentaries. By the 1933-34 season the annual number of productions had risen to twenty-seven, with a total of ninety speaking parts by local actors. These numbers were generally sustained until the end of the decade.

The regional contributions of the CKUA Drama Department become clearer in the context of other early Canadian radio drama. The first Canadian producer of a continuing radio-drama series was Vancouver actor and director Jack Gillmore. Gillmore was the producer-director and sometimes writer of a continuing series of more than a hundred radio drama productions broadcast from Vancouver CN Radio Station CNVR from 1927 to 1932. His CNVR players are probably the model for Marryat's CKUA Players. Another important early series was Tyrone Guthrie's famous set of documentary dramas, The Romance of Canada, broadcast over the CN Radio Network in 1931-32. The CRBC took over the nationalized CNR Radio Department at the end of 1932 and the tradition of radio-drama continued. It consisted, though, mainly of national productions originating from Toronto and Montreal. Gillmore's Vancouver series was cancelled at the beginning of 1933, and radio-drama production in that city did not really flower again until Andrew Allan arrived there in the fall of 1939. Esse Ljungh's Winnipeg radio-drama career did not begin until the mid-thirties, and it was mainly on commercial stations in his first years. The CBC did not encourage prairie regional drama, and its first foray into Alberta radio drama was in 1937: a contract to feed CKUA's drama productions over the regional CBC network. From 1933 to 1939, then, CKUA played a unique role as a creator of prairie radio drama.

CKUA's programming in this decade contrasts with much concurrent Canadian broadcasting, as described quite explicitly by Graham Spry in 1931:


 
There are today some seventy stations With some exceptions, these stations are used for advertising or propagandist purposes, and the number of first-class programmes is absurdly few .... . Most programmes of Canadian origin are miserable stews of direct advertising puffs and phonographic records. ("A Case for National Broadcasting," Queen's Quarterly, p 154)


By contrast, the Annual Reports of the U of A Extension Department provide detailed evidence of CKUA's innovative programming: The categories of broadcasts described include not only drama but concerts, news, talks and instruction of many kinds, a range of programming made possible by the availability of university faculty. The Radio Drama Department drew not only on U of A staff but on prominent members of the Alberta theatre community.

There were few consistent North American parallels to CKUA's rich mix of cultural and educational programming. Indeed, Canada did not enjoy a similar variety of programs nationally until the CBC began to offer them towards the end of the decade. As the main producer of programs for the first prairie "public radio" network in the thirties, CKUA was not only the major provider of educational and cultural programs, it was also one of Alberta's main - and for the rural population almost the only - source of theatre, as Gwen Pharis Ringwood recently described it.

In the Press Bulletin dated 2nd November 1928, there are two items relating to the beginning of CKUA radio drama. The first of these is in a description of CKUA programs to be broadcast in the station's second season. There is to be a series of talks by U of A faculty, a farmers' program, extension lectures, a Homemakers' Hour, several children's and youth programs, concerts by the University Radio Orchestra, a variety program of music, sketches and debates. And there is a new drama series: "A group of players has been organized under the direction of Professor James Adam M.A., and will be known as the CKUA Players. This group will give a number of plays throughout the season." (Press Bulletin, XIV, 1) Professor Adam (presumably of the U of A English Department) spent a year as Director; there are no details. He may have been the author of the second item in the same Bulletin, explaining the nature of the new medium of radio drama:


 
The dramatist of the air has to ... paint the scene in word pictures and conjure up in the minds of his listeners the setting for his play ... . The same problem faces the player. Here he can use no facial or bodily movements to help interpret the part he is acting; everything has to be done with the voice ... ; each actor must have a distinctive voice ... . The audience must also be able to tell by the expression in the actor's voice the actions of the character portrayed.


This definition seems commonplace today; yet it gets to the centre of the nature of radio drama - the concentration of effect on words, voices, inflection. It must be remembered that in 1928, in radio drama's mere infancy, these concepts were not widely understood in North America.

In 1929 E.A. Corbett became Director of the Extension Department. He proceeded, as a high priority, to expand CKUA's contribution to the growth of the Extension Department's Fine Arts program. Corbett quickly appointed Sheila Marryat as Producer of the Radio Drama Department. There is no mention of radio drama in the Annual Report for 1929-30, Sheila Marryat's first season, but in the Press Bulletin of 3rd October 1930 there is a discussion of the relation of the mechanical techniques of radio drama to its ultimate dramatic goals. It might have been written by Marryat herself, and is in a sense a riposte to the earlier-quoted definition:


 
The technique of radio drama on the mechanical side is often dwelt on ... but after listening to many of these broadcast plays one feels that the appeal to the ear has been emphasized at the expense of appeal to the heart ... . In radio drama, as in any other drama, "what we want is the conflict of will and the tragedy or comedy of cross-purposes building up into a climax which sharply defines the characters."... if plays for broadcasting are chosen with this in mind, then ... the voice of the actor will convey the thought of the play and make the appeal to the heart and mind of the listener, rather than to the ear alone. (XVI, 1)


These are also fairly obvious points concerning the priority of traditional dramatic values, but they contrast with the general excitement about the technical possibilities of radio drama in 1930, and the passage gives an insight into Marryat's balance of modern and traditional drama in the Department.

The Annual Report for 1930-31 mentions that among the plays produced this season was a series, Famous Conversations, including dramatizations from well-known books. According to the Report, the CKUA Players broadcast sixteen plays and dramatic sketches in this season, including an original play for radio, "The Path of Glory," by the prolific British stage and radio playwright, director and Professor of English, L. du Garde Peach. A number of Peach's radio dramas would be produced by CKUA, and later by the CBC. "The Path of Glory" was an "original radio play," not published until 1934. Also in that season CKUA broadcast five "French" plays, and the plays from the Alberta Drama Festival, as well as the CN network's Sunday afternoon drama series and its Romance of Canada series. The audience for CKUA's drama programming was extended throughout Alberta this season by the association of CKUA with the powerful station of the Alberta Grain Company, CKLC Red River.

In the 1932-33 season the CKUA Players produced fifteen full-length dramas, including three more "French" plays. Moreover, the group of Alberta stations sharing these CKUA programs had again grown, to include not only the province-wide radio network of Alberta Government Telephones, but also CJCA Edmonton, CFCN Calgary, and CJOC Lethbridge. CKUA programming also spread outside of Alberta, to CKY Winnipeg and FQC Saskatoon, as well as CNVR Vancouver and CFJC Kamloops.

The Annual Report adds, however, that CKUA ceased broadcasting in May, 1933, because of uncertainty about whether it might fit into the scheme of recently-nationalized Canadian radio. Commissioners of the newly-created Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission had visited the station early in the year to discuss the situation, without offering any clarification. However, by summer the Commissioners had reassured the U of A Extension Department, and after a four-month hiatus, CKUA began its 1933-34 season in November.

The CKUA Drama Department received fresh funds at this time from the Carnegie Foundation, to subsidize its programming and to improve its equipment "to CRBC standards." The Foundation, impressed by the Fine Arts program of the Extension Department, had invited the U of A in 1931 to apply for a grant to aid in expanding. In the spring of 1932 the Carnegie Foundation awarded the Extension Department a three-year grant of ten thousand dollars annually. Drama was a central concern, particularly the encouragement of the several hundred amateur theatre companies, most of them inexperienced, which had sprung up in the nearly complete absence of professional theatre and movies. Almost half of the money was spent to hire Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, to visit these companies and help to train them. Part of the money was used during 1933 to help the U of A Extension Department establish the Banff School, for it was felt that a theatre school was necessary immediately to increase the number of trained theatre people in the province. Marryat joined her CKUA writers and colleagues, Gowan, Ringwood, E.J. Thorlakson and Emrys Jones, along with the Extension Department's Elizabeth Haynes, in founding and teaching at the Banff School. The third prong of the educational drama support by the Carnegie Foundation was the equipment and production subsidy to the CKUA Drama Department.

Despite its late start, CKUA had an ambitious 1933-34 drama season, including a series of twenty short historical plays, Great Canadian Personalities, written for Marryat by Morris Longstreth and E.J. Thorlakson. Thorlakson, Marryat's fellow-teacher at Banff, was a major theatre figure in Alberta at this time: a former director with the Calgary Little Theatre; co-founder of the Calgary drama club, the Green Room; founder of the Side Door Playhouse; co-founder of the first Alberta regional drama production association, the Alberta Drama League, and the editor of the first published vol8_2ume of Alberta plays. Morris Longstreth was an American novelist, poet, historian and travel writer; he was a frequent visitor to Canada and many of his books dealt with Canadian subjects. Longstreth probably supplied the historical details for the Great Canadian Personalities series, and Thorlakson, the dramatic elements.

Marryat also produced four other plays that season. With the addition of guest productions by the University Dramatic Society, the Edmonton Little Theatre and the Dickens Society Players, a total of twenty-seven CKUA plays was broadcast across the informal western network in 1933-34. CKUA had provided its audiences this season not only with a broad range of original radio drama, but with performances by all of the active Edmonton drama companies - among the Drama Department's crucial activities.

In the 1934-35 season twenty-nine plays were broadcast, most of them originals. Marryat produced a series of seven plays titled Lives of the Masters, by Thorlakson. She also produced the play "RCMP" by Longstreth, "The Finger of God," a play celebrating the centenary of Charles Lamb, an adaptation of "Mutiny on the Bounty" by L. du Garde Peach, and a series on the life of Father Lacombe by Emrys Jones. Jones was one of the foremost prairie drama directors, an organizer of the Saskatchewan Drama League, Director of Plays for the Edmonton Little Theatre - he was currently directing its two-season Shakespeare series - and for the Dramatic Society, the U of A student drama group, a teacher of Drama in the U of A English Department and at the Banff School. In the 'forties Jones founded the Drama Department at University of Saskatchewan, and later became the senior regional Drama Producer at CBC Winnipeg.

Again this season, Marryat did not limit CKUA drama broadcasts to her own productions. In addition, guest drama groups produced "Workers in Fire," as well as the two winning plays in the Carnegie Play-Writing Competition: "La Défaite" by George Bagret, and "The Giant-Killer" by Elsie Park Gowan. The latter production was presumably by the Edmonton Little Theatre, which had staged it in April of 1934. Gowan, called by Ross Stuart the author of the best folk comedies of the period, wrote plays realistically depicting the social concerns of ordinary people, which were very popular with community and school theatres, including the University of Alberta, and the Banff School; she won the Best Alberta Play prize in both 1934 and 1935 from the U of A Extension Department. She soon began writing radio plays and serials on local concerns for CKUA; and she went on to a career of play-writing for the CBC, with themes similar to those of her CKUA dramas. Among the other outside productions broadcast over CKUA, the Dickens Society Players produced an adaptation from one of this writer's novels; two of the U of A Inter-Year Play-Competition winners were also produced.

CKUA radio-drama productions were obviously increasing in number and variety; there is also evidence that Alberta radio audiences were responding favourably. Gwen Pharis Ringwood relates a story about the 1935 Dominion Drama Festival in Calgary, which she was attending with her brother. Asked about his interest in Alberta theatre, his answer was: "I only know the theatre through the radio" (address to the ASCRT/AERTC Conference, Calgary, 1979); and she adds: "For most people on farms and in small prairie villages throughout the West, Radio was their theatre."

That theatre in Alberta from 1933 to 1939 was radio drama on CKUA. Sheila Marryat was quite conscious of the unique contribution she and the CKUA Drama Department were making; as she says in the 1935 Annual Report, "... if funds were available this dramatic work could be put on a sound basis and a contribution made to the radio field that no other station in the West is attempting." This is a clear statement of Marryat's goals. She was aiming at not only a leading regional drama production centre but also a locus for significant Alberta drama and theatre, on radio and on local stages, professional and amateur. One is reminded of Andrew Allan's own dream of a national theatre nine years later.

In the 1935-36 season twenty-six plays were broadcast, including a drama on the legend "The Tolpuddle Martyrs" by the ghost-story writer Richard Stanton Lambert, "Nor'west," a play of the sea by L. du Garde Peach (to be produced again by the CBC), "The Boy Who Discovered Easter," a Christmas play: "The Gift of Love," and a series, Patterns of Loveliness, by Joseph B. Egan. In related theatre activities this session, Gowan's "Homesteader" was produced by the Edmonton Little Theatre; Elizabeth Haynes broadcast frequent talks on drama over CKUA, offered thirty-six drama lectures in the Extension Department, and travelled sixteen thousand miles lecturing to community theatres in Alberta.

The following season, 1936-37, was CKUA's last subsidized by the Carnegie grant. In November 1936, the CRBC was transformed into the CBC. The CBC very quickly signed a contract with the CKUA Drama Department - the first contract signed with a private station; it was for the feed of the new 1936-37 CKUA series by Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood, New Lamps for Old, to be broadcast over the CBC Western regional network. The first season of New Lamps included eleven full-length productions by Marryat, primarily documentary dramas, including "Socrates, " "Beethoven, " "Christopher Columbus, " "Nansen of the North, " "Henry the Navigator" and "Florence Nightingale". The final play in the series was a science-fiction allegory by Ringwood.

During the 1937-38 season, the CBC Western network carried not only all the CKUA drama productions, but the talks and music programs as well. Sheila Marryat produced the fifteen plays in the second series of New Lamps for Old, also written by Ringwood and Gowan; Anton Wagner (Theatre History in Canada, 8, 1) provides some of Gowan's titles: "Coming of Power," "Elizabeth Fry," "Erasmus of Rotterdam," "Mary Wollstoncraft," "The New Napoleon," "The Story of Radium" and "Visions in Stone." Marryat also produced the first season of another series, this one written by Gowan alone, called The Building of Canada, as well as seven individual plays; the surviving titles are: "The Uncoiled," "The Man Who Discovered Sleep," "The Jumping Horse" and "Set My People Free." The CBC contract provided CKUA at this time with crucial funds to offset the loss of the Carnegie grants. The Banff School also survived the end of the Carnegie support, by adding other fine arts to its curriculum, and covering 90% of its costs. The third previous beneficiary of the grant, Mrs. Haynes, was not so lucky; her position as full-time Supervisor of Drama for the Extension Department was lost, though Emrys Jones took over on a part-time basis in 1937, and Gowan the next year. More than ever before, Albertans interested in theatre were depending on the CKUA Radio-Drama Department.

The 1938-39 season was Sheila Marryat's final one with CKUA. The plays were carried over the full CBC National network. She produced the second set of plays in Gowan's Building of Canada series; the titles were: "Raleigh, Prophet of Empire," adapted from John Buchan (to be produced by the CBC itself in 1940); "On This Rock;" "Kings in Acadia;" "He Was No Gentleman;" "Frontenac;" "The Fighting Governor;" "The Dragon From the Sea;" "Under One Flag;" "The Price of Loyalty." "Grenville's Sword;" "Silver Chief;" "Seven Oaks;" "Patriots of '37 (also produced later by the CBC; "Radical Jack;" "Eagle of Oregon;" "The Argonauts;" "The Figurehead;" "From Sea the Sea;" "Red Star in the West;" "Saddle and Plough;" and "No more Heroes" (see the Bibliography to Wagner's "Gowan" article).

Before the beginning of the 1939-40 season, Marryat accepted an offer of a CBC Winnipeg position. And as if this loss were not enough, CKUA learned that for policy reasons the CBC had terminated its program-feed contract, subsidies and all. In the ensuing crisis, Elsie Park Gowan took over Marryat's job as Producer in the autumn of 1939, ably supported by Gwen Pharis Ringwood. An announcement in the Annual Report for the 1939-40 season describes the efforts of the CKUA Drama Department to continue functioning. Gowan bought and produced a series of what the Report terms "professional" scripts - by which is probably meant an inexpensive commercial series, likely American. In addition, an appeal was made to Alberta playwrights; twelve original scripts were submitted, most of which (adds the Report) were written for the stage and were defective in radio-drama techniques. These plays were adapted for radio by Gowan, and were produced in the series Plays of our Province. An unnamed but "excellent" U of A student script was produced as well. Nevertheless, with the loss of Sheila Marryat, the Carnegie grant and the CBC contract, and of course with the outbreak of WWII and its well-documented disruptive effects on Canadian theatre generally, CKUA never regained its dominant position in the production and broadcast of Alberta drama.

From 1939 on the CBC, with Federal government encouragement and funding, was pursuing an aggressive radio-drama policy nationally, and creating subsidiary regional production teams in Montreal, Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver, but not for some years in Alberta. This development, together with CBC's new arts, music and information programming (reminiscent of mid-thirties CKUA programming), meant that in Alberta the CBC was moving more and more into CKUA's traditional role, not only providing drama to audiences in the west, but as an instrument of culture. The loss of its drama function is confirmed by an excellent witness. Andrew Allan's indispensable National CBC Script Editor during the 'forties Golden Age, Alice Frick, grew up in rural Alberta and studied literature and drama at the University of Alberta in the late 'thirties. In the Introduction to her book, Imagine in the Mind (Toronto: Canadian Stage and Arts, 1987), Frick writes:


 
Radio has been an important part of my life .... Out of the air came important messages from distant places which lessened the isolation of an Alberta farmhouse. While I was at the University of Alberta in the infant days of the CBC, my ambition was focused on working for it, a goal inspired by the broadcasts of Shakespeare plays.


She refers to the series Shakespeare Cycle, produced on the CBC by Charles Warburton in October-December, 1938 - as the CKUA crisis was about to begin. Frick recently confirmed in conversation that at that point, even on the U of A campus itself, CKUA radio drama no longer made as much of an impression on her as did the CBC's drama productions.

Nevertheless the CKUA Radio-Drama Department's achievements in the previous ten years were appreciated by those invol8_2ved in theatre at the end of the decade. Arthur Phelps, in his 1938 article "Drama" in Canadian Literature Today, acknowledges the pioneering work of CKUA, especially in spreading the techniques of drama in the west. Phelps argues that Canadian literature in 1938 is on the whole weak and derivative, because "... we are still psychologically on the one hand a colony or at most an outpost of Empire, and on the other hand a parasitic appendage to the USA ...." He points out, on the other hand, that there are some promising signs of the growth of an indigenous Canadian drama; and he singles out the CKUA Drama Department as a leader in the establishment of the necessary professional standards:


 
I think we are beginning to respect technical knowledge and discipline in the dramatic as in the other arts; [consider] Miss Sheila Marryat and that splendid work done by the University of Alberta Players (sic) ... . There is recorded most simply the fundamental respect for the craft that is only beginning to be expressed in Canada. I believe Radio Drama is going to demand and develop a Canadian interest in craftsmanship hitherto unknown.


If by the end of the 'thirties the CBC was making a serious effort to establish a Canadian national theatre, CKUA could be justly said to have shown the way with its contributions to western regional drama from the early 'thirties onwards. CKUA showed that radio was an ideal medium for the presentation of regional drama and theatre. It also showed that strong regional - and national - audience interest could be generated for indigenous drama. CBC took up the challenge, and by 1944 Andrew Allan had established the first Canadian national theatre - on the air.

Of course CKUA drama developed in the context of the economic problems of the 'thirties, including the closing of the theatre and movie houses, and the disappearance of professional theatre, at the beginning of the decade. Nor could CKUA have developed as it did without the strong decades-long theatre tradition in Alberta, culminating in such institutions as the Edmonton Little Theatre, the Alberta Drama League, the Banff theatre School, and the theatre-supporting activities of the U of A Extension Department and the Carnegie Foundation. Nonetheless, the dedicated efforts of the CKUA Drama Department during the 'thirties made a crucial contribution to Alberta theatre: it created a focus for all these activities, offering a core of professionalism, a sound-stage, new local plays and players, and large audiences throughout Alberta and the west. CKUA was a regional cultural institution with a unique role in Alberta. Though it had run its course by 1940, it had served its purpose.