When Greg Krouse was giving his talk about the Grange during the Saturday edition of the Variety Show, he mentioned that Anderson Valley is known to grangers all over California as “the Theatre Grange’. You don’t have to hang around here for too long to learn that Anderson Valley knows how to entertain itself. We know how to put on a show. This past weekend marked the twenty-first edition of this annual institution and it was the same old thing: Two nights of stellar, mostly amateur, mostly local, often brilliant, usually pretty good, sometimes eccentric entertainment, plus two packed houses of locals waiting to laugh and clap.
If there was a theme to this year’s show, it might have been “continuity.” I was struck, as the two nights’ bill unfolded, at the threads that run through this place. Seeing the “put on a show” tradition reflected through various acts that span generations here, vestiges of the Boont Town Players, The Magic Company, the current Grange Theatre Guild, and a group of inspired loons from Redwood Ridge Road who may represent the next phase. Seeing kids we saw on stage years ago develop into mature (somewhat) grown up performers. Watching the year-to-year progress of the current crop of youngsters. And seeing everything from 7-year-old hip-hop dancers and poets, to a sexagenarian hanging upside down from the ceiling.
Another theme might be “community.” There’s a strong feeling of care for our little corner, and a will to protect what we have. That may be why more than a few of the acts touched on creeping corporatism and the occupy movement, including the opening set piece. Our MC, Captain Rainbow, as per routine, opened the show by greeting the audience, flanked by two stern looking lawyers. Rainbow explains that due to financial crunches this year’s show had to seek corporate sponsors to underwrite it, but that the lawyers assured him that “nothing would change’. Nothing did change, of course, except that the homemade snacks that the Grange Ladies prepare have been replaced by Hostess products, the band was fired to make room for stage side luxury seating for the 1%, Rainbow was forced to wear a special tuxedo festooned with corporate logos, and other such indignities. The last straw arrives when it is required to disconnect the Grange’s solar power system and replacing it with sponsor PG&E’s nuked juice. In a fit of pique, Rainbow rips off the sponsor coat, throws it on the floor, quits, and stomps off. This only delights the lawyers who now present a power point slideshow to show us rubes how they’re going to “turn our backwater dump into a goldmine!.” Pictures are projected as a number of long established, beloved local family businesses, such as Libby’s, and Lauren’s, Rossi’s, and Jack’s are morphed into their corporate counterparts, like Taco Hell and McLauren’s. The ultimate insult is the clearing out of Hendy Woods to create a theme park, a Ferris wheel and roller coaster riven HendyWorld.
The audience is, of course, gasping and booing throughout this desecration. As the lawyers are finishing their presentation, an unearthly apparition appears from behind the curtains, some kind of robotic automaton that purports to be human—you know, one of those corporate “personhoods’? As it cackles about his redevelopment plans for the Valley, after dismissing the lawyers to do the dirty work, Bill Meyer, perplexed stage manager, emerges from the wings wondering what’s happened to the show and Captain Rainbow? He exchanges words with “Mister Number One,” the corporate “person,” and rallies the rest of the crowd, us, as the “Ninety-Nine,” exhorting us to stand up for the “Little Man’. As the crowd stomps and claps rhythmically for “the Little Man,” right on cue, through black-light magic, the fabled Little Man flies in from the wings in super hero garb to do battle with the robotic “empty hunk of greed,” ultimately vanquishing him into smoking rubble, to the delight of the paying customers. “Are you ready for a show?” the Little Man asks as he flies off to other adventures. You betcha.
Let’s afford bows to the players, Keevan Labowitz and Andrea LaCampagne as the convincing corporate weasels, and Justin LaQuai as Mister Number One. They’re really nice people in real life.
The detritus of the opening act having been swept away, the Friday show began with A-level material right off the bat. Steve Derwinski, already renowned as a luthier and ironsmith, now added baritone saxophone to his list of talents, having recently rediscovered the instrument after forty-five years. Stevie D favored the crowd with a jazzy, improvised “Over The Rainbow” on the big horn. Adding to the energy, seven-year-old Lotus was next, making her second Variety Show appearance with an inspired and energetic dance performance. Rescue dog Princess Abby and her human, Kathleen Francis of Clearlake, next shared their story of appearing in the documentary “Worst In Show” and being named World’s Ugliest Dog of 2010 and guesting on the Today Show. Abby was actually kind of cute, and not a bad dancer either, as a charmed audience discovered. Variety Show perennials, The Anderson Valley Community Chorus, directed by Lynn Archambault, sang the old fifties hit “Yakety Yack,” complete with a call-and-response kazoo obligato. Youth was again served, this time with an original poem, The Doughnut Tree, beguilingly delivered by six-year old Willow Thomas, and dedicated to her Grandma.
Riley Lemons was next, showing steady development with her guitar and clear, confident vocals since her well-received debut two years ago at the age of eleven. This time out she sang and played two songs, a Taylor Swift number called “Dear John,” and one called “Heaven” by O.A.R. Emil Rossi, a veteran of the long ago Boont Town Players, delivered an amusing monologue about the “Love Crisis” in the guise of Monsieur Franco, complete with beret and French accent, and then singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with some soft shoe hoofing thrown in. More singing came next, this time from Daisy Mendoza of Ukiah, who sang “Las Laureles” beautifully in traditional dress.
Circus arts have become a Variety Show staple in recent years, and the first such demonstration this year came from Joshua Treespirit who dazzled and mystified us with his “mysticks,” juggling sticks. And what would the Variety Show be without a little accordion? The first half of the Friday show closed with Big Lou, formerly of Those Darn Accordions and currently fronting Big Lou and the Casseroles (and not to mention Miss September in the Accordion Babe calendar) gave us a rousing not-so-double-entendre polka number “It’s Always In The Way.”
During intermission, as they did as the crowd filled in before the show, the Peanut Butter and Jam Band entertained those who hung around inside with an eclectic repertoire that spanned western swing to rock and roll to Thelonious Monk. We’re lucky to live in a place blessed with so many fine musicians, so we give it up here for Lynn Archambault, Dean Titus, Greg Krouse, Rod DeWitt, Dennis Hudson, Chris Rossi, Joe Petelle, and Ron O’Brien. Miss Sue and Lauren Keating contributed some fine vocals, too. For those who chose to spend the intermission in the parking lot, there were fire spinners and other buskers to amuse and entertain.
The second half of the Friday show commenced with “Get Your Act Together,” an elaborate, well coordinated, not to mention very funny, apocalyptic current events pageant from the “Redwood Ridge Road Enforced Group Activity Night Club.” There were a lot of people in this outfit, and some were in disguise, but I did spot Angela, Tanner, Ryan, Cob, Josh, Julieanne, Justin and a few other personages from the deep woods off Mountain View Road in the ensemble.
The raffle drawing was next, a 50-50 despite the efforts of the corporate weasels who conducted the proceedings, with $485 dispensed to the lucky winner on Friday. The Saturday drawing cracked $500 for the first time. On Friday, Otto Frazer was designated to draw the winning ticket. Now sixteen, Otto reprised his belly rolling routine that brought the house down when he first revealed this talent on the Grange stage at the age of three. Let’s acknowledge here the Raffleteers, Yvonne, Taunia, Lauretta, and Otto for hustling those tickets.
On with the show. Sierra Kuny and Gaby McDonald, AV High School students, showed off their hip-hop moves with a dance performance. Powerhouse talent Olivia Allen, already accomplished as an actor, singer, and dancer, was accompanied by Nathan Schenck on guitar while singing “Stars” by the Weepies. This was Olivia’s Variety Show swan song, at least for a while, as she goes off to college and into the world.
Next up was an improv group from Ukiah called the Uncooked Trio who demonstrated comedic dexterity while riffing on suggestions from the audience. This was followed by the return of Anda Jaleo Flamenco, impassioned dancing and guitar playing with Louis and Sally Rohlicek and Tara Blackburn. AV High School was well represented in both night’s programming and one such local luminary, Chris Balson, returning for (by my count) the third straight year with his stand-up comedy stylings, much to the delight of his many followers in the crowd. Building to the Friday night climax, the show continued, first with some speedy and creative poi ball spinning from Anthony Delgado who had previously performed with the Uncooked Trio, followed by an eye-popping display of gymnastic dancing from Seasha Raab, assisted by Patrick Dilley to “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” This led to the rousing conclusion of the Friday night show as the Raging Grannies returned with their socially conscious humor, and pleasant harmonies, as they sang a parody of “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” about the perils of GMOs and pesticides, with the audience drifting home with a song on their lips, “for it’s one, two, three, what are we sprayin’ for?”
Although the Grange was filled for both nights, Saturday boasted a larger, more boisterous house that got into the spirit of things right off the bat. Doug Johnson, of Pepperwood Potters fame, opened the show by accompanying himself on guitar while singing a David Brown song, “I’d Rather Be Watching Your Eyes,” which he had sung some 38 years earlier on the stage of the old Grange Hall. Another energetic dance number followed, this time from Hanna Pantaja, aptly billed as “Hanna Dynamite.” Multi-instrumentalist Joseph Moroni was next, first performing a moving and evocative flute solo, then performing on an exotic, three stringed instrument called a strumstick that sounded something like a Chinese banjo. The AV Elementary School Kids Chorus, ably assisted by Leslie and Michael Hubbert, first made a pitch for their sale of bags of coffee to help fund music in our schools (look for these in the usual places around the Valley) before singing the old standard “Good Morning Blues” (you know, when you wake up and smell the coffee?). The kids were not only cute, but pretty good, too.
We didn’t lose the kids quite yet, as they remained to accompany the next act, William from Sacramento who played guitar and sang the old Kinks Klassic, “Apeman,” while the kids sang and generally acted like monkeys behind him. David Jones, who has appeared before reciting poetry, and once demonstrating tongue twisters, this time read the popular Desiderata, a favorite poem posted on many a dorm room wall about forty years ago. David, just days prior, had his femoral artery surgically removed, but trouped on regardless. In what has to be the line of the Variety Show, Rainbow reported David had refused to beg off, saying “I’ve got forty-seven staples in my leg and I’m ready to go.” Did a nice job on the poem, too. Emma Hanes was next, and like so many of the younger performers, showed marked development from her hip hop dancing debut of last year which was pretty okay to begin with. Her piece was entitled “Hip Hop to Blackout.”
A little thee-a-tuh was next, with stalwarts of the Grange Theatre Guild, Rod and Judy Basehore, Benna Kolinsky, and Ray Langevin performed a lighthearted fantasy scene of conflict resolution among the vegetables, “Garden of Life.” The Guild would have me remind you all that they will be presenting their next production, “Cocktails By Mimi” on April 27 and 28, and May 5 and 6. At the Grange, of course. From the coast, singer and songwriter Brian O’Connor very nicely sang one of his original tunes entitled “We Are The Second Coming.” Closing out the first half was some more spirited terpsichore as the AV Dance Team, led by Marcella Mendoza along with Maggie Diaz, Miguel Carillo, Brenda Quesada, Erich Quesada, Giscla Bercera, and Keily Mendoza, shook, shimmied, leapt, jumped, spun, stomped, and otherwise impressed the assembled with their precise dancing.
The second half of the Saturday show opened with Judy Savely, who again hauled up on the silks and took our breath away by throwing herself around the upper atmospheres of the Grange hall, comically trying to capture a recalcitrant fowl, all to the musical accompaniment of the Hubberts with “Chickens Don’t Roost Too High.” Judy is truly an inspiration to all of us carrying AARP cards. Johnny Blanco returned with his smooth licks and cool dude hat and gave us “Bedraggled Rag” and a jazzy take on an Allan Sherman parody of “That Old Black Magic,” this time a paean to a plastic back scratcher. What could be better than that? How about eight or nine beautiful women in colorful belly dancing attire with a lot of shiny and jingly things on them? That would be Trillium Tribe, who have brought their authentic, well executed traditional middle-eastern dance to the Variety Show several times, and as always left people considering it one of the absolute highlights of the show. They’ve been together for nine years now. After Trillium Tribe came another act from Comptche, Armando and Cater-Pilar, with a four-handed, sometimes twelve-handed comic rendering of “I Only Have Arms For You” in a sketch called “A Solution To The Arms Race.” Another very welcome Variety Show veteran, folklorist and balladeer Holly Tannen roused the fighting spirits of the audience by singing, after a pitch for justice for Julian Assange of Wikileaks, “Who Will Crush The Bastards?” Merriam, Cody, and Sam, otherwise known as Freedom Tickler, gave an inspired musical performance highlighted by Merriam’s powerful vocals. Keevan Labowitz returned in total crazy man mode as the teevee interviewer Drake Gosling, interviewing Tom Gobbler, an authentic strutting, fanning turkey, through an interpreter. The turkey had a lot of ham in him, too, as he and Keevan got a little agitated with each other during the course of the interview. Best animal act at the Variety Show since, since, since Friday night I guess.
Well, it was time to wrap up the 21st edition of the Variety Show and skedaddle down to Lauren’s for the by now traditional Afterglow party. You always want a stunning finish to a show like this and there couldn’t have been a better choice than the Motherland Family Band, with Sara Larkin, Sara Ryan, Chastity, Kyle Madrigal, and Joe LaRusso, who sent the show to a happy conclusion with two songs noteworthy for their beautiful harmonies.
Dozens of people and thousands of hours go into to mounting of the show, and a few have been mentioned but I’ll leave it to someone to write a letter to the paper to thank them all properly, as I don’t want to forget anyone. But it’s a marvelous thing watching this show pull together over a period of six or eight weeks every winter, with all working for the sheer joy of putting on a show. And hell of a show they put on for us.
I’ve been asked to mention that there are still plenty of Variety Show tee-shirts available for sale. They’re only $15 and you can find them at All That Good Stuff. They’re snazzy and cool. Designed by Via Keller. And you’d better buy them or the show may have to go looking for corporate sponsors again next year.