Forty-eight hours or so before the opening act of this year’s Anderson Valley Variety Show I got a call from Captain Rainbow asking me to handle the review duties for this year’s extravaganza. I consider this a huge honor, especially for a newcomer such as I. After all, the lovely Stephanie and I only initiated our AV presence in 2006, and only claimed full time “You’re Stuck With Us” status five years ago. We were assured that we would easily overcome our “newcomer” status in only one or two short decades. To write a review of the Variety Show this year, of course, one must scramble down into the giant crater left by Bruce Longstreet’s passing. Thanks, there, Captain.
There is actually a point to all this, for as I gradually shifted my Variety Show mind-set from relaxed if engaged audience member to close observer, and as, over the two nights of performances, I sat reflecting while trying to take notes in the dark, I realized that my status as a relatively recent Valley arrival was still coloring my experience of the show. Uniquely among the annual events of our lives here, with my 35 years as a bright-lighter only five years behind me, I still find myself sifting my enjoyment of the Variety Show through my erstwhile city-boy prism. Or, more specifically, trying to imagine what my old friends in San Francisco would make of it all. It’s kind of hard to wrap my brain around that question, though, because the Variety Show, as Emcee Rainbow puts it, is us, a humorous, ribald, touching, creative display of the love, whimsy, concerns and community consciousness that drive us, here. And while the show is presented by a hard-working group of volunteers and a revolving roster of obliging performers, it is only made viable by our interest in each other.
You wouldn’t get such an event in a city. There’s too much else to do on a Saturday night to make sitting on folding chairs to watch other people’s kids dance a Cinderella ballet scene very appealing, for one thing. And where would you pull together a group of people who are, for better or worse, so familiar with each other’s lives and back stories, the context that puts the humming current into the entire proceedings. My imaginary visiting friend wouldn’t have been able to enjoy much, because I would not have been able to resist whispering in his ear a whole bunch of the time to fill him in.
Take Judy and Rod Bashore’s turn on stage on Saturday night, singing their humorous and charming ditties about pig mortality and other aspects of farm life, all while Judy was, of course, appareled in a cow costume, bulging udders and all.
“So that’s Rod, a life-long theater person who for years ran the local amateur theater branch of the local theater group. And then he had to step away from that when he was laid low for a good long while by a rough case of bone cancer. Just seeing him up and around and with that smile back on his face is something that people are pleased about. And his wife, Judy, is one of the sweetest people anybody knows. So that’s what’s so cool about their act.”
“Would you shut up?”
And it would go like that through enough of the acts that my friend would eventually get up and move.
The Variety Show’s relevance to the overall life of the Valley was underscored explicitly this year. The show’s producers made an astute decision to use their bully pulpit to emphasize the financial plight of the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show, which has lost its state funding and is in danger of closing. The video opening both nights, in which a frantic Captain Rainbow raced about the Valley on his bicycle, a tuxedoed Paul Revere sounding the alarm about the Fair’s situation to human and animal denizen alike, struck a balance of entertainment, corniness and
education value. The delivery was funny, but the message was simple and essential. “We could really lose the fair.” That message was expanded upon on both nights by a live editorial from Rainbow: Go to planning meetings, offer expertise and ideas, participate in Fair events.
As important as that message is, though, the real theme of the Variety Show was, as always, less overt. It is the simple presentation of Valley denizens onstage. Anderson Valley, this is your life. One of the beauties of Valley life is the frequent and organic intermingling of generations in social gatherings of all sorts. It’s something that is sometimes taken for granted here, but shouldn’t be. As always, this feature of our community was reflected by a smooth interweaving of kids, teens, and adults of all ages over the course of the shows.
So it was fitting that the first act of Friday night’s show was a dance routine choreographed and performed by sixth-grader Hanna Woolfenden. The smile she beamed as she danced, and danced very nicely, provided the best possible opening for the two nights. I thought at the time, as Hanna’s happy dancing and unaffected smile relaxed away a week of cares for me, that the upcoming performers would be hard pressed to top what Hannah was presenting. Honestly, in the early years before I really got what was happening around me, I sort of felt that the child acts were something that had to be endured for the sake of the parents, to give the kids a chance to be onstage, and maybe even to fill up the schedule. But now I sometimes think that everything else going on at these shows is more or less an excuse to get to watch the kids perform.
I got the same feeling on Saturday night when a cast of beautiful youngsters giggled their graceful way through a brief scene of Prokofiev's “Cinderella Suite” ballet (I had no idea whether the fact that Cinderella’s slipper got left behind on stage when they exited represented some deep symbolism or was simply a prop left behind), and when Leslie Hubbard’s Kids Chorus offered up their festive number in Spanish, complete with enthusiastically pantomimed instrumentals.
Just as much fun as seeing the young kids is getting a look at their older brothers and sisters as they push their way into their teen years while gradually gaining control over their artistic voices. Those talents get honed each year, often in front of us, until finally we witness these youngsters stepping into adulthood. Julia Brock, singing the a lovely song called “Bells” and Riley Lemons’ tough and sassy country singing represented that early stage of promise. Senior Raina Wallace, another fine country crooner, and recent grad Rachel Juster, prowling the stage with an affecting version of Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home,” showed off their clearly adult yet still fresh talents.
In addition to this satisfying supply of young singers over the two nights, we were treated to a short set by high school senior Chris Balsam, whose talents and confidence as a comedian have been evolving before our eyes over the past few years. Chris seemed to mean it when he said, “I don’t know why you guys laugh sometimes.” Because, Chris, you take chances onstage that we appreciate, that’s why. Because your jokes are not standard set-up/punch line gags, but instead are acute, dry observations about things that we can see, too. Your description of the field of garbage left behind by Sierra Nevada Festival revelers and your reaction to it, for example. That was a reaction that I could imagine having, too, and it was funny. So that’s why we laugh.
The AV Dance Team danced their hearts out, as always . And the science kids, in the form of the Boonville Space Program, launched rockets and weather balloons from the parking lot just before intermission on Saturday night. So music, comedy and blast offs. This place grows some cool kids.
But, obviously, the Variety Show is not just a kids’ act fiesta. We’ve got a ton of high-quality talent around here, and happily the kind of draw that brings out-of-town talent into the mix each year, as well. So after Hannah danced and the sparkling Karen Bailey’s faux hilarious Moondrop Earthchild faux hippie reminder to turn off our cell phones, our friends and teachers Leslie and Michael Hubbard sweetly serenaded the crowd with a pair of lovely Puerto Rican folk songs.
The music stayed festive and varied during the two nights. Big Doug Johnson provided a personal treat for me with an ambitious solo version of a difficult Gordon Lightfoot song, Canadian Railroad, a song I loved as a kid and haven’t thought of in 30 years. Jose Romantico returned to the Variety Show stage for a rousing version of a familiar Mexican folksong, and I have to say that I would love to see a greater Mexican presence onstage in future shows. And country/blues singer Johnny Blanco captured the crowd with his strong but understated stage presence.
Sara Ryan opened the show on Saturday night singing, with her young daughter, Harvest, John Prine’s “Fish and Whistle.” That, too, was a great way to start an evening. the flow of joy between mother and daughter was a delight to experience. Cute is cool when comes from the soul. Later in the evening, Sarah returned with her friend Sarah Larkin. These two now perform as (what else?) The Sarahs, and they are in fact readying a CD for imminent release (release party at Lauren’s this coming Saturday night, in fact). Their performance nudged the evening one more level up the excellence scale and drew successful calls for an encore. These are all our neighbors, our pals, the folks we see around the place regularly. For some of us they’re the folks we hang out with. This weekend they offered their time and talent and energy in an almost offhand way. “Yeah, I’m here. Sure, I’ll sing for you.”
Miss Vera Nesson, well into her 90s, played some fancy stride piano—“Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “In the Mood”—on Friday night. And when Barbara Lamb led the Flaming Grannies through a blazing rendition of “Red Hot Momma” on Saturday night, the crowd had a blast. And the cheering wasn’t because the Grannies were a trio of cute senior citizens, but because they were good, and they were funny. And because we all appreciated the notice they delivered that life stays bothered, maybe, but also hot and even hunky all the way through, especially if we stay together. That’s what I got from it, at least, in contemplating the continuum from the kids to the grannies. Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole thing. Maybe it’s just a bunch of people of different ages taking turns onstage. But, anyway, that’s not how it all came across to me.
Of course it’s not all music, this show. There was Jamie Roberts on Friday night with his mind-boggling recitation, with nary a slip, of a very long, very involved cumulative tongue-twister that he said was a long-ago radio announcer’s test. Jamie is, in fact a radio guy, host of KZYX’s Radio Gram, so he ought to know. And speaking of radio guys, Jamie’s spoken-word performance on Friday was balanced on Saturday night by friend Fred Wooley, host of the Sunday afternoon Audible Feast on the Big Z, who offered up a hilarious shaggy dog story in his best Cajun accent.
And then there were the acrobats. Holly Newstead went up on the ring on Friday night and Bones Newstead handled the ropes on Saturday night. These are people who make your jaw drop with their strength and dexterity and fearlessness. And they make you jealous for the same reasons. They don’t mean to, but they do. They are from Circus Mecca in the almost Anderson Valley town of Fort Bragg, because every community, as is well known, needs a Center for Circus Arts. Not every community has one, though, but we do.
And speaking of circuses, we had a couple of unicycle cut ups from the outfit Clowns Not Bombs, all the way up from Berkeley.
As both nights opened with the freshness of youth, both ended with a salvo of mature and developed artistry. On Friday night, Mitch Holman, our famous rock and roller, let a raucous space-rock trio, A Dream, to bring down the curtain, then played late so the kids could dance. On Saturday night we were treated to the sublime skills of world-ranked tango dance team Miribar and Michael. Their grace and smooth athleticism were astounding. Their routine was awe inspiring. It seemed to me, in my perhaps over-worked imagination, like the world coming to Anderson Valley with a closing benediction. It was hard to imagine anything topping this art for a grand finale.
Kudos to the tireless and creative crew of volunteers for pulling together still another weekend’s Variety Show. Thanks to all the performers, too. Thanks, even, to Captain Rainbow for putting me in harm’s way by asking me to write this up this ramble. I don’t know if I’m still a newcomer around here. I probably am. But I’m starting to get the picture, I think. One thing, though. Sometimes I wonder whether the people around here actually realize how cool the Variety Show is. As somebody seeing it with, relatively, fresh eyes, I can tell you. It’s very cool.