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A Quarter Century Of High Art!

There were several important take-aways from the opening skit at this year’s Anderson Valley Variety show, held at the Philo Grange these past Friday and Saturday nights. It’s important to understand that this was the 25th straight year the show has been put on by a somewhat constant, yes constantly evolving, collection of comic, creative crazies. So this was a landmark edition of the show, and an occasion for some serious philosophical soul searching.

First we got some cool history, as co-emcee Captain Rainbow explained some crucial Variety Show history, revealing information for visitors and relative newcomers to the Valley (including your humble reporter). The old grange, a beloved old building itself, had burned down. Money for a rebuild was scarce, to put it mildly, so Valley denizens pitched in and, over a 7-year span of little-by-little stick-to-itiveness, got a new Grange built themselves. Or yourselves, depending on how long you’ve been here. But then, alas, there was no money left to hire a band for a Grand Opening! So in true Little Rascals fashion, the gang decided to put on a show themselves. Voila! The Variety Show was born, and enough fun was had by all to turn the event into an annual affair. Anyway, this was the oral history offered by the good Captain. I make no claims to scholarship.

So all this had put the gang in a humorously contemplative, Rod Serling-like mood. Also, luckily, Mike Crusher (aka Mad Mike) had recently invented a time machine. That was a happy coincidence! Naturally, as per any Variety Show time machine you’ve ever heard about or seen, Mike’s had lots of cuckoo clock chimes and flashy lights and sparkles and streamers. That’s how those time machines do, right?

Anyway, Rainbow gets his wish, which is to go back and see the old Grange building one more time. He is warned not to touch anything. Of course. No one has ever gone back in time without being warned not to touch anything. And no time traveler has ever heeded that warning, either. So what does Rainbow do at the old Grange Building? He puts out the fire with his coat. Then he comes back … time has changed! There is no new Grange Building, just the old one sitting around falling apart. And there is no Variety Show. So Anderson Valley is, naturally, boring! Bill Meyer is boring! Keevan Labowitz is boring! But I wasn’t worried though, you know why? Because Angela DeWitt walks by frowning. When you see Angela DeWitt frowning, you know it’s some unreal, made up, knock hockey. Rainbow knows what he has to do, of course, which is to go back in time again and burn down the old building himself. Irony! Drama!

So history and time are fluid, y’all, and you never know what kind of messed up you-know-what is going to end up as requisite fuel for the events and institutions that become essential to your life and your community. So, as I said, deep philosophy. And also the knowledge that if you’ve had Mike Crusher tinkering with your water softener or some other fancy doo-dad on your property, he’s probably been figuring all along how to turn your appliance item into a time portal. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Good as new,” come to think of it.

At any rate, this is the frame of mind that this year’s opening put show-goers into on both nights of the extravaganza. Nothing says, “Variety Show” like thoughtful introspection. Or is it the other way around?

That skit was the last time Angela was seen without a huge smile on her face. She’d been signed on as Captain Rainbow’s co-host, and her bright, spirited energy helped provide a happy glow, all night long, both nights.

There was a bit of a break in the philosophical considerations when Volunteer Fire Department captains Fal Allen and Kristopher Kellem did a sort of Bizarro Chippendale routine, quickly pulling on their full ensembles of fire fighting gear before pointing out the fire exits. It was a lot of stuff, but all needed. Joking aside, thanks, guys, for everything, and stay safe.

The philosophical time-bending frame of mind flowed back across the room, at least for this observer, when young Willow Douglass-Thomas strode across the stage and to the big white grand piano, an appropriate first act. Willow was a little girl, when she started gracing the Variety Show stage. She’s still a youngster, of course, but no longer so little, and now trying out more sophisticated pieces on the piano. She plays so nicely, and it’s fun to hear her.

I love the courage of these kids (of all ages!) who generously share the progress of their artistry each year. But as for the time machine effect, well, it’s a relativity issue, for sure; the kids are on the move, racing up and whooshing through time, while us older folks (I speak for myself again) feel more like we’re standing still. It’s like having a shooting star zoom up from your blind side and flash across your bow. Then again, I’ve just passed the 60-mark. The 20- and 30-years-olders have, perhaps, a better memory of the time when they’d just become big kids, anxious to hit their teens and then adulthood. You don’t have to be eight years old for 25 years to seem like a giant chunk of time, even if that’s most of your life rather than all of it times two. But imagine, if you will (or if you need to), that 25 years ago you were already an adult. Let’s say you were 35! In one way, that makes 25 years a more manageable chunk of time, not so vast, maybe. But on the other hand, if you’ve already been an adult for 40 years, you might have a firmer understanding of how impressive an undertaking it is to keep an event like the Variety Show going year after year for 25 straight years. Here’s what research shows, for whatever it’s worth: 25 years ago, the first website was built.

There were lots of kids in the early stages of the first night this year. We had Seasha Robb’s stage full of very young dancers, with Seasha out front, in a hilarious boisterous skit that had the kids moving together in fun and impressive style. This being Anderson Valley, the dominant paradigm was subverted among giggles and grins, just the way we like it. Shortly thereafter, it was a happy dose of Panther Pride as the Pop Warner team cheerleaders let us have it with a spirited routine to “Don’t Believe Me, Just Watch.” That football team will have no trouble rolling to victory with funky/rowdy support like this group.

Soon, the Emerald Earthling kids of the Goat Family Circus, Cadence, Zephyr, Garnet, and Alexandra, gave us the tale of a wandering warrior, distraught at not finding a foe to battle, fighting therefore internally so intently that the danger from without, a fearsome, famished lion, was able to sneak up undetected, and the warrior was eaten. The sword fighting was good, and the wisdom unassailable.

A bit more advanced in age, but still young, was Strings Attached – A Youthful Quintet, who treated us to “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” and what sounded like an Irish air I couldn’t place (sorry, guys). What I think I like most about hearing student musicians, in addition to just the fun of the performance itself, is the thought of watching people with, if they stick to it, a whole long lifetime of learning and performance ahead of them. Think how good they’ll all be when they play at the 50th Variety Show!

On Saturday night, the show opened with another youngster we’ve loved to see grow up over the past few years, as Sara Ryan’s daughter, Harvest, supported by her mom, sang, “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber. It’s a song that seems a bit tricky rhythmically, and Harvest made it shine.

Willow was back, along with pal Anika Ellis, storming the stage with a fun and frolicking dance routine, Sky Full of Stars. The routine is fun to watch, of course, and the work that goes into the dance is impressive, but, as always, it’s the smiles that slay me.

And also on Saturday were two young women who are teetering dangerously on the verge of adulthood (Go back! Don’t do it!). Emma Hanes supported by her friend, Sierra Peters, blew the audience away with her funny and powerful singing of “You’ll Be Back” from the musical, Hamilton.

And filmmaker Julia Brock’s movies just keep getting more sophisticated technically and subject-wise. Her scary, clever paranormal romp, Red Lips, was her best Variety Show offering yet.

In between, they let some grownups on the stage, and a dog! Jamie Roberts took us back in time, to the 1930s, an engaging reading of a cowboy poem called The Night Horse. As three cowboys chase a horse with a truck, it is clear that the horse is going to win. It was a reverie on the ending of one era and the coming of another, less satisfying, time, with character and atmosphere a-plenty.

Ernie Pardini also had a poem to offer, a poem he had written himself about the Boonville Lodge Saloon, aka the Bucket of Blood, back when Boonville was more than a little bit wilder and woollier. It was a poem about Ernie’s fistfight with the Devil himself, and I have it on good account from someone who was there that Ernie did indeed catch the spirit of the old joint. And regardless of the time or the place, it must be recognized as the case that not even the Devil himself has license to interrupt a game of 8-ball pool.

A short dramatic performance by Keevan Labowitz and Bernadette Rustuccio of a scene from David Ives’ play, “Sure Thing” ran through all the different ways for two people to meet or not meet in a café in about two minutes’ time. The scene needed nuanced expression and, especially, timing, and the actors accomplished both.

But any reader who knows me will understand in advance that my heart was captivated most completely by the lovely Stephanie Gold and her dog, Yossarian. Stephanie recited “The Purist” by Ogden Nash. Yossarian jumped up at caught a treat when Stephanie said the word, “crocodile.” It was an inspiring cautionary tale about pedantry. The whole Valley will be taking that lesson to heart, you can be sure.

There was more spoken word on Friday night, as well, as Ray Langevin, old Mr. Eleven himself, bravely tried out a new storytelling/comedy routine that fit nicely into our theme of time and perception. “Today is the day we talked about,” Ray assured us with a wink, “when we talked about this day, when we told stories about the future.”

And local historian Jeff Burroughs finished out the night with told some simple but affecting stories about local characters, going back generations, then bringing his stage time into the present day, and bringing Friday night’s show to a conclusion, with a rollicking rock and roll tribute to the most legendary trimmer of them all, Edwina Scissorhands. Here’s hoping Jeff gets himself back in front of a rock and roll band sometime soon.

Saturday night’s spoken word featured Fred Wooley, who’s always good for a fine story, on or off the Variety Show stage, and told the one about Tailor the Sailor, that notorious screw up, who helped Fred and the rest of his merchant marine shipmates look good. Fred swore to me later on that the whole thing was true. He followed Valley senior Billy Owens, whose tall tales included the steelhead that fell through a crack in the bridge and drowned in the river.

Also we had some great unspoken word, as Will Lemon’s mime routine, “The Car,” was a riot. Will’s comic timing, physical dexterity and zaniness had the hall ringing with laughter.

And of course we had a presidential debate—It Makes You Wonder—that in other years could have been an opening skit. Bill Meyer made a great frumpy, grumpy Trump, with Julie Beardsley deadly accurate as Hillary Clinton, Doug Read as FDR, Derek Roseboom as Ghandi and Fred, again, typecast as Will Rogers. Denver was the clear winner and has my vote.

One of the true showstoppers of the weekend, right after intermission on Saturday night, was Jenavieve Snyder, a highschooler living on the coast. She’s been a student at the Mendocino Center for Circus Arts for only a matter of months, but she absolutely dazzled with her acrobatic routine on the aerial ring.

And whoever thought that watching four high school girls and their teacher throwing paint, seemingly haphazardly, onto a canvas spread out on a stage floor could be entertaining, but somehow the Jackson Pollack review, led by instructor Ashley Jones, was just that. I think the entertainment value came from the suspense: what was the thing going to look like? And then when it looked great, we felt rewarded.

Of course there was music galore, song and dance, not just from the kids. On Friday night we had the Seaside String Sisters with a two-song set that included the Dillards’ lovely “Time to Wander.”

Some fantastic African thunder was provided on Friday by Guinean drummer and teacher Amadou and his students. Amadou is a recent arrival in our Valley and is now teaching weekly classes. It’s terrific to get the benefit of new cultures and rhythms in our funky little slice of the cosmos.

After intermission came the Anderson Valley Mothers, returning to the Variety Show after a layoff of several years. This years’ version of the hilarious and impressive dance routine featured Gail Meyer, Susan McClure and Linda Boudoures. It was a something to see these ladies cruising through a tight, spritely routine across Happy Dance, the sultry “What’s the Difference Between Me and You” and for a climax, a super chilling “Thriller.”

Tara Sufiana danced up a Sufi storm, as well. Later, a team of Comptche zanies slowly filled up the stage with saved up, horded up old clothes and other formerly useful items in a seemingly random but entirely creative routine, all the while singing about the dangers of Too Much Stuff. “You can pile it high, but you’ll never be satisfied.” I can dig it.

Also, on Friday night, Holly Tannen, from Mendocino, treated us to her beautiful, solo rendition of “Carry It On,” a beautiful folk song by Gil Turner that resonates with the best of the 60s’ sentiments of determination, defiance and fellowship. It doesn’t hurt at all to go back in time once in a while for a cupful of that resilient potion.

Saturday night brought us our Anderson Valley pals of the AV Chorus, who sang Mozart’s “Peace I Leave with You.” These are folks who get together weekly, just for the fun of singing together, and it’s lovely to hear the product of all that practice camaraderie.

The Ukeladies is also a gathering of friends who get together regularly for music and fun. They had some of the guys from the Ukeholics to help out, too. The song was “Blue Hawaiian Moonlight,” the ladies were singing and slide stepping, and the guys were mugging. It was genial silliness all around, but the trick to making that kind of goofiness more than just camp is the practice and work that produces genuinely good playing and singing. The ladies pulled that off.

Clay Hawkins, who lives in Redwood Valley, gave us a hard dose of silvery blues, courtesy of his slide Resonator guitar. It was a quick, ringing journey down south.

The Dork Side Band was a group of teachers from the high school, Arthur Folz, Matt Bullington, Nate Bublitz, Nadia Berringer and Keevan again, now playing drums. There were dressed up in Day-Glo Star Wars gear and played a spooky “Space Oddity,” a touch frayed at the end, maybe, but still cool.

Of course, the Raging Grannies made their annual visit. What would the variety show be without them? This year we were cheerfully but sincerely warned about the evils of the Dollar Store and the poisoning of oak trees. “Stop the greedy CEOs and send them back to hell!” Amen, sisters.

Next was another of Saturday’s true highlights, the rollicking singing and dancing of the AV New Kids, Sarah, Alice, Melissa, Bryn and Aurelia, dressed in drag, and crashing through New Kids on the Block’s “Step by Step.” It was another time trip! The 80s!

There was an anonymous black light striptease dance by a performer known only as UV Queen and to question perceptions of gender and identity. As glowing clothes came off, piece by piece, the dancer’s characteristics became gradually more indistinct. It was a pleasing puzzle.

The weekends next to last act was the Ukeholics and the Tiny Orchestra of Boonville. We know them so well, and we can’t live without them. This night’s treat was “Through the Roof and Underground” by the New York Gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. When I think “Variety Show,” I think Eastern European NYC punk art chic. No, really, I do.

The weekend’s entertainment came to a grand finale, indeed, with Sambista dancer Carmen and her great quartet of drummers, Carnival Samba. Carmen’s dance was inspirational, and the drummers finally marched the crowd out of our seats and on into the night.

Our time travel round about amidst the past 25 years, and earlier, was over, but now we have another year to journey through, all of us together, until the next Variety Show. That’s the kind of time travel I like best.

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