Twenty Years Old, Grange Variety Show The Best Ever
by Bruce Longstreet, March 10, 2011
Jews harps, kazoos, and accordions. The county’s biggest oak dance floor and the world’s smallest cow. A Medicare-eligible woman hanging upside down from the ceiling and pre-pubescent divas with broken hearts. Bearded ballerinas. A show that began with a trunk full of ancient magic and closed underwater, steam punk style, this annual confluence of talent, weirdness, and shameful exhibitionism known as the Anderson Valley Grange Variety Show celebrated its 20th anniversary this past Friday and Saturday evenings. With as many souls as the Fire Chief would allow shoehorned into the Grange Hall on both nights, some witnesses felt that this was the best pair of shows ever. And that’s saying something.
When the old grange hall burned down, 1985 I do believe, the Variety Show was conceived as a fundraiser to help pay for the new building, which is now the venerable and hallowed hall that is the true community resource we know and love. Assumedly the building is long since paid for, but thankfully, the show has gone on and on and has become a beloved institution. Year after year it continues to astonish and amaze, and reinforces our conviction that we live in one of the most blessed places on earth.
To kick off the 20th Anniversary show, Captain Rainbow and his familiar tuxedo greeted the audience and indicated an old steamer trunk on the stage that, we were told, was on the stage at the very first show and was about the only item that survived the 1985 fire intact. Just as it was 20 years ago, it was opened to start the 2011 edition, and from it emerged a panoply of former hosts and co-hosts of the show, or as the offstage announcer put it, “a whole host of co-hosts” to take part in an awards ceremony, a la the Oscars, in recognition of this momentous event. These included Charlotte Triplett, Doug Read, Patty Liddy, Nancy Gowan, Kevin Jones, Karen Bailey, and via ‘live satellite hookup from New York’, Russell Meyer, Jesse Wakeman, and Gabe Shapiro. We also saw, via video tape recaps from past shows, clips of the departed Bill Dawson and Wayne Ahrens. Amy Bloyd was brought out not only to present the awards, but also to deliver the first scripted F-Bomb in Variety Show history. The co-hosts vied for lesser prizes, such as “most pregnant” host ever (Doug and Charlotte tied), “best fishnet hose” (Nancy and Patty tied), and “best hair” (Kevin and Karen — go figure). All the while Captain Rainbow was alternately trying to horn in on the prizes, at one point displaying his own fishnets, and chortling that the big statuette on the table was clearly meant for him. Just as he was being announced as the winner of the greatest host of all time, Charlotte pulled the plug on the sound system in a fit of exasperation at the Captain’s egotism and preening, and she and the other co-hosts, at Amy’s suggestion that they ‘stuff his ass in the trunk’, did just that and dispatched Rainbow to the outer darkness, or possibly back to Sri Lanka. The six hosts remaining on stage then began a catty battle for dominance over who would actually host the show instead of the banished Rainbow. It became humorously evident, to both the audience and hosts alike, that they really didn’t have any clue as to what they were doing. “Does anybody know how to start this thing?” was the cry of despair from the stage and at this cue (at least on Saturday night) El Capitan came flying on wires from the ceiling over the audience, across the stage and crashing through the large Oscar backdrop, emerged none the worst for the wear to show us “how to start this thing.” “Are You Ready For A Show?” he shouted, as he has for most of the last twenty years and just as predictably Anderson Valley was.
The Friday lineup kicked off with longtime Variety Show favorites, Billy Owens and Sheila Hibbs performing as the Okie Hoedown and ripping through an old-timey “Here Rattler Here,” followed by Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’. Before leaving the stage, Billy gave us one of his signature train whistle blasts to appreciative applause as we all settled down for a great show. Joe Petelle took a break from his trombone chores with the pit band, fearlessly soloing on jew’s harp, singing verses of “Jenny” between twangy obligados.
Speaking of the pit band, formally The Peanut Butter and Jam Band, as usual they created a festive atmosphere during the pre-show and intermission periods and accompanied a number of acts as well. A veritable who’s who of the Valley’s go-to musicians, we were entertained throughout both shows by Lynn Archambault, Chris Rossi, Rod DeWitt, Dean Titus, Greg Krouse, Dennis Hudson, and the aforementioned Joe Petelle.
Starting this way sets the bar pretty high for the other musical acts…well, maybe not the jew’s harp…but Friday’s show featured another half dozen knock out singing and musical specialty acts. Eleven year old Riley Lemons was back, another year of guitar studies under her belt, confidently accompanying her lovely voice as she performed a couple of songs, one by Taylor Swift. Clearly, her posse was in the house judging by the appreciative squeals and whistles of her peer group in the crowd. Maybe the confidence and steady year-to-year improvement of the younger performers is the underlying theme of the show. Always fun, Leslie Hubbert’s Anderson Valley Kids After School Chorus entertained with their customary verve and enthusiasm in a song with some helpful advice on table manners and etiquette and a couple of kazoo choruses thrown in for good measure. (I just knew that after we had jew’s harping, kazoos couldn’t be far behind). Also, Bob Gardner was back after a hiatus of several years to demonstrate his progress as a neophyte guitarist and perhaps inspiring some of us older dogs to remember that there’s always time to learn a new trick or two.
And while the oldsters are learning new tricks, it’s always inspiring to watch the development of the younger talent in the Valley as a teenage choral ensemble from SPACE in Ukiah, including the Valley’s Olivia Allen, and calling themselves “Breath,” really nailed their number, impressing with their clear, beautiful voices and spot-on harmonies. The Valley’s resident rock star, and veteran Variety Show soundman Mitchell Holman, sang and played acoustic bass on two of his own compositions, one written thirty years ago and the other just recently. Accompanying with lovely harmonies were Sarah Larkin and Jennika, who also played rhythm guitar and violin respectively. A polished, professional turn. Another couple of real pros, Donny and Debbie of Yorkville who call themselves The Thorn Petals played two numbers showing off Debbie’s soulful vocals and Donny’s acoustic guitar pyrotechnics.
As always, comedy runs throughout the shows, and Friday night included a well received monologue delivered by Barbara Lamb relating to various parts of her body being stolen and replaced by someone else’s. It seemed like many of the audience related to this strange phenomenon judging from the laughter. Chris Balson, one of the stars of the recent theatrical production of The Breakfast Club, bravely assumed one of the hardest tasks in all of show biz, stand-up comedy, with his routine drawing favorable reactions from the large force of high school kids in the crowd. J.J. CrashBang, whom I hear is a juggling teacher at Camp Winarainbow, with perfect aplomb delivered a comic magic act, tearing up a newspaper and somehow miraculously getting it all back together just as his music ended.
And Captain Rainbow’s perpetual quest for animal acts was not in vain this year as we were favored with an appearance, honestly, folks, of the Guinness Book of World Records certified tiniest cow in the world, a miniature Brahma named Rati who took a bow on stage.
Consistently strong musical acts were the hallmark of this year’s shows, but that’s not to stay that dance and bodies otherwise in motion were to be denied. The Friday night displays of grace and movement ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Trillium Tribe, a troupe of belly dancers from the coast ensorcelled us all with their sensual and sinewy gyrations, colorful costumes, shining jewelry, and finger cymbals. “Les Petites Fleurs” was a semi-serious ballet vignette performed mostly by residents of Emerald Earth. Mica was the lead male dancer and I regret that I don’t know the prima ballerina’s name, but they did the best they could to execute their steps while three thick legged, bearded ballerina’s in tutus, Patrick, Tom, and co-host Kevin, galumphed around behind them to great comic effect. That would be the ridiculous part I mentioned. The rest was mostly sublime. Like Judy Stavely from Comptche, 65 years old we were told who entered the scene from the rear of the hall, confused and late in taking her place on the stage as the violinist while band mates Michael and Leslie Hubbert and Miel Newstead and Holly Newstead waited more or less patiently. As she doddered her way to the stage she was momentarily distracted by the bolts of silk hanging from the ceiling, and on which we had witnessed many feats of daring-do in Variety Shows past. Struck by inspiration, Judy shed her dowdy old-woman garb to reveal leotards and she hoisted herself up on the silks and thrilled us with dangerous-looking twists, turns, and gravity defying suspensions. She concluded by forming a sling chair out of the silks, reclining gracefully, and playing her violin along with the marvelous musicians on the stage. SPACE kids were back with a troupe calling themselves “Feat of Freedom,” performing interpretive dance with confidence and skill. The lovely ladies of “Andajaleo Flamenco” returned for another display of this classic dance, and raised blood pressures with the passion and precision of their art.
And let’s not forget The Mothers, Linda Boudoures, Gail Meyer, and Susan McClure, a Variety Show staple for the whole twenty years, returning to shed the dingy feathers of their hausfrau personas to shake some righteous booty in their little black dresses to such numbers as “Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This.” They closed the Friday night show and it goes without saying they brought the house down.
For the raffle drawing on both nights, Rainbow was joined on stage by the lovely ticket selling maidens, Yvonne Dunton, Loretta Houck, and the Queen of the Raffle, Taunia Green. The winning ticket was selected by Russell Meyer on Friday, and Jesse Wakeman on Saturday, both by “live satellite hookup” from New York City (huh?), somehow reaching across the void of 3,000 miles and getting their mitts into the squirrel cage full of tickets. The winner of close to $600 on Friday was Variety Show house manager Andy Jones (hmmmmmm) and on Saturday it was the partner of co-host Karen, Jason Strazzobosco (another hmmmmmm). For Jason’s part, he is using half the money to travel to visit his mother, recently fallen ill, and the rest he is donating to the AV Senior Center.
On both nights the show took a time-out to pay tribute to Tom Smith, who touched many lives throughout the Valley in any number of activities and endeavors, but was also a major guiding force in mounting the Variety Show year after year. Tom, who was tragically killed in a traffic accident last year, was honored in a brief film showing highlights of on-stage appearances and backstage trouble-shooting and problem solving. With Tom’s own commentary about the show as soundtrack, it was a moment in the show that was both poignant and whimsical.
It’s dangerous to try to acknowledge the production and backstage crew, which Tom Smith anchored for many years, for fear of leaving out a key player but a round of applause may be proffered here for Bill Meyer, the Busby Berkeley of Boonville, Mark Pittman, Jonesy DeWolfe, Robyn Spector, Mitchell Holman, Mike Crutcher, Tim Glidewell, Gail Meyer, Via Keller, Eric Frey, Jimmy On-The-Spot, and…and…aw hell, I was writing notes in the dark and their were so many names but these and several others contributed mightily to everyone’s enjoyment of the show. Outstanding job, everyone!
For the Saturday show there was some snappy dancing as well. Who isn’t happy to see The Blossoming Ballerinas? Back once more, and featuring some of the Valley’s cute little kids jete-ing, plie-ing, and entrechating all over the place. Keeping with the theme of youthful dance performances we also had a hip-hop interpretive dance presented by Emma Jean to a Lady Gaga song and a wildly energetic turn by the AV Dance Team who interpreted “Evolution of Dance” taking us, literally, step by step from Elvis through Michael Jackson and MC Hammer and others whom I’m not hip enough, nor hop enough, to recognize their music. As with the night before, Saturday also had another stunning display of Flamenco (although I’m certain co-host Kevin Jones said “Flamingo” a couple of times in introducing the act) with “Los Duendocino” tattooing the stage with percussive heels in this intense and melancholy dance form. The costuming was, as always, elaborate and beautiful and Eli Donahue’s superlative flamenco guitar playing is something we’ve missed for too many years from the Grange stage.
I don’t suppose there are many places where the local cop gets a thunderously warm round of applause, but that’s exactly what happened when resident Deputy Sheriff Craig Walker took to the stage. As county budget restrictions not only imperil his position, but the elimination of his canine partner as well, Craig was surprised to be presented with a new replacement dog, a fluffy pink French poodle by the name of Fifi, who promptly sprang into action by apprehending a purse snatcher lurking at the far edge of the stage.
Circus arts have been flourishing on the Variety Show stage in recent years, and we had a large dollop on Saturday night as most of MECA (Mendocino Circus Arts) displayed their diverse and eye-popping talents. Bones Newstead and son Kai again wowed with their well-articulated routines on the silks, Holly Newstead likewise impressed with her demonstration of hoops acumen, and younger son Max showed the circus gene runs deep with some difficult gymnastic and tumbling maneuvers. The Newsteads were joined by fellow MECAns, John LaCampagne who juggled clubs while dancing, and son Mateo pogo-ed energetically while juggling floating kerchiefs. For the last two years, Mateo has bounced on his pogo stick without pause from the high school parking lot to the Fairgrounds grandstand during the Fair Parade, a distance of a mile or so. You can’t keep a good kid down. Or up. Or down. Or up.
Theatre arts were also represented this year with some of our younger thespians, Maxance and Mathis Weyrich, and some of their cohorts whose names, alas, I did not catch, performed an amusing pantomime in which a patient in a doctor’s waiting room begins to sympathetically exhibit the symptoms of the several patients in to see the doctor before him, until he passes out cold when the last patient to enter is a pregnant woman.
But as with Friday, the Saturday night show was heavily weighted towards musical performances and that is certainly not a complaint. Olivia Allen was back for her third (by my count) appearance in two nights, this time as a solo act, singing a ballad from Phantom of the Opera as Lynn Archambault accompanied on piano. Keep an eye on this young talent. It’s clear that she has natural gifts, but it is also clear that she has been working hard to develop them to their fullest as those who have watched her talents grow from year to year can plainly see. Lollywagon, sometimes known as David Durette, presented another of his quirky, slightly askew poem/song/story/monologues about Whirly Girl, accompanying himself on upright bass. I love this act! The Boonville Hillbillies were also on the bill, with longtime Variety Show regulars Jimmy Humble, Charlie Hochberg, and Brian Wood singing the amusing story of Boonvilly Willy and Kitty from the City. We also heard from The Raging Grannies, a number of women of a certain age who rocked the house with a new-fashioned version of “Little Old Lady From Mendocino.” Rachel Juster, another local young lady with a big clear voice and loads of talent sang an emotive, message song “If I Were A Boy.” Emil Rossi, who has trod the boards in Valley probably as long as anyone, returned to the Variety Show stage to revive the classic “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof, complete with appropriate Russian peasant costume. The Valley warmly welcomed back Maria Villeboy and Catfish Jack whose presence and talents we’ve missed around these parts as they decamped for Austin, Texas for a spell but have returned to live a little nearer to us in the Russian River Valley. Maria’s powerful voice and Jack’s harmonica virtuosity took us through two numbers, including “I’m Leaving Austin Tomorrow.” Sharon Garner sang the poignant Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace” to Mary Aigner’s piano accompaniment, and the Anderson Valley Community Chorus, another Variety Show perennial, gave us a charming medley of Beatles songs. Holly Tannen, well-known coast folklorist and balladeer, sang a topical song accapella called “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth” about the power of the internet to bring about social change.
We also heard from Big Lu, formerly of Those Darn Accordions and currently fronting Big Lu and the Casseroles, resplendent in green and gold native costume, tore through “The Happy Wanderer,” even getting the audience to lustily sing along with the Val-de-ri, Val-de ra-ha-ha-ha” parts all the while ripping through some wicked accordion riffs.
It was the last two acts of the Saturday night show, however, that left the audience dumbstruck. First, we heard Sarah Larkin, Sarah Ryan, and Dwn Marshall in beguiling gowns and coiffures, blending their beautiful voices together for an acapella medley of 60’s girl group standards such as “Chapel of Love” and “One Fine Day” and really tearing up Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” and a few Motown classics. It was fun to hear those old chestnuts, and we thrilled to the exquisite harmonies these singers put forth. Their performance was right on the money. This was a grand lead-in to the ultimate act of the night, the cherished closing spot of two nights of more than forty performances. None other than The Ukeholics, Denver Tuttle, co-host Doug Read, Henry Hill, and Dennis Hudson who have been delighting Valley audiences and gatherings for several years now with their ukulele song stylings and mirthful stage antics. We know ‘em and love ‘em, of course, but what happened next absolutely blew the roof off of the house. Through wildly inventive lighting, video and audio effects, and surrealistic props, an underwater world was presented on stage before our eyes that made one feel as if they were themselves submerged at the bottom of the ocean or perhaps in a well appointed aquarium. Sea creatures, including a prominent octopus floated about in the briny deep. In the midst of this a steam punkish submarine began its wobbly way through the undersea world before landing at the bottom, where it disgorged, one by one, the Ukeholics in tophats and Victorian formal garb. Once assembled they promptly struck up “Octopus’s Garden,” singing and plunking all the while in this wonderful undersea world, with Denver at one point performing a xylophone solo on a convenient fish skeleton while Dennis similarly employed a passing squid for an upright bass. It was like seeing a live action cartoon right before your eyes. A triumph. Of the many visually stunning acts over the past twenty years, it will be hard to find a topper to this. But who knows? As they used to say in Brooklyn, Wait ‘til next year!