By Alan Prendergast
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For those with less predictable tastes, several avant-garde selections were available, including The Denouement, a thirty-minute piece of "unusual theater" that "takes place in an institution of some type, in which two visitors examine three inmates. Much of it revolves around a white-haired man who sits with his arm in the air because dropping his arm will mean the end of the world. The play ends rather abruptly," the catalogue confessed, "when his arm falls." It was just the right selection for "shock-proof audiences"--or that's how Shubert Fendrich assessed the situation thirty years ago.
But 1966 seems to have had more than its share of shocking drama. In The Cry of Crows, a lovely young girl's life is ruined "by vicious gossip which grows from a chance encounter with an old acquaintance who makes a 'pass' at her in public. The very nature of this type of play makes it somewhat difficult for some audiences to accept," the catalogue warned.
No problem. Pioneer also had children's plays, with the usual complement of talking bunnies and adorable trolls; farces, including The Four-Cornered Triangle, advertised as "an operetta without music for people who can't sing"; and the winner of Shubert's own Best Play of 1965 contest: Not Far From the Giaconda Tree, written by Tim Kelly, who had already written a half-dozen plays for Pioneer and would go on to write more than a hundred more.
In Giaconda Tree, Kelly dealt with the arguably obscure theme of seven Russian princesses living in exile in Israel. It was impressive, but not as impressive as another Kelly skill: He could write with the voice and soul of an eighth-grader--never mind which decade the eighth-grader lived in.
"I don't even know how old Tim Kelly is," Steve Fendrich says. "Maybe mid-fifties? But he's still cranking this stuff out. He thinks like a kid. He even has their sense of humor. Dad recognized his talent right away."
In 1970, when Pioneer was ten years old, Shubert recognized something else: He was bored, a feeling that always acted as a catalyst for change. No longer challenged by the Cody Rustler, he sold the paper to his employees and moved his family to Laramie, where he threw himself into pursuing a master's degree in theater. That was fine with Anne--she decided to get her own master's, in education.
Once they'd earned their degrees, though, the Fendriches decided to move on. "Sometimes I pushed things and had my way," Anne recalls. "After Laramie, I decided we should have an address that would be more conducive to a publisher of plays."
Albuquerque or Denver, she told Shubert. Either town would be big enough and Western enough--and both had the Jewish communities she'd longed for during the Wyoming years. Shubert picked Denver, and Anne picked a house within walking distance of the Jewish Community Center. With the exception of Steve, who walked into race riots on his first day of junior high, the Fendriches were excited about their new hometown. Shubert went to work as an adman. Anne tried teaching, hated it, and decided to put her considerable energies--and her education degree--into Pioneer Drama Service.
"That's when we found our focus," Steve recalls. "It turns out junior-high and high-school kids love farces. We began to find plays with lots of cameo roles instead of starring roles, so that everyone can be someone special. Kids don't like to play serious roles. They like to be goofy. Either Tim figured that out or Mom or Dad did, or they all did it together."
Anne remembers strategy sessions during which they picked apart the standard school productions. "Historical plays," she says. "They don't work. The characters are primarily male--and who shows up for auditions? Girls. Shubert knew that. He was also the first to say that we have to have plays that are actor-proof and director-proof. One light, one set, no curtain, and costumes that are incredibly easy."
Thinking they were on to something, Shubert decided to begin charging royalties for Pioneer's product. Playwright and publisher could both make more money that way, and the total amount a small theater or school would have to pay would still be much, much less than the freight for putting on a successful behemoth such as Fiddler on the Roof or Hello, Dolly. Besides, Shubert liked to think he had some properties that the big New York publishers might never have heard of.
Pioneer's biggest hits, however, might strike them as strangely familiar. "It started with the Fifties phenomenon," Steve says. "We were sitting around the office one day--me and my dad and an editor named Chris Mohr. Grease was really big, and my dad said he wished we could publish something like that, only moral. The whole point should not be that some girl gets laid. And that's how we wrote Ducktails and Bobby Sox. I wrote the lyrics myself. They are extremely mediocre."
Not that it mattered. Since it was first offered in the 1978 Pioneer catalogue, Ducktails and Bobby Sox has been performed more than 2,000 times, at high schools from Tennessee to Tokyo. "It has been incredibly successful," Steve says. "And where is it set? In the soda shoppe, of course. That's just it: the formula. You make it ninety minutes long, you have thirty kids, plus extras--cheerleaders, a love interest, lots of nerds, a motorcycle gang, a football team, lots of characters that can be male or female, always a principal and an assistant principal, and about eight songs. The songs are all in a thirteen-note range that anyone can sing."