The Show Must Go On
Enter MRS. GILCHRIST (a middle-school drama teacher, snapping fingers in "showbiz" style).
MRS. GILCHRIST: Students, wake up! I need to see action! I need to see movement!
Scene: It is 7:20 a.m. at the Flood Middle School auditorium in Englewood. Rehearsal will last exactly 45 minutes. This is no time for yawning, slouching or scratching.
MRS. GILCHRIST: Come on, people. (Snap, snap!) Let's take it from the opening song.
The opening song--as well as the rest of the two-act, ninety-minute drama--takes place at Pete's Luncheonette, a squeaky-clean junior-high hangout that has suddenly turned very, very strange. Crackling radio signals emanate from what looks like a lava lamp, stage left. A four-foot-tall gangster and his girlfriend stop by to extort money from Pete, and thay start a flood by turning on the washroom faucets. There is nothing, apparently, that Pete can do about this, or about his overbearing mother, or about the sudden appearance of Mongo, a creature from the center of the earth who sucks knowledge right out of kids' brains.
GIRL ONE: Nothing seems normal!
GIRL TWO: No telling what will happen!
BOY ONE: The whole world seems topsy-turvy!
ENSEMBLE (singing): Strange things are happenin' everywhere! Strange things are happenin' everywhere!
Choreography for the "Strange Things Are Happening" number is simple: One-two-three-CROUCH; one-two-three-LEAN. But everyone in the house will get a good view of all fifty kids in the chorus line, which is an absolute necessity if you are going to put on Little Luncheonette of Terror and put it on right.
"The show opens in three weeks," Karen Gilchrist says, at 8:05 a.m., with rehearsal over and the cast on its way to the first aca-demic class of the day. "We only get to rehearse twice a week, but it's amazing what these kids will accomplish in the last week. You may have noticed--we exclude no one. I have sixth-graders standing up there like zombies, and eighth-graders who can do anything. We will pack this house."
This is not just because Little Luncheonette of Terror, now in its third reprisal at Flood Middle School, strikes the exact farcical tone beloved by middle-schoolers everywhere, but also because Gilchrist has a reputation for putting on some of the best junior-high entertainment in the city. Honored last year by the Colorado Association for Middle Level Educators, she stages two full-length musicals each year, as well as melodrama workshops, an evening of mystery dinner theater and a Shakespeare unit. And all this production from a small-town Oklahoma girl who began her entertainment career playing French horn in the local pit orchestra.
Gilchrist came to Flood fifteen years ago, with plans no more grandiose than organizing a choir and getting the kids to practice their band instruments regularly. "But then our principal said, 'How about a play?'" she recalls.
Eager but clueless, Gilchrist contacted a local company called Pioneer Drama Service and was connected to its founder, Shubert Fendrich. "He told me to come on over," Gilchrist remembers. "They had a little hole-in-the-wall office on Colorado Boulevard, with plays stacked up to the ceiling. Shubert knew every one of them and was extremely anxious to please. He gave me a pile of twelve scripts."
Gilchrist ended up producing a musical called Drabble, based on the cartoon character. "It worked," she says. "But then, Shubert always had a real sense of what would work for me."
Although Shubert Fendrich died in 1989, the show must go on--and today Pioneer Drama Service is the nation's top-grossing publisher of middle-school, high-school and community-theater plays, thanks to the efforts of Shubert's widow, Anne, son Steve and daughter-in-law Deb.
Gilchrist remains one of the family's most loyal customers. "They'll always talk to me on the phone," she says. "Deb Fendrich has a genius for knowing what play we should do next. She'll say, 'No, that's too mature for your kids.' Then she'll say yes to something else."
Like Ducktails and Bobby Sox, a Fifties romp written by Shubert Fendrich himself. Like Gone With the Breeze, a sweeping drama about the filming of a Scarlett O'Hara-style story. Like the patriotic World War II-era Kilroy Was Here, complete with jitterbugs and bebop numbers written by composer Bill Francoeur of Longmont.
"All the Pioneer plays have lots of parts for all the kids to play, and they're mostly equal," Gilchrist says. The same cannot be said for, say, The Sound of Music. "We could never afford the royalties on that, anyway," she adds. "Besides, there's heavy romance. The kids would be so uncomfortable with that."
Pioneer Drama Service would never do anything to make kids feel uncomfortable--any more, that is, than the kids already are when they take the stage. Pioneer's hundreds of middle-school offerings are carefully tailored to fulfill needs more specific than even parents of twelve-year-olds might guess. They're filled with that particular brand of seventh-grade humor: spritely, stupid--goofy, even. There is a break every seven minutes--as often as commercials interrupt TV programming. Lighting is no more complicated than the on/off switch at the average middle-school "cafetorium." Same with the set--there is usually just one, preferably a luncheonette or soda shoppe. And the cast must take into account the fact that four times as many girls as boys show up for auditions. Plenty of parts can be written unisex--e.g., Police Officer, News Stand Proprietor, Junior High School Youth. And don't forget cleanliness. No dirty words, no dirty thoughts, no dirty concepts.
For example, here's a snippet of Act One, Scene Five of Kilroy Was Here, written by Pioneer's most prolific playwright, Tim Kelly:
ANGIE (a USO hostess): Good news! They deliv-ered the bananas! Banana splits in the soda bar!
VOICES: Wow! banana splits!
Just like home!
Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry!
I could eat six or seven all by myself.
"We did Kilroy last spring as an all-school unit," Gilchrist remembers. "The play was somewhat deeper than Little Luncheonette of Terror, and everyone in the school was involved. We invited grandparents and people in the community, and the last big number--a wonderful patriotic, rousing number called 'We Are One,' but it has 'America the Beautiful' woven into the middle of it--well, there were tears in the audience."
Pioneer Drama Service started as just another one of Shubert Fendrich's hobbies.
"Life with Shubert was never, never dull," says Anne, his widow. "He was my creative pragmatist. He would get suddenly bored and have to find something new to do."
He always found it.
"Our basement," says Steve, prompting his mother.
"Oh, yes, there are all those trays with Marilyn Monroe lying on them nude," Anne says. "I don't even remember what he ordered those for. Maybe now they're worth money? Late in his life, I gave Shubert a wine-tasting class for a present. When he died, there were more than 250 bottles in that basement."
"And the mail-order novelty business," Steve recalls. "Things like plastic ice cubes with flies in them."
"Oh, those are still down there," Anne says. "What wasn't he into? Well," she decides, "there was nothing temperate about him."
Anne and Shubert met in Los Angeles, where she'd grown up and he was attending business school. After their marriage in 1950 the Fendriches moved to Shubert's hometown of Portland, Oregon, where he went to work in the family furniture store--which, almost immediately, wasn't interesting enough for Shubert. He found the brand-new subject of gerontology much more intriguing. "He got a Social Security Administration job in Billings, Montana," Anne recalls. "We moved. Six months later there was a reduction in force, and that was the end of that job. For a while, he started an insurance company."
When that paled, Shubert contacted an employment agency, where an astute job counselor asked him which courses he'd liked best in college.
"Sociology, theater, English," Anne remembers. "What he liked least, it turned out, was business. So she found him a job as a radio-station copy writer in Cody, Wyoming. It was a small town, but not lacking in culture."
The Fendriches quickly became enmeshed in what there was of it. Shubert joined the Cody community theater, where he found success as a melodrama villain. Soon he was writing his own melodramas, and he directed Anne in her first (and only) stage appearance, as "a French maid with a phony French accent" in a one-act farce. Anne hated the stage fright.
But her husband loved the theater. Often Anne would find herself sitting in the audience of yet another melodrama, written by and starring Shubert and featuring the amateur actors of Cody. "Being the straight man in the family, I never could see how the actors would ever pull it off," she says. "Rehearsals drove me crazy. I stopped going. Then I'd go to opening night, and everything would be fine in front of an audience."
Shubert was hooked. "Soon," Anne says, "he decided that what the world needed was a publisher of non-royalty, one-act plays." More specifically, the world needed non-royalty, one-act plays that community theaters in small towns such as Cody could put on cheaply and easily. But appropriate one-acts--affordable and with just the right, light touch--were hard to find. So in 1960 Shubert placed a "writers wanted" ad in a playwriting magazine, picked the best ones he received, bought a mailing list and started Pioneer Drama Service.
For the first fifteen years, Pioneer was strictly not-for-profit. Steve and his sister, Karen, would come home from school to find stacks of catalogues piled around the living room and know that they'd be spending the evening pasting on mailing labels. When Shubert left the radio station to take over publication of the Cody Rustler, a local shopper, he gained access to a printing press, and the family started printing Pioneer's catalogues, too.
"Which plays were successful? Very often, not the kind of plays I like to read," Anne remembers. "I would find plays I thought were just beautiful, and no one would buy them." A Pioneer catalogue from the mid-Sixties, however, makes the Cody theater scene sound quite impressive: "If your travels lead you to Yellowstone Park, we hope you'll stop by and pay us a visit," it reads. "Many prominent painters and writers make their home here...and the community is justly proud of its reputation as the world center of Western Art and Western Americana...We also extend a personal invitation for an evening at our own Pioneer Playhouse, where we have the opportunity to try out many of the new plays you will find in our catalogue each season."
The 1966 catalogue had something for everyone--with a vengeance. About one-third of its offerings were melodramas, including no fewer than five one-acts written by Shubert himself and featuring villains with names like Snipe Vermin. "Melodrama is great fun for both actors and audience, because everybody takes part," the catalogue explained. "Add a community sing plus olio numbers and you have the grandest evening of entertainment possible."
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."
Even Steve, if pressed. "I wanna rock, I wanna roll, I wanna throw my shoes away!" he begins. "I mean, can you believe those lyrics? I'm embarrassed."
But not that embarrassed. Since Shubert's death in 1989, Steve Fendrich has been president of Pioneer, "and he has really turned the company around with musicals," Anne says. "Now schools can buy sound tapes for musicals, CDs--the fact that we even have so many musicals--it's all because of Steve."
In 1995 the company had gross sales of more than a million dollars. And yes, Steve admits, it may have something to do with the large number of musicals now in the catalogue and the fact that few schools can resist a good song and dance.
"What you gotta do," says composer Bill Francoeur, "is see Oz. You should go. Go!"
Now playing--for about one more day, at the Center Stage Theater in Evergreen--Oz is a quintessential Pioneer success story. It began about fifteen years ago, when Steve Fendrich called Tim Kelly and told him he was receiving a lot of requests for a Wizard of Oz-type story. None of the schools and theaters that called Pioneer could afford the royalty payments required for the classic Wizard of Oz, let alone the Broadway smash The Wiz.
This was good news for Kelly--as a boy, he'd loved the Frank L. Baum Oz books, and he'd already done dozens of "adaptation" plays. It didn't take him long to crank out Pioneer's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Ten years later, Steve Fendrich decided the time was right for, yes, a musical Oz--and he commissioned Longmont composer Francoeur to add songs to Kelly's play. Francoeur had come to Pioneer's attention years earlier, when, as a middle-school English teacher frustrated with the theatrical options available, he'd written a pop/rock Peter Pan and staged it. Several Fendriches came to see the production. They never published Francoeur's Pan, but they commissioned him to write Drabble and Tumbleweeds, both based on cartoon characters.
"Shubert wrote the book and lyrics, and I did the music," Francoeur remembers, "and both shows were kind of terrible. No one bought them, and they were pulled out of the catalogue pretty quickly." This is not entirely true, because Gilchrist remains a fan of Drabble, and Tumbleweeds is still available. And so, for that matter, was Francoeur. "They kept giving me work, and when I started writing with Tim Kelly in the mid-Eighties, things really took off. From what Steve tells me," Francoeur says proudly, "eleven of Pioneer's top twenty musicals are Tim's and mine."
Undaunted by working in the shadow of such indisputably classic songs as "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Francoeur attacked Pioneer's Oz job with zeal.
"Mine's a pop version," he explains. "Like the Scarecrow--I figured he'd be into country music, so I gave him a rip-roaring bluegrass song. The Tin Man is oily and slick, a Forties big-band kind of guy, and the Lion is tragic. His song is called 'Life Ain't Much Without a Little Bit of Courage,' and it's a get-down Chicago blues number. The Wizard is a cross between Bob Seger and Elvis Presley. The 'witch is dead' song is a conga line, and the 'yellow brick road' number is hip-hop, funky rap."
Francoeur, who comes from an intensely musical family, once thought he might make the East Coast big time, and he continues to court Broadway and Off Broadway producers with his "serious theater" projects. But it's the sixteen Tim Kelly/Pioneer musicals he's written that pay the bills. "Broadway is pie-in-the-sky," he says. "And the money is important to me. Tim always says, 'On Broadway, you'll make a killing, not a living.'"
To Francoeur, Kelly is something of a show-biz legend--and certainly one worth quoting. "I was doing his plays with my junior-high kids years before I knew the man," he says. The thing is, the two have still never met in person. Kelly prefers to send his drafts by mail from California, inserting a cryptic instruction like "jitterbug" or "mambo" for Francoeur to follow. At that, Francoeur will write something, record it on his synthesizer and send it back to Kelly. So far, there have been no complaints.
"I'm not even sure I want to meet him," Francoeur says of Kelly. "There's kind of a mystique I like. Tim Kelly is this man over the rainbow somewhere. I send him my songs, and he likes them."
In fact, Tim Kelly is not over the rainbow but living in Beverly Hills, where he is a happy workaholic who requires a very pressing reason to leave home. That his plays are constantly being translated into foreign languages as obscure as Afrikaans and presented in locales as far-flung as the Yukon does not inspire him to make any sort of grand tour. That he has to spend half a day each week answering fan mail, that 6,000 performances of his plays were done last year alone--none of it justifies shaking up the Kelly routine.
"Writing is an obsession and a compulsion," he admits. "I feel secure and comfortable when I'm writing and perhaps less so when I'm not."
Kelly can trace these feelings back at least forty years. Growing up outside Boston, he remembers being interested in "movies, adventure and escapism. We all have our trials and tribulations," he muses. "The thing is to escape them somehow. The town where I was raised was a very dull factory town. For me, going to the theater was very much like going to church is for other people. I took it very seriously. I'd get there half an hour early to watch the musicians tune up."
At twelve, Kelly earned his first check for a writing job--an adventure story about a military dog, written for a boys' magazine. After that he entered every newspaper essay contest he could find, and won several. All through high school, college and a stint as an actor at a repertory theater in Arizona, Kelly kept writing plays. After a fellowship at Yale in TV and broadcast writing, he moved to Southern California to write for the screen.
"And I did my time," he says. "But ultimately, it became too boring to write in the same genre all the time. I was all over the place. I could not be pinned down."
Which is what drew Pioneer Drama Service to Tim Kelly, and Tim Kelly to Pioneer. Though he writes for several other catalogues, including more "serious" purveyors of drama, Kelly says he likes the variety and the steady money Pioneer provides. "I might do a murder mystery, followed by a children's play, followed by a melodrama, followed by a musical," he explains. "I've aged with Pioneer. The camaraderie they give me is such a wonderful boost to creativity. It's never just my play, it's our play."
Right now, 130 such Tim Kelly plays can be ordered through Pioneer. His name has become so ubiquitous in school theatrics that Kelly's taken on two pseudonyms: Robert Swift and Vera Morris. (Both he and Steve Fendrich are amused when a high-school drama director calls to say that she doesn't like Tim Kelly plays, but please, send more Vera Morris!) Kelly talks to Steve constantly, rejecting or accepting ideas, then plows through the writing of them fourteen hours a day. He also keeps an idea box in which he throws any stray thoughts that come his way--particularly those that shed some light on teenage life. The phrase "ditch day," for instance. No sooner did he learn what it meant than he'd written a play in which thirty or so high-school students skip school.
"Another time, I was watching TV, and I heard a character explain that the dog had eaten his homework," Kelly recalls. "Suddenly, I thought: What if a monster ate his homework?"
A Monster Ate My Homework was summarily written and published, and it continues to be a top-seller to high schools. The reason for this success, Kelly insists, is that he tries to stay abreast of "what kids are thinking and hoping and dreaming. It's wonderful," he confesses. "Everyone's younger than I am, and I never have to grow up."
Indeed, students at schools where Kelly holds readings of new plays often seem more mature than the playwright himself. "Their language presents a bit of a problem," Kelly admits. "I won't write profanity into a play. Perhaps that's unrealistic, but I find it repulsive. On the other hand, you can't write down to young people in any sense. No cute bunnies on the stump saying, 'It's a lovely day!' What I try to write," he decides, "is gentle escapism."
But creating escapism is not always easy. While writing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Pioneer, Kelly discovered that "nobody in Alice is pleasant. They're all eccentrics or insane. Not one person is normal in any sense." That some of Lewis Carroll's characters are witty was of no help. "You must remember who you're writing for, and what they're listening to in everyday life," Kelly says. "Independence Day is not exactly Noel Coward." Kelly solved his problem by having the White Rabbit ask Alice if she would be his friend. Normalcy established, Kelly went on to his next play.
"I compare my plays to daughters," he says. "I do the best I can, and then they go out and get married. One might marry Prince Charming, another might marry the guy who pumps gas, and another might end up on the street. I do what I can with them, but when I'm done, I move on."
AGNES RASPUTIN (a tough student at Last Chance High): Well, well, well. What have we here? Ha, ha, ha. Hey, Anzac! Come look! Ha, ha, ha.
ANZAC CALGARY (Agnes's male counterpart, a lethal punk): So, I'm looking. AGNES: Anzac, you know what I think we've got here?
AGNES: Yeah, tourists. From the Valley... Three Valley Girls and a friend.
ANZAC: He's a nerd. I can tell. Nerds I step on. Nerds I squash. Ha, ha.
DOUGLAS (shoves ANZAC on the shoulder): Watch it, Gopher Breath.
ANZAC: Why, you--!
--from Help! I'm Trapped in a High School!, by Tim Kelly
"Hey! Guess what I just got in the mail," Steve Fendrich says. "The Nifty Fifties!"
The Pioneer office that the mail comes to is no longer a hole-in-the-wall on Colorado Boulevard but a much fancier warehouse building in Englewood. Ten employees handle the printing, bulk-mailing and editing that used to be family chores. Steve has been so busy running the business that he hasn't had time to write a lyric in more than five years. Nevertheless, Fendrich dramatists, along with Kelly, are still the top-sellers at Pioneer. Last year the late Shubert's own Give My Regards to Broadway was number one on the musicals list, with Ducktails and Bobby Sox a close second. Now, with the delivery of Kelly's The Nifty Fifties, high schools that have already done Ducktails and Bobby Sox to death will have something new to sink their teeth into.
Kelly--who lived through the Fifties and found them "kind of boring"--has nevertheless pulled through with a dependable drama that takes place in Louise's Luncheonette and revolves around the tension over whether the heroine will find a place to hold the annual Hippety Hop dance and whether the famous rock star will perform after all for a small-town crowd that includes the usual cast of characters, right down to the Assistant Principal.
"I request formula drama all the time," Steve says. "Tim's Bang, Bang You're Dead, for instance. That was because I had a gut feeling we needed to do a play about guns. Not gun control, because that would make the NRA mad. But not pro-gun, either. When I needed a drug play, Tim wrote The Empty Chair, which takes place at a substance-abuse support group."
Lately, Steve's had an inkling that the time is right for an AIDS play--"although, unfortunately, it can't be about two gay men with AIDS," he says. "It's sad, the commercial aspect of this business."
Pioneer's newly inaugurated Social Awareness subsection will deal with all this and more: Non-Kelly plays in the most recent catalogue mention eating disorders, steroid abuse, alcoholism and drunk driving--all on one page.
But there's still room for traditional, affordable, easy kids' stuff. For Krazy Kamp, a can't-miss summer-camp production. Santa Sees a Shrink, filled with Christmas hilarity. Hauncho the Hamster and Emmy Lou and the Big Ragout, surefire hits with the preschool crowd. It's all available at Pioneer, and one Fendrich or another will always be at the other end of the line to talk it over.
"See, there's nothing wrong with Carousel or My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music," Steve says. "But there's nothing wrong with these other plays, either. There's more parts. Parents will come. Everyone's happy.
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