The Drama of it All | Arts & Culture | The Pacific Northwest Inlander
They're on stage clowning around.
Wearing an assortment of oversized curly wigs, hats and polka-dot bow ties, the players burst into Cole Porter's "Be A Clown." They breeze through the chorus, but the verses prove tricky. The piano accompanist plugs on anyway.
"Oh, let's try that again," says show co-director Carol Roberts to the six other actors lining the edge of the tiny stage framed with a red curtain.
Tonight, at the downtown Wallace Sixth Street Melodrama Theatre, performers are rehearsing for Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Revue, a variety show of favorite songs, jokes, tap dances and skits from the theater's 32 years in business. This is a rarity, as the theater normally stages melodramas — a genre, especially popular in the 1800s, known for hyper-sensationalism, improvisation and stereotypical characters (think Snidely Whiplash from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, who constantly ties damsels to train tracks). Melodramas commonly have two titles, such as this summer's Sixth Street original show The Trouble With the Theatre OR Why Are You Acting Like That?
The first Sixth Street scripts, in the early '80s, dramatized miners' lives in the Silver Valley. Ever since, local actors and directors have mostly written their own family-friendly shows, meaning they don't pay show royalties, just a music licensing fee for songs used. In the summers, when historic Wallace is overflowing with tourists, the theater is open nearly every day. During the school year, they offer shorter runs, and also a regular play or musical.
Tonight, a crowd has gathered from across the Silver Valley for this special revue. There were no auditions; these are all folks who've helped shape the theater, through the years of plenty and the more prevalent years of barely scraping by.
cosplay wigsMusical Pastor OR The Cross-dressing Motorcyclist
Elvira stands in the spotlight, wrapped in a bushy feather boa.
Ken Bartle croons lovingly to the cardboard cutout: "I'd rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades / Than spend one more minute with you."
The darkened 87-seat theater fills with laughter from the other actors.
The original "Weird Al" Yankovic tune is a comical choice for the Lutheran pastor in his 60s from Pinehurst, Idaho. He's not afraid to do much for laughs. In one melodrama last year, he played a brother and sister. His stage entrance in a dress received the heartiest chuckles from his Our Savior Lutheran Church congregants in the audience. Bartle says he doesn't usually participate in the theater's summer productions; he needs time to ride his Harley-Davidson, after all.
"This is all just part of my personality," Bartle says. "It's the best way to get this all out."
Haunted House OR It's All In Your Head
They say there's a ghost here. Of course, thespians are notoriously superstitious and the building has been standing for well over a century, miraculously surviving multiple fires. This supposed spirit is one of the workers from the brothel which used to occupy this space — just one of many brothels from Wallace's sordid past.
"I can't believe there's a ghost here. I'm here by myself a lot of the time," says Sixth Street veteran Paul Roberts, husband to Carol and also the Kellogg High School drama teacher.
Walking around the theater's second floor, he shows off the bedrooms that have been turned into dressing and costume rooms. There's one pantry-size room specifically for hats. The largest space at the end of the long, chilly corridor, which would have belonged to the madam, houses props.
Even though the theater has occupied the building for 30 years, Paul says passersby have inquired if the upstairs is still open for business. It is not.
Cleaning Crew OR How to Find Everything You Thought You Lost
In the past year and a half, the theater has undergone a major transformation. They've cleaned up. Theater manager Sean Shelley, a Wallace native with a boyish face, has overseen the project with the help of many local volunteers.
"Some upstairs rooms you couldn't even walk into," says Shelley, who has written three shows. "We had no idea what we had in the basement, and then we ended up finding some brand-new power tools."
lace front wigsNow people can walk through the building without tripping, and the theater is saving money. They've uncovered clothes with the tags still on and strange props from old performances.
"We recently found a sign that said 'White Slaves,'" Shelley says. "I don't even want to know what that's about."
Energy Rush OR What Awkward Feels Like
Rick Shaffer, the self-appointed Prime Minister of Wallace, hasn't been in a production since 2005. But tonight, after a bit of a warmup, he's back in the theater groove.
"I have absolutely no talent," says Shaffer, who owns multiple hotels in town. "But I'm an adrenaline junkie, and that thrill you get when you're about to grab a doorknob and to make an entrance on stage, that energy is incredible."
He recalls shows where everything went wrong. Once, the backdrop began falling down and he had to prop it up with his 6-foot-8-inch frame. There was another time, 30 minutes before a show, that he took over a role for someone who called in sick. He walked around stage with the lines in hand. He says the awkward moments are what bind the Sixth Street performers together.
"This is small-town stuff at its best," Shaffer says. "The show must always go on."♦
Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Review • Fri-Sun, Nov. 6-22, Fri and Sat at 7 pm; Sun at 2 pm • $15/$13 seniors, students, military • Sixth Street Melodrama Theatre • 212 Sixth St., Wallace, Idaho • sixthstreetmelodrama.com • 208-752-8871
Working the bar is like going to war on a ship.
Scurrying down that narrow gangway between taps, bottles and bar top; bumping, stretching, snatching, scribbling, grabbing, pouring, sorting and shouting. Shoveling drinks over the side in a demented bailing; fighting the chaos that threatened to overwhelm the whole operation. You could drown if you aren't careful.
The people stack up like waves, surging from unknown depths in their thousands of pounds of screaming pressure. Egos, moods, agendas smashing against the wood, second by second. You could feel the rocking, pounding rhythm of the crush; its ebbs and flows driven by some mindless violent impulse.
"What a helluva way to make a living," one of those old guys says. Those sweet, head-shaking old guys who order bottled beer and know exactly what it costs and pay cash and tip at least a dollar for every drink. Their kind are like lighthouse keepers for bartenders — someone with whom to surface, safe, and breathe. You exchange a knowing glance and go back below decks, your bearings momentarily restored.
With the rest, you fight them with the same futility a ship fights the waves. You fire shot after shot. Whole volleys. Six shots at a time, sometimes. Every vodka Red Bull, every Jäger bomb is a salvo: This is the one that will hit him below the waterline, make him turn keel and call for his tab.
Sink the menace, salvage his scrap and hold fast until you send the last of them to the cold dark, where they'll sink and finally lay down.
perruques cheveuxThen it's so silent you can hear the boards creaking. You peer through the gloom at the flotsam — crushed plastic cups from when you ran out of clean glassware, straws, napkins, so many lime and lemon wedges, the occasional slick of vomit. The air is still hot and stinking of spiced rum, aspartame, sweat, cologne and perfume. The ammunition has run low but the plunder has been good.
It's strange to round the bar and walk the floor, pull the stools and chairs and remember each as orders. This one was the sonofabitch who wanted four Duck Farts. This one was that leering tourist who tried to teach you how to make "the perfect" Long Island ice tea. This one thought she was at a wine bar and kept asking for samples.
Sweep and swab. The toilets are a disgrace. Wash and wash and wash your hands. Pour near-boiling water on everything. Rearm the coolers, check the kegs and pull fresh fifths from the storeroom. Don't worry about cutting new fruit. Get the glassware cleaned and stowed.
The most satisfying part is rubbing down the bar. First hot water to remove the sticky film left by the sugary spillage of shots gone wrong. Then disinfectant to remove whatever bodily fluids might have been left behind. Then the wood polish. That astringent, medicinal smell erasing them all, replacing their chaos with utility. Something maintained rather than dissipated. Restored rather than injured.
The bar must be fully polished and gleaming before the till can be reckoned and the tips counted out. The stacks of money look best, somehow crisper despite their frequent sogginess, against a clean, shining surface. The counting is calming, coming in ordered denominations; the fractions noted and carried over, combined when possible to make wholes.
With the till closed, tips divided and ice machine humming, the lights go off and it's time to go ashore. Out in the dark, the cigarette cherry, like the light of a buoy, will lead you home. ♦
Sean Kenney vividly recalls sneaking a long-coveted Lego set
— an early birthday present — into bed on the night before he turned 5 and putting pieces together by moonlight.
"Soon, my parents heard 'Lego noises,' and started coming back to my room," Kenney recalls. "Convinced I could keep [playing], I turned the light on and kept building... but there was no fooling Dad."
Other kids who grew up during Lego's early heyday get nostalgic over the fantastic Lego kits of the 1980s and '90s — like "Deep Freeze Defender," No. 6971, or "Secret Space Voyager," No. 6862 — just like Kenney still does for his old favorite: "Exxon Gas Station," No. 6375.
But the lasting influence of Legos goes a little deeper with Kenney, now 39. He currently works as professional Lego artist in New York City, building larger-than-life sculptures from the tiny interlocking bricks. In 2005, he became the first "Lego Certified Professional," a title bestowed upon only 12 other people around the world who are recognized by the brickmaker for their professional work using its products. The title is not tied to a job or even a sponsorship with Lego, but it does allow Kenney to buy bricks in bulk directly from Lego's factory. He often places orders that weigh a ton or more.
perruques cheveux naturelsMore than two dozen of the renowned artist's pieces are being unveiled at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture this weekend as part of his nationally touring sculpture exhibit, Nature Connects. The exhibit's stop here runs through Feb. 7, 2016, with local children's Lego sculptures being displayed alongside Kenney's art as part of a community contest.
The MAC's director of museum experience John Muredo-Burich, who joined its staff just under a year ago, has already seen how mesmerizing Nature Connects can be to visitors of all ages when the show came to the museum where he previously worked. His goals for the exhibit's run in Spokane are twofold — to host a community-oriented exhibit, hence the contest, and to use the playfulness of the toy-based sculptures to teach kids about the importance of protecting and preserving the environment.
A week before Nature Connects opens, about 40 contest entry forms have been turned in. The museum is awarding cash prizes to three winners in each age group, with an overall "best in show" award to be voted upon by visitors to the exhibit.
To promote the exhibit and bring out that fuzzy feeling of Lego nostalgia, Moredo-Burich and museum staff took on a project to create three, 7-foot-tall Lego minifigs — short for minifigure, Lego's word for its revered humanoid characters that go with the bricks. Using a 3D scan of an actual minifig (about an inch and a half tall) and a computer-controlled cutting machine, the pieces were cut out of a foam material. The three ironically massive minifigs are displayed outside the MAC's main entrance.
"They're exactly like Lego makes them, just giant in size," Muredo-Burich says. "We were thinking they might be pretty unique on the planet," he adds, aside from massive reproductions at the Legoland theme parks.
Some of the surviving pieces
from Kenney's memorable fifth birthday present are displayed in a place of prominence inside his 4,000-square-foot Brooklyn studio. This memento of what would eventually become his unlikely career are now part of the artist's 5 million piece Lego collection.
These millions of plastic bricks and specialty pieces are carefully sorted into a 35-foot by 12-foot wall of clear bins, waiting to become a part of something greater, like the centerpieces of Nature Connects: a life-size bison made from 45,143 pieces, a five-foot-wide swallowtail butterfly using 37,481 pieces and a six-foot-long orange fox, made from 17,547 Legos. About 20 employees — painters, sculptors, animators, architects, fabricators and other creatives — collaborate with Kenney to bring his artistic visions to life.
"I am the kind of person who needs to make things, so I've structured the business aspects of my studio such that I can devote the majority of my time designing and building sculptures," Kenney says.
Though the 5-year-old Sean Kenney never would have imagined he'd eventually build with Legos as a job, the adult Kenney didn't knowingly seek out what he does now, either. It just sort of happened, as many creative endeavors do. Tired of being tethered to a desk, Kenney left an unfulfilling tech career in the early aughts. Not long after, he caught the attention of the Lego Group for his hobby builds posted online.
remy hair extensionsHaving completed Lego sculptures of animals, buildings, people, plants, insects, functional pieces of furniture and countless other objects — bikes, books, xylophones, cars, baseball stadiums — is there anything Kenney can't build with Legos?
"Nothing tasty, at least," he jokes.
Yet as an art form, Legos are no different than any other medium, he believes.
"There's something simple and basic about the way two pieces just pop together. It can literally be understood by a baby yet can stay relevant for a lifetime," Kenney explains. "Just because you have a pencil doesn't mean you've ever reached the limits of what can be drawn, and we've been drawing since the cavemen. I don't think Lego bricks are any different." ♦
Nature Connects: LEGO Brick Sculptures • Sat, Nov. 14 through Feb. 7, 2016 • $5-$10 admission • Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture • 2316 W. First • northwestmuseum.org • 456-3931
A classical guitar series curated by Leon Atkinson
is back at the Bing Crosby Theater after more than seven years, this time under the Friends of the Guitar Hour moniker. And it nearly didn't happen.
pre bonded hairAtkinson is a world-renowned classical guitarist out of Sandpoint who co-hosts the weekly Guitar Hour on Spokane Public Radio with KPBX program director Verne Windham. He was diagnosed with kidney failure a decade ago and was on dialysis — nine hours a day, seven days a week at home — for years until he received a kidney transplant three years ago.
"I'm now back at 100 percent," Atkinson says. "I'm travelling and doing concerts all over the world again and still doing my radio show. It's amazing what one little organ can do."
Originally from Long Island, New York, Atkinson grew up in a musical family and eventually found work on Broadway, wrote songs for commercials and even studied with Andrés Segovia, commonly regarded as the best classical guitarist of all time. But Atkinson always pined for the outdoors, which brought him to buy a 100-acre property in Sandpoint in 1973. Since then, he's taught at nearly all the universities and colleges in the area. He currently runs a private studio at his home.
The guitar series kicks off this weekend with the San Francisco-based Jon Mendle, who has toured with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. It continues March 24 with steel-string player Alex de Grassi and Andrew York, formerly of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. On May 12, the series wraps up with Atkinson performing along with Larry Jess, principal trumpet with the Spokane Symphony, and his brass ensemble.
Jon Mendle • Thu, Nov. 19, at 7:30 pm • $25/$60 for concert series, contact Leon Atkinson (208-660-4983) • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W Sprague • bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638