copyright the Chronicle January 29, 2014
by Joseph Gresser
BARTON — Vermonters have always had a yen for local entertainment. Most towns, including Barton, boast theaters that once hosted traveling shows that toured the country.
Barton’s Memorial Building will welcome a revival of that tradition Saturday night, when Vermont Vaudeville comes to town.
The group, made up of a four-person core and guest performers, has embarked on a nine-town tour of Vermont over the next six weeks as part of its campaign to revive locally produced and consumed entertainment.
Justin Lander, Rose Friedman and Brent and Maya McCoy started their troupe five years ago with an inaugural performance at the Orleans Municipal Building. Since then they have presented several sold-out shows at the Hardwick Town House every year.
In a conversation on an icy January evening at the East Hardwick home of Ms. Friedman and Mr. Lander, the performers reflected on their journey so far and their plans for the future.
Ms. McCoy said the group was very much influenced by the history of companies that traveled the state presenting variety shows.
In larger communities, tours included nationally known performers, while smaller towns were visited by groups that put on a play, filling the intermissions with specialty acts, such as juggling, singing and dancing.
The last vestige of the willingness of vaudeville to combine all forms of performance, high and low, may have been the Ed Sullivan Show, which captured a huge audience by presenting opera singers, tap dancers, military drill teams, and rock bands on a single bill.
Almost every town had a theater, often more than one. While some of those are now gone, like the ones that existed in Newport, many others remain.
“Part of our goal was using the old spaces. But in order to do that we had to have a recognizable name,” Ms. McCoy said.
The four are hoping their present tour, sponsored with a grant from the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, will help make Vermont Vaudeville a known quantity around the state.
Mr. Lander said the group was a bit nervous about attracting an audience to other venues.
“We know how to get an audience in Hardwick,” he said. “You put up posters at Willey’s and the Co-op. We just don’t know what Willey’s and the Co-op are in other towns.”
If the tour’s first show at Goddard College’s Haybarn Theater is any indication, Mr. Lander has nothing to worry about.
The auditorium was packed with an audience made up of a mixture of ages. Their response was all that a comic troupe could hope for, too.
That, Mr. Landers said, is not a surprise.
“When we started, we weren’t sure if our material would work. Now, though, we know that if we think something is funny an audience will find it funny, too.”
When the two couples started talking about putting together a show, Mr. McCoy said, they didn’t want to present another circus or just a concert.
“Our skill set led us to vaudeville,” Ms. McCoy said.
The group’s skill set includes musical talent, juggling, and a strong aptitude for comedy. Both Mr. and Ms. McCoy spent time in their youth working at the Circus Smirkus summer camp.
Mr. McCoy went to Bates College in Maine where he put together a juggling club, while continuing to work at Circus Smirkus in the summers.
Ms. McCoy also interned with the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover while she was attending The New School in New York City.
“We’re the child of Bread and Puppet and Circus Smirkus,” Mr. McCoy said.
Both Mr. Lander and Ms. Friedman toured as members of the Bread and Puppet company for more than five years before striking out on their own.
Mr. McCoy was raised on his parents’ dairy farm in Hardwick.
“I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that,” he admitted.
Since 2005, Mr. McCoy said he has done close to 2,000 shows, about 300 a year. They have been solo gigs and shows alongside Ms. McCoy as half of The Secret Circus.
He has toured in China, Canada, Scotland, Germany, and New Zealand, he said.
“You can’t count New Zealand,” Ms. McCoy said, obviously picking up an old argument.
“Yes I can,” Mr. McCoy said. He recalled juggling on the street for beer money while he was there.
“Of course, I did hit an old lady in the head with a diablo,” Mr. McCoy conceded. “She really yelled at me, and people in New Zealand are usually very nice.”
Mr. McCoy developed a less lethal version of his street act, performing profitably on Church Street in Burlington for several years. With his earnings depending on his ability to attract and hold a crowd, Mr. McCoy developed a line of comic patter that is a major feature of Vermont Vaudeville.
During one of his Burlington shows, he also attracted the attention of Ms. McCoy, whom he knew from Circus Smirkus days. The two renewed and developed their acquaintance. They are now married and live in Greensboro Bend.
Ms. McCoy hails from Montgomery where she performed in school plays. At Circus Smirkus she focused on clowning.
Her Smirkus training is evident in her portrayal of Marge — half of the couple, Charlie and Marge, the McCoy’s portrayal of archetypical Northeast Kingdom residents.
Mr. Lander also attended Bates College, though he was there after Mr. McCoy graduated. While at school Mr. Lander said he studied improv comedy, music and performance art as well as neuroscience.
“It’s the kind of thing you can do at Bates,” he said.
“Especially when your parents think you’re studying neuroscience,” Mr. McCoy added.
Mr. Lander said he realized he was not interested in laboratory work and found jobs at a variety of mental health facilities, while at the same time pursuing his interest in performance art.
“I held the first annual ‘Sunshine of Your Love’-athon,” Mr. Lander recalled. He persuaded friends to contribute money based on the length of time he was able to play the Cream song on a variety of instruments, including ukulele, bass, guitar and keyboard.
He was able to hold out for 36 hours, collecting $3,600 from friends who were surprised to find they had underestimated his stamina and were in the hole at hundreds of dollars.
Mr. Lander’s current style is considerably more benign, perhaps because he has added the trumpet to his musical accomplishments.
He and Ms. Friedman have worked up a duo act performing songs from the ’20s and ’30s on muted trumpet and banjolele. When not working with Vermont Vaudeville they tour as The Modern Times Theater.
That name, Ms. Friedman explained, was stolen from her parents, who performed under that name.
Although her parents were both performers, Ms. Friedman said she was never pressured to go into show business.
“No pressure was applied, but the only information given about careers had to do with performing,” she said.
Her parents, Denny Partridge and Steve Friedman, met while performing in the ’60s with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a company that shared a political sensibility with Bread and Puppet.
After leaving that company, Ms. Partridge pursued an academic career, while Mr. Friedman continued to write plays, which they performed together.
“I was on tour for the first five years of my life. They stopped touring when it was time for kindergarten,” Ms. Friedman recalled.
“We took the name of Modern Time Theater because they had a cool stamp,” Mr. Lander said. “Also a banner and some T-shirts.”
Ms. Partridge and Mr. Friedman now live in Greensboro. They continue to perform, but with their original name stolen by the younger generation, they now call themselves Mud Time Theater.
A friend of the family pointed Ms. Friedman in the direction of Bread and Puppet Theater, which she joined immediately after graduating from The New School with a degree in literature.
In addition to the core performers, Vermont Vaudeville brings along a fine house band made up of Otto Muller on piano, Geoff Goodhue on drums, Sophia Cannizzaro on violin and, when he is free, Mr. Lander on upright bass.
The company always includes other performers who add variety to the program. At Goddard, the audience gasped as James Earl Bones threaded himself through a series of tennis racquets of diminishing size.
In Barton the group will be joined by Michael Trautman, widely known as the ping pong ball guy, and Tom Murphy who tours as an acrobatic skier, but, in Barton, will offer up his plate-spinning skills for the public’s approval.
Vermont Vaudeville also travels with a gorilla-of-all-trades who helps keep the show going in a more-or-less orderly fashion.
After an evening in which the Plainfield audience was left exhausted from laughter, Mr. McCoy stepped forward to offer thanks for their generous reception.
As he began to speak, one couple headed down the aisle donning jackets as they went, hoping to beat the rush in the parking lot.
“Hey, what are you doing? This isn’t TV,” Mr. McCoy barked.
The couple seemed inclined to ignore him, so Mr. McCoy started after them.
It was a funny moment, but also in large measure the entire point of the show.
As Mr. Lander put it before the tour started, “It’s important that people get their entertainment from a human connection and not just from screens.”
Saturday’s performance at the Barton Memorial Building begins at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For advance tickets, visit vermontvaudeville.com.
Vermont Vaudeville’s winter tour of 2014 includes the following dates:
February 7 at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury at 7:30 p.m.; February 8 at the Oldcastle Theater in Bennington at 7 p.m.; February 15 at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River at 7 p.m.; February 21 at the Bellows Falls Middle School in Bellows Falls at 7 p.m.; February 22 at the New England Youth Theater in Brattleboro at 7 p.m.; and March 1 at the Flynn in Burlington at 7 p.m.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]