Saturday, August 23, 2014

It's a Pleasure to Know You: My First Chautauqua, Part II


Photo credits: Me, Stephen Bent, Gillen Martin, Jon Crandell, Phina Pipia, Sohie Pipia, Scarlett Trippsmith, Sqelixw Aqlsmaknik, Alex Stein and assorted web finds (since my phone was dead). 

Sexy bug bites!

The whole gang in Hot Sprngs, MT

Wed 7/23/14 Libby, MT to Trego, MT

Packing after a shower, I thank my host, Jolene, who expresses her admiration for anyone who chooses the artist's life. Most of us who have done so think about what we have given up to do what we do . For me, as I get older, it's always humming in the background. But honestly, it chooses you as much as you choose it. Watching so many people lose their life savings and/or home equity in this recession was horrible, but knowing that a lot of them hated how it was earned in the first place, it's at least a comfort to know I have spent my life doing something I was passionate about, even if there was little financial reward. And I hope I helped some people to laugh, cry, escape their own problems and/or think about issues in life, love, etc. while I was doing it.

I head over to help the gang pack and load the truck, and get a questionable map to Trego, MT from wagon-master Annie (Waggony Annie?). We were all supposed to stay in downtown Eureka, but those plans have apparently been upended. 

93 north from Libby up to Eureka has been called the "better than sex highway” by a motorcycle enthusiast blog online, an experience I am happy to tell you I shared with Annie and Chloe! We ooh and aah around curves, I get more gas station popcorn. We yak more about Annie’s upcoming move from Arcata to Seattle, where she wants to break into costuming work, and the great peeps she is meeting here who may be able to ease her transition. (Seattle is a fabulous place, Annie, and I wish you an amazing life there!)

The directions are indeed hinky, but at least when we're lost it's gorgeous. :) I'm initially not thrilled to be so far in the country since we'll be driving into Eureka so many times in the next few days. So I hop into group vans instead of doing the drives myself... plus, I now love these people! It's a little challenging logistically to set up the kitchen and mobile showers here, but eventually works out alright. The trailer built into the side of Pom's home is amazing, as is the eons-old kitty, Oondra, named for a Czech guest they had many years ago. She's at least partially blind and almost never leaves the couch in the livingroom. And she gets megatons of love from everyone this week and LOVES it. Total purr monster. 

I promise I will not toss you into
a lake, my dear fiancee!
Dinner at Glacier Ranch Lodge is spectacular - they are a sponsor of the tour - and they donated this evening to us. During my first ride in the Green Bird,we ooh and aah as a huge thunderstorm kicks up and lightning flashes. It's a crazy gorgeous drive during an hours-long sunset that stretches into dinner with a massive downpour.

Bison burgers headline the buffet as we are treated to a spectacular sky show overlooking a ridge, We sing the Anvil Chorus with the orchestra singing their parts, too (instruments were left in Trego.) The storm passes, we take group pix (none of which I seem to have). Wow, Montana. Seriously.

The trailer is quieter than I'd expected even though it's near the kitchen and showers. I didn't camp on this tour because I have terrible sleep issues when I travel, which include heat issues, and it doesn't take long for them to affect my attitude as well as my work; none of that would be a positive contribution to an endeavor like this. If you learn nothing else on the road, that's a good thing to know about yourself.  I brought an air mattress and tent just in case... and my car... but so far it's all good. I'm thinking I'll give the outdoors a shot here, though.

Thu 7/24/14 Trego/Eureka

Rainy Birthday Celebration
Rehearsals again today... and then the Green Bird to a Fisher Price-sized Teaser show (limited floorspace!) at Homestead Ales, a Eureka microbrewery!. They float us an amazing pizza sample and I taste some of the beer fare, thinking of Alex's homebrewing days and our visits to local brewpubs during our many Alaskan and NW adventures. He would like the super-hoppy IPA here - so I buy him a bottle.

We head out to the community potluck at Riverside Park and it's a drippy but spirited affair, held under the Easy-Ups due to intermittent rain. I notice that the river next to the park is completely clear. This was where we were supposed to camp, originally.  It's Fiona’s birthday - she's serenaded with cakes and pies as Paul reads a proclamation and gives her the key to the city! The locals are really excited to have us here.

Separate wedding blessing "ceremonies" are held for Shannon and Stephen at Pom's ranch. The men trek off to the sauna with a beer keg, and the women head up to the second house. We surround Shannon with good wishes, blessings and a ritual feet washing - "as you prepare for your new journey." Out of the dark night, all of a sudden, Harry opens the door. All heads turn to him. He flinches and closes it. Velly suspicious indeed... And about 5 minutes later, a parade of about 12 buck naked men dances right through the livingroom, singing the Italian strains of the Anvil Chorus at the top of their lungs, then exits as quickly as they appeared.  I couldn't make that up, and no, there is no footage!

When I tell Alex about this later that night over Skype (I have no cell service, but excellent wifi), he says, "Wait, it took them this long to have a naked parade?"

Fri 7/25/14 Trego/Eureka

The amazing RR Xing, on the way to
 our Trego digs. Straight out of a movie.
We're adding in acts to the show to replace those that have (SADLY!) departed. Drea and Harmony do a completely charming and silly routine for the show committee in Pom's livingroom/conservatory/library. It's so old school funny... and is put in the show as of tonight.

I opt to stay back at the ranch to do some online editing work instead of going into town for the parade through Stein’s market. Harry is around doing work, too. We yak in the kitchen, swapping booking horror stories (I did a lot of the booking for The Bobs in my later years with them. And the social media. And the travel... LOL). Pom's upstairs tenant Madeline and I are washing dishes when we spot a cow way off in the distance. The property has an electric fence, but obviously it has a hole of some kind. Hmmm...  It's a quiet morning off from the gang - which makes me simultaneously productive and not thrilled.  :)

Driving back into town alone for the first time, I soak up the scenery, especially this one ungated railroad crossing (see picture). It's gravel and wood 10 feet on either side. You HAVE to slow and you HAVE to stop. It's textbook dangerous AND textbook gorgeous. Something out of a movie that... you do not want to be in!

I hook up with the group at the community show at the Mountain View rest home – talk about a stellar vista. Smiles all around. Then, we head to an actual Car Wash/flea market/clothes sale someone noticed on the main drag and film ourselves doing CAR WASH!  Then it's over to the theater to tech the show…
Me as Clara Tweaker (L), mit Supa-Suffragettes

Lincoln County High School has a nice, big theater. Paul asks me to review scenes with some new people taking over roles (in which they are equally and differently hilarious). I make sure all of the Faiths ("people of all Faiths") know where to stand for their monologues now that the show is changing. Harry and I accompany Robin's pre-show Trash Fashion presentation by playing a Miles Davis tune, during which I sneak in "Tequila." It occurs to me that I could have played this keyboard in the show if I'd thought of it. Next time. Drea's shower act is adorable. I miss doing Hide and Seek, but am thrilled to get to see Clara and Reby do their trapeze acts now. I feel raw-throated during my suffragette song, but it goes really well again. The Ks juggle becomes a hysterical melee after Rod fumbles his line and calls something a "Swiss army machine." I love to watch the K's, whose juggling is mesmerizing and astonishing, and they crack me up, but frankly, they are even funnier when it all goes to hell. Which is a big part of their charm.

I finally buy a Chautauqua shirt after the show, and am greeted by a magnificent sky at 10 p.m. Three weeks ago, I was at a July 4 weekend bash with an astounding group of friends who are vocalists and arrangers, on a Manhattan rooftop, drinking Moscow mules (ginger beer and vodka), oohing and aahing over the fireworks just blocks away. I left to go back to 72nd and Broadway (center of the universe), where I was dog-sitting for CeeCee, Pirate Shih-Tzu of the Upper West Side. My life sometimes give me whiplash. But it's the best kind of pain.

Sat 7/26/14 Trego/Eureka

It's odd that we're doing the workshops and parade the day AFTER a show, but that's the schedule here. At the morning meeting, it's revealed that apparently I am the Queen Volunteer of kitchen shifts. I'm kind of shocked. I thought everyone was signing up for stuff - that's what you did. Apparently I've done 12 shifts and have signed up for 4 more. GAME ON, THEN!

I ride into town with John Cloud and Toes Tiranoff, our resident tap dancer, here from NYC. John blasts Aaron Copeland on the stereo (so right for the wild West), and we talk of Alaska and Montana adventures. I'll be roadblocking the parade downtown with trapeze goddess Reby, who is ALSO head of our kitchen operations (!) and who could easily stop traffic... (see photo, R). Enthusiastic volunteers arrive to blockade the block unnecessarily with their cars... their parade-related glee is palpable!  And there's nothing quite like the view of a marching band cresting a hill. We join in the line as it passes by out block, and Annie and I look up to see a drone filming it. We shout, "Hello, NSA!" as a woman walks past us in a chicken suit, walking a dalmation the size of a great Dane. 

Workshops happen right after the parade, in Heritage Village. I check out the historic museum, which houses some very Clara Tweaker outfits... And I buy postcards - I know, totally old school -  determined to send one to my brother, Todd. We have a lifelong tradition involving a specific text that we write to each other, simply substituting the place name and some other variables (Annie sez it's like a Mad Libs postcard). And I have been totally remiss about it in the digital age. Todd has four shoeboxes of these in his closet from my 25 years of touring...  I realize I’d usually send one to my grandmother, who passed away in 2012. I haven’t been on a trip like this since she died, just NY/LA/NY, etc.. She and my grandfather are responsible for my chronic wanderlust, so I know they're smiling somewhere. And I'm sad because I want to send one to my late kitty, Sitka. Alex and I did that a few times. I consider doing so, with no address. Missing him very badly today for some reason.

Annie and I buzz the downtown for evil chocolate chip mint ice cream and iced coffee, talking to locals about the parade. I resist buying more moose items (that's a thing for me). Annie gets great $3 sandals at a Thrift Shop to replace her $40 new ones that broke. I attend Paul's History of Chautauqua presentation and am struck with the idea of writing a goofy operetta for next year... The beautiful and wise Joannie Murayama's workshop about her mother's experiences in a Japanese internment camp in WWII, which inspired her award-winning quilt, is packed and wonderful. 

Back at the ranch, after a yum-tastic cheeseburger dinner, I finish writing Todd's postcard and post to Facebook about Sitka. It's very helpful to air my grief so publicly. It's a huge part of me right now. I look forward to the day when that is not the case, but for now I don't really care what people think about it. If you've ever loved and lost an animal, you understand.

Overheard in the livingroom: “Don’t sit on the Kid” – Carl, re: baby August, asleep on the sofa.


That cow Madeline and I saw yesterday morning has to be chased off property.. Pom, Fiona, Clay and about 3 other people disappear into the trees.  After about 20 minutes, Paul and I start writing bits about it - imagining pieces of their clothing flying out of the woods, accompanied by loud moos, or all of them running out, screaming en masse about the bovine army attack in progress. Chris, Bill, Vivian, Kaya, Annie, Stevedore, Phina and others, undaunted, play a circle game that involves yelling either Yeehaw! / Cows in the Barn / or Get DOWN little DOGGY (that is just wrong!) and moving around depending on the command. Paul and I crack up under a gorgeous sunset and talk about next year's Chautauqua along Alaska’s Marine Highway...

After a giant campfire discussion about how we can stay connected to the communities we have visited this tour (hey, it IS the digital age, even though we are about live, in-the-flesh, old school connection), I decide to try sleeping outside on the porch of Madeline’s second floor bedroom. I inflate my air mattress atop an old boxspring. It's cold and endlessly starry when I bundle up at midnight.

Sun 7/27/14 TregoMT to Hot SpringsMT

Roderick, Ripped King of the Pancakes
At 5:30 a.m., the mattress is totally deflated and boxsprings are poking my spine. It's freezing out and the longest, loudest freight train echoes its diminished third over the mega-acreage. It was a wonderful 5.5 hours and I am done with Outside for now! Back inside, I sleep until 8:45.  Note to self: get a new air mattress - and give the camping a shot for at least one residency next time.  

I go up to get my blankets and fold up the airbed, happy/sad remembering Sitka pouncing on it as it deflated many times in our guestroom. My sweet boy. Determined to not let that take over my day, I head for coffee. I call Alex on the house line Pom is letting us use (we won’t have cell service in the next town either). Alex says LA is a furnace this week and tells me about the writer's salon show last night (a series he curates). I like hearing about it... but don’t... really... want to... go back to Los Angeles... or think about it right now.. but we do talk about next year's Chautauqua in Alaska's Inside Passage. We're honorary Alaskans after all, and Alex's documentary, MUSH (a valentine to the Iditarod) premiered at the Anchorage Film Festival, is shown on Alaska PBS each year.  He says he might like to do a doc on Chautauqua.

Faith Petric's granddaughter (also named Alex) has joined us overnight, having traveled many hours from Dublin to be here. John Cloud shows me a book about Chautauqua history with a chapter on Broadway show adaptations, setting my mind in motion for next year. I chair buckstop the ranch w/ Clara, take care of dishes duty and help pack the kitchen truck before a final look back at the treeline. Then I repack the trunk and load up for the last trip with Annie & Chloe.

More 99 cent gas station popcorn. WTF? A crazily beautiful drive to 70s #1 hits countdown on Missoula station. “You are so Beautiful to Me, Montana!” sings Annie. Want to buzz Flathead Lake. We meet Ann & Harry for lunch at Norm’s News in Kalispell, a sweet shop extraordinaire Annie finds on Yelp. Mary Janes and tons of black licorice are successfully avoided, but locally made caramel sea salt fudge is not. We also buzz a supermarket, where chunk cheese and gallon-o-water are must-haves. Turns out to be a good move since all of the water in Hot Springs will be sulphuric.

30 miles inland from the gorgeous lake, the terrain starts to look more like Southern California desert, but somehow more majestic. Hot Springs, an oasis near the bottom of a mountain, is a funky, beatnik-y town where home lots often include several small buildings and trailers. RV hookups and propane tanks abound, and sometimes the sulphur is strong in the air. Alameda is an old-fashioned motel - with sulphur soak tubs. I am thrilled to get an air-conditioned room although I know it will be nice and crisp at night. It is dry, dry, dry. And there are bugs now, oddly. I help set up the kitchen w/Annie and Bill, and ponder showering.... smellily...

Our potluck at the Tribal Health Center building is MAMMOTH. We meet Hot Springs residents and people from the nearby rez in Pablo, MT, where we'll be doing workshops and a show tomorrow. It's wonderful to connect with people here, whose lives are shaped so differently, whose histories are unique - and to share a meal, and music and laughter. Someone brought a panniere made of goats milk and apple cider vinegar that she said was a Salish recipe - MUST MAKE THIS AT HOME! Another brought a tamale pie with beef filling. Annie and I dine with new pals including Shenandoah (a Native American man who introduces himself as "43 years sober today")... Local promoter Janelle introduces herself as a Bobs fan ("You’re the Amy Bob! A rockstar!" - never ceases to amaze me when this happens - I am in the middle of high desert Montana!). She leads us to the Oregon Country Fair-type makeshift stage in a garden park, where friendly dogs run loose, and friendly folks of all ages, tattooed and sunburned and tyedyed and laid back, loggers and artists and linemen and firefighters mingle as the heat of the day subsides and the sun drops below the ridgeline.


It's been a long, hot day, and I'm asleep by 10, thickly and happily.

Mon 7/25/14 Hot Springs/Pablo, MT

I'm uber-conscious that I don't have many Morning Meetings left as Ann and Harry review the week's events; they won't include me as of Wednesday. I'm going to miss a highly anticipated tradition - a private show the gang does just for each other, at a place called Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, as well as the shows in Orofino and Spokane. The highlight of today's meeting is droll, pre-teen Jibali’s unenthused “Playground Report” for all kids and parents (that would be Jibali Trippsmith, of the Northern California Trippsmiths, natch). 

We walk a few blocks uphill to do a show at a nursing care, PT and rehab center, at which one woman can’t stop laughing. Although I think she has some kind of condition that's informing this, all I can think of is the line from When Harry Met Sally, " I’ll have what she’s having."

Workshops and a show bring us to the People’s Center for the rest of the day. It's a weekday, so they're not particularly well attended, but I do get to rekindle my tapdancing skills at Toes' workshop with Scramble, Phina and Linnea as Somer Joe accompanies us on trombone.  I join a coffee run back into town  (Polson)  in the Green Bird and discover that EVERYONE gasps when Montana vistas appear. I clock a cool-looking retro place called Burgerville... and a public dock on gorgeous Flathead Lake for later use.

The show redeems the day. Kids join Clay's Ukelele Orchestra. and I see Faith's granddaughter smiling through tears, being hugged by Stephen Bent, as we sing the finale, Faith's anthem, "It's a Pleasure to Know You." I tear up, too. 

Flathead Lake
It is not a question of whether to stop at Burgerville on the way back for Serious Ice Cream. It is a question of how fast John Cloud can get us there. Toes dives into a Huckleberry shake and an adorable dude more enthusiastic than a wolf in a henhouse tries to talk me into way more sundae than I need, but suffice it to say we are sufficiently stoked, and the place is charming and stupid cheap. My dockhopping dip dreams on Flathead Lake are dashed when we get to the public dock and swarms of winged things have begun their sunset parade.

But the drive back is to die for under the wide sky. These cows must be so happy. The sunset is mystical. I wander thru camp, dazed from the day. Shannon and Stephen return from a jaunt away - YAY! We are all zzzzzzzzzzz.........

Tues 7/29/14 Hot Springs, MT

The Shazambulance Rocks the Parade!
Woke up early for a silky sulphur soak at Symes Hot Springs under a cloudless sky. Amazing. Undid the cleanliness within minutes marching in my last parade, through downtown Hot Springs. It was the biggest yet, I think, in that most of the town was in it! The gang stops smack in the middle of downtown to do a 15-minute teaser show and the crowd goes nuts.

It's gonna be a hot one. Looking at the mound of laundry that is my suitcase, I think about the sound of my washing machine back in Los Angeles... and repack so the clean stuff's on top. I'll just wanna grab it, and not the whole bag, at motels on the drive home.

Raggedy Annie's Club
Paul and I briefly rehearse the Clara tweaker segment of the Vaudeville show with Kym Trippsmith, who's going to take over the role once I've left. I'm sure the mammoth-voiced Kym will be amazing in a completely different way.

For some reason I thought this would be a busier day - I turned down some musical transcription work thinking that - but I decide that a nice nap with the AC will work out just fine - because it’s just. Too. Freaking Hot. Outside. (101). So I am not attending the (outdoor) workshops. I notice there's a television in the room - wow - haven't seen one in two weeks. Weather Channel, natch. Nap, nap, nap.

John Cloud has been sampling the local BBQ here in Montana as we went along, and he generously shares the latest brisket and beans from Polson with me and Toes for dinner. Molto Yumness is achieved. And thanks, John!

Scarlett, Stevedore and Daniel honk it up backstage
I drive my keyboard over to the stage two blocks away because it's still a sweatbath, although the sun is sinking. And despite being the Low-Techiest show we've done yet, it's really great. There are a million people to thank in this town, who worked particularly hard to bring us here, and Paul and I take turns doing NPR pledge drive-type speeches for even more funding. I threaten that if we don't make our nut, we're going to leave people behind, starting with the horn players and suggest that we auction off the band to cover some costs. :)

Faith's granddaughter, Alex, is one of the anvil-strikers in our "Anvil Chorus." (Which I find immensely cool.) Everyone figures out how entrances and exits with only one set of stairs... the sound guy goes AWOL... and the crowd is huge and wonderful. Kinda feels like those great, sweaty summer stock shows I did a million years ago on the East coast.. :) It's a great evening to go out on.

"We're gonna burn the beauty of this world into our souls..."

Ann, Jibali and Annie - all Greek to me

As we sing the closing song, I'm looking out over this crowd, under the finally-waning evening sunlight in Towanda Gardens, and the glare of floodlights set up for the show, I'm feeling surreal and fully present at the same time. This time tomorrow, I'll be in a motel in Salt Lake, heading out to pick up Alex at the airport. "It's a pleasure to know you, indeed."

We invade Fergie's Pub in downtown Hot Springs. The patrons are welcoming and the beer (and hard cider) is plentiful. Stephen leads the band in a series of jams. We dance with reckless abandon - and locals. Harry and I have a long talk at the long bar. It's a wonderful last night. As I walk the quiet blocks back to Alameda with a posse of kickass gals, several deer pop out from backyards, ushering us safely home under insanely bright stars.

Wed 7/30/14 Hot Springs, MT to Salt Lake City UT

My final morning meeting... Hearing about the upcoming Orofino and Spokane shows, I'm sad not to be a part of them. But I have gigs in Los Angeles to get back to, and I really do have to stop the financial bleed. As I mentioned, this is an all-volunteer tour, no reimbursement for gas or hotels, and I gave up gigs to be here. And I'd do it all again.

Doing something like Chautauqua is as rewarding (if not more) as doing a high profile or high paying professional gig, but in completely different ways. You make deals with yourself. Mine was "leave on July 30." But I didn't think it would feel so wrong to do so. I know everyone's name in this circle. People I didn't know on July 15. And yet, I'm going to miss... cleaning up their breakfast dishes. :) Joanie gives me a special card she made. The group gives me a "Fantastico!" I thank them all sincerely, then pack my camping chair into the trunk.

I make the hug round before taking off. Stephen says, "Nooooooooo." I feel the same way.

Chloe: Oooh. Ah.

Chloe and I set out for Missoula under glorious skies, the kachina from the People's Center hooked onto my visor. John Cloud told me not to disrespect its power. I hope it is "A Good" for the long drive home. The drive elicits more oooh and aah. Montana is just freaking breathtaking.

But when we buzz Starbucks in Missoula, I feel the magic crack down the middle. Civilization. And it feels sadly good to have the sausage, egg and cheese sandwich.  When I drop Chloe at the Greyhound station, it is decided that the kachina is indeed not "A Evil" and is in fact, "A Good," since there are restaurants and stores within walking distance, and Chloe has a long wait for the bus to Seattle. I am, sadly, not going in that direction today...

I start the last audiobook, a Robert B. Parker Spencer mystery read by Joe Mantegna, as the most beautiful interstates I've been on in a long while wrap their mountainous arms around the IAREmobile. It is a truly scrumptious, gaspy, tearful and stunning drive. Again, I am so sad to not have my phone's camera (these are images from web travel sites). The red rock starts to creep in shortly after I cross into Utah. I've been on I-15 in parts of Idaho but can't really remember it. All I can think is, "Where's the Chautauqua gang right now?" This is something I will think a lot over the next few days.

I beeline the shower in the Salt Lake motel even before checking e-mail and Alex's flight status. It's really nice of him to fly up and drive the last 2 days with me. As I head to the airport, I am both grateful that he's here and immensely sad that we no longer need to get a catsitter when we are both gone. Sitka will not be waiting to tell us all about what he did while we were gone. My grief is morphing, but far from over. This trip eased it a little, but the river is still very deep. Alex arrives. I say how different Salt Lake looks in the summer (we both love seeing it dreary and snowy in Chilly Scenes of Winter), and we spoon into the morning.

Thu 7/31/14 Salt Lake City UT to Primm, NV

Wow. Maybe it was a dream. My first morning in 2 weeks without a circle meeting. Without washing dishes for 50 people. I feel weird. Alex and I head to the carbohydrate-filled breakfast and are surrounded by tourons. We both do work online and are on the road by 11am. It's gorgeous. It was gorgeous 17 years ago when we took all of those National Parks/Motel 6 weekend trips here during our dayjob years. Boy, I love traveling in the West.

Lunch is way better than we could have expected. Shunning the national chains, we opt for the locally owned All American Classic Diner in Cedar City. Yumness is achieved as the humidity breaks and the skies open up into brief thundershowers.

I'm excited that we'll go through the massively awesome Virgin River Gorge again - on that 27-mile strip of I-15 that cuts across the NW corner of Arizona. (Here's a video of that road, which I recommend that you begin around 1:35 unless you wanna read the historical stuff with a lame soundtrack.) It's a amazing as I remembered, but the reality of the drought rears its ugly head again - there is no river here now. There used to be signs advertising white water rafting. Wow.

We make excellent time until we hit a complete standstill in the middle of a construction zone that's ALSO the scene of an accident. It's 111 degrees out, about 4:30 p.m., and we are parked for 90 minutes. The sun is still very strong. This is not fun. With about 1/4 tank of gas left, of course, we turn off the car. Eventually we inch forward and are re-routed in a 50 mile detour through Valley of Fire State Park at sunset. Which is spectacular, but we are so heat-soaked and miserable we just want tall cool drinks and a bed.

Vegas buffet plans are abandoned as we plow through to Whiskey Pete's in Primm (formerly Stateline), pricelined at the end of the detour at a travel plaza. It's another icebox room. So YAY for that!

Fri 8/1/14 Primm, NV to Los Angeles, CA

These pictures, from The Mad Greek in Baker, CA, tell you all you need to know about this day, which ends in Los Angeles with me checking my phone into Cellphone Hospital. Alex remarks that, thanks to Obamacare, it will not be denied treatment or upcharged because of any pre-existing conditions. In every sense of the word, I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.

Wait a second... Chautauqua lessons at the Mad Greek in Baker, CA?
Until we meet again, in the woods of Montana... I will be, at any given time: back and forth between New York and LA, on planes, on my laptop, on stages, in rehearsal rooms, in my studio, at Starbucks, on the 405, setting stuff up, knocking stuff down and always, always working towards being back in that thing. That river. That feeling when what you are doing is TRUE - truer than anything else you do - and your pistons are all firing and you are so 100% you. And if you can make other people's lives better for even a moment while this happens, that's magical.

"Thousands of people are diligently working to make this essential event happen. I am reminded of the sign again “We don’t work for free for nothing.” How true that is. And the something that we work for is so hard to define. I’m tempted towards words like magic, and love but that’s too simple. You have to experience it to understand. The community, the friendship, the experiences, the challenges, the surprises, it all adds up to something that’s almost impossible to find in the day-to-day mundane world we all too often apathetically trudge through. This is the smell of the flowers, the color of the dawn sky, the sound of songs and the feeling of laughter. This is the change we wish to see in the world. So take it with you, wash an extra dish, learn a new tune, start an event, plant a seed, dance in the rain and laugh in the face of adversity. We’re as blessed as blessed can be, so don’t ever forget it. Share your gift with the world. We need it.
Eli “Dr. Bonkers” March"

-NOTC post from 2012

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It's A Pleasure to Know You: My First Chautauqua, Part I

Photo credits: Me, Stephen Bent, Gillen Martin, Jon Crandell, Phina Pipia, Scarlett Trippsmith and assorted web finds since my phone was dead. Poster by Fiona Worcester. 

The Tour

The IAREmobile in Sandpoint, ID

“REASONS WHY I am going to take my car and drive over to Chautauqua this summer: 

Because I am sick of war, strikes and labor unrest. I want to hear, to discuss, to decide how to act… I want to get out of the rut. 

As in running my car, so in running my life, I do not want to get stuck on the road because of ”low clearance.”  I want to take in the relaxation that refresh and refine and inspire me to fuller speed ahead. 

Because I want the sociability of it all – old neighbors to chat with, new friends to shake hands with – human things of human interest that happen in humans’ lives to talk about.”

- 1922 advertising brochure for Circuit Chautauqua


My route

Back in April, Paul Magid of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, one of my erstwhile theatrical collaborators, asked me if I was interested in doing Chautauqua this summer. The Ks were playing at Pepperdine that night. We were brunching in Santa Monica and taking turns cracking the waitress up, as always. I'd had a devastating month, having just lost my beloved 11-year old tuxedo cat, and was very much in need of a palate cleanser, a reset button - something that would get me out of my own head in a good way. Paul's knowing expression, and the testimony of good friends who'd done these summer tours convinced me this would indeed be a wonderful thing to do.

At first we thought I'd be doing a Fanny Brice thing... Eventually, the show became more about Chautauqua history, celebrating the late Faith Petric, who saw the original Chautauquas as a young girl in Orofino, ID. Paul asked me to write a number as a "singing suffragette" in 1920. Faith might have indeed seen one in her youth, as politics were often part of the show. I did some research at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center while in New York in June, and "Clara Tweaker" was born...

I knew this would be an adventure, and I love driving in the western United States... but I didn't know how truly moving an experience this would be.


Sun 7/13 LA to Sacramento

I went from singing the last hymn at my church gig in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles directly to Albertson’s – grabbed a deli sandwich and some vitamin waters and headed directly onto the 5 North. Over the grapevine with the first of three audiobooks I got from the West LA library: NPR Driveway Stories. 

After a million trips up and down this boring-ass California corridor, all of the I-5 jokes I usually make with car companions have been transformed into big smiles – the Kettleman City Ein n Aus Burger, Cowalinga, Shafter, I hardly know 'er, Lerdo/Tardo/Yermo, etc. I pass the Gilroy cutoff with a heavy heart - no Garlic World for me this trip - and I zoom further north and east to Sacramento, grooving to Judith Owen's stunning, new Ebb and Flow album.

No pix from this leg, because.... why?

Mon 7/14 Sacramento, CA to BendOR

A quick coffee with my hosts, then the first of two conference calls with a New York theatre about a pending project... I scheduled these for early mornings not just because of the time difference, but because I don't know how good my Sprint service will be outside of actual cities on this trip! Afterwards, I find myself stalling over a lovely breakfast so as to delay having to get into the hot car…in which I will do the AC/non-AC tango all day since the terrain will be mountainous.  Shasta awaits!

The gorgeousness starts after about 90 minutes... but where the hell is Upper Shasta Lake?  Tabletop Drive is still gorgeous (lower lake), but the upper I-5 crossover is very, very not there. This is the California drought. I glance at the sides of the highway to see if a motel Alex and I stayed at a million years ago - in the snow - is still here and can't find it either.

Michael Moore's Here Comes Trouble is extremely amusing - my next audiobook. He's a tad too self-congratulatory at times in these short stories about his upbringing (which he reads), but very astute nonetheless. His loving portrait of Flint, Michigan in the 60s and how the politics of the era shaped his life is fascinating.

Hitting Klamath Falls on Oregon 97, I am immensely relieved to NOT have to deal with the yellow gnat-like bugs called midges that I know plague the huge lake here -  that will happen in August. As the gas attendant fills the tank (forgot what THAT's like, too - only in NJ and Oregon now), we talk about it. I remember being at a gas station just after sunset, futilely trying to wash off the millions of yellow/green corpses from the grill and lights of Alex's old Honda Civic during a Crater Lake excursion in the late 90s.

I alternate between Waze and Google maps for routing even though it's mainly long stretches. Which is new, since I am a map geek and actually have maps in the seat pocket... Between Upper Klamath Lake and Bend, 97 is absolutely magnificent. And I laugh, recalling the Crater Lake turnoffs in the snow, because it is damned hot right now.

A friend of a friend crapped out this morning on a Bend area crashpad, so I've pricelined a Quality Inn – which turns out to be a blessed icebox, and near a Target! The hotel's next to a scrubby wash in which I spot several stray cats among the volcanic grasses that are all over Eastern Oregon. "I would love to pet you," I think aloud, as the black one looks up at my window. Kitties always follow me. Do they know I am still grieving for my Sitka? Getting quite parched already on this trip, so I buy another bunch of vitamin waters at Target and toss them in the back.

Just before I nod off, the phone rings - and it's Lisa, of my Portland  family, the Sloans! A logistical near miss - they’re vacationing less than an hour away in Sisters. She just saw my FB posts. Gotta love the Internet! But now I have no time and am exhausted... ah well... I sleep very soundly in the near-freezing room....

Tue 7/15 Bend, OR to Sagle, ID - Into the Woods

After another conference call, I get an early start from Bend in order to make a 6pm dinner/7pm band rehearsal in Sandpoint, Idaho! (HA!). Route 97 is gorgeous, winding through volcanic vistas and high desert as Michael Moore talks about the Nixon election. After a breathtaking 3 hours or so, 97 North eventually spills onto I-84 at the epic Columbia Gorge. Memories of a long but stunning Portland to Spokane drive with The Bobs come flooding back as I pass up yet another chance to visit the mini-Stonehenge across the gorge in Maryhill, Washington. After miles of empty, I'm at a serious travelstop. I want ice cream, I get a Subway BMT (and eat ½ the bread). I will have to give up the whole low carb thing for chunks of time, I think...

A snort escapes as I pass the exit for Moses Lake in far Eastern Washington. The Bobs were slotted to play a city festival there sometime in the early 2000s, but were unceremoniously booted from the gig when a Moses Lake city council member trolling our website objected to a song on one of our 13 albums called "Hey Coach, Don't Call Me a Queer." (Which is, ironically, about tolerance.) Passing through Spokane, I think of the late Charles Schlesinger, local NPR DJ (Jazz with Chazzwho came to our holiday shows at the Triple Door in Seattle and subsequently helped us find a venue here. A great guy whose liver failed before he got a second transplant... RIP, Chazz. 

I pull into the first campsite in Sagle, ID, on Jerry and Becky Luther's land, and am immediately transported. The Luthers' house is full of stuffed animals and carefully crafted ducks and show puppets, which they perform with. The workshop where they build them is downstairs - Paul is using it as an office. The lawn and gardens are transformed into a mobile kitchen and meeting site. It's incredible, I add my camping chair to the mix, regretting I didn't bring our second one as I happily watch it become absorbed into the Chair Borg around the campfire site. I'm sad that several of my Seattle and Oregon Country Fair pals (Eben, Heather and Nancy) who usually do this tour aren’t here this year, but excited to meet a whole new tribe of amazing folks, who arrive in shifts from Seattle, Portland, Eugene, etc.

It is so great to see our band and choir leader, Young Stephen Bent (as I call him), with whom I last sang in New York, at Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's 2012 Holiday Show at City Winery. I'd put together a kind of faux Bobs quartet with original Rockapella bass Barry Carl, Blue Jupiter baritone Jonathan Minkoff and Stephen to sing the Beatles Chanukah parody I penned, 8 Days. This will be a little different! I'm also told there are no mosquitoes here. (This is a lie, but I am so hypmotized by the vibe, I kind of don't care...)

Stephen starts the first band rehearsal, on the Luther's huge front lawn
Wed 7/16 Sagle/Sandpoint

My new favorite stoopid pic,
with Young Stephen Bent
My first morning meeting (and probably the longest one of the tour) - everyone introduces themselves. Buckstops are assigned (who is responsible for what), the kitchen volunteer board is brought out, and the show committee is announced (Me, Stephen, Paul, my Port Townsend pal, "delusionist" Joey Pipia and sometime Karamazov/musician/promoter and Mud Bay Juggler Harry Levine, who I will come to know and love immensely). Paul’s first script is handed out, apparently the first real script in years after many summers of variety/vaudeville shows with emcees. I'm both happy to ad lib with Paul as one of the semi-scripted emcees AND happy to be back in one of his pun-filled extravanganzas of history and silliness. Rehearsals for basically everything go on all day, with costume consultations. NOW I get it! It's got the fun vibe and "hey, we're in the woods to have fun" sensibility of the Oregon Country Fair shows I did at Stage Left, but is MUCH quieter at night, and (blessedly) devoid of badge-wielding, path-blocking Nazis in tye-dye saying you can't access the back way through the woods to get to your own show because your "performer pass" doesn't allow it. (Did I say that or just think it? Hmmmmm.) These people are working together for one common cause. I sign up for four kitchen clean-up shifts and start learning my music.

Overheard at the vaudeville show committee meeting: "Which act's he gonna do?" "The glowing balls." "Oh yeah, that's good." I leave most of the decisions up to the guys since I am unfamiliar with most of these acts - I just met most of these performers and had no time to look at videos that were sent around in e-mails. But I will help with “Faith wrangling” - stage-managing all of the women who play Faith Petric at certain ages in the show - helping them get miked, making sure they know where to stand, etc. I also get to work with young Vivian, who plays Faith at age 9. She's nervous. I think I can help her. :)

The Vaudeville show finale
Stephen runs the band through the full arrangement of "Clara Tweaker's Battle Hymn." YES! I am really glad I lugged my craptastic keyboard up here and am happy to lug it from town to town. Bent has done a stellar job fleshing out the chart I gave him, and actually with ALL of the music - he's an incredible conductor/teacher. Aside from his juggling, singing, and songwriting talents. It's no surprise that he's so wonderfully funny, attentive and downright kind in these rehearsals. The choir (one of his additions this year), learns his “Amazing Grace” arrangement. He comments, “If you noticed that the choral parts for the second verse are the same as the choral parts for the first, you are correct. If you sang different notes in the second verse, you may wish to rethink your strategy.”

Stephen's also very excited about the "Anvil Chorus," which was done, anvil and all, in one of the original Chautauquas. John Cloud is pictured, below, diligently providing the Fisher Price version of the anvil slamming for rehearsals at the Luther compound.

Assorted pics from our Sagle rehearsals. (Clockwise from L: the horn section in the garage/rehearsal room, a evil costume, the kitchen crew prepping dinner, proof that I was at the rehearsal in the garage - the crazy kitteh notebook at bottom - Chautauquan dining, and John anvilling).

Thu 7/17 Sagle/Sandpoint

Clay Mazing rehearses "Shrapnel of Love"
Stephen and the band
More rehearsals at the Luther compound. The band has invaded the garage for maximization of shade. it's 15 degrees cooler here than in town (tall trees?) but the sun still packs a wallop.

I am drafted as a backup singer for the funky 70's tune "Car Wash.” Kym sings as Scramble juggles glow-in-the-dark balls!

Stephen, Daniel, Harry, Rod, Carey, Phina and Sophie Pipia (Joey's uber-talented daughters, who I last saw as teens when The Bobs played in Port Townsend, WA many years ago!) start work on the cool 8-part a cappella arrangement of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" Stephen e-mailed us. His fiance Shannon will join later. It's really lovely. We're told that Ty is going to do a ridiculous and hysterical "interpretive dance" during our emo-somber singing. I look forward to seeing that!

I suggest we add all of the available women to sing the chorus of my suffragette song to involve more people in the show AND make it pack more of a wallup (it works!). Paul continues revising the script.

Tour graphic designer/flutist/uke player/singer Fiona and I have a driving adventure tracking down the flyers for the tour at the Ponderay (uh, yes, that's the Americanized version of Pend Oreille) Staples, we head over to the first community potluck of the tour. It's in the park along Lake Pend Oreille, just outside of the Bonner County Heritage Museum. Paul contributed material to their amazing exhibit on Chautauqua history.  

There's a teaser show... Friends from Seattle are there... and we hand out the flyers for the workshops and show as the crowd erupts in smiles. Scramble, the Three of Clubs jugglers, Drea-lusion and Joey Pipia perform, as does the marching band. We all buzz the museum and check out the exhibit.
Three of Clubs

The view from the lobby of the museum
The view OF Daniel (stilt man)


Then, a choir rehearsal in the trees by the lake, with some singers from Sandpoint, who will join us in the show for Amazing Grace and the Anvil Chorus. Here's a video of what it's like to discover a rehearsal in the woods. Apologies for the pixellation!

Fri 7/18 Sagle/Sandpoint

Taking residents of the Sandpoint Assisted Living Facility
"Over the Rainbow" with Kym, Fiona and Somer Joe
The day I find out how an audience reacts when a marching band enters a care facility, or a supermarket... and how it feels to be part of that happy parade.

I head out to the first community shows of the tour at Evergreen Assisted Living and another care facility - this one with an aviary - in Sandpoint. Then we buzz two supermarkets. It's hysterical and amazing. I'm in the back of the parade, taking pix and handing out flyers to the most surprised, astonished and... sometimes dancing patrons, who can't wait to find out about the workshops and show. Seriously, this is OLD SCHOOL COOL..


Sandpoint selections (below): 

The band at a senior care facility we visited  -  What is a Vandeville Extravaganza?

Jerry and his ducks, escorted by Ty  -  Chloe, Josh, Skip and Clara are mesmerized by the aviary

Nate is the Squid Bass  -  Do not feed the band!


Rio ensnared  -  The ducks: Billy, Milly, Silly and... Sheriff John

Clay Mazing serenading an unsuspecting lady at a care facility... they always melted!

Pom and Kathy

I met Robin years ago at the Oregon Country Fair. She's one of the producers of Trash Fashion, a show featuring amazing clothing made from recyclable materials. We decide to take a lovely walk downhill from the Luther's land to a nearby beach on Lake Pend Oreille. It's gorgeous despite the eerie haze from fires burning in the Cascades and Eastern Washington. Ty takes a long dip in the lake, and his partner Carey comes down to rehearse her aerial act once he secures her trapeze from a nearby tree. It's all gorgeous. We head back uphill and I reach into my pocket to get my phone to take a picture screen of the wall of tall green in front of us and..... my phone cracks irreversibly when it tumbles onto an asphalt country road . I yell "FUCK!" very loudly, in the middle of Idaho. The touch-screen action is destroyed, and it's also locked, and I'm in the middle of Idaho, soon bound for the middle of western Montana. So whereas I have no service anyway... Damn all of you people for making me get a smartphone that I ended up USING and particularly loving for its camera/videos/etc.!

After I finish kicking myself, I plan to get a burner phone tomorrow at WalMart, forward my calls to it and not deal with this until I get back to Los Angeles in 10 days. Alex says I'll be just like Omar on The Wire. Except in my case, no one was harmed. LIFE'S RICH PAGEANT!

Sat 7/19 Sandpoint, ID

After the Marching Band parade lured them to our entertaining trap, Emcee Joey Pipia welcomed
the crowd at the Sandpoint Beach to our teaser show
Faeries did not magically restore my phone's screen overnight, but nonetheless I have the power to act in a way not entirely unlike a fairy today...

Today, I marched and danced through downtown Sandpoint, Idaho in a parade of jugglers, amazing cirque de soleil -like puppets, acrobats, clown-like persons (not "clowns" in the scary sense but astounding physical comedians), and The Fighting Instruments of Karma Marching Chamber Band/Orchestra. I am here to tell you, it was magical. In this era of screen-obsessed detachment and debatable digital "connection," this was really moving. And I don't just mean "moving down the street with a police escort." Among the many locals who joined us, a woman dressed in rainbows who couldn't contain her excitement grabbed my sunblock-drenched arm said, "I have ALWAYS wanted to do this!" The look on people's faces was something I will never forget. The unabashed joy... it made me well up...and would continue to do so the whole time.

Chautauqua offers free community workshops, too - for peeps aged 4-104. In Sandpoint, they were held in Farmin Park (where the, uh, Farmin Market is). During the tour, they included Acrobatics, Clowining, Drums and percussion, Face Balancing (?), "Everything is a Puppet," The History of the Chautauqua Movement (lecture by Paul Magid), Hula Hooping, Instrument Making, Juggling, Life Behind Barbed Wire (Joannie Murayama's presentation about her mother's experiences in a Japanese internment camp in WWII), Loving Your Watershed: Keeping your Lymphatic System Moving (Kym Trippsmith), Mask Making, Slacklining, Soft Shoe/Tap Dancing, Song Swap and Ukelele. The parade ended at the park, and the workshops began. I peeked into the lectures, held at a nearby coffee shop, and lingered at the park after snarfing one of the best bratwursts of my life from a food truck.

Our first show of the tour, at the historic Panida Theater...packed and full of wonderful. The line clear around the block made me really happy for all of the people in the show who don't normally do this - the kids, the non-performers. And what a way to kick this off.  My singing suffragette, Clara Tweaker was a big hit (pic by bandleader Stephen Bent). All of the kids did great. And the audience went nuts. Truly a great first Chatauqua show.

We sing one of Faith Petric's anthems as the finale, altogether. I heard Faith do "It's a Pleasure to Know You" at Stage Left at the Oregon Country Fair, where I first met the Karamazovs. I thought it was a nice tune and that's about it. Looking around onstage, I realize how truly unique this experience is - the song is about Chautauqua now - all of the incredible people on tour and in the towns. 

It's a pleasure to know you, a pleasure to see you smile/A comfort to know we'll share the road awhile/ Pleasure is fleeting, and comforts are far between/It's a pleasure to know you, and the comfort you bring.

I only wish I had my freakin' phone so I coulda taken pictures! None of the pix from this point on are mine. They are all stolen!  LOL... 

Sun 7/20/14 Sandpoint, ID to Libby, MT

An OOOH/AAAH drive w/Annie and Chloe – I am glad to share the experience with these two great gals from Arcata and they are glad to be in a private vehicle for awhile. The Green Bird and the Shiner Van, "official" tour vehicles are fun to ride in with a gang of goofballs - but for town to town excursions, this is likely a more comfortable deal. We yak about Northern California - Arcata is one of my favorite places. The Bobs played at Humboldt State in my last years with them, Alex and I have a huge history with the Samoa Cookhouse... but that's a blog in itself. And I have the first of many popcorns - $0.79 for a giant, fresh-popped bag at all of these gas stations! What the?!?!

We get to Libby before anyone else on a foggy day, and buzz the Pizza Hut. I am only interested in the internet at McDonald’s. Glad I still have a laptop since I still have to do editing work and maintain contact with the outside world.

People start showing up later, and we help unload the truck. The promoter has secured the huge Libby Memorial Hall building for the campsite. Part of a school complex, it has a huge real kitchen and... bathrooms! Tents go up on the huge lawn as the sun lingers long past 8pm, making an incredible backdrop for the Libby community potluck at sunset. It's breathtaking, and long as we are so far north - incredibly close to Canada. I lug the keyboard out and play along in a mini-jam as the food's set up. The local high school music teacher is here - she's bringing some students to sing in the choir. How cool is that?

Mon 7/21/14    Libby

Poor sleep – it was too hot - but the day awaits... 

At at the morning meeting, two women from the Center for Asbestos Related Disease come to talk to us about Libby, a Superfund cleanup site  once dubbed "The town left to die," by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. There is no danger now - the asbestos has mostly been removed, and you have to be exposed long-term to be affected. The town lost 15% of its population in the ensuing years, and many, many people who did not die from related poisonings are affected with chronic conditions that continue to surface, since this kind of poisoning can be dormant for decades. The PBS documentary, Libby, Montana tells the town's heartbreaking story, summed up by one of the directors here: "Libby is a hardworking, blue-collar community that personifies the American Dream, but the story we had to tell was about the dream gone horribly wrong. Industrialists, politicians, workers and ordinary citizens all play a role in this American tragedy."  It is our goal to bring some much-needed cheer and escape to these people, who welcome us with open arms.

We do community shows at the Libby Care Home and Log Cabin Building, followed by parades through the Ace Hardware and Rosauer’s Grocery. It's still pretty great.... why do I tear up each time? Alex and I once went to an event at a bookstore in Santa Monica where there were life-size Wild Things from the Maurice Sendak books. He and I have several kinds of these monsters at home. We were the only adults at the event who came without children (a normal occurrence for us). When the creatures appeared, I started crying and couldn't figure out why. It just made me happy.  This is kind of like that.

Tue 7/22/14     Libby

GREAT sleep – I figured out the best fan placement, so it was FINALLY nice and cool. Breakfast at 9. I'm signing up for a ton of breakfast cleanup shifts because I really like hearing people talk about the day ahead as we clean up, and it's not that hot out. People are excited to begin the day. Although eventually my hands will feel like they're falling off because there are no dishwashing gloves, I kind of don't care. : )

I do laundry at Moody’s, a place on the main drag as the skies open up, and it takes too long, so I miss the downtown parade - during which easy-ups are employed! Attendance isn't great, obviously, but we are undeterred. The market and hardware store parades were really effective. All workshops are moved inside Memorial Hall. Paul and the show committee meet to figure out notes and I help with teching onstage and sound stuff. Walking through the gym, I see Scramble’s glow-in-the-dark juggle balls plugged in, charging in a wall outlet. Now, THAT would be a funny picture... grrr

Time to do the show!
Paul and Harry and I wonder if we should tell folks who don’t do theatre to expect “second show syndrome.” We don’t do it. And the show is great! Much more packed than expected - the store parades paid off. And the Anvil bangers in the Anvil Chorus rise from below the stage on a scissor lift...  Ha!  It was Ty and Carey's last show, so there will be some show committee meeting and reshuffling.  They have to get back to Seattle for a gig. Hey, that'll be me on July 30... Chautauqua is an all-volunteer effort, and we do all have to make "a living."

We have a mini-jam session onstage, after the show and I head back to my host's quiet neighborhood lost in thought about this town. I'm only blocks from the river, which I think they said is still unsafe.  I haven't asked Jolene about her house or her friends or the tragedy at all. Tonight, I have to hope we brought Libby some major joy. Days later, someone posts to the Chautauqua's FB page:

From a member of the Kootenai Heritage Council in Libby, MT:

Wow, what a great show and what a way to reach a community that is in need. We felt a sense of community that lacks so greatly in our area. People are coming up to us and thanking us for having you perform. Wanting to know when you will be back and missing you already. We have racked out brains to try to bring something to this community that would generate the warmth and appreciation that you achieved. I can not even express what it meant to me to watch my grand daughter give a solid standing ovation to the juggling act through their entire performance. She was elated. I had an elderly lady grab my arm at the end of the show and state "I am so happy I don't want to leave and I don't want them to go"!
Thank you for this wonderful event and hopefully we can have more.