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Hitched to a Fallen Star

New vaudevillians find inspiration in the wild and woolly story of Fatty Arbuckle.

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In 1998 Second City producer Kelly Leonard walked by a locked cabinet on the third floor of the theater company's Wells Street headquarters for the last time. "It had been there as long as I'd been there--since at least 1992," he says. "It had been bugging me. No one knew what it was, and no one had the key to it, so I broke into it." Inside he found a trove of old Second City scripts, some audiotapes, and a bunch of reel-to-reel film.

"So we track down this projector, put it against a blank wall, and it was all these Fatty Arbuckle tapes," he says. "All silent shorts. Classic pie-in-the-face, fat-man-sitting-on-chairs-and-breaking-them stuff." One featured Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, an actress and comedienne of early films, at the San Diego Exposition. Another had Arbuckle in drag at Catalina Beach, playing an heiress being pursued by fortune-seeking suitors. There were about 12 films, all from the mid-teens. It turned out they'd been used to entertain customers in the Second City beer garden. Leonard knew little about Arbuckle at the time, but he thought the films were "cool." He just didn't know what to do with them.

He remembered seeing John Fournier in an ImprovOlympic show some six months before. That "barely charming" show consisted, as Fournier recalls, of Fournier performing his songs, punctuated by scenes acted out by ImprovOlympic performers. "The music really blew me away," Leonard says, "and the guy who really impressed me was the guy sitting behind the piano, John Fournier. So I called John and said, 'Hey, I have this idea. What do you think about scoring these movies?'"

Leonard's timing was perfect. "I was looking to get involved in the theater," says Fournier, a 35-year-old singer, songwriter, and musician. "I was looking for a project." What eventually came out of their collaboration is Fatty Arbuckle's Spectacular Musical Revue, which debuts after six years of work on Tuesday at Martyrs'.

As a teenager growing up in Oak Park, Fournier discovered Chicago's theater scene. One 1986 Steppenwolf show, Frank's Wild Years--cowritten by and starring Tom Waits--stuck with him. "I'd just never seen anything like it, the way the music was incorporated, the power of the music," he says. "When I saw it I said, 'Wow! I can do that!'"

After getting a BA in jazz saxophone and an MA in music education from the University of Miami, Fournier found himself "yearning for theater" and a vibrant music scene and convinced his wife, Mary Davis Fournier, whom he'd met in high school, to return to Chicago. When they got here in 1996 he put together a band and started playing out at places like Schubas, the Metro, and Martyrs'. He released two CDs: Roll Your Soul All Over the Place in 1997 and Breakfast at Epiphany's in 1998. One critic called Fournier "a poor man's Dave Frishberg." Another dubbed him "the bastard child of Randy Newman and Louis Armstrong."

When Leonard showed him those early Arbuckle two-reelers, Fournier was fascinated. "I had never seen anything like it before," he says. "They would just sort of set up a camera and they would run around. What I loved was they just looked and felt so surreal. They weren't funny like The Three Stooges is funny. They were just strange."

He'd heard unpleasant rumors about Arbuckle, so he did some research. "I discovered that his real life was something of a circus," he says, "and that he led this quintessential American life--one of those lives where one day seems to be a lifetime. From 1899 to 1921 he just seemed to be everywhere, meeting people, having quite a life. Then the scandal started in 1921 and that's a whole 'nother story, which was also great."

The facts on Arbuckle start and end ugly. In 1899, when he was 12 years old, five-foot-seven, and 200 pounds, his mother died. He was sent off to San Jose with a sandwich and a cardboard suitcase to live with his father, who'd left Arbuckle and his mom to make a fortune in the gold rush. "He was a drunk and a failure," says Fournier, and in fact he'd taken off before Arbuckle got to town. The boy ended up at the local hotel, living in a cabinet and doing odd jobs in exchange for room and board. When the hotel's lounge singer heard him singing on the job, she sent him to the local amateur night. In his first performance, he was about to be pulled from the stage when "he does this perfect acrobatic flip into the orchestra pit and gets this enormous response for dodging the hook," Fournier says. "The local theater takes a shine to him, and he becomes Roscoe A., Boy Singer."

Arbuckle's career took off and he toured Asia, starring in The Mikado. His next stop was the emerging world of film. "In 1913, he ends up at Mack Sennett's studio and he's working for $5 a day as one of the Keystone Cops," says Fournier. "Mack was building his Keystone empire at that time. Fatty was a cornerstone of it, along with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. He becomes a national celebrity, one of the first."

By 1921, Arbuckle was making a million dollars a year and had artistic control over his work. He'd served as a mentor to Buster Keaton. But it all came crashing down that Labor Day weekend when Arbuckle and two associates rented three rooms at a San Francisco hotel for what Fournier describes as "a wild party with drinking." Among the guests was a young woman named Virginia Rappe, famous as the girl pictured on the sheet music for "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." A few days later she died in the hospital. Arbuckle had been alone with her for about ten minutes. He was accused of rape and charged with manslaughter.

Three official trials ensued. The first two resulted in hung juries. In the third, Arbuckle was acquitted. But that was hardly the end of his troubles.

"The other trial that happened was run by William Randolph Hearst and his great yellow journalist empire," says Fournier. "He did what the National Enquirer might do today--he put the Arbuckle story on the front page every day, long after the acquittal. His great quote is: 'I made more money off the Arbuckle scandal than the sinking of the Lusitania.'" Arbuckle lost this trial decisively.

Moviemakers feared the public's reaction to the scandal. Arbuckle was cut loose by Paramount and blacklisted by the heads of other studios. His movie career was ruined. "He's their scapegoat," says Fournier. "There was a general feeling at the time that Hollywood was out of control--Charlie Chaplin dating underage girls, there were three or four things like that happening at the same time. Hollywood had to create the illusion they were going to do right by the public interests. So they hang [Arbuckle] out to dry and then they can go back to business as usual. Twelve years later he dies of a heart attack." When he died, Fournier discovered, Arbuckle had $2,000 to his name. "Buster Keaton said he died of a broken heart."

Fournier started scoring the films but found that "kind of boring" after a while. "His story seemed like a great one for a song cycle," he says. He started writing new songs, with different characters singing about the events in Arbuckle's life. He brought eight or nine songs to Leonard, who said, "You've got this great song cycle. You've done your research, why not do theater?" He even offered to produce the show.

That was the response Fournier had been hoping for. "Everything about [Arbuckle] I thought was worthy of the theater," he says.

Leonard hired a director and they put Fatty onstage for half a dozen Tuesday-night performances at the Second City E.T.C. in 1998. It was, Fournier recalls, "a very simple show." Fournier sat onstage, told Arbuckle's story, and sang songs. In the background he played clips of Arbuckle's films. The show was well reviewed, but Leonard says it wasn't quite there. "All of us had the same reaction: 'This is a musical,'" he recalls. "This performance piece wasn't it yet. There was something more to be said and done."

Leonard turned to Mary Scruggs, who runs Second City's writing programs, to write the book for the musical. But the next version of the show, a "sing and read" workshop with the actors holding the script and acting out scenes from Arbuckle's life, still didn't work. "It was boring," says Fournier. The focus on Arbuckle's biography mired the show in facts at the expense of drama. The audience was made up of people in the theater industry. "A lot of them said, 'This is very interesting. But you're too caught up in the details,'" says Leonard. "You can have an amazing story, but people don't want facts."

Fournier contacted Shade Murray, associate producer of Writers' Theater, and asked him to take a look at the show. "I hear the music, I'm inspired. I read the script, I'm less than inspired," recalls Murray. He saw potential in the piece, based most of all on Fournier's treatment of his subject. "John has a fascination with drunken losers who continue to fuck themselves up in spite of themselves," Murray says. "His onstage persona is so close to Arbuckle's. He has this broken-man thing that he does by deprecating himself and then he plays this wonderfully brilliant song and it just works everybody into this lather."

Murray agreed to rework and direct the show, selecting 22 of Fournier's songs that he thought had a strong tie to Arbuckle's story and bringing aboard Birgitta Victorson, a second director, and Sarah Gubbins, a freelance dramaturge.

The team confronted several more problems. One was the ten minutes when Arbuckle and Rappe were alone, which Murray calls "the missing footage." The other was how to resolve the two narratives from "the court of public opinion and the court of legal record."

Exploring Arbuckle's public face, Murray says they realized that "this is a man whose persona was his greatest downfall. He had made millions of dollars by portraying a naughty man-child who was constantly found hiding behind dressing screens in women's quarters. He was always getting himself into sexual mischief. He was a cad."

They also ran into Virginia Rappe's contradictory personas. Publicly she was America's sweetheart, staring out from everybody's piano. "Privately this is what we know about her," says Murray. "She drank to excess. When she drank she had paranoid delusions about being stalked. She had given all of the Keystone Cops on the Sennett lot such a bad case of venereal disease that Sennett had to close the lot and keep her off."

All these facts complicated the creative process. "We wanted to absolve ourselves of any responsibility of being biographers, because we are artists, not biographers," says Murray. "Also, we wanted to create a vaudeville experience where the entire show was a public performance, where the characters are performers."

"And that's when it became a musical revue," says Fournier. "That plot thing: it gets in the way. Who knew?"

Murray describes Fatty Arbuckle's Spectacular Musical Revue as a series of vaudeville sketches "inspired by the people and the events in Fatty Arbuckle's life." It's performed by Fournier, five musicians, five vocalists, five clowns, a sound-effects artist, and an emcee. Arbuckle is played by two performers: actor Tom Shea and Tributosaurus singer (and Sound Opinions producer) Matt Spiegel. Defiant Theatre member Stefanie Neuhauser plays Rappe. Alt-country star Robbie Fulks plays Hearst.

"What we didn't want to do in the show was make [Arbuckle] a saint or make him a villain," says Fournier. "We just wanted to present whatever we could find out. And what we ultimately found out was he was a great entertainer who was acquitted of a crime and made to pay for it anyway. The parallels are too obvious. One of these seems to happen every week."

That, in part, is what has kept Kelly Leonard on board all these years. "When John did the performance piece here originally, I remember watching it and saying, 'This is O.J. This is Martha Stewart,'" he says. "It's fiercely relevant."

The show at Martyrs' is still a test run. "We've got to get this thing up on its feet so people can see how amazing it is, and then we find the world in which it lives," says Leonard. "I don't think it's going be a touring show. But if it's going to be a sit-down show, is it going to sit down in a theater or clubs? The biggest thing a producer does is provide context for a show...and this has been a show in search of context."

Fournier's focus is on how the audience will receive this latest incarnation of his work. "I want them to watch it, have a great time, be entertained, forget their troubles," he says. "And the message I want people to leave with is: no matter what you thought Fatty Arbuckle did or what you heard about him, the fact is that what you're left with is his work, and it's funny."

Fatty Arbuckle's Spectacular Musical Review plays Tuesday, April 13 and 20, at 8:30 PM at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln; 773-404-9494 or 800-594-8499.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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