The set looks like a cheap Polynesian nightclub, with movie posters, bamboo shades, garish rugs, and a painted wicker bar. At center stage, four black women and three black men work themselves into an African-dance frenzy, goaded by three drummers. They're wearing street clothes and broad grins aimed at an imaginary audience. A woman hovering offstage wears a ball gown and a towering 16-inch turban that both appear to be made of red cellophane. At some point a clown shows up, accompanied by a short guy in a tuxedo; and the African dancers are replaced by a female rock singer playing keyboards who suddenly breaks off and grabs a set of bagpipes. Finally a blond woman eight months pregnant wades into the center of the chaos and calls a meeting. Welcome to the Friday Club.
It's 9 PM. At 10 o'clock sharp, the Friday Club will go on the air with its 200th live variety show. Although the one-hour program has been telecast from Evanston on cable TV each week for the past four years, there's an obvious tension in the air tonight as the crew gets ready for a two-hour anniversary special.
"It's six after. Fifty-four minutes to go."
"Steve, do you have flowers in your car?"
"What? Oh, I thought you said do I have flowers in my hair."
"We just need three flowers, three single things."
"Yeah, I got some roses in there."
"Where's Katie? Get her to this meeting, please."
"I just want to make sure I have this straight [to the clown]. You're going to come out and do some funny stuff, and then what?"
"Hey, Bob, try this on." The pregnant woman holds a wig in one hand, a crash helmet in the other. She's referring to the helmet.
"Do you have a bobby pin? No one wears those anymore, do they?"
"I'm going to say, 'To the Friday Club!'"
"Can everyone clink their glasses at the end?"
"Speaking of glasses, do we have glasses?"
By now a studio audience fills the three rows of metal folding chairs squeezed against the back wall. The crowd consists of kids, couples on dates, and older folks. Most of them seem to be here because they know someone involved with the show: one person is the wife of someone in the Muntu Dance Theatre, the African dance group, another is the brother of one of the show's hosts. The versatile keyboard/bagpipes player is now sitting in the second row with her two little girls. Sitting next to me is a woman in yellow whose enthusiasm is apparent but whose reason for being here is not.
A juggler from Iowa begins to warm up the audience with a running patter. "The show is going to start in just a few minutes. Are you all ready for the show to start? We'll make a few balloons for the boys and girls here before we start. Now I can actually make about 147 different animals with these balloons. They all look like dogs." The adults are politely amused; the kids squirm eagerly on the edges of their chairs.
The juggler continues making animal balloons while Chuck, one of the Friday Club members (basically they're unpaid volunteer staff), and Dave, the floor director, coach us on how to be a successful audience.
Chuck says, "We're going to rehearse right now. When he goes like this [Dave raises his arms in a touchdown gesture], you're going to go, 'Wow! Yes!' [claps vigorously]."
The audience claps wanly.
"We're going to try it again until you get it right. Someday maybe you'll be in an audience on a network show. Ready . . . go!"
Dave raises his arms to thunderous applause. The woman in yellow hoots encouragingly.
"Exactly. OK. Now, who's been here to the Friday Club before--anybody? Regulars?" He singles out the bagpipes player. "Are you not on the show?"
"Yeah, I am."
"I thought as much. She's in the audience, she's on the stage, she's everywhere."
"Two minutes. There's Mary [the producer], she's pregnant, so the show's got to go right or, God knows, it's on your head."
"Have fun, everybody."
An announcer opens the show by introducing the lineup and the four hosts for the evening, each of whom will host a half-hour segment. The first host, Mark Lazar, welcomes the Muntu Dance Theatre, who now wear African dress. They give an explosive performance. Tonight's house band, Like This (which has been providing musical backup to the introductions), follows with a number that sets the camera crew to tapping and bobbing with the beat. Then Paul Guinan comes on with a mock weather report from Evanston, complete with a roadkill advisory and a warning about the Dominick's parking lot situation. Michael Anthony, the comedy juggler from Des Moines, closes the first half hour with a routine calling for an audience volunteer. Although a five-year-old boy in front of me wants badly to be chosen, the juggler selects an attractive woman in jeans, who gracefully assists him.
From the perspective of the studio audience, the show itself is almost as confusing as the preliminary action. There are people onstage waiting to go on camera, people trying to get offstage without appearing on camera, and people waiting offstage to go onstage. During set changes, filler scenes are being shot in a couple of rooms down the hall; these can only be seen on the monitor. Sometimes the view in the main studio isn't clear because of the four cameras and their operators, the floor director, and the two kids following the hand camera to keep the cables from tangling. With all these distractions, we have to concentrate on being a good audience, laughing, clapping, and looking alert when the camera sweeps over us. By the end of the show, I don't have the attention span of a lab rat.
Kristin Pavkovik hosts the second half-hour segment, which features the outrageous fashions of designer Guy Taylor, played by performance artist/fashion designer Joel Klaff. The skit is a hit with the audience--my neighbor is in hysterics--and includes the lady in red cellophane; a man wearing a shag carpet affair; the Search for Serenity suit, its fabric stamped with a color photograph of trees; an Alpo suit designed like a bag of dog food; and an outfit like a gigantic pillow called the "Comfort Master." Then Like This plays another tune, followed by a meandering comedy sequence in which the hand camera trails after two performers through the studio halls to the building exit. Comedian Mark Vensky provides the last act of the segment; he's mildly entertaining until he abruptly runs out of time and must abort his routine.
So far the show has an engaging spontaneity that is awkward at worst, unpredictably funny at best. This isn't surprising considering it's an all-volunteer production: the show was planned--written and organized--just two days ago by the unpaid staff, although the unpaid guest performers have been lined up ahead of time. According to Mary Spalding, the show's producer, "We walk in Wednesday night and we have absolutely no idea what we're going to do; we write the show Wednesday night and perform it on Friday. Our show is never perfect. . . . we just don't have time to work out every detail." On the positive side, however, Spalding says, "Our show is tremendously energetic and kinetic. I think the reason our show is fun to watch is that people know it's live. Performers just put in that extra thing, I think."
Paul Guinan, the weatherman, is the show's third host, and he brings on the bagpipes/keyboard player, Mary Moran. Unfortunately, Mary's bagpipes are losing air and she can't blow more than a few notes out of them. She abandons them for the keyboards, where she fares better except for a technical problem that muffles the sound slightly. She's a good sport, though, and the audience gives her a big hand when she's through. Like This plays again, and then a comedy group, the Reckless Pigeons, does a short skit.
The final host, Gary Fox, interviews feature film writer/director Julia Cameron, who talks about her work on Taxi Driver and New York, New York. She has a disturbing habit of speaking to the cameras instead of Fox, which probably looks fine to a TV audience but looks like bad manners from our point of view. Finally some clowns from Bubble Gum Productions do a routine, and suddenly the show is over, the credits are rolling, and the cast and crew are milling about onstage under a rain of confetti. They seem elated and relieved as they dance, hug one another, and wave to the cameras.
The place is a mess, and while the members pitch in to dismantle equipment, fold up chairs, and sweep away confetti, some of them give their reactions to the show. Floor director and general troubleshooter Dave Seglin says, "There were no disasters, but there were a couple of technical guffaws. We lost the microphone on the lead singer in the band. And the host's mike screwed up for a little bit. And then someone stepped on my out cable and ripped it out so I could hear the producer but the producer couldn't hear me."
One of the camera operators, Joe Rosner, had his own technical problems. 'The focus unit broke on my camera halfway through the show, so I had to disassemble it, fix it, and reassemble it. There were a lot of little glitches, but with this show you've got to expect that."
"We had some problems, we always do have some problems," says host Gary Fox. But he reserves judgment on tonight's show until he can see the tape. "Until I see that and I can see the cuts, I can see what was taken when, sound, everything, how people look on camera--that's the Friday Club. This is a theatrical experience."
Host Paul Guinan says, "We always have problems with transitions, cuing, timing. But that's the kind of thing that you either have professional people working on the show for or lots of rehearsals. Actually it's surprising how good it is, considering that we don't do run-through rehearsals. What we do is essentially a first dress rehearsal, and if it comes off well, then we succeed."
After 200 consecutive shows, the Friday Club is finally taking a summer hiatus while producer Spalding has her baby. True to its off-the-cuff personality, the troupe has no script for the future. Guinan says, "In the fall it will be difficult to regain the momentum that we had. We only came this far because of the momentum. It's just sort of once you're into it, you just can't stop."