UCLA Royce Hall
hanks so much for Mark's latest Bruin piece. Perhaps I've mentioned before that Full Moon often brings word of Firesign. Well, the morning of the afternoon your letter arrived, I was out buying tickets for the Firesign Theatre at Royce Hall,
UCLA, 8:30, April 9. (Thus, giving up all but the first 15 minutes of FILMEX sneak-preview, The Abdication, apparently a classic film but with no credits, as it is still being edited, from Warner Bros.; as well as FILMEX finale, the 1921 Three Musketeers, with full live orchestra).
The UCLA ticket people told the people in front of me that the house was sold out almost no tickets left. The story Tuesday eve, however, was that Columbia was holding a good many seats until it was obvious the record people weren't going to use them. Thus, I had seats in Row N, while friends who went to UCLA on a lark at the last minute, got 3rd row seats. Oh, well, Row N was not at all a bad place to sit. There were many old and familiar faces some were personal friends from my past who renewed communication lines, some were De-Lux Radio Theatre (The Duck Brothers), some were Grassroots from the Space Party (two years ago Thursday of this week), some were the usual anonymous Firesigners, plus Paul T. and Mark L.
Later, I discovered Sid Caesar
had been present.
The show they presented was the one outlined. It is a record promotion tour/act. The tour poster, which is a delight, includes cover photos of all Firesign ventures. Including Austin's (due in LA stores Friday of this week), and audience response at old favorites is warm, indeed.
This time, the stage has no backdrop. There are 4 chairs and 4 microphones, a minimum of props (which were mostly costume props), and enough costume piece changes to help the audience follow character changes and plot line. Robes, hats, pants, coats, noses, masks, all tell the Firesign stage-visuals story. It is not a David Bowie extravaganza, but costume changes are just as smoothly executed, and may be over-all more effective because they enhance the acting, rather than do the acting for the group. Aside from blackouts, spots, and area lighting, production was kept simple. The one venture into spectacular was a small explosion near the finale, when Dr. Memory short-circuits.
With simplicity the production keynote, the acting has to be strong, in any given theatre piece. The Firesign is no exception. There are only four male bodies on that stage, but there is no reason to doubt the presence of a cast of 50 men and women. Broadly physical gestures and character movements which are not repetitive aid in the illusion. Each character is, however bizarre, his own 3-D being, with voice, personality, and movement. The one exception seems to be Phil P's "Clem." Clem stands out as almost a non-character, which he is, indeed. However, Phil has given Clem nothing beyond an intense naturalness. This reality may be the reason it is hard to accept Clem, as he is near the end of the show; after we have come to believe so many bizarre things are real, it's more difficult to accept normal things as real. (Akin to the almost black and white world one faces after an evening of hallucinating or smoking heavily). So that's not entirely Phil's fault.
Also on the performing end, the show has music. The four guys are very musical especially the two Ps. The show may indeed need a bit more music or in the case of revered favorites, a slower tempo for audience sing-along. There was a verse to "Back from the Shadows" I hadn't heard before, but that was the only new music I spotted.
Strangely enough (or perhaps not, if you give it some thought) the script is the weakest part of the show not the bits. They are all tested and true, and the new lines usually work (especially the lines which have grown out of working again with the material). What doesn't seem to work so well (which almost everyone is willing to forgive, however) is the transitional material, the skeleton upon which hang the various bits, the new lines within the sketches that relate to the external structure. Perhaps the greatest problem is that the finale does not seem to jive with the opening.
The show opens as a tour through Firesign World, a sort-of Long Beach Pike or Disneyland in 4000 AD.
David is our guide, and it appears that he is going to take us on various and sundry of the rides and attractions, that he will be our transition piece throughout. Some of the early bits are stopped by David before they get too upsetting for us (after all, this is only a tour, a sample), and it all seems very valid. He has control over the robots and holograms, and he, too, of course, is a hologram.
But, somewhere, this premise gets shuffled. Into the second act, which we can only assume is more of the same, the world goes BOZO, and it is no longer exactly a tour of Firesign World. It may be an extended ride, or it may be an entirely new piece. We're not quite sure, so I wonder if they are. Maybe another viewing would clear up my mind, as the program (which doesn't exist except in your newspaper) does not label Act 2 as The Future. If, then, Act 2 is a separate piece, why does the tour not have an ending? If Act 2 is a separate piece, why does it end after Dr. Memory explodes the entire amusement area, with the old guy (David) wandering in and in essence telling the kids not to play around the ruins anymore, and would they like to hear some stories about the past? (They don't). So, we've gone from Disneyland to The Santa Monica Pier (a burned-out, wasted ruin, left to rot by bureaucratic bullshit, that was once one of the best amusement parks on the west coast) without the benefit of transition. With this build not visible, the finale is not viable, there is no real unity. But, as I say, maybe a second viewing would clear up some of these things for me. I was a bit dazzled, just seeing the four guys on stage; seeing all the old gang; and being at FILMEX
from 11AM-7:30 PM that day. So the over-all effect is one of "Gee, that was great, but..." And the "but" is the problem.
The guys are still not doing a lot of new material they could include some Giant Rat (but then maybe that's another tour). They could do something about the encore, as "Toad Away" doesn't quite act as a closer (it isn't strong enough). It's still early in the tour, and the material is still being "set." After this first tour leg, it's quite possible they will re-work some material before going into Carnegie Hall (which is finally definite).
It isn't possible to see this show (for me, anyway) without comparing it to the intensity of the Space Party. It probably isn't a fair comparison due to many factors:
1. This is a tour / that was a one-shot
2. Then, they were performing on a regular basis / now, they are just getting together on stage after 2 years
3. This is being done in regular theatres / that was done in, essentially, a lecture hall with floor seating
5. This is mainly old material re-worked, or record material we are familiar with / that was essentially newer material, and most of the audience was unfamiliar with it, having only heard it once or twice on the radio
6. This comes after a communication breakdown within the group and is for money and fame / that came before the breakdown and was for the fun of it.
So you see this is a record promo tour, not an act. I'm drawing a fine line between the two, but I think it is an apt one. Other tours, other shows even the Space Party felt like the radio show, with the visuals making it like a movie or cartoon in texture. This particular tour feels more structured, the calculations are more apparent. Probably all this is simply craziness, and I'm digressing and dissecting for naught. But, I wanted you to know there was finally a show, and that it was a very good show. There were wine and cookies after, and all are essentially happy and well, and send their best.
There was an immediate standing ovation at the end of the show, shouts for "more, more." Mark L. said they were planning to do the "Indian Piece" for encore, ended up doing "Toad Away."
I'm enclosing Bruin ad. Note, they appeared at record store rap session on Monday night. I had to work, but evidently it was crowded and successful. There were also radio ads on KMET-FM. LA TIMES on Tuesday listed the "Today's Performances" as Firesign Theatre at Royce Hall, but the text explained it was Proctor and Bergman only. Several folk at FILMEX saw that, and it was the deciding factor in sending them to FILMEX rather than Royce Hall.
It's now Thursday, and if I don't finish this, you'll never get it.
Keep in touch, or write, or phone around 10 some evening, or visit.