Stage Don’t touch that dial
The beloved Flagpole Radio Café returned to the stage in Newtown a cold winter evening after an extended hiatus, and it was the hottest ticket in town. The majestic 500-seat theater at the Edmund Town Hall on Main Street was packed, and the audience was ready to laugh, hear skits, enjoy the rootsy sounds of the Flagpole Radio Cafe Orchestra and smile at the stories and songs of the writer and comedian Tom Leopold.
It was as though this modern-day community tradition had never been away. The audience, skewed toward baby boomers, knew just what to expect, anticipating host Martin Blanco’s opening monologue as they settled into their seats, some with a glass of wine from the lobby concession. As the name suggests, the Flagpole Cafe is a variety show modeled on old-time radio shows of the 1930s and 1940s. And just like performers in radio’s golden age, the players gathered around microphones, reading from scripts they held in their hands. In the heyday of radio, of course, there was no visual component, but at Edmund Town Hall this night, the performers fed off the reactions of the live audience.
The whole show, which lasted about an hour and a half, was folksy and friendly, satiric but not mean. And that’s not by accident, says Blanco, the show’s executive producer, director, writer and cast member.
“When we started, we had the potential to bring people together for a shared experience at a live performance. We said, ‘Let’s create something and see if people come.’ And they did. For the baby boomers, it’s a comforting enterprise. And young kids like being out to see a live show.”
There were a series of skits, including a “Game of Thrones” parody based on characters in the Trump administration (you can guess the lines: build a wall around Kings Landing; King Joffrey enjoys “executive time,” etc.) Another was a riff on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A third sketch explored mistaken assumptions about male and female roles. Woven among the skits were musical performances by the orchestra — a troupe of local performers led by musical director Jim Allyn. Their sounds ranged from the blues to the Beatles.
This show’s featured performer was Leopold, whose storied career includes guest roles on “Mannix,” “Gunsmoke” and “Laverne and Shirley,” and almost getting the part of Fonzi on “Happy Days.” He later transitioned to writing and worked on “Seinfeld” and “Cheers.”
Leopold told stories and sang soft, gently comic songs. Flagpole Radio Cafe guests, says Blanco, are critical to the success of the franchise. Over the years, they’ve included Peter Yarrow, Livingston Taylor, Tom Chapin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Jonathan Edwards.
The genesis of Flagpole Radio Cafe developed from Blanco’s involvement on the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission in 2008, where he was part of the programming committee.
“I had an idea — why not do an old-fashioned variety show, with music and comedy, at the Edmund Town Hall, with people who performed locally and with guest artists,” he says. He fleshed out the idea with Barbara Gaines, the co-producer, plus Allyn and Robin Fitzgerald, who performed. They’d all spent their lives promoting cultural life in town, Blanco says. “I pitched this idea, and in about three seconds they all said they’d do it.”
Blanco, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, has a background as an arts administrator, stage director and teacher. In addition to that academic and professional background, he was a stay-at-home parent and had the ability to take the lead in developing the concept.
“It’s demanding,” he says. “I had flexible time — that’s the luxury of that.”
Ultimately, the project separated from the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission and formed a nonprofit, collaborating with the town on promotion of other municipal activities and of course, use of the town hall. Revenue ($35 per ticket) goes to the production, including equipment rental and technical costs. Performers and guests get paid.
In terms of the creative development, Blanco write most of the scripts, though sometimes other performers contribute material as well. “I certainly do all the typing,” he says.
The Flagpole Radio Café experienced two hiatuses. The first was after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, which traumatized Newtown as well as the entire country. Flagpole Radio Cafe performers Francine Wheeler and David Wheeler lost a son, 6-year-old Benjamin, in the shooting.
The more recent break was just that priorities shifted and life intervened.
“After doing this consistently for four years, you build a up a machine,” Blanco says. “Once we got out of the habit of doing that, it became tricky to do it ad hoc. Everyone had full-time jobs. Next thing you know a year goes by. Then someone else wasn’t free. It’s nothing more than life getting in the way—sometimes in a profound way and sometimes in an insidious way.”
But that’s all in the past, Blanco says hopefully, and a second winter-spring show is planned for April 6. October shows are in the works. The guest performer in April is the folk musician Lucy Kaplansky.
Tony Silber is a freelance writer.