Looking forward to The Frantics 30th Anniversary Show on December 7th has me looking back to my personal memories of The Frantics. I first met Dan, Peter, Paul, and Rick in the summer of 1980 when they appeared on the bill with Al Simmons, Don Harron and others at the Leacock Festival of Humour at the Orillia Opera House.
I was the stage manager for the festival. In particular I remember one night’s performance of “Smokey the Bear” a blackout sketch featuring Dan in a brown T shirt and forest ranger hat with Bear Ears. The sketch was a parody of those old PSA’s with tips on ways to prevent forest fires, never park your pinto over a campfire etc. and a great exit line, “the best way you can prevent forest fires Stay out of the F&#!ng woods!”
The sketch was performed in front of the main curtain to cover a stage change and usually lasted about a minute. One night the lights came up and the audience went wild. They were falling about just from seeing Dan. It took a long time for them to be quiet enough for Dan to get out his first line; “I’m Smokey the Bear” which set the audience off all over again. I thought Dan was struggling to get through the sketch, he did a funny ad lib rant about how this was his big scene in the show and the audience was wrecking it, which of course produced more howls of laughter.
Finally after about five minutes of pandemonium Dan got the second line out “Each year millions of lives are lost due to forest fires,” and he added “and that’s not funny!” which got another roar of laughter and we blacked out the lights to end the sketch. When Dan came off stage he ran over to me, I thought he was going to be pissed, but much to my surprise he thanked me for getting him out on a big laugh.
My first official show with The Frantics was in the fall of 1980. I got a call from Paul, they had a gig in Hamilton and could I come out and run the lights for them. As it turned out I was working until 5 so the guys went out early to set up and Pete came to pick me up. My first ride in the brown car.
We arrived with about 15 minutes before the doors opened, so the guys ran me through the whole show just doing the last line of each sketch so that I would know when to “pull” the lights. I was writing notes and trying to figure out the weird disco lighting board the club had. I was doing ok until Dan’s monologue “Furniture Wars” which I assumed was a quick blackout sketch, as it turned out it was a fairly complete autobiographical account of Dan’s early years growing up in Etobicoke. So there I was stuck with my finger poised over the sensitive blackout switch for more than seven minutes while this hilarious sketch went on and on and ….
I made it through the show ok, and I guess the Frantics liked having me around because they continued to call on me to run their lights for more tours and run outs.
In the early eighties The Frantics had a regular gig playing a circuit of Holiday Inn bars throughout southern Ontario. The first of these I did was in a place in North Toronto. The night would start with a band set, then the Frantics, a second band set, more Frantics and finally the band would close the night. Our first night was a Tuesday and there weren’t more than 10 people in the place when the band started, I thought this is going to be awful; comedy does not play well to an empty house. Forty minutes later when we came back into the room for the first set it was packed. The band had a great second set The Frantics killed their second set, we left as the band started their third set but I went back down to pack up some props about ten minutes later and the place was almost empty again. I felt sorry for the band having a great audience for their second set and then playing their closing to an empty room.
My early years with The Frantics were a lot of fun, I remain a fan of their work then and now, some of the memories are still quite vivid even if the some of the details have faded.
to be continued
Production Manager, TSO
When I first met The Frantics they had more than three hours of material that they could perform at the drop of a hat, and were writing more all the time. I was impressed that they took their writing so seriously, showing up every morning at the office. Frantic International World Headquarters was on McCaul Street near Baldwin back then. They were writing and re writing material every day and I was learning their stuff on the fly. Someone would say; “we’re putting in Pub Joke tonight do you know that one?” No “OK it’s all of us and the out is ‘Says he knew mom'”. I learned pretty quickly to set up my gear near the quick change area so they could let me know when they changed the set list mid show.
I have to say a few words about Paul Chato, not just because he promised to post my musings on the Frantics web site no matter how awful they are. Paul is a brilliant guy, an astute business man and a fearless comedian. I have never met anyone who laughs with his whole being the way that Paul does. When something strikes him truly funny you think he is going to shake his whole body apart. One of those times when Paul was overcome with laughter was a few years ago. Rick invited me to drop in while they were rehearsing downtown. Paul told a story I had forgotten, about those early years;
The first night Chris saw “the CN Tower Sketch”.
They deliberately didn’t tell me anything except it’s an interview and the out is “salt bins that look like giant tits”. The sketch was an interview with the architect of the CN tower who reveals his inspiration was completely phallic, and no matter how the interviewer (Rick) tries to steer the conversation away from graphic images the architect (Dan) always comes back with something more vulgar. As Paul told it he and Peter took great delight in watching me go from initial shock to slack jaw to near catatonic. It was the first time I had heard any of their blue material and I was stunned. Years later I was listening to the Radio show and was very surprised to hear The CN Tower sketch, totally amazing that the Frantics got that one on the radio.
Improvisation was not a big part of the Frantics live shows they were writers to the core, but every now and again they would throw in an improv set to challenge themselves or try out some bits. Paul is a great physical comedian, a regular feature of their improv was Paul’s appearance as a Sumo Wrestler.
Somewhere in the pre radio show days I discovered that I shared some off stage interests with the Frantics. On one particular night, I think it was Rick said; “We need to pack up quickly after the show, we have to get home to watch “The Sandbaggers”. I was already a fan of the show and said so. I think we ended up back at Rick’s apartment to watch the show, and tear down all the plot twists and details afterward.
As well as Rick’s obvious talents as a producer, actor and writer he was, and probably still is a very skilled close up magician. I recall sitting at a bar one evening waiting for the house to open, Rick with a deck of cards and me trying to pick a card. Try as I might to catch him he always “forced” the card he wanted me to have. The other cards Rick manipulated with great skill were the 3 x 5 index cards that were used to compile a set list. The Frantics always worked collaboratively but as I saw it Rick was the one who built the set list and the rhythm of the shows.
The main thing about the Frantics writing was that they were completely at ease with to writing and re writing each other’s material. Scripts would get passed from one to the other and go through so many re writes that it was hard to tell where it had started. In all of the script meetings I never once saw someone upset about their work being taken in another direction. It was understood that if a re write had taken the sketch away from your intent it was your job to re write again and convince the group it was better.
Somewhere in here we did a show at the Rivoli cafe on Queen Street. It was produced by Wordsworth & Cullen who were the Artistic Directors of the Leacock Festival. I have two vivid memories of that show;
The first was the day Dan came in with a new sketch he had written the previous night. He refused to tell us about it. We had to see it. So he got me on the light board, and told me my cue. He got set backstage. I put up the lights he walked on and said;
“Are you afraid of bicycles? Don’t be!”
I blacked out the lights. After a moment of stunned silence we all started laughing, and the sketch was in, perhaps the only one that did not get a re write.
The second was that the club had a phone between backstage and the booth, every night Rick would wait until just before I had a cue and call me, just to talk. Rick took great delight in trying to throw me off my game.
To be continued
Production Manager, TSO
In 1981 The Frantics moved to Radio, the first episodes were taped at Yuk Yuks but soon moved to the Auditorium of the Ontario College of Art. I remember an early script meeting with the CBC staff, there was one sketch that had a run-on ending, there was a note in the script somewhere in there Chris will pull the lights. That didn’t sit too well with the Producer David Milligan who wanted a nice finite ending, but the Frantics held their ground and we taped it without a defined last line. Just like in the live shows I waited for a big laugh and blacked out the stage, after that the CBC folks were more accepting of the Frantics way of doing things.
By this time Frantic World Headquarters had moved to more spacious accommodations. The offices were in style and spirit very much like what fans saw on the 4 on the Floor TV series, including the Hungry Hippo game in the board room. As you might expect Peter’s office was humming with music, Rick’s bursting with paper, Paul’s jam-packed with technology and Dan’s was, well- chock-full of Dan.
The radio show introduced several new players to the performance several ladies who brought the shows to a new level. I am grateful to have known them.
First among equals was Cathy Perry the brilliant CBC sound effects technician who worked live onstage playing off the boys like a musician. Back then CBC had everything on Cart tapes, sort of like an 8 track in size, along with the stack of tapes Cathy would bring an amazing assortment of props and tools to create sounds.
Maggie Butterfield was the first girl allowed in the Frantics’ club house. Then, Carolyn Scott replaced Mag as the female performer in residence. I first met Carolyn during a Toronto Revival of Godspell, she is an exceptionally talented singer, actress and comedienne full capable of holding her own on stage with the Frantics.
Later Mag Ruffman, who went on to great fame as a tool girl extraordinaire appeared in the broadcasts.
I remember the Radio show as a lot of fun. The OCA room had an old autotransformer lighting board, huge coils attached to big handles that worked on resistance, not designed for quick blackouts. The morning after the first show there my shoulders were so sore it felt like I had dislocated both of them. For many years after I had on my resume Lighting Director, Frantic Times CBC Radio. Because I was not part of the CBC crew I did not receive a credit at the end of the show but Peter always included a comment to my mother Mrs. Walroth at the end of the broadcast. One time I made a trip home after shaving off a beard I had worn since high school. I found it remarkable that my family did not seem surprised; “Well we expected it,” said my mom “The Frantics told us you shaved.”
To be continued
Production Manager, TSO
Part IV (the last one, Chris promises)
Near the close of the 1983 radio season I made the decision to move my career back towards the theatre. While I still enjoyed working the Radio show the guys were looking to Film and Television projects and the touring had given way to the grind of writing all of that material for the Radio Show. I went off to be the Technical Director of the first Dream in High Park.
I got one more chance to work with The Frantics when Guy Sprung invited them to put a show on the Berkley Street Theatre, Main Stage. It was great fun. I think that show was the debut of the people inside your walls, I don’t remember a lot of the details of the show beyond, it’s opening with a puppet named Mr. F#$k Off.
The hardest part of writing this was finding an end, perhaps because it’s not over. I continue to enjoyed the individual and collective appearances of the Frantics as a fan. I try to catch them live whenever I can, even now when I risk a repetitive strain injury from laughing.
Looking forward to the 30th Show, my top ten hope to see things are;
- Star Trek; a Chato & Green classic.
- Einstein; another classic from the old days.
- Bill from Bala
- Monty from Grade Three
- You scare the…; Dan’s country & western classic.
- The thing Peter does with a water bottle, for a very verbal guy this silent surreal bit gets me every time.
- Anything with Puppets
- Something completely new and surprising
- Cell Train; one of my favourite new sketches
- Lots of friends to share the laughter and memories.
Thanks Guys, Mr. Chris….
PS. Just got home after the Frantics 30th show at the Royal. A chance to catch up with old friends, and have a laugh. Was disappointed that everyone seems to have aged more gracefully than me. A perfect mix of old and new sketches. and the video opening was a great look back. Nice to be in a full house of fans and friends that share a common bond. Had a great time and looking forward to the next show….