When the "Saari Safari" bus rolls into Bemidji this Sunday, it will bring a bus load of theater lovers from Grand Forks, N.D., devotees of Steve Saari's original plays.
"Playing the Bill," an original musical by Saari and a Saarens Production, opens this week at the historic Chief Theatre in downtown Bemidji. Curtain time will be 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 through Aug. 27 and Monday, Aug. 29, and a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Aug. 28.
Saari, a North Dakota native, was the executive director of the Grand Forks Community Theater before re-locating to Bemidji. Although well known for his comedic penning like "Totally Necessary Men" and "Reunited We Fall," the genesis of this melodrama was more than 27 years ago. One of the players, who has been involved with the play since the beginning, Jackie Davis, plays the legendary Sarah Bernhardt.
In a telephone interview, Saari said he began to write the first few lines of the play on a pink (IBM) Selectric typewriter on Davis' dining room table when the character of Felicity Fairchild appeared from his fertile imagination.
And thus began one of the longest gestation periods; 20 years passed before Saari would again put pen to paper (probably a word processing system now) and develop this tribute to the grand era of vaudeville. Characters began to appear and lyrics to songs helped define them: the tiresome comic (Kevin Cease), the effete tragedian(Joel Ward), the long-suffering and determined stage manager (Chuck Deeter), the wealthy young man who is willing to underwrite a show (DeeJay Arens), the tragic silent movie star beleaguered by mental illness and addiction (Vicki Wangberg), the lonely cleaning woman who claims reality by imagining her dead actor son on the stage(Vicki Stenerson), a ballerina who dances to the music in her heart (Krista Stover) and the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Jackie Davis), a ghost who haunts the stage of the Orpheus Theater in a quandary about why she is being called back to earth.
"Vaudeville was rough and tumble," added Saari. "Not everyone could endure the struggle to the top or even make it to the lowest rung in a 'three-a-day tomato bed' (three performances a day) like the fictitious Orpheus Theater in 'Playing the Bill.' My musical is not a nostalgic look through rose-colored glasses at those bygone days. It's a difficult piece for the actors to perform because the songs are demanding and the roles are challenging."
Another show that explored that reality of vaudeville was enjoyed by Bemidji audiences last summer in "Gypsy" with its pathos as Mama Rose's children Baby June (actress June Havoc) and Rose (stripper Gypsy Rose Lee) lived out their mother's dreams. And "Playing the Bill" explores how vaudeville was entertainment for the masses. The ticket prices were set so that even the lower economic class could enjoy entertainment by the legends of their time and up-and-coming performers like Bob Hope, Abbot and Costello, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Because of the nature of the story, this play is recommended for audiences starting from older high school students to those who can fondly remember the good old days of vaudeville. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. The seating is general admission so get there early for the front seats. Reservations can made by calling 556-1777 or at the door starting one hour before show times.