Feature Story

Crackling radio signals emanate from what looks like a lava lamp, stage left. A four-foot-tall gangster and his girlfriend stop by to extort money from Pete, and they start a flood by turning on the washroom faucets. There is nothing, apparently, that Pete can do about this, or about his overbearing mother, or about the sudden appearance of Mongo, a creature from the center of the earth who sucks knowledge right out of kids' brains.

GIRL ONE: Nothing seems normal!

GIRL TWO: No telling what will happen!

BOY ONE: The whole world seems topsy-turvy!

ENSEMBLE (singing): Strange things are happenin' everywhere! Strange things are happenin' everywhere!

Choreography for the "Strange Things Are Happening" number is simple: One-two-three-CROUCH; one-two-three-LEAN. But everyone in the house will get a good view of all fifty kids in the chorus line, which is an absolute necessity if you are going to put on Little Luncheonette of Terror and put it on right.

"The show opens in three weeks," Karen Gilchrist says, at 8:05 a.m., with rehearsal over and the cast on its way to the first aca- demic class of the day. "We only get to rehearse twice a week, but it's amazing what these kids will accomplish in the last week. You may have noticed--we exclude no one. I have sixth-graders standing up there like zombies, and eighth-graders who can do anything. We will pack this house."

This is not just because Little Luncheonette of Terror, now in its third reprisal at Flood Middle School, strikes the exact farcical tone beloved by middle-schoolers everywhere, but also because Gilchrist has a reputation for putting on some of the best junior-high entertainment in the city. Honored last year by the Colorado Association for Middle Level Educators, she stages two full-length musicals each year, as well as melodrama workshops, an evening of mystery dinner theater and a Shakespeare unit. And all this production from a small-town Oklahoma girl who began her entertainment career playing French horn in the local pit orchestra.

Gilchrist came to Flood fifteen years ago, with plans no more grandiose than organizing a choir and getting the kids to practice their band instruments regularly. "But then our principal said, 'How about a play?'" she recalls.

Eager but clueless, Gilchrist contacted a local company called Pioneer Drama Service and was connected to its founder, Shubert Fendrich. "He told me to come on over," Gilchrist remembers. "They had a little hole-in-the-wall office on Colorado Boulevard, with plays stacked up to the ceiling. Shubert knew every one of them and was extremely anxious to please. He gave me a pile of twelve scripts."

Gilchrist ended up producing a musical called Drabble, based on the cartoon character. "It worked," she says. "But then, Shubert always had a real sense of what would work for me."

Although Shubert Fendrich died in 1989, the show must go on--and today Pioneer Drama Service is the nation's top-grossing publisher of middle-school, high-school and community-theater plays, thanks to the efforts of Shubert's widow, Anne, son Steve and daughter-in-law Deb.

Gilchrist remains one of the family's most loyal customers. "They'll always talk to me on the phone," she says. "Deb Fendrich has a genius for knowing what play we should do next. She'll say, 'No, that's too mature for your kids.' Then she'll say yes to something else."

Like Ducktails and Bobbysox, a Fifties romp written by Shubert Fendrich himself. Like Gone With the Breeze, a sweeping drama about the filming of a Scarlett O'Hara-style story. Like the patriotic World War II-era Kilroy Was Here, complete with jitterbugs and bebop numbers written by composer Bill Francoeur of Longmont.

"All the Pioneer plays have lots of parts for all the kids to play, and they're mostly equal," Gilchrist says. The same cannot be said for, say, The Sound of Music. "We could never afford the royalties on that, anyway," she adds. "Besides, there's no heavy romance. The kids would be so uncomfortable with that."

Pioneer Drama Service would never do anything to make kids feel uncomfortable--any more, that is, than the kids already are when they take the stage. Pioneer's hundreds of middle-school offerings are carefully tailored to fulfill needs more specific than even parents of twelve-year-olds might guess. They're filled with that particular brand of seventh-grade humor: spritely, stupid--goofy, even. There is a break every seven minutes--as often as commercials interrupt TV programming. Lighting is no more complicated than the on/off switch at the average middle-school "cafetorium." Same with the set--there is usually just one, preferably a luncheonette or soda shoppe. And the cast must take into account the fact that four times as many girls as boys show up for auditions. Plenty of parts can be written unisex--e.g., Police Officer, News Stand Proprietor, Junior High School Youth. And don't forget cleanliness. No dirty words, no dirty thoughts, no dirty concepts.

For example, here's a snippet of Act One, Scene Five of Kilroy Was Here, written by Pioneer's most prolific playwright, Tim Kelly:

ANGIE (a USO hostess): Good news! They delivered the bananas! Banana splits in the soda bar!

VOICES: Wow! banana splits!

Just like home!

Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry!

Whipped cream!

I could eat six or seven all by myself.

"We did Kilroy last spring as an all-school unit," Gilchrist remembers. "The play was somewhat deeper than Little Luncheonette of Terror, and everyone in the school was involved. We invited grandparents and people in the community, and the last big number--a wonderful patriotic, rousing number called 'We Are One,' but it has 'America the Beautiful' woven into the middle of it--well, there were tears in the audience."

Pioneer Drama Service started as just another one of Shubert Fendrich's hobbies.

"Life with Shubert was never, never dull," says Anne, his widow. "He was my creative pragmatist. He would get suddenly bored and have to find something new to do."

He always found it.

"Our basement," says Steve, prompting his mother.

"Oh, yes, there are all those trays with Marilyn Monroe lying on them nude," Anne says. "I don't even remember what he ordered those for. Maybe now they're worth money? Late in his life, I gave Shubert a wine-tasting class for a present. When he died, there were more than 250 bottles in that basement."

"And the mail-order novelty business," Steve recalls. "Things like plastic ice cubes with flies in them."

"Oh, those are still down there," Anne says. "What wasn't he into? Well," she decides, "there was nothing temperate about him."




Last stage leaving Cody: Anne and Shubert Fendrich in the community-theater days.

"There's no heavy romance. The kids would be so uncomfortable with that."