Feature Story

Not that it mattered. Since it was first offered in the 1978 Pioneer catalogue, Ducktails and Bobbysox has been performed more than 2,000 times, at high schools from Tennessee to Tokyo. "It has been incredibly successful," Steve says. "And where is it set? In the soda shoppe, of course. That's just it: the formula. You make it ninety minutes long, you have thirty kids, plus extras--cheerleaders, a love interest, lots of nerds, a motorcycle gang, a football team, lots of characters that can be male or female, always a principal and an assistant principal, and about eight songs. The songs are all in a thirteen-note range that anyone can sing."

Even Steve, if pressed. "I wanna rock, I wanna roll, I wanna throw my shoes away!" he provides as a demonstration that the songs are highly-singable." He pauses. "Sorry. Singing was never my longsuit." He smiles, "I'm embarrassed."

But not that embarrassed. Since Shubert's death in 1989, Steve Fendrich has been president of Pioneer, "and he has really turned the company around with musicals," Anne says. "Now schools can buy sound tapes for musicals, CDs--the fact that we even have so many musicals--it's all because of Steve."

In 1995 the company had gross sales of more than a million dollars. And yes, Steve admits, it may have something to do with the large number of musicals now in the catalogue and the fact that few schools can resist a good song and dance.

"What you gotta do," says composer Bill Francoeur, "is see Oz. You should go. Go!"

Now playing--for about one more day, at the Center Stage Theater in Evergreen--Oz is a quintessential Pioneer success story. It began about fifteen years ago, when Steve Fendrich called Tim Kelly and told him he was receiving a lot of requests for a Wizard of Oz-type story. None of the schools and theaters that called Pioneer could afford the royalty payments required for the classic Wizard of Oz, let alone the Broadway smash The Wiz.

This was good news for Kelly--as a boy, he'd loved the Frank L. Baum Oz books, and he'd already done dozens of "adaptation" plays. It didn't take him long to crank out Pioneer's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Ten years later, Steve Fendrich decided the time was right for, yes, a musical Oz--and he commissioned Longmont composer Francoeur to add songs to Kelly's play. Francoeur had come to Pioneer's attention years earlier, when, as a middle-school English teacher frustrated with the theatrical options available, he'd written a pop/rock Peter Pan and staged it. Several Fendrichs came to see the production. They never published Francoeur's Pan, but they commissioned him to write Drabble and Tumbleweeds, both based on cartoon characters.

"Shubert wrote the book and lyrics, and I did the music," Francoeur remembers, "and both shows were kind of terrible. No one bought them, and they were pulled out of the catalogue pretty quickly." This is not entirely true, because Gilchrist remains a fan of Drabble, and Tumbleweeds is still available. And so, for that matter, was Francoeur. "They kept giving me work, and when I started writing with Tim Kelly in the mid-Eighties, things really took off. From what Steve tells me," Francoeur says proudly, "eleven of Pioneer's top twenty musicals are Tim's and mine."

Undaunted by working in the shadow of such indisputably classic songs as "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Francoeur attacked Pioneer's Oz job with zeal.

"Mine's a pop version," he explains. "Like the Scarecrow--I figured he'd be into country music, so I gave him a rip-roaring bluegrass song. The Tin Man is oily and slick, a Forties big-band kind of guy, and the Lion is tragic. His song is called `Life Ain't Much Without a Little Bit of Courage,' and it's a get-down Chicago blues number. The Wizard is a cross between Bob Seger and Elvis Presley. The `witch is dead' song is a conga line, and the `yellow brick road' number is hip-hop, funky rap."

Francoeur, who comes from an intensely musical family, once thought he might make the East Coast big time, and he continues to court Broadway and Off Broadway producers with his "serious theater" projects. But it's the sixteen Tim Kelly/Pioneer musicals he's written that pay the bills. "Broadway is pie-in-the-sky," he says. "And the money is important to me. Tim always says, `On Broadway, you'll make a killing, not a living.'"

To Francoeur, Kelly is something of a show-biz legend--and certainly one worth quoting. "I was doing his plays with my junior-high kids years before I knew the man," he says. The thing is, the two have still never met in person. Kelly prefers to send his drafts by mail from California, inserting a cryptic instruction like "jitterbug" or "mambo" for Francoeur to follow. At that, Francoeur will write something, record it on his synthesizer and send it back to Kelly. So far, there have been no complaints.

"I'm not even sure I want to meet him," Francoeur says of Kelly. "There's kind of a mystique I like. Tim Kelly is this man over the rainbow somewhere. I send him my songs, and he likes them."

In fact, Tim Kelly is not over the rainbow but living in Beverly Hills, where he is a happy workaholic who requires a very pressing reason to leave home. That his plays are constantly being translated into foreign languages as obscure as Afrikaans and presented in locales as far-flung as the Yukon does not inspire him to make any sort of grand tour. That he has to spend half a day each week answering fan mail, that 6,000 performances of his plays were done last year alone--none of it justifies shaking up the Kelly routine.

"Writing is an obsession and a compulsion," he admits. "I feel secure and comfortable when I'm writing and perhaps less so when I'm not."

Kelly can trace these feelings back at least forty years. Growing up outside Boston, he remembers being interested in "movies, adventure and escapism. We all have our trials and tribulations," he muses. "The thing is to escape them somehow. The town where I was raised was a very dull factory town. For me, going to the theater was very much like going to church is for other people. I took it very seriously. I'd get there half an hour early to watch the musicians tune up."

At twelve, Kelly earned his first check for a writing job--an adventure story about a military dog, written for a boys' magazine. After that he entered every newspaper essay contest he could find, and won several. All through high school, college and a stint as an actor at a repertory theater in Arizona, Kelly kept writing plays. After a fellowship at Yale in TV and broadcast writing, he moved to Southern California to write for the screen.

"And I did my time," he says. "But ultimately, it became too boring to write in the same genre all the time. I was all over the place. I could not be pinned down."

Which is what drew Pioneer Drama Service to Tim Kelly, and Tim Kelly to Pioneer. Though he writes for several other catalogues, including more "serious" purveyors of drama, Kelly says he likes the variety and the steady money Pioneer provides. "I might do a murder mystery, followed by a children's play, followed by a melodrama, followed by a musical," he explains. "I've aged with Pioneer. The camaraderie they give me is such a wonderful boost to creativity. It's never just my play, it's our play."

Right now, 130 such Tim Kelly plays can be ordered through Pioneer. His name has become so ubiquitous in school theatrics that Kelly's taken on two pseudonyms: Robert Swift and Vera Morris. Kelly talks to Steve constantly, rejecting or accepting ideas, then plows through the writing of them fourteen hours a day. He also keeps an idea box in which he throws any stray thoughts that come his way--particularly those that shed some light on teenage life. The phrase "ditch day," for instance. No sooner did he learn what it meant than he'd written a play in which thirty or so high-school students skip school.

"Another time, I was watching TV, and I heard a character explain that the dog had eaten his homework," Kelly recalls. "Suddenly, I thought: What if a monster ate his homework?"




The play's the thing: Tim Kelly makes writing look like child's play.

"Everyone's younger than I am, and I never have to grow up."