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Risqué Business

Impresario and star Ward Rudick celebrates a decade of cheerfully offending ever-larger audiences with Silver City's $1.98 "No Talent Required" Follies.

By David A. Fryxell

 

On a CD playing on a large gray boombox sitting on the hardwood floor of a room in the WNMU gym complex, outfitted ballet-style with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and metal barres on three walls, the "Lieber Raunchy Oral Chorus & Singers" is singing about penises. Lustily, the chorus recites a variety of names and nicknames for male genitalia–"the long and short of what we call our penises."

Ward Rudick's official "head shot."

As the CD ends, Ward A. Rudick arches an eyebrow and mockingly remarks, "Subtle, isn't it?"

Nothing about the $1.98 "No Talent Required" Follies is subtle, actually, as fans of the annual musical revue well know and hootingly appreciate. When the $1.98 takes the stage at WNMU's Fine Arts Center Theater in Silver City on Saturday, Feb. 17, for its "10th Anniversary Reunion Spectacular," the audience will laughingly expect, as impresario Rudick is fond of reminding them, to be offended.

For this 10th anniversary show, the $1.98–which in recent years has sometimes devoted large portions of its program to extended production numbers and elaborate spoofs, such as last year's "Phantom of the Opera" sendup and way-over-the-top "Masochism Tango"–will return to its vaudeville-style roots. Besides the Lieber Raunchy chorus, returning favorites from previous shows will include "Ms. Chlamidya Burns," "Up & Down Wind," Judy McClure, the Nuns, Miss Le Cretia, "The Man," Mona Little, "Cher & Cher Alike," Heather Rivington and "The Chicken Lunch Band," plus music once again by Jazz Orgy. As usual, "A'Gusta Wind" (Rudick in spectacular drag) and brother "Brake Wind" (Janey Katz) will emcee. But Rudick hopes to keep the show's length to more like two hours, plus a 30-minute intermission, rather than letting it sprawl to more than three hours as in recent years.

The $1.98 is, however, expanding in other ways for its 10th anniversary, stretching the fun over an entire "Follies Presidential Weekend," Feb. 16-18. In addition to the Saturday-night show, the entertainment this year will include a welcoming party Friday from 8-12 p.m. at the Twisted Vine, with music by Rhythm Mystic. Prior to the show on Saturday, downtown Silver City galleries will hold special openings and Melanie Zipin and Jeff LeBlanc will perform from 4-6 p.m. at the Gila House Hotel & Gallery 400; both the Twisted Vine and Isaac's will host post-performance parties. On Sunday, Diane's and Shevek & Mi restaurants will have special breakfasts, 10 a.m.-noon, Rhythm Mystic will play at a tea dance at Isaac's, 3-6 p.m., and Jazz Orgy, the $1.98's popular house band all the way from Oshkosh, Wisc., will play at Isaac's, 7-11 p.m.

"At least a third of the thousand seats at the $1.98 are filled by visitors from out of town–from as far away as New Zealand–so this gives them a whole weekend of things to do," Rudick explains. "Moving the show from Valentine's Day to President's Day weekend lets people spend the weekend in Silver City, then go home on Monday."

As evidence of the $1.98's long-distance drawing power, he mentions three guys from Albuquerque who saw the show last year: "This year they're buying a block of 20 to 25 tickets."

Although the $1.98 grew out of Silver City's gay community–not nearly as large or vibrant 10 years ago as it is today–and remains enthusiastically out of the closet, its naughty fun appeals to straight audiences as well. "We've had four sellouts in nine years," Rudick points out, "and this might be the fifth. I love working a full house of screaming people."

Over the past decade, the $1.98 has given more than $32,000 to worthy causes, funneled through its nonprofit Southwest Activities Network Society (SWANS). In addition to AIDS and breast-cancer research, recipients have included El Refugio women's shelter, Casa Mia Ranch, literacy groups and WNMU's Herb McGrath Drama Fund and Fine Arts Center Theater Fund. The full list of recipients won't be determined until after the show's books are balanced–"People suggests who to donate money to, and people send letters requesting funding," Rudick explains–but part of the 2007 proceeds will go to the Gila Regional Medical Center hospice program and to Penny Park, along with the two WNMU theater funds.

"As somebody who's done fundraisers, as a party planner, for AIDS research and the American Lung Association, I know that some fundraising events might raise a half-million dollars, but spend $480,000 of it," Rudick adds. "I try to keep the cost of the show to no more than 50 percent of what we raise through ticket sales and sponsorships. I'm the one who keeps that goal on myself."

In each of the last two years, the $1.98 has given about $5,000 to its selected causes. Says Rudick, "That's money we've put back into the community."

 

Although the annual extravaganza requires the assistance of dozens of volunteers, both onstage and behind the scenes, it's Ward Rudick who makes it happen every year. He starts recruiting performers in August of the previous year. This year, setting his financial sights a little higher, he figures he'll start writing grants before the curtain has had time to settle on the 2007 performance.

"Ward is a delight," says Jack Ellis, head of the WNMU theater program. "You just have to tie a rope to his ankles; otherwise he flies off into creative fancies."

The $1.98 "No Talent Required" Follies 10th Anniversary Reunion Spectacular will be Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. in the WNMU Fine Arts Center Theater. Reserved seating tickets–$10 VIP orchestra, $15 orchestra and $10 balcony–go on sale Feb. 1 at the Curious Kumquat, 111 E. College Ave. in Silver City. For information, group sales and credit card purchases, call 534-9273. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is rated R, adults only; no one under 18 admitted without parent or legal guardian.

Other events scheduled for the Follies Presidential Weekend are:

Friday, Feb. 16

8-12 p.m.–Opening "Meet & Greet" at the Twisted Vine, music by Rhythm Mystic, 8-12 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 17

All day–Gallery openings.

4-6 p.m.–Melanie Zipin and Jeff LeBlanc at the Gila House Hotel & Gallery 400

After show parties at Isaac's Bar and the Twisted Vine

Sunday, Feb. 18

10 a.m.-noon–Breakfast at Diane's and Shevek & Mi restaurants

Afternoon–More gallery events

3-6 p.m.–Afternoon Tea Dance with Rhythm Mystic at Isaac's

7-11 p.m.–Jazz Orgy, the Follies House Band, at Isaac's

You could say Ward Arthur Rudick has show business in his blood. He was born in 1952 in Silver City, where his father managed his grandfather's chain of movie theaters, which included the Silco, Gila and El Sol in downtown Silver City and screens in Santa Rita and Hurley. But the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when Rudick was just six years old, after his grandfather's death.

"I knew I wanted to sing since I was little," Rudick says. "Andy Williams was my hero. And Perry Como–I wanted to be the next generation's Perry Como. I was very influenced by the crooners."

His first performance was singing "Mac the Knife" at a square dance in seventh grade. In high school and junior college, he was both a tenor soloist at a major Catholic church in the Bay area and a substitute cantor at a local synagogue.

After junior college, Rudick studied for a music degree at Chapman College in California. In his senior year, though, the music department decided he was more suited to the theater and communications department, from which he earned his degree.

"It was in college that the idea of the $1.98 Follies really began," he recalls. "The head of the English department, I and some other people put on this crazy, whacko spring show. The college is still doing it as a big fundraiser, and they've even taken it on the road."

 

Rudick tried several jobs post-graduation–running a tuxedo agency, waiter at a tennis camp, working in his uncle's jewelry store–but says, "None of them worked out too well." Then a friend told him about a Los Angeles singing-telegram company that was opening an Orange County office. The company's singing employees were either "Live Wires," who wore "a beautiful bellhop uniform," Rudick recalls, or "Jive Wires," who wore anything unusual they could imagine. Rudick, of course, went for the "Jive Wires," and soon was delivering singing telegrams as any of a cast of 30 characters he'd created. Among them were eight female characters–notably including Carmen Miranda: "I was doing 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' in Orange County, California!" He also did King Tut, which would come in handy years later for the $1.98 Follies' 2005 "Kith My Athp" Egyptian theme (his favorite Follies to date).

He'd found his calling, but soon ran into a snag: The office manager was absconding with funds, and the company blamed Rudick instead. One day he was called on the carpet at the main office in LA. "It really pissed me off. I loved that job. I was the number-one messenger of all three offices."

But the day had a silver lining. A few hours later, Rudick drove back to LA–the company was looking for an employee to audition for a part in an upcoming movie, The China Syndrome. "I was still pissed, but a little voice told me, 'Go for it,'" he remembers.

Rudick got the part and wound up with three seconds of screen time–an eternity in the movie business–opposite China Syndrome star Jane Fonda, delivering a telegram to her character early in the film. "She was lovely," he says, "and it was an unbelievable start for my first time in a movie." He frowns and adds, "I didn't get my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, though, because the singing-telegram company made a deal with the production company that I was paid by the telegram company instead of by the movie."

Perhaps that was just as well, considering that The China Syndrome turned out to be, as Rudick puts it, "the beginning of the end of my career as a movie actor. I started at the top and moved down–to a B movie, then a C, then a D.

"Movies are such a different medium," he adds. "I was so used to having a crowd, not to performing for a camera. I respond to an audience."

 

With Hollywood no longer beckoning, Rudick launched his own singing-telegram company, Send a Smile. For five or six years, he worked seven days a week. He sang for every mayor and chief of police in Southern California. When Newport Beach sponsored an annual party for the very last player picked in the NFL draft, Rudick–in drag–provided the entertainment.

"When I started, there was no Yellow Pages category even for singing telegrams," he says. "But it was an easy business to get into–all you needed was to be able to sing 'Happy Birthday' and have a costume–and that's what destroyed it. Soon there were so many companies–some of them with really bad singers–that restaurants and businesses started banning singing telegrams."

So the singing-telegram business evolved. "My company had the first male stripper-grams in Orange County. The business became nothing but exotic dancers. We'd start out with me delivering the telegram–letting the ladies think I was the stripper," Rudick explains. "I wasn't in the best shape in those days. I'd go as 'Bernie Butt,' with my pants stuffed. Here they thought they'd paid $300 to $500 for me! Then we'd bring in the male dancer. Some of my dancers went on to work for Chippendales."

It was on one of his "deliveries" with a male exotic dancer–a long, criss-crossing trip all over Southern California–that Rudick's life took a sudden, tragic turn. Near the LA airport, a drunk driver hit his car, forcing him into the emergency lane–where he hit a disabled plumber's truck parked there. Rudick would be out of work for four years and his life would never be the same.

 

He moved back to New Mexico, this time to a mountaintop cabin near Taos. "I did a lot of reflection and spiritual growth," he says. "After the accident, I read Shirley McLaine's Out on a Limb, and started studying to develop my psychic abilities and spirituality."

Before leaving LA, he'd been all but given a nine-foot concert grand piano–"the Stradivarius of pianos"–by a woman whose late husband had played the piano. The deal was $25 a month until Rudick sold his first album; then he could pay off the rest of the $20,000 cost. The grand piano came with him to the mountaintop, where people hiking in the forest would hear Rudick playing and be drawn to his 9,000-feet-altitude, quartz-crystal-filled A-frame–"like the Pied Piper," he says. Soon he discovered that under the piano–literally–he could "go somewhere else, aware of where I was and yet aware of this other place as well." He started doing this "harmonic balancing" for those who found their way to his mountaintop retreat.

But spiritual enlightenment's loss would soon be the entertainment world's gain, as Rudick's Taos landlord forced him out and back into performing, this time in Santa Fe. Arriving homeless and penniless, Rudick started all over again with the help of a single mom who let him stay on her couch as long as he needed to. He started as a singing waiter and ended up with his own show at the five-star Casa Sena restaurant, where he also served as artistic director. The Santa Fe Opera even called on him to sing two leading baritone roles, in productions of The Old Maid and the Thief by Gian Carlo Menotti and Fortune's Favorites by Seymour Barab, which toured the state.

"I was classically trained in college, but never really wanted to go into opera," Rudick says. "I was more of a musical-comedy person, though I didn't know it at the time."

After seven increasingly successful years in Santa Fe, however, Rudick hit another sudden downdraft. He was staging a scene at the restaurant from Les Miserables and a buddy hit him in the back–too hard–during a choreographed fight. He shook off the pain, but it soon became unbearable. Two days later, Rudick was in the emergency room with a spinal injury, which would eventually lead him to have his neck fused. It was April 8, the 10th anniversary of his crippling car accident in LA.

He wouldn't work again for another year and a half.

Unable to find an affordable place to live in Santa Fe, Rudick tried New York and then went back to Los Angeles for two years. When his partner was killed in another LA car accident, Rudick's life seemed to hit rock bottom.

 

In April 1996, Ward Rudick came back to Silver City, where his parents had returned six months earlier. "I drove down Bullard Street–though I'd been back before, I hadn't seen downtown–and thought, as an openly gay man from West Hollywood moving here, 'What the f--- did I do?'"

He found a small gay-support group that met the second Saturday of each month at the Episcopal church on Texas Street. That led him to a forum in Albuquerque about gays in rural areas–"but it was mostly political, and I didn't think political would go over here. Instead, I suggested, 'Why not throw a party?'"

That gala Halloween party in Pinos Altos in 1996 planted the seeds for the $1.98 No Talent Required Follies. Come January, many of the Halloween-party group–besides Rudick, originators included Sandy Steinman, Tim Ferretti and Jon Brockelman–came up with the idea of putting on a drag talent show.

Rudick beams devilishly. "They had no idea what I had in my closet!"

Out came A'Gusta Wind, accompanied by "Shecky" Steinman, who'd supposedly worked in lounge acts with the divine Miss Wind for years. The first "No Talent Required" show, held at the Episcopal church in February 1997, proved such a hit that the next year Rudick and friends doubled the seating capacity. Nonetheless, the 1998 show was the $1.98's first sellout.

"Then the church asked us to leave," Rudick says. "They thought the show was not quite appropriate. I understood."

But Rudick, depressed, sat out the 1999 follies–the only show he's missed–which moved the performance to The Flame. "It didn't work out at The Flame," he says. "It was contractual, not because of being gay."

WNMU's Jack Ellis came to the rescue in 2000, opening up the campus' Webb Theater to the follies. The small, 120-seat venue sold out, and some 50 people had to be turned away at the door. The next year, the $1.98 held two shows for the first (and so far only) time, and both again sold out.

Sensing this could be the start of something big, the $1.98 braintrust moved the show to the 980-seat Fine Arts Center Theater in 2002 and formed the SWANS nonprofit organization to funnel the proceeds to worthy causes. Rudick and company took some flack that year that the show didn't feel "intimate" enough. But with more than 500 tickets sold, he says, "The theater hardly felt empty."

The 2003 show saw the arrival of Janey Katz–filling in at the last minute–as A'Gusta Wind's chaps-clad brother and co-host, Brake Wind. Other Wind family members over the years have included Grandpa Blow N. Wind and the conjoined twins from the Texas branch of the clan, Up and Down Wind. The family homestead was of course in what's now a luxury housing development near Silver City–Wind Canyon.

Ticket sales for the $1.98 Follies rose each succeeding year, emboldening Rudick in 2005 to invest in bringing Jazz Orgy to "take the show to the next level." The Wisconsin-based group travels the Southwest in winter, and he'd heard them play at the Twisted Vine. "I heard one set and hired them on the spot," Rudick says–though then he had to convince the SWANS board and other follies fans that the extra expenditure would be worth it in future ticket sales.

Being second-guessed comes with the (unpaid) job, it seems. "We've had complaints from diehard people who've seen it from when it was just for gays, who think the show is not as edgy, that it's too PC. So last year we put in the 'Masochism Tango' and a few others." The lengthy, flesh-baring staging of that Tom Lehrer ditty (the show also featured Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park") raised some eyebrows and a few hackles. But Rudick reminds, "I always tell the audience, 'We apologize in advance if you are not offended.'"

 

Offense will almost certainly be taken by some at this year's reprise of the $1.98's classic production number featuring butchers clad in aprons (and little else) who sing, "We Beat Our Meat." But double-entendre and risque sight gags are at the heart of the $1.98 Follies' appeal. Only once, Rudick says, has he been censored–by his then-co-executive producer, five minutes before the curtain went up. Rudick, as the inimitable A'Gusta Wind, vamped and ad libbed to fill the gap in the program.

It's the "Beat Our Meat" number that Rudick is hoping to rehearse this afternoon in the WNMU gym building, but only two of his "butchers" have shown up. Several called to say they couldn't make the rehearsal; others are simply MIA.

But that's the essence of the $1.98 Follies, too. "After all these years we never know the exact program or who will show up until the day of the show," Rudick says with a sigh. "Every year we try harder and harder to get people to sign up early, but it's not until the Tuesday night tech rehearsal that some show up and I actually see them for the first time."

Among those he's pretty sure will show up are two new standup comedians–a rarity for the $1.98–Thane Schick and Greg Bond. Even if they can't get the crowd to laugh with them, they and other performers can usually count on getting folks to laugh at them. And that, too, is part of the show's appeal, tracing to its roots as a "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour"-style talent show.

"We've been asked to tour, to take the show to Tucson, El Paso, Las Cruces. But I won't do it. It won't work there," Rudick muses. "Oh, sure, some of the acts would translate, but the show works because people come to see their friends, to see people from their community. Sometimes people get up on stage who are absolutely terrible, but we love them for doing it. Because we know the people, we die laughing."

The performers who've made audiences laugh over the years will form the core of this year's $1.98 Follies. "It's a reunion. They're the stars of the show," Rudick says, adding with a raised eyebrow, "Of course, there will also be some really new acts."

It's times like this–with only two "butchers" showing up for rehearsal–that Ward Rudick no doubt contemplates whether the 10th anniversary $1.98 Follies might be his last. He's flirted with the idea of retirement, or even just taking a year off from the grind of producing and starring in the annual follies.

But let's face it: Show business is in Ward Rudick's blood. The spotlight draws him like the proverbial moth to a flame, even if some years he feels a bit singed.

He shrugs and goes to change the CD on the boombox. "Maybe the turnout will be better for the act that's rehearsing at 1:30," he says hopefully.

The show, after all, must go on–even when sometimes it's, well, a drag.

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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