CARTER BROWN AND LAZER VAUDEVILLE
By Cindy Marvell
Somewhere along the Continental Divide, under a backdrop of orange skies and blue mountains, a 16-foot box truck weaves its way through the terrain. The unassuming white truck contains 28 road cases, a bunk complete with mattress and sleeping bags, a coffee maker, three vaudevillians, and a dog named Roxy. The show, Lazer Vaudeville, is now in its seventh year of touring, and has crossed this mountain range seven times in various configurations since September.
The current cast is comprised of founder Carter Brown, Randy Johnson and Cindy Marvell, who collectively share the driving, juggling and everything else the show entails. As the truck rumbles along to the next show, Brown wakes up from his brief nap to cast a glance at the speedometer.
“Floor it,” he advises, adjusting his makeshift pillow, “and keep it floored.” Marvell complies, and the truck picks up speed around the curve. As the leader of a national, sometimes international, touring company, Brown does not get much sleep these days. “You constantly have to balance what you have to do to keep the books balanced with what you have to do to keep yourself artistically satisfied,” says Brown of the many responsibilities involved in running the show. As a juggler, he tries not to become consumed by the endless bureacracy involved in presenting more than 150 theater shows a year.
Though he initially focused on developing his solo act, it was Brown‘s ambition to perform a well-rounded show with a theatrical bent. Since its formation in 1987, Lazer Vaudeville has been committed to combining traditional skills with new technologies and original modes of presentation.
“When I started the show, I was fed up with the lack of creativity in circus acts and vaudeville in general,” Brown recalls, “I really wanted to see it combined with the lighting effects and technology of the 90‘s.”
Brown‘s is an intense personality, full of energy, humor and mystery. And the show follows suit. With a mixture of laser beams displays, blacklight puppetry, acrobatics, clowning, and state -of-the-art juggling routines, the show is quite a handful for both audience and performers. It takes 5-7 hours to unload, set up and “tech’ the show, not to mention warming up. Obviously it takes more than the usual obsession with juggling and performing to engage in such an enterprise. One must be obsessed with many things and somehow deep track of them all.
So, how did the insanity begin?
Brown was born into a theatrical family. His father worked as a set designer and stage manager, his mother an actress and dancer. As a hyperactive child growing up in New York, Brown was encouraged to channel his excessive energy into dance, gymnastics, mime and acting classes. As the age of eight he started performing in local plays and musicals. At 12 his family moved to Vermont, where Brown later attended the University of Vermont with a double major in theater and art. He has fond memories of “The Silent Company,” the university‘s mime troupe, which he eventually ended up directing. As a new member, he was required to learn the basics of juggling, and after that things were never quite the same.
After two years, Brown kept a journal as he hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Approaching the end, he received a notice notifying him of his acceptance to Ringling Brothers Clown College. “Since I left the University, I have no back-up, and that compels me to succeed in show business,” Brown claims. “Either that, or go back-packing.”
Brown did graduate from Clown College, however, and toured with Ringling for two years. It was during this time that he began to develop his bicycle hoop rolling act, which has since won him international renown. “When I was in clown college, John Fox came over and put a set of hoops in my hands that had once belonged to Kit Summers. Soon after I met Homer Stack, who sold me my first set.”
While on tour Brown snatched all the practice time he could between shows, arriving early in the arena and staying late. Passing through Miami, he met Dick Franco, who gave him some lasting advice. “I was working on all kinds of props, but Dick told me to drop everything but the hoops. He predicted there would be a big market for it now that hoop jugglers have become so rare, and that I would find my niche if I stuck to it.”
After two years at Ringling, Brown settled in Boulder for a time, practicing with Airjazz and working the streets on weekends. During the week, he practiced the hoop act for 12 hours a day. The incessant practice paid off, and Brown started receiving offers to perform his solo act indoors. He toured with Carden International Circus for four years, while also performing solo in South America, Canada and Japan.
While working at Carden, he became interested in the technical aspects of the show and was hired to run sound in addition to his performing duties. When the light man left the show, Brown took over that job as well-experience that would prove essential when it came to directing Lazer Vaudeville.
Brown may be unique among jugglers in the Western Hemisphere in that he has never in his life attended a juggling convention, not even a tiny one. A planned excursion to Burlington was unfortunately usurped by business concerns. “I‘m really curious as to what it‘s like and why people do it,” he wonders, “but hopefully some day I‘ll find out.”
In 1992, Brown was invited to perform his hoop act at the prestigious Monte Carlo Festival, one of the high points of his solo career. “It was an honor to be invited, but I was a bit disappointed by the set-up,” Brown recalls. “The juggling was perfect-no drops-but the floor was not ideal for rolling.”
Though the quest for the perfect hoop-rolling surface is part of what motivates Brown to pursue a theatrical career, he also delights in giving audiences a will- rounded theater experience.
“Over a two-hour show you really get to know the audience and they get to know you. People come to the theater to respond to a performer‘s ideas, no just to see a Vegas act.” As if in tribute to his clowning days, Brown takes a pie in the face at the end of his “Dueling Straitjackets” routine. “Once or twice a year I get to pie the volunteer-if they‘re really asking for it,” he says with a devilish grin. Brown and Johnson also perform an acrobatic routine, complete with table slides and all the slapstick trimmings, reminiscent of their Ringling days.
As a 14-year-old, Johnson watched Brown practicing by the side of the ring in Chicago, and this encounter inspired him to continue his pursuit of the circus arts. Already a veteran of the Windy City Circus, which he joined at age 10, Johnson went on the study acting as a teenager at the Chicago Academy of the Arts. Now in his second year with Lazer Vaudeville, Johnson brings his inimitable comedic flair to the show, and his long arms and dependable hands help to hold the ensemble pieces together. With extensive set design credits in the Chicago television industry, he is also master prop builder, creating many of the unique props, tables, and road cases essential to the show.
A Juggler‘s World article quotes Brown as saying, “It‘s great to wake up and see the countryside rolling by,” and the troupe often drives overnight after a show to make the next date. The 1994-5 season has seen shows from upstate New York to Port Angeles, Wash. Last year the company played to sold-out houses and rave reviews at the Bermuda Theatre Festival, and is hoping for more international dates in the future. In May the company will spend a week performing at a theater festival in British Columbia, in August a week in Hong Kong. “We‘re hoping to tie in some bookings in Hawaii or the Philippines on our way back,” Brown explains between phone calls.
In order to deep the logistics in order and the show booked for nine months of the year, Brown maintains a business office at his house in Ocala, Fla., near Orlando. The 102-year-old Victorian house is in the process of renovation, and Brown and Johnson have done much of the rewiring and drywalling themselves. Even Marvell has been known to pitch in with a staple gun or mop. In addition to prop and costume shops, the ground floor includes the all- important rehearsal studio. “If only the ceiling were six inches higher,” Marvell laments, “it would be perfect.”
In conjunction with the theater tour, Lazer Vaudeville produces an Arts-in- Education outreach program designed to bring live performances to the schools. Johnson always begins the presentation with a short lecture on the history of vaudeville in America, a new concept to most television-saturated students. “When we‘re on the road, the school shows give us a chance to stay in practice and try out new material in a more informal setting. And many of the students bring their parents to the local theater show, so ultimately we benefit from it as much as the schools we serve,” Brown comments.
“Many people are drawn to the show because of the lasers and blacklight effects, but in the end they remember the live performances,” says Marvell. “Especially for the kids, it‘s still the human touch that counts.”
“And the lasers and special effects do help keep us off the streets and in the theaters,” Brown adds with a wink. “It‘s all part of our carefully thought-out marketing strategy.”
Recent political measures to cut funding for the arts are worrisome, but at the same time many old vaudeville theaters around the country are being renovated and there seems to be renewed interest in filling them. Lazer Vaudeville often arrives at a historically restored theater to find that they are the first vaudevillians to play there since the 1930s or 40s. When Brown discovers some momento of an old vaudevillian‘s presence-some call-board or prop stand-the event elicits as much excitement from his eyes as the show itself. It is proof positive that Brown is living his dream while inspiring dreams in others.
“Life is short-I really can‘t say how long I‘ll be doing this,” Brown muses over a cup of espresso at a midnight truck stop. “Mount Everest still looms, but right now all I want is more bookings, more cool stuff in the show, more good coffee and my own Galaxy-class star ship to tour the universe.”
Is there a corporate sponsor in the house?