Robot battles, mentalists and Emo Philips.
This doesn’t sound like the upcoming season at the Ahmanson or even the Groundlings.
In two years, the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry–West has quickly become a hotbed for comedic, musical and alternative acts. While comedians like Dave Foley and Brendon Small have been creatively involved at the Steve Allen, it’s a place where artists can experiment without industry pressure. Last summer, Emo Philips, who typically performs out of town, decided to play a three-month residency there and refine his act.
The Steve Allen opened in the summer of 2004 at the CFI’s 4773 Hollywood Blvd. address. Executive director James Underdown converted the conference space into a 100-seat theater, not only to program quality events, but to get people in the building. The space was branded the Steve Allen because the former Tonight Show host was an avid CFI supporter.
“The Steve Allen Theater experience is like escaping to the mountains to start your own community,” says Brendon Small, who co-hosts the theater’s Saturday midnight variety show, The Tomorrow Show, with Craig Anton and Ron Lynch. “It’s a place where you can have 30 wives, your rifle and make some great inbred comedy. An anything-goes mentality pervades.”
More intriguing than the theater’s programming is the institute behind its curtains: the Center for Inquiry (CFI). A think tank dedicated to promoting science and reasoning in the face of paranormal and religious-right thinking, CFI was founded by Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Paul Kurtz in 1976. One of the CFI’s pastimes entails scientifically debunking psychics. All psychics who prove their power in a lab environment win $1 million from the CFI.
While Amit Itelman, artistic director of the Steve Allen Theater, was never given a mandate to book acts in sync with the CFI’s motto, a good portion of Itelman’s season adheres to the center’s beliefs.
“By accident, I was influenced by my environment,” says Itelman, who also says he’s trying to rekindle vaudeville at the theater.
Hollywood Hellhouse was one of the first CFI-inspired events in fall 2004. Hellhouse ridiculed and explored fundamentalist notions of the underworld. In the Bible Belt, a Hellhouse is a haunted manse that scares naive participants into becoming Christians. Each room exhibits the so-called horrors associated with abortion, drugs and homosexuality. Comedian Maggie Rowe landed the rights to stage a Hellhouse and, with Itelman, transformed the CFI into a 10-room funhouse loaded with barbaric special effects, such as a 5-foot demon penis and comedians like Andy Richter and Bill Maher, respectively, portraying God and Satan.
Regular events in sync with the CFI include Christian Ristow’s Robochrist, a technological battle between enormous zoomorphic robots, and Max Maven, a mind reader who wows crowds with his act while simultaneously exposing psychics’ faux abilities. Another science-related highlight on Feb. 18 will be the 20th anniversary screening of the 1985 cult film Re-Animator with director Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs in attendance. Itelman plans to turn the CFI parking lot into a drive-in.
Breezier acts such as the Bilgewater Brothers’ Swamp Jamboree and Janet Klein and Her Borscht Belt Babies also populate the space’s schedule. Klein, a Fanny Brice–like crooner who performs Depression-era music, leads a sideshow complete with talking geese, knife throwers and Yiddish yucksters. All of the members in Babies, including Klein, are descendants of vaudeville legends.
Dave Foley has become one of the theater’s more famous fixtures. In November he premiered The Tribute, a musical comedy he directed and co-wrote with cast members Crissy Guerrero, Laura Milligan, Pinky Turzo and Tracy De Nisi. The piece is about four ’80s band starlets who are reunited after their lead tabloid singer, Sparkle, meets her end. Foley is returning to the Steve Allen on March 3 and 4 with Tribute, and there’s a rumor that the comedian’s old troupe, the Kids in the Hall, may test some material there in the near future.
But the signature CFI event at the Steve Allen will be the first-ever public worship by the Church of Satan on June 6.
“I’m fascinated by people who form religions to get laid and make a profit,” says Itelman. “Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan’s founder, was a carny. A bulk of the Satanic Bible has been pulled from Ayn Rand, Masonic literature and old Universal horror films. LaVey understood the power of theater, and that’s what interests me.”
Most of the venue’s patrons are from Silver Lake and Los Feliz, a crowd that has come to trust the theater’s taste and blindly attends shows. While the theater rarely advertises, a popular promotional tool is its playbill, which touts glorious original comic book illustrations by R. Crumb and Rick Altergott (Cracked magazine) of upcoming shows.
“I’m interested in the extraordinary and the bizarre,” says Itelman. Things that haven’t been done before. When you think of theater, you think sketch, drama, standup. So much more can be done. Let’s make some noise.”
For more information on the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry–West, call (323) 666-4268 or visit www.cfiwest.org/theater.