Song & Laughs
Radio Music Theatre set to close, leaving a Fertle-less future
Prepare yourself, Houston. We’re about to lose our Fertles.
After 26 years, Radio Music Theatre, Houston’s Mom and Pop comedy theater is closing its door with the last show set for April 30. The team of Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills is retiring and with them so goes their alter-egos, the Singing Fertle Family of Dumpster, Texas.
For those not familiar with RMT, the group presents four musical/comedy plays a year, including a well-loved holiday show, all written by Steve Farrell. The three actors play multiple characters within each comedy, many times making an onstage quick change from one character to the next with the simple shedding of a hat or tossing on of a wig.
Over the years, Farrell has written 14 plays about the Fertles — retired minister Ned, his wife Mildred, their four grown children and their extended family and neighbors in Dumpster, a town so small everyone has a one digit phone number.
In an interview with CultureMap, Farrell used the word “timeless” several times to describe the Fertle plays. That timeless quality perhaps comes from a sense of unsettling familiarity.
Audience members might realize when watching any one or all of the characters that they could very well be extreme, yet hilarious, versions of their own family members or relationships, whether it be feuding sisters-in-laws, a sweet but dim brother who ends up being rather wise, a well-educated, successful sister, a jealous, know-it-all brother, or parents who just want everyone to get along and SING.
Farrell also wrote a collection of plays set in Houston which do not revolve around any one family or set of characters, though Houston’s most planned planned-community, Precious Trees, figures prominently in several of them. The Houston plays range from sharp satire to affectionate spoofing of the many things we love and hate about Houston: local newscasts, traffic, the weather, local newscasts covering traffic and the weather, concert venues with unusually long names, mega-churches, a certain furniture pitchman and a certain ex-president. No, the first one, the one with the H.
When I asked Steve Farrell if he finds a difference, or greater challenge, in writing a Fertle play or Houston play, he explained the Fertle plays “are about families and human behavior, and that type of humor has no expiration date.”
In contrast, the Houston shows “are tied into current events, trends, fads, and news stories," he says. "They require updates during a run, just to keep them up to speed. They have short shelf lives, except for their characters and plot lines. But any time I have revived a Houston show, it has required a thorough re-write.”
One important aspect of both the Fertle and Houston shows has always been the music performed during the shows. The residents of Dumpster, break into song whenever any mood strikes them and the citizens of Farrell’s version of Houston are known to pick up an instrument and tune whenever the plot thickens. Asked how the songs are integrated into a play, Farrell described: “With the Fertles, they usually are tied to some element in the story, so I write them to suit the plot. With the Houston shows, I write the story and then write the songs to enhance and advance the plot.”
This last show, A Fertle Farewell, focuses on the whole town of Dumpster as hard times hit when the bankrupt dumpster factory closes its door. Will the town have to close with it? Several of the beloved Fertles are featured in the show but so are many of the other Dumpster residents as the town pulls together to try to help local Lothario, Country Wayne Conway, win a recording contract from Brenham Records.
When asked if it was difficult writing this last play, Farrell says, “My goal was not to do something special and different, it was to give the fans another episode of our most popular series. It was most important to me that the play was consistent in tone with the other 13 Fertle comedies. It would have been easy to become too sentimental and serious, since there is some melancholy involved in ending such a long-running series.”
Five years ago, when the trio “mapped out” their retirement plans they set about recording the whole Fertle series. Farrell wants fans watching the DVDs to “see a series that is consistent from beginning to end ... in its humor, its style, and its quality.”
And what will retirement bring? Vicki Farrell admitted they’re “anxious to experience weekend playtime, the excitement of a new and different lifestyle, and some relaxing holidays with the family.
"As performers, holidays have always been our busiest times.”
And if a future without the Fertles gets boring, they’ll simply “reinvent” themselves.
With the end near, I asked the RMT team to make a difficult choice and pick a favorite Fertle. Steve chooses older brother Lou because “He manages to be loved and hated at the same time, which keeps him interesting,” while Vicki chooses matriarch Mildred, believing Mildred “is the most complex of my characters, with the wisdom of age, and yet the innocence of a child.” Finally Mill’s favorite is that sweet but dim son Earl. Mills described Earl as having “a unique outlook, and his reactions to the world around him often seem to have a real connection with the audience. He's a gentle person just trying to get along ...”
Yet one last burning mystery remains unanswered. What exactly has Dumpster’s beloved, but always bewildering, Doc Moore been saying all these years? The good doctor possesses a Cajun accent so thick and rich, listeners might feel they’ve eaten a quart of gumbo just hearing him.
The man who created and plays Doc claims he knows, and even Vicki and Rick often do, but audiences members will probably have to interrogate Steve after a show to find out. April 30 will be your last chance.