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'Pump Boys and Dinettes,' Broadway's home-cooked success story

The success story of ''Pump Boys and Dinettes'' - a homespun country-and-western revue that centers around a gas station and a diner - reads like a true Broadway fairy tale: A bunch of friends have put a musical revue together and are playing in an obscure cabaret when suddenly they get a rave review in a major paper.

Business picks up so much you can hardly get in the place, producers start knocking down the doors, and the next thing they know they're on Broadway and up for a Tony Award!

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Farfetched, right? But that's exactly the way it happened. Now happily ensconced in the appropriately seedy Princess Theater, strung with gas station flags and with fresh-baked pies at the concession stand at intermission - on a first-come, first-serve basis - PB&D is packing them in nightly.

New York and visiting audiences seem to love this refreshing and spirited look at the simple pleasures in life - succotash, fresh-caught catfish, the joys of a vacation, and a ''farmer tan'' (two-tone biceps, ivory chest, and a red neck!)

In a recent interview Mark Hardwick - the deadpan pianist-accordionist-songwriter-comedian-tapdancer-singer - who collaborated with a group of friends on the original idea for the show, commented in his soft Texan accent, ''From the very beginning we could tell that we had something. We knew it would have at least a sort of cult following, but we never really saw it on Broadway.''

He and his friends played all the original roles in the show and gradually have been replaced by other actors and actresses. Hardwick, whose dour facial expressions and foot-stomping piano style stole the show every night until he was recently replaced by John Lenehan, has gone on to play a blind xylophonist in Woody Allen's latest movie and to take part in a TV special based on ''Pump Boys and Dinettes'' with the rest of the original cast.

Mark feels that he came by his brand of dry humor honestly.

''The people I grew up with I thought were very funny in their severity. You know, those country people who can be so funny, but at the same time are totally expressionless.''

As far as his musical education is concerned, he added, ''I've always played the piano. I started when I was very young. I had a piano teacher when I lived in Houston who would dress me up in little costumes and we would perform for Lions Clubs, hospitals, prisons, and old-folks homes. It was quite an experience.''

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The seeds of ''Pump Boys and Dinettes'' were planted when Mark and his friend , guitarist-singer-songwriter Jim Wann - who wrote ''Diamond Studs,'' a musical about Jesse James - were playing together at the Cattleman Restaurant. They were bored to distraction, so Mark came up with an idea to relieve the tedium.

''I had an old gas-station uniform that I'd been wearing with my name on it - actually it wasn't old. I'd bought it new and I thought that was just the most new wave, wonderful thing to have. I thought, this is hysterical! And it was, you know. So Jim decided to get one, too, and he started writing songs about life in the gas station.

''People liked what Jim and I did - they wondered 'Are they reallym gas-station attendants?' And we loved that, you know. So we decided to form a band of gas station attendants, and that was the Pump Boys.''

Meanwhile, Jim's wife, Cass Morgan, and her friend Debbie Monk (who was also a friend of Mark's), were busy putting their own little act together - the Dinettes.

''We really were working separately,'' says Mark. ''We weren't going to come together, although I think we knew, deep down . . . that it was inevitable! But about six months before it happened we were invited to play at a party, and the girls came in and did a couple of songs. When they made their entrance it was so strange and wonderful - these two waitresses coming from nowhere, with pies, and singing! People just screamed and howled and carried on - that's how it happened.

''Then it just grew and we got more and more jobs and it got bigger. We got more material together and gave it more shape. We'd had no thought at that time of a revue, or of combining the two acts. But we all gravitated toward each other and it evolved into a piece.''

The show opened in July 1981 at the WestSidecq Arts Theater with Mark, Jim Wann, Cass Morgan, Debbie Monk, John Foley (guitar, vocals), and John Schimmel (bass), where it played for about a month. Mark recalls that ''We started upstairs in that little cabaret, and then it went so well that they moved us into the bigger room. We were there for a couple of weeks, and there were three or four people a night in the audience. This was when we were producing the show ourselves - everything came out of our pockets, the girls were baking their own pies; can you imagine?''

But here's where the fairy tale really begins. ''A review came out in the New York Post - a rave. Well, the tide turned - you could not get in. And the producers started coming. We had offers from five different producers. Blew us away! We were only there for about four or five weeks, total. We didn't know what to do.''

Mark seized this opportunity to go visit his family in Texas, because, as he says, ''I sensed that I would never get off again, which is what has happened!''

Meanwhile, Jim Wann met with the various producers, and shortly afterward the revue moved to the Off Broadway Colonnades Theater. It wasn't long before it moved to its current location on Broadway.

''It continues to hold surprises,'' says Mark. ''A lot of good things are happening. We hope that we've set a little bit of a precedent for people trying to do revues.''

In the beginning, and when things started to happen with the show, Mark and his friends vowed they'd never leave it or each other.

''It was all for one and one for all,'' says Mark, ''and we were never going to break up - but that's not realistic. We're not the Beatles - and they broke up anyway!''

So the original members of the cast have dropped out one by one, to pursue other projects. Jim Wann was first to be replaced by Louden Wainwright III (who will himself be replaced by Tom Chapin on Jan. 5), and shortly after, Ronee Blakley took over for Cass Morgan in the role of Rhetta. Now Rhonda Coullet is the new Prudie, formerly Debbie Monk.

Does Mark think PB&D can survive without its original members?

''The casting for the show has been very difficult, but I think it can work as long as the people can grow into relationships with each other. It's very hard, because we are those people up there - we created them, and we already had the relationship. It's the essence of our show.''

But it seems that the spirit of ''Pump Boys and Dinettes'' will live on, given the strength of the original idea and the musical material, both as a Broadway show, and now as a television special with an eye on a possible series.

The show will air on NBC on Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Based on the Broadway version, the televised PB&D contains some of the songs from that show as well as some new original material and some standard country-and-western fare. Tanya Tucker will be the guest.

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