Presenting ... the Montana Logging and Ballet Company
START with a Methodist minister. Add a political consultant with two United States Senate campaigns to his credit, and a sculptor whose work appears in the collections of playwright Edward Albee and cookie magnate Famous Amos. Finish with a state labor specialist, and stand clear: You're looking down the barrel of the Montana Logging and Ballet Company (MLBC). This is no ordinary logging and ballet company.
Having little to do with dance and even less with timber, MLBC is a singing political cartoon that, depending on the week, may be found performing for the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the House Democrats in Congress, or the Health Education Museum in Cleveland.
What are four white guys from western Montana doing about apartheid? Or singing for Jim Wright, for that matter? In the case of the Montana Logging and Ballet Company, they're doing the same thing they've been doing for the past eight years: using music and comedy to promote political and social causes.
Much of the humor is satire; much of the satire is musical; and much of the music is original, in four-part harmony with guitar and banjo accompaniment. Drawing heavily upon folk and pop styles (two of the members performed with the ``People Tree'' group in the 1960s), the program borrows from barbershop, reggae, opera, and spirituals, as needed. Pantomime, sight gags, and an array of homemade sound effects are also part of the arsenal, and MLBC is not above a dash of slapstick if it gets the laugh.
``The show is really an outburst of hope,'' says manager Bob FitzGerald. ``We speak for the powerless, and you can empower through humor. You can empower by saying the unsayable, by ridiculing the powerful.''
The 90-minute show opens with a reassuring folk song or two, only to explode into a vicious one-man wrestling match. Later there will be a lip-sync to Spike Jones's ``You Always Hurt the One You Love'' and a Reagan-era parody of ``Don't Worry, Be Happy.'' In one of several assaults on televangelists, Pat Robertson pleads skyward, ``How come, when you were passing out sin, you gave me politics?''
The closest the show gets to ballet is the tightly choreographed ``MLBC Answer to the Federal Deficit,'' a slow-motion fistfight that pits Education against Agriculture against Defense.
No two shows are identical, since each performance is tailored to its audience. With a little research in advance, the troupe can deliver inside humor to a national association of state food stamp administrators, a regional teachers' union, or the supporters of a local arts center in rural Montana.
Topical humor is the group's specialty, and the 5 o'clock news is often incorporated into an 8 o'clock performance. Some themes are consistent: The show rides hard on government excesses, cultural materialism, sexism, racism, and coldheartedness of all kinds. Echoing a line from Finley Peter Dunne, the group says its aim is to ``comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.''
By popular demand, MLBC will be making a return appearance this year at the National Education Association convention Friday. NEA official Linda Boitano says that controversial or not, the show drew only praise from the 13,500 teachers last year in Los Angeles. ``You walk out of that hall feeling good about yourself,'' Ms. Boitano says.
Virtually all the performances are convention entertainment or fund-raisers for chosen causes and candidates. In early years, the members were happy when they covered expenses; now, with a national reputation and a performance itinerary to match, the band can command hefty fees for an evening appearance, but will still appear gratis for the right cause.
The most recent beneficiary of these attentions has been Archbishop Tutu's Metropolitan Humanitarian Aid Fund, a charity that provides income for striking workers and legal assistance to detainees, many of whom are under 18 years of age, in South Africa. MLBC met Tutu in March of 1987, when both were appearing before the United Methodist Mission Gathering in Louisville.
When the troupe sang the antiapartheid anthem written for the occasion, ``Take the Barriers Down,'' Tutu was visibly moved. His first response was to hug each member of the group in turn, a large and deliberate gesture. When one of the bishop's associates said, ``This song needs to be heard in South Africa,'' the idea for an album was born.
Jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe produced ``Take the Barriers Down'' that summer. For each copy sold, a dollar is donated to Tutu's fund, and the archbishop's signed endorsement appears on the album cover. With a growing conviction that apartheid is the Nazism of the '80s, Mr. FitzGerald spent last spring in Washington, D.C., organizing a $1,000-a-plate benefit that raised $65,000 for the same cause.
Though perhaps the best known, Desmond Tutu is not the only name on MLBC's dance card. In addition to 25 to 40 concerts each year, the musicians all pursue other full-time professions.
FitzGerald, former campaign manager for Montana Sen. Max Baucus, formally abandoned politics several years ago, though he keeps Washington connections fresh with the troupe and other business. He manages sculpture sales for bass player Tim Holmes, which is why audiences are sometimes treated to a display of bronzes after a show.
The Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, the sculptor's older brother, is the minister of the Methodist church in Bigfork, on Montana's Flathead Lake. ``Pastor Steve,'' as he is known to his parishioners, is responsible for all of the group's sound effects and most of its original music. The fourth member of the group, Rusty Harper, is chief of the unemployment bureau of the Montana Department of Labor. Mr. Harper is as close as the troupe gets to a straight man, and it is his impassioned monologue that is the climax and close of each performance. Both he and Mr. Garnaas-Holmes also juggle roles of husband and father in families with young children.
Why do they do it? Garnaas-Holmes, on his way to lead a Bible study meeting at a local nursing home, thought a minute, then quoted from the book of Jeremiah: ``If I don't, there is in my heart a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.'' In other words, Garnaas-Holmes said, ``If I weren't doing this, I'd be doing the same thing: singing and telling stories in my church or to my friends. I think when the truth gets in you, you can't stop it.''
Besides, he added, ``I get a standing ovation at regular intervals - something everyone should have the opportunity to do.''
The group's multiple commitments may produce scheduling chaos, as FitzGerald reports ruefully, but it hasn't stopped them yet. On the contrary, they are about to take some of their own barriers down. After years of playing for largely sympathetic audiences, next week the group is headed to Florida for a convention of certified public accountants, not a group known for its progressive politics. At worst, the band hopes, the accountants may respond like the Republican county chairwoman who told Harper after a show, ``I didn't agree with anything you said. I don't know why I liked it so much.''
At best, the CPAs may find common links of their own, as Desmond Tutu did. As the archbishop writes on the album: ``Four white men from Montana cannot sound like black South Africans(!), but they can sing about the justice that is God's intention for us all.... As long as we have hope, no situation is hopeless. The Montana Logging and Ballet Company is about hope.''