Comedy troupe takes its political satire seriously


When the Montana Logging & Ballet Company takes over the stage at Centennial High School in Ellicott City tomorrow night they won't be toting timber and they won't be wearing tights. In fact, the only thing accurate about the name of this four-man political satire group is that they come from Montana.

What they will do on stage is sing, joke, mime, mug and generally clown around about every subject under the sun, as long as its politically topical or socially significant.

Their tools are harmony, wit, a half-dozen musical instruments and an endless amount of physical energy. Their style is irreverent but optimistic, as they poke fun at everyone from "televangelists" to gun-control advocates.

Tomorrow they're as likely to bring up Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's presidential ambitions as they are the endangered spotted owl or the verdict in the Rodney King case.

"We usually just get on the plane and look at the paper and decide what we'll do," says Bob FitzGerald, the group's spokesman. "Last weekend we wrote two limericks in the green room," he said of a performance in Salt Lake City.

Performing together nearly 17 years, the last 10 in concerts across the country, MLBC still isn't a household word. Even though they perform to standing ovations, news of their talents generally travels by word of mouth. There's no high-powered agent behind them, and there are no Hollywood stars in their eyes.

They perform in support of social causes rather than for profit, and the majority of their public appearances, which average about two a month, are sponsored by organizations whose political mind-set they share. The list has included everything from the Whitehall, Mont., library to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Metropolitan Humanitarian Aid Fund.

Tomorrow night's performance will benefit the Howard County Sexual Assault Center.

The world of vagabond satire is only a part-time one for the foursome, who range in age from late 30s to late 40s. They have "real jobs," too.

Youngest member Tim Holmes is a metal sculptor whose work has been exhibited on both coasts and is displayed as part of every show. Rusty Harper, the quartet's chief editor and concept man, is a planning specialist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Mr. FitzGerald manages Mr. Holmes' career as well as MLBC and works part-time for U.S. Windpower, a company that sets up commercial windmill plants.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Mr. Holmes' brother, is a United Methodist minister in Big Fork, Mont., about 180 miles away from the other three, who live in Helena. Despite the distance, Mr. Garnaas-Holmes, who also composes church music when he isn't ministering, does the majority of the writing for the group, including the music.

A master of sound effects, he claims to be the only man ever to use his voice to simulate an entire Indianapolis 500 race -- a group skit that involves drivers ranging from Jimmy Swaggert to Jesse Helms, depending on who was on last night's front page.

"I'm probably the person with the least sense of restraint," says Mr. Garnaas-Holmes, who admits that he sometimes ad libs on stage, warning the others of an impending skit change with just a wink.

He sums up the group succinctly: "We're four little boys who enjoy putting to music 'the emperor has no clothes.' " Humor, he says, allows the satirists to get into controversial subjects without alienating audiences.

Mr. FitzGerald concurs: "What we want is to get people not to put their heads in the sand. You can't lecture people into change, so we do it with comedy."

"We try to fly in the face of cynicism and say, 'Yes, awful things are going on, but you are not a spectator. You can make a difference,' " he adds.

A sense of hopefulness is evident in the group's songs, too, which radiate harmony and a hymn-like peacefulness. They have titles like "Oh Be Gentle," "Somebody Loves Me Like a River" and "Take the Barriers Down." The last, an anti-apartheid anthem, is the title song of an album they recorded in 1989 at the urging of South African Bishop Tutu, who wrote the liner notes.

Part-time performing can sometimes wreak havoc on the men's schedules -- "We have to be sure to get Steve back in time to preach Sunday morning," notes Mr. FitzGerald -- and living in separate cities adds a glitch to their writing efforts. Any creative work done before the plane ride must be done by phone or Fax machine.

When the four finally get together in one place, sometimes hours before the concert, "we just go like crazy," says Mr. FitzGerald. "It's stupid. It's intense. But it's worked for us for 17 years."

The four men met at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., in 1975, where they put together an act to take on recruiting tours to high schools. It wasn't long before they moved into the local political arena and ultimately started traveling to benefit educational and human rights issues.

After tomorrow's concert they'll fly to Louisville for the National Methodist Conference. And in June they'll do a benefit in Cleveland for Alzheimer's research, before returning to Montana for fund-raisers for Habitat for Humanity, family resource groups and literacy.

"We're not out to make a killing, but to use the group to empower people," says Mr. FitzGerald.

"People are screaming for some kind of hope. After the '80s and the Wall Street and savings and loan scandals, there has to be a reason to get out of bed in the morning," he says. "What the group tries to do is give a reason."

Montana Logging & Ballet Company

The Montana Logging & Ballet Company will perform tomorrow in Ellicott City. Tickets -- $15 for adults, $7.50 for children and $12 for seniors -- are available at the Body Shop in Columbia Mall or by calling (410) 964-0504 or (410) 992-0035 for reservations. Proceeds will benefit the Howard County Sexual Assault Center.

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