At Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theater, the audience always gets in the act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Way before he was a wild-and-crazy guy, before "Excccuuuse me," before "The Jerk" and "All of Me" and "Roxanne," before he was big-time box office, Steve Martin was clad in plaid and standing on a street corner at Knott's Berry Farm, hawking his talents to visiting tourists for $3 a show.

Mr. Martin was 18 when he landed his first real acting job at the Bird Cage Theatre, a tented stage at the Buena Park, Calif., amusement park.

And like so many talents who sharpened their craft at the Bird Cage, Mr. Martin feels an uncommon affection and gratitude for the place.

"It served me my entire life," Mr. Martin, 48, recalled. "I look back on it as one of the great learning periods of my life in show business. You learn almost everything there is to know about audiences."

At a private party at the amusement park in April, Mr. Martin and many other actors celebrated the 40th anniversary of the theater and paid tribute to its founder, George Stuart McFarland, 86, whose stage name is George Stuart.

The Bird Cage is old-fashioned audience-participation theater, straight out of the stages of the Wild West. The hero always wins. And the villain always gets his just reward -- offstage. At the Bird Cage, violence is kept in its place.

The theater launched several major and minor celebrities, including Mr. Martin, Dean Jones of Disney pictures and Broadway fame, Lauren Tewes of "Love Boat," Skip Young from "Ozzie and Harriet" and Kathy Westmoreland, who sang with Elvis.

Knott's founder, Walter Knott, who built a replica of Independence Hall at the park that was so authentic it attracts history buffs, wanted like mad to transport the original Bird Cage Theatre out of Tombstone, Ariz., in 1954. He couldn't get it; a local zealot stepped in and had the tent designated a historic landmark.

So he built a replica of the tent, adding a sense of amusement and adventure to the actors who have had to go on with the show, sometimes shouting their lines, as the tent rippled in high winds, trapped the muggy summer heat and thundered in monsoons.

Although the plots and format draw from the late 19th century, a more jaded modern audience reacts with enthusiasm -- even glee -- at the chance to become part of the drama. They're invited to boo the villain, whistle at the sex symbol, coach the innocent heroine and cheer the hero.

It's corny as all get-out, but people seem to allow themselves to be caught up in the goo. The Knott's melodrama has even developed a small cult following -- people who come back to see the performances every week.

"It's nice to see the good guy win," said Ann Bentley, a tourist from San Francisco who watched a recent show.

"And you know who the good guys are," said her husband, John Bentley.

Even today, when the pink-frocked heroine, Heather Harmony (Kathryn Burns), peers out from behind her sausage curls and asks the audience if she should go away with the villain, visitors practically come out of their chairs: "No! Don't go!"

"They're allowed to react," said Mr. Jones, who played Dr. Varick in the film "Beethoven" and has many films and Broadway musicals under his belt. "They can show displeasure, approval. You can't do that with a television set or a movie screen. It's a new thing called interactive media, but it started about 3,000 years ago."

For Steve Martin, experience at the theater was a way of getting a "leg up" on other actors, because of the confidence he gained performing four or five shows a day -- sometimes for 200 people, other times for six.

In the early days, actors were required between shows to perform olios -- four-minute song-and-dance acts of their own creation -- and that's where Mr. Martin perfected his stand-up comedy act.

Mr. Martin said he learned about timing from Mr. McFarland, and he also learned to keep going when everything wasn't coming off as planned. Mr. McFarland's favorite phrase: "There's always the next night."

Mr. McFarland remembered hiring Mr. Martin because he was "well-groomed." Only later did he realize he had a great talent on his stage.

"He was the only one who stuck to the script," Mr. McFarland said. "I used to tell the actors, this script was written many, many years ago, and if you try to put in one-liners and ad libs and funny lines, you'll get into trouble."

But ad lib they did. Doing the same show five times a day, week after week, sometimes got monotonous. To keep the humor fresh, the actors often played pranks on each other. Mr. Martin went on stage once to uproarious laughter, and only after he exited did he realize someone had put talcum powder under his derby. Every time he lifted it, a cloud of smoke went up.

"We'd do crazy things to keep ourselves from getting bored," said former actor and lounge act John Stuart, who built a multimillion-dollar casino-show empire.

"Go fetch the ax!" Mr. Martin said to him, night after night, in the show. One night, Mr. Stuart went to fetch the ax, and Mr. Martin had wired it to the wall. The show had to go on, so Mr. Stuart judo-chopped his way through the wall. Mr. Stuart retaliated by placing a water balloon down Mr. Martin's pants just before Mr. Martin went on: "The balloon rested safely in his crotch," Mr. Stuart said. "He went on and did the show. He had no choice."

Old Walter Knott, the amusement park founder, believed in entrepreneurship, and the Bird Cage was a separate profit center in the park. Earning $3 a show, the actors had to go out and bark on the corner to draw in an audience.

"We'd have to drag them in," Mr. Stuart said. " 'Hurry, hurry! Right this way! "Mystery of the Orient" is showing today! For one thin dime, you'll have the chance of a lifetime.' We had to find our audience -- and I We had to find our audience -- and I became a tremendous marketeer. It's nothing for me now to walk into a convention of 3,000 people in Las Vegas. I know how to herd them."

"The Bird Cage was my springboard and my security blanket," said Mr. Stuart, who worked there seven years. The flexibility of the job at the theater allowed him to go to California State University, Fullerton and to work night jobs, singing at lounges throughout the county -- most notably the Cellar at the Disneyland Hotel and the Captain Greenhorn Lounge at the Quality Inn across from Disneyland.

The pranks have slowed down somewhat with the current cast -- and a few of the bloopers have been built right into the script. The backdrop river on the "Riverboat Revenge" set, for example, gets stuck in every show. But the audience is still booing and hissing as loud as ever.

"My notion is that people crave the chance to express themselves," said Don Forney, who has acted in Bird Cage productions for 31 years. "And we're giving them carte blanche." He believes that about 70 percent of his audience has never seen live theater previous to their experience at Knott's.

"They come here," he said, "and they learn that theater doesn't have to be boring."

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