A long-time fan of Garrison Keillor and his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, Mt. Airy native Jim Harris, well-known to locals as a humor columnist for the Chestnut Hill Local newspaper, has decided to take a page out of Keillor’s book and bring the fun to Mt. Airy.
“Mount Airy Home Companion”, an original radio-style live variety show hosted by Harris, will debut for one night only at Allens Lane Art Center on Sunday, May 27th at 7:00 p.m.
Presented by Saint Mad
The project grew out of performances with Saint Mad, the band Harris founded in 2001 which now includes members Martha Michael (who co-wrote the show with Harris), Molly Mahoney, Lydia Chen, and percussionist Audrey Bookspan. Saint Mad has been a regular feature of First Fridays in Roxborough for the last three years, performing monthly at Crossroads Coffee House. As their performances – which the band says are “probably” Philadelphia’s only trumpet-euphonium-guitar-keyboard acoustic pop – began to include more and more original songs and locally-inspired satire, about a year ago Harris decided to try something more.
“We’re a very theatrical kind of group,” he says. “Our shows started incorporating a lot of parody and comedies about current events. We even got to the point where we would just hire an actor to come in every now and then to play a role.”
They and their audiences were enjoying it so much, “why not do a bigger-scale show?” Harris thought. “I’ve always been a big fan of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, so I said, why don’t we do something like that?”
It was Michaels who came up with the title, “Mount. Airy Home Companion”.
Now, the finished script is about half musical numbers and half original, locally-inspired comedy skits.
Musical participants include Philadelphia songwriter Neal Phillips, who will premiere a new song called “Miss the Wissahickon”. Local R&B singer John Fitch will perform an original song about love at the Morris Arboretum, and Saint Mad will pitch in with a new song to the tune of “American Pie” whose lyrics have been re-written to tickle Mt. Airy residents.
Another segment will include the singing debut of Greg Williams, owner of Walk a Crooked Mile Books at the Mt. Airy Train Station. He will be performing a song called “I’ve Been Workin’ by the Railroad”.
“Greg gave us our first gig as a group,” Harris says of Saint Mad’s early days, when they debuted at Walk a Crooked Mile. “We wanted to honor him, he’s such a great guy and very involved in the community. He said he can sing; we’re taking him at his word.”
There will also be a dance number choreographed by Bookspan.
As for the theatrical portion of the evening, a pair of skits will be woven throughout the performance. One, called “Hot Air,” a public-radio parody, is a wink towards Philadelphia legend Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air“.
“I love Terry Gross,” says Harris, who was a guest on her show himself many years ago.
Part of the “Hot Air” skit will feature a zany local-news trio attempting to report the Mt. Airy weather and traffic. Of course, the traffic report is that all the roads leading into town are closed. “When you live in Mt. Airy, there’s always a regatta or a bike race or something going on, trees are down, it never ends,” says Harris.
In another segment, a fictitious author will attempt to discuss his brand-new book, The History of the Can Opener, but local callers will never quite let the host get to the point.
Another skit, known as “Search for Tamari”, is a soap opera taking place in Mt. Airy’s own beacon of social life and commerce.
When brainstorming the show, the band members asked what institution would represent Mt. Airy the best. “Everybody said Weaver’s Way right away,” Harris says. “Everything seems to center around that.”
“We’re making it a cult in a way,” he says of the parody’s script. A mysterious force of workers is confined in the basement packing fruit – “or whatever they do down there.” Customers come and go looking for products like free range octopus.
On skewering the locals, Harris, who now lives in Germantown, insists the fun is well-meant. “I’m born and raised in Mt. Airy,” he says. “Dyed-in-the-wool Mt. Airy. I belong to the co-op along with two other band members, so we definitely know it pretty well.”
To perform the skits, Harris has recruited five local actors, including Chestnut Hill’s Matt Nicholas, Andy Pettit of East Falls, and Germantown native Loretta Lucy Miller, who doubles as the show’s director.
The group considered several local venues before settling on Allens Lane. Seating is limited in the intimate space. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance online or at the door.
More parodies possible
If the show goes well, Harris would love to turn the project into a series of performances.
“The minute we started talking about this, I thought it was something I’d like to do more than once, maybe on a yearly basis, like a review of the year,” he says.
The show is designed “to make people feel good about living in Mt. Airy,” Harris explains. “It’s a lot of happy songs and comedy and laughing at ourselves. Like a pep rally. It’s gonna be fun.”
To order tickets online: http://mahc.eventbrite.com/