“I’m amazed that no one really picked up on these characters,” Williams said in a phone interview from his home in Lockhart last week. “We were the first to use them as tools for satiric comedy. They were just ripe for it.”
Some of the 20 characters that show up on the stage include Vera Carp, the town snob and vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order; Didi Snively, chain smoker and owner of Didi’s Used Weapons; Petey Fisk, employee of the Greater Tuna Human Society; and Arles Struvie, a disc jockey at OKKK radio, all played by Williams. Sears’ characters include Bertha Bumiller, long-suffering wife and mother; Pearl Burras, Bertha’s aunt; R.R. Snavely, UFOologist, town drunk and Didi’s husband; and Inita Goodwin, cook at Tuna’s Tastee Kreme drive-in.
The citizens of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas where the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies, are celebrating their long-time run with “Tuna’s Greatest Hits: 30 Years of Laughter,” opening Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. The Eisemann is a favorite venue of the two-man show and their crew.
During the interview, Williams shared a funny story about a producer who used an old bait-and-switch move on the two actors to get them to agree to do the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during the holidays.
“We had a horrible producer who had called Joe and told him I had agreed to work on Christmas Day and then called me and told me Joe had agreed to work on Christmas Day,” he explained. “We were both really angry with each other until we found out we had been lied to.”
They had no choice but to do the show, but it ended up costing the producer more than just a couple of friendships.
“We took the whole crew to the Willard Hotel and had this huge Christmas dinner,” he explained. “The slimy producer sent word through the maitre d that the after-dinner drinks were on him. Well, we bought a 150-year-old bottle of Grand Mariner. We killed that and they didn’t have any more, but they did have a 100-year-old bottle, so we killed that, too. We were as drunk as Otis on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ but we went on stage. After about five minutes, I said to the dresser, ‘This isn’t a problem, the audience is drunk, too.’ They had been drinking at home all day, too. The whole place was pickled.”
The Kennedy Center performance aside, the cast and crew of the four Tuna plays – “Greater Tuna,” “A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas” – work together like a well oiled machine. Williams and Sears play some 26 different characters, complete with multiple costume changes and they make it look like a cakewalk.
“It takes a lot of work to make a two person play look easy,” Williams noted. “We don’t want the audience to think about the costume changes or any of that. It takes professionals and we’ve got the best.”
“Greater Tuna” made its debut in Austin in 1981 and made its off-Broadway premiere in 1982. According to the play’s website, by 1985, it was the most-produced play in the country.
“It’s been quite a haul,” Williams observed. “Someone asked me why I keep doing it.”
After a perfectly timed comedic pause, he said, “for the money.”
Although he and Sears have enjoyed success and critical acclaim, he admits the show is like a family – it has its ups and downs. His job, he says, is to not let anything going on outside interfere with what’s happening on stage.
“Without any disrespect to the audience, what is going on in our lives is not any of their concern,” he said, getting serious for a moment. “We leave it at the door. They don’t need to know that. What they need is a good show.”
During the 30-year run, Sears and Williams have worked under bad conditions, including hurricanes and the dreaded Florida matinee.
“We call it the last act,” he joked. “The farther south you get, they’ve got ambulances. They’ve got oxygen. They have heart defibrillators. They can haul you off during one little darken light cue. No one will know and they’ll tell the widow later.”
But, Williams is quick to add, he’s not too far behind.
“I’m just a few years away from the Luby’s special,” he noted. “On my last birthday, I just looked around and said, ‘I’m not dead.’ Not everyone can say that, especially the dead.”
Williams and his partner adopted a son from China seven years ago. Raising the boy, now 14, has been “amazing and beautiful.”
“He was an unwanted child in China, with a cleft palette and a lot of issues,” Williams explained. “They considered him unadoptable. As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘Well, we’re going to get him out.’ He’s the most loving, kind, happy child. He has huge challenges speaking and communicating, but he also has what we call ‘happy attacks.’”
When a happy attack comes on, Williams has flashbacks of his mother, a fifth grade teacher, saying, “It’s great to be happy, now please stop jumping. Don’t jump in the glass shop.”
Williams said he recently went to his son’s school and asked jokingly, “When did they quit beating children and what can we do about it?”
Again, the idea came from his mother.
“People would bring their kids to her classroom and say, ‘Beat him. Beat him hard. Then, call me and I’ll beat him, and then I’ll tell his Daddy and he’ll beat him. We’ll see you in church,’” he said in his best Vera Carp voice. “So, if we can’t beat children anymore, can we beat their parents? Let’s just take a cane to them. You beat a parent one time and that kid will behave in school.”
After a riff like the one above, Williams can’t help himself. He breaks out in a full-throated, genuine belly laugh.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he said. “I have the best job in the world – making people laugh. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I do all of those things my mama told me not to do and I get paid for it. ‘What would mama think?’ If it’s negative, I do it.”
The Eisemann Center is giving News-Telegram readers two tickets to opening night, along with a casual dinner at The Velvet Taco, named one of Dallas’ best new restaurants in 2011.
When Williams learned about the giveaway, he offered to meet the winners after the show, with this caveat:
“You tell your readers we’ll be stone cold sober in Dallas.”
To enter the News-Telegram’s Tuna and Tacos giveaway, visit www.mySSnews.com and click on the contest button.
“Tuna’s Greatest Hits: 30 Years of Laughter” runs Feb. 21 through March 4 at the Charles W. Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson, TX. 75080. Tickets range from $44 to $55. Call the box office at 972-744-4650 for more information or visit www.eisemanncenter.com/tickets/
According to Sarah Nesbitt, Marketing and Development Manager for the Eisemann, the Prelude Cafe will be open in the Green Mezzanine-Gallery area (reservations at 972-367-2000). Sol Irlandes Mexican Chop House is also directly across the street. “The Renaissance Hotel just to our west also has a very nice restaurant and they are our concessionaire so their general number is the reservation number for Prelude Cafe,” Nesbitt advises.
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