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Rory Rammer at Dragon*Con

(Over the past few years, ARTC has been fortunate enough to have a number of well-known actors — Jonathan Harris of “Lost in Space,” Robert Trebor, Alexandra Tydings, Claire Stansfield, and Ted Raimi of “Xena” and “Hercules” — participate in our DragonCon presentations. The vehicle for these performances has mostly been “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal.” ARTC spoke with Ron Butler, who writes “Rory” for the Company, about the series and its productions at DragonCon.)

ARTC: I don’t think those were the usual people at Blimpie’s. Maybe they were doing training.
RNB: I should hope so. I’m not used to being actively sneered at by someone who’s making minimum wage for slapping cold sandwiches together. I mean, this isn’t France.

ARTC: Anyway — We spent most of an hour earlier talking about Rory Rammer and never actually got around to talking about Rory Rammer at DragonCon. Can we correct that?
RNB: Really, I think you’re wanting to talk about the “celebrity” RR shows. ARTC was doing Rory at DragonCon before the stars showed up. Uh — just don’t ask me to remember which scripts or when we did them. Year before last, ARTC’s advertising poster promised “Another Rory Rammer.” I felt slighted by that at the time — I had come up with a title, after all — but I know the performances and the conventions can start to blur together.

ARTC: How does ARTC attract guest stars for DragonCon?
RNB: We don’t. Ed Kramer [Supreme Potentate and Reality-Master of DragonCon] comes up with these notions about guests appearing in ARTC shows. The point where the plans usually fell through in years past was that — apparently and from what I heard at the time — Ed never did tell the actual guests about these plans before they arrived in Atlanta. Bummer. We finally took the step of contacting prospective guest stars ourselves — after Ed told us who he had in mind — to see if they wanted to play. For quite a while there, we got responses like, “Huh?” and “Who are you people?” Disappointing, since there were a number of folks we’d have liked to work with, even some experienced people from elsewhere in the audio-drama field.

ARTC: Was Jonathan Harris [Dr. Smith from the TV series, Lost in Space] the first success?
RNB: Well, a halfway success. We were supposed to have both Mr. Harris and Ray Harryhausen [stop-motion special effects legend], but Mr. Harryhausen apparently thought “radio production” meant “in a radio studio,” not “in front of three thousand screaming people,” and decided to bow out.

ARTC: Did that cause problems?
RNB: We always have understudies. Have to, if only to have someone to read the lines during technical rehearsals. Hmm… I’ve made it sound like we cast department store mannequins as understudies, which we don’t. If nothing else, we’re well aware that any guest might have to cancel out at any time, for paying-work reasons if nothing else. So we cast understudies in the full knowledge that any or all of them may do the actual performance. Daniel Taylor stepped up for Mr. Harryhausen and did a great job.

ARTC: Did you fit Mr. Harris into an existing “Rory” script?
RNB: No, I wrote a script especially for him. [“The Cosmic Cycloplex”] In fact, it’s just about useless without Jonathan Harris. My biggest mistake was to name his character “Dr. Feynman,” a pre-existing character, but completely unlike himself in this incarnation. If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have changed that name. To “Professor Cronkite,” probably.

ARTC: After Walter Cronkite?
RNB: No, it’s a very old joke. “Krankheit” (can I spell or what?) is German for “sickness,” so the doctor in burlesque skits was often “Dr. Krankheit.”

ARTC: So Professor Feynman wasn’t himself that night?
RNB: No, he was Dr. Zachary Smith in all but name. “Cycloplex” is a shameless conglomerate of every Lost in Space reference and in-joke I could come up with. It was cheap, it was crass. I know DragonCon audiences, though — they howled at it. And I think Mr. Harris enjoyed doing it, too.

ARTC: How cheap was it?
RNB: Rory falls off a spaceship (don’t ask) into a black hole-like object called a “cycloplex.” (I lifted that concept, but not much of anything else, from a “Space Patrol” script.) At which Skip Sagan cries, “We’ve lost Rory! He’s lost! Lost in –” And Feynman growls, “Don’t even say it.” And the crowd goes wild…

ARTC: Sure they did. What was it like working with Mr. Harris?
RNB: I didn’t; you’ll have to ask the cast. I missed the single rehearsal, on Saturday afternoon, so I just huddled up at the front of the stage during the performance. And I was astounded.

ARTC: At what?
RNB: At Mr. Harris. I believe he was nearly eighty even then and obviously not in the best health. He got one rehearsal before performing — and he was letter-perfect. I mean, even at age twelve, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the subtleties of his performance in Lost in Space, but he came through like a trouper. I’m ashamed to say that I suspect he was a much better actor than I’d ever thought.

ARTC: Did you get to talk with him?
RNB: I hopped up on stage after the applause died down and introduced myself. “Mr. Harris,” I said, “I’m Ron Butler. I wrote the script and I just wanted to say — I know how tough that dialogue was — but you did a marvelous job. I couldn’t have done it that well, I know, and I wrote that stuff.”

ARTC: And how did he react to that?
RNB: He stopped pulling on his shoes and growled, “Frankly, neither could I. I faked it.”

ARTC: Will that show up on a tape?
RNB: Very, very unlikely. It’s proven impossible to get a usable voice track from any of the live performances at DragonCon, so we’ve taken to recording separate voice tracks from the celebrities during rehearsals, for Henry [Howard] to meld in with other voice and sound effect tracks later. But we didn’t do that with Mr. Harris, and his health has — sadly — declined since then. “Cosmic Cycloplex” may have been one of his last public appearances of any sort. I like to think he had fun.

ARTC: Next year [1999] was Robert Trebor?
RNB: Yes, the first of our “Hercules / Xena” connections. The script was “The Phantom Menace.”

ARTC: I beg your pardon.
RNB: “Phantom Menace.” No, not that George Lucas thing. Our “Phantom Menace” actually opened, at a convention in Florida, a few days before the movie did. Maybe I should sue him…

ARTC: Why don’t you just take your life’s saving out of the bank, convert it into pennies and melt them into a puddle of cupro-zinc slag? It’d probably be faster and a lot less painful.
RNB: You’re probably right. Anyway — Say, did you realize “Trebor” is “Robert” spelled backwards?

ARTC: It’s a stage name.
RNB: You think so? I didn’t get to attend rehearsals that year — “Menace” has a slightly huge cast and rehearsals are traditionally held in Bill Ritch’s traditionally teeny hotel room — and sat halfway back in the auditorium for the performance. Mr. Trebor certainly seemed to enjoy himself. At the end, “Captain Cosmos,” the space pirate, is revealed to be Skip Sagan’s uncle. Skip was being played by Daniel Kiernan, with a high-pitched, nasal Brooklyn accent, and once Trebor got “Cosmos’s” breathing mask off, he spoke with the exact same accent. In fact, it was darn hard to tell them apart.

ARTC: Space pirates seem to show up a lot in Rory Rammer.
RNB: Probably because I think it’s such an idiotic idea. There’s just no way to make it pay. “Captain Cosmos” is a debt-ridden physicist with an invisibility device, which he uses to pursue a life of crime. But he can’t dispose of his loot and he’s on the point of starving when he captures Rory Rammer.

ARTC: You mean “when Rory Rammer captures him.”
RNB: I mean what I said.

ARTC: Is this one going to be on a tape?
RNB: Almost certainly. We have it penciled in. As I said, Mr. Trebor must have had a good experience, because this year [2000] we got enthusiastic acceptances from Ted Raimi (“Joxer”), Alexandra Tydings (“Aphrodite”) and Claire Stansfield (the shamaness “Alti”). Maybe he talked us up to his co-workers.

ARTC: Was this another specially-written script?
RNB: Yeah. Henry Howard [ARTC Head Technical Producer] called me one evening in May and asked if I could have a “Rory” script with two strong female leads written — or at least outlined — in ten days. If I could, we might be able to attract Alexandra Tydings and Claire Stansfield. I have to admit that female characters in “Rory” are pretty thin on the ground.

ARTC: I’d noticed. Why don’t you do something about that?
RNB: Hey, it’s Fifties science fiction. Women were about as abundant in that milieu as they were at the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club.

ARTC: That really sounds like sexist rationalization to me. Just because women were ignored then you have to ignore them now?
RNB: It wasn’t that women were ignored. They were present, here and there, but when they did show up they were treated in pretty set ways. For instance, I’ve had the suggestion made to me that there should be a female Space Marshals cadet written in as a love interest for Skip Sagan. A character like that would have been treated one of two ways: Comically, which gets us into a lot of stereotypical “teen” humor that would make my pancreas freeze up. Or the poor girl — by which I mean a pre-wommin — would be so put upon that she’d resign from the Space Marshals by the end of the first episode and go home to marry an insurance salesman and hatch babies. I don’t want to go either of those places.

ARTC: But you’ve had female authority figures. There are allusions to the President of the United States being female. The Undersecretary for Suprastratospheric Affairs is referred to as “Madam Undersecretary.” What’s the diff?
RNB: Those are distant female authority figures. They give a whiff of exotic modernity without actually having any day-to-day impact on the way things get done. And I have a precedent for it: In Robert Heinlein’s other sci-fi movie, Operation Moonbase, the POTUS is a woman. In fact, she sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt — which is a nasty thought.

ARTC: I think a man who quotes precedents to explain his dramatic choices is covering up like a cat on a linoleum floor.
RNB: And I just think I’m being as true as I can to the genre I’m parodying without getting completely fossilized. I also didn’t think I’d have to justify myself to an EEOC hearing. Do I get any credit for a couple of really nifty female villains? I like Sinead O’Chronos [Episode “Set Loose the Dogs of Time!”] if only for her name, and Dr. Renee Marceau [Episode “The Island of Dr. Marceau”] is just plain fun.

ARTC: You can only deal with strong women if you make them evil?
RNB: Make up your mind. Do you want women characters or not? The lead good guy spot is already filled. That leaves room for strong villains. Besides, it’s the snake who gets all the good lines.

ARTC: The Company has converted some roles from male to female. For instance, “The Green Man’s Burden” has probably had a “Princess Two Moons” more times than it’s had a “Chief Two Moons.” What’s wrong with that?
RNB: Two Moons’ sex-change was a logistical necessity: ARTC, like most theatrical companies of whatever stripe, has more actresses than actors. I didn’t think it worked particularly well and if I thought it was going to be permanent, it would force me to rewrite the script.

ARTC: Oh, come on! Why? Would “Two Moons, Princess of Mars” act that differently from “Chief Two Moons”?
RNB: Probably not, but “Bubba Beacham” would interact with “her” a lot differently, and Rory’s reactions wouldn’t be quite the same. I may be writing parody, but I’m trying not to be a hack.

ARTC: I think you just don’t like women, especially strong women.
RNB: I’ll refer you to my wife on that. But I’d advise you wear padding and to get your ego Sanforized before you do.

ARTC: So, do you think the roles you came up with for Tydings and Stansfield are “strong”?
RNB: One is an over-the-top businesswoman villain. And Ms. Stansfield’s character [“Michiko Sakai,” a female undercover operative for the Department of Justice, Extraterrestrial branch] is probably strong enough to spin another series from. Good enough?

ARTC: Are there references to the actresses’ roles on Xena / Hercules?
RNB: Not really. I confess, item one in my response to Henry’s followup e-mail was “Who are these people?” Ms. Tydings’ character is president and CEO of “Aphrodite Spacelines,” but that’s about the only reference.

ARTC: How did Ted Raimi [“Joxer”] get into this?
RNB: At the last minute. Otherwise, there would have been a character specially-written for him, too. As it was, I thought he’d make a really great Skip Sagan — but Skip didn’t have that many lines. Bill Ritch, I think, first had the idea of making him Rory. It was casting dead against type and not something I was enthusiastic about at first, but it worked out well. He can come back and do Rory for us as often as he wants.

ARTC: You got a little closer to this year’s production, I think.
RNB: I was able to attend the guests’ rehearsal. Yes, it was in Bill Ritch’s even-teenier-than-usual room in the Hyatt. And it was crammed with all of Bill’s audio equipment; he’d stored it there after Thursday night’s production of “All Hallow’s Moon,” so I ended up wedged between the side of a bed and the bathroom wall. Daniel and Clair Kiernan had the remainder of that side of the bed.

ARTC: Was this a tech rehearsal, too?
RNB: Not a chance! Henry had rigged microphones for the guests, though, so we could record clear voice tracks of their lines. If Henry has that, he can assemble voice tracks from the local ARTC-ians, music and sound effects into a complete program. Henry’s really excellent at that sort of thing.

ARTC: So, did this qualify as fun?
RNB: More like excruciating. Audio production involves take after take. I understand the only thing worse is video / film production. The guests seemed comfortable, though, and that’s what was important. Raimi, in particular, looked like he was having a hell of a time. I had to apologize to Daniel Kiernan, however.

ARTC: Why?
RNB: Daniel — who has played both Rory and Skip, by the way — is kind of ARTC’s King of Ad Libs. Which drives me — as a writer — up a wall. But Raimi was just as bad. In fact, he duplicated a number of Daniel’s ad libs from earlier rehearsals.

ARTC: Did that drive you up a wall?
RNB: Sid Jovi, non sid bovi.

ARTC: Huh?
RNB: Let’s just say that Ted Raimi can get away with some things Daniel can’t.

ARTC: Any problems?
RNB: Aside from the cramp in my calf? Well, the script does have one section where Michiko Sakai asks villainess Aphrodite DeHavilland where she found men corrupt and desperate enough to hijack spaceliners for her. And DeHavilland says, “Oh, I had them on the payroll already. Most of them are shop stewards with the Teamsters’ Union.”

ARTC: I think I see. Ms. Tydings is a member of SAG/AFTRA, right?
RNB: So Henry Howard warned me. I was ready to change her response to “Creative Talent Associates,” but with my luck they’d turn out to be her agents. The second fall-back position was “The William Morris Agency.” As things happened, she didn’t turn a hair.

ARTC: And that Ted Raimi story?
RNB: Oh, yeah! There’s a point in the script where Rory and Sakai strap themselves to the side of a disarmed space-to-space missile and launch it at the bad guys’ space yacht. They light the fuse and the missile takes off, Rory giving a cowboy yell and Sakai screaming in — fully justified, I think — terror. Mr. Raimi read that, paused, and said, “Kinda like that Colonel Kong in Dr. Strangelove, eh?”

ARTC: The scene where Slim Pickens rides an H-bomb down, waving his cowboy hat and yelling?
RNB: Exactly. And I sat there feeling like my mind had been read. I hadn’t intentionally used that imagery, but it was perfect. One way or another, almost all the actors we’ve used in DragonCon ARTC performances have surprised me.

ARTC: Were there any other guests working with ARTC this year?
RNB: Joshua Kane did all our narration and announcing for the Saturday night show. What a voice! And as a matter of fact, we also got Michael Sinelnikoff, from The Lost World TV series, at the very last minute. I think Bill had an idea he might want to play with us, because he [Bill] asked me before the convention about copies of an old script of mine, “The Most-Pierced Man in America.”

ARTC: The what?
RNB: Just what it sounds like. It’s one of an occasional series of faux daytime interview show pieces, hosted by women with names based on old British airplane manufacturing companies — Fiona Leonard as “Jane Handley-Page,” in this case. Mr. Sinelnikoff was “Oleg ‘Pincushion’ Penkovsky, the Most-Pierced Man” —

ARTC: ” — in America.” Any relation to the Soviet double agent?
RNB: Now there’s a character name I feel guilty about. No. The script is based on a segment on piercing I heard on NPR a number of years ago, during my afternoon commute. It was fascinating, but queasy-making. I squirmed quite a bit all the way home, but I didn’t turn it off. The object of the script is to make the audience squirm, too, and it’s been doing that successfully for years. We also traditionally give it to newbie actors at ARTC, just to see how they handle themselves under fire.

ARTC: Oh, fun…
RNB: For us, yes. Mr. Sinelnikoff handled it with perfect aplomb, I have to say.

ARTC: Could I ask what sort of —
RNB: Ear piercing —

ARTC: Big deal.
RNB: — nose rings, scalp rings, tongue studs, nipple rings —

ARTC: Ouch!
RNB: –a three-eighths inch diameter hex-head stainless steel bolt with a castellated nut and cotter pin through the wrist —

ARTC: Oh, my — !
RNB: — and something called a “Prince Albert” —

ARTC: I think we can stop right there!
RNB: That’s what Jane said.

ARTC: *Urg!* Plans for future DragonCons?
RNB: Yet another “Rory Rammer,” I’m sure. I believe the next installment in the “Heinlein Project” is supposed to be “Solution Unsatisfactory,” but you’ll have to ask Daniel Taylor about that. I haven’t yet managed to write anything over twenty-five minutes in length, but — who knows — maybe by next year… Say, isn’t it getting toward dinner time?

ARTC: I don’t have much of an appetite for some reason.
RNB: Pity…