Thrillpeddlers in peril!
by Richard Dodds
As 1950s horror movies liked to conclude, "The End – or is it?" so it is with Thrillpeddlers. The 26-year-old troupe that has shed buckets of stage blood is losing its home known as the Hypnodrome. A handshake deal that guaranteed use of a former venetian blind showroom at token rent for two years stretched into 13 years as potential buyers for the building came and went. But on the first day of the new year, Artistic Director Russell Blackwood got notice from the landlord – who Blackwood said should more properly be called his benefactor – that a sale was imminent. Thrillpeddlers needs to pack up its faux guillotine and other props and costumes and be out of the space by March 1.
Almost immediately after getting that news, Blackwood and his husband and fellow Thrillpeddler, Jim Toczyl, had to hurry to Rocklin, in Placer County, where Toczyl's father had fallen critically ill before dying on Jan. 8. Blackwood was still in Placer when he talked by phone last week about Thrillpeddlers' past, present, and possible future.
"Being able to hunker down here in Rocklin with our immediate family actually served me to an advantage," he said. "I'm not in the Hypnodrome space, I'm not with any other members of Thrillpeddlers, and I'm not caught up in rehearsing what was going to be our next show. I'm feeling a fair amount of calm right now. Not that I haven't sobbed and sobbed. Not immediately, which was more like numb, cold, and constricted, but then a good two days into it was the first time I cried about it, and it was epic."
Back in San Francisco, the Thrillpeddlers' machinery will be cranking up to high speed before leaving the Hypnodrome. A series of events will take place between now and the end of February that will include a staged concert version of what was to be the company's next big production and a farewell revue made up of songs and sketches created for Thrillpeddlers that reflect the many strange faces of the company.
Thrillpeddlers began as a sporadically producing itinerant company that fed into Blackwood's decades-old interest in Paris' Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol, known for its blood-and-gore melodramas, while injecting its own kinky vibe that has remained steadfast. "Back in 1999 and 2000, we would have things like foot-fetish variety acts and psychedelic enema nurses in blacklight," Blackwood said. "It was a kink mashup."
After moving to the Hypnodrome, tucked away under a freeway ramp on 10th Street near Division, the annual Shocktoberfest revue of classic Grand Guignol and original plays and songs was eventually augmented by an annual Theatre of the Ridiculous production. That led to reviving musicals that the Cockettes had performed at the start of the 1970s and provided Thrillpeddlers with some of its biggest hits.
Thrillpeddlers has maintained a first-hand Cockettes connection in songwriter and musical director Scrumbly Koldewyn who was an original member of the psychedelic, gender-bending, high-camp troupe that burned brightly but briefly. He worked with Thrillpeddlers on reviving such Cockettes musicals as Pearls Over Shanghai and Hot Greeks, and has contributed songs and short musicals for Shocktoberfest productions.
His new full-length musical Amazon Apocalypse, or How the Devil Came to Save The Planet, written with Cab Covay, has already been cast and was set to open in late February. Instead, it will receive a semi-staged concert production on Feb. 9-11. "The premise is if the devil comes to Earth seven times in one day, there will be this complete change," Blackwood said. "The devil shows up in places around the world in different decades entering into different bodies. It culminates with him entering into a corporate dictator, and I get to play that character." Blackwood termed that final turn of events as "prescient."
On Feb. 14, the troupe will offer two Valentine's Day benefit performances of Farewell to the Hypnodrome with a revue of variety acts and songs. Also coming up in the final weeks of the Hypnodrome are a trio of performances of Naked Dudes Reading Lovecraft presented by Thrillpeddlers regulars Andy Wenger and Damien Chacona under the aegis of their Ham Pants Productions. And finally, on Feb. 25-26, there will be a rummage sale of set pieces, costumes, props, books, and odds-and-ends. (Ticket info at hypnodrome.org.)
In addition to Amazon Apocalypse, a revival of Peter Fogel and Kelly Kittel's Y2K rock musical has been cast and was slated to open in May. "Having these two pieces in our hip pocket at least for the moment is an asset," Blackwood said in terms of getting them staged in other venues. "I can't keep the casts on hold for very much longer, but for the moment it's still, 'Show us a stage, and we can do it.'"
Thrillpeddlers has never operated under anything like a traditional theatrical model. The Hypnodrome seats only 45 while the casts may have up to 20 members. General admission tickets are $30, and Blackwood has no interest in fundraising. The annual summer Creep Show camp for kids does help with the budget. He is the only Thrillpeddler to get a salary, while cast members get $10 per show.
"I think if we were offering $40 or $50 a show, something might change in all that," he said. "All of a sudden it becomes part of the real thing, and this stipend is small enough to keep us all amateurs, and beautifully so."
Blackwood is 50 and his husband just turned 60. They have talked about starting new adventures, perhaps outside San Francisco, but Blackwood had to admit that if the Hypnodrome had remained available, he could see himself continuing business as usual into his 60s.
"Right now, here in Rocklin, I'm not feeling the lightbulb going off yet, and it may not until I'm back in the midst of the company and things start presenting themselves. Aside from word just getting out about this, I don't know what other sparks will be working in our favor.
"The entire experience with Thrillpeddlers has unfolded full of synchronicity, full of free passes. It's been hard work but very idyllic and charmed."