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Esther's All-Stars

By J. C. Shakespeare, Fri., July 30, 1999

photos by Todd V. Wolfson

If Yankee Stadium is "the house that Ruth built," then Esther's Pool must be "the funhouse that Shannon and Michael built." In the same way that tens of thousands of New Yorkers still stream north from Manhattan to watch their beloved Bronx Bombers decades after Ruth's legendary tenure, so do tens of Austinites clog the sidewalk outside the brightly colored human aquarium on the corner of Sixth and Red River to see the treasured musical comedy revue founded in Austin 22 years ago. And just as the Yankees have established a baseball dynasty by continuously luring many of the game's most stellar players to their team, Esther's Follies has managed to build a thriving comedy institution known across the state and the country by perpetually fielding an all-star cast of musical, magical, theatrical, and comedic players.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

The Follies is the love child of longtime Austinites Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton. The two met during their college days at UT Austin, where they performed together in the early Seventies rock musical Now the Revolution. That anti-Establishment theatrical venture "got kicked off campus," according to Sedwick, "because an actress took off her shirt with no bra on." Still, the piece won the notice of New York theatre impresario Joseph Papp, who brought it to the Big Apple. Following the Revolution, Sedwick and Shelton teamed up on a series of successful business ventures in the capital city, including The Tavern and Liberty Lunch (see "Fast Times at Liberty Lunch," Vol. 18, No. 47). But theatre was always in their blood, and that rowdy, ribald spirit of their collegiate era blossomed into Esther's Follies.

Now, more than two decades later, crowds of gawkers still gather like moths around a candle before the huge plate-glass window that fronts Esther's Pool. A stream of zany characters rushes past the window -- cowboys, cops, creatures, a water-skier chased by a shark -- and inside another huge audience sits transfixed, a big goofy smile pasted on each and every face. Night after night, the team at Esther's still works its spellbinding comedic magic on delighted crowds.

How does Esther's keep it going when so many of Austin's legendary musical venues and theatrical groups have come and gone? Believe it or not, in much the same way a winning sports franchise does. First and foremost, it finds the talent, which Austin has in abundance; for whatever reason, the city produces a remarkably consistent level of quality comics and entertainers. When Esther's gets hold of some, it gives them a great stage on which to strut their stuff. It isn't great in terms of size; as anyone who has been to the Follies knows, the Esther's stage is about the size of a pitcher's mound. But it's great for the opportunities it offers the performer. A Follies show gives an actor the chance to play five, 10, sometimes 15 different characters in one night, which is terrific for showing off or developing an actor's versatility. Each show is presented five times a week, and the Follies run just about every week. As in baseball, hitting "the field" a couple hundred times a year quickly drills a player in what works and what doesn't. At the Follies, it gives a performer an intense education in delivery, pacing, timing, and just plain working the room, instilling in them the kind of discipline and consistency you find in veteran vaudevillians -- or ballplayers. Of course, the flip side to the intensity of the schedule is that it can burn a player out, and the Follies cast has changed many times through the years. Still, the troupe has managed to maintain a stable core of performers while drawing fresh faces from Austin's extensive talent pool.

Also integral to Esther's sustained success has been the Follies material. Political satire, sketches that knock the latest trends, and musical parodies centered on current events have long been staples of the Follies repertoire. To keep the show fresh and topical, the cast holds a writing session once a week to develop new material. But the timely bits are balanced with a corps of timeless crowd-pleasing characters such as Chi Chi La Bomba, Ronnie Velveeta, Sedwick's inimitable Patsy Cline, and master illusionist Ray Anderson. It's these figures as rendered by Austin's champions of comedy that form the backbone of the show. All this taken with Esther's unique, eclectic blend of sketch comedy, slapstick, juggling, music, and magic, is the Follies formula for staying power.

Since Austin can't seem to attract a professional baseball team, we thought that Esther's Follies qualified as the next best thing. And since the individuals who perform in ensemble settings don't always get the recognition they deserve, we thought we would highlight the players that make up this impressive team. It is indeed the performers who breathe life into the show, so here we pay homage to them with our very own, exclusive Esther's Follies trading cards. Cut them out, paste them together, laminate them at your favorite full-service copy center, and trade them with your friends.

While the members of the cast enjoy their moment in the spotlight, let's not forget the support staff working behind the scenes to keep this well-oiled machine smoothly chugging along. Michael Prochoroff's work with the lights and the juggling antics of Red Ryder make the show look its best. Kudos to Austin Jurnigan, Nancy Whitaker, Jordan Smith, Kris Stephenson, and Vincent Caldron for all that they do to make sure that each and every patron has a great experience at the "funhouse that Michael and Shannon built."

Top row: (l-r) Ray Anderson, Adam Rodriguez, Keith Kelly, Margaret Wiley Middle row: Jerome Schoolar, Todd Lowe, Tamara Beland, Kerry Awn, Shaun Wainwright-Branigan Bottom row: Cynthia Wood, Shannon Sedwick, and Boni Hester

Top row: (l-r) Ray Anderson, Adam Rodriguez, Keith Kelly, Margaret Wiley
Middle row:
Jerome Schoolar, Todd Lowe, Tamara Beland, Kerry Awn, Shaun Wainwright-Branigan
Bottom row: Cynthia Wood, Shannon Sedwick, and Boni Hester


MICHAEL SHELTON

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Manager, Third Base Coach, House Emcee


Throws:
Right
Bats: Right
Votes: Left
Seasons With Esther's: 22
League Honors: Most Deadpan Deliveries; Best Host From Kermit, Texas (1977-99)

Along with Follies long-ball hitter and co-founder Shannon Sedwick, Shelton has been an integral part of the downtown Austin business scene for years. You might call him the Bill Veeck of Sixth Street. Shelton made his show-biz debut in fifth grade when he put on a dress, stuffed a pillow into it, and sang "I'm a Big Fat Mama" at a talent show. He has been producing and performing at Esther's since Day One. Shelton is the current host and emcee of the show, and is best remembered for his role as the Bible-thumping Sister Ruth Carter Stapleton.

Hobbies: Shooting pool and nude tractor racing.

Most Shameful Crime: "I once stole a puppy from the Humane Society."

Favorite Companion on a Desert Isle: "Shannon Sedwick. She's the only one that would put up with me!" (Smart answer, buddy!)



SHANNON SEDWICK

photgraph by Todd V. Wolfson


Manager, Coach, First Base

Throws: Like a girl
Bats: "Two in my family -- Mom & Grandmom -- I'm on my way."
Seasons With Esther's: 22
League Honors: Most Consecutive Starts (1977-99); She's made it every year!

The Cal Ripken of Austin show biz, Shannon set a major league record with 6,012 consecutive starts on the Esther's stage. It was only natural that Sedwick would take to the acting game; she was born in Hollywood to a singing cowboy and a MGM secretary. She is the reigning diva of Esther's, and her onstage energy and enthusiasm have created the driving force behind the show for all 22 seasons. Her most memorable Esther's role is Patsy Cline, who could hold a city-wide garage sale with the stuff she pulls out of her dress. Sedwick loves the generosity of Austin audiences, and thinks it's almost criminal that she's able to make a living doing what she loves.

Turn-Ons: Ruben Blades, tomatoes, singing in harmony, and dancing the tango.

Turn-Offs: Silent audience members, anti-environmentalists, and downtown "suits" who think Leslie should be banished so their business can prosper.

Choice for Next President: "Hillary, just so she could make Bill's life hell and Ann Richards could be VP."



MARGARET WILEY
Designated Slugger

Throws: Cannonballs
Bats: Stay away
Seasons With Esther's: 20
League Honors: Most Zingers Scored Off Male Audience Members (so to speak) (1982-99)

Babe Ruth was Il Bambino; Margaret Wiley is La Bomba. When someone needs to step up to the plate, call the shot, and take the audience deep, she's the man ... (see Deepest Darkest Secret). This gorgeous hunk of woman has gained international notoriety as the sex bomb Chi Chi La Bomba. Each night she surfs the audience for the Hunk Du Jour, bringing some unsuspecting man on stage to wow him with her charms. Margaret hopes to one day write for television, and she's damn proud of the fact that she owns her own hot tub.

Favorite Companion on a Desert Isle: "Frank Lloyd Wright; he could build a helluva hut."

Deepest Darkest Secret: "I'm a man trapped in a woman's body by a woman trapped in a man's body."



CYNTHIA WOOD

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Shortstop (very short)

Throws: A Great Party
Bats: Often
Seasons With Esther's: 10
League Honors: Most Changes in a Single Show; Quickest Changes in a Single Show; Only Player Ever to Play All Positions in One Game

As plucky a shortstop as ever played the game, she hustles even when she's sawed in half. Ms. Wood has been an Esther's stalwart for nearly a decade, and whether she's donning big ears and nose to play Ross Perot or a sexy skirt to be vivisected by Mr. Anderson, the crowds love her (and so does Kerry Awn). This talented singer and character actress should have a very bright future before her.

Turn-Ons: J. C. Shakespeare

Turn-Offs: Questionnaires and deadlines.

Favorite Comic: J. C. Shakespeare.

Favorite Writer: J. C. Shakespeare.



KERRY AWN Pitcher

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


(goofballs, sinkers)

Throws: Pies, Curves
Bats: Switch hitter, Pinch hitter
Seasons With Esther's: 20
Other Clubs: Uranium Savages
League Honors: Austin's Favorite Comic (1902-99)

Comparisons to Mickey Mantle are inevitable; Awn is the fastest runner, the purest hitter, and the most likely candidate to go through two livers. Perhaps the Funniest of the Funniest People in Austin, Kerry Awn is the man behind the monster known as Ronnie Velveeta, a lounge lizard so hip they had to open up a club for him right next door. (Velveeta also has his own television show on lower-tier access cable; you can catch it every Saturday night at 10pm on channel 10.) Awn's "Tour of South Austin" has been a longtime Esther's favorite. He was also a founding member of the Uranium Savages and a poster artist for the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters. What a talent!

Turn-Ons: Cindy Wood changing costumes backstage.

Turn-Offs: Everyone else changing costumes backstage.

Choice for Next President: Willie Nelson.

Favorite Time Travel Destination: "The Seventies, so I could remember them this time."



SHAUN WAINWRIGHT-BRANIGAN

photogrpah by Todd V. Wolfson


Catcher, Before She Gets Away

Throws: Like a girl
Bats: Like a man
Seasons With Esther's: 2
League Honors: Hit by Pitch in 13 Consecutive Games

"Lucky" Wainwright-Branigan has to wear a jersey four sizes too big so that his name will fit across the back. The man with the longest name also cooks a mean plate of pasta when he's not singing or going through more costume changes than Madonna. Wainwright-Branigan is best known for his a disturbingly accurate impression of Leslie, Sixth Street's Queen of the Homeless. A native of Boston, Shaun fits right in here in central Texas ... heh heh heh! Before his career in entertainment, Wainwright-Branigan earned his laurels as the Junior High Lunchroom Worker of the Year in 1985.

Choice for Next President: "Carole Keeton Rylander. She's one tough Grandma!"

Favorite Companion on a Deserted Isle: "Sinead O'Connor, because on a deserted island you'd be real hungry and her head already looks so much like a coconut that it wouldn't seem weird when you ate it."

Favorite Time Travel Destination: "The Renaissance ... no, the Reformation ... well, one of the ones that starts with 'Re.'"



BONI HESTER

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Right Field

Throws: An occasional tantrum
Bats: Her eyelashes
Seasons With Esther's:
Other Clubs: State Theater Company (Hay Fever, My Fair Lady)
League Honors: Best Actor

Ms. Hester has long been one of the most popular actresses in the Austin theatre scene, and she is a company member of the State Theater Company. Her recent foray into the world of Esther's marks a comedic departure from her usual stage work, though she coyly confesses, "I don't think I am funny." Critics and audiences alike beg to differ. Hester grew up in Springfield, Virginia, where her father was a CIA assassin. Sssshhhh! Don't tell anyone!

Turn-Ons: Questionnaires. (Yeah, baby! Do I make you horny?)

Turn-Offs: Football

Deepest Darkest Secret: "I love John Denver!"



LYOVA ROSANOFF

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Organist, Cheerleader

Throws: Fast
Bats: Out a mean tune
Seasons With Esther's: 22
League Honors: Sweetest New Yorker in Texas

Rosanoff was once tossed out of a second-grade recital for scuffing the piano keys with an emery board. These days, Rosanoff is the mastermind behind many of Esther's most popular musical numbers, penning the smartest parody lyrics this side of Tom Lehrer. During shows, Rosanoff is tickling the ivories on the big white baby grand, providing the soundtrack behind the singers on stage. Over the years, she has taken time off from her busy schedule at Esther's to run the Iditarod in 1989 and to climb Mount Everest in 1992. She was also named "Most Sarcastic" in her high school yearbook, so don't believe a word she says!

Turn-Ons: Chocolate, Great Danes.

Turn-Offs: Chocolate Labs, Hamlet.

Favorite Companion on a Deserted Isle: "John Leguizamo. I would laugh continuously."



TODD LOWE

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Left Field (way out in Left Field)

Throws: "Nice family. Still talking about Walden."
Bats: "Good material for lame laughs in Austin."
Seasons With Esther's: 1
Other Clubs: Shirk Worker's Onion (The Tower Massacre Musical), Tongue & Groove Theatre (Our Own Dear Anton's Abandoned Story Cycle)
League Honors: Best Spitball

Jose Canseco trapped in Walt Weiss' body. Another fresh face at Esther's, Todd is a member of the avant-garde theatrical strike force known as Shirk Worker's Onion. He made a big splash playing the hick sheriff who finally nails Charles Whitman in The Tower Massacre Musical. At Esther's, he recently took over coaching duties from Kerry Awn, and he does a mean Gene Kelly as well. Hailing from Humble, Texas, Todd now lives near Oltorf, "German for 'Land of Many Apartments.'"

Hobbies: "Dropping my friends on their heads."

Favorite Companion on a Deserted Isle: "Jerry Falwell, to see how long it would take for him to kiss me."

Favorite Time Travel Destination: "The late Sixties, so I could hit on my mother."



ADAM RODRIGUEZ

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Backstop, Pitcher's Mound

Throws: Meatballs at oncoming traffic
Bats:
Carry rabies.
Seasons With Esther's: 2
League Honors: Loudest Punchline Delivery

Rodriguez has been called the Greg Luzinski of comedy, which would be really funny if anyone remembered who Greg Luzinski was. This ambitious youngster sleeps 12 hours a day and he's always smelled funny. Outside Esther's, Adam regularly performs as a stand-up comic. One of his favorite pieces is the "Walnut Grove Open Mike" in which he plays host and emcee Stinky Johnson; a rare comedic treat! At Esther's, Adam is known for his characters Mr. Innocuous and Rocky, the steroid-gobbling football player. His career ambition: "I want velvet paintings of me circulating throughout Mexico."

Most Shameful Crime: "I don't like to talk about it, but it involves fire and a diseased musk ox."

Choice for Next President: "The animated, severed head of Frank Zappa."



TAMARA BELAND

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Second Base (if you're really, really nice)

Throws: Left-handed, right-brained, red-headed, Pisces-like sissy girl curveballs.
Bats: .305
Seasons With Esther's: 1
Other Clubs: Inflatable Egos
League Honors: Redder Hair than Mark McGwire

Beland hopes to return some day to her native Cuba to play for the national team and kill Fidel Castro with a loaded cigar. A relative newcomer to the Esther's stage, this vivacious redhead has a wonderful singing voice. She also makes a pretty good fairy in the Westward Hose sketch. In addition to her work at the Follies, Beland recently performed in Steve Saugey's Hooked on Symphonics show and she is also a member of the improv troupe Inflatable Egos. She studied French in high school and got very, very good at it.

Most Shameful Crime: "Stole some cherry lip gloss from CVS. But I got caught."

Favorite Movie Line: "Only guys remember that crap. I adored Nick Cage's chest hair in Valley Girl."



JEROME "Scooter" SCHOOLAR

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Utility Infielder


Throws:
"How could you ask that! I have no fingers!"
Bats: 25 HR, 75 RBI (Darn good considering the fingers!)
Seasons With Esther's: 3
Other Clubs: Zachary Scott Theatre Center (Buddy, Forever Plaid)
League Honors: Most Punchline Set-Ups in a Show; Best-Looking Girl Who's Really a Guy

Every championship team needs a Scooter to turn those base hits up the middle into double-plays. Schoolar hasn't commited an error in over 400 shows. He did, however, buy 11 items in the express lane once. A three-season veteran of the Esther's stage, Mr. Schoolar is the proud father of three boys and the inventor of the moist towelette. Schoolar reveals a shocking secret in the "True Confessions" sketch, and he will forever live on in the legacy of Esther's as "the third guy on the left." While he enjoys his career in the entertainment field, he hopes to one day manage his own Dairy Queen. Aim high, my friend!

First Sign You Were Funny: "In third grade, all the kids laughed at me when I wet my pants."

Favorite Time Travel Destination: "Third grade, so I could beat the crap out of the other kids."

Favorite Sport: Nude skydiving.



RAY ANDERSON
Pitcher (curveballs, disappearing sliders)


Throws:
?
Bats: ?
Seasons With Esther's: 15

In order to maintain his air of mystery and intrigue, Mr. Anderson declines to reveal any personal information to the press. Let's just say that if you wanted to see a slicker, more polished magician, you'd have to go to Vegas, baby.



KEITH KELLY

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson


Play-by-Play, Color, Third Base

Throws: "I've beaned a few."
Bats: Both ways
Seasons With Esther's: 12
League Honors: Currently negotiating to revive Washington Senators.

Keith Kelly is the Harry Caray of Esther's, though he usually only drinks half as many beers per inning. An Austin native, Kelly is a masterful impressionist who serves as The Voice of Esther's. In addition to his live mike work, Kelly has made comedic hay out of playing Bill Clinton for the last several years. He will also be remembered for his wide variety of moon shots and crotch shots. His first brush with show-biz greatness came as a boy "when I did an impression of an elderly family friend. It killed. The friend is no longer with us." While Kelly enjoys performing, he hopes one day to be president. "I know more about the issues than George Bush. Who doesn't?"

Favorite Companion on a Deserted Isle: "Job. He'd have more problems than me."

Favorite Sport: Midget basketball.

Favorite Time Travel Destination: "Biblical times. No one was better with a crowd than Jesus."

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