BEREA — Some of the cast of Berea Arena Theatre‘s production of Hee Haw are sitting around talking about their favorite parts of the classic television variety show when Linda Hays shouts, “Grandpa! What’s for supper?!”
They had stumbled on yet another iconic bit from the TV series that ran 25 years on CBS and in syndication. In this one, Grandpa Jones, a native of Niagra, in Western Kentucky, would deliver mouth-watering menu descriptions while cleaning a window that wasn’t there.
“We have to do ‘Grandpa, what’s for supper?'” Hays says to her castmates, taking a break after their first rehearsal featuring the full company.
Hee Haw is a “special event” performance for the theater company that also presents a regular season of shows, which included Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in March and will feature Paul Loomis’ Pure as the Driven Snow from July 22 to Aug. 1.
The idea behind special events, theater director Eddie Kennedy says, is to put up interesting, offbeat shows that don’t require quite the heavy lifting of mounting a play.
“I can tell someone, ‘You’re playing Minnie Pearl,’ and they can go home and practice it in front of their mirror,” Kennedy said. “Then we come in the week of the production and put it all together.”
Hee Haw is a proven commodity for Kennedy, who staged the show when he was teaching English, speech and theater at Berea Community School.
“I remember sitting on big old bales of hay singing Rocky Top,” recalled Angela Bailey, who, like several cast members, is a former student of Kennedy.
Hee Haw is, of course, a proven commodity itself, having been on TV for a quarter-century and establishing country stars and cultural icons during its run, including the song Pfft! You Were Gone and the “rumor girls” bit with the chorus, “No, you’ll never hear one of us repeating gossip, so you’d better be sure and listen close the first time.”
The Hee Haw cast did not rehearse that bit Monday night, but in a testament to its cultural ubiquity, the women in the ensemble had no trouble breaking into a chorus of the song while Kennedy was talking to the cast at the end of the night.
“You know, the critics hated it when it first came out,” Kennedy says of Hee Haw’s premiere on CBS in 1969. “I thought it was great, and I was always pleased it was so successful.
“I loved their concept. It was a wonderful blend of music, good writing and good humor. They knew how to make that shtick work.”
Kennedy has done a lot of writing for this production, saying, “I have tons of corny jokes festering in my mind.”
At its core, Hee Haw was a collection of corny jokes, delivered in a fast-paced style. It also included, among others, the small-town salute, sing-alongs and musical guests, and helped launch the careers of numerous country stars.
“They were really creative in how they talked about the South without making fun of it,” says Mary Ruth Isaacs, who plays Lulu.
Bailey observes, “What Norman Rockwell was to painting, Hee Haw was to TV. It was life the way you wanted it to be.”
Well, it might be debatable how many people wanted to emulate the Culhanes of Kornfield Kounty, the dense family that would sit on the couch and comment on life in a passive monotone — one of numerous Hee Haw icons Arena Theatre will re-create.
There are some elements the show won’t have: little animated sequences, of course; and an emcee duo like Roy Clark and Buck Owens, so there’s no pickin’ and grinnin’. But there will be the Culhanes, Minnie Pearl and Grandpa, and even musical guests such as area performers Kristi Miller, Yogi Brown and Richard Bellando.
Portraying some characters required a little homework.
Erikke Meadows, who plays Junior Samples, had never seen the show when Kennedy offered him the part.
“I went on this thing called YouTube and found some stuff,” Meadows says, noting he ran upon one of the barbershop scenes with Archie Campbell doing the “That’s good, that’s bad” routine.
Checking out the TV show, Meadows says, he can see why it endures. And Hays, who plays Minnie Pearl, likes doing the show for one specific reason.
“We do all these comedies where we have to use British accents,” she says of Arena Theatre’s regular programming. “I said, for once I’d like to be able to do a show using my own voice.”