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He Who Laughs, Lasts

In 1958, a former circus entertainer arrived in Minneapolis, opened a coffee shop on University Avenue, and began doing comedy shows. Fifty years later, after countless gags, gaffes, and guffaws, the Brave New Workshop is still going strong—and the influence of funnyman Dudley Riggs can be seen in shows and schtick across the country.

He Who Laughs, Lasts
Photo by Darrell Eager

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The notion of home was a foreign one to young Dudley Riggs. Born in Arkansas, he grew up in a circus family and spent most of his childhood on the road. He performed as an aerialist and entertainer and, early on, discovered that he could charm unruly crowds with off-the-cuff comedy routines. His talents led him, in his early twenties, to team with a couple of coworkers to create the Instant Theatre Company, an improv group that toured throughout the country in mid-’50s.

Eventually, weary of traveling, Riggs decided to enroll at the University of Minnesota and in 1958, the budding entrepreneur saw an opportunity to give a permanent home to his fledgling theater. He rented a northeast Minneapolis space that he turned into a coffee shop, bakery, and small theater. On weekends, Riggs booked performers to play music, read poetry, and perform sketches. Its beginnings were not particularly auspicious—Riggs struggled to find a steady group of performers, and while he was onstage, chatting with the audience, he occasionally had to interrupt himself to ask another performer to take bread out of the oven. He didn’t always think there would be a next show.
But over the course of several years, Riggs’s theater found its footing with political satire. Fifty years later, Riggs’s venture, now known as the Brave New Workshop, has become the longest-running satirical comedy theater in the country.

Here, cast members from every era share the stories from the theater’s tumultuous history—on- and off-stage.

Dudley Riggs: When I arrived in Minneapolis, I started looking around asking, “What’s in this city? What would I like to have if I were here?” In 1958, you couldn’t buy espresso anywhere in town. You couldn’t buy good bread. So I opened this little shop on University Avenue where I started making bread and selling espresso. I had the idea of making it a home for the Instant Theatre.

Riggs rounded up a half-dozen people—people he knew from his circus days as well as a few folks he’d recruited locally—whom he could count on to help out every week. Some volunteered their time and others shared in receipts from the door.

Dudley Riggs: We were trying a number of different things like poetry readings and jazz. It wasn’t just theater. At first, our audience was mostly university people—professors and graduate students—but then we started seeing high-school students. It was a brave thing for them to do, because it wasn’t something we’d created for underage people.

In 1961, the show took on a new moniker: Brave New Workshop. The name was a nod to the Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, a book that satirizes the idea of universal happiness. By then, the show had developed a regular schedule, focusing on improvisation and political satire. Riggs himself took part in the shows, spinning commentary on newspaper headlines—a predecessor to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” Finally confident the show was on solid ground and capable of sustaining itself, he began paying actors a few dollars for each show.

Mike McManus, actor and writer (BNW company member, 1965–1967, 1971–1975): Tom [Sherohman] and I started to go and see shows when we were in high school. One night, we said, I wonder how you get in? We went to talk to Dudley, and he asked us to come backstage and read for him. He asked if we could be in the next show.

Tom Sherohman, writer, Mr. Magoo (BNW company member, 1965–1969): We were all young—18, 20. We were doing nine shows a week for $35. We were here all the time. By the middle of the third show on Saturday, we were tired. But even then it was fun.

Dudley Riggs: I was quite fanatical about maintaining the same kind of schedule that I had in the circus. You have regular performances and do them whether there’s an audience or not. As a result, we worked 52 weeks a year. Sometimes there were very large audiences, sometimes there were half a dozen people.

Sue Scott, radio actor, A Prairie Home Companion (BNW company member, 1983–1984): One year, on the night before Christmas Eve, it was 30 below zero, and three people showed up. They were loaded out of their minds. We wanted to give rain checks, but they insisted we do the show. Backstage, we were saying: “Can you believe this?” But we also knew that Dudley would never let us cancel. Just like the circus, the show must go on. So we zipped through the first act in 30 minutes, when it would usually take 45. And after intermission, when we went to start the second act, they were all asleep. But we kept doing the show, because if they woke up, we didn’t want them to complain. It was unbelievable, doing a show for three people who were passed out.

Pat Proft, writer, Naked Gun, Police Academy (BNW company member, 1965–1969): Shades of Blue was one of our better shows. It was very fast, and a lot of it had to do with sex, which was so titillating back then. In one sketch, I was Rudolpho, the world’s greatest lover. I would “kiss” one of the cast members, Ruth Williams, with my back to the audience. While I was doing that, I was blowing up a beach ball that was in her dress so it looked like she was pregnant at the end of the scene.

Mike McManus: The workshop was the greatest thing to do for a person our age wanting to be in the business.

The theater ran on a shoestring budget in the early days. In addition to their writing and performing work, cast members had to contend with frequent changes of venue—and they sometimes found they were recruited for other tasks as well, from helping make bread to building sets.

Dudley Riggs: We started out on University Avenue, then moved to East Hennepin before we got to where the theater is today. We kept finding locations that were right in the path of urban renewal.

Pat Proft: The last time, we didn’t know we moved. We pulled up to the East Hennepin place and there was a sign that said, “We have moved.” We thought it was a joke.

Tom Sherohman: It was always something. One time, after we’d gone out to the Lincoln Del after a show, Dudley was giving me a ride home. It was raining hard, and we stopped by the theater. When we came inside, water was pouring down from the ceiling. I went with him up on the roof—in the pouring rain—and we covered the hole with something he’d found in the basement. The next day, Dudley got up on the roof with some hot tar to patch the leak.

Dudley Riggs: In the circus, they call it “doubling in brass”—you do your act, but then you also pick up the trumpet. It was the way we did things when we didn’t have any other resources.

The sketches—full of quirky and often sharp-edged political satire—sought to push boundaries, including those of Riggs himself.

Tom Sherohman: There was a blackout that [Jimmy] Hudson did where he would hold a toilet seat with the cover closed in front of his head and then lift the flap open and say, “J. Edgar Hoover here for Barroom toilet seats. Barroom toilet seats are anti-communist toilet seats!”

Pat Proft: Dudley thought it was appalling.

Dudley Riggs: When a couple of actors in the company kept thinking of new ways to use the toilet seat, I started playing a little game of hide the prop.

Tom Sherohman: Dudley wouldn’t just say, “Don’t do it.” Instead, he hid the toilet seat and didn’t say anything to Hudson. Hudson started coming earlier and earlier every show to look for the toilet seat. It got to the point where he was coming in an hour and a half before the show so he could find the seat.

Mike McManus: Dudley might not have liked everything we did, but one of the only things we weren’t allowed to do was blue material. No swearing on stage. You had to find other ways of doing things. You had to be a little more clever at things. You learned to dig a little deeper to find laughs.

Dudley Riggs: One night, we were sitting around after the show with a few members of the St. Paul Jaycees. They were saying, “Hey, you guys are funny, but what’s really funny is the Miss St. Paul Contest.” At that time, the Miss St. Paul contest had no auditions. It just seemed like a reason to allow people to get into long dresses. Later, we had one of our actresses, Ruth Williams, sign up for it.

Williams was ineligible on numerous counts—she was too old, she was married with a daughter, and she lived in Minneapolis.But under the fictitious name “Alice Martin,” she slipped under the Jaycees’ radar.

Dudley Riggs: She was never quite available to show up for any of the pre-event activities. But, on the night of the event, she came in and performed a satirical song.

The song, which she dedicated to her “former boyfriend, now dead, named Herman,” included the following lyrics: “When I see Herman comin’ down the street/he makes the other fellas I meet/Look like vermin/ooh, ooh, Herman, you make me feel like I was wearin’ ermine.”

Dudley Riggs: Half of the audience got it, and the other half was aghast. When the hoax was uncovered, the Jaycees were embarrassed. And they fought about what to do. Several of the members were kicked out. It went on for weeks. On the other hand, it helped the promotion of our Miss America show. And one of the local newspapers named Ruth Williams one of the top 10 female newsmakers of that year.
 


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