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The singular life of Dudley Riggs

Riggs, who went from childhood circus performer to satirist and founder of the Brave New Workshop, died Tuesday at age 88.

photo of dudley riggs in 2014
Dudley Riggs speaking at an event celebrating Brave New Workshop in 2014.
Courtesy of Brave New Workshop

Dudley Riggs, a former circus clown, juggler and aerialist who founded the Brave New Workshop, one of the oldest — if not the oldest — comedy-satire theaters in the country, used to open his shows improvising jokes off the headlines he spotted in the early edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

If he couldn’t think of anything right on the spot, he would deliver lines that had worked before. “Arrested again for prostitution, Teresa Lloyd of 1403 63rd Av. This, forks, is a service provided by the Minneapolis Tribune, giving you the names and addresses of all the known prostitutes in the city. Once again, that’s Teresa Lloyd of 1409 ….” Always got a laugh.

Or he would fill a minute or two by holding up the big red-white-and-blue Brave New Workshop poster, promoting it as the Workshop’s commemorative stamp. He’d say, “Takes an awfully large tongue to lick a stamp like this.” Another big laugh.

Riggs’ singular and often surprising life came to an end early Tuesday morning. He was 88. The cause was a probable stroke. He had suffered multiple afflictions the past few years, including a spinal fracture as well as ever-worsening arthritis that he attributed to injuries sustained during his years as a circus acrobat.

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Of his last years, it can be said that though his body was increasingly frail, Dudley’s mind remained as sharp as ever. His wife, Pauline Boss, said he was cracking jokes with family members the night before he died. Funny and observant, he continued to read avidly, and at 85 he completed a widely admired memoir about growing up in a family of circus performers, of which he was the fifth generation.

The book, titled “Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net,” has a forward by Al Franken, one of the many actors, writers and comedians who got their start at the Brave New Workshop, an enterprise born in 1961 in a coffeehouse on East Hennepin called the Cafe Espresso, where the menu consisted of Viennese pastry, strong coffee and comedy sketches satirizing local politics and culture.

Four years later, having been evicted and given three days to get out, Riggs and his tech director, Paul Stenbock, dismantled the theater, loaded all the equipment onto a rental truck and headed for points south. They ended up through sheer serendipity eating lunch across the street from an auto repair shop at 2605 Hennepin Ave. whose owner had that very day put a For Rent sign in the window. The facility would be the Workshop’s home for the next four decades. In 2011, the theater, by then owned and operated by John Sweeney and his partner, Jenni Lillledahl, moved two miles north to its current address, 824 Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis.

‘The little kid who sings the adult song’

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1932, Dudley was 5 years old when he received his first Social Security card. During the off-season for the circus, his parents were booked into a touring vaudeville show. Despite his extreme youth, Dudley, who was along on the tour, was coaxed into singing a solo number, “Benny’s From Heaven,” a parody of “Pennies From Heaven.” In the song a traveling salesman’s wife holds a baby in her arms — she calls him Benny — and tries to explain where the baby came from, since her husband’s been on the road for a year. That’s when 5-year-old Dudley stepped to the footlights and sang the wife’s answer: “Benny’s From Heaven.” The number was a hit, and soon the publicity for the show urged people to come see “the little kid who sings the adult song.” In a later show, sporting a 10-gallon hat and brandishing a six-shooter, he performed as Buck Riggs, the All-American Cowboy.

At that time Dudley’s parents — his mother, Lil, and his father, Dudley Riggs Sr., known as Doc — did a trapeze and juggling act under the name Riggs and Riggs. Doc’s brothers, Arthur (Bud) and Albert, were part of the act off and on, and by 1940 the act had blossomed into the Riggs Brothers Circus. When Dudley was 10 he joined Doc in a trapeze act that continued into the 1950s.

Dudley was 16 when he took his first serious fall. He was doing an aerial act in Boston with a young man named Denny, who was the “catcher,” and on this occasion Denny missed, and they both fell. When Dudley hit the net, the contraption lost its moorings. And when Denny hit the net, landing on Dudley, the whole net collapsed. Denny got up and staggered off. Dudley woke up the next day in a Boston hospital in a body cast, his collarbone and left arm broken and his ribs pulled away from the sternum. He remained in Boston to let his body mend, while Doc and the others went on to Chicago. The show must go on.

By the late ’50s Dudley was touring with a comedy troupe called the Instant Theater Company. In 1958 the group booked a brief run in Minneapolis at Steffano’s, a popular restaurant on the West Bank. That year the company moved into a garage at 18 University Ave. that came to be known as Dudley Riggs’ Cafe Espresso. Three years later the cafe moved around the corner to a building at 207 E. Hennepin.

Birth of the Brave New Workshop

One storied evening in the spring of 1961, four friends — Dudley, Dan Sullivan, Irv Letofsky and Dick Guindon — got together and brainstormed 100 ideas for sketches for a proposed comedy theater that would emphasize satire, which happened to be in vogue at that time. Comedy troupes were forming around the country — Chicago’s Second City among them — and “This Was the Week That Was,” a smart, politically hip weekly show then playing on British television, would in another year migrate to the U.S. and make the network censors perspire. The other reason to put on shows was that the cafe wasn’t making any money. Perhaps laughter, it was hoped, would draw people.

It did draw people, as it turned out, and fairly quickly. Two shows a week soon expanded to three. Within a year the Workshop had developed an appreciative audience drawn chiefly from the University of Minnesota, both students and faculty, and it had put out its first record, a slow-selling LP titled “Miss America and Other Aberrations.” Newspaper columnists ran quotes from the shows, local politicians made guest appearances, and soon the Workshop became hip, almost chic. At that time it was a writers’ theater. Letofsky, a reporter and editor at the Tribune, became — unofficially — the Workshop’s head writer; he also encouraged other writers such as Sullivan, the Tribune’s drama critic, to contribute sketches and ideas.

The cast for a certain show in 1963 consisted of Cynthia Nimmer, Jim MacRostie, Perry Cucchiarella, a gifted comic actress named Ruth Williams and one other person, still in college, who looked rather like a young version of this writer.

I was a last-minute replacement for an actor who had dropped out of a show scheduled to open in three days. To a child of the suburbs, the term coffeehouse in the ’60s meant beatniks and beards and sophistication and smart waitresses who probably spoke French. During the first rehearsal Ruth and I went over a sketch of Letofsky’s titled “High School” in which two teenagers are locked in embrace. They’re both nervous, especially the boy, who keeps telling his girlfriend that she doesn’t have to go through with this if she doesn’t want to. Finally, she agrees to it. There’s only one problem, he says, quivering. What’s that? “I don’t know how.” Always brought down the house.

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The show went well on opening night. In what had become a ritual, we waited backstage in the dark as Dudley finished his monologue, giving us our cue: “And now through the magic of make-believe, lies, deception and deceit and through the courtesy of the First, Second and Fourth Amendments … the Brave New Workshop.” That cued the theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again” in an arrangement just corny enough to be ironic.

From bread to bow tie

The reason Dudley didn’t have adequate time to prepare his opening monologue was that in the half-hour before the shows he was usually standing in his T-shirt in the tiny kitchen in the back of the building baking bread. Given that the kitchen also served as our dressing room, the trick was to get dressed while avoiding being hit by the big platters of bread Dudley would swing out of the oven and onto a table in the room. To us this was the glamour of show business. Dudley, I was to learn, knew a lot about food, and he was ahead of his time. He had something on the menu I’d never heard of and couldn’t quite grasp, beer cheese soup, which these days is a little easier to grasp if not to eat.

About 60 seconds before showtime Dudley would re-appear in a clean shirt, straightening his ever-present bow tie, looking as if he had just stepped out of a shower. This was a puzzle because there was no shower in the building. Then in the narrow hallway behind the stage, he would tack a shirt board onto the wall on which was scribbled the lineup of sketches for the night.

The lineup changed depending on who was in the cast that night. Given that Cynthia was what was known then as a stewardess, we had to work around her schedule. A heated — but whispered — argument would then take place between Dudley and various cast members, each of them complaining that he or she was in too many sketches in a row, whereupon Dudley, getting angry, would scratch out a sketch or two and draw arrows to the others, which usually made the lineup unreadable.

Heavyweight talents

photo of al franken and tom davis
Courtesy of Brave New Workshop
Al Franken and Tom Davis from their Brave New Workshop days
In the next few years performers joined the Workshop who by any measure would be classified as heavyweight comic talent, many of whom went on to substantial careers in film and television, among them Jim Hudson, Tom Sherohman, Nancy Steen, Michael McManus, Peter Tolan, Doris Hess and Pat Proft, who became a major screenwriter, and many more up to the present time with versatile actors led by a shrewd director, Caleb McEwen. Over time, the Workshop, though it had its ups and downs, prospered. Audiences grew, and by the late ’60s the cast was performing nine shows a week — three on Saturday in a room where on a hot summer’s night the AC had to be turned off during the shows because it made so much noise. Actors swallowed salt pills to keep from getting dehydrated. And they actually started getting paid — $35 a week at the start, $75 by the late ’60s. By the early ’70s the shows were improvised in rehearsal and performed in a looser fashion than when it was strictly a writers’ theater. In 1971 Dudley bought a second theater at Seven Corners in Minneapolis, which he called ETC, and featured musical revues and touring performers such as Penn & Teller, and offered some of the earliest gigs by Al Franken and his partner, Tom Davis.

I left the Workshop in the early ‘70s to take up the writers’ trade. Dudley and I remained friends. We traveled together — once to Chicago and twice to New York City. On the trip to Chicago — before I got there — he attempted to check into a hotel. He gave his name at the front desk. The clerk found his reservation and asked Dudley for a credit card. Dudley, who disliked credit cards — this being way back in the ’70s — said no, he would pay cash. The clerk said he couldn’t take cash because, he said, “You might have stolen that money.” Seeing red, Dudley said, “If you won’t accept this cash, I’m going to call a press conference in this lobby and have a flock of reporters ask why you refuse to take cash.” Dudley got the room and slept especially well that night.

We wrote a story together one winter that we hoped to turn into a screenplay. It concerned Dudley’s uncle Al. We embellished it a little, but the basic story I’m convinced is true. When Al, who had been a special-effects and makeup specialist in Hollywood, died in Hugo, Oklahoma, where he spent his last years, Dudley, who had been friendly with Al, flew to Hugo for the funeral. He was told he should visit Al’s lawyer, that Al had left something for him in his will. Seated in the lawyer’s office, Dudley was surprised when the lawyer said he regretted that the others hadn’t’ shown up.

“What others?”

“Veronica, Al’s sister, and Archie, the nephew.”

“Al didn’t have a sister.”

“But people in town knew her and they talk about her.”

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What Al had left Dudley in the will was a closet full of costumes, wigs and makeup. Gradually, Dudley patched together the story. During his last years in Hugo, Al, chiefly out of boredom with small-town life, had created two new identities and, apparently, he was so convincing in drag that not only did Veronica make quite a few friends in Hugo but one or two older gentlemen in town were, as they used to say, sweet on her.

We had Art Carney figured for the role of Al, and we had the opening of the scene of the movie clearly in mind: a long shot of the cemetery where Al is to be buried. As the camera moves in we see a well-dressed old lady seated in the back row dabbing an eye with a handkerchief. It’s Veronica. Al faked his own death. A good opening, Dudley and I thought. Could still be made.

A family of strong personalities

Dudley came from strong personalities, and wasn’t exactly a wallflower himself. He quoted his mother on the subject of the three brothers: “Doc has the short fuse, Bud broods a lot, and Al has a controlled strangeness about him.” Perhaps Dudley had a bit of all three. I chatted with Doc quite a few times when he would show up at the Workshop. He was a jack-of-all-trades and the first person I ever saw who had significant tattoos all over his body, something resembling a map of northern China on his forearms. The affection between Dudley and Doc was apparent and touching. (Do people who do aerial work together develop a spacial bond? One must “catch” the other at the exact right moment or both fall.) I met Lil just once. She and Doc had been divorced for many years and both remarried.  She was a short redhead who wasn’t afraid of a little extra makeup. She didn’t say much, and she didn’t need to. Here was another strong person in Dudley’s background.

Dudley put on weight in middle age, which made him look almost cuddly rather than severe, as he looked in his 20s, when he was slim and wiry. And he mellowed. The young Dudley was often angry. One reason, I think, is that he felt himself to be an outsider, and he was ambivalent about it. Satirists tend to be outsiders. But it’s hard to live that way — without connection — and here was a guy who grew up on the road.

A sense of alienation and otherness

image od dudley riggs book coverHe reflects this sense of alienation and otherness in his memoir in its most powerful chapter. The Riggs circus, a tent show, is hit by a tornado in Oklahoma and is wiped out, the tent torn to shreds. Doc and Dudley and the rest, having lost everything, seek help from the Salvation Army general, who asks, suspiciously, “Ain’t you them show people?” He dismisses them. “This storm came to punish the circus,” says a mean-faced lady nearby. And they get no help at the church from Reverend Johnson, who says, “You do not deserve services in this community.” A mob threatens to throw them in jail, but the jail, too, has blown away.

“Show people are always suspect,” Dudley concludes. “The Other is both celebrated and feared.”

Growing up, Dudley was no stranger to harsh experiences like this. Being turned away at the door of the church in Oklahoma solidified — and confirmed — his lifelong hatred of organized religion. (And, for that matter, the unorganized variety didn’t thrill him, either.) To quote an old Workshop show title: “Atheism Means Never Having to Say You’re Lutheran.”

Perhaps all that travel sent him on a search for a home. He seemed to find that home in his later years, along with a sense of stability, in his marriage — his second — to Pauline Boss, a much-respected psychologist, teacher and writer. They nourished each other. Add to this the respect and affection Dudley received from John Sweeney and his partner, Jenni, who bought the Brave New Workshop in 1997. They have honored the theater’s history and have made of Dudley something like the embodiment of that history.

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Recalling the days when he stood in a T-shirt baking bread in a tiny kitchen and then bringing it up to recent times when he could tell a joke even when his legs wouldn’t work, Dudley remained one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.

Three Workshop alums speak the last words and end the show:

“I’ll miss him. He changed my life.” (Michael McManus)

“He touched so many lives and brought so much joy and laughter. Boy, do we need him now.” (Sherri Lubov Ripps)

“We saw this coming, but it’s still a punch to the heart.” (Pat Proft)