Meaghan Ritchey| Chelsea Miller

The Return of the Old Time Variety Show


The Friday before Halloween sees queues for New York City’s Fright Shows snaking round corners, but two Curator writers and a half dozen of their friends coiled into Tribeca’s City Winery to peek into John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. While nobody screamed in horror, the evening is worth an explanation. As the Master of Ceremonies, Wesley Stace a.k.a John Wesley Harding gathered and limerickally introduced his cabinet of writers, comedians, and musicians for individual vignettes and group performances. In the box for the evening were: Emma Straub, Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), Paul Harding, Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen), John Hodgman, John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Eugene Mirman, and Rosanne Cash. All accompaniments were made by The English UK.

And after,  a chat followed…

CM: So, I have to admit that I had no idea what to expect. I signed up because someone told me the PC was going to be there.
CM: You know, that guy from the “I’m a Mac.” “I’m a PC.” commercials?
MR: Oh, John Hodgman! He was there donning a smashing ‘stache.
CM: Nearly unrecognizable. Almost….almost like he could now be a Mac.
MR: He read from his new book: That Is All, the last in a trilogy meant to be full of answers, but none that are correct. Did you know poltergeists aren’t the only ‘geists’? There are a whole bunch.  My favorite was the FREUNDLICHERGEIST– at first a friendly geist who eventually goes MIA, unreachable without FB & Twitter.
CM: Hysterical. Let’s talk about Paul Harding. More of the same?
MR: He tinkered with the audience a bit, but in a truer way. Moving from Hodgman’s humor to Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning prose showed the night’s variety.Was the piece written for the night?
CM: I believe it was a new one. We really couldn’t guess what each performer would do–and that’s the joy of vaudeville, isn’t it? And so we heard an affecting story set in oil-laden Nigeria with themes of astrology, life, and the speed of light.
MR: Then Hamilton Leithauser (he was so much taller than I thought he’d be) lit the house up with a cover of Beach House’s “Used to Be”.
CM: And he also covered “Strangers” by The Kinks, while Craig Finn did his best Jagger swagger with “Evening Gown”.
MR: Covers by hit makers were the glue that held the night together.  And then there’s the  soon-to-be-covered: John Darnielle.
CM : If people were hesitant about what the Cabinet had in store, Darnielle (pronounced: Darn-EEL) broke down the barriers by sheer force of his enthusiasm.
MR: He’s the the man of mystery behind the prolific band The Mountain Goats. He was so excited, constantly readjusting his dark rimmed glasses and tossing his hair. He strummed his favorite chords (D, A, Em, G) hard. He performed a song about Frankie Lymon and last encounters.
CM: Who’s that guy?
MR: He sang “Why do Fools Fall in Love?” He also did “You Were Cool”  which had the perfect amount of repetition. By the end of the song, even I felt like I was cool.
CM: Umm, so was John Wesley Harding a president?
MR: I actually thought something like that. John Welsey Hardin was a famous gunfighter.
John Wesley Harding was the name of a Bob Dylan studio album.
CM: Well, the Cabinet was a good place for today’s American singer-songwriter-type. And there were dueling comedians, so I can see why it fits. Of course, I’m talking about Eugene Mirman.
MR: Mirman’s childhood stories made me laugh. As an average student who secretly hoped I had a little wit up my sleeve, I followed him. He went places!
CM: His comedy is really comfortable. You just have no doubt he’ll make you laugh.
MR: Did you feel safe with him, Chelsea? Like you were home? You’re right though. He’s charming. We all went to high school with a Eugene Mirman. The stories he told!
But really, the image of him playing the theremin sums it up. “Woooooo. Weee. Wooo!”
CM: Glee all over his face.
MR: Then the Man in Black’s daughter stepped on to the stage. She played a few of her eighties hits with JWH’s back up band and, as she was a surprise addition to the show, was genuinely glad to be there.
CM: At the end of the show, everybody piled onto the stage, most singing, some just standing there–I’m looking at you, Leithauser.
MR: For the evening to be over, I felt about as sad as my grandfather when Lawrence Welk went off the air. It had been a treat. And so we left the Cabinet behind, locked up for another evening of poetry and prose, lyrics and laughs.

If you’d like to enjoy some old time vaudeville via the radio, the entire show was recorded for NPR, so stay tuned.