PANDEMONIUM MEDICINE SHOW
As their graduate years in the English Department
at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. came to an end, Jeff Groberman grew wary
about the practical utility of his shift from Geophysics to English Lit. One day, as
the April showers of 1971 pelted Arthur Erickson’s academic quadrangle, Groberman
approached his pal Colin 'D.T.' Yardley with a murky proposition. "You
realize," he began, "that with M.A.’s in English Lit, there are two things
we can do in life. Teach or eventually end up slogging logs in a pulp mill."
D.T., who had already spent two summers working at the Harmac Pulp Mill near Nanaimo on
British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, was noticeably depressed. There was no way
he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching. It struck him as odd that up until this
moment, he had never even thought about what he wanted to spend the rest of his life
doing. Jeff Groberman had a suggestion ready to hand.
"You and I like humour. We liked doing funny shit, right? And writing
funny shit." This was true. Yardley recalled how difficult it was for him
to write a serious essay or term paper on any topic without watching as, often against his
will, humour just kind of took over and turned a paper on ‘Gender Inequities In The
Prose of Henry Miller’ into ‘Women, Animals and Ghosts in American Literature.’
"So what did you have in mind, Jeff?" Yardley sighed and looked out the
SFU cafeteria window at the passing students, most of them probably science majors who had
high paying stable careers already mapped out, complete with SUVs and a cabin up at Bunsen
"Have you ever listened to
the comedy on CBC radio?" asked Jeff.
"Yeah. Some of it."
"Whaddayou think of it?"
"Not much. It’s kinda lame."
"Exactly. We should write some shit. Short sketches. Take it down
there. See if we can sell it. Why not?"
This, remember, was Vancouver, Canada 1971 – a place and time long before aspiring
Hollywood North media writers required agents and endured endless runarounds, delays and
rejections in a field so jammed with competitors that teaching English in a pulp mill
would be an attractive alternative.
Jeff made an appointment with Frank
Stalley, a CBC radio variety program director, who occupied one of the many CBC radio
offices then squirreled away in the labyrinthine recesses of the Hotel Vancouver. In
the years to come, as Dr. Bundolo went national on CBC radio and then on to television,
its creators would deal with many program directors – none as supportive and well
meaning as Frank Stalley.
In the days leading up to their appointment,
Groberman, Yardley and friend, Tom Poulton, met in Yardley’s apartment at the SFU
student residences and started making comedy. Equipped only with a cheap
audiocassette recorder, with a built-in condenser mike, they read their material onto
Some wise person once wrote that if you do what you love, good things will follow.
That first afternoon left three young university students drenched with
perspiration and laughed out on the floor of the apartment. As Yardley would later
attest, "That day we discovered the joy of free form creativity. We could
concoct scenarios as absurd, bizarre, gross or outrageous as we wanted – and there
was no one to say that we couldn’t, or that we were wrong, politically incorrect, out
of line, being silly or whatever. We just went for it and got delirious finding
voice for thoughts that conventional wisdom and morality had long silenced for most of
Groberman would add, "Most of the stuff we came up with that day we would never use
– certainly not on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – it was just too out
there. And we weren’t smoking anything. This was beyond smoke."
In the cold light of morning, they realized that there was precious little on the tape
that they could take downtown to the CBC and present to serious people with creases in
their pants. But Groberman would not be deterred. He was a man on a mission to
get their comedy inserted somewhere in the schedule of CBC radio. Poulton dropped
out of the effort for reasons never stated and Yardley hung in, but in the end it was Jeff
Groberman and he alone who did the necessary foot slogging, door knocking, phone calling
drudge work to make sure the CBC could not ignore these gnats who kept showing up,
satchels stuffed with comedy scripts.
|Stalley finally gave them a shot. He had
read their material and had ‘found it pretty funny.’ He would give them a
small slot in CBC Vancouver’s four to six PM afternoon show hosted by Patrick
Munro. They would have a three to five minute hole to fill with their comedy.
Stalley assigned Don Kowalchuk, a young CBC drama and classical music producer, to work
with them in developing a comedy drop-in concept that would run Monday through Friday for
a whole three to five minutes each day.
Drama and classical music? Was this really the right guy to produce their comedy?
Jeff and Colin had doubts, but they were soon dispelled. Kowalchuk turned out
to be an eminently intelligent, affable guy, a painstakingly thorough and professional
producer and a comedy editor par excellence. Of course, in the beginning, it was all
brand new territory for the three of them. Put together, they had a grand total of
zero minutes and zero hours of broadcast comedy under their belts.
In the summer of 1971, Kowalchuk held auditions in the bowels of the CBC studios, then
located in the Hotel Vancouver somewhere between the mezzanine and the public toilets.
Many aspiring actors read their way through sketches featuring the moralizing nit, Trashman,
and his sidekick, Ban Tobacco, pollution fighters extraordinaire. There
were parodies of Canadian political figures and silliness that involved chickens,
Republicans, morphodites (sic) and greasers all verbally duking it out in an aural
tapestry that scorned such boring nonsense as cause and effect, logic or beginning, middle
Vancouver actors Ted Stidder and Bill Buck
impressed in the auditions. Stidder was a seasoned stage actor with a gruff delivery
that made him a terrific comic crank; slipping into brusque sarcasm at the drop of a bad
pun. Buck was a comic anomaly. A conservative, nattily groomed nice guy, Buck
lived with his mom until he was about fifty, but no one seemed to notice at the time.
Bill Buck, in all his Dudley Dooright, cleancut Canadian square niceness, would
prove vital to the chemistry of the full fledged Bundolo group which would be dominated by
two extraordinary comic performers, Bill Reiter and Norm Grohmann. But more about
them later – they had not yet arrived on the scene.
Late in the audition process, two performers emerged who would become mainstays of the
show’s weekly network presence – the novice Marla Gropper and seasoned pro Steve
Woodman. Marla, a personal friend of Groberman, had never acted before, but wanted
to and was dynamite right out of the gate. Her natural ease in front of the
microphone belied her lack of experience. Her comic timing and voice modulations
were exceptional, and her flexibility in playing characters of many ethnic persuasions
across many age groupings made her a shoo-in for the female role in the otherwise all male
cast. Steve Woodman knocked everyone out. A living, breathing incarnation of
the colourful AM radio personality, Woodman came to life in his voice characterizations
and roamed there like a mad aural imp. A lesser version of himself (and there are
thousands of them, AM morning show Rock Jocks all) would have put you off as smarmy,
plastic and prefabricated. But Woodman had something deeper going in his snappy
patter. He parodied himself with gusto. In addition to dynamite voice control
and spot-on delivery at the microphone, Steve displayed hints of comic genius and
displayed them often. He lifted characters off the page in ways that surprised
Kowalchuk and the prank boys and completely surpassed their expectations. When the
audition dust had settled, Woodman was their star, until, of course, Reiter and Grohmann
came along. But more about them later.
Throughout 1971 and the summer of ‘72, Woodman, Gropper, Stidder and Buck performed
the Monday thru Friday radio five minuters dubbed Kreegah Bundolo Express on
Vancouver CBC radio’s afternoon show.
||Yardley recalls, "I was twenty-three years
old, sitting in a car with my dad at the side of the highway near Fairmont Hotsprings,
B.C. in the East Kootenays when the very first episode of Kreegah Bundolo Express
played over the radio. My heart pounded. You know, it must’ve been how
Spielberg felt when he first played E.T. for his mom (wink). A whole three-minute
radio piece, wild and corny as hell and the buttons were popping off my chest. My
dad was proud of me and diplomatically hinted that – ahem – we had some way to
go before we would make people forget Wayne and Shuster."
With respect to the name, Jeff reflected, "Maybe we were Edgar Rice Burroughs buffs.
Kreegah Bundolo is what Tarzan used to yell at gorillas or maybe gorillas yelled it at
him. Who knows for sure? At any rate, we liked the rhythm of it and it
There had been comedy
drop-in pieces on regional radio before, but for the most part, they were squeaky clean,
middle-of-the-road offerings typical of the CBC up to the early seventies. And most
of those programs never went anywhere. Kreegah Bundolo Express was
different. It grew organically out of the west coast milieu about the same time a
group called Monty Python’s Flying Circus was fashioning their hugely
successful absurdist vision in Britain and a full two years before the Royal Canadian
Air Farce would take to the airwaves with a show that closely copied the Bundolo
format. Response to the Bundolo drop-ins grew exponentially. Something began
to stir in the catacomb offices in the Hotel Vancouver; a buzz about this goofy little
comedy thing on the west coast – a buzz heard 3,000 miles away in CBC head office in
October 4, 1972 was a chilly night on the campus of
the University of British Columbia. Don Kowalchuk had rented the Music
Building Recital Hall to launch the first public recording of a new CBC network radio
"I remember when Jeff called," said Yardley. "Kowalchuk had told him that
on the strength of numbers, growing listener support and fan mail for our comedy drop-ins,
the CBC was going to give us a shot at doing a pilot for a full network half hour show, to
be produced in front of a live audience at UBC. A live audience! Yikes.
No more hiding in a studio convincing ourselves we were funny. It was
acid test time. Prove it in front of a live audience."
A few days before that first taping, Frank Stalley bumped into Groberman in an elevator at
the Hotel Van. "I understand your program is getting off the ground," he said
with a smile. "It’s taxiing down the runway, F.S.," said Groberman,
who always managed to sound like Groucho Marx on benzedrine when he said such things.
Intense, Jewish, black curly hair and mobile eyebrows, there was something about
Jeff that shouted that Groucho was, in fact, his spiritual forefather.
Kowalchuk, displaying a prescience remarkable for a producer who had never worked on
anything other than classical music and drama, conceived that the Bundolo show would work
best if it combined three essential elements on stage – the performers, a live band
and an onstage sound effects technician, a dandy named Lars Eastholme. Nothing
canned or pre-recorded, everything would be seat-of-the-pants live to tape broadcasting; a
show pounded together on the fly and made more spontaneous and exciting for it –
The full name for the half hour series was to be Dr. Bundolo’s Pandemonium
Medicine Show. It came about during a marathon session in which Kowalchuk,
Groberman and Yardley tossed around whole lists of possible titles, finally deciding that
if ‘Bundolo’ meant ‘gorilla’ in Swahili, (It did, didn’t it?),
then a gorilla with a Ph.D., i.e., Dr. Bundolo, captured something of the oxymoronic that
would certainly make them whoop in Red Deer – a then small hamlet south of Edmonton
in the next-door province of Alberta.
The show slowly built an audience across Canada in its weekly half hour AM time slot.
A few shows into its run and knowing that Ted Stidder would be leaving the
cast, Kowalchuk and the writers auditioned for a replacement. They were stunned by
the comic brilliance of a young Vancouver actor named Bill Reiter. A big jolly bear
of a man, often sporting a mountain man beard, born in Verdun, Quebec, Reiter had grown up
in Vancouver's equally tough East End and brought a street smart irreverence to comedy
that was so in-your-face funny that he quickly became the star as well as the brunt of
most of the humour on the show and gave back as good or better than he got. But he
would be challenged. In 1974, Yardley and Groberman started bugging Kowalchuk about
this guy named Norm Grohmann who did the weather report on BCTV. Around this same
time, Steve Woodman, while coming home late at night from hosting a Variety Club
Tele-thon, suffered a tragic car accident that effectively ended his radio career.
Grohmann auditioned and won a role in the cast in a walk.
For the next seven years, Bill Reiter and Norm Grohmann, more than ably assisted by Marla,
and with the great X Factor chemistry that Buck added, would be the cast of Dr.
Bundolo's Pandemonium Medicine Show, a weekly half hour of comic mayhem and
post-Freudian ersatz that would trouble the atmosphere more than the US government's HAARP
project in Alaska (Google it). If the scripts were occasionally well written, they
were often lifted into the realm of inspired comedy by the scintillating improvisational
humour that both Reiter and Grohmann brought to the stage – usually, the stage of the
Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia. The SUB theatre often
overflowed its 700-seat capacity for Bundolo shows, with standing room and students
sitting in the aisles, it was often comic bedlam. Over time, Reiter became the big
jolly guy that every loyal student fan had to get a piece of, even to the extreme of
bombarding him relentlessly with paper airplanes while he was trying to address the
hallowed microphone of the Canadian mother corp. Many of Reiter's impromptu grunts,
woofs and groans, kept in the show, are, in fact, his reactions to getting nailed in
sensitive body parts with a Boeing Cruizer designed by some UBC engineering student.
From 1972 to 1981, and for a brief reprise during Expo '86, Dr. Bundolo's Pandemonium
Medicine Show established itself as the wildest, most spontaneous ensemble radio
comedy ever to arise in the Canadian west.
Dr. Bundolo was hugely popular during the 1970’s in Canada. In some respects,
it belongs to a well-represented tradition of Canadian satirical humour that includes Wayne
and Shuster, Codco, The Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour
Has 22 Minutes. Of this family of shows, Bundolo was perhaps the black sheep;
the show least likely to conform to expectations and most likely to bend the rules into
pretzels and serve them with green beer. There was something decidedly west coast
about Bundolo; something that didn’t always sit well with the more button-down
sensibilities of central Canada. If Berkeley is to Boston as Vancouver is to
Toronto, we are talking cultural differences of no small magnitude. Bundolo was the
wild, unkempt, dope smoking hippie relative out in Lotus Land. Maybe entertaining as
hell in small doses, but you sure wouldn’t want him hanging around, sleeping on your
sofa or chatting up your sister.
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