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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

John McGivern as Earlene Hoople in "A Kodachrome Christmas."

Simple charms shine bright in "A Kodachrome Christmas"


Cable access channels all over the country are pretty much the same – a place for the ax grinders, the desperate, the deluded and the naive.

But if you channel surf enough you might get lucky and stumble across Earlene Hoople, the Queen of Rural Media, who, Wednesday night, started taping her annual Christmas special for the Early Risers show she hosts on Channel 17.

Because it's public access, Earlene will continue taping it until the end of the month at Next Act Theatre, and if you want to be on the nice (and not naughty) list, it might be a good idea to stop in and be part of the live audience she needs for her show.

Earlene is a doll. She is everything that cable access should be. She's a little mixed up. She makes mistakes and laughs them off. She gets people in her audience to help decorate Hot Santa Christmas Cookies and gets other audience members to become an impromptu bell choir.

Her show doesn't have all the glitz and glamor of the big network shows, but it's got something the other shows don't have.

They don't have Earlene.

Earlene is Milwaukee's own John McGivern who, with Pat Hazell, created "A Kodachrome Christmas" as a gift of laughter for all of Milwaukee.

Serious and nose-in-the-air theater-goers might scoff at this, but if you've got a heart and a sense of humor, watching McGivern work his own special brand of magic fills the stocking hanging next to your fireplace.

This show is a string of laughs that had a fairly good-sized opening-night crowd in stitches from beginning to end. And that's what a comedy is about. Make me laugh.

And McGivern really knows how to do that. His timing is impeccable. He can do more with the crook of an eyebrow or the blink of a false eyelash than a lot of people can do with an entire body.

The show starts when Earlene talks about her sister's top-secret recipe for stuffing the Christmas turkey.

"She puts a cup of unpopped popcorn in that bird, and when the popcorn blows the butt off that bird you know it's ready to eat."

That's about as risque as Earlene gets. She knows that the funniest stuff in the world is the ordinary stuff. An apron that says "Cutting the Cheese Puts Me at Ease." A commercial for Wisconsin's only regional airline, "Dairy Air." A Christmas wreath for servicemen made out of those little green army guys we all played with as kids.

It's simple stuff.

"I went into a bookstore to buy a book for a Christmas gift. I asked the clerk if she could gift wrap it for me. She looked at me and said, 'What do you want to do? Kill a tree?' (A long pause and a look aside) We're in a bookstore. This is a cemetery for trees."

The show that Earlene is taping is the first Christmas special since the death of her husband, Ray, who she calls her "big angel." She misses him terribly, but she shrugs her shoulders and just keeps on talking to the camera. Her show must always go on. She is a cable access star and she knows it.

McGivern is a master of two very simple anatomical things. First, he knows where the funny bone is. And secondly, he knows where the heartstrings are. And he can play both of them with equal skill.

A word that you don't often use around a comedian is dignity. But John McGivern is a dignified man and he brings that sense of dignity to his comedy. He doesn't pander. He doesn't go for the cheap. He never sells either himself or the audience short. He knows we are going on a ride together that might have some bumps along the way and he wants it to be both fun and safe.

McGivern winds us up like a toy soldier; we are just about limp with laughter and then, at the end, he gives us not just Earlene's humor, but her slightly broken heart. And he leaves us with the message that family is the one place you can go to heal. Even if, as she puts it, "the people you love the most are the ones you want to spend the least time with."

Earlene Hoople is someone we should all spend a little time with this Christmas. She gives us a lot of laughs and some sniffles too.

More years ago than either of us care to remember, McGivern and I did a play together. He was funny then, but one thing I didn't notice until he came out in a simple charcoal gray A-line skirt Wednesday night.

On top of everything else Earlene has going for her, she has a great pair of legs.

"A Kodachrome Christmas" runs through Dec. 31 at Next Act Theatre. Information and tickets are available at their website.


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