"Mystery Science Theater 3000" may have gone off the air in 1999, but its status as a cult favorite has only continued to grow.
Cinematic Titanic, a five-member off-shoot of performers from the show's run, appeared this weekend at the Pabst Theater for a two-night stint, concluding with Saturday's sold-out showing of the 1976 film "The Astral Factor."
Cinematic Titanic consists of original creator and star of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (a.k.a. MST3K) Joel Hodgson, as well as J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Coniff and Mary Jo Pehl. This marked the third time the group has been in Milwaukee since they first began in 2007.
The show began with opener David "Gruber" Allen engaging the crowd with a few sing-along songs. While his nickname makes him sound like a certain local attorney, Allen is perhaps best known for his work on the TV show "Freaks and Geeks," where he played guidance counselor Jeff Rosso.
His live act consisted of the same type of attitude and tone that made his character on the show so memorable. After briefly leaving the Pabst stage, he returned as his twin cousin "Groover," a poet who shared two haikus and a lengthy rambling poem about the Four Corners of the southwest. It was a perfect parody of beat poetry, filled with random references and wordplay.
After Allen departed, he gave way to members of Cinematic Titanic to appear for individual showcases in which they weren't making fun of bad movies. Frank Conniff, who played TV's Frank on "MST3K," said he was going to read a poem he wrote called "Everything I Like About Scott Walker," with the bit being that he had nothing to say at all. While there was a loud positive response, it also attracted a number of boos. Overall, it was an ill-conceived insertion of politics and didn't fit the setting. Conniff also did a segment in which he read tweets from historical figures, which was funnier in concept than it was in execution.
Mary Jo Pehl, who played Pearl during the final years of "MST3K," read a very brief excerpt from her book "Employee of the Month," in which she shared an entry from her diary following a Vikings loss to the Cowboys in the 1974 NFL playoffs.
Trace Beaulieu, who played Dr. Forrester and was the original voice of Crow, appeared onstage to answer any questions the audience might have about anything. This improvisational exercise ultimately didn't end up going anywhere all that interesting, but he did win cheers from the audience when he gave his blessing to the continued circulation of "MST3K" tapes.
J. Elvis Weinstein, who was the original voice of Tom Servo during his brief tenure on "MST3K," concluded the pre-movie entertainment by performing the theme song with his bass guitar. Weinstein's song was the biggest hit before the intermission, but the crowd was supportive and happy to see each individual.
After a 15-minute intermission, Joel Hodgson appeared onstage for the biggest applause of the night. Hodgson, who grew up in Fort Atkinson, told the crowd he used to visit Milwaukee with his family when he was younger. He explained that since the hotel Cinematic Titanic had for this weekend was so close to the Milwaukee Public Museum, he had to visit it again, primarily to see the Streets of Old Milwaukee. However, he was not expecting to see the stuffed Samson the Gorilla at the museum and didn't even know that the legendary Milwaukee County Zoo resident had passed. Hodgson said it was a tough way to discover such news, even though it has been over 30 years since Samson's death.
After his brief anecdote, he re-introduced the cast of Cinematic Titanic and they got the movie underway.
The feature film that Cinematic Titanic riffed over was called "The Astral Factor" and was about a killer who had the ability to turn himself invisible. It was exactly the sort of dud that was a staple on "MST3K." One of the biggest laughs of the program was a scene in which the lead detective's girlfriend made him a terrible-looking cake for his birthday. While he chewed the cake, she asked how it was, and he responded by making an "OK" gesture with his hand. Immediately, Joel Hodgson quipped "It stinks!" which was a perfect callback to the classic "MST3K" episode, "Pod People."
While earlier performances of Cinematic Titanic occasionally had issues with too many people talking at once onstage, Saturday night's performance reflected a balanced chemistry in which everyone had multiple opportunities to shine. There were also a handful of moments in which everyone on stage said the same thing and laughs were delivered by the collective. While it was unfortunate that a few audience members apparently thought they might get discovered by talking during the opening portion of the show, once the film began the Pabst crowd let the experts work their magic.
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