John Vidacovich starts it all off with a drumroll. The rest of Astral Project falls in line, then Ronnie Virgets grabs a fistful of loose-leaf papers and strides to center-stage. He welcomes the small crowd of gathered friends -- and the larger, unseen audience of radio listeners who seem to hover just beyond the room -- to the hour that is to follow: the debut of the brand-new radio variety show Crescent City, coming from le chat noir cabaret.
In his introduction, Virgets promises the show will feature plenty of the things New Orleanians love: music and talk. But there's more in the air here. If WWNO program director and Crescent City producer Fred Kasten gets his wish, tonight is just the first step toward national syndication and all the fame and wealth that public radio can offer.
"This is something I've been thinking about for a decade or more," says Kasten. "Through my job at WWNO, I have so much contact with a variety of talented people in the city, and it became apparent there was a wealth of talent in New Orleans not getting the spotlight they deserve."
Crescent City's premiere show, with the twin themes of Mardi Gras and football, airs on WWNO at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1. Kasten is planning two more programs this year, to air during Jazz Fest and Halloween. He hopes to eventually move the show to a weekly schedule and then offer it for syndication.
For public radio listeners, the blend of music and sketch comedy might call to mind Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, which got its start in similarly modest fashion in 1974, as a takeoff of sorts of the Grand Ole Opry country music broadcast. Crescent City is more a collaborative effort -- Kasten says that he's modeled the program after the general genre of variety radio and not any one particular show. Still, he says, the program is largely built around its host's talents. "When I saw Ronnie emcee a couple events, I realized here was the man I was looking for," he says.
The show finds its own rhythm during this night's proceedings. After the last strains of the Steve Masakowski-composed theme song "Crescent City Strut," Virgets brings on the debut's performers, actors and talkers. Pianist Tom McDermott offers the Jelly Roll Morton tune "The Crave" and his own "Dance of the Networkers"; Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris belts out "Winin' Boy Blues" and McDermott's occasionally raunchy "That's What I Saw at the Mardi Gras," and, backed by Astral Project, provides one of the show's highlights with her ethereal interpretation of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."
The talkers include Times-Picayune sports columnist Peter Finney and athlete-turned-journalist Rob Swoboda, who converse about sports with Virgets; a meditation about Hollywood and New Orleans by writer Don Lee Keith; and a unique hybrid of scholarly research and stand-up comedy by jazz authority Bruce Raeburn. Virgets loosely adheres these acts together with both scripted and off-the-cuff remarks, and he caps off the production with a recollection of a childhood football triumph that has the audience at le chat noir cheering.
Much of the show is far from typical New Orleans public radio fare. The "Live Nude Radio Players" -- Becky Allen, Ricky Graham, Sean Patterson and Renee Maxwell -- are Crescent City's sketch performers, and it's pretty clear that their jokes weren't exactly edited to fit any strict requirements of political correctness. This gives the humor a kind of pleasant throwback to the days when radio really was the primary source of laughs.
At some point in the evening, Virgets riffs that radio has its limitations: listeners won't get to witness "Bruce Raeburn's excellent red sports jacket," he says. They also won't be able to detect Becky Allen's mighty perfume or see how the members of Astral Project crack up onstage throughout the show. Despite these limitations, the launch of Crescent City has the appropriately easy, hit-or-miss appeal of an old-school variety show. "Boys, play us out of here," calls Virgets at the end of the hour, and Astral Project closes things out. Kasten takes the stage to thank everyone for coming, and there's a feeling of backstage bonhomie at le chat noir as thoughts turn to the show's larger and less-visible audience.