Down at the ‘Roundhouse’

“Everybody wants to do something strange, and is. It remains for a few people to stand and watch them and report what it all looks like and sounds like.” — James Thurber in a letter to EB White, 1938

Running for 52 episodes from 1992 to 1996, Roundhouse was one of the shows on during Nickelodeon’s “golden era” that you may have some trouble remembering. That is until I tell you that it was part of the original wave of SNICK, airing just before The Ren & Stimpy Show.

Now you remember? The show with all the 20-year-old kids wearing bright colors and flannel, doing back flips and singing, looking rather like extras from Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and rapidly running through comedy sketches that all had to do with the elejaic awkwardness of growing up?

Roundhouse is indeed one of the shows on Nick that has never been given any kind of real re-release, and from what one of the primaries on the show told me, is hardly even acknowledged by the current executives at the network. So, don’t feel too bad if it’s a show that doesn’t quite light that memory spark for you.

It’s a shame, though. The series was really something quite special, having never been attempted in the realm of children’s television before, having set the business model for future massive successes like Disney’s Hannah Montana, and never having been done again after its premature cancellation.

Each episode of Roundhouse was produced live-to-tape, meaning that it was essentially a live performance throughout. Meaning that every week an entire cache of original songs (performed by a full-fledged live band), sketches (encysted by an actual three-act narrative, no less), and complex dance choreography had to be developed, rehearsed, and performed without any real interruptions sans the brief commercial breaks.

Like it or lump it, that’s kind of amazing, and — again — something that had never really been done before. Or since.

“At first, I wasn’t even sure it could be done,” I was told by Buddy Sheffield, who created Roundhouse with his former wife Rita. “To create a half-hour show with music and dance and choreography and everything every week. But somehow we managed to do it. And it was fun, although it was challenging.”

“When I first heard in 1985 that there was this little kids channel, I wanted to be on there,” said Rita Hester (formerly Sheffield). “That was my goal, and so no matter how it ended up, I reached that. I considered it paradise to walk into our soundstage every week and going and doing my own kids show. No matter what happened, I thought it was glorious that they gave us that opportunity.”

Both Hester and Sheffield have long been involved in the world of live theater, having started together in the professional realm of performing for children after meeting at the University of Southern Mississippi in the late sixties.

“Buddy had such a comic, deadpan, satirical wit about him,” Hester said about his performance in her production of George S. Kaufman’s The Still Alarm. “I thought he was very funny.”

In addition to meeting one another at USM, Hester and Sheffield also took on the apprenticeship of sorts of professors in the drama department who would instill in Hester in particular a sense of wanting to spend her career working in the arena of children’s entertainment.

“They showed what you could do for kids,” Hester said. “To see the kids laugh and get so into it. Some of these kids were out in these little remote, rural areas in Mississippi. They were starved for something creative and something fun. It turned their world around.”

“It was so rewarding to work with kids because they’re so true to who they really are born to be. They haven’t grown up yet and gotten cynical. They haven’t yet learned the ways of the world and to think a certain way.”

“You get their complete response that is so authentic and so real.”

In fact, Hester told me that her graduate school project was more-or-less the development of her own touring theater troupe for children into which she put everything she had after marrying Sheffield in 1970.

“We formed the theater company [Sheffield Ensemble Theatre aka SET, as in ‘Get SET for fun!’] while still in college, and began touring,” Sheffield said. “It evolved into one of the top theater companies for youth in America. We wrote a new, original musical every year and toured for nine months at a time.”

Performing award-winning shows like Beans (“Get SET for Beans!”) and Bananas (“Get SET to go Bananas!”), the burgeoning company’s bread and butter quickly became schools and art facilities with audiences targeted at children all over the country.

“We started writing to begin with because we couldn’t afford to pay royalties on something that was already written,” Sheffield revealed. “So how hard could it be to write a play? My brother [David Sheffield, who would go on to a successful career in the biz as the head writer for SNL and later penned such Eddie Murphy joints as Coming to America, Boomerang, and The Nutty Professor] and I started writing together and eventually thought it would be more entertaining if we started writing music even though we knew absolutely nothing about music.”

Hester added that producing original material for their traveling theater company “happened by default: I wanted to do kids plays and there were none. We looked around and they were all so old and formal and stodgy and long and tedious.”

“There was nothing for kids, so we started creating our own shows, and that’s where we came into the kids business. By making it ourselves.”

Working together on SET for nearly a decade took its toll on the Sheffield couple, and after David Sheffield moved into writing for television and then film in Los Angeles, Hester and Buddy Sheffield decided to follow.

Buddy Sheffield “got into writing television right away,” doing work on such classic comedy mainstays as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Dolly (with Dolly Parton), and eventually In Living Color for which he was an executive producer and head writer.

Meanwhile, Hester stuck to her “destiny,” as she called it, continuing her work in children’s entertainment by heading to Louisiana where she formed a new troupe called Cheap Theatrix in New Orleans. It was there during the 1984 World’s Fair that Hester saw a 20-year-old University of New Orleans student performing comedy with his sketch group, Faux Pas.

The young comic, John Crane, would remain in Hester’s mind and when she asked him along to join Cheap Theatrix — after graduating school first — Crane agreed. He would go on to be the only member of the touring group who would follow Hester back to Los Angeles in order to give Sheffield’s and her new television project for kids a try.

Crane, you’ll recall, played the “father” character in most of the Roundhouse sketches, riding around in a hilarious hyperbole of a self-contained “patriarch” mobile easy-chair outfitted with a BBQ, TV, and anything else one would think of anent the typical TV dad.

He described touring on the road with Cheap Theatrix thusly: “It was very much like Roundhouse and was obviously the seed of that series. Like Roundhouse, it was a really fast-paced musical comedy show.”

“There came a point where I thought: This has gone far enough,” Hester said. “We’ve toured all over America for all of these years.”

“I still wanted to do the kids thing, no matter what. I started pursuing what was out there for kids in television. I heard that there was this Nickelodeon channel that did things for kids in the early days. I started trying to see if there was a place for us on there.”

By the time Hester, along with Crane and her Los Angeles cast, were able to put together a new showcase for kids at their theater in Santa Monica, Sheffield was already well embroiled in In Living Color, and was therefore able to bring the folks from Fox (on which ILC aired) in to see if they wanted to bring the Cheap Theatrix-turned-Roundhouse production to TV.

Hester still kept her fingers crossed that the executives from Nickelodeon she had been trying to court — by doing everything she could, including attending the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards with a friend who knew the producer of the awards show — would attend, as well.

She told me that whereas most of the production folks they invited to see the showcase came, reps from Nickelodeon — for whatever reason — did not. (She also mentioned that she had been similarly courting Shelly Duvall thanks to Duvall’s  Faerie Tale Theatre, an early live-action kids series on Showtime.)

Fox ended up buying into the Roundhouse concept, and after a steady flow of back-and-forth disagreements about how the show would be developed — Hester and Sheffield telling me that the network wanted them to basically turn the series into a family sitcom — Sheffield agreed to write a new pilot for Fox in return for the rights back on Roundhouse (that pilot, by the way, turned into something called Shorts that never came out).

“Buddy’s agent became my agent,” Hester continued, “and he said, ‘Hey, someone came to me from Nickelodeon,’” then set up a meeting with Nick’s Herb Scannell and Jay Mulvaney [both of whom were instrumental creative execs at the network during the ‘golden era’].”

“We had this VHS tape from the showcase, and I really didn’t want to show it to them because it was not a good version… it just looked bad on tape, and didn’t do justice to the show,” Hester said. “When we got to the meeting, we realized we knew Jay Mulvaney from a rival kids theater company in New York.”

“We hit it off with Herb and Jay, and Herb Scannell said to us that they really took the meeting because, even with the bad black-and-white VHS copy of showcase, we showed that we weren’t some ‘kiddie company.’ He felt that what we were doing was sophisticated, it was satire, and it was really refreshing, so they really liked it.”

“And that’s how it started.”

“They eventually gave us a pilot deal. And we made it for them. It was difficult at first, but they looked at the pilot and even though it didn’t exactly fit the mold of what they were doing at the time, they said they were going to go with it.”

When I asked where they got the name for their new television show, Sheffield answered, “I just imagined a roundhouse: It’s a place where a train goes in and turns around to go in another direction. And the idea was that ‘you can go anywhere from here’ — a line in the theme song I wrote.”

“I wanted to use something that had sort of unlimited potential, where a kid might realize ‘it’s up to me where I go in life and whatever I make of it.’ Also, the idea originally was that the set was this ‘roundhouse’ and was just kind of abandoned and these kids — the actors — had kind of come in and taken it over and were doing a show.”

“It was very much based on a style of doing comedy for kids that we had developed on the stage,” Sheffield continued. “The idea was: You strip it down to what’s essential, especially since we had a low budget. We decided to use that to our advantage.”

“We took all the theatricality and added a cinematic touch to it,” Hester said. “Made it a lot more fun.”

“Even though we had what would have to be young adults playing kids,” Sheffield continued, “we still wanted the focus to be on the things that concern kids. For example, their insecurity about their bodily functions and that kind of thing.”

“We focused on the things that kids end up getting made fun of sometimes in school. We felt like if we could make them laugh at those things, maybe it would help them in their real lives. To realize that it wasn’t really that important and that maybe the people making fun of them… that the joke was kind of on them instead of the nerdy kid or the kid with acne or whatever it was.”

“So, we felt like we were kind of bolstering kids and helping them through adolescence in a way.”

So why not just use kids to begin with?

In Crane’s experience (which includes not only having performed with Cheap Theatrix and Roundhouse, but also being the only cast member on the writing staff of the show as well as ten years spent on Fox’s MADtv), “It’s very difficult for children to do sketch because there’s no irony in it. They don’t have the life experience to give the sketches context.”

“And in my mind, that can make sketches very flat. What Rita insisted upon was that everybody in the cast have a certain measure of life experience so that they could pull the sketch off in the way it was intended to. With a little irony, with a little irreverence, with a little knowing smile. You gotta know stuff in order to be able to do that.”

Sheffield agreed with this more didactic rationale before bringing up practical reasons for working with post-adolescents on a show like Roundhouse.

“I’ve always felt that kids would rather watch someone they would want to be, rather than their peers. They will watch up, they will watch someone who’s older and in their minds cooler and more experienced than they are and would put more stock in something that person says than someone who could be sitting next to them in their classroom.”

“Plus, a lot of the stuff that we were doing, it was just very, very demanding. And it’s hard to find kids — 16, 17 — who really have the chops to do that.”

“And you have limitations when you work with school-age actors. You have limited hours that you can use them. You have to have teachers on the set and all that. It just would’ve made the schedule we had and the workload almost impossible, if not completely impossible.”

Keeping with Roundhouse’s ubiquitous mantra of “you can go anywhere,” Sheffield explained that such restrictions simply did not fit into the atmosphere of the show:

“With a lot of television, [actors] are cast in a role, and there are very narrow guidelines, and everything he or she does has to fit within those parameters. But I like to let people expand and experiment.”

“I invited the cast to come up with ideas, and if they had something funny or some special skill or something they could do, then we’d find a way to put it in the show so they could explore everything about themselves that could be interesting.”

“We had dance in the show and that was another part of the concept that was completely integrated and seamless. And some of the people that we hired as dancers turned out to be very funny.”

“Julene [Jule-Een] Renee, for example, was originally hired as a dancer, but then we found out she was really funny, so we wrote more and more comedy for her.”

“I loved working on Roundhouse,” said dancer-cum-comedienne/actress Renee, “because we got to be silly.”

“We had the comedy rehearsal, then we’d go into the dance room and work out the choreography, and we’d go over here and sing… It was just like this full experience.”

“Plus, it was an ensemble thing and I loved that. I loved everybody in the cast. We were such a good family, everyone was so funny. We all had such a good time together.”

Though Nickelodeon assisted with their own casting department and though she also put ads in the regular resources like Backstage West, Hester described the bulk of the casting process as “unconventional.” Aside from having discovered Crane at a comedy show in New Orleans, Hester went on to find Roundhouse singer Crystal Lewis at an in-house record release party of current husband (and Roundhouse musical producer) Benny Hester.

Lewis, who before/during/after her stint on Roundhouse “rocked” the gospel music scene, agreed on the spot when Hester approached the nascent talent at the in-house, saying, “I’m doing this fun show with music and dance and comedy, do you want to be in it?”

Performers Alfred Carr and Seymour Green she tracked down through a friend who suggested Hester check out these two guys dancing for quarters on Venice Boulevard.

“I saw Ivan [Dudynsky], Dominic [Lucero, a former backup dancer for Michael Jackson who tragically died of an illness during Roundhouse], and David [Sidoni], and was only going to cast one of them,” Hester said.

“But the three of those boys came in together, and I told Nickelodeon I had to have all three of them — ‘I’ll skimp somewhere else to pay for them!’ — because not one of them I could do without. David was the All-American guy, Dominic was a super-super-super talent, and Ivan may be the best male dancer I’d ever seen. So I took all three.”

“Everyone had their part,” Renee added. “Everyone was important, everyone did their job and did it well and that’s what pulled it off. And I think we were having fun, too. That helps!”

Regardless of the fact that Hester and Sheffield were divorcees producing a new television show together, both had nothing but the greatest approbation for one another, even with Hester’s new husband (whom she said Sheffield met for the first time, referring to Benny Hester as his “new husband-in-law”) onboard as the series’ musical director.

Both insisted they couldn’t have done the show without the other, remain friends to this day, and explained that having developed the earlier live theater shows together made the work a cinch without any real personal “dust-ups.” Particularly as Hester spent the bulk of her time with show director Bruce Gowers (who would go on to win an Emmy for his work on American Idol) and the cast while Sheffield remained with his young writing staff, putting together the scripts each week.

The cast would remain very intimate and friendly during the show’s first season produced in Orlando, Florida — “the middle of nowhere” — since they were relatively “isolated” and only had each other to hang with during the few off-times they had when they weren’t laboring away on the show. But Sheffield felt that in order for the “kids” to really link into the fashion, dance crazes, and other fads of their target market, it was time to move back to Los Angeles where the show would be produced until its end in 1994.

But how in the hell did the group of Hester and Sheffield, his young writing staff (including daughter Heather) of seven or eight, eight or nine regular cast members, four “hardcore dancers,” musical director Benny Hester, and choreographer Barry Lather (whose roster, by the by, includes: Janet Jackson, Sting, Prince, Paula Abdul, and Sheryl Crow) make it work each week?

Renee laid out the regiment as: “You’d get a script, you’d read it over the weekend. Monday, you’d show up, we’d all sit down at the table, Rita would tell everybody, ‘Okay, pick one; Julene, you’re playing this; Mark David, you’re playing that.’ She’d split it up and then we’d read through it, then immediately we’d block it out and start rehearsing.”

“Tuesday, we’d rehearse it more, then we’d start learning the choreography. Then the writers would go back and be writing the next week’s script. On Wednesday, they’d come out and see the one we’d be working on, take any notes, and make any changes.”

“Thursday, we blocked for cameras. Friday, we’d shoot the show, and by end of the week, we would have the script for the following week.”

“The show was super well-written. That’s what made it ultimately work. The writing was so good and it happened so fast, so if the joke worked — yay, everybody’s laughing — but if not, you just moved on and went to the next one.”

“I have found that in sketch comedy, it’s a hit or miss proposition,” Sheffield said. “So you want to minimize the misses and go right onto the next hit.”

“We did a lot of really short sketches, and we didn’t depend on things like scenery and costumes and makeup and that kind of thing because it felt like that didn’t add a whole lot to the comedy. We wanted to get down to what was really essential, what was really funny.”

“Kids like things fast!” Crane agreed. “We at least knew that much.”

“And that, to me, is a standard in sketch, too. Sketch comedy is a numbers game. Just watch Saturday Night Live, and trust me, all they want is that one really funny bit that people are going to talk about the next day.”

“If you were inside of a sketch in Roundhouse that you didn’t think was particularly funny, don’t worry: We’ll be onto the next one in 10 seconds. And I think that was something that was a little bit ahead of the time for the show.”

One element of the show that certainly fit perfectly within its time was the iconic fashion sense that rings early nineties like nobody’s business.

“There wasn’t a set style for the pilot itself except Julene and Crystal Lewis both wore vintage clothes,” Hester said. “Crystal introduced us to a stylist [Lynne Murdock Griffith] at the time who worked for a vintage fashion stylist, the woman who runs Lily Et Cie in Beverly Hills [Rita Watnick]. She was great; she did the costumes every week.”

“She dressed those kids in vintage clothes, but mainly complimented the kids’ personalities. Julene was like a little wild flower child — wearing all these hip-hugger pants and bellbottoms before they came back.”

“The goofier I went, the more fun I was having,” Renee said. “Rita and Buddy always gave me that freedom, whatever you want: ‘Okay, here we go!’”

“I got to be super crazy and wild. I became that kind of goofball daredevil on the show: ‘Give it to Julene, she’ll do it!’”

“Of course John Crane wouldn’t be in hippie clothes,” Hester continued. “He was ‘the dad’ and he was a preppy kind of a guy who was so funny, so he had his own style.”

“My background was a little more middle class,” Crane said. “I was not a dancer. I was a comedian. Married. Little less wild. And the character I played was more that way, too.”

Crane went on to tell me about the joys of riding around in the mobile easy-chair, which — yes — was about as cool (or moreso, perhaps) as you always imagined. Sheffield had developed the thing as a visual motif for the “dad” character, revealing that it was built around an electric wheelchair. Everyone had a turn on the chair, but only Crane could “zip around at 30mph and stop an inch before your toes.”

He became quite an expert on the specialized vehicle, noting that the chair also helped keep the pace of the show running as fast and as smoothly as it needed to, with actors pushing set pieces in and out of each scene as they came and went, the chair allowing the “dad” to come and go seamlessly through the rapid pace of Roundhouse.

“The cast members were so personality-driven, so fun,” Hester said. “We wanted to honor their authenticity.”

Crane greatly praised Hester’s and Sheffield’s own authenticity, as well, explaining to me that as a writer on the show, he never had to worry about what he was putting down on paper as long as it was funny and worked.

Describing the experience as “being in a dome” of sorts, he went on to say that Hester and Sheffield would oftentimes have difficulties with the network over what they were doing on the show being too mature or “sophisticated” for Nickelodeon’s target audience (at the time) of six-to-eleven-year-olds.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that there might have been times when the show shot for a higher age group than what Nick was really looking for during the early nineties, but none of them seemed to regret this (except for Crane who confessed to me that now that he’s a parent, he does look back on the episodes and wonder — even about sketches he wrote himself — how the hell they got away with some of what they did).

One of the episodes I remember best of Roundhouse is that in which they tackled the issue of gang violence. It was one of the times in which the show got a bit more serious and in fact the only episode in which they ended without reprising the theme song, leaving the “kid” who had to choose between rival gangs alone on the stage with the other actors walking off quietly as though — in Sheffield’s vision — implying the question couldn’t be answered in a half-hour sketch comedy show.

(Though Nickelodeon had originally not wanted them to do the episode, Sheffield was able to go forward with it anyway, and ended up being invited to participate in a 45-minute long interview on a prominent national news program at the time to discuss how and why they produced the episode.)

When it comes to this brand of being perhaps ahead of the times on the show, in Hester’s opinion, aside from coining the phrase “tween” — “I’m sure we will never get the credit for it, but we never heard anyone else say ‘tween’ in the eighties” — Roundhouse also presaged the forthcoming craze in the “tween” world for pop rock, referring to the show as a “pop rock comedy concert” and adamantly refusing the category of “variety show.” (“A variety show is like The Ed Sullivan Show, bringing on new acts every week, and we didn’t do that,” Hester said).

“Pop rock was the next big genre in music,” Hester said. “We were slightly ahead of the curve. I used to think that was a good thing. I don’t think that’s a good thing anymore. You have to be right in the time to benefit from it.”

If Hester seems to be coming off as somewhat… cynical here, it’s only because she — and the rest of the folks at Roundhouse — went through one hell of a ride, which abruptly ended before its time. Or at least before they were able to realize their full potential.

“We really did the music to make serious pop rock records from television,” Hester said.

“We knew all the singers from our show, each individually, could have a record. Irving Azoff had Giant Records [Warner Bros.] — and they offered us a really big advance and we had a really topnotch [Grammy-nominated] producer — Howard Benson [who has worked with acts such as: Kelly Clarkson, Papa Roach, Creed, Less Than Jake, My Chemical Romance, Hoobastank, Motorhead, TSOL, et al] — who, together with Roundhouse music producer Benny Hester, had already chosen all the songs.”

“We had four full albums in the works from the 52 episodes. We started the actual road to production and did the contract work and all that kind of thing… and suddenly Nickelodeon cancelled the show and along with it, they decided they did not want a mainstream pop rock record label for a kids company.”

“They cancelled the show and said no to the record deal. That’s a hard pill to swallow, I have to tell you.”

“I’m not bitter. I refuse to be bitter. I love the fact that Nickelodeon gave us that opportunity to do something on television that may have never been done before. Look at all the shows that have used that model now.”

And when I asked Hester why they couldn’t just keep going without Nickelodeon: “We owned most of the live rights and 50% of all of the music, but television is the business mechanism. Without television, you do not reach the number of people and have the marketing strategy that you can have with television. And you have to remember there’s no place to do [a kids show] other than Nickelodeon and Disney.”

“I wasn’t willing to just go back to schools and art centers,” Hester said. “I already did that. I did that for so many years in my life; we won every award that you can win in live performance for kids. We’d already reached the pinnacle of success in that market. And when we got to television, we had done the same thing for just working hard and staying true in the business.”

“That was hard,” said Renee who after Roundhouse tested for a few pilots and had some small parts in a few other productions, most notably James Cameron’s Avatar, an experience she likened to her time at Roundhouse for its haimish intimacy and family environment. These days, she’s directing short films and trying to get into feature filmmaking, taking with her the lessons she learned from from Hester:

“I learned a lot from Rita, how this small, little lady could command everybody’s attention, keep it running smooth, and at the same time inspire everybody. She was so complimentary, seeing everybody’s strength. But the thing is, she took the time to see everybody’s strength. By her empowering each person, she made the whole team stronger and I definitely learned that from her.”

“Always hovering over us was that Nickelodeon would rather have a sketch comedy with kids stars,” Crane concluded. “We kind of knew that that was always the case. It wasn’t a complete surprise. There was part of the group that was ready to move on and felt that it had run its course, that they wanted to do something else — ‘I’ve done this kid show and I’d like to do something else.’”

“But I think there was a part of us that also knew that in all likelihood we would probably not have an experience like that again. And in my case, that turned out to be true. There’s certainly not many shows I’ve written for and performed in where there was so much freedom and where I could really explore.”

“I think that is a double-edged sword, though. Rita and Buddy were so protective of that show that sometimes I think — though there were a lot of different elements that were involved — they may have hastened the demise of the show. In this business, you have to work with other people, it’s all about compromise. With Nickelodeon, I don’t think that Rita, Benny, and Buddy were willing to compromise their vision of the show.”

“One of the things Roundhouse did teach me as a producer is that you really need to embrace the people who are working with you and embrace your talent and let them go. That’s when they’re going to work their best — when they have the opportunity to do what they do and when they have the confidence of the person who hired them and believes in them.”

Today, Sheffield is back in the legitimate theater. Though he too was pained greatly by the early end of Roundhouse, he feels satisfied to be “back home” where he first began, noting how the cancellation of the show affected him at that time nearly 20 years ago:

“We had had a sketch or something once where there was a talent show, and the people who didn’t do well were awarded a sausage, though I don’t remember why. So I had everybody come up one at a time and handed them a prop sausage and thanked them for their contribution to the show [when we were cancelled].”

“It was very, very hard, because to me that was the one thing in television that was exactly what I wanted it to be. Nothing else ever really came close to that. Obviously, I did things that were more noticeable in the adult world, but that was the one thing that was closest to my heart and the closest to what I had come from and had created in the theater and what I felt that my talent was best suited for.”

“And I kind of knew at the time that that would never be again, that nobody was ever going to let me do that again. I kind of knew that that was the end of an era.”

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.

Down at the ‘Roundhouse’