Whistling Through the Graveyard

Knoxville's very own hobo cabaret offers cornball shtick and labyrinthine mythology in its contemporary take on old-time variety theater

Some see the dumpster as half-empty. Some see it as half-full.

That's the kind of optimism driving the comics, actors, and musicians behind Boozehound Gandy Dance, Knoxville's only "hobo cabaret." Named for their affection for alcohol with a nod toward the sentimental image of hobos from the movies and literature of the 1930s, the Boozehounds wrap novelty songs, comedy shtick, and all-around naughtiness around a collection of fictional tramps and fugitives coming together to form a kind of new nuclear family.

The musical core of the group—brothers Tim and Greg Eisinger, late of Matgo Primo, and Justin Powers—drifts off on its own musings, most of which turn into Boozehound songs like the "The Boozehound Rag" and other purposefully ragged, sometimes cornball interludes. Boozehound directors Bran Rogers, Jenna Hancock, and Michelle Sanders contribute to the mayhem, as does Lila Honaker, while Amy Clowers Rickels beats on everything in the room with drumsticks.

The sociological import of playing hoboes in a city with a plenitude of genuinely unfortunate victims of economic circumstances, as well as a population of panhandling grifters, isn't lost on the Boozehounds. As if closing with their outrageously localized version of the Woody Guthrie anthem "This Land Is Your Land" didn't make it clear enough where they come down on the issue, Rogers and company will elaborate on the ultimate message about freedom and self-reliance. They didn't set out to be meaningful. Like Rogers says, "[I]t just happened. Cabarets are supposed to have some sort of commentary and satire so I went with it."

"The problem has been around so long! Satire is a legitimate way of raising awareness about it," Hancock interjects. "I've been seeing homeless people under the interstate bridge on Broadway for as long as I can remember." The others agree that, far from exploitation, the Boozehounds' fascination with substance abuse, unemployment, hunger and non-existent health care is more about "whistling through the graveyard."

Tim Eisinger plays the group's laconic guitarist Freddie Firecracker in the Boozehound show. The snaggle-toothed "mayural" candidate Legz Chiggins, played by Greg, thumps doghouse bass and is the love object in a triangle with frowzy Maude Maplehurst (Honaker) and club singer-on-the-lam-for-murder Lulu Skidoo (Sanders). The promise of a catfight is teased a little more by their rivalry as alpha-chick singers. Greg spends rehearsal with a tambourine around his ankle to make good use of Legz' delirium tremens-powered shaky leg. Their old friend from back home in "Chicagoland," Justin Powers, was drafted to beef up the musical component of the group with his harmonica and banjo. Powers' plays Smacks Cobblecorn, whose stage-y basso profundo is a perfect counterpoint to Lulu's Betty Boop-like voice. Rounding out the cast is Valerie Wallace's trampy terpsichorean, Lovenia Bellvue.

Recent rehearsals were consumed with simultaneously prepping for Friday's show at Ironwood Studios as well as a gig last month at the Bijou Theater, where they undertook the risky task of emceeing a rock show. Also in the mix is a future re-enactment of the story of Noah's ark. The Boozehound version takes place on a crappy old raft on the Tennessee River that will save "one of each type of person." The Ironwood date should incorporate the group's labyrinthine mythology, factoring in the legendary Skunk Ape, evil pharmacist Pritchard Hemlock, and the group's deceased matriarch, Mamaw, whose offstage burial site is a lodestar for Boozehound shenanigans.

But the center of the story is Boozehound co-creator Bran Rogers. Rogers plays Chaz Davenport IV, the ne'er-do-well scion of a mortuary empire who dropped out one day and hopped the Three Rivers Rambler, not realizing it was just a tourist ride that brought him right back to Knoxville. Rogers' co-host is longtime creative partner Jenna Hancock, aka Billie "Blue-Eyes" McGhee, whose romantic interest is the dubiously gendered Frankie (Amy Clowers Rickels). Rickels is the only novice performer in the group, but you'd never know it from the fearless way she presents the androgynous waif Frankie or her inventive, aggressive use of ordinary objects for percussion. At rehearsal, she enjoys a new toy—a Cajun triangle that is weirdly resonant when she sticks a beer bottle into it. In performance, she'll have an array of metallic found objects or plastic buckets. "Mow the Carpet," a Boozehound show-stopper, is about the dark attraction between goofy gamine Billie and Little Rascals-esque Frankie.

Clearly, these people are hobosexuals and proud of it.