The first thing you will notice about the Beverly Heights Variety Show, celebrating its 50th season in our very serious and puritanical age, is that its billing as an Adult Comedy Extravaganza! is neither serious nor puritanical. This evening of playfully naughty double entendre may be as out of place in our wokeful world as a ring of kubie at a vegan restaurant, but who cares?
Look a little deeper and you’ll find 125 dedicated volunteers and amateur performers who know how to put on an annual show that fills 150 seats a night for 12 weekend nights, this year stretching from Feb. 21 to March 27. At $20 a ticket and $5 for drinks – served at your seat if you wish – that adds up to a lot of community funding for kids sports or activities for seniors.
It also adds up to a whole lot of fun. Judging from past performances, audiences from all over town and even outside Edmonton have a ball. And perhaps best of all – yaba-daba-doo – the comedians, singers, dancers and others create a night out that is not for children. They are best left with a babysitter.
Consider, for example, this skit from the show in the year 2000, taken from a clip on the event’s website:
Master of Ceremonies: “Do you have any children?”
The late Edmonton comedian Peter Chmiliar in full accent as Slawko: “We don’t have any children; my wife uses protection.”
MC: “What kind of protection?”
Slawko: “A shotgun!”
And the adult audience, clearly well into the spirits of the evening, howls in delight.
For many years, Gabe Keller played straight man to Chmiliar, who died at the age of 85 in 2010.
The next-door neighbours teamed up as a comedy duo, loosely based on Dan Rowan and Dick Martin of Laugh-In, the popular counterculture TV show.
“Everything I would say, he would take it the wrong way, of course,” Keller says.
Their first skit was for an annual show put on by their own Wellington Community League. It was about golf.
“And it just kept growing and every year we had to write one of these things for the show,” he says. “One on pool, one on baseball, one on bullfighting. We even did one on bowling, though I don’t know why.”
Beverly Heights residents Judy and Lawrence Jacobs went to one of their shows in 1970 to see if they could borrow the fundraising idea for their own community league. Keller remembers chatting with them “and the next thing you know, Peter and I had talked our way into coming over into writing, directing and producing the show.”
“When we talked about it that first night, everybody seemed to be on the same page,” Keller says. “We just wanted to have something to bring the community together – for the community adults to do together, because we already did so much for the kids.”
Keller, who worked in the food wholesale industry, has seen big changes in humour over the years. While mainstream sexual humour is now often vulgar, ethnic humour has become a social taboo.
“We were able to take liberties with the ethnic part of things,” he says. “It seemed that the Ukrainian population just really ate up anything that we would do. And Peter was the master. He could throw in the odd slang word and people would grab it. So, we just kept on playing on that stuff.
“There were people who would come up and ask 'why you didn’t tell anything about me?'.”
He also recalls that one his favourite annual traditions were the parties for cast and crew. One person was even delegated to bring the bacon and eggs.
“They said, “Hell, you’re going to be here for breakfast,” Keller recalls. “The party is going to go all night.
“I remember going home from that party and my wife and I walked up to the house and there is my son with his hockey gear. He said ‘Dad, you didn’t forget.”
But then, Edmonton has always been a city where friends open their homes to others and the variety show created a lot of friendships.
“The reality was that you had to put your name in after a show because there was a list if you wanted to go to somebody’s house,” Judy Jacobs says. After working to organize the first show, she stayed on for another quarter century.
Putting on those first shows wasn’t easy. The old hall was built before Beverly amalgamated with Edmonton in 1961 and had few facilities, not even a proper bar, which was rented for the show.
“If you can imagine trying to get a liquor permit for something like this,” she says. “We had a hell of a time of it. We rented a scaffold so we could have a spotlight. We literally borrowed a lot of technical equipment from wherever we could get it – AGT or Edmonton Telephones.”
She also remembers paying rent to the City of Edmonton for every hour the hall was used.
“It wasn’t until late 1974 that we were able to negotiate the purchase of this hall,” she says. “It cost, if I’m not mistaken, somewhere around $170,000 and it was only through the variety show and other fundraising that we were able to do it.”
The show’s adult comedy theme also unexpectedly turned neighbours into performers. Dads signed up for the humorous men’s dance performance. And after the first Dance of the Seven Veils routine proved to be a success, many moms couldn’t wait to join the fun.
“What impressed me back then is that there was nothing dirty in any of the shows, not in Wellington and not in Beverly Heights,” Jacobs says. “It was very suggestive, but it was how you took it. That’s what appealed to me because I didn’t like the smut.”
She fondly remembers Chmiliar, a government administrator, as a man completely different than Slawko, the loud, accented character he portrayed in performance.
“In real life he was a gentleman and there was never a bad word out of his mouth,” she says. “He was very respectful and gentle right to the very end when he had trouble remembering his lines.”
That first winter the community put on four shows and most of the tickets were sold out before the material was even written. And the show only grew in popularity, despite bad reviews in the local weekly.
“They were coming by busloads from Vegreville, Mundare,” Jacobs says. “They would line up outside in minus 20.”
One year Nestor Pistor (comedian Don Ast) showed up and another time, Stompin’ Tom Connors, who happened to be in Edmonton, was persuaded to take the stage for an impromptu song.
Keller and Chmiliar also enjoyed some local success because of the show. They made several comedy albums together, some recorded at the Beverly show.
The following is a declaration of love Keller urged husbands to recite to their wives, recorded live for their album, “The Last Tango in Vegreville.”
“Friends may come, and friends may go,
And friends may peter out you know.
But I’ll be yours through thick and thin
Peter out and peter in.”
For information on tickets, including a first night gala, as well as show times, please go to:
or call 780-4713600