It's 9:20 on a Wednesday morning. Ann Szalda-Petree slides into a booth in the sun-dappled atrium of the University Center and pops a hummus-smeared cracker into her mouth. "Healthy is my middle name," she says, chewing on the cracker. "I've been doing some tooth grinding so I need some hummus to warm up." She starts to laugh at her own joke, spraying bits of food onto the table. Teresa Waldorf leans into Ann, cackling gleefully as the two begin swapping cracks about bite guards and dentist chairs.
Slap some headphones on them and break out a couple of microphones, and you have "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show." Every Wednesday morning, these two middle-aged moms turn the University of Montana's campus radio station, KBGA 89.9, into their own comedy foxhole, filling an hour with sketches, interviews, boundless repartee and spontaneous songs. "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" is balls-to-the-wall, seat-of-your pants radio, and these two have it dialed in.
On-air, they exhibit the kind of easy flow that comes mostly from hard work. Their weekly high-wire act is supported by decades of experience and training in a variety of disciplines, but mostly it's that rare quality called chemistry. They might be working without a net, but they're gripping that tightrope with monkey feet.
"They are a yin and a yang," says Clark Grant, who has produced "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" since its inception in 2009. "It's not about either one of them, individually. The show is larger than either of them. Teresa uses her theater training to make the guests comfortable, then Ann uses her strengths as a psychologist and hits them with a deep question."
The jokes come fast and furious, mostly at the hosts' own expense. They both sing, beautifully. They make up "Nuggers": two words combined into one, like "shafotion" (shameless self-promotion) and "stipples" (stretched nipples). Nuggers itself is a combination of "nut huggers," a reference to Steve Perry's satin pants. They play "Where'd You Get That Bad Aleck Album," a competition to see who brings in the most obnoxious yardsale LP. Teresa always wins.
They also interview guests, and happily take credit for "discovering" all kinds of local talent from Asaph Adonai (aka The Grocery Store Liberace), to Red Dress, two high school girls who recently made their singing debut on the show. Their free-wheeling interviews are typically conducted with little or no preparation, and they have been known to assault guest musicians with parodies of their own songs, usually off the cuff. "Songs Made Up On the Spot is our favorite segment," says Ann.
Missoula poet Sheryl Noethe was on the show this spring. Any reasonable song-maker-upper would be rightfully intimidated in the presence of Montana's former poet laureate, but Ann and Teresa are not normal. When Noethe was in the studio a few weeks ago, the hosts wasted no time in treating their listeners to a song about their affection for Noethe and her work.
Ann: "Oh Sheryl, you want to be on our show, I wish you didn't have to go. Because, Sheryl, I'm kind of in awe of you, and all the poetry stuff you do."
Teresa: "She came, she went, she ran, she read us poems. She's kind of like psalms. She's got long hair, she's dressed like a referee today. That's all I've got to say."
They swap verses while Ann strums her Taylor acoustic. If the rhymes are awkward, they don't care. They're always moving toward the next joke. To witness them lock eyes across the control board to surf a wave of comedy is a wondrous and powerful thing. And maybe a little frightening. Especially at 8:00 a.m. on a weekday.
"You know why these two are so chipper this early in the morning?" says Noethe during a station break. "They're stoned. They were in a van out in the parking lot smoking a joint as big as my arm."
This brings a bark of laughter from Teresa. "If I was stoned I'd be asleep right now!" When they return from the break, Noethe reads an elegy from her book. Being an elegy, it is not funny. Ann ignores the control board, which she is trying to learn to operate, and focuses her entire being on the poet. Teresa, her back to the window that looks out on the green expanse between the UC and the Mansfield Library, rocks back and forth, absorbing the verse. When Noethe finishes, Teresa heaves a big sigh.
Ann's eyes well up. "That," she stammers into her mic, a small tremor in her voice, "that ... that's almost a movie."
Their genuine interest in other people and their art is at the core of the duo's chemistry, and it's one of the reasons "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" has lasted five years as KBGA's Wednesday morning juggernaut, providing some early morning laughter—and occasional tears—to so many Missoulians as they drive their kids to daycare or head off to work.
If Missoula's theater community has an A-list, Teresa Waldorf is near the top of it. Acting and directing, standup and improv, comedy or drama—she's tackled it all.
Growing up in Nebraska, she got involved in drama in school and she says it quickly became the center of her existence. After "a childhood full of constant and elaborate pretend characters," she came to Missoula and earned her master's in theater in 1991. Since then she has been running a summer acting camp for grade school kids, as well as giving acting lessons, teaching drama at UM and indulging her inner Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney with frequent cries of, "Hey, kids, what do you say? Let's put on a show!"
Last fall she directed and acted in Wonder of the World, a shoestring-budget "screwball tragicomedy" about Annie Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. The play attracted some of the top actors in Missoula to its cast, including David Mills-Low, Rosie Seitz Ayers and the late Justin Fatz.
"We're lucky to live in a place where, if you decide you want to make something happen, you can probably find a space that's relatively affordable and 50 to 70 people will come. That's enough," she says.
With her husband, Rick, an IT specialist and working musician, she has two boys, a junior at UM and a high school senior. Despite the hectic home life of a working mom, Teresa is consistently upbeat, exuding an animated, life-of-the-party energy peculiar to theater people. But there's also a touch of that Midwestern reserve that Johnny Carson—a fellow Midwesterner—was known for. It's a slight aloofness that protects her from revealing too much about herself.
"I'm a very moderate person. I'm a true Midwesterner," she says. "We just don't talk about anything that's wrong. I don't invite drama into my life. I just do not engage."
She has stage presence to burn, but explains that the roles she plays are quite removed from her real self. She is no Method actor. "You pull from a lot of different places (when playing a role)," she says. "You can't deny that you're pulling from this deep place of all this wealth you've been collecting. There's sense memory and concentration and all this stuff, but I am a compartmentalizer. Always have been. I can get into that place and step out of it. Some people stay in that place for days. I could never do that. It would cost me too much emotionally. The only instrument you have is you. You're not a canvas and paint. You're not a guitar. You're it. You've got to take care of that medium."
Where Teresa plays it close to the vest, Ann Szalda-Petree wears her heart on her sleeve. Make that both sleeves, wrist to armpit. "Teresa doesn't fall in love every day like I do," says Ann, the younger of the two by eight years. "Also she's not easily awed like I am. I can be awed by somebody playing a D chord."
Ann's "real job" as a therapist, coupled with a bottomless pool of natural empathy, gives her the tools to be a great interviewer.