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.
"Ann is genuinely interested in hearing other people's stories," Teresa says. "She just sucks it out of people. It's amazing to see it in action. She can get anyone to say anything."
"I do love to hear people's stories," Ann says. "During interviews I'm just unaware of anything else. It's just by the grace of God that I haven't dropped the F bomb (on-air) [more on this later]. And I believe every word that drips out of their mouths. Then later I look at Teresa and she says, 'That's the biggest bunch of bullshit I ever heard in my life. Did you see that look on his face?'"
The daughter of a Marine, Ann grew up in Lynnwood, Wash., the oldest of nine kids. Her sights were set on a microphone early on. "I love radio and I love music," she says. "I used to listen to the radio when it was 10 or 11, after everyone else was asleep, and think about what I would say or sing if I ever had the chance to be the one on the air."
After going to Seattle University on a volleyball scholarship, she came to Missoula in 1988 to earn her degree in psychology. She met her husband, Allen, her first day in Montana.
"He was an older, handsome, mysterious graduate student in experimental psychology," she says. "He had waist-length hair and a Junior Mint stuck to his jeans. For a month. There was something about him." They now have two sons—one who just graduated high school—and an eighth-grade daughter. "As our kids will attest, there is nothing quite like two psychologists raising children," she says.
Ann juggles a busy schedule, and she likes it that way. In addition to her therapy practice, she co-produces a weekly show called "Health and Spirit Radio," and took over the production reins for "In Other Words," the Montana Public Radio show that had been run by Beth Judy, among others, for 22 years.
"I think being born in 1965 affected me in a lot of ways: the war, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the unrest all around," she says. "I always wonder if all of that permeated me in utero. I rarely feel content."
As a therapist, she works primarily with severely emotionally disturbed children and their families as the clinical director at Partnership for Children. "It's rewarding work, but one needs good friends, a loving spouse, great kids, a good church, a comedy radio show, a band, a spiritual radio show, and a feminist radio show to get through it," she says. "I have all of those."
"The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" provides an invaluable creative outlet. "As a therapist, you get eaten up by being so open," says Ann. "You have to do these things like music, or other ways to express yourself, to be known for who you are instead of always trying to know everybody else."
Ann is the technophile of the pair, a self-described "gear head" who loves gadgets and technology. She's the one who posts each week's show to their website (theannandteresaandannshow.com) after it airs on KBGA. She also records video and audio of herself and her duo Blue Dream at open mics and other live performances. "I am obsessive about recording because I like working with it," she says. "I just like having sound in my hand. I don't think of it as an historical document so much, like for posterity. I just like fucking with it."
She also recently started a page on tumblr (aszalda.tumblr.com) where she posts photos, songs, videos, audio snippets and other bits from a life she finds endlessly interesting.
"I have a tumbler too," says Teresa. "It's a tumbler of gin and tonic. With extra lime."
Teresa has little patience for technology, and doesn't listen to recordings of their shows. She doesn't check how many views their website has or how many likes they're getting on Facebook. "Given the option to sit at a computer, sit and read, or pick dandelions, I would pick dandelions," Teresa says. "I'm good at that."
"The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" usually runs pretty smoothly, but with an anything-can-happen, improvised feel. It's a tricky balance to maintain their brand of planned spontaneity, and they weren't always this good at it.
Clark Grant worked as the program director at KBGA in 2009 when Ann called in to ask about having a radio show. She and Teresa had written and performed Parents Night Out: Sensory Overload, an eclectic, bizarre comedy show that featured such segments as "What's That In Your Mouth" and a "Visually Impaired Auction." The show was a fundraiser for Families First, done on the condition that then-Director Barb Cowan was not allowed to preview the material. The show was a hit, and other shows soon followed. At a friend's New Year's Eve party, Ann and Teresa proclaimed their mutual desire to do a radio show, and set out to conquer the airwaves.
Under the moniker Purple Bedroom Productions, they recorded a Father's Day special and shopped the tape around. Although the demo was roundly rejected by several commercial stations in Missoula, they kept their heads up. "Some people think we're funny," says Ann. (That credo became the show's tagline.) Then Ann called KBGA, Grant answered the phone and the fuse was lit.
"Right on," he said. "Yeah, you guys can have a show. Come on over. Tell me about it."
Ben Weiss served as KBGA's general manager at the time. "They were pitching their show as 'Car Talk,'" he recalls, "only with women, and not about cars." Weiss wanted to help them get on the air, but bristled at their brazen attitude. They insisted on doing a one-hour show in a station schedule built on two-hour programs. They demanded the 8:00 a.m. time slot. When asked to fill out a 20-song sample playlist, they entered "Journey" 19 times and then one song by Head East.
After reading the boundary-pushing titles of some of their planned segments ("Who's In My Mouth"), Weiss says he was "a little skeptical of their desire to ... treat the laws that govern the station's compliance with the feds in such a cavalier manner."
Once they took to the airwaves, though, he quickly became one of their biggest supporters. They stumble over the line from time to time, but thus far Ann and Teresa have avoided ruffling any FCC feathers. Of the two, Weiss says that Ann has always seemed more concerned with the regulations, chiding Teresa for swearing on-air or breaking the rules concerning event promotion and other public radio no-nos.
During a week last year when Grant was on a rare break, Weiss filled in on the board as the show's engineer/producer. Ann accidentally let an F-word slip, he says. It is a claim she flatly denies. Weiss failed to record the show (it's the only one not available in their website's archive), so we may never know the truth. But he stands by his story.
"To be there when Ann did it, I laughed with the full force of cosmic justice in my lungs," he says.
Weiss has seen enough on-air personalities come and go over the years to know that these two have a natural gift, an innate charisma that can't be learned or faked. He agrees with Grant that the contrast between their personalities is the key to their show's success.
"They are like Bert and Ernie, for adults, and not made out of felt," Weiss says. "This difference shows most when they interview other people, often performing artists themselves. Teresa gets them to talk about what they do; Ann gets them to talk about how they think about what they do. The result is that in a 10-minute interview with a local musician, the listener learns from Teresa's questions that the guy writes his own music, plays guitar and sings, and will be performing live the upcoming Friday at local bar X, and from Ann's questions that love for his favorite sports team can be traced back to a stuffed dolphin that protected him from the dark when he was an orphan."
By the time Weiss left KBGA in 2011, Grant had taken over as general manager. His responsibilities multiplied, but still he manned the board for "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" and functioned as a foil to the estrogen onslaught served up by these mavens of mayhem. It's clear that the three are good friends, though, and their relationship was cemented almost from the day they met.
"Clark insinuated himself on us," Teresa says of their initial meetings. "We're sitting there outside the UC for our DJ training, and he's just shaking his head. It was obvious that this was a kid that was desperate for some older female attention and was already basking in it. And we just instantly fell in love with him."
The indoctrination process was a comedy show in itself. Ann and Teresa reported for duty and learned that they would have to take production training. They found the FCC rules and regulations so funny they read them on the air at the first opportunity. One section of the rules deals with libel and slander, and it was impressed upon them repeatedly that you can't say anything about someone that isn't true. So they immediately cooked up a segment called "Stephanie Is a Drunk and a Liar."
"Well," says Teresa with a shrug, "she is."
"But then Clark taught us each to run the board," says Ann, "and we frustrated him so badly because we were doing things imperfectly and he would just say, 'I'll just do it.' That was awesome because then we could concentrate on just talking."
Grant focused on the technical issues, trying to engineer the show while also keeping the ladies within those FCC boundaries. At times it must have seemed like an English professor trying to teach syntax to a couple of parrots jacked up on Red Bull.
He gradually got pulled into the on-air banter, slipping into the role of beleaguered third wheel while running the board and answering phone calls from their growing audience. "We realized that after a year and a half that the show was functioning because they both had a common enemy," he says. "Me."
At first, he says, the two-against-one dynamic "seemed like a good device." But the women harangued him so relentlessly that he eventually clammed up. "There was a year or more where I just didn't speak."
"He was down to a series of grunts," Ann recalls, "and then silence. No matter how much we baited him." Did she use her therapist wiles to try and draw him out?
Grant laughs. "I refused to have my brain swept out by Ann."
While their on-air relationship was hilariously contentious, Ann and Grant became good friends and musical collaborators off the air. After their weekly post-show debriefing, Grant would give Ann a guitar lesson. Eventually, as she became more proficient on the guitar ("I practice a lot"), they went from teacher-student to musical partners, and began writing songs together.
Their duo Blue Dream is the result of that friendship. They released a CD of original songs last summer, and a follow-up is in the works. Blue Dream's music is as evocative as their name, full of languid, echoey guitar drones and layered soundscapes. That is, when they aren't playing one of Ann's eccentric songs like "Fur Flying Furry" or her proto-punk celebration of homonyms, "Dictator."
They've also learned the ropes of radio together, as Grant co-produces both the "Health and Spirit Radio" show and "In Other Words." "It pays the rent," he says.
When Grant came from Arkansas to attend UM, he didn't know a soul. He scored a job at KUFM, and got hooked on radio. "I started thinking, how am I ever going to get on the air? And someone mentioned campus radio. I met these people (at KBGA) and they became my family," he says.
Ann and Teresa came along soon enough and took the young French major under their wings. "I could never have imagined that these two women who walked through the door could provide me with so much joy, so much inspiration," he says. "I can't think of how many times I've had dinner at their houses."
His passion for public radio has propelled Grant into a new venture, the Butte America Foundation. The nonprofit organization plans on promoting social justice, and has received authorization from the FCC to construct a low-power FM station in Butte. Grant has moved to Butte, where he is working on setting up shop on the second floor of the Carpenters Union Hall. BAmF expects to launch some time in 2015.
Ann, like Ben, has been a driving force in BAmF, but the loss of her partner in music and radio production has been a tough blow. This spring, they devoted two consecutive shows to Grant's departure from the team. The trio reminisced about the countless funny, bizarre and emotional moments they have shared in their five years together.
"There's going to be acute sadness from across the room," Teresa said into her mic, not-so-subtly deflecting any angst she might be feeling over Grant's looming exit.
"I'm not sad, I'm totally fine," said Ann, a little too quickly. She changed the subject, telling Grant about some ideas she has for their new show on the Butte station when it's up and running. "Teresa and I have a show there, right? We get a show."
It's a statement, not a question.
"Sure," Grant said. "You just have to fill out a proposal, is all."
Ann sputtered with faux outrage. "I have bled for this station and he's gonna make me go through some kind of ... vetting to see if I can have a show!"
"I'm cool with that," said Teresa, not engaging. "I just want to phone it in."
Grant didn't budge, clinging to the high ground. "Terry Conrad always says that radio is a privilege, not a right," he said with his soft Arkansas twang. "So I don't think one little hoop is too much to ask, is it?"
Teresa came on: "We'll be right back with 'The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show'..."
Fans of their shows and podcasts will no doubt be wondering what direction "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" will take without Grant. Don't expect huge changes. The hosts realize that the magnetic chemistry between them is rare, and the change creates new possibilities. In other words, the comedy whole is greater than the sum of its talented parts, and "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" simply won't be denied. How long they can keep it going is, apparently, up to them.
"Nobody's ever going to ask them to quit," Grant says.
If they ever did leave the airwaves, says Teresa, they would still get together and do what they do. She would just set up a couple of microphones in her living room and they would pick up where they left off.
"All I want is snappy repartee," she says. "I don't even know if I need anyone to listen. If no one listened to 'The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show,' and as long as I got to have a microphone and Ann was right there, would I still do it? I think I would."This story was updated June 30 to correct Sheryl Noethe's status as Montana's former poet laureate. It was updated again on July 15 to reflect who worked on "In Other Words" over the years. in The Indy regrets the errors.