Goodbye, satirists 

The Montana Logging and Ballet Co. takes a final bow

That does a group that calls itself the Montana Logging and Ballet Company have to do with South African apartheid? In 1990, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmonde Tutu visited Helena and, when asked by a reporter why the normally South African-based activist would travel all the way to the capital of Montana, he simply replied, "It is the one with the Montana Logging and Ballet Company."

A musical comedy troupe that combines ripped-from-the-headlines commentary, catchy songs and hopeful yet self-deprecating humor, The Montana Logging and Ballet Co. paved the way for the cheeky satire of contemporary political satirists like "The Daily Show"'s Jon Stewart. And after 38 years, the nationally renowned comedy group with the goofy name is calling it quits.

Although they don't log or perform ballet and they originally went through several name changes before settling on their moniker, the title of Montana Logging and Ballet Co. is somehow fitting. The troupe's songs juxtapose a folky, old-school a capella sound with jokes based on events that are both current (when they were written anyway) and local. The group would often read about the events happening in the place they were about to perform and write songs and sketches to incorporate commentary about these events into their performances. Throwback music specific about the news of the day isn't quite as bizarre as seeing a logger in a tutu, but it's pretty close.

The subject matter of Montana Logging and Ballet Co.'s music and sketch comedy runs the gamut of broad to specific, as songs like "Another Road Begins"and "Before I Die" comment on the cyclical, repeating nature of both the political realm and human nature. "Take the Barriers Down" focuses squarely on racism and the apartheid in South Africa.

It was through "Take the Barriers Down" that the scrappy troupe of Billings natives managed to attract the attention of Archbishop Tutu. As the story goes, the four met the archbishop at the first United Methodist Global Gathering in Louisville, Ky. in 1987. Composing "Take the Barriers" in honor of the visiting activist, the troupe managed to get the archbishop to join them in Helena for a benefit concert where they raised close to $1 million for college scholarships.

click to enlarge How to balance the budget. “Money Fight” is a sketch by the seasoned Montana Logging and Ballet Co.
  • How to balance the budget. “Money Fight” is a sketch by the seasoned Montana Logging and Ballet Co.

The quartet originally met while attending Rocky Mountain College in 1967 and connected through a mutual love of theater and politics. Each member brought a different perspective and skill set to the troupe. Steve Garnaas-Holmes is a United Methodist pastor who has written and composed music for the United Methodist Book of Hymns. His brother Tim Holmes is a sculptor and filmmaker whose work has been collected by former president Jimmy Carter and Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Bob FitzGerald doubled as both a troupe member and manager and Rusty Harper is cited as Montana Logging and Ballet Co's ever important "idea man." Their performances eventually became a monthly staple of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.

So why close up shop after all these years? Alas, if there is one barrier this stalwart collective of musicians and comedians could not take down, it's age. "When professional quarterbacks can't get out of bed in the morning anymore, they know it's time to retire," notes FitzGerald. "That goes double for musicians."

The Montana Logging and Ballet Company performs its iconic comedy, original music and satire as part of its farewell tour at UM's Dennison Theatre Wed., Sept. 19, at 7:30 PM. The show benefits Family Promise of Missoula, a nonprofit interfaith network of Missoula congregations serving homeless families with children. $30 general admission/$40 reserved seating/$90 reserved stage-front seating, with tickets available through GrizTix and its Missoula outlets. Nonperishable food items also will be collected at the show for the Missoula Food Bank.

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