Quite the spectacle

By Allan I. Ross

Lansing Vaudeville band embarks on weeklong, statewide tour for documentary

There are some natural complications that go along with being a 15-piece gypsy folk band, and being about 80 years out of time is only one of them. Stage size is obviously a key issue, as is the coordination of more than a dozen independent work and personal schedules.

“Not to mention transportation,” said Dylan Rogers, leader of the Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle, a local 15-piece New Orleans/Eastern European-infused group that’s two parts musical ensemble, one part carnival sideshow act. “Every show is a challenge.”

But apparently, not enough of one to keep him from stretching the bounds of prudence even further. In two weeks, Rogers, 26, and his bandmates will embark on their first tour, a romp up the west side of the state through the Upper Peninsula that will consist of six shows in seven days.

“The farthest venue we’ve played so far has been Jackson, and that was a there-and-back deal,” Rogers said. “This tour has taken about a year of planning.”

It starts June 6 when the band departs from north Lansing breakfast joint Golden Harvest for Founder´s Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids for a 9 p.m. show. The next day, it’s off to Short´s Brewing Co. in Bellaire for an 8 p.m. set. Day 3, the band crosses the Mackinac Bridge for a filming day in the U.P., which includes stops at the Oswald Bear Ranch in Newberry and Ore Dock Brewing Co. in Marquette. After that, LUVS plays the Keweenaw Brewing Co. in Houghton at 6 p.m., followed by the Calumet Theatre show the next evening at 7.

LUVS’ stop there will be a return to vaudevillian form for the theater, which was built in 1900. In its heyday, luminaries including world-renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt and the March King himself, John Philip Sousa performed there.

“I saw (the band) on YouTube and thought they were a perfect fit for us,” said Laura Miller, executive director of the Calumet Theatre. “There’s a lot of excitement building around their show.”

After that, the band heads south with a 7 p.m. performance June 11 at the Vista Theatre in Negaunee and wraps it up at the Erickson Center at 7 p.m. June 12 in Curtis. On June 13, LUVS crosses the bridge again and heads back to Lansing. In all, the band will cover more than 1,200 miles of Michigan highway and back roads. (See map, left.)

“There are actually a couple more places I was in touch with but we weren’t able to work out a schedule,” Rogers said. “We wanted to play, they wanted us, but because of our (schedule), we had to pick and choose. But that leaves room for another tour next year.”

Over the last two years, Rogers grew LUVS from his one-man barker act on street corners around town to the full-blown quindectet it is today. As the band grew, its look and sound began to co-opt that of a traveling vaudeville show, which included period clothing, a vintage-looking backdrop and — yep — a dancing Michigan costume. They also attracted a dedicated following, including student Ariel Vida.

“I caught the very end of their show at last year’s East Lansing Art Festival, and I was instantly captivated by them,” Vida said. “I liked their music, but I also really enjoyed their aesthetics, and as a filmmaker, they really intrigued me.”

Vida, 22, recently graduated from Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. Initially she wanted to shoot a music video for LUVS, but a pesky project — a feature length film she wrote, produced, directed and edited — was her priority. (That film, “Sleep, Wake, Forget” is in its final stages of post-production.)

“By the time I was able to (focus on LUVS), they had started planning this tour, and Dylan asked me if I might be interested in following them and shooting it as a documentary,” Rogers said. “I was immediately on board. If they hadn’t asked me, I would have asked them.”

Vida said the film will consist of concert footage, backstage activities and short skits and vignettes catered to each of the band members’ personalities. She’s not going into it with a storyline — or even a title — in mind, but she thinks both will probably emerge in the editing process.

Vida will shoot most of the action on a RED Scarlet digital camera, giving the LUVS doc a cinematic feel. RED cameras are a popular Hollywood camera, with recent high-profile films including “42” and “The Great Gatsby” (although neither of those was on a Scarlet). The grant doesn’t cover the cost of electronics, but that’s fine — Vida bought the $30,000 set of camera equipment outright for her independent film. She said she thinks the movie should be completed by September and plans to submit it to film festivals throughout the state, and quite possibly some of the bigger national ones like South by Southwest. If nothing else, it has the unique factor going for it.

“There aren’t a lot of documentaries coming out about vaudeville bands touring rustic areas,” she deadpanned. “So I think we’ll definitely stand out.”

Rogers received a $2,500 grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs to shoot the film, which will cover production costs, marketing, festival entry fees and some of the band’s traveling expenses. Which brings us back to the original dilemma: how does he plan on getting all those drums, horns, vibraphones, ukuleles, kazoos, band members and backup singers from Lansing to Calumet?

“We ended up getting the most extravagant 40-foot RV we could find,” Rogers said. “We dipped into our funds and blew a ton of money we really shouldn’t have, but fuck it — it’s going to fit most of the band.”

The vehicle is a 2007 Fleetwood Bounder, worth about $180,000, that Rogers is renting for a week for $1,500. It comes complete with a washer, dryer, four-burner stove and wood accents.

“It’s the swankiest thing any of us have seen,” Rogers said. “It’s almost three times the price of the house I live in, and all these dirty gypsies are going to be living in it for a week.”

Because it’s a rental, LUVS won’t be able to decorate the RV’s exterior. In fact, the learning curve on how it handles on the open road will be a steep one.

“We’re picking it up the night before we leave, and the (owner) doesn’t know a bunch of vaudeville folks are going to tour the U.P.,” Rogers sheepishly admitted. “I told him it’s just my wife and I and maybe a couple friends. But I’m going to tell him when I drop it off — spotless — that there’s this documentary coming out this fall that maybe he should watch.”

June 6: Founder´s Brewing Co., 235 Grandville Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. 9 p.m.

June 7: Short´s Brewing Co., 121 S. Bridge St., Bellaire. 8 p.m.

June 8: Filming Day — including stops at Oswald Bear Ranch (13814 Country Road 407, Newberry) and Ore Dock Brewing Co. (114 Spring St., Marquette)

June 9: Keweenaw Brewing Co., 408 Sheldon Ave., Houghton. 6 p.m.

June 10: Calumet Theatre, 340 6th St., Calumet. 7 p.m.

June 11: Vista Theatre, 218 Iron St., Negaunee. 7 p.m.

June 12: Erickson Center, 9246 Saw-Wa-Quato St., Curtis. 7 p.m.