Woof, woof! The Muttville Comix come to town
MIDDLEBURY — Audience members take their seats, the house lights dim, then the stage lights, queue the music and the cast takes the stage — it’s another performance at Town Hall Theater. But on Saturday, Nov. 24, the curtain will rise on a cast that drools, sheds and walks on four legs (most of the time). That’s right, dogs.
Sixteen canines of all shapes and sizes will join Johnny Peers on Saturday for the Muttville Comix’s second performance at the Middlebury theater. They first came to the Town Hall Theater in January 2017.
This year, the Muttville Comix gets the Saturday after Thanksgiving — a prime spot.
“We used to have the internet cat video festival on the Saturday after Thanksgiving,” explained marketing manager Haley Rice. “It was a funny act that was good for the whole family. Unfortunately the show was discontinued in 2016.”
The Town Hall Theater tried a bow wow festival of dog videos, but that didn’t quite take off. The Muttville Comix act, however, was a huge hit — Rice said they sold out the show last year, and so they’re very excited to have Peers back.
“Lots of people have family in town for Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s important that the show on Saturday is something everybody will like, from grandma to little kids.”
Peers and the Muttville Comix fits the bill.
Unique? Yes. Entertaining? Definitely. A spectacle? For sure. Hilarious? You betcha.
But the show doesn’t explain, how, exactly, Peers got into comedy with dogs over 40 years ago. For that, we started at the beginning.
Johnny Peers didn’t exactly have a “normal” childhood. Well, unless you call traveling around with the circus “normal.” No? I didn’t think so. Instead of lunch boxes and arithmetic, young Peers traveled the country with his dad working their concession stand at the circus.
“My father was a concession man,” Peers explained by phone last week. “You know, toys, novelties, cotton candy… that kind of stuff.”
They lived on the road mostly, and followed the circus.
“What it does is it makes you wise to the world,” Peers said of his upbringing. “It teaches you that you can’t take anything at face value; you’ve got to be prepared for anything on the road… Like for example, I’ve seen albino midgets hitchhiking — no I’m just kidding.”
When Peers was working with his dad, he befriended the clowns and began learning their tricks.
“They’re the ones who convinced me to go to clown college,” he said. The Ringling Brothers Clown College to be precise, where Peers graduated when he was 17 years old.
At first Peers had a comedy act without dogs. Then one fateful day in the early ’70s, Peers decided to bring his first puppy, Freckles — a Beagle mix from the Humane Society — on stage.
“People seemed to like it,” said Peers, remembering those days as a 20-something living in New York. “I think people like it when they think the dogs are getting the best of you… They’re actually trained but the act can seem unorganized.”
Since their 1980 debut, the Muttville Comix have appeared on “David Letterman,” “Primetime Live” and “Circus of the Stars,” as well as at Disneyland, Busch Gardens, the Big Apple Circus, the Royal Hanneford Circus, even The White House.
Saturday’s show stars dogs mostly rescued from shelters, like Daphne, the world’s only skateboarding Basset Hound; Squeaky, the ladder climbing Fox Terrier; Mr. Pepe, who only responds to commands in Spanish; and Sir Winston, the Pointer mix who only answers to “Sir.”
“Noodles (the Basset Hound) does whatever he can to get out of the show,” Peers laughed. “He’s a scatterbrain, so I work around him… Junior, a Jack Russell mix — he’s the star of the show; and Lady, she’s a real up-and-comer.
“Total, there are 16 dogs in the show, unless one is watching Animal Planet that day,” Peers joked. “They have me wrapped around their finger.”
But in all seriousness, Peers puts in a lot of time and effort to have such obedient pups. All 16 of them sit patiently on a bench on stage, awaiting their time in the spotlight.
“A lot of people ask me how I train them,” Peers said, who lives with all the dogs 24-7 either at his home in Florida or on the road. “I just play around with them every day. First you become their friend and then they become your friend. It’s the trust factor — that’s really important. I guess that’s basically how I do it, but it feels more like play to me.”
And what happens when a doggie puts a paw out of line?
“Velcro on the seat,” Peers said, half-joking. “I’m constantly looking back to see what’s going on.”
“There are no secrets,” he said. “The dogs normally come up to me and tell me what they want to do. You just have to be able to read them.”
After 40 years (or so) in the biz, Peers has gotten pretty good at that. But that’s only part of what keeps this show going.
“I like to make people laugh,” he said. “To see them enjoying the dogs and what they’re doing, and to see people having a good time. There are a lot of rewards in this business… It’s the old saying ‘labor of love’ — that applies to me.”
Saturday’s shows are for the whole family and the dog lover in all of us. There will be two performances, at 1 and 4 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for those 18 and under in advance; and $2 more expensive at the door (plus fees). Call (802) 382-9222 or visit townhalltheater.org for tickets and more info.