There is some confusion regarding the actual birthdate of Beer & Skits. The confusion is understandable if you are aware that the hottest debate regarding the date of the first show was between the show’s two founding fathers. Nathan Zimmerman and George Waight, the proud parents, never publicly agreed on a date since none was printed on the very first program.
In 1933, the Sock and Buskin Club, located next door to the old Dominion Theatre (demolished in 1939, the Dominion was a vaudeville theatre on the corner of Portage and Main on the spot where the Richardson Building now stands), held a peculiar evening entertainment – a poetry festival. The winner of this competition was Nathan Zimmerman, a writer for The Winnipeg Tribune. He had done a recitation from Robbie Burns and, now that he had become a “prize-winning performer”, suggested that the Sock and Buskin Club and the Winnipeg Press Club (of which he was a member and, later, president) get together and produce an evening of satirical sketches. The following year, 1934, Beer & Skits was launched.
Perhaps a brief note about the Sock and Buskin Club is in order. By definition socks and buskins were worn by actors in ancient times – a sock being pretty much what we know it as today and a buskin being a knee-length soft leather boot. Sock and Buskin Clubs were popular in many turn-of-the-century universities where would-be actors and performers staged “interesting” entertainments, often fueled by quantities of spirits. It’s easy to see how this bawdy behaviour would have led to the earliest Beer & Skits performances.
The formula for a Beer & Skits show remained largely unchanged throughout its first 50 years. The Winnipeg Press Club, being an all-male establishment (women were finally allowed to join in 1984), would have hosted rowdy evenings awash in beer and swathed in cigar smoke. Movers and shakers of the time would swill the suds, get blotto and watch an all-male cast (with plenty of dressing in drag) who were, for the most part, equally blotto. When the first female members “darkened” the doors of the WPC, the general consensus was that Beer & Skits was dead. There was even a 50th anniversary farewell. Most thought it was the end of the show. Not so. In fact, women added a certain element of raunchy behaviour that was, until then, unexplored. And as they filled out the cast, so too did they fill out the audience. So, the bar was raised, production values went up and the nude photos of women that had once graced the pages of the show’s program disappeared.
In its next 25 years, Beer & Skits went through a number of evolutionary changes. To some of the “die hards”, there was a sense that the very attributes which made Beer & Skits popular were being squashed by political correctness. Some grudgingly accepted the harsh reality that the raw comedy which originally made the show so popular may no longer be acceptable or even funny. An exodus of writers and actors gave the impression that the show had, indeed, run its course.
In the late 90s, the show began another evolution. No longer were members of the media eager to cavort on stage in skimpy costumes or provide glimpses of their “off camera” behaviour, no matter how private the show appearedwith the Brass Rail Rule (essentially, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas). People began showing up at Cattle Call (a euphemism for auditions) who were talented – they could sing, act and dance, but were not recognizable media personalities. More of the “old guard” packed it in saying Beer & Skits could not possibly survive this renaissance. After all, they claimed, if Winnipeg audiences could not see their favourite news anchor half-naked and singing off-key, the show was doomed.
As it turned out, the entertainments being offered on television and on stages throughout the country at that time showed that clever writing and good staging combined with people who could perform was precisely what worked; that satire was very much alive and people were eager to watch this genre provided it could be delivered in a manner that didn’t require the audience to be half in the bag while they enjoyed the show.
Attitudes were changing on more than one front. The older media personalities who had once strutted their Beer & Skits stuff retired from the public eye. Younger members of the media did not understand the unique nature of this show and were not as eager to join the cast. The Winnipeg Press Club, an institution struggling to remain relevant in an age of the Internet and electronic media, suffered from a critical lack of enthusiasm. When the time to take stock came, the WPC could not sustain its programming, and Beer & Skits was in jeopardy.
So, the cast and crew rescued it from the brink.
The future of the show has now been placed squarely in the hands of the players themselves. The BS Comedy Players honours the history of the show while understanding that, in the end, it is about delivering an entertaining night of live, musical sketch comedy – written, directed and performed in front of an intelligent audience and a collection of “good sport” VIPs. By incorporating and placing the onus to succeed directly on themselves, the cast, crew and volunteers know precisely what’s at stake.