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STAGE : Cult Classics <i> Not</i> on the Screen : Plays like ‘Zombie Attack’ and ‘Tamara’ can run for years, preserving theaters and drawing a new audience to the art form

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent conibutor to Calendar</i> .

They’re baaaack! Hungry for mayhem, thirsty for ghoulish thrills, they flock to the same spot every week in a rare ritual of devotion.

No, it’s not a B-movie--or even the audience for one. The ranks of the faithful lined up outside the tiny building on Hollywood’s El Centro Avenue are actually waiting to see a sold-out, late-night theater performance.

This isn’t just “Zombie Attack” the play. Welcome to “Zombie Attack” the phenomenon.

Just when you thought only midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” drew a cult following, plays are doing it too. They’re taking on a life of their own with audience regulars and multi-year runs--even as they transform their host institutions and make careers in the process.

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Faster than a speeding house-papering service, more powerful than a Cultural Affairs grant, able to keep dinky theaters afloat with a single set, the cult hit is the theater producer’s Holy Grail.

They come in all shapes and sizes--from the $550,000, 7-year-old production of John Krizanc’s “Tamara"--where audiences schlep from room to room of the spiffed-up Hollywood American Legion Hall renamed Il Vittoriale--to the low-budget high-energy yuks of the Cast Theatre’s 2-year-old run of Justin Tanner and Andy Daley’s “Zombie Attack,” a B-movie spoof that follows three young couples who encounter adventures and a gaggle of the living dead on a weekend excursion to the woods. There’s no known way to pick these winners in advance. And anybody who could do it would have L.A. theater owners beating a path to their door.

Such runaway hits have been credited with keeping small theaters in business, stabilizing mid-size institutions and making work for scores of actors and administrators in the machines that spring up around mega-scale shows like “Tamara” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” They bring new audiences to a struggling art form.

“It’s also given us a nucleus, a semi-resident company who are the spiritual force in the theater,” says Cast’s artistic director, Diana Gibson, speaking of what “Zombie Attack” has meant to her enterprise. “I honestly don’t think I would have been able to continue with the theater after Ted (Schmidt, Cast founder) died in June, 1990, if (the “Zombie Attack” company) hadn’t been here.”

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Cult plays also bring out the crazies. Fans have staged letter-writing campaigns and publicity stunts to keep their pet plays from closing and made virtual careers out of attending the shows and buying souvenir paraphernalia. “Tamara,” for instance, has had several 50-foot banners swiped and does a respectable business in such items as $200-a-pop “Tamara” perfume.

The granddaddy of them all is San Francisco’s “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a camp musical sendup of pop culture famous for its extravagant costumes and gigantic hats that premiered at the North Beach area’s Savoy Tivoli in June, 1974.

Now in its 18th year, the production, which currently plays at the Club Fugazi, is touted as the longest-running musical revue in history. In 1984, it surpassed the record set by the Ziegfeld Follies; the 6,000th performance bowed last May.

Locally, the longest-running Equity-wage-paying production ever is the environmental “Tamara,” whose $1.5-million New York version opened at the Upper East Side’s Seventh Regiment Armory in September, 1987. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” which, like “Tamara,” has had incarnations in a number of U.S. and international cities, has been ensconced at the Ahmanson since May, 1989. Both big-ticket shows have attracted near-fanatic followers, many of whom scrimp to afford the pricey admissions.

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On a smaller commercial scale, “Love Letters” played 565 performances at Beverly Hills’ 383-seat Canon Theatre between April, 1990, and August, 1991, and recently returned for another run. The A.R. Gurney script features rotating pairs of well-known film and television actors in a readers’ theater-style presentation of nearly 60 years worth of fictional letters between New England childhood buddies Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.

It is, however, in the nonprofit and small-theater universe that the cult hit has the biggest impact. Beyond profits for backers, a show of this kind at this level can save an institution.

The San Diego Repertory Theater’s production of “Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know” opened in October, 1987, and closed in August, 1989.

“We have a history of running shows for a long time--but nothing like two years,” says the Rep’s press director Kirsten Brandt. “It helped our financial position at that time. We were coming out of a rough year of expansion and it helped us stabilize.” The Rep, which is once again in dire straits, could desperately use another such hit.

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L.A.'s venerable Westside theater, the Odyssey, has had two long-timers: Steven Berkoff’s “Kvetch,” now in its sixth year, and Gina Wendkos/Ellen Ratner’s “Personality,” which ran from 1987-90 and recently reopened.

“Shows like ‘Kvetch’ become events in themselves,” says Ron Sossi, Odyssey artistic director. “Through theater people seeing it and talking about it to their friends who are not theater people, after a year or so, it transcends the world of theater and becomes its own thing.”

The most obvious perk of a cult hit is the steady income. “Certainly in the first three or four years it was an enormous financial help,” says Sossi of “Kvetch.”

(“Six Women”) gave us a whole base of (new) people who were familiar with the theater,” says the San Diego Rep’s Brandt. “Thousands were converted to theater and it helped us build our subscriber base. People who hadn’t heard of the Rep or who didn’t generally attend theater thought, ‘Well, I better check that out.’ ”

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Yet even if a play ceases to mean box-office gold, it can offer other long-range rewards. “Kvetch,” for instance, hasn’t been a money-maker for some time, but Sossi keeps it going because the play continues to expand the Odyssey audience.

“It’s still bringing in people,” says Sossi. “People who are coming to see it in its sixth year obviously are not regular theatergoers or they would have seen it already.”

Such hits also develop the audience by bringing in younger people--especially with a show like “Zombie Attack,” where the cast and crew are redolent of talented twentysomethings, many of whom knew each other as students at L.A. City College.

“Demographically, we’re talking very much 18-36,” says Gibson, who has attributed the theater’s 20% increase in box office over the past year to the “Zombie Attack” following.

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For years the province of adults only, “Beach Blanket Babylon” added a Sunday matinee for the under-21 crowd in order to groom Bay Area acolytes early on.

“I can remember hearing about it back when I was 12 or maybe 14,” recalls John Balma, a press representative for the show who grew up in the greater Bay Area and saw his first “Beach Blanket” at 21. “I was too young to get in. But even then, you knew it was this thing you had to see.”

And since the matinee has been added, “Babylon"--like “Zombie Attack"--is proving a hit with the MTV generation. The “get ‘em while they’re young” strategy bodes particularly well for an art form whose traditional audience is aging, and which has to attract younger patrons to survive.

A cult hit, of course, is nothing without its repeat patrons--and groupies. They may not dress up in costume and shout the lines along with the cast as they do at screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but these followers are no less eager.

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“Beach Blanket Babylon,” which has a considerable repeat audience, is continually updated to keep ‘em coming back for more. “Steve (Silver, the show’s creator) latches onto whatever pop icons happen to be popping up and he’ll write them into the show,” Balma explains. “Just in time for ‘The Addams Family’ movie (for instance), there’s a bit in the show about that.” The current version also sends up such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Barbara Bush, Ivana Trump, Sonny and Cher, Madonna, Prince and Elvis Presley.

“Tamara” is constructed so that it’s impossible to see all of the play--with its multiple plot lines and simultaneous action in various rooms of the mansion--on any one trip. First-time attendees are issued passports that entitle the bearers to discounts on return trips. At least 10% of the “Tamara” audience has been there before, and after four visits you qualify as a “lifer,” which means you get in free on a weeknight when you bring a paying date.

“Love Letters” is able to keep theatergoers coming back for more with the rotating cast gimmick, which prompted patrons to come see their favorite celebrities.

A sure-fire recipe for a cult hit would do a world of good for any number of teetering L.A. theaters. Unfortunately, there’s neither an artistic nor a producing formula.

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There is no one subject matter or style that spells success. Several of the smaller/nonprofit productions, though, do emphasize camp humor and irreverence--be it the over-the-top antics of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” the pop culture parodies of “Zombie Attack” and “Six Women,” or what Sossi characterizes as the “dangerously risque” humor of “Kvetch.”

Yet even shows of this ilk aren’t shoo-ins. When the San Diego Rep staged Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show"--the stage play that inspired the mother of all cult hits, the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show"--it did well, but certainly not runaway business, playing a mere four months last summer.

One reason for the discrepancy between the two shows was that “Six Women” had a much smaller cast than “The Rocky Horror Show,” so it was easier for the theater to meet its costs.

Costs also deter shows from running for too long under the auspices of the Actors’ Equity 99-seat plan, which stipulates increased fees and payments to actors after the 80th performance.

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“Once we were past 80 shows, they basically want my first born male child and a quart of crankcase oil for each show,” jokes the Cast’s Gibson. “By our standards, it’s a stiff contract. Originally, we were doing four performances a week. Then, due to Equity and other things, we went to one performance a week, which usually sells out.”

The Odyssey never had those worries. Since both “Kvetch” and “Personality” opened when Equity Waiver was still the law of the land, the shows were not subject to the mildly more stringent requirements of the 99-seat system. “Had they been subject to it, both would have closed,” Sossi says.

If there’s any advice at all to be gleaned from the “Zombie Attack” phenomenon, it’s that energy counts for a lot. Between seven and 10 of the actors and others associated with the Cast show have been working on the production for its duration, and about 20 to 30 young women and men “help out and give it a sense of purpose,” according to Gibson.

Co-author Daley has become Gibson’s partner and the Cast’s production manager. He has built nearly every set at the theater this year, and performed in a number of plays as well.

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The physical plant at the venerable Hollywood institution best known for nurturing young writers is also looking a bit less shabby these days. There are new carpets, seats and even heating. But more important, “Zombie Attack” has brought a new generation of faces into the theater.

“This is what we imagined a theater could be when we were in our college drama departments,” says Gibson of the collective spirit and enterprise of the “Zombie Attack” gang and the audience they’ve brought to the Cast. “These kids are the future of American theater.”


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