‘Knievel,’ a daring jump into theater

Special to The Times

Among the many firsts in the storied career of 1970s daredevil Evel Knievel -- the lines of cars, casino fountains and desert canyons he jumped, or nearly jumped, on his motorcycle -- one is too often overlooked.

Knievel was the first to jump the shark.

Yes, pop-culture junkies, it was Evel Knievel’s planned 1977 jump over a shark tank in Chicago that inspired the infamous “Happy Days” episode in which the Fonz did the same (in his case, on a pair of water skis). “Jumping the shark,” of course, has come to refer to the point when a TV series runs out of original ideas and grasps at any gimmick to fill airtime.

To his credit, Knievel got out of the game before he crossed that point of no return. He was seriously injured, and a cameraman lost an eye, during a test run for the shark-tank jump. He never did stunts again.


“There comes a time in a person’s life when they say, enough is enough,” says Jef Bek, a longtime Knievel fan and the composer-creator of “Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera,” which opens this week at the Bootleg theater. “People would come up to him and say, ‘Oh, I saw you jump the Grand Canyon,’ when in fact it was Snake River Canyon, or, ‘I saw you jump 100 cars,’ when in fact it was 15 cars. So he thought to himself, ‘Whatever I do, it won’t be enough for them -- I can’t live up to what they expect of me.’

“He also said, ‘Motorcycles don’t have wings.’ Which is a lyric that I took for the show.”

The through-sung rock opera, co-written with guitarist Jay Dover, has been a pet project of Bek’s for several years. A progressive-rock musician in Chicago, Bek (his given name is Jeff Beck, but he changed it to distinguish himself from the former Yardbirds guitarist) was bitten by the theater bug when he joined John Cusack’s New Crime Productions and learned that “you can really go out there when you’re doing music for the theater -- a great discovery for me.”

Later, as a member of the Los Angeles-based troupe Zoo District, Bek’s scores helped bring to life a smoldering Nosferatu, in a show of the same name, and accompanied the flight of a pig in 2000’s “The Master and Margarita.”

“If we were able to get a pig off the ground, I think we can manage to get a bike off the ground,” said Bek, 45, who ultimately envisions the show as a Las Vegas spectacle but for now is content to “focus on what we can do with low-tech and make it look high-tech, and to really focus on the story and the songs.”

Drama, yes; bike, no

To realize his vision in a small-theater context -- in other words, on a bare-bones budget of reportedly less than $10,000 -- Bek turned to Keythe Farley, an Actors’ Gang actor-director whose musical-theater claim to fame is as co-writer of the unlikely success “Bat Boy: The Musical.”


“The biggest challenge here is living up to the name,” said Farley, whose wife, Ann Closs-Farley, is doing the costumes. “With ‘Bat Boy,’ it was the reverse -- the compliment we got with that was, ‘Oh my God, it was so much better than I thought it would be.’ With ‘Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera,’ you expect to see motorcycles flying through the air, crashes, huge explosions. Well, can I do a giant rock-show spectacle for 25 cents and a pack of gum? I think I can.”

Farley helped Bek and Dover hone the script and score and ultimately vetoed one key staging element.

“If I could have a motorcycle, what would I do with it?” Farley said. “I realized, not much. You can’t fire it up onstage. It’s an 800-pound beast that becomes a gargantuan pain in the rear. So I hate to give anything away, but we’re using theater magic, the right lighting and video, to create a representation of flying.”

Far more important than the pyrotechnics, it would seem, is calibrating the piece’s tone. The story of Bobby “Evel” Knievel, a self-made salesman and daredevil from the mining town of Butte, Mont., is pure, uncut Americana, with a thick layer of ‘70s kitsch slathered on -- what witness of the ‘70s doesn’t remember his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit, complete with matching cape and helmet?

Filter this larger-than-life story through an earnest, wailing rock-opera score, and one has to wonder: Who’s jumping the shark here?

“I wanted to write something that was big and crazy and over-the-top and wild, just fraught with drama,” Bek conceded.

“My music, unintentionally, has this built-in drama to it. I don’t know why, but everything I write has this epic quality -- everything’s ‘grand,’ ” he said, drawing out the last word in a mock-English accent. “It’s that theatrical presence I always feel when I listen to a song by Yes or Genesis.”

As a “Bat Boy” co-author, Farley knows from irony. He’s found that the more he celebrates excess and the less he winks, the better the results.

“It’s sincere and gigantic,” Farley said of the show. “When you’re watching a guy get into a rocket and fly over Snake River Canyon, that’s an amazing event. What rock music can do is give you that raw emotion onstage. Hopefully, the surprising thing about ‘Evel’ is that you’ll end up feeling something. God willing, we’re going to touch your heart. I’m always wary of snickering.”

The mystery remains

Indeed, it was Bek’s boundless sincerity that won over Knievel himself when the composer first approached him in 2002. Now 68 and living in Florida, the retired daredevil is working on an autobiography, but he’s given Bek the musical stage rights to his life story.

“Nobody would put this much time into a rock opera without having a dream,” said Knievel, who knows something about outsized dreams. “I just took a liking to the guy.”

That personal rapport stood Bek in good stead when he insisted on portraying the lows as well as the highs of Knievel’s career, including a fair amount of boozing and womanizing. The bleakest point Bek depicts is the notorious incident in which Knievel beat a former publicist, Sheldon Saltman, with a baseball bat, breaking both of his arms.

“When I read about that, I just felt, ‘That’s so Macbeth-like -- that’s got to be in the story,’ ” Bek recalled. “It’s like a Greek tragedy at that point.”

Knievel was less moved by the episode’s dramatic potential, Bek said.

“He has raised some resistance to some of the areas I’ve gone,” Bek admitted. “But this is an exploration into the human condition, and he was an embodiment of every man’s fantasy -- he was living a fantasy life. So it was really interesting to me to see how he achieved these things, and then hit these valleys so hard, and then to see how he rose out of them. I told him, ‘We have to go there to see how you respond; otherwise it’s just a fluff piece. I don’t wanna write a fluff piece.’ ”

When Farley came on board as director, he had one big question for Bek, which helped push the rewriting process into its home stretch.

“Why does this guy get up every time? He has these horrible crashes, where most people would say, ‘This is crazy. I’m going to go be an accountant or something.’ So why did he do this?”

Knievel himself doesn’t know.

“Who would wanna take a motorcycle and jump it over these obstacles, miss them, and keep getting up and doing it over and over again?” Knievel asked. “I don’t know why. It’s something inside of a man that drives him to want to win. I’m working on my autobiography, and I hope I find out what the reason is.”