An Oral History of Shear Madness Everyone loves to mock the Kennedy Center's longest-running play. But for 24 years, this lowbrow tourist fare has helped generations of D.C. actors make ends meet. The show's story, as told by those who made it happen.

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Cleary: I take breaks to go out and do other shows. In the past couple of years I’ve stepped out to do another show once a year. It’s a great gig to have, for that revolving door aspect. There aren’t a lot of roles for women of a certain age where people would think of me as their first choice.

Ross: It was my first job when I came to D.C. and I always say if it weren’t for that show I wouldn’t be working. A lot of actors find it easy to get stuck in it a long time, and because I was so new when I did it I didn’t want that to happen.

Kyd: When I first got in I was hired for the day cast in the spring. [The show adds a second company during cherry blossom season.] I was young and happy to be there. It wasn’t until the end of the summer when they asked if I was interested in doing the evening show and I jumped on it. It ended up being close to a year. There was one stretch when I did it for a year and a half.

Ross: One of the hardest things I’ve talked about with other actors who have done it is that you are stepping into a machine. Looking back on it I definitely see that. Whether that would be easy now, I’m not sure.

When Shear Madness debuted, local critics were mixed. Reviewing the show for WRC-TV, Arch Campbell famously called the it “the most fun I’ve ever had at the Kennedy Center.” The blurb has topped the play’s advertising ever since. Others had more sour reactions.


Jordan: To me, the charm of the play and the delight of the audience is as clear as the sun in the blue sky.

David Richards, reviewing for the Washington Post: I can only report that Shear Madness, as it has been reconstituted here, struck me as being as appropriate as a pie-eating contest on the White House lawn, and somewhat less amusing.

Bob Mondello, reviewing for Washington City Paper on Aug. 28, 1987: Calling this a play would be shameless flattery—it’s an extended vaudeville routine with a novelty twist—but it is funny. Not clever or witty, mind you—funny the way the Three Stooges are funny. Next to Shear Madness, a farce like Noises Off is Macbeth. … It’s not theater exactly, but as empty-headed entertainment, it’s not appreciably less stimulating than Cats or a visit to the bowling alley.

Jordan: Did I like to read those reviews? No. Who would? We were expecting wonderful reviews because we’d had so many wonderful reviews.

Campbell, interviewed in 2011: I’m guilty, guilty, guilty as charged. I said it. Now, what you have to remember is the context in which I said that. In 1987, the Kennedy Center was considered a very stuffy place. Not for Mr. and Mrs. Middlebrow. And I think that really was the beginning of their opening up to the public and getting away from their real stuffy image.

Mondello, interviewed in 2011: The Kennedy Center needs to appeal to a very broad audience. It is weird to have something there for 20 years that is the same thing that is appealing to the non-theatergoers.

Campbell: I’ve been attacked. I’ve been called a philistine, lowbrow, a clown, but you know, go ahead. Some of it is knowing your audience, so the only thing I can say in my defense is I knew my audience. And yes, I was Mr. Middlebrow, and Patton Oswalt is right. And he’s welcome to bash me all he wants.

Much of the negative reaction stemmed from Shear Madness’ lead character, Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyant hairdresser.

Richards, writing in the Post on Aug. 24, 1987: Curious that such a flagrantly outrageous depiction of homosexuality passes for humor these days. If, say, a black, a Jew or a Catholic were depicted in such stereotypical terms, there would be all hell to pay.

Mondello: It trades off of stereotypes that trace back to British music hall, to Vaudeville, for-freaking-ever, and I don’t know what you do with that. There are things you would not write them the same way today. The character didn’t resemble anybody I know. It’s like you’re talking about a giraffe in a way.

Jordan: It’s funny that people select that character to be offended by. It’s a commedia dell’arte with six broadly drawn characters. Nobody seems to mind that it depicts the police as bumbling and incompetent or that Washington social scene is full of airheads.

Our Readers Say

Thanks City Paper for such a delightful article. Although I usually go to the Kennedy Centre for drama, ballet, and concerts, I've enjoyed Shear Madness several times. It's great to have silly laughs sometimes, and Shear Madness delivers on that count.
I enjoyed being with Barbara at your delightful, memorable wedding. Jean

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