Still Crazies After All These Years

Today's cover story follows Drake Doremus to Park City, Utah, where the young filmmaker's second feature, Douchebag, premiered at the Jan. 21-31 Sundance Film Festival. It was an equally momentous month for Doremus' mother, Cherie Kerr, whose Orange County Crazies comedic theater troupe celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Cherie Kerr sits in one of the 78 seats in the theater inside Santa Ana's DePietro Performance Center, which is named after her parents.
Cherie Kerr sits in one of the 78 seats in the theater inside Santa Ana's DePietro Performance Center, which is named after her parents.
Photo by John Gilhooley

After Kerr and Doremus' father, Rick Doremus of Newport Beach, split up when their son was 4 or 5, the single mother plunged into the Crazies--and took her little boy along with her. She also took the last name of her first husband, even though her children from that marriage were by then grown and out of the house. Sean Kerr, now 43, is general manager of Sierra Auto Cars in the San Gabriel Valley (where Doremus shot parts of his feature debut, Spooner). Shannon Dugger, 42, who is married to the head trainer of the Colorado Rockies, is raising her family in Denver.

A former member of the Los Angeles Groundlings comedy troupe, Kerr conceived the idea of a sketch and improvisational comedy troupe that would perform in and for Orange County. Along with fellow Groundling alum Kathy Griffin, Kerr held auditions for about a dozen cast member slots and staged their first satirical review in January 1990.

Doremus was just 5 when he learned all the dialogue and lyrics to a Crazies' musicals and helped performers learn their lines. He was only 6 the first time he appeared onstage with the Crazies. At 8, he wrote his first play and by 10 had staged--that's wrote, produced and directed--three different original plays, all performed on his mother's stage.

"He learned a lot about improv," Kerr said recently at the Santa Ana office where she runs her own public-relations firm and a business that teaches communication skills to business people--using improvisation techniques.

The Santa Ana resident said that after one recent tiff, Doremus told her, "You were never my mother. You were my director!"

Kerr directed the consolidation of her companies and the Crazies in a brick building on Main Street in Santa Ana in 1993. She named it the DePietro Performance Center after her parents, Charlie and Margaret DePietro, who performed as a jazz bass player and singer respectively. A shrine to both is behind glass at the theater.

"It's amazing," she said of the Crazies. "It's been kind of a blur."

The first seven years of the troupe's existence, the Crazies mounted original sketch shows, with Kerr doing much of the writing. Think of the Groundlings, which Kerr joined at 24, or Toronto and Chicago's Second City, which produced most of the talent on the original Saturday Night Live.

Crazies' shows had titles such as Orangthello, Orange-lahoma, Orange Trek, 2001: An Orange Odyssey, Eternal Sunshine of the Orange-less Mind and Orange Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which poked fun at crazy ex-country treasurer Bob Citron, whose bad investments spurred what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Glowing reviews followed.

"They are my favorite of everything we have done," Kerr said of the sketch shows. "We made fun of everything Orange County."
 

Cherie Kerr as her Orange County Crazies' character Vy Bratto, a singer at a bowling alley lounge. While singing, a lyric would remind her of an incident in her life where some man wronged her, causing her to talk with the audience about it before breaking back into song. Bowling pins could be heard crashing intermittently in the background.
Cherie Kerr as her Orange County Crazies' character Vy Bratto, a singer at a bowling alley lounge. While singing, a lyric would remind her of an incident in her life where some man wronged her, causing her to talk with the audience about it before breaking back into song. Bowling pins could be heard crashing intermittently in the background.
Courtesy of Orange County Crazies

The improvisation craze that resulted in the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?" in the '90s was first played out on live stages, and the DePietro was one of them, as the Crazies morphed into an all-improv troupe, with a sprinkling of pre-written sketches tossed in to shows.

Due to economic considerations, it is mostly a training ground for improv performers, and Doremus is among those who teach there. Shows in recent years have been confined to monthly student showcases. But Kerr is itching to get back to the Crazies' sketch-comedy roots, and hopes to have a new show mounted later this year--in between running her businesses and writing her 11th book.

"It is so much work," she says of the Crazies. "It has never paid. It's been all volunteer."

She estimates it costs $5,000 to $6,000 a month to keep the theater doors open. The Crazies' account balance was $600 as we spoke. Acknowledging that she keeps the Crazies going with her personal funds, Kerr says, "I have a small board of directors that keeps saying, 'You can't do this anymore.' A couple times I've said, 'That's it. I'm done.' But the Crazies are like a cockroach: I just can't kill it."

Her accountant suggested she take up golf as hobby instead of the Crazies because it's cheaper. "But I don't want to play golf," she says. "My idea of exercise is a brisk sit."

Some high profile former Groundlings have helped Kerr keep the Crazies going at key moments, including Shirley Prestia, Dick Frattalli and Bill Steinkeller. Julia Sweeney, who is also an SNL alum, performed a one-night fundraising show for her brother, who was suffering from cancer, at DePietro. Another old friend and former SNL cast member, the late Phil Hartman, was always very supportive of the Crazies, according to Kerr.

Her non-Crazies' companies, Kerr PR and ExecProv, have always done well, even in the current economic downturn. "That's where I make my money," she said.

As much as she likes where her theater and offices are located and the Santa Ana city leaders who welcomed her, she conceded, "It has not really blossomed and grown the way they said it would. Our business is doing far better than most, but I have not seen this area grow much since 1993. That's 17 years. This isn't the picture they said it would be."

She considers the Crazies "a service to the community" and hopes to "find another way" to keep it afloat. Many Orange County theater troupes never found another way and were never heard from again. Some were a block or three away from the DePietro. At least Kerr can say with a mix of pride and disbelief, "After 20 years, we're still here."

"So many theaters have come and gone," she says. "We're still here. How is this possible? We have a little marquee out front. That's it! We have no money. I guess it's true if you build it, they will come."

Giving a mini-tour of the 78-seat black box theater, Kerr explained that workers building it would present her with decisions and, without knowing anything about construction, she would simply spit out answers. Somehow, it came out better than she dreamed.

"It's a very nice theater," she says. "The sound and acoustics are just wonderful, quite by accident."

You can check it out for yourself at the Feb. 13 Mixed Nuts show, which is composed of Main Company and Crazie Beez players.

It's the young students who fill the theater that keep Kerr from packing it in.  

"I see the students' enthusiasm," Kerr says, "and I can't resist."

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