To watch Mark “Woody” Keppel on stage is to see a maestro at work. Woodhead has been described as “unpredictable, hilarious, charming and above all exceedingly talented. He throws himself, sometimes literally, with reckless abandon into his character and you would never guess that he froze on stage in his very first public appearance. With Woody, it’s not about the skill – although he’s got tons of skills – it’s about the character, having fun, and bringing the audience along for the ride. And they go along for that wild ride with him and leave always wanting more!” He’s been one of my favourite performers since I first saw the Waldo Woodhead show on the streets of Waikiki.
Waldo (Paul Burke) is a legend in the international juggling world. As one of the first well-known contemporary comedy jugglers, he originally gained notoriety for his partnerships with Arsene (Didier Dupin) before hooking up with Woodhead. He met his future partner at New Orleans Mardis Gras and they first performed together in Key West looking for pitches where they wouldn’t get moved on by the police. It was a hard month and apparently “they found that their chemistry on stage was gold but that off stage they just didn’t work well together.” They went their separate ways with Waldo going to Paris to work again with Arsene, in a theatrical production of Barnum, while Woody headed to Boston to work with the Opera Company. In 1984 their paths crossed again at Celebration Barn where they attended a physical theatre workshop.
They reunited and founded “Waldo & Woodhead” a musical/comedy vaudeville show, which the legendary Gregory Hines called, “The funniest and most creative act” he’d ever seen. As “masters of mayhem” they performed their one-of-a-kind antics in theatres and festivals around the world for over twenty years. Their show has been broadcast on television in the U.S., Canada, France, Japan, Chile, Switzerland, and throughout the Middle East. Waldo & Woodhead also appeared together in seven feature films, and starred in four family videos as well as being regulars at worldwide buskers festivals. In Halifax in 1988 Waldo & Woodhead won the $10,000 prize and, being the generous caring person he is, Woody donated $2,000 of his share to a local orphanage.
I met them in Honolulu where they were spending the winter street performing and persuaded them to come over to the Big Island for our first Hawaiian Vaudeville Festival. They got hooked and became regulars. On my way home to Hawaii from Nicaragua in 1986 I stopped off in Boston and stayed with Woodhead in his communal house. As one of the top street acts in the U.S., at the time, they commanded a prize pitch at downtown Faneuil Hall Marketplace in the summer before migrating to Hawaii for the winter sun and surf. It was in Boston that Waldo made his immortal proposal to me “let’s buy our own land in Hawaii so we can have home there.” Little did he know what would result from the seed he planted in my brain.
During our third Hawaiian Vaudeville Festival, the following February, we returned to the University Theatre in Hilo for our “Extravaganza” show superbly directed by Woody and Benji. We had an amazing line up of acts because Woody had persuaded Benny Reehl to bring a large group of vaudevillians from New England to play with us. The show also featured Frank Olivier, Dan Menedez, Cliff Spenger, Fred Garbo, Nick Nicholas and the American Dream Juggling Team with Woody choregraphing two memorable ensemble acts “Hawaii” and “Bon voyage” that later became anthems for our group.
But it was a group fire act ‘Tribute to Madame Pele’ that became the show stopper, literally. The audience loved it but were sent into a state of shock and awe having never seen so much fire in a theatre before. They were lucky too because it’s highly unlikely there will ever be that much fire again since we had ‘forgotten’ to mention to the theatre administration that we had planned a huge burn on their wooden stage with hanging drapes.
It was fire of another kind that led to us actually being banned from the theatre after our second consecutive sell our show. Celebrating after the event, the sweet skunky smell of ganja drifted out of the greenroom and was not appreciated at all by the theatre director. Oh well! you can take the punatics out of Puna but you can’t take Puna out of the punatics. Our plan to perform at the best theatre in Hawaii was dented a bit and from then on we could only play at the lesser venues in Hilo. But we still had fun and sold out shows.
We started our inter-island touring by booking Honolulu’s Hawaii theatre which was under renovation at the time as it emerged from years of disuse. Our timing and execution for this new endeavour was really off, neither us nor the theatre was ready for a vaudeville show. I was a completely novice promoter, vaudeville was a virtually unknown concept in Hawaii and downtown Honolulu was far from the thriving centre for the arts which it became much later. We took a big hit financially. Well actually, I did since I was the one who put up the money and I lost my shirt and a lot more on that one.
I purchased a slice of Puna jungle for our jugglers collective in March 1987 after twelve dreamers signed up to be members. Woody and Waldo took a little longer and when the check arrived Woody wrote, “Dear Friends it took me 32 years to raise this much money ……. but all the money in the world couldn’t buy the kind of friends we have. This is terribly exciting to me and my heart is in it all the way. Count me in !” In those early days their visits to our land were short and sweet as their career took priority. They toured the world introducing thousands to the concept of New Vaudeville through festivals, street shows and television.
Later that year I dropped in again at the infamous Summit House in Boston and met with Woody, Waldo, Benji, Jeanne, Marlin. We discussed the 1988 Festival, plans for the ‘Oasis’ and future fantasies. We decided to introduce people on the island to our group by hosting three public events entitled “Big Island Circus Days.”
At our Annual General Meeting we decided to ditch the name we had given our land from early days and replace it with ‘Bellyacres’ a name that Woody created while singing around a campfire one night. Two years later the name Bellyacres was criticised for being a bit ‘blahh!’ and there was a motion passed to change it to a more majestic ‘Mangolia’. However, by this time, our neighbours had all come to know us as Bellyacres and, even though we tried for a while to convince them, they just weren’t willing to change it.. Consequently, we’ve been stuck forever with Woody’s bizarre ‘Bellyacres’ – by unofficial decree from our own greater Puna community.
In 1988 our fourth Festival took us to new heights literally. This was the year of the sailing circus in all it’s glory. First Woody assembled a team of script writers and ensemble directors who came up with a real show, story line, music and all. Prior to the festival our Bellyacres crew and friends rehearsed really hard together and also built our ‘ship’ on top of ‘Mertle’ my Ford truck
After Woody began his film career in 1993 we saw a lot less of him at Bellyacres. He costarred in the madcap family feature Ava’s Magical Adventure and also has had numerous supporting roles in Icebreaker, Moving Targets, Illegal Aliens, Pressure Point and, Radical Jack featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. He’s written and starred in four of his own family videos, including the award-winning Woodhead Saves the Farm, which was picked by Sesame Street and Parents Magazine as “Years Best” for kids. But his start in comedy video began at Bellyacres with short classic sketches he filmed with Henrik and Tom Renegade.
The Waldo Woodhead show waxed and waned for many years until eventually it dissolved and the stars took different paths. In 1994, Woody wrote, produced, and directed Vaudeville In My Blood then co-founded It’s A Fine Mess! Productions, a film, video, and special events production company. Woody currently lives on his farm in Vermont with two canine companions, plays music with the Hokum Brothers band and organises the annual Festival of Fools in Burlington. He’s still involved with our Bellyacres community and occasionally performs with Henrik as ‘Wells and Woodhead’ while awaiting his agent’s call for the next big movie role.
After recovering from a serious motor cycle accident in 2018 Waldo decided to move to Hawaii to live there in the White House. After twenty years of absence he’s now enjoying the island life, the people and the parties while playing a major role in keeping the ‘home for geriatric jugglers’ alive and well.