ROUGH AND READY – There may not be much here now, folks. But come back into town next Sunday and well, there still won't be much.
Rough and Ready?
More like Still and Sleepy.
But there will be a lot more people out and about, people dressed in Gold Rush-period costumes, people channeling their inner thespians and emoting with impunity – all to celebrate a brief, heady time when this ghost of a town sandwiched between Grass Valley and Penn Valley once was its own sovereign nation.
The occasion is Secession Day, traditionally the last Sunday in June, when residents in this no-stoplight burg puff out their community chest and fly the Great Republic of Rough and Ready flag proudly to relive the storied, three-month stretch of 1850 when they told the U.S. of A. where to stick it.
On tap will be the obligatory hot breakfast, a blacksmith presentation, music by local band the Fruit Jar Pickers, maybe even one of those inflatable bounce-house thingees for the little ones. The big draw, however, is the musical theater extravaganza, "The Saga of Rough and Ready," a staple of the celebration since the early 1960s.
Epic in scope, featuring a cast of tens and an orchestra consisting of a lone banjo picker (because, heck, when you've got a banjo, no need for further accompaniment), the play is a hoot.
"Actually," said Uhl "Red" Sagraves, who's played the part of the miner Slim since the early 1980s, "it's pretty hokey, if you want to know the truth."
But, Red, you say hokey as if it's a bad thing.
"The Saga of Rough and Ready" is delightfully hokey, intentionally hokey, winking, tongue-in-cheek fun that both celebrates and mildly mocks the town's less-than-cultured forefathers.
Not to give away too much of the plot penned by author and lyricist Sheridan Loungway, but the saga includes unwashed (literally) and uncouth miners, a dastardly city slicker, a randy preacher and his lush of a wife, a bawdy saloon keeper, a politically ambitious colonel, a coveted widow, an upright blacksmith, va-va-voom singer Lola Montez and other local scoundrels.
There will be blood – two shootings and a hanging, precisely. There will be two weddings and a funeral. There will be anarchy and reconciliation. There will be just a bit of historical accuracy amid tons of bawdy embellishment.
"Oh, it's all true," Loungway said before a recent rehearsal at the town's Grange Hall.
"Not all of it," said wife Sayra, the play's director.
"OK," conceded Sheridan. "The names are the same, but we've taken liberties like crazy."
"But," Sayra assured, "the play does show the history, how the miners came to town, started getting taxed and didn't like it, got upset and seceded from the Union."
Here the historical record gets a little muddled. Some say the Republic of Rough and Ready returned to the United States on July 4, 1850, after three months of freedom, because townsfolk were struck by patriotic fever. Others contend it was because bartenders in neighboring Nevada City refused to sell liquor to Rough and Ready "foreigners."
The play falls squarely on the side of the liquor story.
Here's a verse from the prologue, sung by the narrator, the Colonel, to the tune of "The Beverly Hill- billies Theme:"
Seceding from the union was the town's biggest plan
To celebrate July the Fourth but whiskey sales were banned
So the whole town got together to rejoin the U.S. of A.
and that's the reason why we do this itsy bitsy play
Rough and Ready style, that is.
OK, so maybe there's a reason why Tony Award voters have ignored this musical all these years.
But if they gave awards for pure, unalloyed fun for those involved, "The Saga of Rough and Ready" would make "The Producers" look like an also-ran. Rehearsals alone have the participants laughing both with and at their fellow thespians, as they warble off-key and flub lines and sometimes even hit their cues dead-on.
"The thing is," said Jim Driver, who plays the mustache-twirling "Slicker," "we have more fun in the rehearsals than during the show."
"We. Are. Not. Actors," added Red, emphasizing each word.
But Red gives it his all, especially dying onstage each year with all he's got.
"Red likes getting shot (early) because he can sit back and enjoy the rest of the play," Sheridan said.
One irony about Rough and Ready's celebration is that, for a play that's so whiskey-soaked, Secession Day is decidedly alcohol-free.
Yup, the town goes dry next Sunday. The problem was, in years past, bikers and cowboys used to imbibe a little too heartily.
"It used to be wild," Sheridan said. "We used to serve a lot of booze. Then the insurance went up sky high. The Fire Department was picking people up out of the ditches. That wasn't good. Now, it's a more family event."
But the families are getting older. So, too, are the play's actors. Red said he's not sure how much longer he can die onstage, wonders if this might be his last year.
"You'll notice most of us have gray hair," he said. "It's hard to get young people to volunteer. There's not as many people, period, around town anymore. People have to go away to make a living. Times have changed, but we still get a pretty good crowd."
And pride of place is still evident.
Many of the actors showed up for rehearsal wearing hats and jackets emblazoned with a "Great Republic of Rough and Ready" flag. They don't want to secede anew; they simply wish to revel in the past for one glorious day before the town willingly goes back into sleep mode for another year.
ARE YOU READY?
Rough and Ready's "Secession Day" celebration will take place 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Sunday to raise funds for the Rough and Ready Volunteer Fire Department. Rough and Ready is west of Grass Valley off of Highway 20. For more information, go to www. roughandreadychamber.com.