July 10, 2008

Comedian Relives ‘Wonder Bread Years’

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 10--As a parent as well as the creator of "The Wonder Bread Years," Pat Hazell has a problem.

Where Hazell sees props, his sons Keaton, 5, and Tucker, 7, see toys.

That's understandable.

"The Wonder Bread Years" is a comedic and nostalgic salute to the baby boomer era.

Those were the decades of dawning kid consumerism that unleashed a cornucopia of gotta-have-it toys that included Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Rock'em Sock'em Robots and the now-iconic 1950s Hula Hoop.

His show is about those fabulous toys, the foods and fads, as well as the trials, joys and enduring memories of spending Thanksgivings in exile at the kids table, and vacations in the seatbelt-free back of the station wagon.

Hazell, a stand-up comedian-turned-playwright, created "The Wonder Bread Years" as a way to work without having to tour on the comedy circuit.

But he's quick to point out that "The Wonder Bread Years" is not a play.

"It's not plot-driven. There's not a journey for the character," he says. "It takes you through a day and a year in the life of a kid."

Born in 1961, near the end of the boomer years, Hazell knows his specific memories might differ somewhat from those born at the start in 1946, or even in the early '50s. He wrote a show that he hoped would be familiar to them all -- plus a lot of others. He called on memories of his older and younger siblings to widen the show's view of the decades.

"I don't write about a specific era. It's more about coming of age. When I talk with my dad, he played with soldiers. They were lead. Mine were green plastic," says Hazell, explaining his premise.

In "The Wonder Bread Years," Hazell hopes to encourage the audience to explore the sense of wonder they had as kids, where they lost it and how they can get it back.

The one-man show begins with the performer sitting on the front porch steps dropping clothespins into a glass milk bottle. It cycles backward into reminiscences of TV commercials and shows, Halloween costumes, backyard barbecues, fly swatters and once-coveted foods such as Manwich and Dilly Bars.

"I've definitely found, when you are a certain age, you respond to it as a bull's-eye of your own childhood," Hazell says.

When Hazell created "The Wonder Bread Years," he also performed it.

Three years ago, he began finding other actors to do the show so he could spend more time at home in Austin, Texas, with Keaton and Tucker.

Performances at City Theatre will be played by John Mueller, one of the five actors trained to do the show.

All of the performers are in their 40s or early 50s. But, says Hazell: "Nobody does it the same."

That's a good thing, he adds.

Each actor makes the character and the show his own.

They customize the names in the script to those of their own family members and insert a few of their own snapshots into the slide show that concludes the performance.

"They each bring something to the party," he says. "If the material doesn't connect or they don't know the jingle, we write something new or cut the segment."

Staying power

Ten baby boomer toys that have withstood the test of time:

--Hula Hoop


--Slip 'n' Slide


--Silly Putty

--Etch a Sketch



--Mister Potato Head

--Tonka Trucks


Once-popular, now unthinkable toys

Jarts, or Lawn Darts: Think of playing horseshoes, only with 12-inch-long, oversized darts with metal tips sharp enough to puncture a skull. The standard set came with four darts and two targets shaped like plastic rings. These once-popular outdoor toys actually were banned in this country by the Consumer Products Safety Commission in 1988.

Klackers: Two hard plastic balls tied to what looked like a plastic curtain ring. By swinging them rhythmically, you could make a clacking noise -- thus their name. Swung above the waist and with enough force, they had the potential to cause frontal lobe damage or at the least a case of extreme regret.

Baking ovens and ranges: The early cookstoves and ovens were metal and had stovetop burners hot enough to melt -- and scorch -- Hershey kisses and the occasional hand. They even came with what-were-they-thinking metal pots and pans -- but no potholders. Later Kenner models were constructed of trendy turquoise plastic. The ovens did their baking courtesy of 100-watt light bulbs -- and had cautions on the back of the appliance that warned you to be careful not to burn yourself.


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