The first time ever they said "I love you," it was 1974, when the world was having a nice day, every day.

Donny & Marie, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn were racking up big TV ratings with even bigger he-she grins.

"So Nice to Be With You" and "Muskrat Love" were riding high on the pop charts.

And so, too, for a brief and shining feel-good moment was the musical mash note of Hank & Rita: "The First Time (I Said I Love You)," which swooned and smiled its way straight into the Top 10 singles chart.

Now, some 40-odd years later, those of us in the Twin Cities get to relive that moment, and more.

And maybe worse. 

It's coming via the concert/theater performance piece, "The Best of Hank Rita: A Barroom Operetta," which fast-forwards the duo's careers a decade, circa the mid-'80s, when the heyday for perky he-she pairs had long since passed.

The show's tagline: "See them now. Before it all goes to hell."

Their road to perdition will be traveled twice: at 8 p.m. Jan. 29 and 30, in the Bloomington Eagles Lodge, complete with cameras rolling for a projected film version (more about which, shortly). 

The performance begins with an off-stage announcer treating the audience to the contents of a "Dear John" letter Rita has freshly penned to hubby Hank.

The gist: When the show's over, so's the union ... professional AND marital.

We know what Rita knows, so watching clueless Hank proceed through the evening provides the bittersweet tone that has marked this offbeat endeavor since it debuted in the past year to strong critical/audience approval.

Like that of local Hank & Rita fan Terri Ryburn, known hereabouts as a teacher, stand-up comedian, stage actress, activist and, perhaps above all, Route 66 historian/preservationist (currently represented via her ongoing Sprague Super Service Station restoration project on East Pine Street in Normal).

It all began when Ryburn and a close friend traveled to Minneapolis to see one of her former students, ISU alum Ann Rosenquist Fee, do a show with her professional partner, Joe Tougas (also an ISU alum).

They are a couple in profession only, billed as The Frye.

Hank & Rita were born after countless public inquiries as to whether Ann and Joe were, in fact, married to each other. 

"No ... not anymore," was Tougas' stock response, rendered so frequently that he was inspired to create fictional alter egos for Joe and Ann, then write an entire album's worth of songs for them to perform as they try to rekindle their one-hit-wonder '70s success smack in the middle of the MTV-shanghaied '80s.

To be precise: "The time is around 1986, and we're playing our smallest gig yet," says Tougas, noting the premise is what makes intimate spaces like the 150-seat Eagle Lodge a perfect fit, where something bigger, like, say, Braden Auditorium "wouldn't work at all."

Tougas' back story for the duo: "They met at an auto parts store in Midlothian (Ill.), where Rita worked as a clerk and Joe came in after his van's radiator blew nearby en route to a gig at a bar called The Cove."

Fallout: "Pretty much love at first sight."

Followed by Hank coaxing Rita to join the band, and then that brief, bright, glory moment of Top 10 success, followed by ... a slow slide back down the hill, "with the audiences getting smaller and smaller, along with the venues."

"It ranges from funny to sad to deeply moving," says Ryburn of her immediate reaction to the show, which sparked, almost immediately thereafter, a burning desire to expand it into a feature-length film ... "part 'Crazy Heart,' part 'I Walk the Line,' part 'Tender Mercies,' part 'Little Miss Sunshine'."

With a dash of the attitude, adds Tougas, from Christopher Guest's series of deadpan "mockumentaries," including "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and, most notably, "A Mighty Wind," which followed the shifting fortunes of a fictional '60s folk duo, Mitch & Mickey (played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara).

"Terri was my boss and my mentor when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at ISU, and worked closely with in the honors program there," recalls Fee, today the executive director of the Arts Center of St. Peter (Minn.).

"She was always so inspiring to me in the way she would take on new projects and go in new directions, always educating herself."

In this case, Ryburn is drawing from a number of her pursuits to make her movie dream happen.

"Right after the show, I called Ann and told her I wanted to bring the show to Bloomington-Normal," Ryburn recalls. Plus: "This needs to be a movie. And Ann immediately saw what I was talking about."

The movie, says Tougas, would serve as a prequel of sorts to the show we'll see at the Eagles Lodge: following their odyssey through a string of small bars along the Mother Road, from Chicago to Santa Monica.

In what may be a local show biz first, "The Best of Hank & Rita: A Barroom Operetta" is being funded by a show just the night before, at 8 p.m. Jan. 28, also at the Eagles Lodge, where Ryburn will perform a stand-up show of that kind she's being doing since she retired from teaching at ISU to pursue stand-up full-time.

"We have no money for advertising, so we are limited to using our personal contacts, email lists and social media to promote it," confesses Ryburn. 

The money from her show will fund Hank & Rita's show, along with turning the two performances into a short film, with a professional cinematographer shooting the performances (audiences included, so come prepared to be shot).

In fact, adds Ryburn, "The audience will be in on a movie set," with the resulting film planned for submission "to various festivals," and hopefully kindling interest in a full-length screen version.

"I love the idea of taking the show on the road and doing all these small Route 66 venues ... that's perfect. It feels like the right way to elevating its stature, while keeping in appropriate small venues," says Fee. 

"Yeah, my fingerprints are all over this," Ryburn agrees. "You know, there hasn't really been a Route 66 movie since 'Cars' ..."

Be the first to know - Sign up for Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


Load comments