Riffing with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Trace Beaulieu

Mystery Science Theater

Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Dr. Forrester / Crow T. Robot gives an inside look at the earliest days of the cult classic.

Trace Beaulieu is best known as Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Dr. Forrester and Crow T. Robot. His riffing tradition with Frank Conniff, AKA TV’s Frank, continues live onstage with The Mads Are Back. I sat down with Beaulieu to talk about the cult show and their current U.S. tour.

What sort of movies did you grow up on that might’ve influenced Mystery Science Theater 3000 and your current life and work?

There were hundreds I loved: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Planet of the Apes. All the Chuck Heston sci-fi films, like Soylent Green and The Omega Man.

Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, WC Fields and the Bowery Boys were in heavy rotation on television. And monster movies — Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula — were on Creature Feature Saturday nights.

All this stuff had a huge impact on me and it influenced Mystery Science Theater quite heavily. Each of these things I’ve mentioned — and there are many more I could list — are the building blocks of my house of weirdness.

How did you meet your future Mystery Science Theater costars?

Except for Jim and Kevin, we all met during the ’80s comedy scene in Minneapolis. Kevin and Jim were working at KTMA and Josh, Joel and I met them in the late ’80s. We were doing stand-up, improv, sketch comedy. It was a fun time, and it all felt really vital. Very creative community. Those were great days.

Mystery Science TheaterVia Abominable Pictures

You created the character Dr. Forrester. Did you pull from anyone, or was his design straight from your imagination?

I was doing a weird doctor character onstage named Dr. Quabious, who told strange tall tales. I took some of that for Forrester. Mostly it was just my goofiness. There wasn’t a lot of depth to my acting, if you can call it that.

Mystery Science TheaterVia Abominable Pictures

You worked on the design of the set and the Satellite of Love. How did the final design come to be?

In the script, we had demon dogs attack the ship, but we really hadn’t figured out how it should look yet. Since they were dogs, I thought maybe the ship was shaped like a dog bone for a visual joke and also a nod to the bone in 2001. (Hm, Nod to the Bone would be a good band name.)

Silent Running is the influence most often cited. I wanted the exterior to be a bit like the Sulaco from Aliens.

My brother is a mechanical engineer and he was always messing around with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. The ends of the SOL are buckyballs (not the magnet toy). There was a pattern to make a paper model in an old Popular Mechanics. I knew I could make a sort of spherical shape using that pattern. I pulled an all-nighter to build a four-foot-long foam-board model. It had to be very light so we could hang it using thread. For the Mystery Science Theater film, I built two-foot, four-foot and eight-foot models of the SOL.

Are there any episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic that stand out as personal favorites?

The shorts are my favorites from Mystery Science Theater 3000A Day at the Circus, Mr. B Natural, A Date with Your Family. I think they made for some of the best riffing.

There is a film Frank Conniff and I are currently screening on The Mads tour that I think is my favorite of all the films we have done. I will leave it at that and hope people can join us live at some point.

Speaking of favorites, is there an experiment as Dr. Forrester or a scheme as Crow T. Robot that you hold above the rest?

I really enjoyed the Star Trek parody we did during the Mike years. Or anytime Frank and I were dressed as something odd, like pirates or swing choir. Those characters got stranger as the show went along.

Mystery Science TheaterVia Abominable Pictures

How was the ride from KTMA to Comedy Channel to SyFy?

Well, the big thing is we moved from the little television station to our own studios. Also, our budget increased. At KTMA, I think Joel got $500 because he was building props. Josh and I both got $25 each week. In moving to Comedy Central and getting a contract with them, our budget increased. There was a lot of work to do.

How was the writing process, from picking the movie to inserting riffs? Did it change as the show grew and different film catalogs became available, from KTMA to Syfy?

At KTMA, we just raided the station’s film library and used what we thought would be suitable for the show. When we went to Comedy Central, they were sending us boxes of films on VHS, and Frank Conniff would pore through these things looking for good, um, bad films suitable for us. We were always working with the bottom-of-the-barrel material.

I’m always in awe of the theater shots. Can you tell us how the iconic silhouettes were created?

That was done using Luma key. We sat in front of a foam cutout of the theater seats, which was placed about 20 feet in front of the camera. The studio wall in front of us was painted to key out. We watched the film with our silhouette synced in real time. Pretty neat.

Cinematic Titanic was a sort of follow-up to Mystery Science Theater 3000, furthering live riffing of movies. How did that come about?

Cinematic Titanic started because we all wanted to work together again. Josh, Joel and I were pitching other ideas out in Los Angeles and there was some talk about getting Mystery Science Theater started again, but the rights were still tied up.

Mystery Science TheaterTrace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff live riff in The Mads Are Back. Courtesy of Trace Beaulieu.

Now you’re on tour with Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank). Can you tell us about this tour of live riffing?

Yes. Frank and I are touring as The Mads (sometimes called The Mads Are Back). Frank and I live riff MST-style in a movie theater. The show is a couple hours long, with a feature and sometimes a short or a cartoon, plus a Q&A after.

We love meeting new friends and loyal Mystery Science Theater fans and believe that if you purchased a ticket, you are automatically a VIP.

Where can we see you and Frank in 2017?

Frank I are performing all over the country. A schedule will be posted on our Facebook page and our website. We’ve got dates in DC, Austin, Dallas, Omaha, Kansas City and the list goes on and on, so check our social media, and we hope to see you at our shows. end


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