Laughing through time

Colorado gets a dose of vintage improv comedy with the ‘King Penny Golden Radio Show’

Credit: Bill Hahn

The Savoy lives tucked on the second floor of a 19th century Victorian building in Denver. While it was renovated a few years ago, the building was historically used as a social club, dance floor and lounge. Once a month, that vintage aura gets a breath of old air again. 

That’s thanks to Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of the King Penny Golden Radio Show, held on the second Wednesday of every month at the Savoy and other locations around Denver, a 45-minute improvised 1930s-1940s radio show inspired by audience suggestions.

The throwback production was created by husband-and-wife improvisers Libby and Matt Zambrano. They met while performing improv at Denver’s now-defunct Impulse Theater in 2004 and continued to perform together after moving to the Empire State.

“Our artistic home in New York was a place called the Peoples Improv Theater,” Matt recalls. “One of the shows we saw there was a vintage radio program, and we thought it was a really cool idea. We wanted to start an improv team when we moved back to Colorado. But we didn’t want to do the sort of thing that everybody else was doing and we had always been attracted to this form. We decided to get some people together who we loved to play with and give it a go.”

Concurrent with the Zambranos’ return to Denver, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) was undergoing a metamorphosis of its own. Jessica Robblee and Mark Ragan had just been announced as the company’s new artistic and managing directors, taking over from BETC cofounders Rebecca Remaly and Stephen Weitz. 

“Jessica and Mark needed to quickly put together a season, so they searched for a show that requires minimal setup and rehearsal time,” Matt explains. “The universe came together because, right when we wanted to do this improv show, BETC needed programming. In actuality, we had made an agreement with BETC to do the show before we had done our first performance. That scared us straight and forced us to workshop it to see if it had legs, which, thankfully, it does.”

In March 2023, they debuted the first version of the show at Denver’s Chaos Bloom Theatre. Libby and Matt took a few months to figure out what worked and what did not before beginning regular performances at Chaos Bloom on the second Friday of every month starting in August to prepare for their run with BETC.

“Improvised work — especially by the really strong improvisers Libby and Matt have assembled — can create such a uniquely theatrical experience,” says Robblee, BETC’s artistic director. “It’s truly different from what you can get at home, because it’s someone daring to be bold and inventive right in front of you. I am a huge believer in Matt and Libby’s work. I have been watching them perform for years, and they have discovered this beautiful form; King Penny has a charming, time-traveling, vintage throwback quality.”   

‘Shot in the arm’ 

With the assistance of skilled foley artist Mitch Slevc, the King Penny Players — Libby, Matt, Jessica Austgen, Lauren Bahlman, Adrian Holguin, Brian McManus, Mark Shonsey and Tom Van Ness — transport the audience to an earlier era when radio was king. Adding to the show’s charm is the talented pianist, Laura Jo Trexler, who provides live musical accompaniment and the perfect backdrop for the evening’s adventure.

Each show features a guest star, adding a delightful twist to the evening’s entertainment. This month’s guest was Colorado’s former poet laureate, Bobby LeFebre, which added an unexpected and delightful layer to the evening’s entertainment. Future guests include Selene Arca in December, Heidi Carann Snider in January, Suzi Q. Smith in February, GerRee Hinshaw in March, Kenya Fashaw in April and Broken Box Mime in May.

“It was important to us from the beginning that our special guest stars not be bound by the rules of comedy,” Matt says. “If they bring their ‘A’ game and we bring our ‘A’ game, it’s going to be a show that people never forget.” 

As you enter The Savoy, a historical venue located in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Five Points, you’re greeted with the nostalgic ambiance of another era. Audience members are given a drink ticket and a piece of paper to jot down suggestions for the show. Before (or after) heading to the bar, attendees are encouraged to write ideas for the evening’s genre, episode title and the name of a fictitious product for the troupe to advertise, setting the stage for a night of interactive fun. 

“The Savoy has the perfect ambiance for a vintage radio show,” Robblee says. “Both Mark and I are excited about fostering connections between Boulder and Denver. The artistic communities in both places are so strong; cross-pollinating those communities just made sense.”

The show commences with Bugsy (Matt Zambrano) warmly welcoming the audience and cueing the pianist to set the mood with a musical ditty. The anticipation in the room was palpable as the cast took the stage to select a suggestion. During a recent November performance, the theme was Western, the episode title was “The Cowgirl’s Rodeo,” and it was humorously sponsored by the fictitious but fierce “Toe-Tickler 2000.”

What followed was a 45-minute journey through three acts, complete with improvised “commercial breaks” for King Penny products and previews of future radio hours. In a world that often feels serious and depressing, the King Penny Golden Radio Show provided a lighthearted escape into a bygone era.

“Theater doesn’t always have to just be on the weekend, and it doesn’t have to be three hours long,” Robblee says. “Theater can be a quick way station that fills you up midweek. It can be just a part of your week; you can incorporate it like a shot in the arm. It’s not as long of a show as a full-length piece, but it involves getting together, having a drink beforehand and enjoying a show as a community.” 

ON STAGE: ‘King Penny Golden Radio Show.’ Various times and locations throughout the Denver metro, including The Savoy, Buntport Theater and Chaos Bloom, through May 2024. Details here.