Bruce Arntson follows in a long tradition of outsiders who come to Nashville in search of a musical dream, then find themselves following other artistic paths. Arntson, a Minnesota native, moved to Music City 25 years ago to find a niche for his skills as a pianist and saxophonist. Then, on his way to doing other things, life happened.
“I was two years into my stay when I heard about a sketch comedy group called Gonzo Theatre, and I auditioned for a guest spot,” Arntson says. That first taste of theater paved the way for his involvement with a lot of key players in the local theatrical community, which in turn led to work in film and TV.
From the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, Arntson was a cog in the wheel of the late Jim Varney’s Ernest franchise, scoring the music for four of the Disney-produced features as well as contributing screenplays and teleplays and working as a supporting actor. In 1999, Arntson co-wrote, with director Coke Sams, the screenplay for the locally produced independent feature film Existo, a wildly imaginative political satire, for which Arntson also composed memorable musical numbers and acted the title role. The cast of that film, a landmark of the Nashville indie film scene, was a who’s who of talented local thespians, including Mark Cabus, David Alford, Jackie Welch, Barry Scott and Denice Hicks (Arntson’s former wife).
“I’ve been writing screenplays and wanting to do more film and nothing’s happening,” Arntson says candidly. “So I figure if I’m not making money in film, why don’t I not make money in the theater?” Hence, The Doyle and Debbie Show.
Arntson characterizes Doyle and Debbie as “a revue, a performance piece with music.” Sixteen of Arntson’s original songs are woven around the show’s two main characters—a washed-up country star trying to relaunch his career (Arntson), and his new singing partner (played by the very gifted Jenny Littleton).
“Doyle and Debbie are this marginally famous duo from the late ’70s and early ’80s who had a couple of nominal regional novelty hits,” Arntson explains. “Doyle has gone through two Debbies by way of marriage and divorce, and can’t get work without a partner because that’s how everyone knows him. He’s in his hometown in East Tennessee, goes to the VFW hall for a drink, and there is this goddess on the stage singing. He then takes her to Nashville to be his [third] Debbie.”
The spiritual forebear of Doyle and Debbie was another country duo called Bill and Coo, a comedy act that Arntson used to perform with the aforementioned Welch. “We shot a 15-minute film of Bill and Coo and pitched it in L.A. and got a deal with Paramount to develop a feature,” says Arntson. “After three years, the idea died, and by that time I was making a living with other film and TV projects, which took me away from music and theater.”
The setting for Arntson’s 80-minute play is a little honky-tonk in Nashville. “I originally wanted to go into the Station Inn with a band for this show,” says Arntson. “But I also wanted to do a longer run, so I needed a place like Bongo to do that. This is a workshop space if ever there was one, and Jenny and I can concentrate on the characters and I don’t have to be a bandleader.”
That chore falls to actor/writer/musician Matthew Carlton, who will be onstage overseeing “a laptop band,” helming a computer keyboard to initiate pre-recorded tracks, which he will enhance with live guitar. Arntson drew upon his past associations with high-profile Nashville music talent to help put together the score.
“The songs are all over the map,” Arntson says, “everything from Patsy Cline/Owen Bradley-type ’60s production, to Merle Haggard and a strong George Jones/Tammy Wynette vibe, all the way to an over-the-top pop ballad called ‘For the Children,’ which is in a Faith Hill/Martina McBride vein. We try to touch all the bases and make fun of everybody.
“I’ve always been interested in the theater aspect of the music business,” he continues, “the part that’s idiosyncratic, and lends itself to parodies. I once auditioned for Vassar Clements, and while I was waiting, there sat Faron Young. Here was this iconographic country star and he was holding court with all his old buddies telling war stories, and it was all sort of like [the classic sketch-comedy television show] SCTV.”
Doyle and Debbie begin their three-week life on the comeback trail June 9 at Bongo After Hours Theatre.