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Disappearing Portland: R.I.P. The Woods, 2009-2012

the woods

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On the day Michael Jackson died in 2009, The Woods opened its doors in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Sellwood. It was a slightly morbid coincidence: Before being repurposed into a concert venue, the building was home—for close to eight decades—to a funeral parlor. That night, however, in between inaugural sets from the Portland Cello Project and Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, someone decided to put Jackson’s music on over the house speakers. Instantly, recalls co-owner Ritchie Young, people took to the dance floor. It was at that moment, he says, that whatever old ghosts the mortuary might’ve been harboring took off, and he and fellow owners Vivien Lyon and Yoni Shpak knew they had something special.

Alas, truly special things are often ephemeral. Unable to secure an affordable new lease, The Woods held its final show last week, with hundreds of people packing the club to say farewell. It now joins the long list of great, lost Portland music venues, places that will be remembered for years to come by anyone lucky enough to have caught a strikingly intimate concert there—or anyone who won a kitschy prize at its bizarrely popular bingo night.

We spoke to Young—frontman for chamber-folk ensemble Loch Lomond—about how The Woods came into existence, and what he’ll miss most about it.

Portlandia: How did The Woods come into being?

Ritchie Young: One of my business partners, Vivien Lyon, she and I lived as friends together in a church off Division Street. In the ’70s, they cut it up into four different apartments. Ours was in the basement. It was just super cool. [Vivien] was basically a retired lawyer—and when I say retired, I mean she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. So both of us were super poor, and the place had over 30 years of stuff left beind by people who used to live there. Vivien has an aesthetic eye, and she made [the apartment]—y’know “Harold and Maude”? It was basically Maude’s place. So Vivien and I decided that instead of going and getting catering jobs again or anything like that, we’d try to open a little place to see a show that doesn’t feel like a music venue. I love most music venues in Portland, but that’s their purpose, to be like a box. We wanted to create a place that’s a cross between your eccentric, wealthy grandmother’s place and a music venue.

It took us a while to find a place that felt comfortable, that wasn’t just a box, that we’d have to do extensive work on. When we walked into The Woods, the old funeral home, it was messed up. It had pink carpets, pink walls, no lights. We had to put everything in. But as far as the vibe of it, we just knew we’d found the right place. Our big problem was we had no money. I had $8 in my bank account, I was on unemployment. One of the reasons we actually got to do it is because we signed a shitty lease, and one of the reasons we’re not there anymore is because we signed a shitty lease. It never would’ve happened if it wasn’t because of that bad deal, but it ended up kind of burying us.

The Woods is in the Sellwood neighborhood, which a lot of people in Portland think of almost as not even being part of the city. Was it difficult to book there?

There was a bit of a struggle. When Mississippi Studios opened up and Mississippi wasn’t what it is now—and what it is now is a place to buy a $100 candle—I remember thinking, “No way is anyone going to go up there.” And then I found myself going up there. We had a couple bands at the beginning who’d apologize, saying, “Sorry, we have a draw in Portland but not here.” I’d be like, “But this is Portland.” Up until about a year ago, people were like, “We’re going to another city.” But we’d have Crooked Fingers [play], and people would ride their bikes no matter if it was raining or sunny, all the way from North Portland. I think people got over it. The more bikes stacked up around The Woods, the more I knew people were getting over that idea of “driving to another city” to see a show.

What shows stand out the most for you?

So many. Sean Lennon I loved, because he was so chill, and he stayed afterward and danced with us until 3:30 in the morning. And I’m a huge fan of Crooked Fingers, Dolorean, Pancake Breakcast—a lot of local shows I loved. Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock, that was a super-huge thrill for us. I think the secret shows I liked the best. Bands would want us to announce them the day before, and people would come out of the woodwork. Alela Diane did that, like, three times. Most all my memories are very positive. If people showed up and had fun, whether I thoroughly loved the band or if I wasn’t a huge fan of the music, I still had that tingle of a rush. Kind of like, “Holy shit, we pulled this off, people are here and having fun.”

One of the most popular regular events at The Woods was Monday night bingo. How did that even get started?

We had a really hard time finding anything to have on Monday. People refused to come to the Woods on Monday. We had a little meeting and asked, “What would need to happen for you to drive all the way to, say, St. Johns on a Monday?” It’d have to be theater or comedy or something. So we thought of bingo. We pushed Brian Perez, who lives in the neighborhood and has been a huge friend for a long time, to host. He has one of those personalities where, when he feels awkward, he starts making jokes, and he doesn’t have a filter. He just has a strange personality. We begged him, he said no, but then the first time he did it he freaked out and had a blast. For a while, Monday nights were my night off, and I didn’t want to go all the way to The Woods to hang out for my night off. Then I started hearing from friends that Monday is, like, the best night ever. So I went down and was really impressed by what Brian Perez and everyone working there was doing with that night. Way too many times I ended up going and getting drunk at the Woods on a Monday night.

There was something like 400 people there for the last bingo night.

It was really strange. People were tearing up. I was to keep repeating to myself, “It’s just bingo. It’s a game for people to have something to do on a Monday.” I still haven’t put my finger on what the emotional aspect of it was. Maybe like if one of your favorite TV shows was ending.

What are you going to miss most about the Woods?

The sense of family and solidarity. Everybody there was paid the exact same amount. Me, the door person, the person who swept the floors, we all made the same amount of money. There was no power structure there. When you walked in, it felt like a team of people working together. It almost felt like having a house party with your roommates every night. Like, “I’m tired today, but this is going to be really fun. Ee’re going to make this a really special night.” I think it was that, that challenge of trying as hard as we could to make it special for the people who walked through the doors, to make it special for the performers, and at the end of the night have a beer and talk about how great it was.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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