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Getting New Laughs Out of Old Movies : Improv: L.A. Connection reshapes 'Wrestling Women' with a mix of comedy, sound effects and music.

July 20, 1994|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a version of the film "The Blob" where the amorphous alien comes to Earth not as a hostile invader, but as a Henny Youngman-type comedian looking for a gig on "The Tonight Show." Or, how about a movie featuring Cyrano de Bergerac as a hard-luck fellow whose limited job skills reduce him to punching out the holes in doughnuts with his oversized schnoz.

No, these aren't old Mel Brooks screenplays that never reached fruition. Rather, they are multimedia presentations by the L.A. Connection comedy troupe, which reshapes old movies by dropping out their soundtracks and replacing them with live comedy dialogue, sound effects and music.

For the past dozen years, the L.A. Connection's irreverent actor-writers have navigated a host of campy and classic film characters through a variety of outrageous new situations. In many cases, the group's rewrites contain only a tangential connection to the films' original plots and characters. (During screenings, the actors- who are accompanied by a keyboard player--sit in the front of the theater with microphones.)

"Everybody does what we do in a way," says actor-writer Kent Skov, who is also the founder and director of the L.A. Connection. "We all sit at home and comment on what we see on TV. That's why watching this process is so much fun. It's kind of like living out the (outlandish) thoughts and scenarios that go through people's minds while they watch TV or movies."

Tonight at the Nuart Theatre, the troupe will present its version of the 1962 film, "Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy." This obscure piece of cinema is every bit as cheesy as its title suggests. In the original film, a mummy rises from the dead and attempts to reclaim a necklace taken from its crypt by a team of women wrestlers. In the L.A. Connection version, Skov and company up the camp quotient by throwing into the film's wrestling motif a wedding, a honeymoon at a theme park called Aztecland, a love-struck mummy and a stream of wacky jokes.

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This performance will represent the sixth time the L.A. Connection has tackled "Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy." But like all its films that receive repeat performances, the script will be updated to reflect current social topics.

The L.A. Connection delivered its first live film presentation in 1982. It occurred after Terry Thoren, who was then an executive of the Landmark Theater chain, asked the group to do a performance of the 1958 B movie, "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman," at the old Fox Venice theater.

"We only had one week to prepare for that performance," recalls Skov. "There wasn't a videotape of the movie available, so we had to rent a 16mm projector to use during rehearsals. It was a nightmare trying to wind the projector back and forth" so they could map out the dialogue for each scene.

"But we sold out the performance and did an encore three weeks later to 600 people. We figured we had something exciting because we couldn't always sell out 40 or 45 seats in our own theater (in Sherman Oaks) doing conventional improv comedy."

Since then, the L.A. Connection has turned film dubbing into a virtual art form. The troupe tailors its dialogue so that it closely matches the lip movements of the characters on the screen. This can be a laborious process, says Skov, since the group is trying to achieve this sense of reality while attempting to develop a script that's involving and funny.

The improv group also tries to keep each of its performances under 90 minutes. With some longer films, Skov will take out an entire 20-minute reel rather than selectively edit a work in a way that some might find objectionable.

However, during a performance of the film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a projectionist once included and excluded the wrong reels. This left the actors scrambling to whip up new dialogue on the spot.

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A similar predicament developed during a presentation of "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein."

"We had planned to do the R-rated version of the movie but (the distributor) sent us the X-rated version by mistake," remembers Skov. "Because we had screened the uncut X-rated version a couple of times prior to deciding to do the R-rated version, we were familiar with some of the additional scenes that came up. But it was a shock that we had to improvise for 20 minutes. Boy, that really threw us for a loop!"

Skov feels the L.A. Connection is actually better known and appreciated in a number of cities outside of the Los Angeles area. Thanks to the group's television appearances, it has managed to develop solid followings in cities such as Detroit, Tucson and Denver.

The improv group first gained national attention in 1983 when it landed a regular spot dubbing film clips on Alan Thicke's short-lived "Thicke of the Night" variety show. Two years later it had its own syndicated TV series called "Mad Movies." But poor ratings contributed to the program's demise in 1986, though episodes of the group's dubbed movies did subsequently reappear on several cable networks. Last November, the Arts & Entertainment Network also aired a one-hour L.A. Connection special called "Movie Madness Mystery."

"I would absolutely love to do more TV," Skov says. "We've done syndicated and cable TV. A network series would be the last step. If we got that kind of exposure, we would be that close to becoming a household name."

* The L.A. Connection will perform "Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy" tonight at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles , at 8 p.m. Admission $10. Information: (310) 478-6379 or (818) 784-1868.

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