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For more than 30 years, John Kiesewetter has been the source for information about all things in local media – comings and goings, local people appearing on the big or small screen, special programs, and much more. Local media is still his beat and he’s bringing his interest, curiosity, contacts and unique style to Cincinnati Public Radio and 91.7 WVXU. Contact John at johnkiese@yahoo.com.

Kentucky Symphony Conjures The Spirit Of Spike Jones' Musical Mayhem

New Orleans percussionist and musem owner Carl Bank performs as 1950s bandleader Spike Jones.
Courtesy Kentucky Symphony Orchesta
New Orleans percussionist and museum owner Carl Mack performs as 1950s bandleader Spike Jones.

The KSO 'murders the classics' with Carl Mack's cowbells, car horns, fire alarms, belches, hiccups and plenty of gunshots.

Carl Mack gives it another shot performing Spike Jones' wacky renditions with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

Mack returns to help the KSO murder the "William Tell Overture," "Pagliacci" and other classics with cowbells, oogah horns and pistol shots. It's a reprise of the "Spike Jones and His City Slickers" shows Banks did with the KSO in 2006 in Devou Park, and 2003 at the Madison Theater.

They'll do Jones' favorite song spoofs from his 1950s TV shows: "William Tell," "Holiday For Strings," "Cocktails For Two," "Dance of the Hours," "That Old Black Magic," "Chloe," "None By The Lonely Heart," "Rhapsody From Hunger(y)," "Der Fuehrer's Face," "Farandole/Hall of the Mountain King" and others.

I've seen this show twice, and it's unbelievable how Mack and J.R. Cassidy's KSO perfectly replicates all the gunshots, gurgles, car horns, cowbells, sneezes, screams, barking dogs, belches and hiccups that I heard on my dad's records and my CDs.

For those unfamiliar with Jones' music – or have never heard "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" – the City Slickers would play it straight for a page or so before driving off a cliff. The harp melody of "Holiday For Strings" suddenly gets hijacked by a clucking hen and cowbells. "William Tell" turns into a horse race. Jones' condensed the opera "Carmen" into about 10 minutes (and 18 gunshots).

Mack, 64, a New Orleans musician-turned-museum operator, owns Jones' one-of-a-kind three-octave tuned cowbells. KSO arranger Terry Labolt wrote most of the charts after listening to the musical mayhem made by Jones in the 1940s and '50s. (Jones died in 1965 at age 53.)

"There was nothing ever written down. There were no arrangements," said Mack earlier this week. He was speaking by phone while shopping for ammunition "blanks," or gun cartridges that provide an explosive sound discharging a bullet.

"They sold me the wrong blanks. They don't fit," he said.

Mack was heading to Home Depot to look at .22 caliber cartridges for roofing guns. He needed several hundred for KSO rehearsals, his Saturday night show in Covington's Devou Park and Sunday night at Fort Thomas' Tower Park.

For this KSO encore 15 years later, Cassidy has added new some charts from LaBolt for Jones' "Fiddle Faddle," "Charlestono Mio" and "Alto, Baritone and Bass."

Mack grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where he studied keyboard and drums at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. In 1983, at age 25, he decided not to pursue a career as a percussionist and moved to New Orleans. He put bicycle wheels on a three-octave marimba and started performing as "Mr. Xylophone Man" during the 1984 World's Fair. Now he operates the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture at 1010 Conti St. in the French Quarter.

In 1989-90, he produced and performed a "new vaudeville" show for a couple years. About that time he bought Jones' prized cowbells from Colonel Vic Tooker, a famous musician from the Delta Queen Riverboat who was a friend of George Rock, the Ohio native and City Slickers trumpet player who did the child-like falsetto vocals on "Two Front Teeth."

Except for Mack, all the talent on stage this weekend is local. Cassidy has recruited Steve Bruns again to do the syncopated hiccups, burps and other vocal effects, along with newcomer David Haltermon. Josh and Brooke Steele play the couple in the “None But the Lonely Heart” soaperetta. Singers Josh and Schyler Vargas play country comedians Homer and Jethro. Michael Bath warbles Doodles Weaver’s "Man On The Flying Trapeze."

Mack's rehearsals are more than just learning musical notes on a page. He's made detailed stage instructions to perform all the bells and whistles.

And gunshots.

"It will say, 'Put slide whistle in mouth before song. Put pistol in right hand. Keep hammer in left hand. Stand close to the oogah horn.' Sometimes I've got to honk a horn, blow the police whistle, then the duck call, and fire a pistol all in succession."

He's looking forward to a reunion this weekend with the KSO.

"They do a really great job. This Spike Jones music is brilliant and so well played," Mack said.

If You Go: Peformances are 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Devou Park in Covington, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Tower Place in Fort Thomas. No admission charge; donations are encouraged and appreciated. Bring blankets, lawn chairs and picnics. Concessions will be available in Devou Park; food trucks will be at Tower Park. Limited free parking available at both locations.

On Saturday, a TANK shuttle will depart every half hour from Covington Catholic High School, 1600 Dixie Highway, starting at 6 p.m. Cost is $1 each way. Masks must be worn on the bus.

For more information or directions, visit kyso.org or call (859) 431-6216.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.