(Author’s warning: this story is bathed in “Star Trek” terms. Best to get a glossary if you’re not a fan.)
It’s late in the evening on a Thursday in October, and Scott Johnston has no time for chatting.
That’s not uncommon, as Johnston has forever flitted from gig-to-gig. Beloved to burlesque aficionados as the emcee/co-founder of Philadelphia’s Peek-a-Boo Revue, presently prepping for Halloween season as a live Haunter at the newly-opened Nightmare Before Tinsel, Johnston has been a crafter of YouTube videos under the Evilolive3000 tag, a FringeFest after-party organizer, a professional Frank-n-Furter, and a bouncer/booking agent for all things in the Mark Bee empire like Silk City, N3rd and Franky Bradley’s.
On this night, however, Johnston is behind a hot laptop editing console, working the final trims to the 90-minute, feature, “Showdown: 2020” (a film’s co-written/co-directed with Beth Kellner and Billy Tayoun) before its Oct. 29 opening in his guise as Captain Scotch Whiskey of The Roddenberries, Philadelphia’s – no, the planet’s, seriously, the entire solar system’s – premier “Star Trek” tribute band/multi-media panto, performance experience. Visit theroddenberries.com for tickets, times and more.
By its own account, The Roddenberries – the present version 11 members strong, costumed and pointy eared to the Vulcan nth degree – was forged to “explore sensible new parodies, seek out new allies, unite the Nerd-O-Sphere, and BOLDLY go where NO Star-Band has gone before.” The Roddenberries are darkly comic and bawdy too, using a handful of Peek A Boo dancers (Sophie Sucre, Ginger Leigh, Lefty Von Blitz, Bugalu Boogie) to burlesque-sex up the wooly spaceman act. But, there’s something so sweet and sincere about The Roddenberries’ prime directive that they have become both weirdly infectiously fictitious and vividly real, beyond any claims of kitsch.
Nerds or not, in reality, The Roddenberries are so much more than their tag line. Not just because, during their near decade-long reign, the band has come to include other artful oddball obsessions within the Trekkie mix, such as those from the computer gaming world, “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who,” and the Marvel/DC Comics universe long before each superhero’s origin story became scrubbed-clean, billion-dollar blockbusters. (Drummer Chris Pires was lured into The Roddenberries when Billy Tayoun told him it was a “Lord of the Rings” band. “He never saw ‘Star Trek,’ and was made to wear a red shirt because of these reasons”).
To this author, The Roddenberries represent the purest ideals that the band’s namesake, Gene Roddenberry, put forth as part of his mantra, and its notions of optimism, love, ingenuousness, openness, otherness, respect and equality for all, especially during a time when negativity, division and partisanship rule the earth. The Roddenberries live up to Roddenberry’s Theory of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, a future-forward vision where humanity overcomes its problems and outruns its differences – a way of coming together, not against a common enemy but rather for a common good.
“When we take the stage, we let our freak-flag fly: gender-swapped heroes, and rainbow-Klingons singing parodies of ‘Star Trek’ songs seems to be a uniting-force,” Johnston told me last year during the Gaaays in Spaaace benefit at World Café Live. “We hope that our efforts at celebrating IDIC principals has some small effect at advocating equality to the larger body of fans who need to be exposed to such progressive messages via showbiz.”
So great is the tracking beam love and lure of The Roddenberries that stars and creators of “Star Trek’s” many offshoots have become fans and collaborators of the Philadelphia troupe during their travels to Las Vegas for ComicCon conventions and like-minded soirees such as “Star Trek’s” 50th anniversary events in Vegas. Robert Picardo – the Emergency Medical Hologram known as The Doctor, on “Star Trek: Voyager” – has performed with them.
Rod Roddenberry, the son of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, the CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment, and the executive producer of “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” has sung their praises. “We had them perform for us for the 50th anniversary,” he wrote on The Roddenberries’ site. “They did take our name, but you know, I think they actually brought it up a level – not with just the music they do, and not just the performance they have, but the integrity that the group has. They have fun with it, they are genuine, and they really know how to bring a house down. The Roddenberries are a great musical group.”
Then there is J.G. Hertzler, the actor from “Star Trek Deep Space Nine” – notorious Chancellor Martok, high-ranking Klingon leader on the Federation-Bajoran space station – who thought so dearly of The Roddenberries’ unique melding of sci-fi rock-n-roll cabaret and parody, their “talent, humor, grit, insanity and sheer superhuman brilliance,” that he utilized their talents as film and music-makers for his congressional run in 2018. Now, pandemic bound, Hertzler is currently co-starring in “Showdown 2020” with fellow thespian Robert O’Reilly, Chancellor Gowron, the leader of the Klingon Empire, from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and a “Super Secret Special Star Trek guest star” to be named at airtime.
“There is no fucking way to describe or explain what the hell it will become,” said Hertlzer of the still-unfinished (at the time of our interview) “Showdown: 2020.” “It’s The Roddenberries, man. Deal with it.”
To deal with The Roddenberries, you have to know what their whole deal is in the first place.
Flying far into the wayback machine, The Roddenberries were born long before that one night at a Johnston-run Fringe Late Nite Cabaret in 2011 when a handful of soon-to-be band members started playing the iconic Trek “Amok Time” fight song. “We just didn’t figure it out and accept it until that night,” said Billy (“Spocknik”) Tayoun. “Suddenly, everything became dilithium crystal clear.”
Before that night, for example, Kellner (Sister Spock)’s earliest life memories were of watching the original Shatner/Nimoy “Star Trek” with her family. “Stellar parenting that created a lifetime of magic,” said Kellner, who had her first Fringe Late Nite Cabaret experience back in 2002 with an all-female Trek cover-band for one night, “Sister Spock.”
As for Billy and Joe (“J-Warp”) Tayoun – brothers, members of a musical family of Lebanese heritage with ensembles such as Jaffna and Barakka – their favorite thing to do as kids was to hit the piano and drumming to Trek music.
“Most of us started very young with our love of ‘Star Trek’ and essentially grew up with it,” said Tayoun. “Most of us were introduced to ‘Star Trek’ with the original series in syndication, and it was a family experience which affected us profoundly.”
Kellner finished a thought with, “It informed us musically, and also taught us some of the most basic lessons of life: equality, exploration outside of ourselves to find and embrace that which is different from us; acceptance of all species and the celebration of our differences. Basically, the ideals that Gene Roddenberry embraced through his utopian vision of ‘Star Trek’ were some of our earliest and most lasting lessons. Most of us would even go so far as to consider the principles of ‘Star Trek’ to have helped mold us into who we are today. Yes – we are nerds. EMBRACE US!”
Move beyond childhood and into the 21st century, it was the union of Kellner and Johnston and their love of all Trek ideals (“acceptance, tolerance, logic, courage, and unity,” noted Kellner) that created a bedrock – or space-junk – for Roddenberries revelry. When Kellner and Johnston met in 2006, their connection was as much about a shared obsession with all things “Spider-Man,” “Doctor Who,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the original “Battlestar Galactica,” “Buck Rogers,” pasties-and-G-string-style burlesque, and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as it was a budding romance.
“The first night Beth and I met for a date thingy, I saw she had all the original Trek series on VHS, labeled on her shelf, as well as all ‘The Prisoner’ episodes on VHS, labeled similarly,” said Johnston. “If that isn’t a divine signal from the geek gods, I don’t know what is.”
Kellner recalled that the first time she saw him in his role with Peek-a-Boo, that Johnston did a “crazy, awesome number” based on Ralph Bakshi’s animated “The Lord of the Rings,” pretty much every cycle to boot. “I was mesmerized. I instantly wanted in.”
The pair shot satirical shorts (including “Star Trek: The Sexperience,” a sort of Trek meets Cirque du Soleil) and documentaries about Trek conventions. They even nearly got hitched in 2010 for the sake of a Star Trek Wedding Giveaway contest at the Franklin Institute.
Between that, KellSton (their co-joined production team moniker) union and The Roddenberries exact birth, their ensemble gained steam (and eventual, like-minded members) from incestuous crossover performance art music that includes the likes of multi-instrumentalist Ned (“Zephram Coque-Ring”) Sonstein who played for the Striptease Orchestra, Peek-a-Boo and other cabarets, including The Big Mess and Martha Graham Cracker’s ensemble. “I’d like to think that we’re all just friends within the same circle and so we pool from each other,” said Kellner. “Having members in the band with past cabaret experience including has been an essential asset that informs much of our live performance approach.”
“When we take the stage, we let our freak-flag fly: gender-swapped heroes and rainbow-Klingons singing parodies of ‘Star Trek’ songs seem to be a uniting-force.”– Scott Johnston, emcee/co-founder of Philadelphia’s Peek-a-Boo Revue
Once united under the Trekian space-theme sound, the rarity of a band started getting booked to play at conventions such as the national Wizard World tour and the Hollywood-bound ComicCons. The more that The Roddenberries played out to the comic book crowd, the more wide-ranging their music and performance.
“It was only natural to start including even more themes into our material to appeal to more of the fellow nerds there to enjoy the conventions,” said Tayoun. “We really don’t know many Trekkies that also do not love other sci-fi or comics. We have gamers in The Roddenberries, and most of us love Marvel and DC stuff, so again, it was just a natural – but also a conscious and intentional – progression for us. When we did Keystone ComicCon, we performed with popular anime/gaming/animation voice actor Troy Baker (‘The Last of Us,’ ‘BioShock Infinite’, ‘Batman: Arkham Knight’) for the official after-party. When we found out that we were double-billed with him for the after-party, we learned the ‘Last of Us’ game theme to add to our set. Also the ‘Mass Effect’ theme, because it’s popular with gamers and, well, it ROCKS.”
Far beyond the galaxy that is Star Trek-Star Wars-Battlestar Galactica, old sci-fi movie and TV show themes, branching out into other sonic brands is crucial to The Roddenberries. “It just seemed organic and natural, and, anyway, people get bored easily with just one thing,” said Tayoun. “Even if you don’t get our general sci-fi theme, there will be plenty of original pop-rock and classic material mashed up into what we do.”
With that, Roddenberries-recorded albums such as the new “Eat The Roddenberries,” produced by superstar sound-crafter Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo at his Joe’s Garage studio complex, are lush and lustrous percussion-driven, post-punk affairs that, more often than not, resemble The B-52s at warp speed and hormonal overdrive with the death disco density of LCD Soundsystem in their zotzed-out mix.
“We hold equal importance to both the serious music we choose as well as the need to be silly – it’s all meaningful and a part of who we are and what we want to present,” noted Tayoun. “Our ‘Eat The Roddenberries’ album was recorded after a push for us to come up with a bunch of newer, ST: The Next Generation-themed material around the 30th anniversary of the show. The world of ‘Star Trek’ has always been beautifully peppered with the duality of the profound and the ridiculous.
For example, we do our own version of the ‘Inner Light’ episode’s most well-known song, in one of the most-loved episodes. It’s an emotional song and many fans have remarked to us how it has touched them deeply. Then we’ll give them ‘Spock Lobster,’ because that’s how we roll. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard, ‘Sometimes you just have to bow to the absurd.’
Albums aside, it is The Roddenberries’ vividly colorful and frenetic live show that made their bones, locally and nationally, with true Trek celebrations at conventions and the like.
“Bottom line, these are our people,” said Kellner. “What first initiated these relationships in the ‘Star Trek’ realm was that Roddenberry Entertainment heard about us through some of our fans at conventions that kept bringing us up, and then they stalked us online – there’s the biggest benefit of having filmmakers in the band for great content – and reached out to us to perform on the Roddenberry Stage for the Star Trek Las Vegas 50th Anniversary Star Trek celebration.”
From there, The Roddenberries were immersed into the magical realm of the “Star Trek” universe, and blessed to connect with generals and majors in that close-knit realm. “If you talk to anyone who is involved in the Trekiverse, they all say the same thing: that this is a family,” stated Tayoun. “We were in a changing room with Trevor Roth and Rod Roddenberry, and off of a loading dock behind the Roddenberry Stage, which brought many of the Trek guests into the backstage panel catacombs where we were preparing for our sets. So, yeah – pretty sure that Shatner, and maybe Kirstie Alley, saw Sister Spock’s boobs while she was changing behind a monitor out there on that loading dock.”
There’s no need to go on-and-on here about how COVID-19 fucked up things on this planet. It fucked up everything in every distant star galaxy light years away, especially at a time when The Roddenberries were just planning a touring cycle back in March for its freshly-released “Eat” LP.
“We had this huge show lined up for World Café Live in June, with these amazing special guests who had already agreed to be involved – like Hetzler and O’Reilly, and John Paladin, (famed FX makeup artist for “Star Trek” actors, all) was going to come in to do their makeup and prosthetics as he does for conventions,” said Tayoun. “Then the pandemic hit, and then our June show became our October show. And then we realized that, even if the safety regulations/barriers/boundaries/restrictions expanded, it still wouldn’t be enough to safely accommodate a show of this nature and magnitude – for the performers as well as the audience.”
Kellner, Tayound and Johnston knew, then that they needed to go virtual, not just by necessity, but, because The Roddenberries en masse didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to work with both Hertzler and O’Reilly, the amazing Klingon DS9 duo.
“When they both agreed to be involved in a virtual show with us – however that was going to work out – we set out to figure how we could best make a show that would be fun for us, entertaining for us and for our audience, SAFE for all involved, but also different than anything we had done in the past,” said Kellner. “Not just because the show was now to be virtual, per se; but because we had a theme and a storyline – and these amazing actors – including our secret guests. And the drive to figure out how to bring what was to be a huge live show into audience homes around the globe. And then came some little vignettes, and faux-mercials, and every other crazy aspect of what we’re including in this virtual spectacle – and our first, full-length film 90 minutes of pure. Star Trek. Klingon. Roddenberries. Magic.”
Before getting to “Showdown 2020,” a word about J.G. Hertzler, the 12th Roddenberry.
Going back to that Star Trek 50th Anniversary celebration in Vegas in 2016, The Roddenberries were playing onstage in one room, rocking out like their lives depended upon it, while J.G. and Bob O’Reilly were in the next room over doing their Klingon Karaoke night. “And by next room, we mean a huge, stadium-sized convention room, partially divided by some moving walls,” said Tayoun. “We were running over into their act on the other side of this HUGE partition.
JG ran over to freak on us as we were apparently “invading” their show. He was pissed. We kept going. Scott made him a cardboard guitar to use, as they didn’t have one. JG accepted said shitty cardboard guitar for the karaoke extravaganza, then proceeded to destroy it and throw it to the fans. Scott was sad; JG was as happy as a Klingon in a huge pile of the freshest Gagh that Kahless has ever seen. He pretended to strangle Scott onstage at Klingon karaoke. The shows ended. We became friends. Blame Scott’s sacrificial guitar for the beginning of our friendship.”
Kellner called Hertzler a kindred spirit to The Roddenberries, their Rock-N-Roll Klingon uncle. “After we forged our relationship in Scott’s imaginary blood, we made our first full-band trek – all puns intended – to upstate New York to perform for his congressional candidacy fundraiser (Hertzler announced, in June 2017, his candidacy as a U.S. House Representative for New York’s 23rd congressional district in the 2018 midterm elections).
It was that weekend that solidified the Hertzler/Roddenberries friendship, so-much-so that when he travelled to Philly to shoot additional campaign promo videos, he also agreed to get all dolled-up as Martok for the band’s previous album release last year at World Café Live, and actually played keyboards with the band. “JG’s a rockstar too, and we only hope that he wants to align himself with us forever,” said Tayoun.
Hertzler, aware of the oddball tightrope he walks as an actor in the “Star Trek” universe (“You go out on the weirdest interviews ever and you sink or swim, but with ‘Star Trek’ you’re on water skis traveling at warp speed on the thinnest of ice into the future…but so fast that you drag along your entire past with you. Greatest feeling in this or any other world”), remembers the anger and joy of meeting The Roddenberries.
“‘F-this,’ I went storming to the Rodds show because they were supposed to be finished, but they kept on playing, making our show impossible. I walked to the stage transfixed by the weirdest-looking and best-sounding rock and roll band ever… stormed up to the stage yelling…’what the F are you doing’ while Scott was down stage-center in some oddly conceived costume of leather chaps, Klingon makeup, and sequin-pasties.”
That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. “They made the best damn political campaign videos with the band and me included, and if the rest of my campaign for Congress in 2018 was as well-handled as the Rodds commercials, I’d be in Congress right now. I would have given my right… to be in Congress with access to the press, so that I might speak about Trump and his push to Make America Gangster Again. Anyway, one thing led to another and now we’ve all sworn our love and allegiance to each other come hell or Rura Penthe. Same thing.”
Hertzler joked about getting involved in “Showdown: 2020” as some funny form of Trek financial aid.
“They sold tickets, spent the money, couldn’t pay it off, had to do some kind of show. I work cheap, got Gowron committed, he hates me now, then (Super Secret Special Star Trek guest star)…he’s always hated me… the rest is history,” said Hertzler. “How does my duel with Gowron work? Only the Rodds can answer that. Bill, Scott, Beth and Kevin, and Falon – there are about 50 members of the Rodds, all making up the most unusual and complicated show band ever conceived – shot my footage in upstate New York state. They shot footage with Robert O’Reilly in California. They assembled footage behind a soundproof Iron Curtain made of pure bullshit and added their incredible music, the Star Trek Parodies, the Aaron Copeland, the Beethoven. They got me to sign an NDA for our entire relationship, made an enormous cash settlement, and promised enduring love for the rest of our time on this planet.”
Put in human terms, the trio of writer-filmmakers, producers (Tayoun, Kevin Gallagher, Andrew Geller) and choreographer Danielle Currica, brought “Showdown: 2020” to Rittenhouse Filmworks where Gallagher is employed. Tayound and Kellner both credit the studio’s involvement and environment with pushing “Showdown: 2020” to look like an actual movie, as opposed to a series of quarantine-style music videos.
As for the film’s concept beyond its dramatic showcase for The Roddenberries soundtrack “Showdown: 2020” was is about Gowron vs. Martok in a battle for lifetime Klingon Chancellor. “With this being the most important election year we’ve seen in our lifetimes, we definitely wanted to have an election theme,” said Kellner. “So, why not a Klingon election?”
Tayoun noted the bond between “J.G. and Bob” having worked together for decades made their appearance as part of “Showdown: 2020” as comfortable with one another as with the Philly crew. “They argue like old pirates,” he said. “Just seeing the natural chemistry they have together for Klingon karaoke at conventions – you can’t bottle that. We don’t want to give too much away, but, they’re definitely frenemies in ‘Showdown: 2020,’ and have our utmost respect for the crazy shit we’ve made them do. We’re setting the stage for a fun and funny, whimsical farce belonging to the Klingon nation. Who will be Chancellor for Life…we’ll see. We’ve also peppered in winks to Halloween as ‘Showdown: 2020’ premieres that weekend. We LOVE Halloween.”
Beyond Trek or Halloween, a human aspect of The Roddenberries is the long-term, home-bound relationship between Kellner and Johnston who have been together ever since that 2006 date. As both live and work as Peek-a-Boo Revuers, Roddenberries and joint filmmakers, the pair are together more than Gowron and Martok.
“Scott and I are used to bouncing ideas off of one another, and try to be honest with mutual feedback,” said Kellner. “That’s helpful when creating a show; good to have someone else around who has your back and can jump in to rhinestone, sew, write or voiceover something if time is tight. Sometimes it’s rough to be in a band together when you live, sleep and work together. For instance, the absolute shit-show of costumes and props that takes over the entire downstairs of our house before and after a show, or in the case of ‘Showdown: 2020’; a shoot, can be overwhelming. Between the two of us – sometimes I alone have upwards of 10 or so costume changes – to say nothing of costuming band-members, dancers, props, etc., it ends up being an awful lot.
And I’m the one who does the laundry. So, we’ve gotten tense around each other surrounding show days and band responsibilities. But we support each other and never finish the day on a sour note between us. It’s one of our relationship choices. He’s more of a big-picture, ideas guy, whereas I tend to be detail-oriented and stress about the process of preparing for a show. We balance each other out: that’s the foundation of an 18-year friendship and love.”
Real world – or at least, one of those worlds – aside, The Roddenberries, like each of the “Star Trek” series, comes with a message of humanity and acceptance of our differences. “‘Star Trek’ began as a very progressive, socially conscious and highly liberal series,” Johnston told me last year. “It walked ahead of much of pop-culture.”
So too does The Roddenberries’ debut cinematic effort, “Showdown: 2020,” walk ahead of much of what is out there.
“By the end of the film, there shouldn’t be any question of our dedication to entertaining, regardless of the limitations and challenges imposed by a global pandemic,” said Tayoun. “What were we thinking of undertaking such a mammoth and multi-faceted project? That’s our job as a Star band, creating things we haven’t seen or done yet. Who knows where our next adventure will take us, but for now, The Roddenberries’ “Showdown: 2020” on Halloween weekend is us… going boldly.”