Jack Rhodes, playing Brett Swaggard, took aim during the Duck Soup Players production of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Jeffrey Thompson, Star Tribune

Small audiences, major fun

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER
  • Star Tribune
  • December 12, 2007 - 12:02 AM

About 10 minutes into a performance of "My Old Kentucky Home," Jack Rhodes bursts onto the makeshift stage wearing a colorful waistcoat, tails and bow tie, and launches into "Camptown Ladies." You know the one -- "Doo-da, doo-da."

The songs, jokes and campy dialogue from Rhodes and the rest of the six-member cast don't let up for an hour.

The audience is small, but this crowd of senior citizens knows a good joke when it goes flying by.

By day, Rhodes, 62, is chief of staff for the Ramsey County attorney's office. By night, he's an actor with the Duck Soup Players, a theater group that performs in senior high rises, nursing homes, church basements and other venues.

The troupe's most recent production wrapped up Tuesday night, but at a performance last week in the brightly lit community room at Raymie Johnson Estates in Stillwater, the one-liners flew fast and furious. At times, the two dozen or more seniors in the audience were doubled over in laughter; sometimes they groaned.

There is even room for Rhodes' one-liners at his day job.

"It's not entirely a surprising thing that Jack does comedy on the side because we can always count on him for one-liners," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "Some are groaners, but more often they just have us in stitches."

On the professional side

Rhodes is not an attorney. He wants to make that clear. He's an administrator.

"Susan is a very, very accomplished attorney and she doesn't need an attorney to tell her how to practice law," he said. "She just needs someone to help her run the office."

Rhodes' job involves day-to-day issues such as budgets, policy and personnel issues.

He talks with great pride about the job. "I just think it's an incredible privilege to work in a county attorney's office and in my job. I wish the public knew all the work that goes on in an office like this," he said. "There's the public-safety function and prosecution work and some very, very serious cases that have a lot to do with quality of life in the community."

Gaertner talks with pride about her chief of staff, too.

"He's a tremendous administrator," she said. "He is a wonderful manager. He draws the best out of people and, most importantly, he keeps his head on while those around him are losing theirs."

Rhodes' degrees are in journalism and communications. He grew up in Washington state and graduated from the University of Washington at Seattle. In 1967, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Sarawak, Malaysia, where he traveled on foot and motorcycle advising teachers on implementing an English language syllabus.

After earning a master's degree from Ohio University in Athens, he moved to the Twin Cities in 1971. Following a short stint at Sun Newspapers, he joined the St. Paul Dispatch. He said he was the last reporter to file copy using the teletype machine and later was the last city editor at the Dispatch before it merged with the morning Pioneer Press.

There, he was an assistant metro editor, a deputy metro editor and lastly, a sports project reporter in the year the Twin Cities hosted the Super Bowl, Final Four and World Series.

Rhodes eventually realized it was time to do something different. He worked for the Minnesota State Universities System as director of communications and for a short time as acting associate vice chairman for advancement.

In 1997, he learned Gaertner was looking for a chief of staff. Although he wasn't sure he was "the right person for the job, hopefully, after 10 years I've demonstrated some ability at it," he said.

Where does he find the time?

Duck Soup Players demands a lot of hours from its cast members, who also are the crew, stage hands and roadies. The troupe does two or three productions a year, with each lasting about two months. There are two, three or even four shows a week.

But for Rhodes, there's no question that it is worth every minute.

"No one could ask for or hope for more appreciative audiences than ours," he said. "We get wonderful comments from audiences. It's so gratifying. And there's the added plus of entertaining some people who might not have a chance to get to live theater."

Rhodes had done some theater in high school and college, and even took on a role as an inmate in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at the old Chimera Theatre in St. Paul. But raising children precluded all that until just a few years ago.

He was cast in "Cheaper by the Dozen" with the Lakeshore Players in White Bear Lake and met Patrick Bettendorf, founder of the Duck Soup Players.

"My dog was in a play with him," Bettendorf said. "I thought he was a cool guy."

Bettendorf figured Rhodes would make a great, somewhat-shady cop and gave him the title role in "Nick Ace, P.I." -- the show before "My Old Kentucky Home."

"I would love to do this forever, for as long as I can," Rhodes said of his Duck Soup gig.

"Some people bowl. Some people jump out of airplanes for fun. Some people get in front of audiences."

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551

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