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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

A two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Many of you have experienced Trace Beaulieu's work as an actor on Freaks & Geeks and as a writer for America's Funniest Home Videos, but most will remember him as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and the wisecracking Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000. You probably haven't heard about his other real-life roles: Trace the artist, Trace the ice show roustabout, Trace the chicken farmer, or Trace the child who refuses to grow up.

Beaulieu currently tours with several other original MST3K stars and writers under the moniker Cinematic Titanic. The crew is still riffing on movies, the older and the cheesier the better, and they're doing it live. mental_floss research editor Kara Kovalchik interviewed Trace a few days ago to talk about the troupe's upcoming shows in Detroit and Durham, NC (where the _floss was founded), the origins of MST3K, and how he earned the label of "Renaissance Man."

Kara Kovalchik: You did some kind of presentation in L.A. on [February] the 16th. Could you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: That was [with] Dana Gould, who's a stand-up comic and writer. We've known him for years and years. He has been a huge fan of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space, and has a very personal relationship with that film, and actually was a very good friend of Maila Nurmi, who portrayed Vampira. And so he asked Frank and Josh and I to come out and riff on that with him last night at Meltdown Comics.

KK: Was it scripted like Cinematic Titanic, or off-the-cuff?

TB: Frank and I joined Dana in Seattle a few months ago, and we did this same film. We kinda walked through it once. It was pretty free-wheeling and impromptu, very much different than CT. You know, it's really going back to the roots of Mystery Science Theater, too, because that was all improv'ed at KTMA when we first started out. It's kinda come full circle.

KK: You're kind of the "Renaissance man" of the CT crew. You used to do stand-up, you were part of an ice show, you helped build the sets for MST, you've written for America's Funniest Home Videos, you appeared on Freaks & Geeks...
At left, Beaulieu on TV's Freaks and Geeks

TB: I think I get pinned with the "Renaissance man" title because that's the type of clothing I prefer to wear. It's a little embarrassing for the others, but, tights and couplets and...

KK: And the codpiece, too.

TB: Absolutely! (laughs) That's what makes the man.

KK: Do you have a favorite amongst those jobs? What did you want to be when you grew up?

TB: No, I don't think I've ever really decided what I want to be. And I don't think I've grown up. So it's still a journey. I like a blend, and that's why I loved MST so much, because I got to do all of that stuff. It's all challenging; it's all problem-solving. I like that aspect of whatever project I'm working on.

As we'll learn later in the interview, Trace spent a lot of of his youth creating things, but he also managed to find time to plant himself in front of the television and absorb the pop-culture fodder that he'd later use in MST3K and Cinematic Titanic.

KK: Back when you were doing MST, many of the references were so esoteric, they could only come from someone who'd spent far too much time watching TV (like I did). Did you ever get outdoors as a child?

TB: It didn't take as much time to watch television when we were kids, because there were only three networks. And television ended – it wasn't a continuing 24-hour thing. It was refreshing, actually. "It's over. I can't stay up any later. Thank God!"

KK: But your parents were okay with it?

TB: I would find myself watching stupid shows like Batman or Time Tunnel, and would turn the channel over to the news when my folks came in the room 'cause I didn't want them to see the crap that I was watching.

KK: But when you parlayed that into making a living, your dad encouraged your career.

TB: Very much so. Even more than I would encourage it.

A perfect storm came together to spark life into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator and inventor Joel Hodgson worked with Trace to develop the show's sets in a way that gave them freedom to focus on the show's content. While the robots attracted and the bad movies repelled, the jokes kept the audience coming back week after week. And the home of it all was a set Beaulieu helped build: the Satellite of Love.


Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy on set at MST3K

KK: Each episode of MST3K gave "special thanks" to Skyline Displays [a Minnesota-based manufacturer of trade show displays]. You and your brother were involved in that, right?

TB: Everybody in my family was involved [in Skyline] at one time or another. And we thanked them in the credits because they gave us access to this warehouse and office that Best Brains [the production company behind MST3K] was housed in. They let us be in there for a year or so without paying rent. It allowed us to have a studio that we could build out to our own specifications. Also, we could have standing sets. All these other places we looked at, like real television studios, wouldn't allow us to keep the sets up. So it was a real boost to what we did, and how the show was formed. It's little mentioned and I'm glad that you picked up on that. A great deal of credit is deserved in that direction, because it gave us a home.

KK: So your work there prepared you for building sets?

TB: We grew up making stuff. There's this "maker movement" now. Well, we were doing that as kids. We had a workshop, and access to tools, and there was never any question that ... if you want something, you make it. Or you can fix stuff, and we picked up the skills as we went along.

KK: For the first five or six seasons of the show, Joel and the Mad Scientists participated in a weekly "invention exchange." Did you Mads come up with your own, or was that all Joel?

TB: Those were all really left over from Joel's [stand-up comedy] act. When we ran out of stuff to steal from his act, either he came up with more of them, or we as a group discussed what we would do. And the invention exchanges became weirder and weirder; the Mad Scientists dressed as pirates... I think we even did a Billie Jean King thing.

KK: Oh, yes.

TB: We strayed a bit from the invention exchange. (laughs)

The focus of both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is the art of "riffing," or interacting with a motion picture in a humorous but somewhat unobtrusive way. Unlike the action at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the comments are mostly made in between the dialogue and action.

KK: As mental_floss researchers, we have a hard time watching a TV show or movie without analyzing it for trivia or quiz use. Do you have the same trouble in those situations, always going over riffs in your head?

TB: I don't really watch with an eye towards harvesting something for CT. When looking for something to write, we're really working in a specific area. When I watch movies for just sheer entertainment, I can just get lost in just whether they're good or not.

KK: You've long expressed a fondness for monster movies. Do you still try to push those in Cinematic Titanic?

TB: We really look for a movie that has a plot that you can kinda follow, and spaces in the dialogue for us to insert what we need to do. And then all of those elements – bad acting, bad sets, bad production values. You should be able to see it. It should be lit at least reasonably well. You should be able to hear it, and it should have some coherency to it. Otherwise, you just go "What? I don't know where we are!" You're put down in a hedgerow maze.

KK: In the days of MST3K, the writers' room was where you watched movies and wrote the scripts and bounced material off one another. Do all of you still get together like that, or are you too spread out?

TB: I live in Minnesota. Josh and Frank live in L.A. Joel's in Pennsylvania, and Mary Jo's in Texas.

KK: So how does the procedure work?

TB: We each do a pass on the film on our own, and then all of that's combined into one big script, and then we tape sections of that and we go through and edit out the jokes that aren't particularly good for that moment of the film. When that pass is done, that goes to Josh, who'll do a final look-see joke pass on that, and then we'll all get it back again and make notations or corrections. And when we get together when we're going to perform it, we do a full rehearsal and rewrite session. And we're constantly working on it. As we go from town to town, we're making improvements, or finding things that work better.

KK: I would imagine that on MST3K, your jokes could be more esoteric because you had a much larger TV audience, whereas CT performs live in front of smaller crowds.

TB: Well, we want the immediate feedback, so we want the jokes to work and to land right away. But we still find ourselves thrilling in really obscure and really just-for-us jokes. In this one joke Josh and I were talking about last night, we make a reference to Pat Paulsen wine. [Deadpan 1960s comedian Paulsen tried his hand as a vintner in the early 1980s.] It just does not get a laugh at all. But in spite of the fact that it didn't get a laugh, he called it back later in the show, just to further prove that it wasn't funny.

KK: Isn't it weird that Josh is now known as J. Elvis, and your last name is the same as Priscilla's [Elvis Presley's ex-wife]?

TB: It's creepy. And I often dress as Lincoln.


The cast of Cinematic Titanic: (L-R) Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Frank Conniff.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes work on MST3K and his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester, Beaulieu was also the voice and puppeteer behind Crow T. Robot, he of bowling-pin beak and hockey-mask hair. Beaulieu's seven seasons in character were the most of any actor. (The role of Crow was taken over in Season 8 by Bill Corbett.)

KK: When you riff – now, or like you did as Crow – do you put on a "mask" of sorts that allows you to act and react in a different way?

TB: I think it's all an extension of my personality. Crow was more of the character, and I was able to get away with a lot more through that character, because robots can say anything.

KK: So you're not the life of the party like Crow?

TB: I'm probably quieter. Yeah.

KK: I've handled a life-size Crow puppet before, and it's a difficult thing to control. Joel designed the robot, but you helped fine-tune it, especially on the inside. How did you bring him to life?

TB: I had a little bit of experience puppeteering, just being around theater and making goofy props for friends and for myself, but nothing that formalized.

KK: Crow was pretty heavy, right?

TB: Yes, I had forearms like a major-league pitcher. We had the advantage, we could rest it on the table a little bit. It did get pretty heavy. It was like puppeteering a car jack.

KK: When Bill Corbett took over as Crow, he mentioned that for the first couple episodes, the robot looked like he'd had a stroke since he was still learning how to maneuver the eyes properly.

TB: I kind of figured out how to work it because, building the mechanism and having worked it for such a long time, I could figure out how it was supposed to operate. But I was gone long before Bill picked up the puppet. I think he did a fantastic job given the nature of that pile of plastic. It wasn't easy to operate when I was doing it. It was unwieldy.

Click here for Part 2 of Kara's interview with Trace Beaulieu, where he reveals his skills as an artist and children's poet, talks about his brother's amazing work with green housing, and what to expect at a Cinematic Titanic show.

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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
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Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-A-LIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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15 Things You Didn't Know About Betty White
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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 96th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. HER NAME IS BETTY, NOT ELIZABETH

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. SHE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. HER FIRST TELEVISION APPEARANCE IS LOST TO HISTORY.

A photo of Betty White
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Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. WHITE'S RISE TO STARDOM WAS DERAILED BY WORLD WAR II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. HER FIRST SITCOM HIT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950S.

A photo of actress Betty White
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Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she's won five times.

6. WHITE LOVES A PARADE.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES.


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White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. HER MEET-CUTE WITH HUSBAND #3 HAPPENED ON PASSWORD.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. WHITE ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF BLANCHE ON THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

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Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. IF SHE HADN'T BEEN AN ACTOR, SHE'D HAVE BEEN A ZOOKEEPER.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. SHE DIDN'T DO AS GOOD AS IT GETS BECAUSE OF AN ANIMAL CRUELTY SCENE.

A photo of actress Betty White
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White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN MADE WHITE THE OLDEST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HOST EVER.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. SHE IS THE OLDEST PERSON TO EARN AN EMMY NOMINATION.


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In 2014, White earned her 21st Emmy nod—and her third in a row for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program—for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. SHE LOVES JUNK FOOD.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. SHE WANTS ROBERT REDFORD.

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White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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