FORT KENT, Maine — Forget anything you’ve heard about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. In this community, the lions wait for April to make their big entrance.
For decades, the annual Fort Kent Lions Pride of the Lions Show has been as much a sign of spring as the first robin, longer days and ice-out.
And, quite possibly, more anticipated.
For three nights in April the group performs to sold-out crowds in the University of Maine at Fort Kent Fox Auditorium. This year they take to the stage at 8 p.m. April 4, 5 and 6.
“People start lining up two hours before we open the doors,” Marc Chasse, longtime Lion and show host, said recently. “We officially open the doors at six and have several warm-up acts to keep the people entertained before the real show begins.”
What the crowds are coming to see — and what keeps bringing them back year after year — is a combination of beloved Lions show characters and the often irreverent take on current events.
Chasse is the first to admit people are not coming for the talent.
“Back when we started this up we did not have a musician in the club or anyone with any real talent,” he said. “But that didn’t stop us.”
The Fort Kent Lions show dates back to the 1950s, when the club members performed in minstrel shows, complete with blackface makeup.
Over the years, membership ebbed, and in 1982 Chasse decided bringing the show back with a more modern production was just the shot in the arm needed for the club’s dwindling ranks.
“We were 10 members then,” he said. “And like most clubs around, we were dying out.”
So in the best Judy Garland-Andy Rooney tradition, the group decided to put on a show.
“We printed out 1,350 tickets and by opening night we had sold 50,” Chasse said.
But those 50 ticket-holders liked what they saw and word of the performers’ antics parodying everything and everyone from politicians to Catholic nuns, in addition to some of Fort Kent’s more prominent male citizens appearing in drag, spread around town like wildfire.
“Thanks to word-of-mouth we filled the auditorium the next two nights,” Chasse said. “We knew then we had a show.”
Among those who were there at that 1982 debut was Ellery “Arms” Labbe, who every year since has donned suspenders and an oversized tie, removed his false teeth and transformed into “Ti-Joe,” sort of a St. John Valley “Everyman” whose trials and tribulations at the hands of his long-suffering girlfriend “Rosalie” are well known among Lions show fans.
For years Rosalie existed only in Ti-Joe’s narratives, but in recent years fellow Lion Pat Pelletier brought her to life.
“He was my first ‘girlfriend,’” Labbe joked. “I just came up with the character of Ti-Joe one day with a story about a guy going to New Canada and picking up a girl.”
So popular and familiar is Ti-Joe, all Labbe really has to do is step out on stage to get the audience laughing.
“We really just make fun of ourselves,” he said.
Other regulars making appearances over the years include the pajama-wearing and somewhat confused Ti-Pot, the bespectacled Tante Rose, T-Dood, T-Coon, lumberjacks, superheroes, ne’er-do-wells, clergy, celebrities and a whole host of state and local politicians.
“Gov. LePage made an appearance last year,” Chasse said. “I have a feeling he’s coming back.”
A feeling is really all that Chasse — or any of the Lions — have at this point.
Just weeks away from opening night, there is only a vague notion of who is doing what and those details get hammered out at the first — and only — rehearsal just a day or two before opening night.
At a February meeting possible skit ideas were discussed, with Chasse holding full veto power over all suggestions.
“This is really our rehearsal,” member Kris Malmborg — aka Tante Rose — said. “We just hope to know what we are doing in a month.”
Some of those acts, Chasse said, he may not see until the Monday of show week.
“Some of them you might not see until opening night,” Labbe said.
Malmborg, 31, represents the new face of the Fort Kent Lions, a club that boasts the highest membership in a district that covers Maine and part of New Brunswick, Canada.
At 86 members, the Fort Kent group is nearly double the size of the next largest, which is in Bangor.
Ages in the Fort Kent club range from 28 to 86-year-old Gil Dubois.
“When I joined I was working in retail and wanted to meet the people,” Dubois said. “Now I just enjoy the camaraderie [and] it’s a lot of fun.”
A big part of the fun, any Fort Kent Lion will say, is the show, which is a big reason Malmborg joined.
“I remember going to see the Lions show when I was a kid and laughing like crazy and thinking someday I want to do that,” Malmborg said. “Years later, when I walked out on stage and got my first laugh, I was hooked.”
Recently Malmborg talked his younger brother Ryan Malmborg, 28, into joining and this year the younger Malmborg is making his debut on the Lions’ stage as a new character.
“It’s a surprise,” Kris Malmborg said. “But we are hoping it will become one of those characters you will see year after year.”
Member Stephen Gagne remembers performing 30 years ago with fellow Lion Phil Roy in a parody of the television show “The People’s Court.”
“Phil was Judge Wapner and I was the bailiff ‘Rusty,’” Gagne said, brushing a hand through his short, greyish hair. “Of course, my hair was a lot redder back then.”
Riding herd over the cast and chaos over three performance nights is Chasse, who serves year after year as the show’s emcee, or “interlocutor,” as they were called in the old minstrel shows.
Providing entertainment and action between skits are the “End-Beasts,” the Lions version of the performing “End-Men” popular in stage performances of the early 1900s.
Since 1982, Chasse has only missed one year as interlocutor, and that was because he was in the hospital.
That year his son Dan Chasse, a man very familiar with the show, filled in, and he remembers seeing his very first Lions show decades ago.
“I was 20 at the time and my dad gave me two tickets and I took my friend,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Great, now I have to sit through this talent show.’”
But when Dan Chasse saw Labbe walk out in his giant necktie, he said, “I laughed until I was in tears.”
Characters in the show often revert to the native French of the area, but members stress there is still plenty to laugh at and enjoy for non-French speakers.
“It can be a challenge to keep it current and funny,” Dan Chasse said. “But what helps is all these new young members coming in with new ideas.”
This year, for instance, Chasse anticipates some form of “Gangnam Style” dancing to hit the stage.
“That would not do for us old guys for sure,” his father said.
The very public variety show puts the Lions front and center, but its members point out there is a lot they do for the town behind the scenes, much of it thanks to funds raised through ticket proceeds.
Locally, the Fort Kent Lions are responsible for several buildings in Riverside Park, funding scholarships, supporting youth programs and athletic events.
“In an average year we donate about $25,000 back to the community,” Chasse said.
What was once an annual tradition has become biannual, with the club mounting their show every other year.
In 2014 the group plans to move production dates from April to August to coincide with the 2014 World Acadian Congress.
“Just think,” Chasse said. “All those people coming to our area and they will get to meet all these Lion characters.”
And if he’s lucky, the group may start rehearsing by that July.
Tickets for the show are available at Nadeau’s House of Flooring in Fort Kent, at Chasse Chiropractic in Fort Kent and Madawaska or through the Fort Kent Lions’ Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fort-Kent-Maine-Lions-Club/179846162066976?fref=ts