In February, when Rusty DeWees, aka The Logger, emceed a talent show at Rutland’s Mount St. Joseph Academy, he was blown away by student Mary Baab singing “Unforgettable.”
“When I came out after she was done, I said, ‘What do you and your family do at Thanksgiving?’’’ DeWees said recently by phone.
“She looked out to the audience and her parents and muttered, ‘We usually go away.’ And I said, ‘If you want to stay, I’m playing a big show at the Paramount the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and I will pay you to come on stage and sing your song to your hometown crowd.’”
And so Baab will join The Logger (DeWees) and The Fiddler (Patrick Ross) when the fall-winter tour of their latest show, “No Sugar Added,” hits Rutland’s Paramount Theatre Nov. 24. (Remaining performances of the tour, without Baab, are in South Burlington, Stowe and St. Johnsbury.)
“The friggin’ roof’s going to come down after this girl finishes — she’s just perfect,” DeWees said.
The Logger show is now 22 years old, and a successful year-round business for DeWees, with products, product endorsements, benefit shows, and of course, The Logger shows. Still, DeWees is first and foremost about the people — those who made him what he is, and those he met along the way.
Growing up in Stowe, DeWees first got the theater bug watching his older sister Holly in school musicals before joining in.
“I liked it,” DeWees said. “I was always the kid who did plays and loved it. But I didn’t go home and read Shakespeare. I didn’t say, ‘Mom, Dad, send me to acting school.’ I didn’t do that.”
DeWees played in several Lamoille County Players shows in Hyde Park, some with George Woodard, the Waterbury Center comedian, film actor and dairy farmer. After Champlain College, DeWees remained in Burlington, where he was pumping gas for René Bourne, when he discovered Vermont Repertory Theatre and its director, Robert Ringer (1932-2005), in Colchester. Fortuitously, Ringer cast DeWees in Sam Shepard’s “A Buried Child.”
“This Sam Shepard wrote this for guys like me,” DeWees said. “I was in, and that was it — because this, literally, that was the first straight play I was in. Each rehearsal was like an acting class.”
DeWees had to give up a UPS job to play in Vermont Rep’s 1980s production of the late poet David Budbill’s rough and rich tale of life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom — and it was to become the inspiration for The Logger.
“I was in ‘Judevine’ and that was about the end of it,” DeWees said. “I was so galdarned in love with it, and everything about it. That made a statewide splash. It was Vermont Rep that really put the jetpacks in me.”
Thus, in 1989, DeWees decided to give New York City a try.
“I was curious,” DeWees said. “How do people get up on the big screen? I went down there and I found out how, I got on that screen. That was why I went to New York, not to set the world on fire, but because of curiosity.”
DeWees found success in the big city, appearing in the film “Black Dog,” TV shows “Law and Order,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Cosby Mysteries” and various soap operas. But it wasn’t the life for him, so he returned to Vermont, where he performed in several Ringer productions and some by the late Montpelier director Andrew Doe. He has also appeared in a number of Jay Craven films. But Ringer and Doe, mentors to DeWees, are now no longer available.
“It’s never been the same,” DeWees said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever walk the boards again in a straight play — unless I direct it, or George (Woodard) directs it.”
DeWees found a new home in The Logger, loosely based on the “Judevine” character Antoine, a witty French-Canadian lumberjack.
“Obviously I didn’t mimic David Budbill’s styles,” DeWees said. “But I didn’t learn The Logger from Chekhov, I didn’t learn The Logger from Sam Shepard, I learned how to do The Logger from David Budbill, believe me.”
The Logger was and is a successful musical-comedy variety show and brand for DeWees. In recent years, he has been collaborating with a master fiddler, who takes an even bigger role in this year’s show.
“Patrick Ross, virtuoso fiddle, but in this show, fiddle, cello, banjo, six-string guitar, mandolin,” DeWees said. “So he’s playing all those things, and the other thing about Patrick, I learned quite a few years ago when I started with him, he’s a natural on stage, so I’ve written several Dick and Tom Smothers bits that he and I do. One in particular is the best (expletive) thing I’ve written for two people.”
And Ross returns the compliment, saying DeWees has been an inspiration to him as a performer.
“(He) is teaching me the difference between being an artist and an entertainer, and why learning that difference is important,” Ross said. “His hunger to be great at whatever he does is contagious.”