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Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 12:00 pm

By Philip Jankowski

Killeen Daily Herald

SALADO - Grainger Esch likes to keep things funny.

Whether it's appointing his dog Pancho as the chief financial officer of his theater business in Salado or sacrificing his body in a slapstick vaudeville act, it's all for a laugh.

"I have no interest in doing anything other than comedy," Esch said.

Esch, 44, runs the Salado Silver Spur, a theater and arts school at 108 Royal Street in Salado's historic district. The theater has been in operation since 2007, when Esch and a partner transformed a former granary and feed store into a rustic-style theater.

Theater life is not new to Esch. Laughs and performance have been central to Esch's life since his days at Duke University. While pursuing an English degree, Esch became involved with the university's theater department.

Theater activities encouraged him to audition for a certain clown college on a whim.

While working at an advertising internship in Dallas, Esch received a call he couldn't resist, and soon thereafter Esch found himself a part of the Greatest Show on Earth.

For four years, he criss-crossed the U.S. as a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in a mile-long train full of 400 clowns, Chinese acrobats, Zulu warriors and other performers. Esch was one of several clowns performing in a continuous comedy show under the big top.

"Any of those shows is basically stringing one gag after another. It taught me how to make a comedy show," Esch said.

Since Silver Spur's opening, Esch and the theater's aptly named troupe the Spuradicals have created Vaudeville acts that center around the "skeleton crew" aspects of the theater.

The group will create gags about broken theater equipment, missing performers and other mishaps. It is similar to the "Muppet Show," Esch said, in that the humorous ordeal of putting on the show is just as entertaining as the show itself.

Many shows resemble old time silent movies. The typical villains, heroes and, of course, a damsel in distress are present. However, the play will often transition from live performance to taped segment designed to imitate silent movies.

An accompanist will play along to a film that usually depicts a chase through well-known businesses and areas in Salado.

The old-fashioned nature of the shows matches the theater itself. Esch used several existing pieces of the former granary to create a stage and concessions area. Grain scoops now hold stage lights and corrugated medal is used throughout the theater.

Look hard and one can even see old IOUs on the wooded plank walls written in grease pencils from the building's days as a feed store.

Esch said the idea to open his own theater came while driving across the desert with the theater's co-creator Penny Mathis. Mathis now works in Florida.

"It was all ideas written down on napkins," Esch said.

Over time, his family ties to the area (Esch's mother is from Salado and he often visited his grandmother in Prairie Dell) led him to find a space in the arts community. Being fed up with his post-circus career in television and movie production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity to begin a third act in Salado.

Esch has lessened his role in theater productions, though he still acts often as the put-upon, harried manager during comedy acts. However, the productions themselves have ramped up.

The Spuradicals put on their first musical in 2010, a production of "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" that Esch said was very well received. The theater will likely put on two musicals in 2011.

The theater's next performance season begins in April. Esch wouldn't say what acts are in store for next season, worrying about what licensing agreements will or will not go through.

But one thing is for certain -they will be funny.

Contact Philip Jankowski at philipj@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.

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