Company name: Sal’s Meat Market Theatre Troupe
Founders: Ray Hassett, John Ratzenberger
Reason: ‘We formed to showcase our own brand of humor’ (Ray Hassett)
Current status: Disbanded 1977 for ‘new challenges’
Area of work: Improvisational comedy theatre duo
Policy: ‘We were a two-man collaboration, who built characters and situations based on our experiences growing up in blue collar America.’ (Ray Hassett)
Structure: ‘Like many Double Acts, we were always comic foils for each other. With Sal’s Meat Market we were a little different because, in each show, we played so many characters that the comic relationships were constantly changing.’ (Ray Hassett)
Based: Oval House, London
Funding: Arts Council of Great Britain
Performance venues: London: Oval House, Soho Poly, Bush Theatre and Hampstead Theatre. Toured throughout Britain and Scotland – including Gardner Centre Brighton, Plymouth Arts Centre, Warwick Unviersity, Darlington Arts Centre – and parts of Europe.
Audience: ‘We started playing anywhere and everywhere. From adventure playgrounds, housing estates and a prison, we eventually began working in fringe theatres around London. (We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Peter and Joan Oliver and The Oval House for giving us unlimited rehearsal space to put together and try out our shows).’ (Ray Hassett)
Company work and process:
Sal’s Meat Market, an improvisational theatre duo, was formed in 1970 by Americans Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger. They met at college in Connecticut and began by improvising comedy sketches in the cafeteria there. Large crowds led them to move into a college theatre to do lunchtime shows. A tour of the North-Eastern Seaboard soon followed.
By 1971, they were both living in London and began working together once more. ‘Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger began mining a deep vein of American humour firmly based in the American working class. They patented a multi-character comic style which became their trademark…’ (Ray Hassett publicity, 1975)
In 1973 they received their first Arts Council grant. Already established through their ‘improvisational show’ evenings, that year they produced their first show, O’Hooligan’s Cafe (also known as Ass-Hole), which opened and played late nights at the Soho Poly. Other London venues and a tour followed.
Their work was mostly associated with Oval House where, under the ever encouraging eye of Peter Oliver and his policy of ‘the right to fail,’ they were allowed to experiment and take great risks. They used improvisation as a springboard for their work, whether pulling together a show or working with an assembled audience to improvise a show into being: ‘The two-man troupe of Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger construct an improvisational show, using their own material together with ideas and situations suggested by the audience, in a jumble-sale setting of old clothes, dustbins, car-types and fire-eating.’ (Sal’s Meat Market publicity, 1973). In the early days they would go out and literally get junk from the street – bicycle frames, car doors, tyres – put it all on stage and ask audiences for a word in response to what they saw, and this would be the starting point of the improvised show.
O’Hooligan’s Cafe (also known as Ass-Hole), created collaboratively by Ray Hassett, John Ratzenberger and Frederick Proud, showed a day in the surreal life of O’Hooligan’s café, owned by the bullying O’Hooligan, and run by his wayward, adolescent son. As with all Sal’s Meat Market shows, the piece featured an endless stream of characters entering and leaving the scene, all performed by the two actors. In this instance: an Italian couple mourning the loss of their son to a radio falling on him in the bath; a bi-sexual Warholesque film director plus imagined entourage; two anarchist revolutionaries; a businessman calling up President Nixon on a make-believe telephone and a man in a flying hat playing airplanes, among others. This was followed by Trouble on the Night Shift and in 1974, Phil Teddy’s Fun Palace. The location of the ‘Fun Palace’ was a sleazy bar, run by a retired car dealer and his devoted waiter. The first part of the show dedicated to the opening and building up the palace, the second to its destruction in a sea of beer and havoc created by a successive array of larger than life customers. Ray Hassett then continued under the Sal’s Meat Market banner with two solo shows, Wild Animals from Memory (1974-75) and I’m Not Walkin (1975-76), performing I’m Not Walkin at Oval House in a double bill with Genuzzi’s Day Off with John Ratzenberger and Emil Wolk.
In early 1977, Ray and John re-united to present their last show Charlie and Buck – the final journey of a long distance bus driver and his colleagues, before he retires. Soon after they both returned to the US, John Ratzenberger to Cheers fame and Ray Hassett to pursue a career in Law Enforcement.
Oval Programmer at the time, Sue Timothy says: ‘It was basically a comedy duo performing zany comedy sketches. The highlight of their show involved asking the audience to shout out random words. From these, they immediately created a surreal – and often hysterical – sketch. When I went to work at Oval House, Ray and John opened my first season there. We converted the downstairs theatre space into a cabaret venue. Time Out previewed the occasion accompanied by a photograph of Ray, John and me on the roof of Oval House.’
‘Imaginative kangaroo leaps. Very fresh, very fast, very funny.’ Time Out, November 1972
‘A bizarrely-mixed bag of funny material.’ The Stage, January 1973
O’Hooligan’s Café (Ass-Hole)
‘It is hard to convey the basis of the show’s humour, which lies in a subtle parody of contemporary roles and patterns of behaviour. The improvisation comes in as the actors seek out the particular gestures or statements which will crystalise the absurd existence of each character.’ The Stage, March 1973
‘…manages to retain the zany inconsequentiality of Sal’s Meat Market’s improvisations. It’s a free-wheeling evening – for which you pay what you can afford.’ Time Out, March 1973
Phil Teddy’s Fun Palace
‘This new Meat Market show is a stunner. With slow, meticulous care Hassett and Ratzenberger build up the illusion of a new snob restaurant, the brainchild of a heavy used car salesman. And then they break it up, with an extraordinary joyful energy. This two-man show, based originally on improvisation, employs a vast cast of hoods, yobs, cops, nutters. Rarely, in the history of theatre, has so much been done by so few.’ Time Out, July 1974
‘…John Ratzenberger who comes over as slow, ruminative and wisely silly, and Ray Hassett, more busy, choleric and tense…they create shows that are peopled by a crowd of characters vast enough to make Cecil B. DeMille reach for his cheque book…’ Evening Standard, July 1974
Charlie and Buck
‘…the two American comedians…who have, four-handed, conquered London’s fringe with their surfacely zany brand of TransAtlantic humour…we meet an appalling teenager whose ambition is to be a campus rapist, a gun-toting speed-cop after his adulterous wife, a blinkered hi-jacker and a computer salesman with a nasty line in lie-detectors…the types under dissection – have a universal relevance.’ The Stage, January 1977
|Improvisational shows||Oval House Upstairs||1972 -|
|Ass-Hole retitled as O'Hooligan's cafe|
Created collaboratively by Ray Hassett, John Ratzenberger and Frederick Proud
Director: Frederick Proud
|Trouble on the Night Shift|
Collaboration between Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger
National tour - Howff Theatre Club, Gardner Centre, Brighton, Darlington Arts Centre, Dartington Arts Centre, Plymouth Arts Centre, Leeds Poly, Kings College
|Phil Teddy's Fun Palace|
Collaboration between Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger
|Wild Animals from Memory|
Ray Hassett solo show
Plymouth Arts Centre
|Genuzzi's Day Off|
Based on an idea by Ray Hassett
Writers: Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger
Cast: John Ratzenberger, Emil Wolk
|I'm Not Walkin|
Ray Hassett solo show
|Charles and Buck|
Creative collaboration between Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger
Links: Ray Hassett, John Ratzenberger
Existing archive material: Ray Hassett
Acknowledgements: This webpage was written and constructed by Jessica Higgs with many grateful thanks to Ray Hassett for allowing access to his archive material (lovingly kept in a suitcase all these years) and contributions to this page. Roger Perry photos courtesy of Kate Bindloss. November 2013
The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.