PORTLAND — Mike Langworthy and Gil Helmick wanted to know what would happen when a group of artists and musicians moved into a mill town reeling from the demise of its manufacturing industry.
In fact, they thought interactions between artists and former mill workers might even be funny.
“It’s a dynamic tension,” Langworthy said. “It’s an interesting two-porcupines-making-love dynamic.”
So Langworthy and Helmick decided to write a radio show and pitch it for national radio syndicates, including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.
Their hour-long show is a mix of the popular “Prairie Home Companion” program and a television sitcom. It is fully scripted, but takes place in a bar that invites musical guests and artists to perform.
Helmick, a poet, said he wanted to put together a radio show for years, but hadn’t stumbled on the right partner until he met Langworthy at the Stonecoast Writers Workshop a few years ago. They quickly discovered they had both grown up in Michigan, moved to Los Angeles, and then to Maine.
And, perhaps more importantly, that they shared a sense of humor.
“Our audience is cultural creatives,” Helmick said. “You don’t see that as much with television audiences. Radio tends to attract readers.”
The show, called “Club 86,” is set in a fictional bar in Lewiston where a new manager “from away” (he’s from Portland) struggles to deal with his employees, including a sexy bartender who doubts the manager’s competence, a scheming waiter, a germ-phobic janitor and a crew of locals who frequent the bar and have their own opinions about how the place should be run.
Langworthy, who is a columnist for The Forecaster and spent many years writing for TV comedies like “Cybill,” “The Good Wife,” “Working” and “The Drew Carey Show,” plays the “Club 86” manager, although he’s still struggling with the decision to star in his own show.
“Writing, directing and starring in the show and the rampant ego-mania that implies, and the guilt that brings with it if you’re me,” he said, “there’s a lot of self-loathing there.”
Helmick and Langworthy said they don’t have any qualms about making a show that takes place in Lewiston when neither of them live there.
“We’re positing that Lewiston is attempting to re-brand itself. Cities across the country are looking for little hooks to remake themselves in a post-industrial economy,” Helmick said.
But many of the ideas come from Portland, including the inspiration for the sexy bartender.
Helmick said he frequented the Snug, a popular East End bar on Congress Street, and watched bartender Michelle Bathhurst engage and serve her customers.
“I called Mike and told him, ‘you’ve got to come down here,'” he said.
So they watched Bathhurst, talked to her, and eventually convinced her to audition for the role, even though she’d never acted before.
“We read 10 or 20 women for that role, but no one seemed to have the mix of world-weariness and spunk,” Langworthy said.
The show will also feature saxophone player Charlie Neville, of the Neville Brothers, as a frequent performer at the bar. Neville’s character will show up from time to time at the club to play a set.
Neville, an old friend of Helmick’s, will perform with his band and the rest of the cast at the “Club 86” live reading of the show’s pilot episode at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., on Saturday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m.
Helmick is working on the show’s budget so they can figure out how much they’ll have to sell it for to make it financially feasible. He said it is important that the actors and crew be paid so they can dedicate themselves to the production.
“The pilot is good because all the people involved got the vision,” he said.
With Gil Helmick watching, Mike Langworthy rehearses “Club 86” in Helmick’s sound studio on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. Langworthy wrote, directed and stars in the new radio program, a fictional narrative comedy set in a Lewiston bar that also stars bartender Michelle Bathhurst and musician Charlie Neville. Helmick is producing the show, which the pair hope to sell to major radio stations.