Dude, where's my one phone call? 

When the film comedy "Dude, Where's My Car?" opened last Friday, reviews were noticeably absent from newspapers and the TV airwaves. Once again, a skittish studio had shielded one of its artistically questionable releases from high-profile brickbats. But this time, the critics who were shut out of the preview process encountered some nasty new roadblocks -- including the threat of police action.

For this bizarre development, credit the film's distributor, 20th Century Fox. After announcing that advance screenings of "Dude" would be held for reviewers and members of the general public, the studio changed its mind: Entry was now off-limits to critics. Everyone else was welcome.

On several levels, the decree defied logic. The Tampa and Orlando screenings were on the eve of the film's coast-to-coast rollout, making it physically impossible for pan notices to hit the press before the film was in the public domain. And what could realistically be done to a reviewer who tried to flout the order? Would he or she be bounced from the theater and subjected to a sound pistol-whipping?

As Orlando Weekly contributor George Meyer learned, the truth wasn't far afield. His attempt to attend the Tampa screening was foiled by one of the studio's representatives, who reminded Meyer that he was "persona non grata."

"If it takes the police to remove you, we'll have to call the police," she said.

Rather than inflict that scene on the crowd -- which Meyer estimates was about 200 strong, mostly of high-school age -- he walked out. Returning the next day, he bought a ticket to the film in order to file his review.

By rights, this anecdote should end with you and I sharing a chuckle over the lunatic idea that a movie-studio flack would consider calling on the boys in blue to forestall a negative review -- especially when the picture in question is a starring vehicle for the dumb guy from "That '70s Show." But when the weekend's box-office tallies were reported, Dude stood in second place with $14 million. Though heinous, Fox's game plan clearly worked.

We'll see what kind of legs "Dude" has next weekend, after late-breaking reviews have been ingested by the portion of the film's target audience that can actually read. For now, a troubling precedent has been set. What will the requirements be to attend a preview of "Star Wars: Episode II" -- a urine test and an oath of OMERTA?

Fools like the first time

Sak Comedy Lab will host a marathon comedy festival from Feb. 21 through 25 of next year. Titled Foolfest 2001, the juried conclave will feature nightly public performances (40, it's hoped), as well as daytime workshops for aspiring idiots. Possible participants include locals The Oops Guys and THEM, plus Toronto's The Cowards, Chicago's Mission IMPROVable (who were outstanding at last April's edition of the annual Orlando International Fringe Festival) and San Francisco's We Be Negroes (an all-African-American troupe, of course).

According to Jay Hopkins, the event's executive director, Foolfest was inspired in part by Sak's participation in similar festivals across the country. Its winter timetable, he feels, will draw Northern troupes to Orlando's warmer climes, yet its dates are far enough from Fringe 2001 to avoid confusing patrons or performers.

"Hopefully, the people who want to perform [at both] can do both," he says.

The five-day event will begin with the final episode of "Foolish Hearts," Sak's improvised soap opera, which will return from holiday hiatus Jan. 3 to resume its every-Wednesday chapter of silliness. The show is worth seeing for its character names alone, especially the moniker that's been given to the temperamental Hollywood starlet played by Sak regular Megan Whyte: Paisley Motif.

Sanford and nuns

To the rest of the country, Seminole County may forever be known for iffy absentee ballots. But if Sandy Lipscomb and Shane Wages have their way, Sanford will instead become synonymous with musical theater.

On Jan. 13, the duo will present a kickoff party for their new SJS Entertainment complex, a performance hub located on the site of the former Palladium Event Complex -- and a contender to fill the community-theater jones felt by folks left high and dry by the dormant state of the Civic Theatres of Central Florida. Attendees will salute the duo's success in transforming the club's main stage area into the Broadway Theater, a 700-seat room whose proscenium stage will host an eight-show season of musicals that's to begin with a Feb. 9 production of "Nunsense."

The party will include a 45-minute overview of that season's intended highlights, and Lipscomb and Wages may also sing selections from "Joan of Arc: The Passion of the Maid," an original musical by DeLand composer Joaquin Sanchez.

Seasoned performers both -- Lipscomb has trod the boards at Daytona Beach Community College, Lake Helen's Shoestring Theater and Eustis' Bay Street Playhouse, while Wages was the vice president of the Wekiva River Players -- the duo are relying on musical theater as the linchpin of their business plan. Though the facility is already about 70 percent booked, rentals are being offered to outside groups. Also available is an adjacent, 250-capacity lounge, where smaller performances, rehearsals and concession sales will be combined under the banner The Green Room Cabaret. (Hey, I want royalties!)

The SJS schedule won't be limited to theater: Other on-site offerings will include an Easter cantata and a battle of the bands.

That's funny; the last time I was on the premises, it was still the Tsunami nightclub. And Ratt was playing.

"Well, we're cleaning the place up," Lipscomb says, mishearing my musings as a warning that actual rodents reside in the rafters. Either way, I think the nuns can hold their own.

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