Dusty Biscuit (Jerome Schoolar) works on getting the Fine Arts Farm ready to open. – photo by Will Atkins
By Donna Marie Miller
Preschool age children will soon have a place in Oak Hill to sing, dance, act, and create arts and crafts in the new Fine Arts Farm designed by one of the Emmy Award-winning stars of The Biscuit Brothers television show.
Jerome “Dusty Biscuit” Schoolar said he anticipates a “soft” opening for the Biscuit Brothers Fine Arts Farm sometime in October at 6036 West US HWY 290. Meanwhile, tuition costs have yet to be decided.
Schoolar took the project on personally by renovating the building space he leased in June—doing most of the work himself. He completely gutted the inside of the site so that it no longer resembles the building that for years housed Oak Hill Liquor store and before that was a church. Meanwhile, snags in development have occurred while he awaited City of Austin inspections on contracted professional electrical and plumbing work.
The Biscuit Brothers’ virtual community, through donations, has funded a big part of the costs to get the Fine Arts Farm up and running, and Schoolar chose Oak Hill as the home of his facility because he lives here. Also, all three of his children have attended schools in the area including: Mills Elementary, Clint Small Middle School, and James Bowie High School. He said he saw a need for a children’s fine arts facility in the area.
The permanent building will be a first for the Biscuit Brothers, who for the past 13 years have produced high-energy children’s television shows while borrowing Pioneer Farms’ facilities. Indoors, things will look very familiar to fans of the show—in keeping with a barnyard theme complete with gingham curtains, rustic wood, and country bumpkin costumes.
“They’re going to see Dusty Biscuit here every day,” Schoolar said. “They’ll see the ‘Big Book of Music.’ They’ll see all of the things they see on the TV show here.”
The Biscuit Brothers’ show is reminiscent of such early children’s television programing as Howdy Doody, the Shari Lewis Show, and Captain Kangaroo of the 1950s and 60s, and it has been likened to a rural Sesame Street today.
Dusty Biscuit and his sidekick, Buford Biscuit, dressed in blue jean coveralls, plaid flannel shirts, straw hats and boots create a visual representation of a simpler, pared down slice of wholesome American country life.
“We made a very distinct effort to try to accomplish that. There’s no ‘wink-wink,’ no innuendos. It’s humor for all,” Schoolar said. “We absolutely try to be as wholesome and as genuine and as honest as we can.”
Schoolar has served as producer of the TV show while performing alongside of its musical director, Allen Robertson “Buford Biscuit;” with appearances by Jill Leberknight, “Buttermilk Biscuit;” and writer/director/puppeteer Damon Brown “Tiny Scarecrow;” as well as Ian Scott as “Old MacDonald.”
The Biscuit Brothers’ nationally recognized cast has made hundreds of live performances at venues statewide while prerecording their programs since 2005 to feature voiceovers by famous local musicians such as Willie Nelson and others.
Their half-hour syndicated show airs on PBS station affiliates nationwide, including Austin’s own KLRU every Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. The Biscuit Brothers have filmed primarily at Austin’s Pioneer Farm and features a mixture of live action singing and theater productions, puppetry, and animation graphics.
Every episode has a theme and a storyline, with a musical element that runs as a thread connecting all its featured segments.
“Like we might take ‘harmony.’ Of course musical harmony involves two people singing or playing different notes and creating the sonic sensation of harmony with chords. Well also, we show an episode where Buford and Dusty had to accomplish a goal in harmony—as in to work together for an ultimate goal,” Schoolar said.
Within each of the televised episodes the Biscuit Brothers also feature “the Instrument of the Day,” as professional musicians explain their instruments—everything from clarinets to dobros to sitars. They also feature “Crazy Classics;” the Biscuit Brothers take a sheet of classical music and put a zany spin on it.
“The latter harkens back to our youth; we grew up at least listening to the classics through the cartoons—with Bugs Bunny and all of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, because those were their sound tracks,” Schoolar said.
“Well, nowadays they (today’s cartoons) don’t offer a lot of that. So we want to make sure that in each episode of our show that we have some bit of classical music that kids can listen to. As they’re growing up, we want them to go—‘Wait, I know that song.’”
From 1930 through the 1960s, Warner Brothers offered its classic soundtracks in both its Merrie Melodies and its Looney Tunes cartoons featuring the characters: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, Taz the Tazmanian Devil, and Marvin the Martian.
“Bugs Bunny toured. They did a Bugs on Broadway tour just playing classical music, but that is something rarely done now. So we try to give a little bit of that style of presentation to the children,” he said.
“We show the connection between music and the life around you. For example, we might use the word ‘conducting.’ You need a conductor to keep all of the elements in place within an orchestra. You also have to conduct yourself to work well with others.”
The Biscuit Brothers hope to extend children’s interests beyond their elementary years, well into their secondary school careers as part of what Schoolar likes to refer to as “my bubble theory.”
“It’s all about that bubble. At least here in Austin, there’s that one spring evening for your fifth grader going into middle school. Your student comes home and he or she has to bubble in his or her choice sheet for the next fall semester. I hope that because they explored fine arts as children here, they will give one bubble to the fine arts in middle school,” he said.
“Then hopefully, they’ll explore the fine arts in high school. I hope that someone in high school bubbles in orchestra or band. I hope someone bubbles in choir. For some of them, hopefully we’ll make the difference.”
The interior lobby of the fine arts farm will feature an airy lobby and a central reception desk. Each of three classroom areas will feature a window or glass partition for adults to peak inside to view children’s activities.
One classroom will feature a mini stage area, complete with ceiling floodlights and varnished wood paneling along the interior walls and on the floors.
“I don’t plan to make the next American Idol singer or the next Broadway star or Academy Award winner,” Schoolar said. “I just want kids to enjoy the arts in a way that maybe they’ll continue it in some shape or form throughout their lives. Maybe they will continue the relationship with their families at home or with the city theater, or whatever.”
The largest majority of younger children who enroll in the Fine Arts Farm classes will be pre-school age, but the facility promises something for everyone—young and old, he said.
“If we can start them real early enjoying the arts, then they will follow through in elementary school, hopefully,” Schoolar said. “Fortunately the (TV) show is based around music—and music of course just gives us a huge broad range. We have all ages who enjoy the show. That’s why this facility will be for all ages, but I have a feeling that the majority of kids who come here will be within the ages of preschool up to maybe second grade.”
One other classroom will feature an arts and crafts area and still another will provide a separate dance studio.
Schoolar said he hasn’t decided yet whether any of the future Biscuit Brothers TV shows will be filmed on the site.
“How much we plan to dress up the back has yet to be determined. We have camera angle issues. At Pioneer Farm you can move the camera around and you still just see the farm, but here if you turn the camera, you’ll see the YMCA (next door,)” he said.
However, Schoolar plans to develop the back yard area behind the Fine Arts Farm.
Children will be able to “shake their sillies out” in three outside areas yet to be developed: “Melody Gardens,” the “Canvas Corral,” and the “Actors Acre.”
“Melody Gardens,” will feature a series of little paths with bushes and trees decorated with instruments hanging in them for children to explore hands-on.
“There will be tubas coming out of the ground, or a piccolo tree,” Schoolar said. “Kids will be able to go and touch instruments. It will be much like the Austin Symphony every year provides at Symphony Square for kids, where they have the instruments hanging from the trees. It will be very much like that.”
Schoolar said whenever he and the other Biscuit Brothers cast members perform at music festivals, they provide a similar “instrument petting zoo” —for children to explore music by touch, or by playing it.
“It’s a place where kids can actually hold a flute, or hold a trombone. They don’t have to bring their own,” Schoolar said. “If they want to bring their own, they’re more than welcome to, but they don’t have to. There will be plenty of things for them to explore here.”
“Canvas Corral,” will resemble a horse corral, but will feature big slabs of cement with ornate frames around them on the ground and buckets filled with colored chalk that children will use to draw pictures.
“Actors Acre,” will feature a little amphitheater for the children’s outdoor concerts and theatrical performances.
City code restricts the arts farm’s capacity to 30 students inside the facility at the same time. Schoolar hopes to provide a ten-to-one teacher ratio daily: with ten students enrolled in music, ten students in art class and ten students in a movement/dance class, each led by separate teachers.
“We’ll rotate the children around (in the different classrooms and areas) to keep it lively,” Schoolar said. “I have a lot of great professionals who want to work here. I’m going to let them come to me and say ‘this is what I would like to do.’ If there is interest in that class, then I’ll let that determine what a class will be about. Classes will be determined by which teachers I hire and what they are truly passionate about—whether it’s music, or movement, or theater arts.”
Schoolar said he envisions the art studio as a place where students “can get messy and play.”
He envisions scheduling the children in eight-week fine arts sessions. Children may sign up for a class, for example, every Tuesday and Thursday for one hour each time. They may sign up for any one of the art, dance, theater, or music sessions. He hopes to squeeze in two eight-week sessions into his calendar before Austin public and private schools break for the winter holidays.
Schoolar said he hopes to offer an all-day holiday camp at the end of December through January at the Fine Arts Farm as well. Next semester, he hopes to schedule two separate eight-week sessions beginning in January, followed by summer camps starting in June.
“We know that parents need somewhere to take their kids when school’s not in session,” he said. “So we will provide them a safe place to go, but here they’re getting so much more than just to sit here and watch Finding Nemo (on DVD.)”
Additionally, Schoolar said the facility may meet the needs of Oak Hill families who home school their children.
“Austin has a lot of home schooled kids and they’re organized. Hopefully I can provide fine arts for them,” Schoolar said.
He said because the facility serves children, there will be only one entrance inside or out.
“There will be a receptionist at the entrance at all times to welcome the kids and their parents and she’ll make sure that they leave with the same adult that they came with,” Schoolar said.
Before starting the Biscuit Brothers, Schoolar previously worked for the City of Austin as the fine arts coordinator for the parks and recreation department at Dougherty Arts Center. He helped to create summer camp classes at the center.
“That really got me interested in thinking that we really need another facility like that,” Schoolar said. “With the Biscuit Brothers, our show is pretty much about music education, but I want to have something where children can explore all the arts. They can explore theater, they can explore visual arts, dancing and music. They can have the opportunity to explore all of the elements. So that’s the hope here to have art classes, workshops, production, all sorts of seasonal events—all based around the arts.”
He also hopes to provide fine arts field trips offered at no expense to Title 1 schools, for those students living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and at risk of failing.
“I want to get the Title 1 students out here and let them explore by rotating them through all of the elements of the fine arts in an hour and a half setting, like a field trip. Then they can be a part of arts education. Of course they can get it in Title 1 schools, but you can never get enough,” he said.
Brown, “Tiny Scarecrow” writer/director of the Biscuit Brothers TV Show fame, said Austin needs the facility.
“I am really glad that Jerome has this opportunity. Having an arts facility like this for families is something we really need and it’s a project that is close to Jerome’s heart so I know he’ll put a lot of that heart into it! It’s a great extension of the work we founded with the Biscuit Brothers Live Concerts and TV show and it will be great to see the Biscuit Brand entertain and educate families in a different way through this Fine Arts Farm,” Brown said.
“I am all for more Arts Farming. Being an arts farmer myself—specializing in home-grown melodies and baby-baby grand pianos—I can say there’s nothin’ more rewarding than planting the seeds of creativity and watching artistic expressions grow. But why only ‘fine’ arts? I think all arts are ‘fantastic’ not just ‘fine!’ He should call it a Fantastic Arts Farm, IMHO— which stands for ‘in my hay-filled opinion.’”
Schoolar and Robertson met while working together on shows at Zachary Scott Theater in 2000. The concept for the Biscuit Brothers began as a spinoff from a special field trip program Zach Theater partnership offered with the public schools called “Ei Ei O.” They bused 300 students to the theater at a time to hear a performer sing farm songs, he said.
“Well, the guy who was going to sing farm songs had to bow out. I’m not sure if it was due to illness or some other commitment or what. Zachary Scott Theater folks called Allen (Robertson) in a panic saying ‘Can you come and sing some farm songs to some kids next week?” Schoolar said.
Robertson agreed, but he also enlisted Schoolar’s help.
“We thought maybe we could come up with something a little more than just singing some farm songs,” Schoolar said. “From that little nugget, we just started building. Ok, so we had to be farmers. Ok, so we thought: we’ll make it Old MacDonald’s farm and we’ll be his farmers.”
They created the name, the Biscuit Brothers, reminded of the nursery rhyme, “The Muffin Man.” They picked costumes that supported the farm theme.
“If they had called and said they wanted to do a show called ‘To the Moon,’ then we might have been astronauts. It really was just that lucky happenstance that we were there. They asked ‘Can you do this?’ and we said ‘yes,’ and then we did. From there that seed just kept growing.”
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