The Key’s Week of Folk is our series of interviews, reviews, artist spotlights, playlistings and general ephemera to get you ready for the 52nd Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, happening August 16th to August 18th at Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville. In this installment, we talk with festival host Gene Shay about the art of MCing.
Gene Shay has always had his wittiness about him. His wits might be another story, especially presented with images like the one above – an actual calling card from his days as an advertising exec.
But having a clever and irreverent persona comes in handy for the founding MC of Philadelphia Folk Fest – and longtime host of The Folk Show on WXPN – especially when you’re the anchor onstage, guiding a field of thousands through a bustling concert. It might look seamless from the audience, but it’s actually wildly unpredictable.
“That’s where I came up with the idea of telling jokes,” Shay says, talking about one of his trademark devices to ease the transitions onstage. “Cornball jokes, getting groans, anything to lighten up the moment. Sometimes the crowd is out there in the cold, sometimes in the rain, sometimes waiting much too long for a stage set to get changed up.”
So Shay, 78, resorts to something that’s always been a passion – humor. He brags that he was voted most witty as a high schooler, a trait that he inherited from his father. “He was pretty much a raconteur, he loved to tell jokes, as did I.”
He knew as a child that he wanted to get into radio, but wasn’t sure how; he had no idea what an ad copywriter did, but being able to think on his feet for humor’s sake led him to that profession. “I even did parodies of ads before I ever did real advertising,” Shay recalls. “‘Schlupki’s Funeral Home is having a two-in-a-coffin special.’ Stuff to entertain my friends.”
Practical jokes fit the bill, too – at Elkman Advertising Agency, he kept a tape recorder in the desk drawer of his office and would hit play during client interviews. He laughs recalling the cartoonish voice pleading “Let me out of here!”
So being the funny man onstage at Folk Fest – or, to the booing portion of the audience, the unfunny man – came naturally to Shay. Over time, he started soliciting the crowd for the corniest jokes he could find; the less funny, the more the crowd loved it. Groaning and heckling Shay in between sets became an oddly loving Festival ritual, solidifying the bond between MC and audience. Shay says this is what keeps him going as an MC; the crowd knows him, they like him and they trust him.
“I know I have more credibility among them, and that’s because I don’t bullshit anybody,” Shay says. “If I say somebody’s really good, the crowd will listen to me. I always try to find things to say that are honest, credible, things to say about each artist I bring on, things that people don’t know.”
Of course, being an MC isn’t all warm intros and jokes. He sometimes sits backstage, watching a Doppler radar with the crew, trying to pinpoint the minute the rain will start and stop. He recalls watching the wind topple a canvas projection screen onto a few rows of seats at a recent fest (no one was hurt, he says). He had to scold one crowd for incessant laser pointer use; but he says he did it warmly, and with a bit of humor – “if we find you, you’ll be removed from the festival and asked not to return. And your friends won’t like you.”
“I don’t berate the audience,” he says. “I just talk to them like I would any of my friends.”
And in that sense, he’s a member of the audience as much as he’s the guy onstage guiding the show. As our conversation wound down and I casually asked Shay what his plans were for future Folk Show guests further on down the road, he said he wanted to see how the Festival transpires.
“I’m right there watching from the side of the stage,” he says. “If I like somebody, I’ll grab them afterwards and say ‘hey, when’s the next time you’ll be in Philly? Want to be on the radio?’”
Gene Shay will appear on-air on WXPN today with Dan Reed at 4 p.m. to preview this year’s Folk Fest. Check back to Week of Folk later for a round up of artists you might not realize are playing the Festival.