As a freight-hopping college student, Joe Burns rode the rails from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back. He later spent a year as an engineer and hostler in Los Angeles, moving Amtrak’s engines around the train yards.
“I never built or designed a scale model railroad. I always wanted to play with the real thing instead,” explained Burns, creator of “The Great American Railroad Show.”
“The Great American Railroad Show,” which opens Friday in San Luis Obispo, celebrates the storied rail system with an old-fashioned melodrama, up-to-the-minute multimedia displays and classic train-themed songs such as “The Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “The City of New Orleans” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
“When it really comes down to it, it’s a history lesson about trains but with musical numbers and acting to make it fun,” director Jake McGuire said of the show, which runs through March 27. “That’s what the show’s about—having a good time.”
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“The Great American Railroad Show” takes train-loving audience members on a journey “from past to present,” McGuire said, chronicling the creation of the transcontinental railroad and focusing on such influential rail companies as Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe. It’s co-produced by Curtis Reinhardt, director of the Central Coast Railroad Festival.
Burns said he modeled the steam-powered show after a 1940s radio broadcast. He describes it as “ ‘Prairie Home Companion’ on steroids.”
Just like Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show, “The Great American Railroad Show” features songs and skits interspersed with fake commercials.
Jeff Lee plays the Conductor, the show’s master of ceremonies, while Dylan Tennyson provides onstage sound effects such as screeching brakes and slamming doors.
“He plays a huge part in creating the scene,” McGuire said.
The rest of the 12-member cast includes character actor Phil Jones, folk musician-filmmaker David Baumgarten and singers Laurelle Barnett and Leona Evans. Three crew members handle the backstage duties, with McGuire serving as lighting, set and costume designer.
“The Great American Railroad Show” combines live performers with a plethora of audio and video clips. Audiences can expect to see photographs, paintings and film footage of antique trains, as well as 3-D images converted from 19th-century stereographs.
One video takes viewers on a black-and- white trolley ride through 1906 San Francisco. Another pairs photographs and animation with “Casey Jones,” the popular ballad about the turn-of-the-century railroad engineer who died in his attempt to prevent a catastrophic train crash.
There’s also a pre-show display that features sophisticated model trains and exhibits highlighting Central Coast railroad history.
McGuire and Burns promise that audience members will walk away from “The Great American Railroad Show” knowing more about trains, railroads and the essential role they play in everyday life.
“Before there were cars, before there were commercial airplanes, that was it,” McGuire said of the rail system. “It’s interesting to realize how much it changed the country.”