Mark Russell is at it again.
That’s right, Washington – he’s taking notes and making jokes. Russell, 81, who made a career out of political song parodies, has been making stops all over the U.S. since coming out of retirement in 2013.
At 7 p.m. Sept. 4, Russell will perform at the Auburn High School auditorium in conjunction with the Seward House Museum’s annual fundraiser: The Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speaker Series.
This is the third year of the fundraiser. Previous speakers were historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin and journalist Cokie Roberts.
Natalie Stetson is the director of development at the Seward House Museum.
“A volunteer told me to look up Mark Russell and see what he was up to,” Stetson said. “She had seen him in the ’70s, and his performance stuck with her.”
For those unfamiliar with Russell’s work, he is a political satirist. His shows are a mix of stand-up comedy and musical parodies. A major staple and companion of Russell’s performances is his star-spangled piano.
Russell got his start playing the piano in a bar in Washington, D.C., where he settled after serving in the Marines. Lobbyists and politicians populated the place, and there he learned “political science 101.”
“When the congressional hearings let out, the congressmen would head over to the bar,” Russell said. “The Democrats would feed me dirt on the Republicans, and the Republicans would feed me dirt on the Democrats. I would then do material about both of them.”
No material was off the table. Russell recalled a time during the late 1950s when he cut out eyes in a pillow case and did a bit on the Ku Klux Klan.
Twenty years after he began performing, his home city called. A PBS affiliate station in Buffalo pitched the idea of a live comedy special that would air periodically throughout the year. And thus, the “Mark Russell Comedy Special” was born. The show ran 1974 to 2004 with eight shows a year. Russell also appeared annually on “Meet the Press” from 1991 to 2008.
Then – in 2010 – Russell decided it was time to put aside his star-spangled piano and put down the microphone. Retirement didn’t suit Russell. He found himself making up songs and lacking an audience in front of which to perform them.
“I tried to bring my bits up casually at parties,” Russell said. “But then, whoever I was talking to would either try to join in or cut me off, and I would get annoyed.”
That was a sign for Russell that he was missing the stage and the craft he had perfected over the years.
A second sign came in August 2012. On a sultry summer evening in Israel, a few congressmen decided to have some drinks, shed some clothes and then hop into the Sea of Galilee. This event convinced Russell it was time to perform again.
His shows these days start with some religious fodder and elements aimed at his generation. From there, Russell talks about such things as technology and newspapers and then moves to the daily headlines.
Russell reads three to four papers every day to check in on his favorite topic: the players on Capitol Hill.
As for the show in September. Russell does have a warning for the audience.
“I will be using the ‘f’ word,” Russell said. “Filibuster.”
Tickets are on sale. They cost $35 for general admission and $15 for students.
After the show, there will be a private reception at the Hilton Garden Inn. VIP tickets are $75 and include preferred seating at the event. A few tickets will be available for purchase at the door for $50.
The money raised will go toward maintenance of the Seward House Museum and to pay for next year’s event in the series.
“Bringing national public figures to a local audience is a big deal for us,” said Natalie Stetson, the museum’s director of development. “It helps us preserve the legacy of William Seward and his family.”