A multi-colored galaxy of laughers, screamers—this isn’t a case of Hunter S. Thompson accoutrement. These are sounds that come into a collection of a galaxy of hymns and tunes, sighs and sweeping moans all tied up and populating a sonic library that chronicles both the universe’s past and present. And without the tenacity of one space girl, that aural library simply wouldn’t be.
This otherworldly experience began in 2012, when longtime illustrator Jim Cheff noticed a little girl in a space helmet and cowboy boots was beginning to take up more and more real estate in his sketch books. She was drawn in Sharpie and blue Hi-Liter, pink marker and green, but she never had a name—until one night when Cheff dreamed the words “Mary Farfisa.”
Now that girl in the space helmet is host to more than 30 harrowing stories spread across her musical universe. For those on a more terrestrial plane, Mary Farfisa’s Outer Space Radio Theater offers listeners unlimited potential in escapism and learning, all while resurrecting a compelling medium that had gone the way of Orson Welles. And while Mary Farfisa herself, the radio heroine, is a young girl of 8 years old, the lessons she imparts are ageless.
Since those first doodles, Cheff has deepened Farfisa’s travels across galaxies along with her faithful space horse, Briscoe. With a twirl of her audio lasso, Farfisa captures sounds, music and noises that populate the library of an ancient race of people, The Listeners. Her lasso can even catch noises from the past—like the vanished dinosaurs of Dabowabe.
“She went to their planet to find their sounds, and people imagined it would be all these terrifying monster noises, only to discover they sounded like Downton Abbey,” Cheff says with a laugh. “They were very cultured.”
Farfisa and the multi-faceted characters she encounters in her weekly escapades have grown beyond the conventional confines of a kids’ show, and even earned a Viola Award nomination from the Flagstaff Arts Council in December. Though Mary Farfisa didn’t capture the award for Excellence in Storytelling, Cheff notes the nomination and complementary Nominee Showcase in February brought more attention to the Saturday morning show, one of about 30 different programs airing on Radio Sunnyside.
Developing the world of Mary Farfisa has brought in an intricate cast of local characters, too, including Cara Alboucq, the voice of Farfisa. She writes and performs original tunes to accompany the script, written by Cheff who also voices Briscoe. Jamey Hasapis, Leslie Ptak Baker, Katie King, Emma Bax and more, not to mention a coterie of local youth, have all lent their voices to the mounting picture—discovered through Cheff’s grassroots outreach and commitment to inclusion.
Alboucq’s contributions as Mary Farfisa are worlds apart from her day-to-day life as a realtor—a very grown-up profession, she admits.
“But I’ve always been a performer; always worked with kids in a way whether it’s teaching guitar lessons or dance or teaching at an elementary school. That’s really where my heart is,” Alboucq adds. “I still feel like a kid, so it’s fun to take a break from the normal workweek and sort of be transported.”
While Alboucq relishes the opportunity to tap into the childlike side of herself while learning a bit of patience and positivity from her character, listeners are transported, too, through all-original songs and scripts pre-recorded and mixed at Cheff’s home studio.
Most story arcs are derived from Cheff’s personal experiences; names and situations also recognize musicians and early digital composers like Patrick Feaster and Delia Derbyshire, a BBC Radiophonic Workshop member listeners would recognize from her famous work, the Dr. Who theme.
“The planet Mary Farfisa is from is called Derbyshire, sort of as an homage to her,” Cheff explains, noting these composers relished their newfound ability to pull sounds from the world and into a studio—just like Farfisa.
Not only are these Easter Eggs dropped in as tributes to his heroes, but they offer a flashpoint to educate listeners in the process, Cheff adds. He has adapted small vignettes that correspond to each pre-recorded episode, when he discusses musical personas or particular instruments.
“I try to push the envelope with that. Always in the show I try to present kids with things they won’t hear other places,” he adds of his proclivity for off-beat records that defy Disney standards.
For one recent episode, “A River in Space,” Cheff drew inspiration from his mother’s final year in a memory care facility. Farfisa, too, finds herself at a nursing home for fading stars where she meets an old sun named Mr. Corona. And in an endearing, sing-a-long moment, listeners hear the Flagstaff Junior Academy reprise the classic tune, “You Are My Sunshine.”
Cheff explains Farfisa’s exploits are meticulously planned and cohesive, teaching children how to channel creativity and strategize without ever resorting to epic space battles or problem-solving with weapons. Instead, he adds, the people Farfisa meets in space are poets and artists, beatniks and musicians.
He says, “That enables me to talk about a lot of aspects of music that kids might wonder about: What is it like to take a music lesson? If I wanted to play an instrument, what instrument should I play? Why should I cap up my paints when I’m done painting?”
In another episode, Farfisa and Briscoe land at the Asterodeo, where instead of horsing around with bucking broncos, the kids at the rodeo tame musical instruments—demonstrating the importance of practice.
“They have to hold on to the piano, and it goes from just keys smashing to a beautiful sonata—if they can stay on long enough,” Cheff says with a smile. “That shows it’s good to practice, even if it’s hard.”
That same episode focuses on a student whose obsession with perfection prevents her from relenting to what Cheff maintains is equally important: the improvisational side of music. These situations aren’t solely occupied with listening and paying attention to what they’re hearing, he says, but give kids the tools to examine their relationships to music.
This important facet includes local youth singing and acting on the show. There is no age requirement for folks on either side of the mic, either. After all, as Cheff points out, the show’s youngest cast member to voice a character was 2 years old, and regular listeners trail well into adulthood.
One side of Mary Farfisa’s Outer Space Radio Theater is a world of boundless imagination marked by Cheff’s original artwork. A fantastical rainbow of drama made of flying sharks, Downton dinos and every multi-colored hue even inspired Alboucq to ask Cheff if he’d ever gotten into that Hunter S. Thompson case of uppers, downers, laughers or screamers in his youth.
She remembers Cheff saying, “No, I was just born this way.”
And here is the core of Mary Farfisa’s ever-expanding narrative: innovation. Cheff explains the show’s future will see a soon-to-air Spanish language segment. Eventually, he dreams of including a Navajo-language edition as well—he just needs help translating the scripts and finding a cast of actors to voice the parts. Until then, he’s working on a series of picture books, with one coloring book already available, while scouring avenues for syndication.
As he describes what motivates this musical endeavor, Cheff points to one of his heroes, Mr. Fred Rogers, who spent a storied lifetime not solely entertaining children, but even testified before Congress to remind adults they, too, had been children once.
“All the people who have been on Mary Farfisa are really doing something they love,” Cheff adds. “They love playing an instrument, they love singing songs, and I think kids pick up on that. If they see adults being silly and having fun while doing something that they love, then they’ll be more inclined to grow up and do the same … They can remain kids forever if they want.”
Catch the daring exploits of Mary Farfisa’s Outer Space Radio Theater Saturdays at 10 a.m. on Radio Sunnyside, KSZN 101.5 FM. Stream each episode online at www.mixcloud.com/maryfarfisashow.