Wait Wait! NPR’s news quiz show opens Tanglewood with celebrity Karen Allen

The live taping of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! drew a huge crowd of fans to Tanglewood on a beautiful Berkshires evening. Photo by Bess Hochstein.
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Summer is here in the Berkshires. But not because of the calendar, or even the steamy weather; it’s all about the culture. Local theaters and museums are now running on all cylinders, and finally Tanglewood, that beloved destination in Lenox, Massachusetts, has opened its formidable gates. And it looks like a real old-fashioned, post-pandemic, full-bore summer, with packed schedules and sold-out houses.

Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but that esteemed organization has not yet made the trek to the western edge of Massachusetts. (That happens on July 7, the official Opening Night at Tanglewood—known here as ONAT—with a BSO program conducted by Andris Nelsons consisting of Herald, Holler, and Hallelujah by Wynton Marsalis; Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring pianist Daniil Trifonov; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.) Before the BSO arrives, Tanglewood presents a slew of popular artists—most notably James Taylor’s ever-popular, always sold-out Independence Day appearances (this year on July 3 & 4). The third Tanglewood appearance of the Steve Miller Band, with opening act Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, drew happy dancing crowds on June 23, despite sadly soggy weather.

The Steve Miller Band played Tanglewood on June 23. Photo by Taylor Hill

But the Tanglewood season opener was neither band nor orchestra. One June 22, NPR’s comedy news quiz Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! giddily kicked off the season in high spirits, featuring actor Karen Allen, who lives in the Berkshires, as the celebrity guest.

Karen Allen remains best known for playing the ingénue Katy in Animal House (her film debut!) and feisty Marion Ravenwood—Harrison Ford’s hard-living love interest—in Raiders of the Lost Ark and other Indiana Jones movies. Now she’s having another moment as she returns for the sixth (and final) film of the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. She has appeared in scads of other films, including Starman, Scrooged, The Perfect Storm, and A Year by the Sea, and she currently stars in the award-winning indie A Stage of Twilight.

Allen has also acted in and directed theater; this fall she appears in the world premiere of Donald Marguiles’s Lunar Eclipse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. In addition, she has joined the ranks of movie directors with her first film, an award-winning short based on the Carson McCullers story A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.

From my vantage as a full-time Berkshire resident, I can confidently say that Allen is an active, engaged member of the community. She’s on the board of the Berkshire International Film Festival, and she’s an advisory board member of the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative. She even owns a shop in Great Barrington, Karen Allen Fiber Arts, stocked with her own knitwear and a personally curated collection of colorful clothing. But she’s also genuine, kind, quick-witted, and boy, does she have stories to tell.

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! host Peter Sagal was thrilled to have Karen Allen as the celebrity guest at the Tanglewood taping. Photo by Hillary Scott

Like many men of a certain age, host Peter Sagal is a self-admitted Karen Allen fanboy, so he was thrilled to welcome her to the stage during the live taping of the radio show at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed, even geeking out a bit that he was in her presence. He asked a lot of questions about her experiences on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Allen regalled the crowd, recounting her audition (they asked her how well she could spit, something she never had to do in the movie), the snake scene (6000 of them, and they were real), and some of the actors who auditioned for the role of Indiana Jones after Tom Selleck (!) had to turn it down.

Allen was there to play the segment called “Not My Job,” which is usually very tangentially related to the celebrity guest, so I expected Allen would have to answer wacky trivia questions about the state of Indiana or Allen wrenches. But she got a random topic: the remarkable (and disgusting) origins of pink lemonade. Spoiler alert: She won, but it’s about the journey, not the results.

Announcer Bill Curtis declares victory for Karen Allen at the Tanglewood taping of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! Photo by Hillary Scott

One of the best parts about attending a taping of Wait Wait… is hearing the guest and panelists riff on their stories and jokes. The taping runs about two hours, so you know a lot of it ends up on the cutting room floor. This is too bad, because the panelists are whip-smart, quick-witted, and laugh-out-loud funny, and they get even funnier as they build on each others’ responses. But the taping makes for a unique experience, exclusively for people who are there. And this episode had en exceptional group of comedian panelists: Negin Farsad, apparently just back from a mushroom ‘trip’ in Hawaii (that bit didn’t make the final cut); Karen Chee (a TV writer more available than usual thanks to the strike); and ramblin’ Roy Blount Jr., one of the show’s original panelists, who also lives nearby in the Berkshires.

Comedians Karen Chee, Roy Blount Jr., and Negin Farsad comprised the panel at the Tanglewood taping of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! Photo by Hillary Scott

The show has a special fondness for taping at Tanglewood. Beyond the perennial jokes about crowds on the lawn enjoying fancy picnics and drinking too much wine, Tanglewood was the first venue to host a live taping after Covid shut everything down. This year was Wait Wait’s sixth Tanglewood taping. I’ve attended several — once we picnicked next to former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick! — and each time the lawn gets more crowded. This year it was packed, perhaps because of all the Karen Allen fans out there, or maybe more people have discovered the hilarity of the show. A great start to the season. Listen to the episode, and judge for yourself.

Elvis Costello plays the Shed at Tanglewood on July 1. Photo by Mark Seliger

So what’s up next at Tanglewood? This week, on Saturday July 1, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, wth “very special guests” Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets. I’ll be there, with a pre-show picnic and seats in the Shed. The next night, July 2: Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame) and country-bluegrass singer Alison Krauss with “very special guest: JD McPerson. Then James Taylor with his two long-ago sold-out shows on July 3 & 4, and then the BSO arrives with a jam-packed schedule of diverse, robust programming.

I covered the highlights of the Tanglewood schedule in this long-winded preview, but since publication, a few more popular acts have been added to the tail-end of the season.

Guster has been added to the Tanglewood schedule; the band plays Seiji Ozawa Hall on September 2. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jackson Browne performs at the Shed on August 31, marking his seventh Tanglewood appearance. The band Guster plays Ozawa Hall on September 2, having last performed at Tanglewood in 2013. And, in late-breaking news, the 12-time Grammy winner John Legend will close the season on September 3 with a solo concert at the Shed, featuring songs and stories and re-imaginings of his greatest hits, plus selections from his most recent release, Legend. Having EGOT-club member Legend as the closer ensures that Tanglewood will end its 2023 season on a high note.

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