Anti-Marthas throw quirky party

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By Eils Lotozo
Knight Ridder Newspapers / Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – Just like Martha Stewart, Elizabeth Fiend is a blond television host with her own how-to show offering cooking lessons, domestic tips, crafts projects and gardening advice.

But while Martha might tell you how to hemstitch a set of linen napkins, make a perfect brioche, or tend your formal rose garden, Fiend will show you how to make a meat substitute out of wheat gluten, decorate a photo album with green fake fur and glitter, and avoid getting flat tires on your bicycle.

And she’s likely to do it all wearing a feathered headdress, jeweled cat’s-eye glasses, and an outfit of garish, mismatched plaids.

The show? It’s called “Big Tea Party,” and it’s not quite like anything else on television.

The creation of Fiend and pals Gretjen Clausing and Valerie Keller, the program – a blend of environmentalism, vegetarian cooking, punk aesthetics and absurdist humor – has been airing on Drexel University station DUTV since 1998.

In three-minute episodes that run, unscheduled, on weekends.

And watch out, Martha.

The Big Tea Party gals, who call their creation an “anarchist home-economics show,” have a half-hour pilot in the works and big hopes to go national.

Said Fiend, 43, “I think the timing is just right for a show that offers ways to live a more low-impact lifestyle.”

Said Clausing, 38, who handles the show’s camera work, “For me, ‘Big Tea Party’ is about showing people there’s a way to have a creative life and not spend a lot of money. I don’t see any other shows doing that.”

The low-budget and largely self-financed show is shot in Fiend’s lavender kitchen in the house she shares with her husband of 20 years, Allen. They’re both longtime members of the post-punk band More Fiends, from which they take their last (stage) name. The show took its name and driving theme from a More Fiends tune.

With its music, jumpy camera work, quick edits and quirky graphics – a halo appears over Fiend’s head when she says the word vegetarian – “Big Tea Party” resembles a music video more than a how-to show.

The 20 episodes have covered composting and making a veggie cheesesteak, conserving water, and putting out your own record or CD.

And the show’s zany style has endeared it to fans from the kid at the movie-theater popcorn stand to the produce guy at the supermarket to elderly women on the street.

“I get approached all the time,” Fiend said.

“For some reason teen-age girls from the suburbs love it. I was at the Fourth of July fireworks and I was mobbed by this group of girls. They said, ‘Look, it’s Big Tea Party! We can’t believe you’re here!'”

“They are really, really talented and they do great shows,” said DUTV station manager George McCullough.

He was the one who first lent the trio a camera and advised them to stick to a short format so their segments could be used to fill in between programs.

“People say to me all the time, ‘I caught the last 15 minutes of your show,’ ” Fiend said over ginger tea at a kitchen-table gathering of her collaborators. “I say, that’s funny, because it’s only three minutes long.”

And putting it together is no tea party. “With all the text balloons and graphics, the editing is arduous,” said Fiend, who researches and writes the shows. “It takes us 12 hours to get one minute of usable tape.”

“That may be because we’re doing it nights and weekends and we have to gossip first,” chimed in Keller, the show’s director and editor. She is a free-lance film editor when she’s not working on “BTP.”

The others have day jobs, too – Clausing as program director for Film at the Prince at the Prince Music Theater, and Fiend as a bibliographic specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Library.

The show’s eco-conscious, cooking-crafts format reflects Fiend’s sensibility.

“That’s my life,” said Fiend, a visual artist whose cartoons have appeared in underground publications such as Robert Crumb’s Weirdo.

She really is an accomplished vegetarian cook, a self-taught font of nutrition information, and a gardener whose lush backyard features a grape arbor, fig tree, herbs and berries.

She really does make jewelry out of Colt 45 bottle caps and candelabra out of plastic soda bottles.

And yes, she dresses like that. The vinyl coat with stencils of coffeepots, the fur hat, the tiara – those glasses – are for real.

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