Upper Valley Image — Spring 2007
By Bruce Wood
If Reg Pierce had wanted to turn Pierce’s Inn into a photo op for Country Living Magazine, he probably could have pulled it off. But one of the last things Reg wanted was a place where visitors had to worry about tracking mud through the door or setting a beer down on a rickety antique coffee table without a coaster or accidentally knocking a Royal Copenhagen figurine off a shelf.
Set on a curving back road in the hills of Etna, a short drive from downtown Hanover, Pierce’s Inn was built in 1947, and started doing business as an inn one year later. Over the years the barn-red gambrel with the huge stone chimney facing the road swelled out to the left, slid out to the right and had a thoroughly utilitarian addition or two tacked on in the back. The place that Reg and Nancy Pierce bought in 1971 is now, in the sweetest sense of the expression, something of a hodge-podge lodge.
The New England landscape is dotted with pristine inns.
Thoroughly unpretentious, Pierce’s Inn isn’t one of them, and it certainly wasn’t on the night of May 8, 2004 when Cindy Pierce’s past and future came face to face.
Birth of a Comedian
Born in Greenwich, Conn., Cindy is the last of Reg and Nancy Pierce’s seven kids. Cindy was six when Reg, a Dartmouth grad, gave up the riches of an executive advertising career for the rewards of running his own country inn.
“In Greenwich I never saw my dad,” Cindy says, eyes sparkling as they always do when she speaks of her father. “I was getting up. He was going out the door to get on the train. I’m going to bed, he’s coming in. He’s stressed out. We move up here, and every day my dad is making us breakfast. Every day he’s throwing a baseball or football with me, or I am helping him with building projects around this bottomless pit of building projects.”
But for the bottomless pit mention, Pierce, 41, tells the story without the infectious laugh that so often punctuates her conversation, a laugh that tips people off that this is a woman who refuses to take herself too seriously. She is sitting behind a cluttered desk in a cluttered office reached by passing through a cluttered mud room at the Inn, where she lives with husband Bruce Lingelbach and their three children ages eight, seven and five. Cindy and Bruce, who met when they were both ski coaches at Burke Mountain Academy, bought the inn from her parents in 2002, one year before her father died, suddenly, at age 78.
“Opportunities come up and you just sort of go along,” Cindy explains. “First I was ski coaching and teaching, and that led me to teaching. Then I stayed home with my kids. Then Bruce was ready to be done coaching, and here we are as innkeepers. We were in the saddle before you knew it with these little kids. It was a joke.
“I really had no idea I’d be an innkeeper. I knew I wanted to be a mom but I never really knew I wanted to be a teacher or a ski coach. Everything just sort of led to the next thing. I believe you are led to the next thing and you go with it.”
A Family of Funny Characters
A ski racer at Hanover High School and again at the University of New Hampshire, where she captained the ski and soccer teams while studying theater, Cindy Pierce was in Colorado on a ski holiday in 2004 when she was “led to the next thing.”
All of her life, it seemed, people had been laughing at her stories and telling her she should “be on TV or something.” Pierce wasn’t so easily convinced, at least in part because she didn’t think she was even the funniest member of what she fondly calls a family of seven “wingnuts.”
“My nephew Jamie is the funniest person I know,” she says. “Of the 20 grandchildren, seven kids in the family and the sister- and brothers-in-law, I’m middle of the pack as far as funny.We have a lot of very funny characters in this family.”
While regaling friends with stories after skiing in Colorado, one friend in the audience was connected with the HBO-affiliated Aspen Comedy Festival. “She said to me, ‘I’ve been a judge for four years and you are funnier than anyone there’,” Pierce says.
Although she might have been flattered, Pierce wasn’t about to drop everything and head out on the comedy club circuit. “It was like, ‘Yeah, in my spare time between toilet cleaning and slinging hash and taking care of these babies, you want me to have a career?’ As if. It’s just not happening.”
But friends who had been laughing at her stories for years weren’t going to let her off that easily, particularly Kristi Graham of Norwich. “She pulled me aside and said, ‘Cindy how about this? Throw out an email and just do it at your house.'”
Emboldened, Pierce fired off an email to friends, family and friends of family announcing her next move. The message was part invitation and part caveat.
Pushing the Limits
Cindy Pierce doesn’t tell jokes. She tells stories. Very personal stories. With her rubbery face, self-professed “big mouth” and willingness to laugh at herself, she might exaggerate for dramatic effect, but she doesn’t create from whole cloth. Her particular brand of humor was spawned from the perfect storm of growing up an outgoing and inquisitive tomboy with a host of older siblings, living in an inn that she lovingly calls “a Petri dish of human behavior,” and being encouraged to push the limits.
“I have a bunch of scars from surgeries and bangs and breaks from all the sports I’ve done and climbing I’ve done,” Pierce offers with a faraway look. “Someone made a comment about it one time and my dad interrupted and said, ‘She lived her life and those are the scars that show it.'”
It would be wrong to call Pierce’s collection of stories life scars because that’s not what they are. Like those marks on her legs, they might better be deemed medals of Honor.
The subject matter of the stories she planned to tell that night three years ago didn’t figure to be a surprise to anyone who had spent much time with her. Just in case, however, she included the warning in her email.
“I wrote some of the topics I might cover,” she says. “I said anyone who would be bummed out shouldn’t come and about 70 people showed up. There were a bunch of couples. Most were people I knew. Some I didn’t, because they brought friends.”
At the appointed hour, Pierce kissed her kiddies good night, closed the door to the Inn’s living room, grabbed the notes she’d jotted down during the week and did what she’s been doing all her life. She held up a figurative mirror to her own face knowing that when the audience looked in it they wouldn’t see her so much as they would see themselves and their own lives.
Fittingly, perhaps, it was Mother’s Day eve.
The notes Pierce fell back on when she regaled her first semiformal audience were what she casually calls “my sort of vaginal history.” Birth and birth control, menstruation and masturbation, the female urinal,women’s body parts, men’s body parts and anything in between were all fair game once Pierce got rolling.Now, three years later, there is a temptation to compare what Pierce did that night, and does today, to the celebrated Vagina Monologues, which premiered off Broadway in 1996. While she is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath with a work of art she both respects and appreciates, the comparison doesn’t work for her.
“People think this is the Vagina Monologues, which it absolutely is not,” she says. “I love the Vagina Monologues. I was inspired by the Vagina Monologues. But the only thing they really have in common is honest talk about womanhood. I also delve into the male side of things.
“I was such a tomboy and spent so much time with boys and men that I know their vulnerabilities. I think it’s so important to include them, to speak for them and give their side of the story.Yes, I’ve had the female experience, but I like to say, ‘Take a moment here and look what it’s like to be a guy.’ It’s tough to be a father in the birthing chamber. It’s tough to be a guy trying to find the clitoris. It’s tough to be a guy trying to deal with your emotions. I know it and talk about it.”
The reaction to the 90 or so minutes of stories she told when she first took off the wraps in 2004, was encouraging.
“I thought people would say that’s too much or it’s too horrifying,” she says. “But instead they were like, ‘You need to take this on the road.'” Buoyed by the reception she received and encouraged by her gaggle of friends, Pierce sent a tape of the evening’s proceedings to a connection at HBO. Feedback she got led to her taping another show at Dartmouth’s Collis Center in front of a crowd of 120 people eight months later. That, in turn, led to an offer from good friend Kristin Brown to shop around and see if she could come up with a larger venue in which Pierce could perform.
“I said I’m too busy and have too much going on, but if you have the energy to do that, go for it,” Pierce recalls fondly. “The next day she’s got a call in to the Lebanon Opera House, which was willing to take a chance on me.”
Finding the Doorbell
Finding the Doorbell, the title for Pierce’s show that is a euphemism for the trying to locate a special part of a woman’s body, played to a standing room only crowd at the Opera House in May of 2005. From there it was on to the famed Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vt., five months later and the Music Hall in Portsmouth, N.H., three months after that. “I kept waiting for someone to say, ‘OK, you are done, it’s over,'” Pierce says. “But I keep getting encouraged.” Pierce has taken her act (although that’s probably not the right term) around the Twin States, up to Maine and down to Massachusetts. She’s performed in Colorado and won a prize at a comedy club in New York City.
As she talks about her show, Pierce laughs easily and often and it is clear she enjoys telling the stories as much as her audience enjoys hearing them. But to listen to her, it’s substance over style that has made her a success.
“When we sold out the Lebanon Opera House, what it said to me was people are desperate to hear more honest body and sex talk,” she says. “They won’t ask for it, they won’t seek it, but they want answers. That first night at the Inn, I had people say, ‘Would you sit down with my 13-year-old girl and her friends and talk to them?’ Or my 13-year-old boy?”
For all the gratification that comes with knowing you can make people laugh and then going out and doing it, and for all the excitement that comes with people saying you are on your way to stardom, it’s all window dressing to Pierce. Her real motivation, she says, comes from using her life experiences, her lack of inhibition in things sexual and her willingness to make fun of herself for the very real purpose of helping others become more comfortable with their bodies and in their relationships. “Everyone I know wants the information in my show,” Pierce says. “They are grateful that I am talking about something either they have experienced or experienced part of. It’s universal, but no one is talking about it. I don’t make it implicit but I’m imparting a message.
“Bruce calls me the can opener. I throw out the most personal things and people think, ‘Gosh, if she can tell me that that I can share this.’ I make people feel safe and comfortable talking about things they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about. I’m trying to say it will be better for everyone if you are just bold enough and comfortable enough to ask questions of the man or woman you are with.”
The Next Act
Buddy Kirschner of Kirschner Concerts has taken over as Pierce’s producer, and there she was earlier this winter on the Kirschner website being promoted alongside Bo Diddley and Crosby & Nash. There’s been talk of a one-person show at a 200-seat theater in the Big Apple. New England Cable News has done a mini-documentary on her. Together with friend Edie Thys Morgan, Pierce is spinning her show into a book that she hopes to have out next spring.
Old UNH buddy Mike O’Malley, perhaps best known as ESPN’s The Rick, helped hook Pierce up for a 12-minute reading in a collective show in Los Angeles called Afterbirth, about how parenthood changes a person’s life. Slated to join Pierce on stage is Jeff Greenstein, producer of the show Will and Grace. The ball is rolling.
No one has to tell Pierce the Los Angeles gig could be the break she needs to take her act national.
But despite the electricity surrounding Pierce the performer, it’s business as usual in mid-January for Pierce as mother and innkeeper. While she takes time out to talk about her life and her comedy career, one of her young sons sticks his head through the door to share news about his remote control Zamboni. A couple of high school girls show up and are given their work assignments for the afternoon. A guest group is coming shortly and meals have to be prepared. Floors have to be swept. Rooms made ready.
Wherever the future may take her, it will always be rooted in her past, in the barn-red Petri dish of human behavior that has never made it onto the cover of Country Living Magazine and she hopes never will.
“What would I do if I hit it big?” she says, pausing for a second after repeating a question. “I’d pay off my debts and get this place fixed up. Not too much, but enough that we aren’t causing global warming. We are personally responsible for it.
“That wouldn’t change my life. I’m still going to be wearing this outfit and sitting behind this desk and doing all the things I’m doing now.”
Somewhere Reg Pierce is smiling.
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