The Mansion Family
Inside the Beta Society's Creative Fraternity (and Hot Tub)
The 9,690-square-foot mansion was built in 1952. It is north of Carkeek Park, almost as far west as you can go without being a giant Pacific octopus, and suffered a semitrashy renovation in 1994. "See, it's designed so you can do cocaine off every surface," one of its residents, Annette Auger, told me in the marble-tiled "Less Than Zero room."
The nine bedrooms house nine members of the Beta Society, a filmmaking collective and production company and fanny-pack-for-your-head* distributor formed by Auger, Celene Ramadan, and Jessica Aceti in April 2008. There is a swimming pool, a hot tub, a retractable glass roof over said pool and tub, an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven and gas grill (at least one person was eating a hot dog every time I visited), two refrigerators, a rooftop deck twice the size of Africa, an ivy-covered gazebo in which to watch sunsets and receive bug bites, an indoor koi pond that is possibly also a volcano, a home theater worthy of any celebrity's Cribs except maybe Mariah Carey, a bidet in every bathroom (seriously), a circular drive with a fountain, too many fireplaces, and a panoramic view of Puget Sound and the Olympics. It is fucking insane, and hardly a place for non-oil-baronesses to live. Rent is approximately $700 each.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ramadan—her acting background broadcasting loud and clear—starts talking about Alan Thicke, best known as Growing Pains' Jason Seaver, the 1980s' second-most-attractive sitcom patriarch (after Tony Danza, obv). The best part of the story: Ramadan and Aceti are sitting on the front porch of a well-appointed home in Santa Barbara, California. Suddenly, Alan Thicke emerges from the house, screaming, "HONEY, CALL THE COPS! THERE ARE THIEVES IN MY HOUSE!" Aceti and Ramadan watch, freaking-the-fuck-out, as the accused—a British television crew there to interview Thicke—gather in the driveway, deny the charges, and plead with Thicke to calm down. "They've been taking silverware! Valuables! Some woman was just dumping them in her purse!" he counters. The police have been called. Thicke blocks any British escape attempts with a large SUV. "Alan, don't dooo this," the interviewer pleads, Britishly. "We're friends, Alan!" Then, in front of Ramadan and Aceti's eyes, Alan Thicke wrestles a man to the ground.
This, obviously, is the best thing that has ever happened.
As it turns out, Thicke is absolutely correct: The crew had been pocketing treasures, but not because they were thieves. Apparently they were pranking him for a television show (on Showtime or something, though nobody's sure). "Well, I guess it was a prank, but it wasn't a very good one," Thicke told Ramadan and Aceti in his Thicke voice, once the scene had calmed down. "Looks like you ladies got more than you bargained for! Well, I gotta go. But you should really go explore Santa Barbara—they've got some great restaurants down on State Street."
And Thicke was gone.
How they got to Thicke's doorstep in the first place: In the winter of 2007, the group (then known as the Seattle Neutrino Society) was putting together a holiday variety show called A Very Alan Thicke-mas. "We had developed this semifictional character of 'The Thicke,'" Ramadan says, "where we'd just trade outlandish statements backstage, like, 'The Thicke once pissed chain mail' or 'The Thicke once had sex with wine.'" So, just for poops and chuckles, they e-mailed Thicke's website. And he wrote back. And a weird, long-distance partnership was born. Thicke wrote a letter to be read aloud at the first A Very Alan Thicke-mas. The following year, he wrote an original song and made a music video ("we got all this footage in the mail," Ramadan says, "and it's like, Alan Thicke at the kitchen table, looking at bills; Alan Thicke in the backyard, like, rocking a baby..."). So when the gals decided to take a trip to L.A., Thicke invited them by to say hello. And then, you know, that happened.
The Thicke saga is an uncannily accurate analogy for the Beta Society in general: an unlikely confluence of pop-culture kitsch, fortuitous coincidence, and unflagging determination. The Beta Society has its roots in improv. In 2004, Ramadan joined the Seattle Neutrino Project, a spin-off of a New York improv group that incorporated short video projects (six minutes to make a three-minute film) into their live shows. Eventually, enthusiasm began to wane—"It was really just a gimmick, and once it wore off, we realized it really wasn't that interesting... There wasn't anything with real legs that you could do"—and, after an incarnation as the Seattle Neutrino Society, Ramadan and a few others reinvented themselves. Their new name: the Beta Society—playing off the triple meaning of Beta tape (the aforementioned '80s kitsch), the beta version of their evolving group, and, most importantly, beta-as-in-ß-as-in-what-you-might-call-your-frat-house-brah! The Beta Society envisioned itself as a kind of creative fraternity, and Ramadan was on the lookout for Beta House, but she didn't really imagine she'd find it.
And then they found it. On Craigslist. In a truly bizarre coincidence, it's owned by Garr Godfrey, a Seattle dot-com millionaire who produced three of the most prominent local films of the past three years: Zoo, Cthulhu, and The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. "We don't really know him very well," Ramadan says. "We have a very landlordy relationship with him."
Moving into the mansion has situated the Beta Society in a perfect petri dish of creative possibility. They physically live in a gorgeous, versatile set. They've added an editing room and built a green-screen studio in the garage. The mansion is bustling at all hours of the day and night—actors, writers, filmmakers, and weirdos swimming in the pool and eating hot links and saying things like, "He single-handedly saved my generation from all of this irony bullshit" or "That sounds like something so-and-so would write." It can be an overwhelming scene, but one surprisingly free of the one-upmanship common in big groups of performers. It's also ideal for creative productivity: No good idea goes unplumbed or unremembered, because even if you're drunk, there are 4,000 other people around to catch it.
There are approximately 35 people in the official Beta Society orbit, from age 20 to 41. Day jobs range from server to software engineer to freelance videographer to octopus wrangler. Their bios list special skills including magic, iconoclasm, "styling my hair like the first lady (not the current one necessarily, just in general)," "Sheffield dialect at will," huge balls, and "was once stabbed in the arm." Aceti, Ramadan, and Auger are known as "headmasters"; everyone else is a "master." (Master Betas—I assume you get it.) But they're not, Ramadan emphasizes, just a sketch-comedy group. The Beta Society wants to make something with weight, something more than a joke: "We're such a social group—and this is my theory behind it—that when we get together, it tends to be lighthearted. But we want to do darker stuff, more serious stuff. We just want to make good films."
So far, the Beta Society is mostly potential. The collective output consists of comedic shorts, a reeeally funny series of found footage called VHS Gold (the latest episode is called "Oxycise," essentially an infomercial for breathing), an ambitious but distractingly DIY feature-length horror comedy called Junkbucket (money quote: "If you listen closely on a quiet night, you can still hear old Junkbucket out there, cryin' for his mama and his lost cock 'n' balls"), and Cap-sac- related ephemera. The first time I visited, they were shooting intros and outros for a series called Hot Tub Theatre, in which they take classics of literature and theater and "put it in a hot tub for you." The Betas have a sly ear for balancing absurdity and wit, a knack for branding, and they have the equipment and drive (and the mansion) to actually bring projects to fruition. Whether they'll succeed isn't certain, of course, but fuck, I'll be surprised if they don't—they've set a pretty remarkable stage for themselves and seem poised on the verge of something good. "The house is really what is going to make this all happen," Ramadan says. "And I'm really committed to making this a prolific time for our group and making a name for ourselves. And we'll see what happens."
And as for life after Thicke? "We've reached out to many '80s sitcom has-beens—we tried contacting, like, Kimmy Gibler, but nothing's really come of it." Your loss, Gibler. Your loss.