Sgt. Stedenko’s Revenge

Tommy Chong‘s much-heralded return to the stage after serving nine months in prison is in doubt. His tour production of “The Marijuana-Logues” has been postponed over fears that stoners lighting up in the audience may trigger a parole violation – and unwittingly send the comic back to prison.

Chong served nine months in a California prison last year after pleading guilty to drug paraphernalia charges.

The tour, which kicked off in pot-friendly Vancouver, B.C., only lasted two nights. Chong reported, as required, to his parole officer that audience members there and the following day in Seattle had fired up joints during his performances.

The wafting pot smoke represented a potential violation of Chong’s parole, which bars him from being in places where people are using or selling illegal substances – regardless of whether the locale is a crack house or a performing arts center.

According to sources close to the entertainer, the P.O. told Chong and his lawyers his only assurance of not being returned to prison was to postpone the tour until after the parole expires in July.

The remainder of the tour was abruptly postponed February 25th, including a show that night in Tucson, Ariz., and the next day at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif. The announcement came too late to cancel a large ad in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle heralding the addition of a second performance of “The Marijuana-Logues” at that city’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre March 11th.

Promoters contacted by Pollstar didn’t return calls for comment by press time.

“The Marijuana-Logues,” a theatre piece created by three New York City actors more than two years ago, has run off-Broadway for more than a year. After Chong joined the cast last fall, the production sold out a 15-show run at The Actors Playhouse in New York City.

It was such a hit that Lee Marshall of Magic Arts & Entertainment approached them to take the play on the road, with co-producers IDEAL Entertainment, after Chong was released from prison.

“I approached Tommy a long time ago, prior to him going to jail, actually, to gauge his interest level,” Marshall told Pollstar. “When he got out, we approached him again. At that point, I don’t know if he thought he would be allowed to travel around with this. We checked all that out and came back to him in October and he said, ‘Let’s do it.'”

Explaining Chong’s conviction, Marshall said, “All he did was, his son sold a bong with his face on it. A piece of glass with a stencil on it.”

In a federal probe announced by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and dubbed “Operation Pipe Dreams,” some 55 dealers of “fine art blown glassware” were raided in 2003. Among those raided was Chong at the Pacific Palisades, Calif., home he shares with his wife, Shelby. Of those 55, only Chong was prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.

Despite that, he is philosophical about the time he spent as what some of his supporters termed a “political prisoner.”

“I couldn’t be bitter,” Chong told Pollstar two days before his appearance with former partner Cheech Marin at the Aspen Comedy Festival and a week before “The Marijuana-Logues” tour launch. “Because of all the years I’ve been doing the talk, it all came down to that I had to do the walk. I had to earn my right to be who I am.”

Calling the prison stint “a nice rest,” Chong said he had plenty of time to ponder the future.

“I threw the I Ching while I was in prison and the first thing the I Ching told me to do was get off this ‘injustice of it all’ kick,” Chong said. “The second thing it told me was, ‘You’re going to have a reunion and it’s gonna be great!’ So, everything was good.”

His onstage reunion with Marin, the first in two decades, may be a harbinger of things to come. There’s a script for a new Cheech & Chong movie in the works, tentatively titled “Grumpy Old Stoners.” And Chong has hopes for a future Cheech & Chong tour. Chong also has plans to resume his recurring role on “That ’70s Show.”

He sees his current troubles as kind of a karmic bargain – and he’s earned the right to continue his career.

“By picking the kind of subject that made me famous, put me in this nice house, gave me a career, put my kids through school and bought me properties in Canada and Paris, it’s kind of like going to jail was me kind of paying the tuition,” Chong said. “It was easy to be a pot comedian during the Nixon and Clinton eras. I left the country when Reagan got in – went to France.

“But when George Bush junior got in, my instincts were, ‘Well, it’s time to go.’ But I felt we had grown above that, you know? So when it (the arrest) came down, I guess it was ‘No, we haven’t!’ Chong said, laughing. “But I owe it to the culture. I can’t run this time. I owe it to the culture to stay this time and take whatever they throw at me, and use it like you do karate – use that energy and turn it around.”

But if John Ashcroft is Tommy Chong’s modern Sgt. Stedenko, he’s going to have to save that energy until he’s safely clear of his parole officer and the legal system. And that means sitting out what was shaping up to be a successful run of “The Marijuana-Logues.”

An initial 25 shows were booked in theatres and performing arts centers, including the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the Paramount Theatre in Denver and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Fla.

While tour organizers told Pollstar at press time that dates would be rescheduled for fall, industry sources said that further legal jitters and other conflicts may cause the entire production to yet, as Cheech & Chong might put it, go “up in smoke.”