Clarification to This Article
The Dec. 19 obituary for Bill Strauss, co-founder of the high school drama program Cappies, failed to mention that each of the 17 Cappies programs in the United States and Canada include five to 30 participating schools and thousands of students. Sixty Washington area schools participate in Cappies.

Bill Strauss, 60; Political Insider Who Stepped Over Into Comedy

Capitol Steps comedy group, circa 1985; Bill Strauss kneels in front with the
Capitol Steps comedy group, circa 1985; Bill Strauss kneels in front with the "veto pen." When not parodying the powerful, the onetime Senate aide was a serious author and encouraged young writers. (Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Capitol Steps founder Bill Strauss was a Harvard-trained lawyer and Senate subcommittee staffer when he broke through the chrysalis of Capitol Hill conventionality to become a musical satirist.

Mr. Strauss, who died Dec. 18 of pancreatic cancer at his home in McLean, recalled the breakthrough in a phone interview shortly before his death at age 60.

It was Memorial Day 1981, he said, and he was hosting a party that ended with a jam session around the piano. Party-goers riffed on parodies of Reagan-era newsmakers.

Mr. Strauss discovered that night that he had a facility for impromptu silliness and satire. He began to wonder whether, at age 34, he might be able to make a living at it, even though his only musical training was a stint in his elementary school orchestra.

During the next several months, when not worrying about nuclear proliferation and other weighty matters, he wrote musical parodies. Enlisting other musically gifted Senate staffers, he scheduled the group's debut at the annual office Christmas party of Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Mr. Strauss's employer.

The group christened itself the Capitol Steps, an allusion to the location of a late-night amorous moment enjoyed by Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his wife, Rita.

Capitol Steps was a hit from the beginning. For the next few years, the group performed regularly for free at parties and in church basements. "We were clinging to our day jobs," co-founder Elaina Newport said. "Frankly, we were trying not to get in trouble."

Today, Capitol Steps is still performing, although not in church basements. It's a $3 million-a-year industry with more than 40 employees who sing and satirize at venues across the country.

The group's success was "totally out of the blue," Mr. Strauss said. "Neither I nor anyone else was expecting it."

Mr. Strauss's more serious side found expression in six books he co-authored about American generations and as co-founder of Cappies, a high school critics and awards program. He also wrote three musicals -- "MaKiddo," "" and "Anasazi" -- and co-wrote with Newport two books of satire, "Fools on the Hill" (1992) and "Sixteen Scandals" (2002).

"He packed several lifetimes into his 60 years," Newport said.

William Arthur Strauss was born in Chicago and spent most of his childhood in Burlingame, Calif., in the San Francisco area. He was a Capitol page in 1963, during his junior year in high school, and graduated from Harvard University in 1969. He received a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, both in 1973, but knew from his first semester in law school that he did not want to practice law. The summer his classmates took the bar exam, he and his wife were on a 40-day honeymoon trip across Africa.

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