There was only one other person in serious contention for the role of Charlie Brown at Reuben’s Backstage in the summer of 1984. And when I got the call from Michael telling me that I had the role, I jumped up and down, giddy from my achievement. I ran to tell mom, prone on the couch, groggy from laze, and quickly exhausted from the forced reaction she mustered on my behalf. I’m fairly sure she didn’t understand a word that I was saying. It didn’t matter. I was going to be the lead in our musical!
So rehearsals began, and I realized in short order that this was not going to be like the snappy, exciting, well-publicized Reuben’s shows I was used to. Since I was not playing bass in the pit band, no one else would. Only a pianist and hopefully, eventually, a drummer, whom we had not found yet. This was going to be a cheap show. Maybe that’s why we did it in the summer. While every show had some nights which brought a small crowd, the previous shows still had…something. Some sense of legitimacy, perhaps because I wasn’t in them (see, I was a self-defeating noodnik even then). Now that I was the lead, was it going to lose that something? And was my feeling real? I mean, was it less legitimate? And did it just feel that way because I was the lead?
I donned some flesh-colored panty hose, one of those shirts with the zig-zag black stripe, and big black shorts. For the band, they eventually hired a fellow named David Walling to play drums. Dave was a dead ringer for David Letterman. A DEAD RINGER. But unlike David Letterman, he was nice, and funny, and we all liked him. After a few rehearsals, Dave and I got to talking. He began to ask me about college. Had I been? (I had, three times, for a grand total of maybe one academic year). Was I going? Where? How about Villa Maria? Villa was a two-year liberal arts college in Cheektowaga that Dave worked at as a guidance counselor. He said that I should look into their music program.
I was sad when the shows run ended, but it was a great experience. Incidentally, a guy from the Buffalo News came to review the show. The day the review came out, I bought a paper to see how he liked me. It turned out that for space, the Buffalo News had to edit his review, taking everything he had to say about me OUT of the article. Fuckers.
I had moved into a one bedroom, no stove apartment on Humason Avenue near the college, taking the fridge that my father bought on the day I was born, as legend had it. I was too busy the day my daughter was born to shop for appliances, but…I borrowed a crock pot from my girlfriend’s mother and cooked chicken in it. With spaghetti sauce. That’s all I knew how to make.
Humason was on Buffalo’s East side, a formerly distinguished, ethnically mixed section of the great old city, right on the border of Buffalo and Cheektowaga. Our neighborhood was predominantly white, between the rich section out near Union Road, and the rapidly decaying Buffalo inner city. There’s a Rite Aid where, when I lived there, there was an abandoned mattress factory. On Genesee Street, you could walk a block from Humason to Lougus Lounge, a tavern from Buffalo’s old days, which was owned, as I was told, by Lou and Gus. There, you could get a fantastic tasting large pizza and 10 chicken wings for $5.95. How often, in my early days there, did I scrape the money together for that special? I would walk quickly down Genesee with my food in my arms, hoping no one would see me. Why I thought anyone cared, I do not know.
There was a small drug store across Genesee where I would get my Sunday paper. I did my laundry a few doors west. The nights I didn’t eat Lougus Pizza, I would scrape together $3.10 for a turkey sub at Avenue Pizza, where the pretty young girls worked. And when I shopped, I shopped at Tops down Genesee near Marine Midland bank.
Dave Walling and I cooked up a scheme to entertain the folks at Villa’s Fall Orientation. Since Dave was a dead ringer for David Letterman, I proposed that we would do a version of his show, with Dave doing all the real Dave’s routines and me doing a turn as the “panicky guy” made famous by Chris Elliott.
I remember it being very funny. People there immediately knew who I was as soon as they saw me in the halls, for better or worse. It was nice. My major would be vocal performance. I was confident and happy. I was 21, on welfare, and only paying $140 a month plus utilities.
I graduated from Villa a couple years later with a virtually useless degree, but it was lots of fun, and I did an internship at WECK (“Music Of Your Life” was the format) through it and learned about radio that way. From that I got some voice-over work, and started to pursue a radio career in earnest. All because I met Dave Walling at Reuben’s dinner theater. I gave up the radio career when it turned out to be…hard….but still.