Saturday October 22nd, 2011 – Fox Lake, IL
The Riverside Theatre. That’s the place I first felt like I was in show business, even if it was only for a few minutes. The Riverside is a beautiful theatre in downtown Milwaukee that used to show movies but now hosts live events and has for years. I was asked to open a show there when I first started as a comedian, even though I was totally not ready for it.
I was in my early twenties and had only been doing comedy a couple of years, but I still said yes because I was too stupid to know I wasn’t ready then. That’s a huge mistake way too many newbies make, and I did too. Still, it was one of my absolute favorite moments.
The headliners were the husband and wife singer/songwriters Ashford and Simpson. It’s still a mystery why anyone in charge would choose me for that particular show, but I was delighted they did. I remember walking back stage and being blown away by how big the place looked, and wondering if I’d be able to walk on stage without crapping my pants.
The energy of a large audience is rather intimidating, especially to a rookie like I was at the time. I was handed a wireless microphone and told to do twenty minutes. I wasn’t sure if I had twenty minutes, but I wasn’t about to let that secret out of the bag. I knew I had to act the part, and told the stage manager it would be no problem. Then it was show time.
I still remember walking out on that stage and seeing the bright lights that looked like a space ship was hovering over my head. The big booming sound system made me feel like I had the voice of God, and it was pure intoxication as soon as I got that first big laugh.
I did quite well for the entire set but had to slow down my normal pace to let the laughs die down before I started the next joke. I didn’t have much back then, but I gave all I had and the audience loved it. I received a big applause pop at the end, and I was hooked for life at that moment. I floated off that stage, and would have sold my soul then and there.
The stage manager shook my hand and told me I did a nice job, and I thanked him with enthusiasm and told him I wanted to do it again. That night. He laughed, but I was serious as an IRS audit. I’d never felt that kind of energy and wanted to return to it immediately.
The funny part was, I distinctly remember going to an open mic night somewhere right after that experience, and going up again in front of about a dozen people. I was still on a major high, and all the other comedians commented that I was in a groove they had never seen before. They were right. I could have done ten shows that night, and I wished I did.
Moments like that are what keep us going as performers, especially when things start to unravel. I had WAY more shows in front of a dozen people than the couple thousand that were at the Riverside Theatre that night, but that’s the one that sparked the fire that’s still burning today. I must have done a good job, because I received another call about a week later to open the show for a soap opera guy named Jack Wagner who had a hit song at the time. I had a pretty good set that night too as I remember, and that’s the last time I did it.
I moved to Chicago not long after, and ended up losing that connection. Why I didn’t stay in touch with whomever my contact was, I have no idea. But I didn’t. I was a dumb kid trying to find my way in the world, and deep down I also knew I wasn’t really ready.
Well, I’m sure ready now. I know I could go back on that stage and rock that house way longer than twenty minutes. I would destroy that room. The problem now is finding a way to put butts in seats. After all this time, I still haven’t managed to work that situation out.
The reason I’ve been thinking about the Riverside Theatre is someone sent me an email informing me Frank Caliendo will be headlining there soon. A lot of people in and out of the business ask me what I think of Frank, because we’re both from the Milwaukee area.
I think most of them do it thinking I’m going to flip out with jealous rage and go off on one of my infamous rants about how he ‘stole my spot’ or whatever. Far from it. I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Frank and all he has done. He‘s amazing.
Not many people realize and I’m probably the only one who cares that Frank’s first time on stage was opening for me at a bowling alley in Waukesha, WI. A mutual friend of ours put together a fundraiser for his son’s little league team and he knew Frank from working at a batting cage and said he did some impressions. Against my will, I said he could open.
He wasn’t polished as a performer, but nobody is their first time up. I watched his show and could immediately see he had a spark with the audience. They loved his impressions, and he nailed one after the next. He had a lot of natural ability, and not everyone has that.
After the show I remember Frank coming up and telling me how much fun he had doing the show and what an honor it was to open for a professional comedian like me. I thanked him and said “Kid, if you play your cards right, two years from now I won’t be able to get you on the phone.” He laughed, but I wasn’t that far off. That guy has had a fantastic ride.
Frank and I stayed in touch for a while as he started to make his rise, and I would advise him like I’ve done many others who have asked my opinion. I feel it’s my duty to pass the torch to the next generation as it was passed to me by comics in the generation before me.
As he made his rise, I was no longer able to help him and that was it. He found his way to L.A. and got a high powered manager and things started happening for him that don’t happen to 99.999% of anyone who ever steps on a stage. That‘s not easy. Good for him.
We are nothing close to the same. He does impressions. NOBODY was doing the ones he did, and he was in the right place at the right time. I’m just another white guy trying to tell jokes. Big difference. He’s unique, and that’s just how it is. How can I be jealous?
He’s headlining the Riverside, and I’m still struggling to pay my rent. That’s life, but it’s no accident. He made the right moves, and I didn’t. Was he lucky? Sure, but anyone who makes it is lucky. He has a great work ethic too. His show and business are phenomenal.