Big Ed’s Bombshell

Monday June 4th, 2012 – Fox Lake, IL

   Boy, this whole adult life thing is sure turning out to be a lot harder than I’d ever imagined as a kid – and it was difficult then. I really thought I’d figure it all out eventually, but the longer I live the more I realize the less I actually know. The bullet proof brazen bravado and sheer stupidity of youth has worn off like the coating of a Tic Tac, and all that’s left is that biting icky aftertaste.

I think we all fall for the illusion to some degree that the world revolves around us and that we actually matter in the big picture. It’s a crushing blow to find out none of us mean anything other than what we choose to give meaning to. Nobody else really cares. They’re preoccupied with the continuous worrying about their own lives and trying to find some sort of meaning of their own.

Does anything really matter in this life? I can’t answer that. I think it’s different for everybody. I used to think being a comedian mattered. Not anymore. It’s been fun for me for a long time, but if I stopped tomorrow the world would still spin and there would be plenty of other comedians to take up the slack. That’s a big bad bitter pill to swallow, but it’s true. It sure keeps a guy humble.

There was a club owner in Chicago when I first started named Ed Hillenbrand, or maybe it was Hildebrand. I never got close enough to him to know or care exactly what his last name was, and everyone just referred to him as ‘Big Ed’ so that’s all I had to know. He was a cantankerous one.

He and another guy named Jay Berk used to run a showcase club called ‘The Comedy Cottage’ in the suburb of Rosemont. They ended up having a huge falling out, and Big Ed opened another club right around the corner from Jay. It was ridiculous, but very real. It was a war, and as usual we were smack dab in the middle of it as comedians. We were all desperate for stage time then.

They would constantly fight back and forth, trying to get the best of each other like the spies in ‘Spy vs. Spy’ from Mad magazine, and there was a lot of passion there on both sides. These guys really didn’t like each other, and didn’t make any bones about it. Most of us as comedians took it in stride, as all we wanted was the stage time. Whatever we needed to do to get that, we would.

Both clubs eventually closed, and whatever power base either of those two had was gone when their doors closed. I had only worked for either of them a handful of times, as I was still based in Milwaukee when most of this was going on. Still, it left some lasting life lessons I won’t forget.

First, I learned that everything passes. Both of those guys had some clout then and could make just about any comic in town jump through whatever hoops they wanted. They had some power, but it all went away for both of them and that was it. They faded back into the woodwork after it ended, never to be heard from again. Big Ed moved to Las Vegas to drive a cab, and then died.

One thing that Big Ed said still lives on though. He was talking about some comic who tried to strong arm him for more money or something, and he squelched it by telling him to put his hand and forearm into a bucket of water. The guy did, and Big Ed told him to take it out. When he did, Big Ed said “Now, is there any proof your arm was ever in the bucket? I’ll survive without you.”

That’s truer now than it ever was. I’m not stupid enough to think I matter, but it would be nice.


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