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In the CCC, he worked "clearing off land for soldiers to maneuver on, out at Fort Leonard Wood." Once in the Navy, he did time on four different ships. During his down hours, he learned to box, winning a fair share of fights in armed-service competitions. Flashing a variety of interests, he joined the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Choir, as well as a trio called the Rhythm Three, putting his voice back to use and "doing a lot of smokers, as they were called then.
"When I got out of the Navy, when the war ended, I was 19 years old."
The peculiar combination of skills he would learn -- the ability to fight and the ability to sing in front of large groups of men -- would be put to the test early, when he returned to a postwar St. Louis with dreams of show business.
"I went to the Solo Club," O'Day starts, talking about a supper club of the day. "I wanted to audition to be a singer. The owner said they didn't need a singer but did need a bouncer, as their bouncer got hurt. I told him I was a bouncer, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I was carding people at the door and here I am, 19 years old. It never occurred to me that I could get hurt, too. They told me I could be a singer anytime I wanted to. Sometimes I'd be singing and a fight would break out. I'd jump down -- pow, pow -- knock 'em out, then go back up and finish the song."
Another thing he learned early on, a lesson that still pays, is "what you do with a heckler -- just ignore them. That hurts them the most. I've also got 8 million comebacks."
Though the money was slim at times, the work was plentiful, with club districts springing up in several parts of the city.
Says O'Day: "The Solo Club was at Jefferson and Ann. I started doing shows there. Right up the street was a place called the Squirrel Cage, on Gravois. I'd pack up the whole act, and we'd drive up the street. I even hired the musicians; they'd make $4 a night or so. That was in the early 1950s. Then there were the weekends. For a while I was going back and forth on Friday and Saturday nights. I went to Coconut Grove on Market, across from the Grand Theatre, the big burlesque house. At the time, I'd introduce an act at one place, then run across and introduce one at the other. I'd just roll up my pants legs and run across the street. It was a crazy schedule, but the money was good.
"I worked the Roaring Twenties, Evelyn West's place," he adds. "I worked there for three years, as the emcee. The Grand Theatre. The World. I was working two jobs at the same time. I would do 10-15 minutes of standup. Or you'd have a straight man and do skits. You'd use one of the girls. That was always a laugh. A lot of times, I'd try to get the straight man to ask out the girl, that kind of thing. It was a small little sketch, just like on TV, just a little bit risque. At the beginning I was making $3 a night. At the Solo Club, I finally got to $5 a night. Of course, I was loving it, too."
The central point for entertainment in the 1950s and early '60s was Gaslight Square, a district radiating from the Midtown intersection of Boyle and Olive, minutes north of the West End and minutes west of what's now called Grand Center. With hotels, clubs, restaurants and a nearby residential base, the area may have been the top club zone in the city's history, with national acts -- like Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan -- coming by.
Local performers like O'Day held down the fort the rest of the time. They honed their own acts while rubbing shoulders with the best and biggest names in the business.
"In Gaslight Square, you'd have the Smothers Brothers down the street at the Crystal Palace," O'Day says. "I got to know the goofy one ... um, Tommy. He went down with me sometimes to the Roaring Twenties. He watched my shows; I watched his. Jackie Vernon, we were good friends. We became buddies when he passed through town. He lost jobs because he was completely clean. Back then, I was a bit more risque. Jackie Mason was playing the Crystal Palace, and we were really chummy. In burlesque, you'd work two weeks at a place, mostly. The whole cast would move from one theater to another."
The East Side was cooking, too, with music the drawing card.
"Over in East St. Louis, you had a bunch of comedy-musicians," O'Day remembers. "The whole thing was playing good music, with comedy. Redd Foxx, he was just a regular comic then. He wasn't as dirty as B.S. Pulley. He was a real ugly guy. When he threw a boomerang, it wouldn't come back. When he went to the beach, the tide wouldn't come in. He played in a lot of movies. When he played 'em, he'd always play the pirates' captain. An ugly guy, but a good actor. He did a lot of risque stuff, but nothing filthy like today."
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