By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By RFT Staff
By Keegan Hamilton
By Gavin Cleaver
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
Maybe the most risque act of all was Evelyn West's. She would eventually open up her own place along the DeBaliviere strip, next to a Garavelli's cafeteria. O'Day says the busboys there bored a hole in West's dressing room so that they could ogle the dancers between numbers. One night a randy lad hoisted another on his shoulders, and the whole wall fell in. What those kids saw for free was a hot ticket for the rest of the town.
"The Grand Theatre first had Evelyn West -- she'd become a really big thing in burlesque," says O'Day. "She couldn't dance; she couldn't dance at all! She walked the stage, told a joke. That's all she did, but she had those big bazoombas. Those were insured for $50,000 by Lloyd's of London. That was a lot of money back then. Her manager discovered her and told her he'd make her famous in showbiz. He'd have her picture on the front of every newspaper in America. He did even better than that. In six months, she was on the cover of papers all around the world. The last I heard of her, she was living in Florida, but that was a while ago.
"Mostly you'd have comics, some chorus numbers. Then a girl would come out and be the featured dancer. I had to work with 15 striptease dancers. Let me put it this way -- they didn't leave much to the imagination! After doing it a while, you don't even know all the names. You're just like most guys, doing their jobs in an office. It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it."
The era was unique, with the city an entertainment hub and live performance a rowdy part of weekends and weekdays alike.
Recalls O'Day: "At the burlesque houses, it was mostly guys. They said they were going to see the broads, but they liked the comics that were good, too. Back then, you didn't have much on TV, and they had the small screens. People really liked the idea of going to a live show."
When the St. Louis scene began to die and work dried up for the comics, the dancers and the pit musicians in equal measure, O'Day found himself working the odd day job. He spent time on the road, too, even playing Peoria -- literally -- three times, he figures.
More than a decade back, O'Day teamed with a partner, Audrey Burns, doing a George Burns-and-Gracie Allen-type of skit show that played around town. The act dissolved after a three-year run. Since then, he's been working strictly solo.
"The fun thing about a partnership," he says, "is that I love doing scenes with people. I love to be able to show that I can do standup and I'm also able to do funny scenes. I'm without one now, but it doesn't make a difference either way."
O'Day's style, to put it mildly, is the exception to today's rule. For one thing, his act stretches out, rather than coming in the quick bursts many comics use. And the topical humor is gone; no jokes to offend either Democrats or Republicans. There's little segue between the jokes and the songs; one bit stops, the next starts.
No matter, O'Day is sticking to the type of routines that've brought him this far. To change would not only be impractical but just about impossible.
"If you're a good comic, you can be clever and get laughs," says O'Day. "The real young people at the Funny Bone thought it was funny to say 'f' in front of everybody. The dirtier you talk the better. When I was young, you'd say those words around a woman and they'd get up and leave, or they'd get up and slap you. I still don't say those kinds of words around women.
"I did an open mike at the Funny Bone. I was the 21st comic up there that night. For every other comic, every second word was 'f.' I said that I did a routine that was completely clean. They said I'd die. I went up there for five minutes, and when I was done, I got a standing ovation. They said I was a breath of fresh air. And the next week, I went in and was given No. 3 -- the best spot you could be in as a comic."
Those kinds of gigs, though, are few and far between for O'Day. Instead, he concentrates on the smaller shows: the retirement centers and nursing homes that have become his bread-and-butter.
"I'm booked all the way to December," he says. "When you used to be in the nightclubs, there were almost no women. All men, then they'd have the girls sit with 'em, and they'd buy them drinks. And now you don't see many places like that. These people I play to are old but younger than me. But they act older. They don't go for the dirt -- which is good, because I don't do dirt."
(Not that he's above the occasional ethnic gag: "This one guy gets mad at me one night. I told a Polack joke. The guy's twice as big as me and attacks me with a razor. It's a good thing he didn't have anywhere to plug it in.")