On With the Show

Latter-day vaudevillian Danny O'Day hasn't let changing tastes or the loss of his beloved Gaslight Square keep him from his life's work

O'Day moves his own equipment before and after each gig: The lectern, with its "The Danny O'Day Show," stick-ons. The mikes and small amp. The Realistic tape player that supplies his backing band. It's an efficient little operation, one that he plans on rolling with for a while to come.

"These young comics, if they think they got it tough, if they want a tough job, they should do a 10-15-minute act between dancers. They're not there to see comedy, and you have to make them laugh or they won't be back the next day. Starting up in standup, that was really rough. No matter how good you were, they didn't want to know. If you weren't good, they'd bring out the bands."

Nowadays, he packs his own band.

There is a time when O'Day revamps his set entirely.
When he plays nursing homes, another source of regular work, he ditches the comedy routine almost entirely. On those mornings or afternoons, he plugs in his tape deck and sings along to the backing tracks of a swing trio, for the most part leaving the gags for another day.

"They can be in real bad shape, most of them in wheelchairs," he says. "I sing old-time songs, like 'Shine on Harvest Moon'. They know songs like that. Most of them can't sing along. They can't even open their mouths in time to the tune. If they can't move their hands, their foot might be tapping. It makes you feel good, that you might be bringing some joy to people that don't have much joy.

"It's tough, but you take it in stride and keep on going."

At Frederick's Music Lounge, the eccentric tavern near the intersection of Chippewa and Kingshighway, the banter between O'Day and lounge owner Frederick Boettcher reaches true comic proportions. Their connections are strange ones -- for example, Boettcher performed the marriage ceremony for O'Day's son in the building (the younger O'Day and his wife are one of 48 couples married there). "This is the Chippewa Chapel, you know?" O'Day's friend says. "This place has been known as that for years. I'm the Rev. Fred Boettcher."

O'Day admits that he may have lifted a joke or two from Boettcher, who once led the original Fred's Variety Group, which ran in some of the circles O'Day traveled. Boettcher claims that O'Day simply steals his material. O'Day counters that he takes Boettcher's blue humor, cleans it up and makes it better.

"The first time I saw Danny," Boettcher starts, "he was at the Stardust Club in 1959. People were hollering for him to get offstage and to get the girls back up there."

"No, they weren't," shouts O'Day. "They were yelling for the girls to get off and to get Danny back up. The strippers there were so ugly, the crowd asked them to put their clothes on."

When the two men are together, these exchanges are nonstop.
O'Day: "I like that Fred. Of course, I've got bad taste."
Boettcher: "I used to think I was old -- before I met Danny."
O'Day: "I found the secret of life, but I didn't do anything about it."
Boettcher: "Birds that are wet do not fly at night -- ain't that so?"
O'Day, shaking head somberly: "Wet birds don't fly at night."

On a recent afternoon, O'Day spent a couple hours walking through what remains of Gaslight Square, trying to ID the various rooms he once called home. Most of the places have long been demolished. Along Olive, seven connected buildings stand, exteriors falling, interiors in disarray.

"Look at this. Look at this. What a shame," O'Day laments.
From up the street, Patrick Schneider approaches, late for a visit to his dentist, the one public business still open on the block. As the one-man-army trying to invigorate the area, O'Day decides he has a sympathetic audience.

When O'Day introduces himself, Schneider says, "I hate to see it just go to waste. Danny, it's awful to see it how it is. It's awful, but it's still here. It's been neglected, but it's still here."

O'Day: "I came down here recently, maybe a month or two ago, and cried. Well, not really cried. A tear ran down my face. That's crying for me."

Schneider: "Just like that Indian on the commercial. I know what you mean. People still drive through and say, 'This is where I met my wife,' or, 'This is where I met my husband.' The Japanese travel agents know about it. They're really into jazz and blues over there. And they dream of seeing Gaslight Square. My dream is to bring it back in the names of all the people who made it famous -- like you, Danny. If it wasn't for people like you, a lot of people wouldn't have had a career come out of this place."

O'Day: "Well, I did my part."
On a roll, Schneider talks about Gaslight Square's being "synonymous with St. Louis. It's not a detriment. A lot of good things happened to people down here. To say it's not a good thing for the city is wrong. This is the real Walk of Fame. This is where it happened. These are their footsteps."

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