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

Comedian and song stylist Danny O'Day has been booked to perform in front of a monthly luncheon group. The venue for this half-hour performance is Midtown's Salad Bowl Restaurant.

Most folks over the age of 50 have been to the Salad Bowl, and its popular cafeteria serves as a magnet for Midtown seniors in particular. The Salad Bowl hosts every manner of speaking engagement and social club, and serves patrons in several rooms, including the famous "Bits 'n' Saddles" dining hall, which is advertised in neon out front. With its Eisenhower-era decor and the ever-present smell of bacon cooking in green beans, it's now the closest you'll get to the ambiance of the old Miss Hullings' downtown.

In short, it's the perfect place for the "Danny O'Day Show."
Today O'Day is set to entertain members of LIFT (Living Information for Today), an organization for widows put together by the Kriegshauser Mortuary. They get together once a month for lunch, fellowship and entertainment. Sometimes that means a small jazz combo or a ragtime-banjo player. A lawyer came once to discuss estates. This is a return engagement for O'Day, who performed for the club about a year ago.

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It's a half-hour before showtime, and O'Day's loaded up a plate with barbecued beef, beer-battered cod, salad and, of course, green beans. A big man at age 73, he still looks fit. A boxer in his younger days, O'Day appears still capable of handling himself if the need arises. He exercises regularly, lacks not for confidence and drops in a sassy gag at a moment's notice.

When one of the organizers walks by, O'Day reaches out and taps her arm:
"Excuse me. Would you like to get married?"
"Oh, I've been married for 38 years," she replies.

O'Day raps his hands on the table theatrically. "That's too bad. Every time I meet a girl, either she's married or I am."

Closer to showtime, O'Day's still kibitzing with the three women at his table: Rosalie Poland, Betty Melby and Ida Mae Cole. His equipment, partly assembled, lies in a corner. Finally, after some comments from a travel agent, birthday greetings and other announcements, O'Day's introduced for a second time. Not quite ready, he slowly moves through final preparations on his equipment. Finally, the mike rattling into place, he starts.

"Well, how do you like my act so far?"
Some laughter.
"Before the show, a lady came up to me and said, 'Mr. O'Day, are you nervous?' I say, 'No.' She says, 'Are you sure you're not nervous?' I say, 'No, I'm not nervous.' She says, 'Are you absolutely positive you're not nervous?' I say, 'Lady, I've been in show business more than 50 years. What would give you the idea that I might be nervous?' She says, ''Cause you're standing in the ladies' room.'"

Some more laughter.
For the next hour, the jokes continue in this vein, interspersed with songs like "Camp Granada" and another Allen Sherman song set to the tune of the "Mexican Hat Dance" -- a number that wouldn't fly in some settings but draws snickers in this one. It's an hour show altogether, rather than the contracted half-hour, because he figured it was a good room and he'd "give 'em the full act."

What's maybe the most surprising is that he doesn't tailor his act to the group. They are widows. Their husbands have died. No matter. The routine's the routine:

"These other two drunks are sitting at a bar. One says, 'I just got a French poodle for my wife.' The other says, 'I wish I could make a trade like that.'

"Two more drunks are talking. One says, 'My wife's an angel.' The other one says, 'You're lucky. Mine's still living.'

"Another couple of drunks are talking. One of 'em says, 'What'd you get your wife for her birthday this year?' He says, 'I didn't get 'er nothin'. She didn't use the one I got her last year.' He says, 'What's that?' He says, 'A burial plot.'"

Seemingly, no one's offended.
"He goes for the older people," says Cole. "You can tell by those jokes."
Poland says, "I happened to be the type of person that laughs at anything. So I'm not that particular. When he goes around and tells these jokes, I can see how he lifts people's spirits."

As a 5-year-old, Daniel O'Day performed in local saloons.
His father was an accordion player, and it didn't take long for father or son to realize that when the kid sang, pennies rained down on the floor from the appreciative regulars. Young Daniel would sing another, then scramble over the wooden slats, picking up pocketfuls of change that he'd take to school the next day.

"Pennies were worth more then than they are now," O'Day says. "This was 70 years ago. You were rich.

"As a little kid, I always got up onstage, even when I was scared to death -- because I loved show business."

World War II broke out while O'Day was in his teens. Like many young men of the era, he fudged his documents to join the service underage, first as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps and later the Navy. Why? "Because there was a war going on."

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."

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.")

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."

He's talking about folks like Bob Kuban, Marty Bronson, Dick Gregory, Frank Moskus, those who brought energy and bodies to a neighborhood now thirsting for both.

Heading back into the dentist's office, now even later for his appointment, Schneider says, "It's been nice to meet you, Danny. It's just like meeting Bob Hope." O'Day laughs, but the compliment obviously registers.

Walking back to the car, O'Day lingers at the doors of the Crystal Palace. Though the building's still standing, it's clearly damaged. There's a grass lot across the street where the late Lou Bonds tried to get the Prestige Lounge going in the early '90s. Now the building and its trademark columns are gone. That venue was the last nightclub presence in the area. O'Day wonders aloud whether some of the old gang, those who are left, could get the block running again.

"It's crazy, but it could really be great.

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