Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Jeff Dunham at the Improv

This is a three-part story. It begins with a surprise donation. Then it is about an opportunity to see Jeff Dunham in a live comedy club setting. Finally it is about a visit to some old stomping grounds.

Part 1. The Surprise

Yesterday I opened my email to a wonderful surprise. Jeff Dunham read my account of the autistic boy in England for whom I am building "Big Fred." Jeff sent me a whopping big donation. I looked at the screen in disbelief. Not in disbelief that Jeff is a generous guy—I've seen him at work collecting money for VentHaven and seeding it with his own money. Not surprised that Jeff would send a donation to a guy he doesn't really know all that well—several other folks I don't know did that. I was floored by the amount, which I will not disclose lest his heirs have him declared incompetent. I just want folks to know what a great and generous guy we have among our midst.

Part 2. Jeff at the Improv

Along with the donation came an invitation. Jeff is appearing this week at the Orlando Improv about 50 miles away. He invited me to come see his show. The show is, in a word, great.

You've heard the rule about one laugh every ten seconds? Try every five or six seconds. And not just a laugh. A huge laugh. Every time. The kind of laugh the rest of us would call a home run for a show-closer. At least ten laughs a minute in a one-hour show is 600 laughs the strength of which any of us would be grateful to get once a show.

How does he do it? First, it was clear from the applause that most of the audience already knows Walter and Peanut. They are established as being very funny guys. That's the secret. Some of us have to do it every show. Get the audience loving the character. Walter has a strong personality and a great face. With that in place, and with Jeff's expert manipulation, when the people know and love the character, anything the figure says gets a laugh. A simple "Dumbass!" brings down the house. A stare at a member of the audience does, too.

Not that the basic material wasn't funny. It was. And Jeff's timing is superb. But when the audience loves the players, it all falls into place.

I got to see what we didn't see on Letterman and a lot more. Who else can do ten minutes about his website URL and keep the crowd in stitches? Peanut says, "Jef-f Dun-HAMMM dot commmm." That's mostly all he says. Over and over. With various voice changes. I'm falling out of my chair. So is everyone else.

Nobody works an audience that well. Jeff outdid himself with the ringside folks and especially with an obnoxious heckler in the balcony.

The heckler. What a jerk. He heckled the warm-up comedian, a very funny tall skinny black dude by yelling out "KKK!" from the balcony. That threw the young comedian for a few seconds. He didn't quite know what to do. Then throughout Walter's segment in Jeff's show the heckler keeps yelling stuff that Jeff just ignores. But it got to be too much.

During the "Dear Walter" segment, the jerk yells out to Walter, "Can you still get it up?" Walter answers, "Ask your mother." Huge round of applause. Audiences don't like hecklers either. But the heckler is too stupid to shut up. So Walter proceeds to crucify the guy. Merciless, relentless, total annihilation. So funny I miss some of the words because I am laughing so hard. The guy was quiet after that.

Don't screw with Walter.

Jeff and I met privately for a while after the show. We talked about many things including controversial comedy and how far you should go. We talked about his appearance on Letterman. He asked about my work as a ventriloquist. He was interested in the project for the boy in England and how it came to be. He was interested in the Mike Brose kit that I'm using to build the figure. He was interested in the old building in which he was performing, and that brings me to part 3.

Part 3. Rosie O'Grady's Goodtime Emporium

The building that houses the Orlando Improv used to be a hotel. It is often said to be on the National Register of Historical Places, but a search of their database does not turn it up. Just a local urban legend, I guess.

Between being a hotel and becoming the Improv, that room was Rosie O'Grady's Goodtime Emporium, a night club that featured live entertainment seven nights a week. I was one of the piano players who worked there during the 1990s until they stopped having a full band. I was eager to go inside and see what changes they'd made.

The space that is the club was the hotel lobby. When the room was Rosie O'Grady's, a wall that is now behind the stage did not exist. The bandstand was where the stage is and there was a narrow wall behind the bandstand but it was open on either side. The audience could see past the band to the big stairway and up into that bar area. What is now the staging area for customers waiting to get into the club was open, too, and was part of the club. Rosie's could seat more people than the Improv can. There were long bars under each of the two balconies and the upstairs bar, which are still there.

The upstairs corridors were lined with pictures and newspaper articles about the founder of the Church Street Station entertainment complex, Bob Snow, a retired Navy aviator, skywriter, entreprenuer, and occasional Dixieland trumpet player. The first Rosie O'Grady's was in Pensacola, and he opened a Las Vegas club in the 1990s, which failed because it was too far off the strip.

When I worked at Rosie's in Orlando, the old hotel rooms were used as dressing rooms and a bandroom. From the bandroom we went into a closet that had the firepole down onto the stage with which the band and can-can dancers made our entrances.

We did four shows a night. Each show started with a loud siren and the bell clanging while we slid down the pole or came up from the two sides of the stage. It was an eight-piece Dixieland show band. High energy stuff. We had can-can dancers, a soft-shoe tap dancing duo, a red hot mama, and a song-and-dance man. At the end of each show we did a patriotic number with military and patriotic tunes, Uncle Sam on stilts, a lady volunteer from the audience as the Statue of Liberty, and a huge American flag that descended from the ceiling about where the video projection screen is now. We ended with the siren and bell again.

Church Street Station, of which Rosie's was a part, was a huge entertainment complex that started in the mid-1970s and went into the late 1990s. with several live-entertainment clubs, a shopping mall, and frequent street performances by name entertainers. It was supported by tourists who'd come in the evenings after a day at the theme parks. When the theme parks opened their own entertainment complexes, tourists naturally went there instead of coming all the way into town. Given that and the inadequate parking facilities at Church Street, the complex eventually died out.

Some of the Rosie's alumni got together for a 30th reunion in 2004. I'm the cornet player in the white sports jacket.


Blogger Lawrence E. Harris said...


Your post illustrates why Jeff Dunham is the consumate pro and why he is so successful.

There is a Yiddish word for Jeff and that is "Mench." A good soul.

I have seen Jeff peform at the Improv in DC a few times, but not recently. Every show was good.

One time I saw him perform with the origial "Bubba." This was a Verna puppet.


Larry Harris - ComicVent

6:12 PM  

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