The response that my April South Jersey Magazine article “The Joke’s On Me” received was off the charts. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It wasn’t that I had suddenly transformed into some brilliant Hunter S. Thompson. No, the true reason that column generated the response that it did was that it was a tale about the worst show I ever had and readers love that stuff.
A terrific show will get some polite nods of faked interest. Some may even stare down at their phone mid-story. But if I begin with, “Oh my God, I had the worst show of my life last night,” I will have undivided 100 percent attention. That old saying, “bad news travels fast” has never been more accurate than it is today with social media.
So you know what? Here are five of my favorite South Jersey shows and, tough turkey, you’re just gonna have to read it.
Manhattan Transfer at Resorts, late ’80s
I had certainly performed at Atlantic City casinos before. But they were part of the live Morning Zoo shows at Trump Plaza that had a cast of thousands. This was more like a big-time, Vegas-style showbiz. I came on and exited to music played by the Transfer’s band. I had to perform 25 minutes on the dot. It was a huge showroom with tables where you had to tip the maître d’ to get a good one. Welcome to the big leagues; it was so exciting.
The Driftwood Club in Vineland, mid ’80s
Because of the insanely high ratings of the Zoo, my novelty songs, such as “Let’s Call in Sick,” were turning me into a tiny bit of an area household name. This was one of the first gigs where I truly realized that. I had never even been in Vineland before and I remember—living in Delaware County at the time—that it seemed like it took forever to get there. When I arrived I couldn’t find a parking spot because the joint was so packed. It was then I truly understood the power of radio.
After the show, this body builder dude threw his beefy arm around me and exclaimed, “Great show, Big Daddy, let me show you how much I love the Morning Zoo!” And on the four knuckles of one of his hands was “W-M-M-R.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that. Still don’t.
The Nestor Basement in Mount Laurel, 1998
I got an inquiry from a man by the name of Tony Nestor. His wife, Jill, was too ill to leave the house but was a huge fan of mine. Her birthday was coming up and he was having a party for her and asked if I could drop by and perform a short show. I could tell from the tone of Tony’s voice that his wife was very ill.
He wanted to know how much it would cost and I said I couldn’t take money for such a thing, but I was already booked that date and I would not be able to get to his house before midnight.
“Fantastic,” he replied. Midnight seemed late, but when I arrived every neighbor within a 10-mile radius was crammed into Tony’s basement. It turned out to be a very emotional night. They were really nice people and there were amazing chocolate chip cookies.
Jill died before the year was out and I remember her whenever I drive near Mount Laurel. Tony used to send me Christmas cards but I haven’t had any contact with him for years now and I heard he moved out of the area. I hope he realizes that this show meant as much to me as it did his wife.
Mitchell’s in Palmyra, 1990
Mitchell’s was a joint that began as a local neighborhood bar that you would run into to buy a six pack. Somehow, Mitchell’s owner Joe Donato turned it into a terrific professional club that really packed them in for 10 years. Joe was a loud, funny, generous, classic character who everyone adored.
I had just finished the first Saturday show and now the late show was being seated. Before the show started I noticed this elderly couple, who had been seated up front for the first show, were still in the same seats for the second. This was a comedy club no-no. Maybe today I could do a completely different hour on the spot, but I couldn’t then. And no comic wants to go on stage and perform in front of the same customers within a couple hours of each other. Angrily, I confronted Joe and he screamed back at me, “They’re my parents!” I replied, “I don’t give a crap, move them!”
In a flash we both had our hands around each other’s necks calling each other every name in the book. This all took place in a tiny office next to the stage and the now seated audience could hear every curse word. Joe would start every show by going on stage and thanking everyone for coming and when he came around to telling everyone, “And of course my best buddy Big Daddy will be closing the show tonight,” the audience howled. As did I.
The Comedy Cabaret at the Cherry Hill Hyatt, 1992
Another top club and I don’t think people realize that both Ray Romano and Kevin James performed here before their sitcoms.
“Backstage” at the Cabaret had a freight elevator that the staff used for room service. One Friday night, waiting to be introduced, the elevator door opened and out strolled Bob Newhart, a comedy idol of mine since I was a young teenager. I had every one of his comedy albums memorized. (Did you know the first Gold Album ever was a Newhart LP?)
I just stood there too stunned to say anything. The entire moment took seconds as he walked past me and was gobbled up by this entourage who escorted him to this ballroom where he was performing at some corporate function. Now I have opened up for some heavy hitters like Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson, 18 acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be exact.
But I was prepared for those nights. This was different. I didn’t even know Newhart was in the building. But knowing that I was onstage at the Cabaret while he was on another stage in the same hotel at the same exact time psyched me up and I had the show of my life.
Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 4 (July, 2017).
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