Jason Zinoman’s piece in today’s New York Times was a nice homage to some past and present friends and other folks, too.
He does a nice job of reminding us of Charlie Barnett for example, however he misses a key episode of the story which I will share again, here.
First, let me say Charlie was a guy I knew and liked. Not only was he the king of Washington Square Park street perfomrers, but he did a ton of indoor gigs too and one of those was working with me one night way back when, at Rick Messina’s Rainy Night House in Queens. After the gig, I gave Charlie a ride home as we were both heading to the Comic Strip, but along the way he asked me to take a detour into a neighborhood up in Washington Heights or Spanish Harlem, I honestly do not remember exactly where he led me. When we got to where we were going, Charlie told me to parallel park and then — and this is the part that always stuck with me — he made it very clear I should keep my hands in my pockets while he was away, so that nobody would see that I was White. Forget the obvious, that my head was a dead give away, nonetheless, that is what he told me to do. He then disappeared for I don’t know how long, leaving me there on some street in a neighborhood he didn’t think I was quite safe in, while he went off to buy some drugs. I know he came back, because I remember getting back to the club and walking in together and I am still around to relate the story. But that is not the episode that Charlie is best remembered for by anyone, including me.
Back in 1981 or 82? Charlie Barnett was selected to be the newest black cast member of SNL. It was obviously an opportunity that may or may not have catapulted him into the big time but it would have certainly raised his profile, if he had been able to hold onto the gig. The problem, as I remember the story, was that Charlie was functionally illiterate and when rehearsals began for the new season, it became painfully clear that Charlie would be unable to keep up with last minute script changes or more importantly be able to read unrehearsed lines straight from the cue cards. That is why Charlie lost his gig and was replaced by another black kid, this one from Long Island, by the name of Eddie Murphy. Eddie himself would soon be catapulted to the forefront on a night when the show ran short and Producer Jean Doumanian needed someone to fill the last few minutes of air time with comedy. Eddie took the stage and did some of his stand-up unrehearsed, killed… and the rest as they say is history. A history that might never have been written if Charlie Barnett was able to read the cue cards.
Beyond Charlie, the Times piece also mentions my old friend Rick Aviles, who, while definitely an accomplished street performer did have a great act as Colin is quoted as saying and did work all over the country in clubs and other venues. Not mentioned in the piece is that Rick was also an accomplished actor having played significant parts in ‘Ghost’ and ‘Water World’ among others.
The piece also mentions Ronnie Shakes, yet another great comic who died young. Ronnie had done the Tonight Show seven times before his very premature death, well deserved credits, well worth mentioning again. One comic not mentioned by the piece who I would nominate for recognition was Dennis Wolfberg who was also did the Tonight Show, wasa killer on stage and was starting to get more character acting roles at the time of his untimely death from melanoma in the mid to late 90s.
All in all it is a great piece that also puts the spotlight on Barry Crimmins, Bob Shaw, Marsha Warfield, Elayne Boosler and San Francisco’s Steven Pearl, all still alive, well and working. Good for them. And good on Jason Zinnoman for covering them.
Corrections: The original version of this tale said SNL uses prompters. It actually uses cue cards. (Thank you, Wayne Federman) The original version also credited Lorne Michaels as being the producer. Jean Doumanian was Producer in 1981, not Lorne Michaels (Thank you, Joe Rocha).
Addition: The original version of this piece speculated that Ronnie Shakes had at least one, if not more, appearances on the Tonight Show. The total was actually seven. (Thank you, Jerry Stanley)