Actor, Author, Director, Talk Show Guest Extraordinaire, Talk Show Host, Political Activist

And a Great Guy to to be around

In the spring of 1972, Charles Grodin was filming The Heart Break Kid, his first starring picture. He had had a great many small parts in TV and two small roles in movies. He played an inept buffon who turns into a rapist/murderer in Catch 22 and he played the doctor who delivers the ‘Baby’ in Rosemary’s Baby’. Hardly roles that foretold his future as a fine likable comic actor.

In that same spring, I had the pleasure of working for a month or so on the film portion of Heart Break Kid that finished the filming in Minneapolis after filming the first half in Florida. Up until then, I only had a little filming experience in a few TV ads, a local documentary, and two days working a car chase in Slaughter House Five. None of which foretold of the fun I had in spite of working the long hours, the exhausting labor, having to work under three jerks from the New York film local… fun because Charles Grodin brought a great sense of humor and reality to the proceedings.

Charles greeted everyone that came on the set the first time, shaking their hand, asking their name; and he never forgot their name, or failed to talk to them. When things got rough, Charles lightened things up, sometimes with intellectual humor, sometimes with a little corn.

For instance, one day after a hard rain, I was laying out heavy electrical cable, slogging through the mud. It was one of those times I wished I was back home at the Guthrie, which was dark for several months, in spite of the big bucks earned working the movie. Charles walked by and stopped and watched for a bit.

‘Just remember, Don’, he said and he burst into singing, There’s no business like show business’.

I flashed him a one finger salute and he laughed and went on his way still singing the song, ‘They smile when they are low…’

He played to a much larger audience when we were filming the marriage scene. It took place in a small church and the actual minister of the church performed the fake marriage. He thought that being in a movie would be fun. The ‘guests’ in the church had answered an ad asking for extras. They thought being in a movie would be fun. The cast and crew knew different; but we were being paid, they were not.

Elaine May, the director, was in a ‘Cut! Take it again from the top’ mood. After a few cuts, the minister looked at his watch and the audience gave a collective sigh of ‘oh no, not again’.

After another cut, Charles spoke to the guests. ‘See, folks, this is how movies are made. Sometimes filming a scene of a movie marriage lasts longer than some real Hollywood marriages.’ The crowd laughed and settled back. The minister looked at his watch. And Elaine said ‘Take it from the top.’

After a couple more takes we heard the welcome words, ‘That’s a wrap.’ The guests began to leave and the minister looked at his watch again. This time he smiled.

But Charles wasn’t through. ‘Folks. Folks,’ he said, and the guests sat back down. ‘I wanted to explain that our minister isn’t an actor but the actual pastor of this church. And the reason he kept looking at his watch is because in a short time he has a rehearsal of an actual wedding that will take place here on Saturday. He was getting nervous we wouldn’t finish up in time and he also realized that if he flubs his lines at the real wedding, nobody is going to yell ‘Cut. Take it from the top.’ The guests laughed.

Oh,’ Charles added, ‘He also wants you to know that you are welcome to stay and watch the real rehearsal.’ That got a big laugh from both the ‘guests’ and the minister.

Charles was a god- sent for Cybill Shepard. This was only the second movie for Cybill. Her first movie, The Last Picture Show, propelled her into a circle that was totally different from her successful teenage modeling career.. Plus she didn’t have her mentor, and current lover, Peter Bogdanovitch, holding her hand like in her first movie. He wanted to come along with her, but Elaine May said no way. It was also Elaine’s second movie as a director and she didn’t need Bogdanovitch interfering.

In her first movie experience, A New Leaf, she was screenwriter, director, lead actress, and had Walter Matthau as her costar and hand holder. It was critically praised and a tough act to follow.

The only true movie vet in the cast was Eddie Albert. Although his acting background was more in TV than films, he had been nominated for an Oscar seventeen years before. (He would receive and another Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance in Heartbreak Kid.)

Eddie was not on the set when he wasn’t in the scene being filmed. During off hours Eddie was busy catching up with old friends from his college days at the University of Minnesota.

Eddie was more than happy to help Cybill with her acting, but she needed someone to help with her insecurity about acting…and life in general. She was only four years removed from high school. This is where Charles and his humor saved the day. He always managed to get her to relax before a scene by cracking jokes. He also found time to listen and advice her.

And Elaine May was no stranger to his method of easing tension. Both Elaine and her former partner in the great improv- comedic duo of Nichols and May, Mike Nichols had been so impressed when they saw Chuck Grodin on Broadway, that they both used him as soon as they could. Nichols in his Catch 22. May in her Heartbreak Kid.

Both of these roles were great risks to him because of the dark character he portrayed and could have poisoned him with the public and future producers. He took them both in gratitude to Nichols and May for believing in him.

Elaine May soon discovered that not only did he have the talent needed to create his character, Lennie, as a jerk, who would not alienate the movie goers, he was also a wonderful friend to work with. He always seemed to know what to say and when to say it.

The key grip had been involved in the Florida filming. He told me how in the first few days, the screenwriter, Neal Simon, a celebrated veteran of stage and screen, thought he was the last word in this film and tried influence May’s decisions and methods. And also, Peter Bogdanovitch, via phone to both her and Cybill, tried to influence how Cybill should act in her role and how Cybill should be treated.

Elaine stood up to both these men and told them to butt out. And Charles spoke up and backed her ultimatum to these two pests. His actions against these two influential men could have hurt both his movie and his stage career. But he did what he thought was right.

Mission accomplished. Elaine was left to direct her movie and guide Cybill in such a way as to get a fine performance from her, and helped the young actress develop confidence in herself.

Charles Grodin went on to a successful career in movies. Robert De Niro, his costar in Midnight Run, praised Grodin, not only as an actor, but as a funny intellectual person that improved the movie with his suggestions and ad libs. He credited Grodin for making the film a success. And the two became life long friends. I imagine a great many who worked with him agree with De Niro.

Charles excelled in many more fields in the Arts and as an advocate for Human Rights. Sad to say I never had the pleasure of working with him after Heart Break Kid. I would have jumped at the chance to work with him again.

And now we have lost another fine human being who enriched our lives, but left us a fine legacy of his accomplishment… and for lucky ones like me, good memories of having known him.

R.I.P. Charles Grodin.

You can read more about the filming of Heartbreak Kid, in my blog post



It had been over ten year since a show came into town via the railroad. The notification to the Local that a circus was coming via the rails was a surprise. Our circuses, even big ones like Ringling Brothers. had long since gone over completely to trucks. But then when it said it was the Moscow Circus On Ice, that was coming in retro on us, it wasn’t so surprising… even though Russian shows, like their great ballet companies had traveled by truck in the U.S. for years.

Russian touring companies felt Russia had invented show biz and took forever to adopt improvements in the business. For instance, instead of castors on their road boxes, they had four to six handles to use to hand carry the boxes..

Ve strong in Russia. Ve don’t need those silly little vheels to do our vork.’

But we noticed that these strong Russians were mostly finger-pointers, and they had our stage hands do the heavy lifting.

The first time a Russian show came in with castors on their boxes, they were so proud of ‘their new invention’. Like they say, you can lead a Russian to progress, but you can’t make him think.

I was working shows at the Guthrie; and while I could not work the circus shows, I could work the Load-In and Out. On the In, I never got close to even seeing the train. I was on the prop crew working on the concrete floor of the ice arena of the Minneapolis Auditorium. The entire floor could be an ice rink for ice shows and hockey game, but this time there was only a 20’ by 20’ sheet of ice in the center. That was where the four Russian bears played hockey, the stars of this circus..

Russian bears had been a staple of Russian show biz since even before the balalaika, that musical instrument the Russians invented after seeing some gypsies playing one. Naturally, Russian bears are not quite like our common brown bears. The biggest difference is the head. Russian bears have a slightly different shaped head and a much longer nose. And of course, a Russian would tell you that their bears are much smarter than the average bear.

Another work crew was hollering for assistance. They had a large black circus wagon on the landing just before the ramp down to the arena floor and there were screams of helping to get it to the floor at a reasonable speed. I heard a something about a light dimmer. So I assumed it was an old fashion dimmer pack. Leave it to the Russians to bring back outdated equipment.

As I got close I could see there was an outer metal shell on the four sides and top. I got to the one corner and could see there was solid bars inside. At first I thought I would stick my arm in the crack for a more solid place to push back on. The metal sheets looked to be only attached on the top. But then I decided against it, afraid of getting pinched or worse being trapped if the wagon got away.

On the other corner, Nicky had the same thought about getting something solid. He stuck his arm in the crack.

‘Ah, I wouldn’t do…’screamed one of the hands.

Nicky screamed louder and pulled his arm out. His sleeve was ripped and his arm was bleeding from long scratches.

‘There’s a bear in there,’ a hand shouted… too late.

‘Now you tell us!’ I hollered. ‘Somebody said it was a f#####n light dimmer.’

‘No!’ a hand argued, ‘I said this f####n devil’s not light!’

Chaos! Men screaming at each in English, Russian; and when Henri, the French-Canadian stagehand that was hired on in Montreal, came on the scene, his French overpowered everybody. He was in the smaller Russian trainer’s face, and I could hear the word ‘forklift’ and a lot of French words the oldtimers back home used when they got mad.

Henri was hired for two reasons. He was a liaison between the Russians and the stagehands they would encounter on the tour. And also, he spoke both French and English and the Russian interpreters felt more at home with French than with English.

The local hands were swearing at Russians, the bear, and each other. One banged on a metal sheet covering the cage and the roar of a bear erupted and the cage began to shake. The local hands jumped back. My crew went back down to the arena floor…quickly.

I had helped Nicky to a seat and was standing there while the auditorium nurse was applying first aid. She wrapped the arm and told Nicky that a gofer would take him to the hospital for a tetanus shot.

‘Tell him we will go to my house after,’ Nicky said in a low voice, I’m going to pick up my 30-30. It’s open season on f#####g bears.’ The nurse laughed, but she didn’t know Nicky like we did. We knew Nicky was serious. Westie, the house carpenter, quickly told Nicky to take the rest of the day off…with pay, and get ready for his work in the hotel that night.

Henri got a forklift and backed it in front of each cage to slow them down the ramp. The two Russian trainers spoke to us on the floor and made motions to help take the metal sheets off the cages. They might have not understood what we said back to them, but they understood the one-finger salutes we gave them; and worked on the cages by themselves.

When we helped Henri with his work box I noticed his name, Henri Perron. painted on it. Without thinking, I blurted out, ‘My maternal grandfather’s name is Henry Perron.’

Oh, did Henri get excited. And then he really got excited when I told him about growing up in a small village across the river where several generations ago a large group of French-Canadians, following the fur trade, settled. I mentioned some of the last names, pronouncing them in the way they are pronounced in French and Henri recognized them as names common in Ottawa, Quebec, and all through French Canada..

‘We are cousins, Donny. Not close… but many years back. I am a Perron. You are a Perron from your mother. We are far cousins.’

Very far. The original Perron in Canada was a fisherman from Rochell, France, who came to Ottawa in the 18th Century and was a large propagator, both in marriage and out. The Perrons take up a large amount of the White Pages in Ontario. The name dominates the providence like the name Jones dominates the United States.

I broke a cardinal rule. In the Army you never tell the mess sergeant your name or you will be the brunt of the jobs on KP simply because he calls names he knows. The same is true for a road stagehand. Never tell a roadie your name. Now Henri not only knew my name, he considered himself family.

After lunch he approached me. ‘Cousin Donny, I am told you are a very good rigger. I need you for a special job. I need you to rig the trapeze. The artist’s rig does not go that high so you rig these two cables I made up when I found out that the beam here was one hundred feet up.’

I told him I never heard of a trapeze artist who would let someone else rig his trapeze. Oh, Henri explained that the artist would rig his swing on the cables I rigged. I said that he would still depend on my rigging as well as his own. I thought he should rig the long cables also just to be safe.

‘Well,’ Henri said in a low voice, ‘I think he is scared to go up that high.’

We set up the house contraption to get me up that high. The darn thing went up in ten feet sections, then would pause and shake a bit before spitting up the next ten feet. I hated it!

They sent Jimmy, the Guthrie prop builder, along to help me. He quickly huddled in a corner of the cage and when we reached the correct height, he begged me to just let him stay in the corner. He was breathing fast and deep. I was afraid he would hyperventilate on me I told him to just relax. I didn’t have a paper bag he could breath into. And we both agree mouth to mouth was out of the question.

Rigging the cables was a snap compared to the ride up.

Rig a trapeze! A lot of responsibility! After that, I had a lot more respect for the parachute packers that rigged the chutes we jumped with. One big difference is the packers always have to jump a chute they packed and I wasn’t about to swing from the trapeze I rigged.

Once on the Camping Exposition In, Joey B. and I were on the high beams working while a young trapeze artist was rigging his swing. Joey commented that swinging on a trapeze was a hell of a way to make a buck. The kid said it beat the hell of the last job he had before working a trapeze.

I got shot out of the cannon,’ he said, very matter-of-fact.

Every day of that Russian Circus week I kept checked the news, praying I would not hear that the trapeze failed and the artist fell. When I didn’t hear anything, it made my day, believe me.

A couple of the shop hands at the Guthrie worked the nightly circus shows, and wished they didn’t.

There were very few cues to work, but everyone worked the one big one during the bears’ hockey game. They were spaced out on the outside of the ice rink. Each hand was given a lead pipe. If a bear decided it wanted to leave the rink, the man closest was to hit the bear on the nose with the pipe.

Luckily during the local run the bears behaved.

A few years later when Henri came through with the Canadian Ballet he told how on the next stop, Chicago, the ice never got made the first day. The bears got sent out on the bare concrete to play hockey. One of the bears panicked and decided to leave the ‘rink’. The stagehand closest to the bear, stood up, threw the pipe hitting the bear in the nose, then turned and ran out of the building. He never stopped and never came back for any other performances or the Out.

‘I think he maybe still running,’ Henri said. ‘Didn’t even look around and see his pipe made the bear behave.’

A lead pipe to a Russian bear trainer is the equivalent of a whip and chair to a lion tamer.

BAP! Hit the bear on the nose with the pipe to get it’s attention.

BAP! Hit the bear on the nose to make it sit down.

BAP! Hit the bear on the nose before putting the skate on the bear’s foot.

Twenty years later I worked a different kind of Russian circus that featured trained bears. No hockey game just tricks like a bear on a unicycle and several bears wearing tutus and ‘ballet’ dancing. Same as before, the lead pipe, bap, bap, bap. All a person could do from taking the pipe and hitting the trainer on the nose.

When we were setting up that first day, one of our hands, Matt, showed you didn’t need a pipe to make a bear behave. Matt wasn’t paying any attention, a trait he excelled in, and he backed too close to a bear in the cage. Matt stopped and the bear reached through the bars and placed it’s paw on Matt’s shoulder. Matt turned his head, and having grown up on the Iron Range, had a lot of experience with bears, he slapped the bear’s paw away. Then Matt commenced to shout at the animal in Croatian. Matt didn’t move from the cage. It was the bear who jumped back and retreated to a far corner, away from this crazy man.

The bears did have a high degree of intelligence. Richie, the local’s hippie, liked the looks of the large red apples the bears got for a treat. He gave the friendliest bear a cigarette to eat. The bear loved it. Then Richie offered the bear another…only in exchange for the bear’s apple. It was a deal. When the bear got another apple it held on to it until it saw Richie and then would offer the apple to Richie in exchange for a cigarette.

The one Russian trainer saw what was happening and he offered to exchange an apple for two American cigarettes. Richie ate a lot of apples that week and made two new friends.

And now if you will ‘bear’ with me until the next post

I will tell what happened on

The Last Train Out


Louis Armstrong had a sold-out gig at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Mn.. The band drifted in from the bus for the sound check, but no Louis. The road manager told me that Mr. Armstrong didn’t take the bus and would be along shortly. I relayed this to Eddie Drake, the Comptroller of Concerts and Lectures. Eddie checked at the end of sound check and did not like it that Armstrong had not made it yet.

Come half-hour and still no Louis. Eddie Drake was getting nervous. The road manager told him no sweat, Louis would along.

The opening act went on and still no Louis. By now Eddie was beyond nervous. The last thing he wanted was to have to call off the show and return the money for the full house. The manager assured Eddie that Mr. Armstrong would show up soon.

The opening act was were playing their encore and Drake was standing in the wings signaling them to stretch it out when I got a call from the Head Usher.

She told me Mr. Armstrong was in the front lobby and asked if I could come up and bring him backstage. If he was still there when the audience broke for intermission they would mob him for autographs.

I told Eddie and he signaled the act to keep stretching.

Drake was waiting when I escorted Louis backstage. He was livid. Normally, after he has a glass of water and vodka, his nose takes on a red glow. The glow was redder than usual and even his cheeks were looked like they were on fire.

He glared at Armstrong and asked why he was so late. But he didn’t wait for an answer. He made a crack about professionals arrive on time.

The manager walked over and reminded Drake that he told him Louis would be coming. And nobody calls Mr. Armstrong unprofessional.

‘Well, Eddie said, looking up at the manager who stood a good half a foot taller than Eddie, ‘Maybe unprofessional is too strong. I should have said it was inconsiderate. He should have been here for sound check.’

Louis, who until then, answered laughingly, ‘Oh, I know how those boys sound. And those boys know how is sound. Sound does right for them, it’ll be right for me.’

‘Mr. Armstrong doesn’t need to be at sound check,’ the manager said,.‘Besides I told you he had things to do and would come when he was finished.’

Drake said that an act should be in the theater at half-hour.

Louis laughed again and said the first half-hour call was for the opening act. He showed up at the half-hour before he had to go on.

I tried not to laugh. Eddie was so angry, even his high forehead was red.

The manager took Louis by the elbow to walk him away; but Eddie wasn’t through. He continued his rant. Louis stopped and turned back to him.

It was evident that Louis Armstrong was having fun. He had that familiar smile on his face and a glint in his eyes.

Eddie threw out what he considered his biggest reason why Armstrong should have been in the Hall with the rest of his band. “What if your instrument didn’t arrive? When you come this late it would be impossible to get you another one in time for the show. Did you ever think of that? Huh? Huh?’

‘Well then I’d just blow one of the boys’ extra horn,’ Louis replied, reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out his mouthpiece.

‘It’s not the horn, man.’ He held up his mouthpiece. ‘It’s the mouthpiece. Fits my lips good. Always carry with with me so I don’t lose it. Had it since I was jamming on the street for nickles. This is the instrument that counts. Put it in any horn and old Satchmo is ready to blow.’

‘Tell you what,’ Louis continued, ‘Get me an empty peach can. I’ll cut a hole in the bottom, stick my mouthpiece in the hole, and I’ll go deep, seriously deep.’

Eddie shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands, and went back to his office. He needed another glass of his special water.

Louis turned to the road manager and laughingly asked, ‘Something I said, you think?

‘Yeah, I wonder if you’ll be laughing if he comes back with an empty peach can,’ the manager said. ‘I know I will be.’

PS: The audience got what they came for that night. What a concert! Mr. Louis Armstrong gave us what we wanted to hear… even if he was fashionably late to the theater.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If James Lombard, the founder and ‘Impresario’ of the Concerts and Lectures at the U of MN, had his way the season would be nothing but classical and operatic soloists, artists he looked up to; but the Regents decreed that there be one jazz concert each season. The season after Louis Armstrong, had, in my opinion, two main acts in one concert, Wes Montgomery, great jazz guitarist, opened the concert, followed by Cannonball Adderley on alto sax. Eddie Drake told me it was a package deal. Only nine musicians total in the two groups. He said they alternated as to who opened and who followed.

Wes Montgomery opened. He had broken into mainstream jazz a few years before. He was backed up for this concert by his two brothers, Buddy and Monk and an organist. They didn’t disappoint. Instead of the usual 30 to 45 minutes for the front act, they played a full set, with encores, almost an hour and a half. No jealousy from the ‘main’ act. Most of them were in the wings enjoying the Montgomery boys.

The sad thing was that a few weeks after this concert, Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack.

(Six years later I worked a Duke Ellington concert at the Guthrie, and the Duke died shortly after.)

Cannonball Adderley had also been adopted into mainstream jazz a few years before. He had his brother, Nat, on coronet. Nat was the one constant in any of Cannonball’s quintet. The other three positions fluctuated musicians over the years.

At intermission I was surprised when I saw James Lombard stride in backstage. He never came for concerts he considered beneath him. Later, Eddie Drake told me that Lombard showed up because he was curious to see any one who was named Cannonball.

Lombard always looked the part of an impresario, the man in charge. Tall, broad shouldered, distinguished gray hair. Suits that cried they were too expensive for most men.

He always walked as if all eyes were on him and with his height advantaged he looked down on most everyone he talked to. If you looked up the word pompous in the dictionary, you would probably see a picture of James Lombard.

I was waiting for Lombard to come up to me when Cannonball Adderley tapped me on the shoulder.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘Who do I see about the bread? Never play a gig without the bread upfront.’

I brought him over to where Lombard had stopped. Then since it was a money talk, I walked away, but I didn’t get far before Lombard called me back.

‘Don,’ he said in his low bass voice, ‘Would you send one of your crew to Dinky Town and bring back a loaf of bread? Mr. Cannonball says he has to eat before he goes on.’

Cannonball looked at me and slapped his forehead.

I explained to Lombard that Adderley didn’t want bread bread. Bread was jazz talk for money. He meant he wanted the money upfront before they played.

Lombard stiffened up and said, briskly, ‘He should have said spoken in English. Bread! Bring him down to see Drake. I don’t have time for this nonsense.’ He gave a loud haroomph and walked off stage. He got what he came for. He met the man named Cannonball.

‘Hey, man, is that cat for real,’ Cannonball asked me, ‘Or is he jiving with me?’

I told Cannonball there wasn’t a jive bone in that man’s body. He was born with the stick up his…

‘Cat needs to loosen up,’ Cannonball said. ‘I got some gooooood stuff…bet that would mellow him out.’

PS: Another great concert even if Lombard didn’t hang around to listen.

In these days of darkness, I suppose the method of mellowing out prescribed by Cannonball is a favorite among many people. As for me, I found that my day goes better if I start it out by listening to Louis singing…


I see trees of green

red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

and I say to myself

What a Wonderful World

And that is a wrap for today. Please, please, listen to the medical experts and Stay Safe.

Oh, if you want to read a tale of a famous musician that didn’t make it to the theater on time, here’s one you might get a kick out of:


If I grouped by audiences the thousands of live shows I worked over the years, my favorites would be the ones filled with children, hands down. Be it a grand production like the Guthrie’s CHRISTMAS CAROL or SESAME STREET LIVE or a bare-stage act like Raffi, or the early days of The Wiggles, the infectious honesty and outright joy of the little ones, their honest laughter, their voluntary sing-alongs, their spontaneous dancing in front of their seats always bright a special happiness to my labor, indeed labor of love.

And Shari Lewis at the Orpheum ranks at the top for an additional type of audience participation.

Shari, her quick-witted sock puppet, Lamb Chop, her slow talking puppet, Charley Horse, and her other ‘friends’, had a popular kids’ show on PBS TV. Shari was at the peak of her career.

Born into a show biz family, her father was proclaimed the official magician of NYC, Sheri was doing magic tricks and studying piano at the age of two. She went to NY’s School for the Arts, studied ballet at ABT, acting with Stanford Miesner, music theory, violin, piano and at the age of 13, her father arraigned for her to study with John Cooper. In her adult years she often conducted symphony orchestras and co-authored, with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, an episode of the original STAR TREK. And of course, TV, live shows, albums, books, and she even managed to raise a daughter, Mallory.

And once she shared the stage with Poppa Donald.

I knew that Lamp Chop’s Play-Along was a favorite show of my oldest grandchild, Erik, and I managed to score four tickets, down center, when Shari Lewis &Co played the Orpheum…Erik, his friend, Ethan, and their mothers.

Prior to the show, Shari gave me a cue sheet telling me what to take off the prop table and bring to her at her setup on stage.

‘Be sure and wear your hat,’ Lamb Chop told me.

I had just brought my first prop to Shari when I heard a small voice shout out, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ I recognized the voice, it was my grandson Eric. And right after another shout, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ That I recognized as Ethan’s. Shari looked at me but didn’t say anything and I hurried off stage.

I had no more than stepped past the leg in doing my second cue when the chant began, ‘Poppa Donald. There’s Poppa Donald.’ Only this time it was not confined to Erik and Ethan. Several other small voices had joined in.

I set the prop down and Lamb Chop observed, ‘You must be Poppa Donald.’ I pleaded guilty.

‘Do you have a local TV show?’ Charlie Horse, who had joined Shari and Lamb Chop, asked.

“No,’ I answered, ‘Just a grandson in the audience. ‘I’m sorry,’ I added.

‘Don’t be,’ said Shari. ‘You should be proud.’ I didn’t say anything, but I was proud.

And each time I stepped on stage the shouts grew more and more. Even youngsters in the balcony were joining in.

When the show ended, I heard later, Shari had wanted to call me on stage to take a bow; but I had gone out in the stage alley as quick as possible, to see Erik and Ethan and the moms, before they left. They came out the side door and the boys ran up to me and gave me a thank you hug. They announced that their next stop was going to be the ice cream parlor. Thet invited me to go along. I wished that I could have.

And I was bending over to my two little fans, I was recognized by all the kids that exited that door. ‘Poppa Donald! Poppa Donald!’ And they ran up me smiling and stood and looked at me. A few of the mothers handed me programs and pens and asked me to sign my autograph.

‘Got to go, kids,’ I explained. ‘Got work inside to do.’

Shari was just about to put the two puppets away when I got back.

‘Ask him. Ask him, Shari,’ Charlie Horse said. ‘Oh, I will then,’ he said slowly. ‘Why don’t you join our neighborhood and you could be our own Mr. Greenjeans?’

I laughed and said, ‘But you’d have to hire my grandson Erik too…To shill for me. And I don’t think his folks would let him go.’

‘See,’ Lamb Chop piped in, ‘Told you so. Besides we’re doing fine without a Mr. Greenjeans – even with a cowboy hat.’

‘Lamb Chop,’ Shari said to the sock  puppet on her hand, ‘Don’t be rude.

When Shari left, not only did she say thanks to us but so did Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse even though they were packed away in the travel case. ‘And we all look forward to seeing you again soon,’ she said as she walked out the stage door.

But they never made it back. Shari Lewis passed away a few years after.

And her TV show that had humans interacting with puppets was replaced with yet another cartoon, just as was the shows of Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers.

But she left behind a legacy of musical albums and children’s books and a lot of fond memories to a generation of children.

R.I.P. Miss Shari, from Poppa Donald and all your fans.

And in this time of our darkness remember the words of Lamb Chop

It’s bad to be sad and cool to be happy



Bill Cosby was just breaking out big when I began working as a stage hand. When I retired 45 years later, Cosby was still big, still working a multitude of comedy performances in the US and Canada. Over those 45 years, I easily worked over 100 of Cosby’s comedy performances, and enjoyed every one of them. But now…

The first time I worked Cosby was at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Minnesota. Cosby was hot. His comedy albums were best sellers, and his TV show, I SPY, that he co-starred in with Robert Culp was high in the ratings, as well ground breaking. First time a black actor starred in a dramatic series. First black to win an Emmy.

Working that show taught me two things about Bill Cosby: He was fun to work with. (Years later he changed.) And he was no saint. (Rumors have it, he never changed that aspect of his character.)

One of my student crew members had purchased a large poster of a very serious Culp and a smiling Cosby, standing back to back and holding guns. First chance he got, he asked Cosby to autograph it. Cosby did. But he signed it ‘Bobby Culp’. Like I said, he was fun to work with in those days.

He also asked if there was a doctor that could see him during intermission. Lew, the promoter, found a doctor who gave Cosby a quick once-over. Lew then asked me to send one of the student crew down to the drug store to get a prescription.

According to Lew, the doctor said that Cosby wasn’t wrong when he asked for a doctor. He had a bad case of the drips and needed penicillin. The doctor said Cosby wanted it to be cleared up by the time the tour ended in two weeks, and he had to go home and face his wife. The doctor told him no way would he be healed by then. He suggested that Cosby better think of a believable way to blame on a contaminated toilet seat. Like I said, he was no saint, but a lot of fun to work.

Several years later I was working one of the follow spots for a Cosby performances that was booked by Jerry the Jerk. The Jerk had an uncanny talent of making people hate him at first glance – that way it saved time. And he was always conniving to get the most out of the stagehands for the least amount of money. Two facts not lost on Cosby.

Cosby usually comes in an hour before showtime. Goes on stage. Sits in the easy chair and sees to it that the end table has an ashtray for his cigar. Tests the mike and five minutes later he’s back in his dressing room. Jerry, however, demanded Cosby do his checking at 11 a.m. so if anything wasn’t right with the lights, sound,or camera that projected his face on a picture sheet above his head, it could be done in the 4 hour minimum for the Set Up and not run into a 5th hour.

Instead of telling Jerry no, Cosby came in on time; and then he made sure he didn’t check things out until we had broken the 5th hour. The Jerk was angry and told Cosby so. Cosby told us to take an hour for lunch and come back for a rehearsal. The Jerk was real angry; but there was nothing he could do because the contract said if Cosby wanted to rehearse he would rehearse.

The rehearsal started from the top, house to black low stage lights on, Cosby walked out, the follow spots picked him up, stayed on him when he sat down and went into his routine. He told one of his funny stories in about 5 minutes, then stood up and told us the rehearsal was over. Jerry the Jerk hit the roof. Paid all that money and the rehearsal  lasted less than ten minutes.

He should have kept  his mouth shut. Cos said he was going to think things over and have another rehearsal in an hour. Jerry was fuming and mentioned that could result in a meal penalty if we didn’t get out for supper. Cosby told Jerry to make a list of what each hand wanted for supper and have it delivered. Naturally the meal was on Jerry.

‘You know,’ Cosby told us when we were all in the Green Room eating supper, ‘I got a doctorate in education; but there’s one thing I knew long before I got it, some people never know when to keep their mouths shut.’

Cosby grew up listening to the great comedians on the radio, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George and Gracie, and he patterned his routines, be they live, or on TV,  after them, relying on family comedy, without any profanity. And it bothered him to see the young comedians building their success on sex and profanity.

The most popular of these young comedians was Eddie Murphy. Cosby was outspoken in his condemnation of the profanity of Murphy’s routine. He said Murphy had too much natural comedic talent to have to resort to cheap laughs by using profanity. Murphy didn’t like Cosby’s advice or Cosby’s type of comedy.

I worked Eddie Murphy during the heat of this feud. A full house at the Met Ice Arena. Murphy worked an hour and a half, no intermission. If he had deleted just the word MFer out of his routine, he would have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the show. He also spent at least fifteen minutes throughout the show condemning Cosby, or as he called him, that senile old MFer.

The audience loved it. Murphy would use his favorite word, MFer, and then scream asking the audience if they were offended. Naturally the audience, thrilled to have a part in the show, would stomp their feet and clap their hands and yell back, ‘NO, you MFer’. This sophomoric display was repeated all the way through the performance.

To paraphrase Erasmus: In the Land of the Morons, the moron holding the mike is king. And as far as I am concerned, more and more morons are purchasing tickets to listen to more and more morons holding mikes.In this case, Cosby was right, even though his words only resulted in him losing the youth as fans.

In 1997, Cosby’s life took a terrible turn for the worse. His oldest son, Ennis, was murdered in, as the killer’s confession called it, ‘a robbery turned bad’. From then on, Cosby became withdrawn. He never kidded with the hands backstage. Spent his free time in his dressing room. But once he got onstage in front of the audience, he reverted back to the old Bill.

In his personal life, he became quite outspoken about the Black community; especially how he perceived the indifference to the pursuit of education. He condemned the trend of the Black families, so many single-parents, and sometimes the parenting had to be carried out by the grandparents with no parents in the picture..He saved his harshest criticism for the Black youths that took the easy way out and dealt drugs to get easy money. He has continued to expound on these themes throughout the years. And as a result he is viewed by a large contingent of the Black community, especially the youth, as a crabby old man – and now as a hypocrite.

Later on in 1997, the Elephant In The Room threatened to become public knowledge. A young girl had tried to extort money out of Cosby by claiming to  be his daughter. She was jailed. In an interview with Dan Rather, Cosby acknowledged it might be true. He confessed to having an affair with the girl’s mother.

For the most part it was overlooked by the American public as being something celebrities do. Maybe though if the public had been aware of the fact Cosby paid the mother $750 per week, hush money, totaling about $100,000 while the girl was growing up, they might have taken it more seriously. And maybe if they had heard that the mother accused Cosby of drugging and raping her their first sexual encounter, they might have been more outraged.

For years, apparently, rumors had circulated about Cosby use of drugs to rape women. When women did come out with the accusations, they were not believed by the police and were not reported in the news. After all, Cosby was ‘America’s Dad’.

I was unaware of these accusations all the years I worked Cosby. I never seen him make any advances on women who were backstage. Always polite. A gentleman. But then, that’s how the 27 or so women, who recently accused him of drug rape, say he was a perfect gentleman until he got them along and spiked their drink.

Do I believe all these accusations? Well, there’s just too much smoke not to have fire. And each passing day it seems like the Elephant is getting bigger, and the Room is getting smaller.

Will it ever be proven one way or the other? Almost any sexual assault is a ‘She Said – He Said’ thing, and the most common defense for the accused is to blame the ‘victim’. Some of the accusers waited so long to speak out; mainly because they saw the ones that did speak out were often accused of lying to extort money from a rich and famous man. When you throw in celebrity status, money, and race into the mix, the waters become really muddy.

Cosby is still doing shows; but these are shows already contracted for, and the promoter fears a lawsuit if he drops Cosby. I can’t imagine a promoter booking a show now.

Cosby is old, real old, heck he’s a year older than me. There comes a point in one’s life where you just get too old to fight. Each performance brings out protesters and audience hecklers. And it will only get worse.

As I said at the top, I learned the first time I worked him, Cosby was no saint; but I never thought he would be accused of sinking this low. ‘America’s Dad’ has become ‘America’s Bad’. Oh, Bill!