By Ed Staskus
Thelma’s father was a stockbroker, an investment advisor, and a vice president at Prudential Bache. He worked in downtown Cleveland, Ohio with the other moneymakers. But he never let it go to his head. He wasn’t always prudent, though.
They called him the Margin King. His wife called him the King of Fools. When Fred and Alma got married, he was a gambling man, but Alma didn’t want him doing that after the wedding. She said it was time he became a family man.
“The gambling stops now.”
He became a stockbroker. That way he could still gamble, except now it would be with other people’s money. He made a boatload of money. He wasn’t just serious about raking in a ton of loot, though. He told jokes all the time. He was a shaggy dog man. Getting a laugh was like hitting the jackpot.
He was a prankster as well as a jokester. He used to appear on the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck” TV show now and then, doing skits with them.
Hoolihan was Bob Wells, but he was Hoolihan the Weatherman on the TV. After Ghoulardi left Cleveland for Hollywood, Hoolihan still did the weather, but became the other half of the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show.” It was what replaced Ghoulardi. They showed cheesy science fiction and horror movies late at night on weekends and did comedy skits in between the commercials.
That’s where Telly’s dad came in.
The show always started with the Ray Charles song “Here We Go Again” and ended with the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is.” Fred couldn’t carry a tune, so was never invited to raise his voice.
Big Stash and Lil’ John were on the show, too, more than Fred was. That’s how he met them. They all became friends in no time. Fred and Alma went to Hoolihan and Big Chuck’s house parties and they used to have Lil ‘John over for spaghetti dinners. Lil’ John was a very small man who could eat a lot of spaghetti.
They did skits on the show like Ben Crazy, from the “Ben Casey” TV series, Parma Place, which was like “Peyton Place,” and the Kielbasa Kid, which was like a Polish cowboy misadventure. The skit Fred was most famous for was the “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” skit, which was from a Jerry Reed song.
“Well now me and Homer Jones and Big John Taley, had a big crap game goin’ back in the alley, and I kept rollin’ them sevens, winnin’ all them pots,” was how the song went.
“My luck was so good, I could do no wrong, I just kept on rollin’ and controllin’ them bones, and finally they just threw up their hands and said, when you hot, you hot, and I said, yeah. Put all that money in an’ let’s roll ‘em again, when you’re hot you’re hot, La, la, la, La, la, la, when you’re hot, you’re hot.”
They acted out the words to the song. Big Chuck rolled the dice. Fred was the sheriff. The Hoolihan gang would be shooting craps on the street and Fred busts them. Later when they are all in court the judge tells them he is going to throw the book at them, except when he throws the book, he actually hits Fred, who is the sheriff, in the head by mistake.
“That hurt!” he shouted.
“You’re out of order!” the judge said, pounding his gavel like a madman.
Alma was in a skit with Big Chuck. They are sitting on a park bench on a first date under a full moon and he turns into a werewolf. He reaches for her. She starts screaming and runs away. He turns back into sheepish Chuck.
Fred did most of his skits wearing a gorilla suit. But not all of them were on the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show.” Some of the time it was unscripted. It was a reality show.
He would wiggle into his gorilla suit and he and Big Chuck drove around the west side of Cleveland and Lakewood in a dark blue four-door Buick looking for hitchhikers. Big Chuck drove while Fred hid in the back seat. They would pick somebody up and after a few minutes Fred would suddenly pop up with a loud grunt out of the back seat in his gorilla suit.
That would scare the hell out of the hitchhiker. One of them jumped out of the car while it was still moving. That’s what they did for fun. Telly remembered being a little girl and listening to their adventure stories and thinking, you guys are really weird.
Sometimes they would go out and roof jump. The houses in Lakewood are close together, often separated only by a driveway. They would run across the roofs, jumping from one to the other. They whooped it up as the folks in their houses wondered what the thumping was all about.
When they got older Big Chuck, Hoolihan, Stash and John and Fred got a little more sophisticated. They had mystery parties, which were parties on a bus on which they would have dinner and drinks with their friends, not knowing where you were going, and at the end of the night everyone would have to guess where they were. The winner got to be on the show.
It was the swinging 60s at that point in time. They swang to their rhythm, bang-a-lang.
Telly’s dad was a prankster even at home, which was quiet conservative Bay Village. He played jokes on the neighbors on their street all the time. Once he hired the Bay Village High School Marching Band to wake up one of their neighbors at five in the morning. They did it by marching up and down their backyard and playing a fight song. All the other neighbors woke up, too. Some of them thought it was funny. Most of them didn’t.
Another of their neighbors had dogs like them and Thelma babysat them when they were out for dinner or at a show.
“Telly, can you watch our dogs?” Mrs. Butler would ask her.
One day Fred took advantage of Telly having the Butler family house keys. He snuck into their house and filled up every glass, cup, vase, china, and toilet, whatever, with water and a single goldfish. When they got back there were gobs of hungry goldfish waiting for them.
From then on it was butthead time at the Butler house every few months. While they were walking on Huntington Beach after dinner Fred and his friends got into their garage, picked up their car, and turned it sideways. They left it so cramped in tight sideways in the garage you had to squeeze around it to get anywhere. Mr. Butler couldn’t get to work the next day. There wasn’t anything he could do. Everybody on the street thought he might have to tear the garage down.
He crept into their house late on a hot summer night wearing his gorilla suit and scared their kids so much they screamed and peed on the floor. He thought it was great glee fun, giving them nightmares. That was fun to him.
It didn’t matter what anybody thought. Whatever he thought of doing he did. He was constantly pranking the poor Butlers. When they complained to the Bay Village police, the cops just laughed it off.
Telly and her sisters and little brother weren’t out of his prank zone, either. He would crawl underneath their beds at night and wait quietly until they dozed off and then reach around and suddenly grab their arms or legs.
“Oh, yeah, while we were sleeping! I still can’t hang my foot out over the edge of my bed at night. He was a bad dad most of the time and great dad when he wanted to be, but he was a prankster all the time, that’s for sure.”
Excerpted from “Dogs Never Bite Me” at http://www.dogsneverbiteme.com.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”