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A Full Circle Moment 18

A Full Circle Moment

In 1979, I was a high school senior and considered myself a pretty funny eighteen-year-old. One might see this as a lack of insight. But it was reinforced by my mother, who indiscriminately laughed at everything I said, and my high school principal who let me write funny announcements and deliver them over the intercom. It all started when someone suggested that I might be able to create a funny message that would make people listen more carefully. Eventually, groups throughout the school would ask me to advertise their events. For instance, if the drama club was holding a bake sale, I would write a funny announcement about their upcoming fundraiser by making a clever reference to “Shake and Bake-speare” that would inevitably cause my peers to speweth milk from thy noses. This was my first experience with writing humor—and I loved it.

To me, making people laugh was like an addiction. It was such a rush and I was always looking for opportunities to do it again. But I didn’t really perform in front of groups. Mostly, I just acted funny around my family and friends. However, that was about to change.

I grew up in Southwest Virginia and my father had been involved in the Abingdon Rotary Club for many years. One of the premiere fundraising events for that club was an annual talent show called the “Rotary Frolics.” It was held at the historic Barter Theater which is the State Theater of Virginia and one of the oldest theaters in the country. During the depression, patrons bartered for their tickets with food and livestock. That’s how the theater got its name.

In the early days, the Frolics showcased wonderful local talent such as bluegrass bands, singers, dancers, and storytellers. But as time went on, the “good” talent was replaced by Rotarians who performed corny skits, bad impersonations, and dad jokes. To be honest, it was horrible. And yet, the worse it got, the more the public loved it. Year after year, the Rotary Club sold out the 800-seat theater on both a Friday and Saturday night, making $25,000-30,000 for local charities. My father, who passed his entertainment genes on to me, participated in the Frolics for fifty-one years and served as emcee for many of those years.

I used to dream of performing in the Frolics. Not only was it the perfect venue for my humor, the talent bar was pretty low. But my dad took his role as emcee very seriously so I didn’t feel comfortable lobbying him for a part in the show. But then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from the Frolics director, Ed Damer. He said, “Ronnie, we thought you might be able to do some comedy in the Frolics this year.”

I was stunned into silence which, for those of you who know me, is virtually impossible. When I came to my senses, I told him that I would be honored. He said the only requirement they had for me was that I’d have to audition for the spot.

A few days later, I went to Ed’s house and auditioned my material in his living room. And by “my material,” I’m referring to many jokes and bits I had “adapted” from Steve Martin. I was a huge fan and in my naiveté, I felt it was perfectly fine to “borrow” his material and edit it for the Frolics. The theme of the show that year was “Magic Moments” so I performed a series of ridiculous magic tricks that either didn’t make sense or didn’t work. For instance, I pulled a rabbit out of a visor. I thought that was hilarious since a visor is a hat with no top—thus making it impossible to pull anything out of it. I also did a card trick with miniature cards so that the audience couldn’t tell if I had done it correctly or not. All in all, it was pretty funny and since I was only eighteen, I had the audience’s empathy on my side. In fact, after the show, a woman sitting next to my mother leaned over and said, “You tell your boy that if he keeps practicing, one day, he’ll be good.”

In my mind, the show was a great success. People laughed at the right times (except the woman sitting next to my mother) and I was officially bitten by the entertainment bug. I felt inebriated by the experience of being onstage. That being said, I was not given a contract by a Hollywood agent, I was not discovered by a local television station, and Steve Martin never wrote me a letter saying how honored he was that I had taken his material and made it better. But, I was still on cloud nine because I had made people laugh.

Over the years, as a nod to my dad, I emceed the Frolics four times. Each time, I used corny jokes, ad lib’d responses to the bad skits, and always, had a wonderful time. The Rotarians were like family to me and their willingness to make fools of themselves in the name of charity was something I could get behind.

In the fall of 2023, I got a call from Mark Graham, the current Frolics director. Ed Damer had retired from the job but he was still involved. Mark wanted to know if I would consider emceeing for the fifth time at the…wait for it…“75th Annual Rotary Frolics.” He suggested there might even be a “five timers” jacket in it for me—just like the repeat hosts get on Saturday Night Live.

How could I say no?

So, a few weeks ago, I traveled to Southwest Virginia and participated once again in this wonderfully bad show. And of course, they continued the seventy-five year tradition of corny humor and ridiculous acts. In my role as emcee, I no longer used stolen jokes from Steve Martin. I mostly told original stories, made impromptu comments about the skits, and suffered through several dad jokes. My favorite line was this one, given to me by a friend: “Today is the start of National Diarrhea Week. It runs through next Friday.”

Yep, that’s the kind of highbrow experience that has kept the Rotary Frolics alive for three quarters of a century.

But for me, it was much more than that. It was a chance to reconnect with the humor that was part of my life and career, with my father’s fifty-one-year legacy in the Frolics, and with Ed Damer who gave me a chance to make a bunch of people laugh. I do not take any of it for granted.

It was a full circle moment and it was awesome.


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