Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Ernest blog.

Not long ago my old friend Michael O.J. in Nashville sent me an e-mail. I didn't know he was a reader, but apparently he is.

Last week, I mentioned that Dan Butler was in the Broadway play I saw recently, and Mike had this to say: "I don't watch Frasier, so don't know if it is the same one, but Dan Butler was one of the principles of Gonzo Theater in Nashville in 1982. He was in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam Machine, the movie (?) I worked on when I quit NASA. He acquired some national fame and fortune for America's Dumbest Criminals. He has a face and character easy to hate.

"I've been busy, but still check up on you occasionally. Thanks for making it easy with your blog. Your namesake is now 21 and a half years old."

That "namesake" is a buzzy orange called he named Dees as a kitten, back in the summer of 1983. I'm astonished that he's still alive.

As for Dan Butler, the actor on Fraiser is, alas, a different person from the Dan Butler that Mike knew in Nashville, and whom I saw on stage during that long-ago golden summer of '82. Gonzo Theater was a local comedy troupe. I remember being entertained by them one evening, but I can't quite remember their skits, except for the Ethel Merman impression one of the men did on a bogus talk show called Pakistan Today, and a skit mocking a Nashville politician who happened to be in the audience that night, and who was also red-nosed drunk.

Gonzo Theater, I think, didn't last very long, but many of its members went on to be in some of the Ernest movies: Butler (Daniel Butler, according to IMDb), Jackie Welch, Mac Bennett. (Sorry, Mike, I don't remember the other guy, but I know that your brother Lee did crew work for Gonzo, and on first Ernest movie.) Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam Machine, 1986, was the first Ernest feature, and I'm one of the few people I know who actually paid money to see it, or who actually saw it at all. I went to see it because I knew some of the people who made it, and I knew of the Gonzo Theater alums. The movie stank, but the cast and crew were giving it the old college try.

Also, I knew some of Jim Varney's early work, namely commercials. Ernest was created for commercials, and the character was (is) owned by a Nashville ad man named John Cherry, whom I sometimes heard called "Buster" Cherry. I vaguely remember Varney shilling for Purity Dairies, a Nashville milk producer (and great lemonade maker) that was independent in the 1980s, but which is owned by Dean Foods now. Ernest was destined for greater things, it turned out, though Dr. Otto wasn't an auspicious start. Cherry went on to direct Varney in better (if not stellar) Ernest movies, till Varney died of lung cancer in 2000 at age 50. His career was tragically cut short before he could make My Dinner With Ernest.


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