Ron Onesti: Impersonator or impostor?
With all this quarantine stuff going on, I am still putting in 12-hour workdays! But I am also watching more television than ever. What I watch most are black and white movies and classic TV shows, pre-1989.
Recently I watched a "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" episode. The infamous celebrity impersonator Rich Little was making one of his many appearances on the show. It reminded me of the time I brough Rich Little to The Arcada. It was incredible!
He arrived the night before the show, just in time for dinner. He is in great shape and looks years younger than the spry 78 years of age that he was at the time. He then pulled from his pocket a cigar and a pair of glasses, transformed into George Burns, looked around our 1926 theater and said: "You kept the place nice!"
Rich did his homework and found that radio and television pioneers George Burns and Gracie Allen performed their last vaudeville show on the Arcada stage in the 1930s.
A close buddy to Rat-Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Little appeared regularly on the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" television specials. "My favorite of the roasts was when Jimmy Stewart was the Man of the Year," Rich recalled. "I brought him up to the podium and told him his 'Jimmy Stewart' needed some work. So I proceeded to teach him how to impersonate himself! He didn't know it was coming but he played along beautifully. The audience busted up."
Of all his impersonations, my personal favorite is legendary talk show host Johnny Carson. Like most of his character portrayals, he masterfully assumes Johnny's look, voice and mannerisms. So much so that Little actually portrayed Johnny in the HBO movie "The Late Shift."
"Johnny was such a recluse, he barely went to parties. And when he did, he barely spoke to people," Rich said. "But for some reason, he got a kick out of it when I did him. I was honored to sit in for him 12 times as guest host of 'The Tonight Show,' so he must have liked it."
I asked him how he got his start in showbiz. "I started doing impressions of my teachers in grammar school. The kids loved it, but the teachers hated it. Once in a while, though, I would see the teacher try to hide a smile. It was then I knew I was on to something," he said.
Mel Torme, a hugely popular crooner at the time, was a close friend of the then 20-year-old comic. While on the musical team of the "Judy Garland Show," Mel suggested to Judy that she showcase this "undiscovered" star on her widely popular TV show. From there, it was Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Las Vegas. The rest is history.
"Who was your favorite," I asked. "Of course, Jimmy (Stewart) was great," he said. "Jimmy was so easy to do; he never broke character, had a very distinct voice and unique mannerisms. He had no problem with my exaggerations of his character, and often played along with it. He was such a warm guy, very fatherly to me. But I think my all-time favorite would have to be Bing Crosby. He got such a bum rap when his son wrote that book about him. None of that was true (referring to Bing being less than a candidate for "Father of the Year"). And impersonating him, well, everybody loved to hear Bingo speak … it was melodic -- just like the way he sang."
As I was sitting with him at dinner, he would regularly break into the character we were talking about. Having dinner with Rich Little is like having dinner with 25 Hollywood superstars!
One of the most interesting things about his career for me was something I never realized. He has actually been a "voice double" for celebrities who could not make their vocal commitment for one reason or another. For example, when Gene Kelly lost his voice during the editing of a Christmas television special, Rich was called upon to dub in Kelly's voice. When Peter Sellers passed away before completing his last film, "The Trail Of The Pink Panther," the final scenes' included the voice of Rich Little as Inspector Clouseau.
After his show, I went backstage, filled with emotion. "Rich, I can't thank you enough for what you did here tonight," I said. "It looks like everybody had a good time," he said. "It was so much more than a just a 'good time'," I said. "I walked around the theater during the show, listening to you, but I was watching the audience. Sure there were seniors in the crowd, but more importantly, there were new generations of families now being exposed to John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda. They gained a perspective of six past United States presidents. You are the single individual fostering the memory of these famous American celebrities. I am sure you already realize this, but you have gone from impersonator to a fun and entertaining historian."
Then a young man about 16 years old came to me backstage and asked if he could meet his idol. "I want to be an impersonator, and he is the best," he said. I brought him to meet Rich and the budding entertainer proceeded to do an incredible Al Pacino impression. Rich turned to me and said: "Ya know, I get what you were saying about this being more of an entertaining history lesson. Did you hear this kid?"
He took a deep breath and smiled at me, almost with a newfound sense of relevance, almost humbled. At that moment I think I saw him do somebody rarely seen before … his impersonation of Rich Little!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.