Dow Thomas And The Cult Of Comedy
Written by J.T. Ryder
Part horror show hippy, part amusing musician, part imaginative genius. Dow Thomas is truly one of the Dayton originals, having performed comedy locally before there was even a venue dedicated to the genre. He has stepped so far outside of the box, finding himself still in the forefront of comedic inspiration, twisting the mundane into a bizarrely fascinating funhouse that moves so quickly, it’s hard for the average person to keep up. From playing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love on the banjo to a stirring rendition of Sailcats, which prompts a Rocky Horror-esque melee of paper plate flinging, Dow Thomas is one of the most original and entertaining comedians around.
I was recently able to talk to Dow from his Florida home as he readied himself for his trek North to Dayton. I asked him to describe his unique brand of humor…because I sure as hell couldn’t.
“What I do is I write stupid songs…a lot of stupid songs…and that makes stupid routines that you’re not going to hear them from anybody else because they’re mine.” Dow went on to describe his dedication to creeping his material fresh, “If you write new routines and jokes all the time, they are going to be thirty seconds at the most. You can’t get up there and be Bill Cosby anymore. People have short attention spans, so what I do is write a strings of songs or jokes.”
In the late seventies, Dow showed up on a local television show that aired at various times on Channel 22 which was then titled Saturday Night Dead, a play on words to contrast the show’s spot directly following Saturday Night Live. It featured B-rated horror films and boasted one of the most good-humored hosts by the name of Barry Hobart who played the part of Dr. Creep. Dow, along with his girlfriend at the time, Astrid Socrates, played an original song titled The Ballad of Dr. Creep, which signaled one of the funniest collaborations, along with a host of other comedians, a puppeteer, John Riggi (who went on to write for 30 Rock) and a flamingly gay Frankenstein. Dow has never given up his penchant for the peculiar, having appeared in several movies, most within the genre of the B-rated horror flick. Dow spoke briefly about his most recent foray into film.
“It’s called The Psycho Dish. The director actually has gotten me in a part of another film he’s getting the rights to which is a Civil War movie. They want me to play a legless, one armed guy in a wheelchair. It’s called Bats Out Of Hell. I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire with the acting thing, but they’re all going to be independent films, and you never know where that’s going to go.” In relating what type of roles he has played in the past, a common theme begins to emerge. “I played the Devil in a movie and I played…it’s always like I’m playing some grave robber or something like that. People actually call me up and say, ‘Somebody said that you be great at playing the creepy old man downstairs.’ For me, it just keeps your chops up when you try to do everything.”
Our conversation meandered on for over an hour. Dow related stories about the roots of Dayton’s comedy scene which, at that time, was virtually nonexistent, at least from our modern perspective.
“I didn’t originally come from Dayton. I just kind of adopted the city in 1971. I moved to the area to go to WrightState and I just stayed and I ended up living in downtown Dayton. I started my shows at the Upper Krust on North Main Street for ten dollars a day.” Dow went on reminiscing, saying, “I liked being up on North Main because I liked to go to shows and Gilly’s used to be up on North Main. There was also The Tropics and Suttmiller’s, which was fun for me to go see supper club type comedians like Jerry Van Dyke or Pete Barbutti and those kind of guys.”
In the seventies, comedy was not the mainstream draw that it would soon become in the eighties, so Dow would camouflage his true comedic intentions under the cover of his music. He would get hired in as a musician and then add in little comedy bits here and there until they became his entire set. Back in those days, a set might be five hours, not the tight twenty or the solid hour that has become an industry standard. Dow found himself at many local bars, like The Bar, Clancy’s and the Iron Boar, which was to become legendary Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub.
“We used to do a Gong Show at the Iron Boar and it was fun because we’d have some guy come up and go, ‘I’m going to do my imitation of a lobster’ and we’d go, ‘Good!’ So he’d put claws on and hop around like a freak…it was just so stupid! I used to do a thing called Punt The Fish and I’d yell out, ‘It’s time to…’ the audience would scream, ‘Punt the Fish!’ I had this rubber fish and audience members would come up and kick this fish and we’d measure it off with toilet paper and the one who kicked it the farthest won.” Dow went on to tell about, “One night, I had this woman up on stage and she kicked the fish and it went into the propeller of the ceiling fan and came back and smacked me in the face. Everybody was just laughing and I stood up and screamed, ‘Disqualified!’ It was all just so stupid, but you’ll never be able to have a moment like that ever again.”
Hearing the stories about the way things used to be, it made the current state of comedy seem somewhat stale and staid. It just seemd like there used to be so much more than the emcee, the feature act, the headliner and then, “Thanks a lot! Don’t forget to tip the wait staff!”
“Right!”Dow agreed, before going into another story about the way things were. “There were these guys, Rich Purpura, who was a comedy/magician, and Tim Walko, a guitarist, and they were both from Chicago. We’d do a show, just packing the place, but at the end, we’d just get up there and jam and kept the show going and clown around with each other. By then, we were just trying to make each other laugh, and that’s what the audience liked. It was kind of like. It was kind of like having the Rat Pack or something. It was that kind of feel, where everybody’s in the groove.”
In speaking about the origins of Wiley’s, I asked Dow how he came to have such a following there (that is still quite fervent even to this day), but also how he came to meet the current owner of Wiley’s, comedian Rob Haney.
“Rob came up to me one time and said, ‘Can I get up and do some time? I just got back from The Comedy Store.’ He had just done some showcasing there…which surprised me because Rob was a bouncer in a bar I used to work at…”
I was quick to learn that almost every story that Dow told led into another story, with sequels and prequels thrown in just to keep things interesting. Backtracking, I finally found out about the first time he had met Rob Haney.
“When I first met him, he was a doorman at a place called The Bar in West Carrollton. It was a rough little joint that ended up being Omar’s for a while and then Fricker’s. It was an old basement bar and the family that owned it was pretty rugged. I actually had guns pulled on me in that bar. It was rough and there were a lot of biker guys in there, but I was playing in there for a while.” Dow said, before getting back on tack. “Rob and I started talking at the bar and then, all of a sudden, he realized that when he was at WrightState he had seen me in a theater production and we talked about that for a while. Anyway, at that time, Rob had like shoulder length hair, so it was a different Rob Haney that came up to me some time later with short hair and asked if he could do like a twenty minute set. I said, ‘Sure!’ I let him up onstage at the Trolley Stop…”
And the rest, as they say, is history…
Author’s Note: This article was originally written in 201o and published in various places. Sadly, Dow passed away in February of 2012. Dow was a dear friend to the owners, past and present, of the club as well as many of Wiley’s employees and customers. Dow was a cutting figure within the comedy, music and arts world of Dayton and this town is less for his passing and imbued with wealth from his very existence. For further reading, please go on to The Power And Light Of Dow Thomas – Dayton And The World Loses A Comedy Icon.
(Originally published on December 10th, 2010 at DaytonMostMetro.com)