Dayton And The World Loses A Comedy Icon
Written by J.T. Ryder
Sifting through scattered memories, most of which are second hand recollections that occurred before my time, I find myself overwhelmed by a life lived with a manic exuberance. I found out about comedian Dow Thomas’ passing from a friend and regular customer of Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub who called to inform me of the news. I stayed up until around 2:00am poring over the condolences that poured out from all over the country, cascading down from Dow’s Facebook page and other social media outlets. I looked through pictures that I had of Dow, read through transcripts from interviews I had done with him and reflected on conversations that we had had in the past. While many around me knew Dow longer and were closer friends than he and I were, Dow possessed the ability to make you feel that you were the only one in the room. Even during performances where there were a hundred or more people in the room, he made you feel as if you were within his inner circle, that this was an intimate gathering of friends and not just a group of people watching a performance. Even beyond his unerring talent and exuberant imagination, this was his true gift.
Born in Chillicothe and raised in the Akron/Cleveland area, Dow moved to the Dayton area in 1971 to attend WrightState as a theater major, a fitting field of study for someone who had been familiar with the stage for much of his youth. Even though Dow was not a native of Dayton, he embraced the area with the fervor that a lifelong resident should have.
“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.” Dow said during one of our conversations. “I ended up living in downtown Dayton. I used to hang out at the Arcade a lot there. I’m a downtown kind of guy.”
Dow was very active in the drama department while at Wright State, performing in several theater productions, such as Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and a pair of Molière’s plays; That Scoundrel Scapin and as Cléante in Tartuffe. In the latter drama, he caught the eye of a fellow student, Rob Haney, which signaled the beginning to a lifelong friendship.
As his hair grew, so did Dow’s creative yearnings. He began playing music around town, playing at venues that are but a mere memory to most Daytonians.
“I started my shows at the Upper Krust on North Main St. for ten dollars a day. I liked being up on North Main because I liked to go to shows and Gilly’s used to be up on North Main and 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.”
Even though many venues and stages were opening themselves up to Dow’s music and acting, this was still not enough to contain Dow’s imaginative energies. He started sneaking his oddly skewed humor into his songs and banter with the audience.
“I was actually doing comedy in 1972, but at that time there weren’t any comedy clubs, so I was just doing comedy along with music. I would get hired as a musician/entertainer and just add in the comedy in between songs.” Dow reflected. “I would always put on masks and stuff…I just can’t help myself from clowning around. I’d have the gig and eventually I had bands, but when I clowned around, everyone clowned around with me. What was always part of the show was me being stupid. It was what I said in between songs and me ruining songs, like singing like a dog and getting a ‘bark along’ going.”
In those days, you may have seen Dow tooling around town in his hearse, decked out like a Bohemian undertaker, black clad and sporting his ubiquitous top hat, running from gig to gig. He played with Astrid Socrates for seven years (creatively billed as Astrid & Dow) as well as drummer Doug Buchanan Tim McKenzie on lead guitar during yet another incarnation of his ingenuity. He was a featured act at The Trolley Stop, Clancy’s, the Iron Boar and Bogey’s.
“I’ll never forget the day Dow Thomas and my path crossed. I was part owner of a night club called Bogey’s on Watervliet Ave. in Dayton when Dow and Jeffro stopped in after buying guitar strings at Ace Music.” Mike Adams reminisced recently. “Things weren’t going very well at the bar and we couldn’t afford a barmaid or a cook so I was working. Dow Thomas ordered two drinks and asked for a menu and ordered a sandwich. Upon serving him he asked who owned the place and I confessed. He asked how things were going and I said not to well. He said he could tell. He asked if I had ever heard of Dow Thomas and I said yes but had never seen him and he told me I was talking to him. He offered to do a show one night a week for free as long as I didn’t interfere with him trying new material. I lost a lot of money owning that bar but memories like this makes the money seem irrelevant.”
“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!” Dow began chuckling to himself on the phone before going on. “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. 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.”
The comedy began usurping the music and Jim Lafferty began booking ventriloquists, jugglers and other oddball acts to fill out the shows.
“I used to have people like Jay Haverstick, who owned Jay’s Seafood, he would come and see my shows. So would Mike Peters. They would be out late at night and they would just say, ‘Hey! Let’s go and see what crazy Dow is doing!’” Dow said during another conversation. He went on, describing another huge change that was bout to occur in his life. “But there wasn’t a comedy club, so I left for L.A. I gave them (the Lafferty’s) a one year’s notice (laughing) and said, ‘In a year, I’m going to L.A.’ and that’s when we turned it into a comedy club.”
Eventually, the Lafferty’s decided to change not only the whole format of the club to comedy, but the name itself. In an unexplainable instance where someone could legitimately name a comedy club Lafferty’s, Dan decided to use his nickname instead, dubbing the newly restructured club Wiley’s.
Dow, true to his word, eventually left for La-LaLand, seeking his fame and fortune, both of which proved to be elusive in the land of silicone and sunshine. He found that the venues that were available to him were less than conducive to his creative talents. At one point, he found himself doing sets between bouts at a boxing match and, towards his triumphant return to Dayton, he was unceremoniously replaced with disco music at a Newport Beach club. Yet the comedy scene was heating up nationally and Dow was riding the cusp of this chaotic wave. The shows were not the structured tight sets that we witness now in the clubs, but were given to more improvisational melees and surprise guests.
“There were these guys like 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.” Dow said. “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. Back then I could have Emo Philips come in and do twenty minutes and then I’d get a chance to go to the bathroom. Then maybe Judy Tenuta would come in and do twenty to thirty minutes and then I’d get a chance to go to the bathroom. For me, I thought it should go on all night.”
Another person that benefitted from the burgeoning comedy scene was Rob Haney, a newly touring comic and future owner of Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub.
“Rob Haney 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.” Dow recalled that, “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. 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. I’ve seen him mace guys and throw guys out…he’s a pretty tough guy. He had like shoulder length hair at the time and pretty well built, so it was a different Rob Haney that came up to me with short hair and asked if he could do like twenty minutes and I said, ‘Sure!’ I let him up at the Trolley Stop and I had a gig there like six nights a week…it was crazy.”
Another iconic staple of the MiamiValley that Dow had a huge role in was with his friend Dr. Creep (Barry Hobart) and Shock Theater. The inception of Shock Theater was supposed to be actually scary, as an accompaniment to the B-rated horror flicks that they screened, but the campy ineptness and irrepressible humor of Dr. Creep and the people that worked on the show quickly made the show a campy carnival for all of those late night viewers.
“I ended up getting on just about every television show in Dayton, but I got with Dr. Creep in the late seventies when it was called Saturday Night Dead because they had him on after Saturday Night Live, so it was kind of a neat spot.” Dow went on to say, “So I wrote The Ballad of Dr. Creep and went on there with my girlfriend at the time, Astrid Socrates and also with a bunch of my friends and we did skits.”
“You know, what’s funny about that whole thing is that they became the number one, locally produced television show while I was writing for them. They would go, ‘Okay, we’re showing Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ and we made up the Bat Photo Studio and all of the prints would come out really dark, and customer’s would comment, ‘Wow! These prints are really dark!’ and I’d go, ‘Well, I am Dracula: Prints of Darkness! Sometimes I accidently cut their heads off!’ and I’d hold up a severed head. It was just stupid stuff like that.” With a tinge of regret, Dow added, “Of course, Joe Smith said, ‘No, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ He was an integral part of the studio there, so I got censored quite a bit and got into a little bit of trouble. I remember John Riggi and I getting yelled at because we changed the weather map one time. We got up there and started putting a bunch of tornados around Xenia…they were just little magnetized things back in those days. We were hippies in a studio that had rules.”
Dow played some forty different clubs in the MiamiValley the years that he was here and developed a huge fan base locally as well as in other cities that he performed in. In 1997, he moved to Florida with his wife Kay and they took up residence at some of the local clubs near their new home. Even after his departure, Dow was voted Dayton’s Best Comedian for two year’s running. He would still make frequent sojourns to Ohio, usually performing at Wiley’s one to two times a year, creating comedic chaos with his skewed humor and especially with his song Sailcats, in which he would cajole the audience into throwing paper plates in lieu of flattened kittens as the song implied. The staff would usually find the last paper plate stuck in the rafter shortly before Dow’s next scheduled appearance.
I contacted Dow in February of 2011 to ask if he would perform at my upcoming Dirty Little Secret Sanitarium show in May. He was eager to do the show because of the variety aspect of the event, but was reluctant in some ways, feeling that it would be a conflict of interests with his Wiley’s appearances. Rob Haney assured him that there would be no conflict and he agreed to do the show. That evening became an impromptu reunion of sorts in honor of Dr. Creep as not only had Dow worked closely with him, but so had some of the other performers slated for that evening. Thomas Nealeigh from FreakShow Deluxe had worked with Dr. Creep as had A. Ghastlee Ghoul. Our emcee for the evening was Dr. Creep’s protégé Baron Von Pork Shop and some of the members of Team Void had recorded music for Shock Theater’s DVD’s. Dow had a blast at the show and had garnered yet a few more fans for his cult of comedy.
I contacted him again this past December to see if he wanted to be part of the Dirty Little Secrets Sick Of Santa Show and he readily agreed. We spent the rest of the conversation talking about old horror movies and other trivialities. On the night of the show, December 28th, 2011, his wife Kay showed up at the club saying that Dow was really sick and would be unable to perform. Seeing the look on her face and knowing Dow’s penchant for performing, I knew then that it was ore serious than she was letting on. The next evening, Dow arrived at Wiley’s to do his Thursday night set and we could all tell that something was wrong. The current owner, Rob Haney, and other staff and friends finally convinced Dow he needed to seek medical attention. He was admitted to MiamiValleyHospital and, two days later was released. He performed the New Year’s Eve show as well as the shows the following week.
His last show on January 7th, 2012 was astounding. Offstage, he seemed somewhat fragile, but as soon as he was on stage, that glimmer came into his eyes and the casual smirk shown across his face. He performed Sailcats and wheedled the audience into throwing the paper plates once again, daring any one of them to land one of them on his top hat. It was a picture perfect performance where someone actually landed a paper plate onto his top hat. The show ended with a standing ovation for our Uncle Dow, with audience members shouting out their approval and appreciation for Dow’s show.
After the show, Dow was surrounded by family and friends, well wishers and fans. It was the way of Dow: that feeling that you just needed to be near him and everything would be alright. You would be safely ensconced in his world.
Shortly after returning to Akron, Dow was hospitalized. He died January 18th, 2012. The outpouring of condolences and memories was immediate and Dow’s Facebook page became a makeshift memorial for a legion of stunned fans and friends to share their grief as well as their memories.
I think now of the boarded up Upper Crust, the warped wooden floors of the Trolley Stop, the comfortably worn carpet of the Wiley’s stage and I can hear the clank of glasses against the cascading laughter and see Dow with a mischievous gleam in his eyes as he dons a mask and unleashes a dialogue of absurdity in the voice of Lon Chaney. I can see him on stage doing what he did best: fashioning a world without limits, pushing the envelope until it bent and combining chords to nonsensical songs that bring laughter to all who are compelled to bang their glasses on the table and sing along. I see him smile down from the stage wearing a paper plate atop his felted hat, an improvised halo for our imaginative jester.