Jumping the Traces
By Ed Staskus
Maggie Campbell’s father was a stockbroker, an investment advisor, and a vice president at Prudential Bache. He worked in downtown Cleveland with the other moneymakers. He believed in capitalism but didn’t let it go to his head. He was shrewd, keeping his greed engaged, although not always prudent. Sometimes he tripped over his sense of humor.
Everybody called him the Margin King. His wife called him the King of Fools. When Fred and Alma got married, he was a gambling man, but Alma didn’t want him doing that after the wedding. She said it was time he became a family man.
“The gambling stops now,” she declared putting her little foot down.
Fred Campbell became a stockbroker. That way he could still gamble, except now it would be with other people’s money. He raked in a boatload of loot. He wasn’t just one-sided about the almighty dollar, though. He told jokes all the time. He was a shaggy dog man. Getting a laugh was like hitting the jackpot to him.
He was a prankster as well as a jokester. He appeared on the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck” TV show now and then, doing skits with them. Hoolihan was Bob Wells. He was Hoolihan the Weatherman on the CBS affiliate. After Ghoulardi left Cleveland for Hollywood in 1966, Hoolihan still did the weather, but became the other half of the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show.” It was what replaced Ghoulardi’s “Shock Theater.” They showed cheesy science fiction and horror movies late at night and did comedy skits in between the commercials.
That’s where Maggie’s dad came in.
The show always started with the Ray Charles song “Here We Go Again” and ended with the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is.” Hoolihan played a trumpet with a plunger mute and Big Chuck played a small uke. Fred couldn’t carry a tune, so was never invited to raise his voice in song. He brought his gorilla suit instead.
The Soul Man, Mushmouth, and Lil’ John were on the show, too, more than Fred was. That’s how he met them. Once they met, they became friends in no time. Fred and Alma went to Hoolihan and Big Chuck’s house parties. They used to have Lil ‘John over to their house for spaghetti dinners. He was a hungry Hank. Lil’ John was a small man who could eat a lot of spaghetti.
They did skits on the show like Ben Crazy, from the “Ben Casey” TV series, Parma Place, which was like “Peyton Place,” and the Kielbasa Kid, which was like a Polish cowboy misadventure. The skit Fred was most famous for was the “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” skit, which was from a Jerry Reed song.
“Well now me and Homer Jones and Big John Taley, had a big crap game goin’ back in the alley, and I kept rollin’ them sevens, winnin’ them pots,” was how the song went. “My luck was so good, I could do no wrong, I just kept on rollin’ and controllin’ them bones, and finally they just threw up their hands and said, when you hot, you hot, and I said, yeah.”
They acted out the words to the song. Big Chuck rolled the dice. He had a Kirk Douglas chin. Fred was the sheriff. He had an honest face. The Hoolihan no-goods would be shooting craps on the street and Fred busts them. Later when they are in court the judge tells them he is going to throw the book at them, except when he throws the book, he hits Fred, who is the sheriff, in the head by mistake.
“That hurt!” he shouts.
“You’re out of order.” the judge says, pounding his gavel like a madman. “Arrest that man immediately!”
Shake and Bake Nights were when there were double features featuring movies like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno” back-to-back.
Alma was in a skit with Big Chuck. They are sitting on a park bench on a first date under a full moon and he turns into a werewolf. He reaches for her. She starts screaming and runs away. She falls face first into a cream pie. He shrugs and turns back into sheepish Chuck.
Fred did most of his skits wearing a gorilla suit. But not all the skits were on the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show.” Some of the time it was unscripted. It was their own reality show. He would wiggle into his suit and he and Big Chuck drove around the west side of Cleveland in a dark blue four-door Buick looking for hitchhikers. Big Chuck drove while Fred hid in the back seat. They would pick somebody up and after a few minutes Fred would abruptly pop up with a roar, reaching for their passenger’s neck.
That always scared the hell out of the hitchhiker in the front seat. One of them jumped out of the car while it was still moving. Maggie remembered being a little girl and listening to their adventure stories and thinking, “You guys are really weird.”
Sometimes they would go out at night and roof jump. The houses and apartments in Lakewood are close together, often separated only by a driveway. They would run across the roofs, jumping from one to the other. They whooped it up as folks in for the night wondered what the thumping above their heads was all about.
As they got older and wiser Big Chuck, Hoolihan, Lil’ John, and Fred got a little more restrained sophisticated. They had mystery parties, which were parties on a bus on which they would have dinner and drinks with their friends, not knowing where they were going, and at the end of the night everyone would have to guess where they were. After a few drinks Big Chuck became less wise and became the Kielbasa Kid for real. The winner got to be on the show. It was the Me Decade. Everybody wanted to be seen and heard.
Maggie’s dad was a prankster even at home, which was staid quiet Bay Village. He played jokes on the neighbors on their street all the time. Fred once hired the Bay Village High School Marching Band to wake up one of their neighbors at five in the morning. They did it by marching up and down their driveway and playing a fight song. All the other neighbors for blocks around woke up, too. Some of them thought it was funny. Most of them didn’t. They called City Hall, even though City Hall wasn’t open for business that early in the morning.
Another of their neighbors had dogs like them and Maggie babysat them when they were out for dinner or at a show. “Can you take care of our dogs?” Mrs. Butler would ask her.
One day Fred took advantage of Maggie having the Butler family house keys. He snuck into their house and filled up every glass, cup, vase, sink, whatever it was, with water and a single goldfish. When they got home there were many goldfish waiting for them, even in the toilets.
From then on it was buttheads on the loose at the Butler house every few months. Once when they were strolling on Huntington Beach after dinner, Fred and his friends got into their garage, picked up their car, and turned it sideways. Mr. James Butler III couldn’t go to work the next morning. There wasn’t anything he could do. Everybody on the street thought he might have to tear the garage down.
“I am going to sue that son-of-bitch,” he roared. He was a corporate lawyer. His funny bone was more along the lines of a crazy bone.
Fred crept into their house late on a summer night wearing his gorilla suit and scared their kids so much they screamed their heads off and peed on the floor. He thought it was great laughs, giving them nightmares. That was fun to him. It didn’t matter what anybody thought or threatened. Whatever he thought of doing he did it. He was always pranking the poor Butlers. When they complained to the Bay Village police, the cops just laughed it off.
Maggie and her sisters and little brother weren’t out of his firing range. He would crawl under their beds at night and wait quietly until they got warm and cozy and dozed off. When he was good and ready, he reached up and around and suddenly grabbed their arms or legs, yanking.
“Oh, yeah, while we were sleeping! I still can’t hang my foot out over the edge of my bed at night to this day,” Maggie said.