Old Jokes for Old Folks

For the comics who play South Florida's condo circuit, knockin' 'em dead is a disturbingly distinct possibility

"He looks just like him," marvels a man in the back of the hall.
"I have no sex life with my wife," Man ventures with Dangerfield's rolling inflection. "She cut me down to once a month. I'm lucky -- two guys I know she cut out completely."

The old jokes, somehow, have found a new home here, stirring a cloud of laughter, urging several audience members to tilt forward in their seats, leaning toward Frankie Man in his circle of light.

Barbara Gale claims that she, for one, has never been drawn to the spotlight. "You open the refrigerator door in a dark kitchen and some people will stand there and do two numbers," she says. "Me, I pick and choose what I want. I'm not that show business-crazy."

But Gale is proud and, like Man, she has her regrets. "You picked the right one," the comedian remarks. "I am very verbal." This she proceeds to prove, describing her act (which combines music and comedy), her childhood in the Bronx (where she began singing for a local radio program), and the days when her star was ascendant. In the Fifties, after studying briefly at Hunter College, she married Bobby Gale, an aspiring comic and old family friend. At that time, Gale says -- she refuses to divulge the year -- she was the only white singer to record several tunes on the Apollo record label, which counted among its artists Mahalia Jackson. Three months after she bore her first and only child, a daughter, Gale received offers to tour as the female vocalist with two well-known orchestras, led by Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill. Her husband talked her out of taking the jobs, one of which was subsequently accepted by a little-known singer named Eydie Gorme.

"I'm sure I would have gone on to be big," Gale says, "but I guess I have myself to blame. Today women entertainers can have both a family and their careers. Back then we had to choose." Bobby Gale, too, believes his wife's talent would have won her fame, but he stands by his decision. "Our kid was just a tot," says the comedian, who supported his family by working for eighteen years as a stockbroker. "I knew that if my wife went on the road with all those horny musicians, I would have lost her. She was and is a great singer, but I just couldn't let her go."

Gale picked up enough jokes from her husband and other comedians to start billing herself as a singer/comedian, and now she and Bobby are regulars on the condo circuit. Tonight she's playing the Sun Spa, a Hollywood health resort catering to retired snowbirds from the northeast. Gale works nearly every weekend at such places during tourist season, less frequently in the summer.

Standing at the back of the Sun Spa ballroom, she's eyeballing her soon-to-be audience like a general surveying a battlefield. Thirty minutes remain until showtime, but already about 50 people, most of them women, are seated at tables in front of the ballroom's curved stage with its backdrop of silver and gold tinsel. "These are snowbirds who've been on every cruise ship known to man," Gale assesses. "Let's say they're a little jaded. They sit like this." She slowly stretches out her arm and pulls back her shoulders. The weight of her impossibly long eyelashes, gooked with mascara, descends in a slow blink as she mimics a gesture of profound indifference.

Clearly, she's also worried about their age. "About a half-hour ago we almost lost a woman!" she blurts wide-eyed, explaining that a patron had fainted outside the dining room and had to be attended by the spa physician. "She almost succumbed!" Like many condo comics, Gale has for the most part been able to keep her distance from audiences that are infirm, refusing, for instance, to be booked at nursing homes -- politely referred to in the trade as "retirement homes" -- where the chances of uncontained laughter are slim at best. "Most comedians who work the various facilities avoid retirement homes," she explains. "They can be a real downer. People there are often very sick. A lot of them have Alzheimer's. Very often you don't get any reaction at all. The comedy goes right over their heads."

Despite the negative first impression of the Sun Spa crowd, though, Gale looks cheerfully expectant as she listens to the house trio reading and humming her music in preparation for the show. Her glance alternates between the crowd, the table, and her own image in the mirror behind it until the moment arrives, and the emcee introduces "one of the most talented comedians in South Florida!"

Gale strolls on-stage. "Let me tell you what happened in New York recently," she says. "Three homosexuals attacked a woman. Two held her down, one did her hair." The audience is silent. Her sung impressions of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and Marlene Dietrich draw some applause. "Hello, my name is Marlene Detrisshhhhhh," Gale mimics. Still in character, she confides that she is appalled by "all of da crime in dis U.S. of A. Of course, I come from a very peace-loving nation. Oh yes, I come from Germany. Very peace-loving. A piece of Romania. A piece of Czechoslovakia. A piece of Poland."

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