An Odd Christmas Dinner and Gallagher’s Amazing 2-Months in Utica
Have I ever told the story about the time when comedian Gallagher came to Utica for a show to benefit Toys for Tots and ended up staying for nearly two months? Or the time he was a guest at our family's Christmas dinner and he offended my mother, and everybody else at the table?
It's all true and unbelievably surreal. In fact, had I not lived it, I wouldn't believe it ever happened. By the way, I'm telling this story because as you might have heard already, Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. died on Friday. He was 76.
So, where in the world do I begin?
I guess the best place to start is in the beginning, when I picked him up at Hancock Airport in Syracuse on the morning of Tuesday, September 9, 2014. He was coming to perform at my radio show's Toys For Tots fundraiser. He had already arrived at the airport at 9:30 a.m. and was waiting for me in the taxi pickup area where I would experience my very first Gallagher surprise.
There he was wearing a black Gallagher jacket, his trademark green sequin hat, and in his possession was a cardboard box and a Walmart plastic bag filled with some belongings that included his iPad. There was no suitcase or carry-on bag and these, along with the clothes on his back, were the only items he brought with him. Oh, and inside the cardboard box, there were 200 brand new Gallagher teeshirts that he would be signing and selling at his upcoming shows.
What happened next was incredibly bizarre, as if his unique way of traveling light wasn't odd enough.
When Gallagher got into my SUV, I couldn't help but notice he had a Q-Tip sticking out of his left ear. This was definitely odd, but his grumpy, yet quiet demeanor lead me to the conundrum of should I or shouldn't I tell him it was there. I kept waiting for the right moment, but our uncomfortable 50-minute ride never really offered me the opportunity to say the obvious. After all, I was riding with a comic legend who for a good stretch of his life was the biggest comedian in America. Now, he's traveling to Utica for a nominal fee, he's clearly wearing unwashed clothing and is seemingly void of clean clothes to change in to. The smell, and I don't want to come off as disrespectful considering the news of his death, was a combination of old fruit and body odor. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
What comes next, you just can't make up. We arrived at the hotel and met with the events manager, Renee. We sat down in the bar to go over logistics regarding the show coming up in three days inside the Radisson hotel's restaurant. Renee, a feisty woman from the Valley who I had known for years, was never one to hold back and she didn't.
"Why do you have a Q-Tip sticking out of your ear?" she blurted out. Gallagher looked at me as if he'd known me for years and shouted, "Why didn't you tell me, Bill?" He implied that he had no idea the Q-Tip was there and even speculated that it must have been there for the entire airplane trip from California. At this point, I wasn't sure if I had been a part of some social experiment Gallagher was conducting, a bit in order to break the ice, or if he honestly had no idea the Q-Tip had been there the whole time. This will remain as one of my Gallagher mysteries.
Over the next few days, Gallagher would work the promotional leg of his tour, traveling the area and creating a buzz. He performed incredibly on the radio -even bursting into the studio like a bull in a china closet. He interrupted our news person Kristine Bellino, shouting, "Why is it that every story you read is bad news?" he asked. "Your news is depressing," he blurted out as she was delivering some story about a person falling victim to a car accident. He wandered into a sales meeting down the hallway and explained how their style of selling advertising to local businesses was completely wrong.
I delivered him to Walmart, where he climbed into a big wooden watermelon display and asked me to take his picture. He took photos with customers and made a scene in every isle he traveled down. When we checked out, the watermelons he purchased didn't have a price code sticker and Gallagher was quick to solve that problem. The clerk began to call for a manager to get a price check and that's when Gallagher told her to punch in the code '504.' "I'm pretty sure that's the code for watermelons," Gallagher told the clerk. Sure enough, watermelon came up on the cash register. "Wow, you're right," the clerk said, and there was no reason to call for a price check.
Gallagher traveled to the Utica Zoo and told the director that the monkeys were being housed incorrectly. It seemed like during every leg of his guided tour, he found something else that he thought should be done differently. He wandered into their maintenance department where he coerced Gary Mundschenk into building him a large wooden sledgehammer which he would use to smash the fruit during his shows. That's when it dawned on me that he was taking a page out of P. T. Barnum's playbook to go around the town before a show, teasing the public into having an interest in attending his show. It was working and people loved it.
Over the next three days, Gallagher visited restaurants like the Waterfront Grille in Herkimer, brought his ideas for change to local politicians, visited an internet company (FTL Interactive), demanding they help him build a gambling cell phone app that would
include smashing of watermelons. But, when he insisted that similar technology had never been used before and the tech gurus disagreed, he yelled at them and stormed out of their office. I sat there left to apologize and remind them that this is just how Gallagher operates. In any other situation, owners of a tech company like this would be furious that they were treated with such disrespect, but these guys were loving the fact that it was comedy legend Gallagher who just created a scene in their office.
We finally made it to showtime and the restaurant was sold-out for Gallagher's performance to raise money for our toy drive. He was spectacularly funny and entertaining and the audience loved it. Many came in rain coats and plastic coverings and purposely sat in the front to be splattered by the smashed fruit and vegetation. But as I would soon learn, Gallagher loved to push the envelope.
Immediately next door to the open-air restaurant, was another banquet room where an African American Christian Revival Prophet was holding an event with about 150 people. The volume on the sound system went up and Gallagher decided to go into a series of ethnic jokes that probably wouldn't have been appropriate in any comedy setting, but certainly was out of line at a benefit event to raise money for the less fortunate children at Christmas. Gallagher hated things that were politically correct and as I think about it today, probably added that line of jokes to his act specifically because of the people who were gathered next door. For those who knew him, this was Gallagher.
Despite all of this, the event went off without a hitch and we would soon learn that Gallagher had decided not to fly back to California. He wanted to come back on the air on Monday morning to find a family who would take him in so he could live with his fans. The concept was his idea to document the entire experience and pitch the idea to a network for a reality series called, Living with Gallagher.
Fast forward to Christmas. We finally found a family who wanted Gallagher to live with them and it would mean he would spend Christmas week there. After just a few days, It was pouring rain and cold outside and I received a phone call from him and he was livid. "Can you pick me up? This bitch just kicked me out of the house," he said in a typical Gallagher style in which he inferred he was once again a victim of someone else's behavior.
It seems that the woman, trying to be nice, purchased Christmas gifts for Gallagher which included all new clothing, and a stocking with his name on it, which was strategically filled with toothpaste and a toothbrush, deodorant, soap, shampoo, and other personal hygiene items. Gallagher was definitely offended and furious over the deodorant. He threw down the gifts and proceeded to explain to the woman's husband that he was was in an unhealthy marriage and he should divorce his wife immediately in order to escape her torturous treatment. It was about that point that the woman kicked Gallagher out of her house. Keep in mind, these people were enormous Gallagher fans. Well, at least, they were prior to living with him.
When I arrived at the woman's home, Gallagher was standing on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, with his Walmart bag, and the big cardboard box filled with t-shirts. A defeated and soaking wet Gallagher poured into the passenger seat as I picked up the box that was so saturated that the bottom fell through and the shirts fell all over the wet sidewalk. I gathered the shirts, brought him to our home and checked him into another hotel. I then took every one of those Gallagher tee shirts and clothes-pinned them up in our basement to dry.
You might wonder, why didn't you throw them into your dryer? Well, that was because Gallagher felt that if they went through the dryer cycle, they would lose that "new smell and look" that he worked so hard to preserve as he traveled thousands of miles across the country. I appeased him and air dried them from our basement rafters.
Gallagher valued those t-shirts because they sold like hotcakes at his shows and they served as cash-flow. But, the one thing he valued more than anything else, was his iPad. Gallagher's entire life was embedded into this beaten up, filthy iPad. Every idea he came up with, every time he thought of a joke, or one of his poems (there were many), it all was documented on the iPad. In fact, he had some 50 or so ideas that he insisted would greatly improve the world, all documented in his tablet.
One of Gallagher's most treasured ideas was one that would have stopped the concept of a new sports complex that was being proposed in Utica, called the Nexus Center, which oddly enough, officially opened on November 11, 2022, the day he died. Instead of a sports complex for youth hockey, soccer and lacrosse tournaments, he thought it should have been a large family reunion center complete with hotel rooms, positioned in a giant circle with a common area in the middle. His "superior" idea was a new communal concept for family reunions, where families would live together, eat together, converse, etc., all in one place. You couldn't poke holes in this concept or modify it what so ever because in his eyes, it was the perfect solution to fix the communication gap that families struggle with today.
I have to believe Gallagher was brilliant and quite possibly too smart for most of us. He became bored and disinterested easily, and had no patience for people who couldn't follow his eccentric thought process. I think there's a fine line between brilliance and narcissism and that's probably why he often struggled working with others.
In 2008, Gallagher was headlining in a comedy club when a rookie comic was struggling on-stage. There's a video that shows Gallagher interrupting the kid's set and schooling him in front of the audience on how to properly win over an audience. This is a perfect example of the Gallagher I spent time with. It's possible he thought he was helping the kid out, however, as an audience member or viewer, it looked more like he was humiliating him. After spending time with Gallagher, I think it could be better described as Gallagher thought this kid was ruining the audience that he would have to deal with later when he went on stage, therefore, he was going to fix it once and for all, even if it meant humiliating the struggling comic in the process.
At the peak of his career, Gallagher told me he would argue with producers and executives over creative issues and finances to the point where he just couldn't work with them anymore. He said they were often times taking most of the money and squelching his creativity, so he decided to do it all on his own. Many of his television specials including those on HBO, were self-produced and self-funded, he said, because he refused to rely on people who would ultimately do it incorrectly. Gallagher was not easy to live with, not easy to work with, and I got to experience that first-hand.
My story with Gallagher ends in late January of 2015, because believe it or not, he stayed for about two-months and would spend time with us in-studio on the air about 2 or 3 times a week. It was basically the Keeler in the Morning Show - with Gallagher - which I must say was entertaining in the beginning, but soon became old. That's when I told him that the radio station could no longer provide him with a hotel room. He left the next day without saying goodbye.
There is one more story worth sharing from a bit earlier in our short-lived relationship, and that was our Christmas Day experience. My wife and I couldn't let Gallagher spend the holiday alone in a hotel room, so we picked him up and brought him to our Christmas dinner. Our entire family was there including children, nephews and my parents, etc. - and of course, Gallagher who probably felt a bit out of place. In fact, at one point he sat in our kitchen and seemed to feel so much like a fish out of water, that he blurted out - "Where am I? Who are you people?" I thought he had suffered from a stroke. Within a few minutes he came around and recognized his surroundings, and then asked for a shot of tequila. After a few more shots, he definitely loosened up and then we all sat down for Christmas dinner.
Like the Q-Tip introduction, I'm not sure if the "stroke" incident was real, or just another one of his bits that allowed him to escape into a world he felt comfortable in. Or if the moment he decided to tell a raunchy joke to my mother at Christmas dinner - I'm pretty sure the punch line included the "C" word - was just Gallagher being naive, or the same type of move he pulled on the African American religious group back at the hotel. The truth is, it's not like these little mysteries died with Gallagher when he passed away this week. I don't think he would tell the truth if he were sitting next to me right now and I asked him to his face. There's a lot of mystery and unanswered questions when it comes to Gallagher, the "always-on" entertainer. I'm pretty sure, the world will never know.
Our bizarre Christmas holiday ultimately ended after the family had gone home and the night was finally quiet. We sat down in front of the television to watch the controversial movie, The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, which had just been uniquely released on YouTube on Christmas Eve. As we watched the movie being streamed, we tolerated the digital interruptions when the picture froze because of slow internet. And of course, there were plenty of stoppages every time one of us complained about unfunny jokes, poor writing, or bad cinematography.
Overall, my wife and I enjoyed the movie and thought it was pretty good. Gallagher, who by the way, stayed until nearly 2 am, hated it - especially the unfunny jokes and the cinematography.
Rest in Peace Gallagher. And if you end up in a place where you can actually read this piece, there's no need to send me some spooky after-life sign. I already know you think it's garbage.
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