Being my ripe old age of 59 years is becoming a bittersweet situation. I feel incredibly blessed to have been born in a World War II household, being a youth through the 1960s, in high school rockin’ to the ’70s and layered/poofed my hair and parachute panted through the ’80s.
During the last four decades, technology, economics and music all have advanced in such a way as to make the world almost unrecognizable to generations past.
The downside of all of this is the inevitable loss of the pop-culture people of my youth, which seems to be happening almost daily. Every time I turn on the news, I learn about the loss of another person I grew up with. Celebrities I watched on the Johnny Carson show when my folks let me stay up late, saw in concert at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, or appeared on a fledgling television station called MTV.
At the risk of turning this column into an obituary page, I would like to share my experience with another showbiz icon who, even at just shy of his 92nd birthday, is still in my opinion “gone too soon:” Don Rickles.
“Mr. Warmth,” as Rickles was ironically referred to (ironic because of his regular insults to audience members), passed away in 2017. He left behind a legacy no one else could fill, as his act for more than 60 years was one of anti-political correctness, and for the most part, was deemed “OK.”
For us in Chicago, whether you lived through the glory years of the Chicago Blackhawks regime of the late ’60s and early ’70s with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, or the team’s recent multi-Stanley Cup champions, when you hear the term “Hockey Puck,” one person comes to mind: Don Rickles. “Hockey Puck” was a common nickname for many a Don Rickles victim.
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I had the opportunity to work with Don a few years back as he appeared at The Arcada. I gotta tell ya, when my offer was accepted and the deal was finalized, I actually teared up as Don Rickles represented a single-degree of separation between me and the “Rat Pack,” Johnny Carson, Milton Berle and just about every big-time Hollywood/Las Vegas tuxedoed entertainer I loved as I was growing up, not to mention he being one of those very icons himself.
Being on in his years, I got word from his tour manager that the steps leading down to our dressing rooms could be a bit difficult for him. I promptly rented a massive tour bus and parked it right outside our backstage door so he would not have to climb any stairs. He also wanted to have his hotel room windows completely blacked out to help him sleep better. Another contract rider item was a bed that needed to be exactly 26 inches off the ground. “I get up in the middle of the night to pee a lot,” he later told me. “Last thing I need is my feet dangling off the side of the bed trying to find the floor!”
As rare good timing would have it, Hotel Baker, a boutique hotel located across the street from The Arcada, was just beginning a huge renovation project, including the replacement of its beds. So the hotel actually sawed the legs of a bed down to accommodate Mr. Rickles request! I, of course, left that minor renovation detail out when I told him. I “may” have suggested that I had that kind of power in town. He was impressed, and I was forever grateful to the wonderful Hotel Baker.
So before the show, I met him on the tour bus. He was so gracious, and truly … nice! I guess I expected him to always be “on.” But he was as sweet as could be, somewhat soft-spoken and very humble. His huge smile caused his head to actually widen, creating one of the warmest welcomes I had ever received from an entertainer. “Tony tells me you are ‘the guy’ in Chicago,” he said to me. “That is just a rumor,” I responded. “Actually, I am ‘the guy’ around the country,” I retorted. He pointed his index finger at me and smiled.
He was referring to Tony “O” Oppedisano, Don’s tour manager, a very old and dear friend of mine. Tony was a trusted confidant of Frank Sinatra, and also produced many projects including the huge documentaries “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and the John Landis film “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.”
Rickles’ show was fabulous, leaving no race, religion, physical presence or sexual orientation untouched. As Don rapid-fired insult after insult, the audience members’ hands would go from covering their bellies in laughter, to covering their open-mouths in disbelief, then back to their belly laughter again. As I watched the show from behind the curtain, it was hard for me to wrap around my head that this legend was on my stage. Really! The “Don of Comedy” himself! Somebody pinch me!
After the show, he invited my wife and I to join he and his wife, Barbara, and Tony O to dinner. We went to NEO in St. Charles, and he had his first wood-burning oven pizza. We sat for three hours; it was like being in a showbiz time warp. Story after story, I heard accounts of old-Hollywood and Vegas. So cool.
I asked him about his staying power and his “insults” in this world of political correctness. “Ya know, I have been tagged with the insult thing. But truthfully, I never liked it. It was never my intention to actually insult anyone. It was more of an exaggeration of stereotypes, and just plain laughing at ourselves. Nobody was safe, including me and my people, the Jews!” he said. “I was tough, but I was always nice, and humble when it counted. People saw through the act. Even Frank (Sinatra) allowed me to throw him a shot or two. And in those days, NOBODY even looked at Frank wrong!”
My favorite story Don told me about Sinatra was the time Rickles was on a date trying to impress a girl. He walked into a restaurant with this young lady and noticed Frank holding court in the rear of the room. Don excused himself for a moment, approached the table, and was welcomed by Frank.
“Frank, I am trying to impress this chick and she doesn’t believe I know you. Would you come say hello?” Don asked.
So Don and this girl are seated and presented menus. Frank proceeds to Don’s table and says: “Hey Don, how are you?” Don responded, “Please Frank, can’t you see I’m eating?” Classic.
Don credits Dean Martin with his career breakout. Greg Garrison, the show’s executive producer, and Martin welcomed Rickles regularly on Martin’s weekly television show, as well as making him a featured performer on those classic “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” Don was even an honoree himself. “It’s time for revenge,” Dino proclaimed at the Don Rickles roast. And Frank? “Well, Frank brought me to another level. We became brothers. It was he and Johnny Carson who kept me in the limelight,” he said.
All in all, Don Rickles represents a classic time in entertainment. He was truly wonderful and became a great friend. We would get a holiday card from he and Barbara every year, and we even share a birthday of May 8. If there is one guy who I would say is the sweetest man in show biz, it would be Don.
Not bad for a guy who built a career on shots like, “Who picked out your clothes, Stevie Wonder?” Classic.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.