Oct 31, 2023, 06:24AM

Hometown Hero

The life and career of Baltimore standup comic John Kassir.

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As the late-1970s segued into the early-80s, our collective exuberance was champing at the bit to go for all life’s gusto. One particular evening, I watched a hometown hero, John Kassir’s standup act, at a downtown comedy show. It was a pivotal moment in the infancy of comedy clubs mushrooming into a nationwide big deal. It was also an aha moment in my experience. The show happened in a restaurant at the new Harborplace hot spot, City Lights. It was those emotionally conflicting days when I vacillated between wanting to become a comedian or poet. With either choice, you had to stand up. Eventually, I morphed into both, becoming a standup poet. A prop poet. If I worried about what I was doing back then or whatever people thought I did, it’s a wonder I did anything at all. That said, it’s good to get whoever you think you are and what you’re doing out of the way quickly. Decide early on in life to acclimate to the challenges of a fickle public eye. The lack of social satire in today’s culture has created a vacuum.

John Kassir is a Baltimore guy from way back. Kassir has impeccable timing, a prime asset for standup comedy. That night, I witnessed him perform the entire Wizard of Oz in just under 10 minutes. Playing all the characters, impersonating each, including all the musical vignettes and sound effects. At some point, years later, I wrote a gag doing Midnight Cowboy in under 10 minutes, acting out the main characters and even the harmonica theme. “Everybody’s Talking,” but most people watched The Wizard of Oz, so Midnight Cowboy was a stretch for those who never saw that movie. But, it was a time when anything went. Andy Kaufman was doing his Dada performance art. There were Carlin and Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and prop comics like Carrot Top and Gallagher. These were the guys who changed the face of the comedic formula that fed mass public consumption.

Kassir started out as a theater major at Towson State in Maryland and performed in a comedy troupe called Animal Crackers. Similar to Saturday Night Live, they performed skits on weekends at Sutton Place in Bolton Hill, featuring local celeb guest stars. Another notable cast member from the Animal Crackers troupe is Dave Deboy, who recorded the regional hit holiday novelty song “Crabs for Christmas.” The steamed kind. A fascinating piece of trivia for Baltimore buffs, Kassir was the first mascot for the Baltimore Orioles in the late-1970s. Not the costumed bird mascot. John was Baron Von Esskay! The fictitious German flying ace who hawked Esskay hot dogs and other Esskay meat products. He’d run around the field during bullpen events, proclaiming, Esskay! They even had a wienermobile, a glorified golf cart shaped like a hot dog. A sad imitation of the Oscar Meyermobile hot dog car. The above photo shows John as the Baron.

The Animal Crackers group took their show to NYC, performing at comedy clubs, and soon landed a stint touring the world entertaining the military for the USO. Kassir kept honing his act, busking on the massive cascading steps at the Metropolitan Museum after closing time. He fashioned a banner from a tarp-like sheet and climbed the scaffolding across the street from the museum. He used a liquid shoe polish bottle with the sponge appliqué writing on the sheet, APPEARING NOW JOHN KASSIR. It drew an audience from a curious crowd, wondering who was the crazy guy climbing around and hanging a giant banner on the scaffold over there. Some evenings, he filled the MET steps with 400 people or more. He did a bit of everything, from mime to magic and plenty of jokes, songs, and physical comedy. A vaudeville burlesque song and dance comedian.

Kassir auditioned for and ultimately won the Star Search comedy prize on the weekly talent competition TV show hosted by Ed McMahon. He had a great run, beating out Rosie O’ Donnell and Sinbad. That led to bigger wins, including the opening act spot for Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas. Wait, it gets even better! He’s doing live theater in an original off-Broadway musical, Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down, that transformed standup comedy into a whole new genre. Think of the hit film Dreamgirls Go Bonkers. They recruited McMahon as the announcer for the stage show, recording his intro mimicking Johnny Carson’s mystique. Some notable films in his acting repertoire include Mel Gibson’s movie production of The Three Stooges. It was filmed at Gibson's Film Studios in Australia. Kassir originally auditioned for the stooge, Larry Fine, but wound up playing Shemp, who, for my rare taste, is the most debonair of all the Stooges.

In another film role, Kassir originated the character Ralph in the remake of Reefer Madness. For me, John is forever the Cryptkeeper from the original Tales of the Crypt movie series. He’s accomplished some incredible things over the years, like opening for Lou Rawls, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Bobby Vinton, and many more. He worked with Robin Williams at L.A. clubs back when comedy wasn’t always pretty, but people weren’t so easily offended like nowadays, when you have to watch every word you say. I asked John what his fave Baltimore memories were. Crab feasts with friends and family were first, scoring a tie with the Orioles and Ravens but also a memory of Luskin’s Appliance Store, owned by Jack Luskin. The cheapest guy in town. He was just a kid, but remembered meeting Jayne Mansfield, who was appearing at the store as a publicity promotional gimmick to sell color TVs. It was only a few weeks before her tragic auto accident decapitation. Some memory. 


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