Fall is now upon us, and under normal circumstances, that would mean the annual Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardifest convention (and subsequent Big Boy Restaurant visit). Of course, since 2020 is obviously anything but “normal circumstances,” needless to say, Ghoulardifest ain’t happenin’ this year. (Though, provided their dining room is open, the idea of heading that way just for Big Boy has been bandied about between my brother, my cousin and I; who knows if it’ll actually happen, but man, I’m jonesin’.)
Since we’ve been begrudged the annual tradition by the stupid dumb pandemic, what say we fill the void a bit with an old Big Chuck & Lil’ John episode review today? I haven’t done one of these in awhile, apparently (some) people appreciate them, and besides, I want to get one more Northeast Ohio-centric post up before October, when I have several relatively ‘spooky’ topics tentatively planned to show up throughout the month. (Whether any or all of them actually happen remains to be seen, but my heart’s in the right place.)
Anyway, the show we’ll look at today, I actually talked about it before, in this old post. If you don’t remember it, don’t bother clicking; it sucks. (Hey, it’s been nearly 7 years.) Still, it deserves a fuller, better look; even though this aired in January ’99 and isn’t actually complete (more on all that momentarily), it still seems like a decent fit for a late September entry here. Plus, my dance card is (ostensibly) full for October, so if not now, when? (I guess I could wait till the January anniversary, but I, uh, don’t wanna.)
First of all: Big Chuck & Lil’ John, aka Chuck Schodowski and John Rinaldi. You know ’em, you love ’em. Unless you’re not from around here, in which case just know that they’re indisputable local television legends. From Cleveland’s channel 8, they hosted movies and performed wacky skits for decades. Technically they were horror hosts until they kinda weren’t but sometimes still were, but it didn’t really matter; any movie went better with Chuck & John. (I know this from personal experience.)
They’re still around, too. Even though their regular ‘movie’ show ended in 2007, they came back as a 30 minute skits-only program in 2011, which is still running to this day. Currently airing at 11:30 PM Sunday nights (though sporting events sometimes push that slot later), it’s a fun way to cap off the weekend.
(Although, quick side note: you probably did have to grow up with these guys to really ‘get’ the humor of the show/skits. Recently my brother tried to introduce his fiancée, she originally hailing from Tiffin, OH, to these guys, and her palpable confusion at the whole thing was…well, actually it was pretty funny, to be honest with you.)
Of course, we’re talking about their old movie-hostin’ days here. The slots/running times/days/etc. varied over the years, but for awhile, they ran for 2 hours 30 minutes (generally; it could be even longer, depending on the movie) starting at 11:30 PM on Friday nights, and then had a 2 hour Saturday afternoon show the next day.
While there was, for the most part, little difference in the look or feel of the Chuck & John host segments and skits and general ‘outside the movie’ stuff between the two, as far as the mid/late-90s and beyond go, the Friday night editions generally featured bigger-budgeted films from a variety of genres. Not always; there were times when they ran one of the horror/sci-fi oldies that were formerly their bread-and-butter. But for the most part, those Friday shows featured a relatively more ‘professional’ grab bag of film fare that wouldn’t have been out of place on other stations all across the country that were running movies on that day, at that time, in that era. Except better here, because Chuck & John.
The Saturday afternoon show, titled Couch Potato Theater (see: right), could be much more eclectic. Not always; big time Hollywood flicks weren’t strangers to the program, but the cheesier old stuff could also appear with a bit more regularity. (Or so it seemed to me.) And sometimes, there wouldn’t even be a full-fledged movie, but rather Three Stooges shorts, Abbott & Costello episodes, or if sporting events were a factor, maybe even no movie at all.
Here’s the backstory for our subject today: Saturday, January 16, 1999. At the time, I was a serious sucker for classic silent comedy shorts, particularly Charlie Chaplin. Thanks to their even-then public domain status, these would regularly show up as after-movie filler on my beloved WAOH TV-29, and attempting to catch new-to-me entries became something of a hobby, not unlike you and your little Pokeemans cards.
As a regular subscriber to TV Guide back then, I’d absolutely pour over the local listings in those issues looking for neat movies to catch. And yet, somehow I completely missed the notation of short comedies being broadcast on Couch Potato Theater that day, until I discovered the truth – as they were airing! What really hurt was the mention of Chaplin’s The Tramp as being among them. And to further complicate matters, the family was leaving for my younger brother’s volleyball game momentarily (these games were interminable excursions for yours truly, but shhhhh, don’t tell my brother I said that!).
What to do? What could I do? I grabbed a random blank VHS tape, threw it in the VCR, hit record, and we left. I wound up capturing basically the second half of the episode.
But what’d I miss? During my recent lock down dig finds (some of which I detailed here), I uncovered, if not all then at least most, of my old TV Guides. The finer details of that listing, aside from that general memory of The Tramp being mentioned, had long since disappeared. So, specifically for this article, I actually (re)dug the appropriate issue out and (re)discovered the truth: starting at noon on the dot, the listing mentioned, along with The Tramp, a film titled Polly Tix in Washington as being among that day’s features. I’ve seen Polly Tix before; it’s a 1933 Shirley Temple short that’s, honestly, pretty terrible. If that TV Guide listing was accurate, that would have been the only non-silent of the afternoon, and in retrospect, frankly, there was no great loss in missing it. (No joshin’; I kinda detest it.)
Oddly, the other two shorts, the two that are our subject today, weren’t specifically mentioned in that listing at all. Now, there’s always the chance the description wasn’t accurate, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and presume Chuck & John did indeed jam those two as-listed short comedies along with the two definitely-aired ones we’re about to look at, as well as all of their stuff and commercials, into a two hour time slot. (Which wasn’t unheard of; They once crammed The Karate Kid, which by itself and unedited runs over two hours, into a two hour Couch Potato Theater installment.)
Alright, all that said, the movies I did get to see…
If you go back and read that earlier article spotlighting this broadcast (though I urge that you refrain from doing so), you’d see that I mistakenly believed I had started recording in the middle of whatever short ended up being first in this instance. I WAS DEAD WRONG THERE, SPORTO. In actuality, I got basically the whole thing, but the title screen is such a microsecond flash that it’s very, very easy to miss. Obviously, that’s what happened with yours truly for the longest time.
So anyway, first up here is A Hash House Fraud, a Keystone
komedy comedy from 1915. I’m gonna be honest with you; I’m not a mega huge Keystone Films fan. The constant manic slapstickiness of them kinda wears on me after while. A little goes a long way, and a lot, well, you know. I appreciate the ‘earliness’ of them, and I do like Chaplin’s output at the studio, but truth be told, that’s more from a historical standpoint; there’s little doubt that Chaplin’s work from just a few years later, or even just a year later, is superior, and not by just a little; by a lot. (In fact, we’ll be seeing one such example coming up next.)
The Plot: The Busy Bee Restaurant has fallen on hard times. Business is slow and funds are low, and when customers do come in, they never stay long. So, one of the proprietors puts the establishment up for sale (for a whopping $500!), and to pique the interest of prospective buyers, he invites a bunch of folks in to eat free and tells the cashier to simply pretend to collect money. When the swindle – the “hash house fraud” of our title – is discovered, a riot ensues and then the Keystone Kops show up and chase people around.
You know what? I’m just going to say it: this is a stupid movie. I know, I know; you should never, ever go into a Keystone expecting deep comical nuance. Even so, to me it’s just…by the numbers. The Keystone numbers. I kinda got an (inner) chuckle from the “Don’t Flirt With the Cashier” sign in the restaurant, though I’m not sure it was supposed to be funny.
I just know some pretentious film buff with too much time on their hands is gonna chime in now and tell me how wrong I am for missing the deep psychological context and symbolism of the human condition that is both this movie in particular and Keystone films in general. To that hypothetical buff, I say “aw go take a powder.”
Also, this movie just kinda reinforced my stance that the only thing I genuinely like about the Keystone Kops is their Atari 2600 (and later, ColecoVision) game.
Next: I may have missed out on The Tramp, but I did get Essanay’s 1915 opus The Champion, which is even better than a consolation prize since I like The Champion more. Indeed, I’d venture to say it’s the cinematic winner of this entire episode, though that of course may be debatable. Plus, it’s Charlie Chaplin, so it’s automatically one-up on the movie that preceded it during this broadcast.
This is the stuff right here. Made at a time when Chaplin’s movies were starting to get really good, the film may pale when compared to the work he did for Mutual Films after leaving Essanay, but that’s mainly because, man, those Mutual flicks are really, really good.
The Plot: Charlie, as his iconic Tramp character, is in need of some bucks, so he becomes a sparring partner for a renowned boxer. When he sees every previous sparring partner, erm, ending up worse for wear after facing the boxer, he slips a horseshoe into his glove, knocks the guy out, and is then enlisted to fight the champion.
This one is a lot of fun, and Chaplin is utterly brilliant in it. Not that I’m saying anything revolutionary here, but the way he moved, his facial expressions, his timing, just everything about his acting is just so on point, it’s continuously a wonder even today. And what’s even more astounding is that he hadn’t even reached his peak yet! Watching The Champion, I was reminded just what I loved and appreciated about the guy in the first place. (Actually, my appreciation was even higher; you see more clearly when watching with 34 year old eyes than you do 12, after all.)
The climatic bout between Charlie and the champ goes on a tad too long for my tastes, but that’s a very minor complaint; The Champion is terrific.
Also, it’s probably not at all fair to compare the two, but in the context of this broadcast, the difference in quality between this film and A Hash House Fraud preceding it is monumental. Here, the opening scene alone, in which Charlie tries to feed his bulldog a frankfurter, is funnier than the entirety of that other flick.
You know, looking back on it, it’s almost weird that these shorts showed up on TV when they did. Even though it was local television in the late-90s, for a channel as ‘big’ as 8, it’s kind of amazing they got such a relatively-visible afternoon slot. These things showing up on 29 made sense, the movies on that station were almost all oldies anyway, but even in comparison to some of the other oddball things that could appear on Couch Potato Theater, I don’t know, silent comedies just seem way out of place for the time. I guess I was even kinda shocked back then, never expecting such things to air where or when they did. Of course BC & LJ were no strangers to pure comedy classics, their Laurel & Hardy shows of the 1980s were numerous, but still, for 1999…
(And to me, it’s something practically inconceivable nowadays!)
So that takes care of the movies. Now let’s see the rest of the episode; even with only 1 hour to work with here, there’s still a lot of Big Chuck & Lil’ John action packed into the proceedings.
The first (applicable) host segment is just…just fantastic on so many levels. Obviously the hosts themselves, but that set with the Cleveland Browns helmet on the table (more on that later) and the backdrop, just everything about it. (Top screencap here.)
A common element of BC & LJ host segments were trivia segments with the studio audience, always for a prize of some sort. In this instance, said prize was a doozy: the then-new Dick Goddard weather almanac! And even better, Goddard himself sits in with the audience to give the book away! (Middle screencap here.)
Of course, Goddard passed away this past August. To call him a mere weatherman would be a serious disservice; the guy was an absolute institution in Northeast Ohio, and actually holds the world record for longest tenured meteorologist! Around here, he was the weatherman.
Working at the same station, Goddard was certainly no stranger to appearances on BC & LJ, often performing in skits or, as you see here, simply guesting in the studio. He could be really, really funny; when sports anchor Tony Rizzo (he now has his own half-hour show…airing right before the current incarnation of Big Chuck & Lil’ John!) randomly shows up in the studio eating sushi – which he apologizes to animal-advocate Goddard for – Goddard studies the foodstuff and dryly states “with a little medical help, that could be back in the sea.” (Bottom screencap here.)
I met Dick Goddard several times over the years, and he was always extremely friendly and generous with his time. Just a really good guy that was as likable in person as he was on TV. In fact, the last time I met him (Ghoulardifest 2018), I used my bean and brought along my own copy of the very almanac seen in this host segment for him to sign (I also believe I asked him to sign the back of a Ghoulardifest promotional poster), and considering I never had another chance to talk with him, well, wise decision on my part.
So to have him as ‘himself’ in this Big Chuck & Lil’ John segment, and with Tony Rizzo to boot, that’s just fantastic man. (By the way, the trivia question here was what fall festival does Goddard annually host. Of course it’s the Woolly Bear Festival, which a woman sitting behind him easily answers.)
The next host segment features another trivia question bit that, as a whole, isn’t as big a knockout, but is still pretty terrific.
The prize? Frankie Yankovic’s Songs of the Polka King: Volume 2, which as it turned out was his very last album (he had passed away that prior October). Besides the whole polka aspect that was (is?) such a big part of Cleveland culture, there was an added reason this CD was given away as a prize: Chuck and John themselves performed with Yankovic on it! It’s true; the disc contains their rendition of “My Melody of Love” as the fourth track! Neato!
(This CD actually isn’t too hard to find around town here; I’ve come across it multiple times, though oddly enough, Volume 1 has thus far eluded me – though it’s really only a matter of time. Anyway, as far as Volume 2 goes, my first copy I actually bought used online – both because I obviously still needed it for my collection at the time, but also because, while somewhat faint, the cover unmistakably features the signature of Mr. Yankovic himself! Cool winnins!)
The question was: what nationality was Frank Yankovic? “Polish” was guessed, and while the correct answer was actually Slovenian, it’s deemed “close enough” by John.
That segment is followed immediately by a longtime favorite skit of mine: The Lil’ Flash. BC & LJ did a lot of a parodies of big time movies and TV shows, sometimes poking fun at Chuck’s Polish heritage or John’s small stature. This was the latter.
I’m assuming this skit first appeared in the early-90’s, when The Flash TV series was running on CBS (which 8 was an affiliate of at the time, though by 1999 it had been Cleveland’s Fox outlet for several years).
It’s a simple premise: the TV-8 payroll, in the form of a suitcase loaded with money, has been stolen (as one of the thieves gleefully exclaims, “probably half of it’s Goddard’s!”), so superhero The Lil’ Flash gives chase. Spoiler: the bad guys get away. Why? The Lil’ Flash’s shoe had a blowout!
(Look, I love Big Chuck & Lil’ John, but no one ever said their skits were intricate pieces of comic writing.)
There were more skits throughout the hour than what I’m showing here; I’m kinda just hitting the highlights, or at least what I consider to be the highlights. I’m trying to get this done and up and with a little spotlight time to itself before my October 1st post, remember. Was I ultimately successful, reader? Time will tell!
Cuyahoga Jones and the Castle of Doom, another one of those parodies I was just talking about, wasn’t just a singular skit, but rather a serialized, continuing story, complete with cliffhangers. Obviously an Indiana Jones parody, the skits detailed Cuyahoga Jones and his sidekick Shortstuff attempting to steal the fabled “Kapusta Diamond” from the evil Uncle Vic (aka Victor Blecman, a real Cleveland DJ who passed away in 2019).
I’m not sure they ever finished the saga (they play these skits frequently on the current 30 minute show yet I’ve never seen any sort of definitive conclusion), but what they did was a lot of fun. This broadcast here was my first time seeing an entry, and I can’t tell you how clever I found the very name of “Cuyahoga Jones” to be.
In this installment, Cuyahoga and Shortstuff are in need of $20 to buy supplies to break into Vic’s castle, but between them they only have $5. Luckily, they happen upon $5 airplane thrill rides, the reward for not screaming during which just happens to be $20. So, with Cuyahoga in the passenger seat and Shortstuff hanging on top, off they fly in the rickety old plane. The plan is ultimately successful and the $20 is won, but the pilot almost got Cuyahoga to scream, just once: when Shortstuff fell off! (Cut to a dummy freefalling through the air.)
High art it ain’t, but it is funny, and spoiler alert, Shortstuff ended up okay in the next chapter.
Let’s finish this review with something I briefly mentioned during that Dick Goddard segment, and something that, despite originally airing in January, fits perfectly with the time of year we’re currently in: that Cleveland Browns helmet.
At one point, John puts it on and declares “Go Browns!” Not so unusual; these were/are Cleveland personalities, after all. What’s more interesting, to me, anyway, is Chuck’s response to that: “Only 245 days left!”
It’s a small moment, but it points to a definitive time in Northeast Ohio history: this aired when the Browns were still MIA in Cleveland! The time of their return was drawing nearer and nearer however, and as it did so, the anticipation continued to grow. That anticipation was front-and-center here, even with the better part of a year still left to wait.
Anyway, there you have it: a look at Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s Couch Potato Theater presentation of January 16, 1999. Well, about half of it. Despite the incomplete nature of the recording, this broadcast has wound up being one I’m pretty fond of. Not only is there the personal story behind it, but their content is just so strong here, even though it was just par for the course at the time. The host segments and skits are fun, the Dick Goddard appearance great (and now, bittersweet), and the movies, The Champion is legit and, well, even a dumb flick like A Hash House Fraud makes for a nice piece of lazy afternoon programming.
Hopefully this post scratched the itch of locals who, like me, can’t go to Ghoulardifest this year. Or maybe it didn’t; hey, at least I got something else up.
See y’all in October!