Mel Simons Just Keeps on Entertaining...
West Roxbury resident is as comfortable telling stories of vaudeville performers as he is climbing into a wrestling ring.
Roxbury-born, Brookline-raised, longtime West Roxbury resident Mel Simons doesn’t like to talk about his age.
All the musician-standup comic-emcee-author-trivia historian-lecturer-radio personality-pro wrestling ring announcer will admit to is being a child of the ’50s. And he has no problem with living in the past, filling his home with all kinds of show biz-related tchotchkes, autographed photos of stars, and mountains of old radio and television tapes. He’s been doing comedy routines since he was 15, and started the Mel Simons Orchestra when he was 16.
Q: How did you become interested in being an entertainer at such a young age?
Simons: When I was 14, my uncle in Florida was cleaning out his attic and found an old accordion. He shipped it to Brookline, I picked up the accordion and started to fool around with it, and I’ve used it all these years.
Q: And that led to the Mel Simons Orchestra?
Simons: Yes, I played piano and accordion, and I would have anything from three to nine pieces. We did weddings, bar mitzvahs, every social function you could think of. We played general danceable music, and I mixed some comedy in with it. I had the band till the mid-’90s. When rap music came in, it just wasn’t my bag, so I broke it up.
Q: You’ve also been doing your one-man shows for years. How did those come about?
Simons: I grew up listening to old time radio. I loved Jack Benny and Fred Allen as comedians. For drama shows there was “Lux Radio Theater,” “The Shadow,” “Inner Sanctum.” So I started collecting them on reel-to-reel tape as a hobby. Then I got the idea to convert the hobby into a program. I got a job as the social director and then the emcee at Brickman’s in the Catskills. Twice a week we would have lecture programs. One guy would talk about the stock market, another guy would talk about hairpieces. I told my boss I always wanted to do a show on old time radio. He said yes, do it once a week. So I started what I called “The Golden Days of Radio.” I would play, for example, excerpts of Jack Benny, then tell the most delicious stories about him as a person. Then I would play somebody else, and I would always embellish the cuts with stories and anecdotes, and at the end I would do a question and answer period.
Q: And that mushroomed into other types of shows?
Simons: People who were using me as a comedian started booking that show into churches and temples and Knights of Columbus all over New England. Then I came up with a part two and a part three of the show. But they continued to call and I needed something different, so I bought some video equipment and started doing video shows. The first was ‘The Golden Days of Television,” with clips of Milton Berle and Howdy Doody and “This Is Your Life.”
Q: How many shows do you do now?
Simons: I’ve got 14 shows, from “The Golden Days of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which opens with Bill Haley and the Comets and closes with the Beatles, to one with no video called “The Life and Songs of Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and George M. Cohan,” where I play their voices from radio shows, tell stories about them, then get the audience into it with the songs while I play the accordion.
Q: How did you get involved with professional wrestling?
Simons: My dad was born in Russia. When he came to this country he didn’t know baseball or football. All he knew was boxing and wrestling. So when I was a kid he would take me to boxing and wrestling shows, and I became a great wrestling fan. He used to take me to see Killer Kowalski, who I hated because he was the meanest man in wrestling. Then I met him, and he became one of my closest friends. He was the exact opposite out of the ring that he was in the ring. After he retired he started a TV show called “Bedlam from Boston” and he asked me to be his ring announcer. Usually I was part of the act. One time Jimmy Snuka threw me out of the ring and I didn’t know that was going to happen. I still have a scar from that, but most of it was planned. I would purposely announce a guy’s wrong weight or get his name wrong, and the guy would scream and yell and take a fake swing at me. Sometimes it was tough to keep from laughing.
Q: And where did radio come in?
Simons: I’ve been on WBZ radio for 31 years. I started with Larry Glick, playing accordion at his live hypnosis shows. I told him I’d like to play trivia with his radio audience, but not with questions. I wanted to play voices, maybe of unusual people singing, like Humphrey Bogart, and they would have to guess the voices. I became a regular guest on his show, then did it with Bob Raleigh when Larry retired, and with Steve LeVeille after Bob left. I’m still on Steve’s show once or twice a month, from midnight to 3, and I’m doing just what I love to do.
Mel Simons’ newest book is titled “Voices from the Philco” (Bear Manor Media). For more information, visit www.melsimons.net.