Chautauqua Conversations

Column by John Ford

The early season pattern of alternating heavy rain and pleasant days tilted to monsoon mode as renowned Washington political comedian Mark Russell welcomed a visitor to his comfortable lakeside home south of the Institution. Joined by Ali, his wife and business manager, Russell spoke about his career, a retirement announced on the Amphitheater stage that didn’t stick, and how he reconnected with his western New York roots. He also offered Chautauquans a first look at his newest satirical song.

 

Ladies first. Ali, please talk about your early life and career.

Ali: I grew up in New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and we eventually moved to Washington, D.C. Along the way, I got a degree in journalism at Ohio State. The J-school emphasized print, rather than radio and TV. I wound up at Ohio State because we were living in Cleveland at the time, and the tuition was around $600 yearly. College was affordable. Journalism was largely an unheard of degree at that time in the early 1970s, before Woodward and Bernstein. Anyhow, after I graduated, I worked in news at WCOL in Columbus. I was a news reader, did long features for a weekly show, and reported news stories.

My father worked for the government. That’s why we moved around so much. My parents moved finally to Washington and settled down around 1970, several years before I did. I showed up in Washington in 1974 — the result of a total accident. I came down for my father’s birthday and just decided I loved the place and wanted to live there. And I met Mark. He was working at the Shoreham Hotel at the time, and my friend said, “You’ve got to meet this wonderful comedian who’s working at the Shoreham. Tell him I said hello.” I did. And that’s how we met. I think we wound up talking until about 8 a.m. the next morning. It wasn’t really a date. We just started talking, and found we had lots and lots of things in common. Considering he is 19 years older than I am, that was quite surprising.

Mark: You know what impressed me? She had gone to Ohio State, was right in the middle of all the anti-war demonstrations, and she took part in none of them. I thought to myself, this kid is different.

Ali: I was covering some of the demonstrations, but didn’t participate. Kent State happened while I was in school. I wanted to hurry up and graduate, get out of school as fast as I could.

 

Mark, you grew up in western New York.

Mark: Yes, I was born in Buffalo in 1932 — given my age, I really blend in around Chautauqua now. In fact, at the Athenaeum, they now call me junior. My birth name was Ruslander, and I graduated from Canisius High School there. My father worked for Mobil Oil. When I was born, he was pumping gas at a station at the corner of Delaware and Delavan in Buffalo, making $15 a week. My dad used to brag that he was able to get work all through the Depression. My parents always had this wanderlust. So when I graduated from Canisius High School, the family moved to Miami. They thought that was exotic.

 

This was pre-air conditioning in South Florida?

Mark: Actually, it was. We rented a house down there. We would sleep on the floor, as close to our cheap floor fan as we could get. The family opened a meat market, a grocery store in the middle of what is now Little Havana, Calle Ocho. That didn’t last long. And a few years earlier, we had moved to San Diego, with no furniture and a two-door Plymouth. With my grandmother. That move only lasted a few months. We came crawling back to Buffalo. The family cackled, “We told you moving wouldn’t work.”

So now after two swings and misses in the sun, my parents didn’t want to go back to Buffalo, and moved instead to Washington, D.C. My father found a connection through Mobil there, and that one took root. My brother and I wound up working in my dad’s gas station. We were terribly inept at it. When that TV show “Frasier” came on, my brother and I looked at each other and said, how bizarre that this blue collar father had two artsy sons and then … pow! We realized it was us.

 

You have turned politics into comedy for decades. Did moving to Washington plant the seeds for that?

Mark: Yes. Working at this gas station, I began to get a sense for politics. There was this congressman who used to stop and fill up. Harry Truman was president. People would ask for directions, often sarcastically. “How can we avoid Washington, with that clown as president?” And one distinguished guy would come by, Phi Beta Kappa key chain and all. It turned out he was secretary of Veterans Affairs. Hardly a cabinet-level position then, but this continued my introduction to politics. Then I went into the Marines, and found out all marines are Republicans. A sergeant bawled us out once and said, “You guys are all like Democrats. You can’t stand prosperity.”

In fact, Jim Lehrer, Art Buchwald and I were about the only members of the national liberal association of ex-Marines. We’d have a convention in a booth at Denny’s. In the Marines, I was supposed to go to Korea, but the war ended and, I wound up in Japan instead, and then in Hawaii, as a code clerk. I was in the Marines from 1953 to 1956.

So I got back home and got a gig playing piano at a little piano bar on Capitol Hill. It was called the Carroll Arms Hotel, which is now a parking lot. They had 48 states and one Senate office building then, and later there were two more states added and two more Senate office buildings. Anyhow, I would go to hearings on the Hill. I was interested, and my career developed.

After a few years of that, I moved to the Shoreham, and we were there for 20 years, from 1961 to 1981. During that time, in the early 1970s, WNED, the PBS station in Buffalo, approached me about syndicating a show on public broadcasting, and that show ran for 30 years.

 

Was this just coincidence that the approach came from your hometown PBS station?

Ali: Yeah, it was. PBS then, as largely now, is a collection of fiefdoms, and the station that has the idea for the show gets the show. They wanted to do the shows in front of their audiences in Buffalo. Some of the big shots from WNED had been doing a NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Washington and wandered into the Shoreham and saw Mark’s show. That’s how it started.

After we were married, I went back to American University and got my MBA.

 

So, you’ve been serving as CEO of Mark Russell, Inc.

Ali: Absolutely. I tell him what to do all the time.

 

I noticed you use the phrase “You can’t make this up.” on your website. The Miami Herald columnist and writer Dave Barry likes to say “I’m not making this up,” when you both are talking about the behavior of some of our public figures. Who gets the credit for this line? Is it Mark Twain?

Mark: Absolutely. In fact, in the last couple of years in the PBS show I regularly paid tribute to Mark Twain.

 

Your first public appearance at Chautauqua was in 1979, the result of the president of the Institution, Bob Hesse, making a decision to broaden the reach of Institution programming.

Mark: I might have been the first comedian to break through under that policy — if you don’t count Will Rogers, of course.

 

Did your Chautauqua connection develop locally, or was it the result of your national stature?

Mark: The PBS show had been running for four years then. That was probably what led the Institution to book me. It was interesting. I appeared on what was then called Jamestown Night. They had me growing up in Jamestown, where I had lived for a total of one year.

Ali: That gig enabled us to connect with a lot of Mark’s relatives, though. Some of whom we didn’t even know about, due to a split in the family long before that.

 

How old were you for the year you lived in Jamestown?

Mark: I was 10. I have still a Jamestown paper from April 1942. The headline reads “American flyers bomb Tokyo.” My father ran a gas station, at Main and Sixth. We lived on Lakeview Drive. I went over there a few years ago, thought I might look at the old place. The person answering the door said the guy who lived there worked odd shifts, and wasn’t home. I guess you can’t go home again.

I remember during our year in Jamestown my father was “off in the war.” He was in Aberdeen, Maryland, at the proving ground there. Not exactly Bataan or the Battle of the Bulge.

We did not make it to the grounds during my Jamestown or Buffalo time. My parents thought Chautauqua was too “hoity-toity.” I do have a picture just inside the door here of George Gershwin on the grounds in 1925. My brother got it for me.

I will say this: When I stepped on the Amp stage in 1979, I had never worked a space that large. I was nervous. I had lunch in the Athenaeum, and they put me with some other people who were guest speakers, including Buckminster Fuller, who designed the geodesic dome. He and the others were talking about their world, all serious, and I had to say something. So I said, “Mr. Fuller, did you design the Michelob beer bottle?” He turned and looked at me silently for a moment. “No,” he finally said. Then he looked away. I guess he missed the humor in that one.

Ali: So we started coming every couple of years; Mark would perform every other year. We kept extending our stay, from two days to four or five days. Then we began coming for a week when he wasn’t performing. We’ve been coming virtually non-stop since 1983.

 

You have your networks of friends in this area, lots of associations.

Ali: It is a community. The phone doesn’t ring so much here as at home in Washington. Around May every year, I cannot wait to get away from D.C. traffic and get up here. It is so much more relaxed; I thoroughly enjoy it. And once Mark is here he enjoys it too.

 

One certainly sees a lot more Virginia, Maryland and D.C. license plates around the grounds than in the past. Why do you think that is?

Ali: I’d say it’s the intellectual curiosity factor. Chautauqua appeals to that. And a lot of the speakers come from the capital area, so maybe it’s a natural draw from there. Plus, the D.C. area has seen a big jump in wealth over the past 40 years, so people can afford a visit or vacation here.

 

The old saying goes, “All politics is local.” But how about political humor? 

Mark: You have to localize the humor. Garrison Keillor and Tommy Smothers were the best at that here. Smothers went on and on about John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller, and Keillor opened last time with a song about Chautauqua.

Ali: Mark’s first several jokes are local, wherever we are. Then we switch to broader topics.

 

Can you inject some humor into the Amp debate?

Mark: Funny — so to speak — that you should ask. I’ve lately written a little ditty about the Amp. We Chautauquans are a sentimental lot. Years from now, we will reminisce.

(Seated on his sofa, Russell breaks into a sonorous baritone and sings, with no piano accompaniment)

“Were you there when the old Amp was torn down?

Were you there when it rotted to the ground?

Replacing it right there, a multiplex theater,

With reclining seats and a holder for your beer.”

Ali: Don’t give too much away. You’re going to have to perform this later.

Mark:  Oh, that’s OK.

“Just flip a switch, and it becomes one giant stage,

revolving.

State of the art as old Chautauqua comes of age.

And oh what a view, wait, I’m not quite through.

A loading dock for Snoop Dogg and his crew.

We can only guess about some future schemes.

Perhaps the Hyatt or Marriott Athenaeum.

Cheer up, don’t look so dour,

Wake up and smell the plastic flower,

And listen to the digital bell tower.”

You are the first one to hear that.

 

You announced your first retirement on the Amp stage in 2010.

Mark: Yeah, in front of lots of family and relatives. Now, since I went back to work, they don’t believe anything I say.

 

How was retirement?

Mark: It was awful. I found I was still looking at the news, writing down little things. I found I was becoming just an amusing dinner guest. So I got back into performing, a couple of years ago.

Ali: Retirement did permit us to take a two-month drive around the country, criss-crossing vertically instead of the usual lateral east-west model.

Why did you retire in the first place?

Mark: I was bummed out by how rancid politics had become. I hated the disrespect by congressmen and many others of President Obama and other prominent figures in public life. Plus, I was doing PBS, a newspaper column and a daily NBC bit. This was a full plate, maybe too full. Retirement felt right at the time.