Many voices, many hats, one man
Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 5:55
by Petaluma Town Correspondent Katie Watts
I started performing in Guam when I was 14,” entertainer Christopher Linnell said. “Guamanians didn’t do standup or entertainment so it was easy for me to become famous there.” He laughed. “I was the obnoxious white kid performing as Crisco the Clown. I even had a card. My mother designed it. No one remembers an obnoxious kid, but when you hand them a card, it’s paper marketing.”
Now 52, Linnell recently completed a book, Pretending to Make a Living: Memories of My Four Decades as an Entertainer, Comic, Actor, Broadcaster and Tour Guide.
He began his local career after moving to Petaluma two years later. Unlike Guam, where he was a celebrity, here no one knew him. In October, 1977, after being here six months, he and his dad took part in a 21-mile walkathon. “Because it wasn’t a race,” he said, “and because everyone else was walking and we were running, we came in first. There was no prize, either.
“That’s what makes a good joke,” he added. “If it’s a list, there have to be three.”
There may not have been a prize, but he got to meet two disc jockeys from KTOB, the Petaluma radio station. “They fell in love with me because I was funny. I don’t know if I should say that though – oh geez, I just said it.”
Several months later, he saw a flyer for a Petaluma High talent show. He was unhappily attending Casa Grande High. “Petaluma was this stupid chicken town, my first class was gym and it was always foggy and 55 degrees, after living six years in a tropical paradise where – in my own mind – I was a cultural icon.”
He performed in the show and the hosts were the KTOB disc jockeys. “I did my act of celebrity voices, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come back to the radio station and read some ads?’”
He began with the Sunday morning religious programs. Since it was believed few people listened to the show, a newbie could make mistakes.
Young, brash, fearless and funny, he didn’t make many, he was too busy learning how to be a DJ. He moved to the Saturday morning spot, then the popular Saturday night spot.
In the early 1980s, an on-air joke got him a job at KSRO in Santa Rosa. “I spent five years there, four years at KTOB and more than six months at both stations,” he said. He was working on the side as a clown and “considered entertaining my real job.”
Linnell had a chance to prove it when the KSRO ratings dropped and he was let go. “I said I’m going to be a full-time entertainer. It freaked out my wife, but I knew what I was doing. Within a couple of years, I was doing far better than I’d done on radio.”
He’d kept some radio work, was doing clown shows, offering singing telegrams from his stable of impressions, acting in movies and TV commercials.
“My entertainment career,” he said, “is based on interaction with people. It’s all improv.”
How long has he been an entertainer? Almost his whole life. By the time he was 2, he was watching not his mother’s soap operas but the commercials. “I’d recite them; mimic the actors. “It’s Mr. Clean,” he boomed. “It’s good for your bathroom.
“Later, Flip Wilson was my hero.” And he turns into Wilson, squealing his catchphrase, “The devil made me buy this dress!”
Back in own persona for a moment, Linnell said, “I wanted to be black. Their skin is so much nicer than ours and their hair was always perfect. They were so cool.”
His other favorite alter ego was Elvis. “Are you lonesome tonight?” he crooned so realistically one looked to see if Elvis had returned to the building.
Linnell loves karaoke nights. Suddenly Tom Jones appeared, crooning, “Why, why, why, Delilah?” From Jones, it was an eye blink to Sammy Davis singing, “What kind of foooool am I?” He said when he does Johnny Cash, “people will be talking but then they hear Cash singing and they stop, shake their heads and say, ‘My God, I thought Johnny Cash was here.’”
In 1989, he stopped his Crisco the Clown routine. “I was getting too old. I was, like, 30. It was hard to be faster than a 5-year old. The kids had punched me in the groin so much, I’d taken to wearing a cup.” Also, the singing telegrams had been a big hit.
When they slowed, he switched to what he calls “corporate comedy,” hired to come in during dull but required meetings such as safety updates. “Employees would be falling asleep. But I’d do a game show, incorporating the safety information. If the material is presented in a funny fashion,” he said, “people remember it better.”
That lasted, he said, until 9/11, “when every corporate comedy job was cancelled. That’s when I started doing wine tours, tours of Yosemite, history tours of San Francisco. I was a history major in college.”
By the time commute traffic got to be too much, Linnell said, “Screw this. I’m going to write my book. I always wanted to write a book.” That was in 2010. And he did. Two, in fact. The first was a screenplay. “But I had no way to sell it. I needed to be a salesman, which I’ve never been good at.”
So the screenplay sat on his desk and he went to work as a driver for FedEx and also the Sonoma Wine Trolley. And, when the season ended, it really was time for his book.
And now that the book’s written, what next? Linnell’s not sure – but stick around folks, he’ll be here all week.
Christopher Linnell’s Pretending to Make a Living: Memories of My Four Decades as an Entertainer, Comic, Actor, Broadcaster and Tour Guide is available at http://www.CreateSpace.com/4280385. He’ll be at the Petaluma Library, 100 Fairgrounds Drive, at 2 p.m, Saturday, Nov. 2.
An entertaining life
By ROSE TEPLITZ, ARGUS-COURIER INTERN
Published: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 3:04 p.m.
There are few entertainers in this modern day who after 40 years of experience still possess invigorating enthusiasm about their line of work. Christopher Linnell is one of these distinct few.
Christopher Linnell has written a book about his experiences as an entertainer, impersonator, broadcaster and actor.
PRETENDING TO MAKE A LIVING
Petaluman Chris Linnell’s memoir about his four-decade career as an entertainer, broadcaster, actor, voice artist, tour guide and writer is available for purchase at www.createspace.com/4280385. Copies of the booke may also be purchased in person from Linnell at the Wednesday Night Farmers Market, 4 to 8:30 p.m. on Second Street between B and D streets; and at the Petaluma Farmers Market, 2 to 5:30 p.m. in Walnut Park, corner of Petaluma Boulevard and D Street. For more information, visit www.hireastar.net.
From the early days of his childhood setting up and recording background noise for his puppet shows in his bedroom, to his careers in his adult life (including professions such as movie actor, celebrity impersonator, and model), Linnell, in present day, appears to be in high spirits with a jolly laugh and an amiable disposition — and with good reason. Linnell has recently published a book of his memoirs entitled, “Pretending to Make A Living: Memories of my Four Decades as an Entertainer, Improv Comic, Actor, Broadcaster and Tour Guide,” written to share with the public his incredible life story from 1975 up until 2013.
Unlike traditional memoirs that proceed in chronological order, “Pretending to Make A Living” is arranged by each of Linnell’s vocations, ranging from Crisco the Clown to impersonations of Frank Sinatra and longtime Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes.
“This book starts with a short biography to give you a timeline frame of reference,” said Linnell in the introduction of his narrative. “In that chapter I touch upon stories on which I expand later.”
Besides simply retelling amusing anecdotes about his numerous occupations, Linnell acknowledges the difficulty of being an entertainer and attaining success. Linnell has described himself during these years as “self-reliant,” due to his lack of a mentor or anyone who had experience in making a living as a performer. Relying on his own intuition and lively character, Linnell was able to earn a profit from his career, though he admitted that being self-sufficient made it harder. Despite being independent in many aspects of his jobs, Linnell has also spoken highly of the support that his family and close friends have given him.
“My mother would offer encouraging feedback when I practiced my performances, and my sister was my personal assistant,” said Linnell, remembering his younger years. “As for my father, he couldn’t figure me out and always wanted me to get a ‘regular’ job. It was hard because there was some distance between us at first.”
Despite that slight detachment, Linnell added that his father was always there for him when needed.
“He helped me build stages, load them into the car, drive me to the show, help me set up at the site, waited until the end of the performance, helped me take it down, and never was paid for it,” said Linnell.
Linnell recounts the numerous people he has encountered and who ultimately helped in shaping his many careers, especially Andrew Jowers, a reporter, who inspired the title for Linnell’s book after writing an article about the entertainer.
“Pretending to Make A Living”, the original heading of the article, was first received as an insult by Linnell, but over time, he came to believe that it was an ideal title that suited the work he did well. The unpredictable lifestyle Linnell lives is the main idea of the story.
“So much of the book is about the struggle for a professional entertainer, going from one job to another, up and down, good months and bad months, the glory days when I was making tons of money, and the terrible days,” said Linnell.
The book details the adventures Linnell has gone through and the valuable life lessons he has gained. From getting detained by the U.S. Secret Service, to being in a movie with Angelina Jolie, driving a “Ride the Duck” truck, reading the news on the radio, and modeling a sensitive face for a banking company. Linnell has a vast and extensive resume.
“It’s all about the struggle: pretending to make a living,” said Linnell.
(Contact Rose Teplitz at email@example.com)
Christopher Linnell will once again be a guest on KSVY91.3FM Radio in Sonoma on Thursday, April 26, 2012, from 815-9am on the Ken Brown Morning Show http://sunfmtv.com/?cat=170. Ken is the former mayor of Sonoma, a current city councilman, and he is one of the voices to which the town arises each morning. On April 3rd, Christopher was the guest of Diana Dawn on her “Some Like It Hot” radio program on KSVY (that’s the photo above; you can listen to that program online at: http://sunfmtv.com/showarchive/public/2012-04-03__18_59_57.mp3 ).
MORNINGS IN SONOMA is Sonoma Valley’s own morning community show. Hosted by City Council member KEN BROWN and a variety of guest hosts, Mornings In Sonoma gives local television viewers a chance to peek into the inner sanctum of the Sun FM 91.3 Sonoma radio control room, through its simulcast on sister cable TV channel, Sun TV Comcast Channel 27.
Brown’s daily co-hosts include Wally Breitman, Bill Stallings, Jeff Gilbert, Smokin’ Joe Herrshaft, Donna Piranha and engineering whirlwind HelpMeHarry. Tune in and find out what your favorite DJs wear to work at 8 am and just how much coffee it takes to fuel a two-hour show.
You can listen to KSVY streaming online at: http://sunfmtv.com/docs/miniplayerpopup.html, and you can watch the show on TV at: http://sunfmtv.com/docs/studiopopup.html
Shooting from the Hip: Local Writer, Improv Comedian Hosts ‘LA-style’ Reading
Celebrity impersonator, comic, actor and writer Christopher Linnell unfurls his new script. Audience participation encouraged.
Celebrity impersonator, comic and actor Christopher Linnell has convinced Aqus Cafe to go Hollywood for a night.
Linnell is hoping that a professional “L.A.-style” screenplay reading will get the ball rolling on selling his first movie. The event is free and the bar and cafe will be open.
He admits he’s more calloused than brave about the project.
“I’ve been a professional improv comic for 36 years. I’ve had at least 34 jobs since 1976 and I’m on my third marriage,” Linnell said. “So taking a chance on rejection is not a concern for me.”
A Petaluman since 1977, Linnell’s most recent gig was as a San Francisco tour guide. After attending last year’s Burning Man, a trip on which he read “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!” by Joe Esterhas, he decided being a screenwriter was a must for his epitaph.
“If I died last year, they would have said ‘Christopher was an entertainer and actor and broadcaster and tour guide … and a writer who never finished a manuscript.’”
But if, heaven forbid, he dies this year, he dies a proud screenwriter.
“I chose Aqus Cafe for this event because at a larger venue a small turnout would look bad to all concerned. At a small cafe, the worst that can happen is a capacity crowd,” he said.
The cast includes local thespians Karen Aviles, Eli Vogt, Theresa Champagne, Isa Magomedov, Mark Bellinger and Domenique Sanders. An additional 16 small speaking roles will be cast from the audience the night of the performance.
The storyline of “Hell in Heaven” focuses on a young man attending an annual art festival in the Nevada desert with family and friends. He’s looking forward to the music and costumes and lights and sex and he gets all that, but also a bit more.
“I started thinking what if something really went wrong at an event like Burning Man. I wrote the plot out and then it sat on my desk for an entire year while I did tours,” he said.
This August, the project took a serious turn when Linnell realized he had enough money in the bank to take six months off from work and concentrate on his writing.
“My first screenplay took me three months, six months, a year, 25 years, or most of my life, depending on how you look at it,” he said.
10/17/10 Petaluma Whiskerino Contest (photo above)
6/13/09 Petaluma Butter & Ed Days with Bill Soberanes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3HshSQP7UI
10/08 Whiskerino Contest http://www.petalumapost.com/10Oct2008-pages/pdf/11.pdf
4/9/08 “Free ToBet” at the Olympic Torch Run (photo above):
6/20/06 “On a Roll”
http://www.petalumapost.com/October 05 Galleys/06.pdf
11/03 – Bill Soberanes Tribute, P.24 http://www.petalumapost.com/pastissues/PPostwebNovember03.pdf
12/31/99 “Gig of the Century” http://articles.sfgate.com/1999-12-31/business/28592430_1
<<Beyond the possibly valid concerns over whacked-out computers, a lot of the Y2K hype has been about parties. And the frantic shuffling of social agendas – the scaled-back hotel packages and high-priced baby sitters – has proven at least mildly entertaining.
But not for entertainers.
These parties provide them income, which makes New Year’s Eve about business. The months leading up to Friday night have tested nerves and professional prowess: Working musicians, performers and talent agents have watched and sweated as gigs in the Bay Area and across the nation have been downsized or just plain canceled.
“I’m sure it’s going to be odd for a lot of musicians because they’ve spent the past umpteen New Year’s Eves working,” said Kristen Radakovich, a producer with the San Francisco-based Innovative Entertainment Talent Agency.
The agency negotiated New Year’s Eve gigs for numerous musicians, including bands in The City and as far away as Florida, who found new jobs after their initial ones fell through.
“It’s not what people expected,” Radakovich said of Friday’s party appeal. “They were talking about huge things.”
The ever-evolving plans behind many celebrations have led to eleventh-hour efforts by some performers to land jobs for the evening. On the flip side, many who are working – from classical pianists to dancers in revues – are commanding fees two or three times their normal take; in some bands’ cases, they will earn $40,000 or more for the night.
Celebrity impersonator Christopher Linnell of Petaluma is taking most of the night off, although that wasn’t his original plan. Linnell was expecting to work a private party in Napa that he had booked back in August. But the job was canceled on Dec. 7, leaving Linnell temporarily high and dry because he hadn’t demanded a deposit. Usually he would have received 50 percent of his fee, he said, but he trusted a talent agent, who trusted a party planner, who trusted the client – who backed out.
Linnell chalked it up as the luck of the draw: “I said, ‘You know what? I’m off.’ Because I didn’t want to work anyway.”
But eventually, he agreed to appear as the fictional Lt. Columbo at 7:30 p.m. at a private party in San Francisco. He’ll do his walkaround act for about 30 minutes, and then he’s gone.
Linnell plans to strap on his roller skates and join some friends in a Friday-night skate group for a New Year’s jaunt around the Embarcadero. They hope to end up back at the Ferry Building to watch city-sponsored fireworks.
Getting paid twice
Some in the musical entertainment business will remember New Year’s Eve 1999 as the night they got paid twice: once for the event they’re actually playing, and once for the job that fell through.
“The gig gods giveth, and gig gods taketh away,” joked Dick Bright, vocalist and financial maestro for the Bay Area-based party band and horn-blowing dance revue “Dick Bright’s SRO.”
Until a few months ago, Bright’s band thought it was playing a New Year’s Eve party in the Bahamas. His musicians and entourage were bound for a classy spa resort called Atlantis, on an island called Paradise, with bright white sand, private lagoons and a casino.
Instead they’re headed for Woodside – exotic in a Silicon Valley kind of way.
Atlantis’ management said this week that during the summer the resort began to anticipate a sellout crowd, so it canceled the band, mainly to free up about 20 more rooms for guests.
Atlantis is selling seven-night
Y2K packages starting at $2,300 a person, double occupancy. Unlike some resorts, Atlantis has been fortunate. As of Wednesday, it was about 90 percent full.
“We’ve done much better than a lot of other properties,” said spokeswoman Tracy Quan.
Jobs booked by many of Bright’s friends have tanked much as the Atlantis date did.
“I do know a lot of musicians who said to me, ‘Man, I don’t have a gig.’ They’re getting out the Yellow Pages, saying, ‘I’m a drummer. I’m available.’ ”
Bright won’t be crying in his black-eyed peas, though.
The band is still earning half of the fee it negotiated for the Bahamas job – tens of thousands of dollars – plus a full, hefty fee for the private party in Woodside. Bright didn’t disclose the amount, out of concern for the privacy of the party host.
“There are bands that are out of work who held out for the quote-unquote big money,” Bright said. “This should be the biggest night for working musicians, or one of the biggest, in their careers.”
Around the globe, party expectations have fallen flat. This past summer, the Australian city of Brisbane canceled its grand plans for a New Year’s Eve ball at the convention center.
Recently, Seattle cited security concerns in canceling its public party to be held at Seattle City Center in the shadow of the Space Needle. A Seattle City Center performance by Cirque Eos also was written off due to poor ticket sales.
Atlanta significantly scaled back its official party, and New York’s Celebration 2000 was scrapped. Ticket prices started at $1,000 for a show including Sting and Aretha Franklin.
Cruise lines have cut prices to fill ships on millennium eve, and even some Las Vegas hotels have backed down on their minimum-stay requirements.
In San Francisco, many premiere restaurants, such as Jardi
ire and Boulevard, opted to stay closed. The City canceled plans for a Civic Center public party and Golden Gate Bridge fireworks, although the Embarcadero fireworks remain.
Boris Goldmund, a San Francisco harpist and self-employed music producer with Boris Goldmund Productions Inc., plans to see those fireworks.
Many of Goldmund’s musician friends will spend the evening with loved ones rather than with strangers. Even so, in recent weeks Goldmund has heard from other performers who do, in fact, want to work.
“Most of the large companies I do business with called me and booked their entertainment in April and May,” he said.
Goldmund, who plays regularly at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, will appear with his harp for the New Year’s Eve celebration at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Sansome Street.
Soloists and ensembles, in general, are charging two to three times their normal fees to play Friday, Goldmund said.
He signed up for an early performance, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Then another harpist will take his place, and Goldmund will walk the six blocks home to hole up and watch the pyrotechnics from his Rincon Towers apartment. Relatives and friends from Berlin will join him.
Scaling back in Monterey
Don Zirilli, a band leader who lives in Cupertino, wanted a full-fledged New Year’s gig, which he successfully landed months in advance at the Hyatt Regency Monterey.
But there have been times he doubted whether he and his group, Papa Doo Run Run, would even see a stage – mainly because the hotel wasn’t selling many of its $1,999 packages. That price included a three-night stay, meals and parties.
Zirilli, a vocalist, keyboard player and manager for the venerable Beach Boys-style party band, started receiving New Year’s Eve
offers from all over the country more than a year ago: $25,000 to go to Phoenix, $30,000 to go to Hawaii, $45,000 to play in a Philadelphia billionaire’s backyard.
“I heard that most people were asking for four times their normal fee,” Zirilli said.
He couldn’t help but choke on the numbers when he quoted his asking price of about $30,000. It just seemed like too much.
Normally, Papa Doo Run Run charges about $7,500 for a night’s work, but even Zirilli came to accept that this once-in-a-lifetime occasion shattered all notions of normal.
Still, “we didn’t just go by the money,” he added. Papa Doo Run Run wanted to do its thing close to home. After all, the band spends much of the year traveling to play corporate and private parties all over California and in Nevada, Florida and Arizona.
In the end, the Hyatt Regency Monterey still plans to host a big party. It just doesn’t bank on making any money.
“For lack of a better word, New Year’s Eve was a train wreck for us,” said Michael Koffler, the hotel’s general manager since August.
By the time he came on board, the hotel already had booked a slew of bands for Y2K weekend – not just Papa Doo Run Run but also Rain, Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Sista Monica, and Bill Hopkins Rock’n Orchestra.
The hotel was committed to advertising; the deals were signed.
To break even, the Hyatt Regency needed to entice more than 200 couples to lay down $1,999 for three nights’ all-inclusive stay and exclusive parties.
“Just before Christmas, it became painfully obvious it was going to be a bust,” Koffler said. “The reality is, I could fill both of the ballrooms and I still could not cover what I’m paying for these bands.”
The party now costs $25 (as does another party Saturday night). Rooms that normally go for $210 are $99 a night. Nothing is exclusive; doors were flung open
“We sure as heck hope we’ll pull a boatload of people out of San Francisco and San Jose,” Koffler said.
The 60 couples who signed up for the original $1,999 packages were offered refunds, and most opted for the $99-a-night deal, Koffler said. The hotel originally expected to make about $400,000 net profit on the weekend. It now expects to lose about $120,000, most of that in the cost of entertainment.
Fortunately for the Hyatt Regency Monterey, 1999 was a good year. The Y2K loss will be a blip on the screen, as it will be for many competitors, Koffler said.
Interest in the Hyatt party spiked when the $25 tickets were announced. Zirilli, whose band’s biggest gigs are typically New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, is looking forward to an audience who feels that they’re getting a great deal.
The band will be happy, too, with free rooms for the night, plus Champagne and food.
“It’s the American dream, you know, to get paid for not working,” Zirilli said with a laugh. “But I don’t really subscribe to that dream.”
Huge turnout, modest turnout – it doesn’t matter, Zirilli said.
“In fact, I like small crowds. We’ll get half of them onstage singing with us. It’ll be like live karaoke.”>>