Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Memories of Philly (Vince Dantona, 1949-2012)

Vince Dantona, comedian, master ventriloquist, Vietnam veteran, loving father, all around sweet human being, and one-half of the team of Vince Dantona and his buddy George, passed away suddenly, early today. If you knew Vince, I don’t need to tell you how great a loss this is to comedy, and to those who could call him friend.

Although Vince was a Long Island act, he, like many others had very strong ties to the Philadelphia comedy scene, which is where I first met him.

In the 1980s and 90s, Philly was a haven for us. There was so much work in the areas between Philly and Harrisburg that a comic could very easily book six months of his or her year without ever leaving the area. The money was pretty good as I recall, and it was possible to make a fairly decent living if you were willing to drive all over the state. 

Center City boasted three major clubs; The Comedy Factory Outlet, The Comedy Works (above the Middle East Restaurant) and Going Bananas, a little club just off South Street, which was run by the unforgettable Barney Weiss, a character so memorable he could have been plucked from any Damon Runyon story.

Of the big three, Barney’s club was the smallest, and you took the gig, not for the money, which paled in comparison to what we could make at the other places, but because it was Barney and we all loved him.

Barney would give up-and-coming comics a chance to move up the ranks where the others would not. I was one of them. He was the first booker in a major city to headline me, and opened the door for me to the Comedy Works, which would not hire me previously, mostly because I was working across the street at the CFO, their chief rival.

What made Going Bananas so memorable for us was this weird bohemian energy that it generated. And it was all due to Barney. Where the other two clubs played loud rock music before and after the shows, Bananas was cool with its classic jazz. Where the others put us up in a nice downtown hotel, Barney made us stay in his apartment above the club.

The apartment looked best at night, which isn’t saying much because even after the sun had set, it still looked like shit. But it really didn’t matter what it looked like in the daytime, because comedians don’t see much of the day. Back then, our eight a.m. was two o’clock in the afternoon. Besides, nothing fun ever happens while the sun is out.

In the glory days, you usually did three shows on a Saturday night, sold out the first two and had a decent crowd for the third. Despite what civilians may think, being funny for that long is exhausting work. And so by the time we finished the last show, usually about twelve-thirty, all we wanted to do was unwind and come off the adrenaline high of having finished three killer shows. And inevitably, we wound up at Barney’s apartment, drifting in either solo or with the other comics on the show. That’s when the fun began.

Try to imagine seven or eight comedians in a very tiny room, pumped up from a good night’s work, all partying, sometimes till four or five in the morning. Then after hours of laughter, the party would make its way around the corner to the diner for breakfast for another hour or so, until we were spent. It was a magical time.

Barney had his favorite comics, and Vince was one of them. These two were such good friends that Barney eventually named the headliner’s bedroom, the “Vince Dantona Suite” and he went so far as to put a plaque on the door officially designating it as such.

I don’t think I ever met a comic who ever said an unkind thing about Vince. You know, headliners can be assholes sometimes, but not Vince. And then of course there was his partner, George.

Ventriloquists are by nature, a little different than the rest of us. Think about what they do for a second. During the course of their act, they have to think as two completely different people.  And so what happens is that they begin to anthropomorphize their puppets, to the point where you find yourself thinking of this lifeless thing as human. And the really good ones, like Vince, treat them as such.

An old friend of mine reminded me of something today that I had long forgotten. At Barney’s place, in the Dantona Suite, Vince would place his shoes on the floor, and right next to them, you’d see George’s tiny shoes. To Vince, really, to all of us, George was as real as anyone, and that is a testament to his talent. Today, as I heard the news of Vince’s death, I couldn’t help feeling sad for George too, because I know he will never utter another word.

The word magical comes up often in my writing when I wax melancholy about those days. It is difficult to describe to anyone who wasn’t there what that time was like, but there really isn’t a better word to describe it. 
I sometimes I wonder if I spend too much time thinking about the glory days of comedy. We were all young and part of something very special back then; and though we didn’t know it at the time, all of us involved were making history in our own little way. Most of us were unknown to the general public and some went on to great heights. But fame is no criteria for quality; it is just the result of fortunate happenstance. Some of us were hacks, some were so-so, and some were great. But each person who ever set foot on a stage in those years contributed a brick to the iconic background on stages all across the world. Stand-up is an American art form, and we were there at the beginning to contribute to its birth.

Speaking with a close friend before, we couldn’t help but tearily suggest that perhaps Vince’s passing was a harbinger of sorts; a reminder that our time here is beginning to wind down and that the ranks which made up our generation of comedians will soon begin to fade away. To the public who knew us, we might rate a nod of respect at our passing, but that is about it. Even the very famous soon fade from the immediate memory upon their death. I guess that’s how Nature protects us from long enduring pain.

In time, the sadness over losing Vince will subside, like it did when the great Ronnie Shakes left the world too soon, or more recently, in the case of the Richard Jenni’s departure. But whenever comics get together, the memories of the time we spent with them will eventually rise, and their names will be mentioned with reverence, respect, and love.

And so I’d like to suggest that sometime soon, if you have someone in your life that means an awful lot to you, that you tell them so. Tell them that you love them. You might not get another chance.

Rest in peace Vince, and know you were loved.


  1. A fitting sendoff for a remarkable human being. A warm, talented and wonderful person. A very rare bird and I know I speak for many when I say, Vince, not only will you be sorely missed but you were & are truly loved. Break a leg up there compade.

  2. Vinny and George were my neighbors and were always friendly and willing to talk about anything. I recently had the opportunity to see them perform locally and was in stitches the entire show. My deepest condolences to his family.


  3. I tended bar at Going Bananas, and woke up today thinking of Ben Kurland and Vince (and his Wooden Buddy George). How sad to read of his passing, but what a wonderful tribute. It brought back, for me, many wonderful memories.

  4. This is his son I am truely touched by your words...I can't express how much this means to me...I love you Dad and think about u every day

    1. Daniel, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond but I just saw this. Your Dad was a dear sweet wonderful man who was loved by everyone in the Comedy Community.