When I moved to New York my coach Bob Ryland would speak at great lengths about how he played tennis at "The Jungle".It was a proving ground where many young players mixed with older more experienced players.Sitting on the benches between the sets of courts you could pick up a game or sit and listen to players games get verbally picked apart by other bench squatters.I did end up spending a limited amount of time at the jungle in Harlem on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.Most days I spent practicing were at Midtown Tennis Club or East River Park along the FDR Drive(Bob's jungle).I became the king of the FDR jungle in the mid 80s.Eventually I stopped going altogether.I began traveling to many tournaments that took up the better part of a week and weekend.Country club tennis as Bob called it was not a breeding ground for tournament players.The public parks are where Bob"made his bones" as a tennis player even practicing with the legendary pro Pancho Gonzalez in the L.A. public parks .Getting to Bob's jungle was not easy.Walking there meant going through Alphabet City which was notorious for drugs and crime.Public transportation to Bob's jungle was not a great option .Bob actually had a pre-game ritual which at first seemed crazy until I realized that the foot bridge to his jungle had been knocked out by a car.The ritual involved crossing 6 lanes of the FDR highway and somehow avoiding getting grazed by a car doing 65mph.It was that or walk a half mile north to the next bridge. So I chose to Bob's path .Once safely on the other side there was a mix of relief and adrenaline pumping nausea that reduced the time needed to warm up on the court before a match.I guess that is a bit of an understatement.Who needs the running of the bulls in Pamplona to get your heart racing?Once there I was greeted by a crazy mix of Lower East Side tennis nuts.It was like West Side Story meets West Side Tennis Club.I have to say as I sit here that I miss the eclectic aura of Bob's jungle.Families barbecuing next to the courts playing loud music on boom boxes blasting Salsa music.Junkies and homeless people coming up to the fence to beg for money or smokes.Seaplanes landing in the East River.Subways rumbling overhead.Boats,cars,motorcycles and helicopters rocking my senses.When I went out of the city to play in a tournament it was very hard at first to concentrate without any noise.I missed the Riff Raff!
Midtown Tennis Club's rooftop courts were noisy(especially at rush hour)but Bob's jungle was bedlam.I don't miss holding my breath to pee in the bathroom.I miss the guys selling flavored shaved ice off a cart.Sour sop and Guanabana were my favorite flavors.My strokes got fine tuned on the cracked courts at Bob's jungle while I played my favorite sport to the rhythms of a Latin beat .I miss seeing a husky,beer bellied tall guy named Juan Baez chain smoking then going out to kick some young guys butt with his slice and dice routine.Angel (do not know his last name) was another guy that was every bit as talented as any guy I saw on the Satellite tour but had possible(?) drug issues.He regularly beat up on me when I first arrived on the scene.In 1986 I beat another tough guy from Bob's jungle named Jose in the finals of the park championships and felt a bit like Kung Fu snatching the pebble from his master's hand and leaving the Dojo for good.Under the noisy Williamsburgh Bridge I made my tennis bones on that day.After that day I rarely made it back to cross the FDR. I heard Juan Baez died of a heart attack while playing on the courts at Bob's jungle.Eventually they fixed the foot bridge so the FDR dash was no longer needed. Bob moved uptown.I moved out of Manhattan altogether.Now years later it all seems like a dream.
Get Bob Ryland in the International Tennis Hall of Fame
Saturday, June 20, 2009
A few years back I woke up in a cold sweat.A recurring dream that left me wandering through the halls of Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati jolted me again.In the bad dream I had not finished a test in Algebra and therefore was denied my diploma.I think Mr.Iacobucci would probably laugh if he knew his class still torments me.How did I overcome my weekly hellish nightmares of being mathematically challenged?Therapy?Prescription drugs?Crawling in a dark hole clutching my blankie and sucking my thumb while shivering in a pool of sweat until I let out a primal scream and force the overly cranky old man two houses away to call 911 again !I searched deep in my soul to find a way to let go of this gut wrenching feeling.The answer it turned out wasn't very complicated.Make fun of myself.Accept my faults in a very public way.Others had made fun of me with ease all my life.So...what was so tough?
Ever since I saw Chevy Chase deliver zingers on Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live I was sold on the art of delivering a good one liner even if the bulls eye was pointed directly at me.Growing up in Ohio I never realized how many bitter,sarcastic people there were in the world.Then I migrated to New York.Bitterness and sarcasm are worn as badges of honor in New York.Bitter? Not me a simple country boy from Ohio.
I followed Don Rickle's comedy act from as far back in my life as I can remember.On my parents honeymoon Rickle's even picked on my dad when they were seated in the front row.Poor dad!I had been on stage since starting as a 5 year old in a play called 'Weather or Not" dressed as a Native American boy with my buddy Chris Kraus for Kay King's Mini Mummers theater troupe then onto doing musicals and theater classes in high school were challenging and fun.Doing plays also kept my actor/director/writer mom happy about my involvement in her craft.I was never ever really the class clown .Although I could deliver some one liners when necessary and once even lifted a Weekend Update bit for a performance in a theater class. My teacher Marlene Schmalo was unaware of the source and encouraged me to follow the comedy trail.I didn't listen to her.But growing up in Cincinnati there must have been something in the water because I had heard of about 8 or 9 guys I knew of that felt compelled to try their hand at stand up comedy.I saw one guy that I had played in a boys tennis tournament on Comedy Central(Tom Agna)then another younger kid from my high school on David Letterman(Bobby Tessel).If they made it to the big show then couldn't I make it?I know that the general route on the road to success as a stand up comic(my math nightmare therapy) begins with open mikes.Performing in front of fifteen mostly jaded pissed off other wannabe comics and maybe 3-4 real customers is not a great way to spend a cold Tuesday night in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay section where a rowdy drunk tries to walk on stage and grab you .Or being the final performer of the night in a "juice" bar with no one watching you but the waitresses .But performing in a sold out night club on a Saturday night in New York City's Greenwich Village and "killing" the room is a great night.Believe me that the high you feel is possibly better than any feeling in the world.Getting to the point where you do "kill" a room requires a lot of the lonely nights as I mentioned above.Also taking the time to develop some material that you can use in your "set". When I moved to New York I went as a spectator to two comedy clubs on a semi-regular basis. The Comic Strip and Comedy Cellar were my destinations for a night of laughs .I also accompanied two friends of mine to some open mike nights.I wondered what it would be like to be up on stage doing stand up. I had been on stage as a high school actor so I was not intimidated being in front of a large crowd of people .Being funny was another matter entirely.In the winter of 1994 I noticed that New York University offered a class in stand up comedy through it's Adult Education program . I had seen Punch Line" with Tom Hank's and Sally Fields. Sally's son was in our class he said the movie made him want to do stand up a few weeks later he dropped out!One guy in particular that I talked to a lot in class was Rich Guzzi.He was an energetic fast talking guy from Long Island and he had some pretty good material.He also started doing open mikes before the class final had taken place.Rich kept me motivated to spend time writing and be prepared for our big night.I have played tennis matches in front of a few hundred people .Performed in plays in front of 500 .Given speeches in front of up to two thousand .Compared to getting up in a dark club in front of 100 people those other events paled in comparison .Many of us were very nervous.Some guys had a drink to calm their nerves.I was nervous that a drink might make me forget ...everything!One guy Lou even taped his "set"list to the stage floor in big letters .When I got up there and did my set I remember looking out and seeing my family,friends and co-workers in the crowd.I calmly delivered my "set" and remember people laughing.I have a videotape to prove it.Then it was over and I had that drink .Best Corona I ever had .We all celebrated at a bar after the show and then parted ways to go out into the world of comedy and life.
Rich Guzzi mentioned an open mike at a place called Pips in Brooklyn .Pips was known as the first comedy club in America. Seth Schultz was the owner and the club's Master of Ceremonies .He was also a great guy that took us under his wing.Over the next year Seth helped me develop material and confidence in my ability to become a comic. Seth let me show up 2-3 nights a week to perform.I looked up to him like an older brother.It hit me like a bomb shell when Seth announced he was selling Pips.After he sold the club he moved to L.A. and I never saw Seth again in person.I looked for other places to perform and feel as comfortable flexing my comedy muscles but none will ever be as special as the small club on Emmons Avenue.I even went Pips after it was sold but without Seth it was not the same.Seth made it onto an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" with Larry David.He made a film about his friend Andy Kaufman from "Taxi" fame.It was assumed that big things were going to happen for Seth.He died a couple of years ago.I did some auditions at comedy clubs in Manhattan and worked out of a cabaret club called "Roses Turn".The atmosphere was low key and unpredictable like Pips.My wife got to see me on a night when performing to a full house I "killed".I was happy that my life partner had witnessed a room full of strangers laughing at my stories(mostly about us)and I did not drop any f-bombs in my act.More and more I realized I wanted to spend my spare time with my family so I packed it in.It has been over 10 years since I got up on stage to do stand up.Wait!That sounds like a confession in a 12 step program!Kids,work,being a devoted husband and too many late nights all contributed to the demise of my comedy "journey".I don't really recall the last time Algebra woke me up quivering and screaming "IACCOBUCCI" in the middle of the night.So I guess comedy cured my night terrors?
And to my friend Seth who is up in God's country.Thanks for the smiles!How can I ever repay you buddy?
Fred"Wildman"(my stage name)