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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 02:32 pm

Dr. Gonzo comes home

A former king of comedy finds a new way to make people happy

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Dr. Gonzo, in his heyday
PHOTO BY PAT JOHNSON/COURTESY OF JOHN MEANS

At the height of his career, in the 1980s, he was a headliner. He had audiences all across the country rolling in the aisles. He shared stages with Jerry Seinfeld and Huey Lewis, partied with Joe Walsh and Robin Williams. He showed a young Drew Carey the ropes.

His stage name was Dr. Gonzo, and, in the heyday of standup comedy, he drew them in.

Then, in 1990, the popular comedian moved away from San Francisco and dropped from the public eye. Comedy had changed, and so had he.

But there’s more to the story.

Jack’s boy

John Means was born in October 1955 and grew up on Elm Street in Mason City, Ill. His father was Dr. Jack Means, a beloved country doctor whose life revolved around caring for people. The physician made house calls at all hours of the day and night and sometimes worked in exchange for baskets of vegetables.

“Dad helped people without a lot of fanfare,” John Means says respectfully, drawing on his early memories. “That’s a quality I hope I picked up from him.”

Means’ mother was a homemaker. Early in the marriage, she supported her husband’s trek through medical school; then she brought up her kids and pursued her love of art. She was active in the Springfield Art Association, and her legacy stays with Means to this day. “She taught me not to be afraid of color,” he says.

The second of four kids, John describes his early life as a good one. “I was outgoing. I got along with everybody. My friends and I ran around town all day, using the connected buildings as shortcuts. We hung out at the gas stations, the drugstores . . . ”

Those memories of a younger Mason City remain vivid. “We knew the shopkeepers,” Means recalls. “Cecil Fore at the five-and-dime, Bob Elmore at the Western Auto — I couldn’t wait to see the new bikes come in at Western Auto — Hugh Cackley at the grocery store. He’d be chomping his cigar, and we’d go in there and fool with him. Mark Cain’s dad owned the funeral home. We used to play ball in the basement there, with all the coffins. I had to get a ball out of a coffin once, and there was this body in there . . . . ”

It was the quintessential rural American childhood — baseball and apple pie — but stirring in Means as he grew was a certain discontent. He felt that he lacked his own identity. “My father was popular, and I knew that — but I was just ‘Jack’s boy,’ and I didn’t care for that,” he says.

In the seventh grade, Means got his first guitar and took it to school to show it off. “The kids wanted me to play something,” he recalls. “I’d just gotten it — I didn’t know how to play. It was embarrassing. I told myself that wasn’t going to happen again.”

He took lessons for a while but was impatient: “The teachers wanted me to play ‘Yellow Rose of Texas.’ I wanted to play anything but that, so I learned mostly by ear. I played Neil Young; James Taylor . . . .”

Means also appreciated comedy — a liking that influenced his music. “I was drawn to Bill Cosby’s comedy albums,” he recalls. “I started playing silly songs, like Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue.’ Once you get people to laugh, it’s addicting.”

Having no interest in his classes, he earned poor grades all through high school. After graduation, his one option was to enroll at Lincoln College. “I thought I was going to play baseball,” he says, “but that only lasted two weeks. I couldn’t hit the curve ball. But I auditioned for a play and got the lead role, so I decided to major in fine arts.”

Now that he saw a purpose to his education, Means had no trouble maintaining his grades. At the end of two years, armed with a new associate’s degree, he transferred to Drake University, in Iowa, to continue his study of fine arts. “I was accepted at Illinois Wesleyan,” he says, “but something in me said, ‘Go farther.’ ”

Dr. Gonzo

The philosophy at Drake was, if you wanted to be in show business, you had to learn every aspect of the game — staging, lighting, costumes. “You had to do it all. It was all hands-on,” Means says. “That training has helped me a lot along the way.”

It was at Drake that Means picked up his nickname.

“My roommate thought he was Hunter Thompson. He started calling me Dr. Gonzo. I asked him why, and he threw me the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ‘Gonzo’ refers to someone who takes it to the edge without falling off.”

Dr. Gonzo’s Bonzo Band, with Means as the frontman, started playing in local clubs. “I joked a lot,” Means says. “It was the precursor to being a standup comedian.”

After receiving his degree in 1977, Means stayed where he was, playing music, working odd jobs, acting sometimes. “A friend I went to school with — Morri Beers — we decided to move to San Francisco to produce a play,” Means says. “For a long time there, I worked at mindless jobs — putting boxes in boxes, sweeping rain off roofs. I made some money playing guitar.”

In their spare time, the two formed a company and sold shares to produce their play. “We were fearless,” Means recalls, “walking into offices and making our pitch. Everyone loved our moxie.”

But the young men never found the funds to produce their play.

“Morri eventually moved to LA,” Means reports. “He sent me some pictures recently. He’s teaching English. He’s happy.”

Means started to get gigs at the Boarding House, in San Francisco, and other popular clubs — “the places where Steve Martin and Robin Williams performed,” he says. At that time, he was developing his special mix of humor and song.

Means’ big break came on television in 1981. He was selected to audition for the Showtime production The Big Laugh Off. He bested 200 other comics to make it to the on-air talent show and finished in the top five comedians. “I was signed up as Dr. Gonzo,” Means says. “I guess I was afraid of failing under my own name.”

Soon Dr. Gonzo was doing standup comedy all over the country.

“Comedy was on a big wave,” he recalls, “and I hit it at the right time. I made a good income while living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Victorian style of the old flats in San Francisco — they knew how to fix buildings up and make them beautiful.”

He played parodies of classic rock songs and opened for touring acts such as Huey Lewis and the News. “I kind of became the cartoon before the movie,” he says. He was asked to host the “Bammies” — the Bay Area Music Awards — in 1985. The show-business lifestyle suited him.

In 1982, Means met his first wife, Julie, at a comedy club. “That whole relationship was based on me being on and off the road,” he says. Their son, Joe, was born in 1985. “Joe grew up around some crazy people — hung out with Robin Williams, Grace Slick . . . I wasn’t always around, but, when I was, we had good, quality time.”

The first 10 years of Dr. Gonzo’s comedy career, everything was gravy. Then, suddenly, there were a million comics out there. Comedy clubs became like chain restaurants. It wasn’t your name anymore but, instead, the venue’s. The competition got tougher.

“I was getting older, but my audience was getting younger,” Means says.

Time for a change

Means moved his family back to Mason City in 1991. He was still touring regularly, but the cost of living in San Francisco had gotten out of control, and his parents’ health was declining — he wanted to be closer to them.

“In 1998, Dad stopped working. He didn’t want to quit; he just couldn’t do it any more. I was touring only about half as much by then.”

Means’ youngest brother, Curt, reminded him that he had a bachelor’s degree and suggested that he look into a substitute-teaching job in Mason City. Means stopped booking tours, took the teaching job, and enjoyed it. Soon he was back in school, working toward an English degree at the University of Illinois at Springfield, which he completed in 2000, and a regular teaching job.

Means’ marriage couldn’t hold up under this new dynamic. In 1999, he and his wife separated, and she moved away. Means’ son, Joe, made the decision to stay in Mason City with his father. Means gave up comedy for good, and Dr. Gonzo was relegated to boxes in storage.

Means’ father, Jack, died in 1999; Eleanor Jo, his mother, died in 2001.

Dr. Gonzo was gone, and John Means had come home — but, when he looked at that home, it did not compare well to his memories.

“You drive down Chestnut Street under this beautiful canopy of trees,” Means recalls of his first days back from California. “Then you come to the downtown area, and I was thinking, ‘What happened here?’ ”

The economy had changed. Many stores were closed, the buildings that had housed them neglected. Those that remained had lost their beauty and charm. “While I was gone, they tried to modernize Mason City,” Means says. “Aluminum siding on brick buildings . . . it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

“The theater was the center of town when I was a kid. Now it was only showing occasional live shows. The bowling alley was gone. The only businesses were service businesses. I was, like, ‘Where are all the retailers?’ ” The only constant was Hanover’s barbershop, there on the corner. (Kenneth Hanover has operated his barbershop in the same building at the corner of Main and Chestnut for more than 50 years.)

In 1997, Means joined the City Council with an eye to turning things around. He labored successfully to get trash burning stopped and supported efforts to run sewer lines into the Pinecrest addition. He helped the city secure the Civic Center and saw to the planting of trees downtown: “I got kids involved in the planting. They can look at those trees in 20 years and say, ‘I planted that.’ ”

Discussing Mason City‘s fall from grace, Means is passionate: “In the mid-’90s [a Springfield businessman] bought the motel. Instead of cleaning it up, he turned it into efficiency apartments — lots of Section 8. He bought the Brenner Bros. building and others downtown. He’s done zero with this property. All he’s done is stack stuff in there for his motels in Springfield. It’s frustrating.”

Means offered to paint storefronts downtown, for no compensation, if the owners would pay for the paint. “For 90 days, I did that,” he says. “Money from the City Council paid for a scissor lift for the first month; then people donated to keep it longer. Peggy and I, and a few volunteers, did 15 different storefronts. The money kept coming in, so we kept it up all summer.”

“Peggy” is Peggy Means, Means’ second wife and another Mason City native. Her reaction was similar to Means’ when she returned to her childhood home after a long absence. “We remember how it was,” she says. “There is a certain nostalgia in that. The kids who are growing up now — what are their memories going to be, vacant buildings?”

The two were introduced by mutual friends, and recognized each other from the early days. “John was our paper boy when I was a kid,” Peggy says. “He’d come by on his bike and tell jokes.”

Means proposed to Peggy at the funeral home, after the service for his mother. “I got down on one knee. Mike Allison, the funeral director, said, ‘That’s a first.’ I know it was odd, but that building held a lot of memories for me.”

John and Peggy solidified their commitment to the community in 2002 when they bought out Biundo’s, a small Italian restaurant downtown. Originally they were renting the building, but soon they decided — with the help of business partners whose share they’ve since bought out — to purchase the property. “We saw the potential in the building,” Means says. “Under the drop ceiling was this beautifully ornate tin ceiling.”

PJ’s Pizza & Pasta, the result of the buyout, thrived, and so did the marriage. The couple has since opened a second restaurant — named Jack & Jo’s in honor of Means’ parents, who enjoyed eating out — in the other half of the building. Last year they hired Murray Brigham, a certified culinary chef.

“We went from steak and potatoes to fine dining,” Means says proudly.

Now John and Peggy live above the restaurants. “We tell people that, and they think we must be roughing it,” Means says, laughing. In fact, the size and beauty of the restored loft rivals any home available in the area, proving the point that Means is constantly trying to make: Mason City holds untapped potential.

What do the Meanses want for Mason City? As perturbed as John becomes while talking about where his home town has slipped, he is equally exuberant when discussing it’s recent growth, and better still, its potential: “We’ve got some good things going now — we’ve got a gourmet coffee shop, Brew Unto Others; some fine restaurants; the movie theater is going again; there’s a golf course; the comedy club . . . ”

The comedy club is Mason City Limits, owned by a friend of Means’ from his performing days. Touring performers come from all over, and so do the crowds. Occasionally Means sits in and plays some guitar or chats with friends from his performing days, but he doesn’t do standup anymore. “That’s a whole different mindset, and I don’t go there anymore,” he says.

Investment in Mason City seems a no-brainer to Means. “Every one of these buildings has the same potential as ours,” he says. “What you give for a house these days, and the property tax, you could buy one of these buildings, gut it, roof it, create your own floor plan . . . ”

Peggy adds, “You have to have faith in yourself. Once you start in on something, it’ll just keep going.”

The citizens of Mason City are looking ahead to the town’s sesquicentennial next summer, expected to be the biggest celebration the community has ever hosted, and the city is taking part in the MAPPING (Management and Planning Programs Involving Nonmetropolitan Groups) project run by Western Illinois University.

“Mapping the Future of your Community” is a program developed and conducted by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Its goal is to develop ambitious but practical plans for growth and prosperity in rural communities whose residents are willing to work toward that goal. It has seen some admirable successes.

The program was brought to Mason City by, of course, John Means.

“I’d like to see a vital downtown again,” he says. “I’d like to see urban renewal, historic preservation. Bring back the character of the buildings. You can’t re-create this.”

Peggy agrees: “We have to reinvent small-town shopping. It doesn’t have to be the way it was. Create some new types of shops.”

After the storefront-painting project, the city threw a party for Means as an expression of gratitude. Means appreciated the gesture, as well as the gold paintbrushes he was presented with, but, he says, “The sense I got was that they thought this was the end, that something was over and done with. My statement that day was ‘This is just paint; this is nothing. This is only the beginning.’”

It is a sentiment that sums up the story nicely: Dr. Gonzo may be gone, but John Means is just beginning.

Larry Crossett is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at crossett@springnet1.com. His profile of Lincoln resident Pat O’Neill was published in the Aug. 17 edition of Illinois Times.

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