Ever Heard of Charlie Prose?
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ There are no disappearing rabbits, magic wands or colored handkerchiefs in Charlie Prose’s act. But make no mistake: He’s a magician.
He turns bus drivers into salesmen faster than you can say, ``Pop this into the VCR, please.″
The 57-year-old entertainer has amassed a huge following among senior citizens by giving tapes of his performances to tour bus drivers, who play them for passengers on the rides to and from casinos and resorts.
The low-tech marketing effort, coupled with Prose’s G-rated comedy and his knack for filling seats, has made him a headliner in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and a favorite in cabarets, music fairs and playhouses in between.
He’s never been on Letterman or Leno, and that’s fine by him.
``I have a TV show, but it’s not on cable and it’s not on a broadcast network. It’s on every night, though, on thousands of tour buses,″ he said.
Born Charles Procopio, Prose grew up as a grocer’s son in the coal mining community of Mount Carmel, Pa. At 13, he bought a used saxophone from the Nabisco cookie salesman who visited his father’s store. Soon, he had his own band _ and a new stage name.
By the late ’70s, he was playing to sellout crowds in the Jersey shore resort of Wildwood with a variety show in which he played saxophone and piano, sang and told stories _ about growing up, about his kids, about his life.
Seeing tour buses loaded with senior citizens arrive for three- and four-day stays in Wildwood, he had an idea.
``I said to myself, ‘It’d be nice if they had something to watch or listen to on the bus.’ I always thought, ‘If I could get people to still hear me after I had gone to bed, that would be great.’ And the buses were perfect for that,″ he said.
Instead of waiting for record companies to discover him, he took his act to the streets.
At first, it was Prose cassettes. He or his assistants would go to bus drivers before and after shows and hand them out, along with pads of order forms, so anyone interested could send away for a tape.
After casinos opened in Atlantic City in 1978, he had two new forums. One was showrooms; for years he performed three shows a day, six days a week at the Playboy Casino.
The other was buses, which ferried millions of low rollers to and from the Boardwalk.
By the 1990s, the motorcoaches were being equipped with TV monitors and VCRs. So Prose had a video made of a concert at Trump Plaza and began distributing it to drivers.
``These people are going three, four, five hours on the bus to get home. And on the way home from the casino, they are not happy campers. It’s doom and gloom. And my tapes make folks happy,″ Prose said.
Talk about a captive audience.
Those who’ve watched Prose’s career take off say his personal warmth has earned him a special allegiance with fans and drivers.
The drivers aren’t paid or compensated to play the recordings for their passengers. But Prose spends about $120,000 annually on postage corresponding with fans on what he says is a 350,000-person mailing list, answering every letter, telephone call and e-mail message.
``Today, he does this act all over the country, and he builds it up the same way,″ said Chris Kraras, president of White Star Tours, of Reading, Pa., which specializes in senior citizen bus tours.
``They’ll play a venue a couple weeks and then go out and put these tapes on every bus driver’s cassette player and by the next year, everyone wants to see this guy they’ve heard.
``It happened that way in Laughlin, Nev., in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, in Canton, Ohio, in Pittsburgh. Name almost every major venue up to Hamilton, Ont., plus Niagara Falls, Syracuse,″ Kraras said.
Sandra Roberts, 57, of Tallahassee, Fla., got her first exposure to Prose on a bus to a Biloxi, Miss., casino last March, when the driver played a videotape. She was hooked.
``I didn’t realize anybody could get their point across anymore without using filth, since Red Skelton died,″ she said.
Prose’s videos _ ``An Evening With Charlie Prose″ and ``Love & Laughter″ _ have both gone platinum, each selling more than 50,000 units or reaching $2 million in retail sales.
His viewer may be sitting alone on a bus streaking down an interstate, but somehow Prose makes a connection. He attributes it to his homespun comedy, his willingness to show vulnerability and the lack of profanity in his act.
His shows typically open with a cover of Buddy Greco’s ``I Love Being Here With You″ and close with ``The Living Years,″ a Mike and the Mechanics hit.
In between, it’s storytelling and comedy, much of which centers around the ``things aren’t like they used to be″ theme.
``When I was a kid, I used to say to my dad, ‘Pop, are we poor?’ He’d say, ’No, we just don’t have any money.‴ Ba-dum-PUMP.
At Christmas, Prose brings out his old yarn about the birth of Christ. ``Do you know why Jesus was born in a manger? Because Joseph and Mary belonged to an HMO.″
The medium helps his message, too.
``A variety show like his lends itself to buses, since it’s not a movie you have to concentrate on. You can look away and come back to it,″ said Pittsburgh concert promoter Gary Latshaw, who has promoted Prose shows for 15 years.
``I deal with big names all the time _ Johnny Cash, the Oak Ridge Boys, you name it. But Charlie Prose is the only one we can bring back every year and have him sell out year after year. When people call to make reservations _ and I’ve heard this a thousand times _ they say ‘I’m coming to see Charlie Prose. He’s a friend of mine.’
``He can’t have 50,000 friends, you and I know that. But that’s the way they feel,″ Latshaw said.
Prose, who spends 200 days a year on the road himself, lives with his wife of 38 years in Mays Landing, just outside Atlantic City. He still plays the casinos at least once a year.
``Show business is a hard business,″ he said. ``It’s difficult to break through, to get yourself out there and known. The record companies control the distribution and without records or TV exposure, there’s no recognizability and therefore no work.″
``This was just a different way of becoming a headliner,″ he said.