Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Doc Circe's 'hick' kept 'em laughing on Show Boat
My recent column on the Show Boat in New Lebanon, N.Y. brought numerous comments from readers about Doc Circe, who was the most popular performer at the nightclub during the 1950s and 1960s.
Doc's persona and appearance was 100 percent "hick" or "hay seed" and he was very good in this role. He used what he said was a lot of "sight" comedy, and could play off the audience and be funny even when he had no funny material.
Doc could do a whole risqué bit talking about body parts and functions and have an embarrassed audience in stitches. Everybody loved him. He rarely used foul language in a set, but his humor was laced with innuendo.
At the end of an hourlong show, Doc might play a country-style fiddle, a washboard or an electric guitar. He was a musical virtuoso skilled in a dozen instruments and could play as well as the best musical celebrities of the day.
His routine of mule train with a long whip was a popular one in the shows. When he was single, he played vaudeville with the likes of Danny Kaye and Martha Raye and was a musician with the Hoosier Hotshots, an original hillbilly jazz group.
When Doc got married and settled down in his home area of Schenectady, he performed almost exclusively in the greater Albany-Schenectady-Troy area.
The talented performer would tailor his material to his audiences. He did church affairs, formal dinners, club functions and other social settings in which he toned down the material and would appear in a tuxedo.
When at the Showboat, his hick persona was replete with saltier language and more risqué material. Doc would say, "A good comic uses the sort of material his audience wants; he doesn't use what he wants."
To gauge the audience's level of comfort with his material, he would throw out some lines and based on the reactions, he would decide whether to go up (dirty) or down (clean) in the show. The Show Boat patrons were rarely treated to the "down" level. Doc was a smooth performer and was never heckled, as people loved what he offered.
He did different shows nightly at the Show Boat. He could perform 32 straight hours of material without repeating himself. About 90 percent of his jokes and stories, he created himself; the balance was standard material.
Doc Circe was born as Donald Circe in Ausable Forks, N.Y. The family surname, Circe, was French. When he was only 12 years old, his dad died and Doc had to drop out of school to help support the family.
He was the only one of four brothers who went into show business. The Circe family had moved to Schenectady, where Doc spent most of his life. After marriage, Doc and his wife raised three children in his hometown and had a rather "straight" job.
When not performing, he worked as a salesman for a tire company that he and his three brothers owned. Without his makeup and yokel attire, Doc was a tall thin man with horn-rimmed glasses and mild manners and might be easily mistaken for a CPA!
He appeared off and on at the Show Boat through the '50s and then got a weekly gig in the summer of 1960. With the Show Boat changing its format to rock 'n' roll in 1966 and totally burning in 1975, Doc could no longer be found performing regularly in the New Lebanon area.
He lived a good life and touched many people with his humor. In 2004 Doc Circe passed away in his hometown of Schenectady just shy of his 80th birthday.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to www.berkshirecarousel.com. You can email Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this or other stories.
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