If he walks like a Gallagher, talks like a Gallagher and smashes overripe watermelons with a 16-pound wooden mallet like a Gallagher, is he a Gallagher?
Well, yes, but that's not the question.
This is the question: In a world still debating whether it's necessary to have one comedian named Gallagher, is there room for a sequel?
If there's not, someone had better tell Ron Gallagher, because he's making a decent living reproducing his older brother's act. In fact, Gallagher II, as he is known, so resembles his brother that many people leave his show believing they have seen the original.
The same clothes - black beret, black pants, striped pullover shirt. The same Charlie Chaplin-meets-Sonny Bono look - shoulder-length hair and black mustache. The same jokes - "Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets?" The same unexplained violence toward innocent fruits and vegetables.
"There's nothing out there like this," Ron Gallagher says.
He's got that right. It's as if the Baldwin brothers all filmed different versions of the same movie. What Ron Gallagher does is not so much an impersonation as a re-enactment. If you missed the original Gallagher when he started 25 years ago - and, really, who wants to admit that? - here's your chance to catch up.
Although the brothers look remarkably similar, serious Gallagher devotees, and there must be several, will notice subtle differences. Ron Gallagher, 46, is six years younger. The original Gallagher (his name is Leo, but don't call him that) has black hair; Ron Gallagher's hair is lighter, and there's more of it on top. The original Gallagher limits himself to a half-dozen or so appearances a month; Ron Gallagher plays 200 venues a year. The original Gallagher performs in places like the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas; Ron Gallagher performs in places like the Fish Bowl Inn in Arbutus.
Which is where, last Sunday, Ken and Beth Kiessling of Arbutus arrived just as the doors opened so they could sit close to the stage.
"I remember the first time I ever saw him on TV," Ken says. "When he started smashing things, I thought, 'What the hell is going on?'"
Clearly, the Kiesslings believed they had paid $25 apiece to see the original Gallagher, veteran of Showtime specials and originator of the Sledge-O-Matic, the wooden mallet used to punish helpless heads of lettuce.
"I say 'Ron Gallagher' in the advertisements," says David Herman, president of Classic Entertainment Inc. in Baltimore, who booked the Arbutus gig. "If they don't know, they don't know. I've never had to give a refund. I don't think they even know or care."
And nobody's eager to tell them. At no point during the show does Ron Gallagher refer to his brother.
Before you call the consumer protection people, put on your poncho and watch him.
Duck as Ron Gallagher spends his first 15 minutes soaking the crowd with water, shaving cream and several other unidentifiable yet messy substances. Listen as he trots out a familiar Gallagherian hand-me-down: "People, you don't have to study the orange juice carton just because it says 'concentrate.' And take cover when he pulls out the Sledge-O-Matic and pulverizes everything from a can of pork and beans to a sopping wet (it's water) disposable diaper to a plastic bottle of ketchup. Along with two heads of lettuce, one tomato and - the grand finale - the previously mentioned watermelon, among other items. Produce sellers are huge Gallagher fans.
When you have done these things, ask yourself: Have you not seen Gallagher?
The Kiesslings certainly thought they had.
"I had a ball," said Ken, his shirt smeared with vegetable matter and still unaware he had watched Gallagher's brother. Once informed, Kiessling paused. He seemed a little stunned, either by the notion of two Gallaghers or by his inability to detect it. "They really look alike. I couldn't tell any difference. I still had a great time."
Either Ron Gallagher is very good, or his audience is very gullible.
"I'd say 70 to 80 percent of the people will leave here saying they saw Gallagher, which is the greatest compliment you can give," Ron Gallagher says. "I like to do what I think is the best of Gallagher, but it's my show."
The Gallagher brothers grew up in Lakeland, Fla. Leo was the oldest, named for his father, but everyone called him Butch. Then came brother Jerry, sister Constance and baby brother Ron.
"My parents both worked, so my brother kind of raised us," Ron says. "He was the ringleader. He was so funny. He'd have us acting out commercials or skits. He'd write parts for us.
"We had a tremendous amount of fun. When he became famous, I idolized him."
Ron sold heavy equipment for a living, but business lagged during the 1989 recession, so he looked for something else to do. He says he often wrote jokes and offered tips to his older brother, who eventually told him to find his own audience.
"So I did," he says.
These days the brothers tour in different areas of the country, so they rarely see each other. Ron Gallagher performs material that his brother retired years ago.
He says he has his brother's blessing, but what does Butch think of the show?
"It wouldn't matter to me so much what he thought," Ron says. "I've been doing it for eight years, and I feel like it's my show."
We'll have to wait for the other Gallagher's critique; he couldn't be reached (pricing pumpkins, perhaps?). But middle brother Jerry, a product of the Naval Academy and now a contractor at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station - "I'm the anti-Gallagher" - says the comedic brothers are two different personalities.
"I don't think Ron was much of a comedian when we were growing up," he says. "Butch was the comedian. He was kind of like the entertainment director on a cruise ship. I think Ron enjoys meeting the people."
As for Ron's show, "I know Butch was open to it, then went through a stage where he was mad about it, and now I know they're talking again, so he must be warm to it again."
He doesn't have much choice. Ron Gallagher says he can't imagine doing anything else (and he'll return to Maryland in the fall, fans). There have been setbacks - he had to pay a New Jersey man $700,000 in 1996 after the top of the Sledge-O-Matic flew off and struck the man in the head - but he sounds as content as an unpummeled cantaloupe.
"It's a wonderful thing to get up and smash fruit on people and get paid to do it."
So many watermelons, so little time. But Ron Gallagher believes there's more to his success than flying fruit.
"I look more like Gallagher than he does."
Pub Date: 8/02/98