I CONSIDERED Big Little Joey Peske to be a gift from God. It seemed like he fell from the sky one autumn night in 1989 -- a comic comet who, for the next several years, made me and countless other Baltimoreans laugh.
This was back when I moonlighted as host of a weeknight talk show on WBAL Radio. The first time Peske called the show and we spoke on the air, he played me like a cheap ukulele.
"Danny," he said, in a voice that crossed Tom Waits with George Burns, "you made a big mistake on the answer to tonight's Baltimore trivia quiz."
"Yes," the old man said. "The June Taylor Dancers were not the last act at the Chanticleer nightclub when it closed in 1954. ... I was."
"Is that right? And who, may I ask, are you?"
"I'm Big Little Joey Peske. I was a juggler. I used to do vaudeville. I juggled throw pillows. I came on stage after the June Taylor Dancers. ... You can look it up."
I did. Nervous about having made a factual error on a 50,000-watt station, I called the Enoch Pratt Free Library the next morning. Helpful librarians confirmed that, indeed, the June Taylor Dancers had closed the old Chanticleer.
No one had ever heard of Big Little Joey Peske.
That's because Big Little Joey Peske did not exist outside the mind of a prankster named Gary Yealdhall. And Peske did not exist in Gary's mind until the moment he decided to pick up the phone and call WBAL from his house in Severna Park.
Months passed before the producers of the show learned all this, and over the next decade few people came to know our secret -- Big Little Joey Peske was not an elderly, washed-up juggler, but a bright, young graphic artist and illustrator with uncontainable talent.
The most talented man I ever knew.
Soon Peske was a regular voice on the show, and the funniest by far. Peske's humor was unique -- kitschy but hip, Henny Youngman meets Eric Bogosian.
Gary did parody commercials in Peske's voice: The House of Gristle; The ParaNorMall; Petard's Candies. He sang a hilarious version of "Under The Boardwalk" during a broadcast from Ocean City and co-wrote and starred in a radio play about crabs called "Rebel Without A Claw."
In 1991, he organized a polka band called Peske and the Polka Dots. They performed "The Persian Polka" in WBAL's penthouse while David Zinman, former director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, looked on with absolute shock and delight.
When we first aired a Peske radio essay called, "What Is Bowling?" the response from listeners was stunning. Half had cried when they'd heard the tribute to duckpins, half had laughed. For an artist, that was perfection.
Gary pulled off so many funny bits I can't remember them all, and I certainly can't do them justice in this space. (He got WJZ-TV's John Buren in such a snit one night, the sports anchor called the show, whined about what Peske had said and slammed down the phone.)
Gary became Peske whenever so moved, and that was frequently. Every time he visited the studio or called the show, I felt blessed to have had such a funny man come along.
Now he's gone. Just like that, we've lost Gary Yealdhall. He died suddenly the other night after a long series of personal problems, and many of the people who loved the guy are wondering what brought him to such a tragic end. He was 42.
"Here was a guy who wanted nothing but to make people laugh," said Bob Lynch, an artist who once shared a studio with Gary.
Gary did some standup comedy, sang in community theater productions, did a famous Bruce Springsteen imitation. He met his wife, Terri, during a production of "Arsenic & Old Lace" at Brooklyn Park High School in the 1970s.
He was a terrific athlete, smitten with softball, and played several games per week. He'd run from a graphics studio to a softball field, to WBAL, then home, where he'd work into the wee hours finishing an illustration for an advertising agency or other client.
"He could do it all," said his mother, Phyllis Yealdhall of Ocean City. "But he was restless, too, always ready to move on to the next thing. ... He was a complicated boy."
"God's gifts, for Gary, came in bunches," said his good friend, Jim Naylor. "Gary was constant motion. And like many of us in that middle-aged place now, he began to realize that he had to slow down. But for this man who knew only one speed, how would he do this? Full-time job, four great children, more talent than one person could ever wish for, friends in the softball community, singing, acting, coaching, playing."
"Gary was a wonderful person," said his wife, Terri. "He had so much talent yet so many problems, and he didn't know how to deal with them. He wanted to do all these things that gave him a sudden rush, but he couldn't balance them out. ... I know he loved us. But he was always looking for happiness from things that gave him rushes."
In 1995, I left WBAL to become host of a weekly television show. Gary produced and narrated more memorable features, using the Peske voice without ever being seen on camera. But, with so many commitments and interests, his contributions became less frequent, and soon it was clear that Gary, stretched so thin, needed to put Peske out to pasture.
So we said goodbye to Big Little Joey about a year ago, just before the TV show was canceled.
We lost Peske. I didn't know we'd lose Gary.
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye -- to thank him again for sharing his great gifts with us -- and now, for the first time since Gary Yealdhall fell from the sky, I cannot laugh.
A memorial service for Gary Yealdhall will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Gonce Funeral Home on Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn Park. A trust fund has been established for his children -- Aaron, 16, Kristin, 13, Lauren, 12, and Kevin, 8. Contributions may be sent to the Yealdhall Children, c/o Paul Shannon, 20 Elm Drive, Glen Burnie 21060.