WHEN WIP-FM (94.1) personality Big Daddy Graham recalls his late dad, the memories don't come flooding back. Trickling back is more like it; Graham has exactly 67 memories of his father, Al Gudonis, who died of cancer at age 62 in 1974.
Those recollections were collected in Last Call … Remembering My Dad, a 2003 volume so slight it's kind of a stretch to call it a book. Each got its own one- or two-sentence page (e.g. "The only proof of his existence at all is [a] set of Dutch Masters playing cards. Occasionally I play solitaire with them."). But despite its brevity, Last Call obviously struck a chord. Graham says the book has sold upward of 30,000 copies. It also spawned a successful one-man theatrical piece that will be staged Thursday through Saturday at the Media Theatre for the Performing Arts for the first time since its 2005 inaugural run at Society Hill Playhouse. Thursday's performance is already sold out.
"People just kept bugging me to do it again," said Graham, speaking in a Southwest Philly accent undiluted by decades as a comedian and talk-radio host. "So I asked around to see if anyplace was interested, and the Media Theatre was."
Last Call was inspired by a conversation Graham had with his sister decades after Gudonis' death. She asked him about his memories of their dad, and Graham was astonished to discover he had none that were readily available. He began jotting down random reminiscences for purely personal reasons. It wasn't an easy task, for the man described in Last Call was a taciturn, emotionally distant person whose universe was pretty much defined by his blue-collar job, the corner tap room and an abiding love of the Phillies and Eagles.
"My dad was not somebody anybody should have known," Graham said matter-of-factly.
Since the book came out, Graham has learned more about his dad's life and why, perhaps, he acted the way he did. He's made this part of the show's conclusion, but declined to discuss it.
Graham didn't start cataloging his memories so he could go public with them. That changed when former Daily News editor Larry Platt, a friend, learned about Graham's writing and encouraged him to publish.
Graham is gratified — and more than a little puzzled — by the response. "I've been flabbergasted by the success of the book and what it means to people," he said. "It has this crazy little cult following."
He has his theories as to why the book has resonated so deeply with people. He cited its "emotional honesty," but also another possible, if self-deprecating reason. "I wish I could say I'm a brilliant writer, but it's not that. It's that this is not intimidating for people who [normally] don't read books."
Interestingly, Graham recalled being "detached" while he was writing the book in the privacy of his home, but he admitted to an entirely different experience when he performs the piece before an audience. "It's extremely personal when I act it out onstage," he said. "I get really emotionally involved."
Although he came from what today might be considered a dysfunctional family, Graham insisted that while growing up in the 1950s and '60s, he never felt he was missing out on anything — even after watching the caring, nurturing, strict-but-fun TV dads on such sitcoms as "Father Knows Best" and "My Three Sons."
"Nothing on TV looked like my life, or the lives of any of my friends," he said. "The kitchens were all big enough to play touch football in, and the mothers had nice dresses they wore around the house all day. To me, they were pirates or aliens. People from an alien planet." n
Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his CasiNotes casino blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/casinotes/ and follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow.