Back in the day when he was playing Vegas nightclubs and working as a costar in the comedy “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” Ronnie Schell earned the moniker America’s Slowest Rising Comedian.
It was a tongue-in-cheek name pinned to Schell by Don Sherwood, a famous radio personality who sometimes went by the title The World’s Greats Disc Jockey. The label was meant as a joke, as a result of so many of the comedians breaking into the business at the same time as Schell — Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, and others — having gone on to stardom while Schell continued playing the nightclub circuit.
“I’m America’s Slowest Rising Old Comedian,” he says with a laugh.
At 85, he is the oldest regularly appearing comedian in Las Vegas, continuing a career that started more than six decades ago, while he was still a college senior.
“I was always sort of a cut-up,” he said. “I’ve just always been funny.”
After playing high school and some semi-pro baseball, Schell said he began to realize his dream of making a living as a Major Leaguer wasn’t likely. “I was a great hitter … but I was slow.” So he joined the Air Force.
There, he says, his penchant for garnering laughs got him out of kitchen duty and onto the stage as an emcee for military variety shows. Once he was done with his military service, Schell returned to his California roots, attending San Francisco State University. During his senior year he auditioned at a nightclub called The Purple Onion — a venue where stars such as Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Jim Nabors, and the Kingston Trio got their start.
He landed the job, and five months later was on the road, touring with the Kingston Trio. Over the next few years he did a number of shows, even opening for Andy Griffith at one time.
Eventually, the got his big break as a television star when his old Purple Onion friend, Jim Nabors, got his own show: “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
Schell played Duke Slater, a regular supporting role in the ensemble cast of a production Mayberry fans recognize as a spin-off from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
He appeared on the Gomer Pyle show for three years, then left when offered the leading role in another sitcom, “Good Morning World.” While the show did generate a little excitement, it was cancelled after one season, so Schell returned to The Gomer Pyle Show for its final season.
Over the coming years he appeared as a guest star in a number of other television shows. Among those were The “Patty Duke Show,” “Yes, Dear,” “The Brian Keith Show,” “Love Boat,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “M*A*S*H,” “Emergency!,” and many others.
Of course, one of those productions was “The Andy Griffith Show,” appearing in two episodes, “The Foster Lady” and “Emmett’s Anniversary.”
Like many others who had a guest appearance or two on the show, Schell describes the experience as rewarding, and the atmosphere on the set as welcoming to everyone who ever showed up.
Then again, he wasn’t exactly a stranger when he made his appearances. In addition to his work on Gomer Pyle, he had known Andy Griffith and Don Knotts for several years.
“I had worked with Andy in Nevada — he had a night club act and I opened for him — and also for Don Knotts in several places. They sort of treated me like family.
“My manager, the late Dick Linke, also managed Andy and Jim Nabors, that’s how I got together with them, then we just became friends. Andy and I were very close, and Don later became close. I was the principle speaker at Don’s memorial.”
As his self-depreciating title of America’s Slowest Rising Old Comedian might indicate, he’s still active.
In addition to a regular show in Vegas, he makes appearances around the world. Later this fall he’s scheduled to perform at Harveys Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino in Nevada.
This week, though, he is right here in Mount Airy, appearing for the annual Mayberry Days festival.
“This is my fifth time appearing at Mayberry Days,” he said earlier this week.
He said Tanya Jones, executive director of Surry Arts Council, approached him about appearing five years ago and he’s been here every year since, though he doesn’t do the same show each time.
“This will be the second time I’ve done my one-man comedy show. The last one was very successful, so Tonya wanted me to do it again,” he said.
Of all “The Andy Griffith Show” alumni who appear here, Schell said he may be “one of the few” who still has a regular act.
“I’ve worked Vegas every year for 51 years. … When the opportunity came up to do Mayberry Days, I said yes, I’d like to. I really look forward to it every year.”
He said the show is basically the one he does in Las Vegas, with a few modifications.
“You have to make it a family show, not a Vegas show. I don’t do anything dirty in Vegas, but you can go to the borderline in Vegas. You don’t want to in Mount Airy. It’s a family show, so I adapt.”
He also said he’ll have elements from his first-ever act, from way back in his Purple Onion days.
“I’ve made some changes in it, but I think it’s still very funny, I think it will hold up.”
Schell will be doing his show, “Third Time Around, Funnier Than Ever” today at 1:30 p.m. in the Historic Earle Theatre. He’s also scheduled to be in Saturday’s Mayberry Days parade, as well as taking part in autograph sessions and other Mayberry Days events.
Reach John Peters at 415-4701.