A recent comedy fundraiser held in Bellmore Theater served to prove that, while life is fragile and can be taken from us at anytime, laughter never dies, and can often be the first step in healing from a terrible loss.
Serving as both a celebration of the life for the late Medford-based comedian Vince Dantona, who unexpectedly passed away in February at the age of 62, as well as a fundraiser to help his surviving family, the comedy show held on Sunday saw Bellmore Theater filled with family, friends and co-workers who turned out to pay tribute to a special man.
Randy Levin, one of the comedians who performed at the tribute, worked with Dantona for more than 20 years.
“Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Vince ... he always had a smile on his face,” Levin said. “He was an amazingly great guy.”
Dantona served as a Marine in Okinawa, working as a tunnel rat, a dangerous job where he was often lowered into underground holes armed only with a pistol and a flashlight in order to flush out enemy troops hidden within.
While serving overseas, Dantona took an interest in ventriloquism, learning the art through a correspondence course. He soon purchased a wooden dummy, whom he dubbed “George,” and upon returning stateside, began a successful comedy career, highlighted by being the first $10,000 winner of the television program "America’s Funniest People" in 1991.
In addition, Dantona also appeared on many other TV shows and toured with big-name talent throughout his career.
The tribute show in Bellmore had a full roster of local comedians who performed in front of a packed audience, which included Dantona’s wife and three adult children
“One hundred percent of the proceeds are going to Vince’s family,” Levin said. “We, the comedians, are absorbing any costs, so whatever money that comes in goes to the family.”
Rick Morgan, a friend of Dantona for more than 30 years, helped put together the event.
“It was very easy to make it happen,” he said. “We had a contact with the Bellmore Theater ... they’re good people over there.”
Each comedian performed seven minutes worth of material, with Dantona’s now-mute ventriloquism dummy, George, seated off to the side of the stage with a sign reading “speechless” at his feet.
While each comic briefly paused to reminisce about their late friend, according to Levin, the mood overall was kept upbeat on purpose.
“We’re going to keep it light for obvious reasons. We don’t want to turn it into a eulogy ... people are coming to laugh,” he said. “I’m sure Vince wouldn’t want anything heavy, anyway, because he’d laugh it off.”
According to Levin, the end of Dantona's life was as surprising as it was tragic. Having performed at a show only the night before, Dantona had driven home from the Poconos in upstate New York with another comedian and then gone to bed, only to pass away unexpectedly in his sleep.
“They were laughing, talking, and singing the whole way back,” he said. “Then he went to bed and didn’t wake up. He was always in good shape, so it was a bit of a shock and a surprise.”
For comedian Chilly Most, the passing of Dantona was an especially poignant loss.
“He was like a personal friend ... like a family member to me,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of shows with him, and he was always a warm, loving kind of guy, always good-spirited, always willing to lend a helping hand. He will be missed.”
To Morgan, the feelings generated by the successful tribute show to his friend were, obviously, quite mixed.
“It feels good, but it also feels bad,” he said. “I imagine that a lot of the satisfaction will come from the exhilaration of the performance, and that the laughter we give will, in a sense, be his.”