Serious tribute to a funny man
Vineyard Comedy Festival names award for Belushi
While golfing on Martha’s Vineyard, John Belushi once hit a ball that conked a goose on the head.
To the public, who made the late comic actor a superstar in the years before his death at 33 in 1982, that was Belushi: always uproarious, always larger than life. Yet the volcanic prankster came to love the Vineyard because it gave him a retreat - a place to play chess, Monopoly, and, yes, golf, a place to cook sausages and boil lobster, to amble aimlessly down the beach and cover himself in clay mud baths.
Belushi was buried on his beloved island. For the inaugural Martha’s Vineyard Comedy Festival, an offshoot of the Boston Comedy Festival that takes place at various venues today through Tuesday, cofounders Jim McCue and Rob Scherer have established the John Belushi “Larger Than Life’’ Award. Stand-up sets by McCue, Danvers native Nick DiPaolo, and Boston comedy mainstay Steve Sweeney round out the schedule.
Jim Belushi, the actor’s younger brother, now owns what he calls the “funky little beach house’’ John bought in Chilmark from Robert McNamara, the onetime secretary of defense. Belushi says his brother often described the serenity the house gave him by pointing out toward the Atlantic Ocean: “There’s nothing between me and the Falkland Islands,’’ he’d say. “It’s a very special place,’’ says Belushi, whose long-running sitcom, “According to Jim,’’ ended in 2009. “I believe there’s a cord of a certain kind of energy that wraps around the world, and that spirit energy rides right through Martha’s Vineyard.’’
John Belushi was not yet a larger-than-life character when he first visited the Vineyard in 1974 with Judith Jacklin, his future wife. They were on vacation from New York while working together for National Lampoon, whose stage show “National Lampoon’s Lemmings’’ introduced Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest, each of whom would star on “Saturday Night Live.’’
High school sweethearts from the Chicago suburbs, the young couple drove around New England in a borrowed car, staying with friends and acquaintances. When “Lemmings’’ director Tony Hendra implored them to visit the Vineyard, they thought they would be crossing a bridge.
After taking the ferry, the couple stayed at the Menemsha Inn, which was, Judy recalls, “probably a couple more bucks than we could afford.’’ Someone suggested they visit the locals-only Lucy Vincent Beach. Just before they were asked to leave, Belushi told his girlfriend, “Someday I want to own this beach.’’
By the time longtime islander Larry Bilzerian got to know Belushi and his pal Dan Aykroyd, “SNL’’ had made them hot commodities. Belushi’s role in “Animal House’’ was an instant classic, and the two friends’ “Blues Brothers’’ movie and touring revue was a smash success.
“Those guys were like the Beatles. They had a different color limo every day in LA,’’ says Bilzerian, known on the island for his defunct Oak Bluffs clothing store, Take It Easy Baby, which, in its heyday, attracted celebrity customers such as John Lennon and Keith Richards. Bilzerian would go on to cofound the Hard Rock Cafe chain with Isaac Tigrett and Aykroyd, still a close friend. He had bit parts in several of his buddies’ films.
“John was the only guy who could drag me out of the store,’’ says Bilzerian. He recalls that it was James Taylor who drew a map showing how to get to Belushi’s new house.
“It’s on a paper towel up at Jimmy [Belushi]’s,’’ he says. “He framed it.’’ John Belushi, who had a fast-growing collection of blues albums - every blues act “wanted the Blues Brothers to sing their songs so they could get the residuals,’’ says Bilzerian - became close friends with Alex Taylor, James Taylor’s bluesier older brother, who would die of a heart attack in 1993.
Belushi played matchmaker for James Taylor and his second wife, Kathryn Walker, who played the actor’s wife in his last film, the darkly comic ‘‘Neighbors.’’ He befriended the writer William Styron. But for all his celebrity connections, he also hung out with lots of locals - the guy who did his landscaping, for example, and the guy who was the caretaker of the house when McNamara owned it.
Tomorrow the Martha’s Vineyard Comedy Festival will host a free screening of “The Blues Brothers’’ and classic “Saturday Night Live’’ skits at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs. Belushi’s widow, who now goes by the name Judy Belushi Pisano, remarried after John’s death, raised a family, and still lives on the island. A longtime comedy writer who compiled a 2005 oral biography of John Belushi, she will be the first recipient of the award, accepting on her late husband’s behalf.
Steve Sweeney thinks it makes perfect sense for the Boston Comedy Festival, now moving into its second decade, to expand to Martha’s Vineyard. He remembers McCue declaring that he was going to create a Boston alternative to Montreal’s Just for Laughs, the heavyweight among comedy festivals.
“People say stuff like that - ‘I’m gonna build a cabin in Vermont,’ or ‘I’m gonna marry a princess’ - then you never think about it again,’’ he says. McCue actually did it.
“Nothing speaks like success,’’ says Sweeney. “Good for him.’’
Sweeney, who auditioned for his role in “Me, Myself & Irene’’ at director Peter Farrelly’s house on the Vineyard, met Belushi once, at a gig in Greenwich Village. Belushi was in the audience in an Army jacket, a joint in his hand. “He was a pretty mellow guy,’’ the comedian recalls.
Nick DiPaolo was a student at the University of Maine when he heard about Belushi’s accidental drug overdose in a hotel bungalow in West Hollywood.
“I remember waking up in my dorm room and hearing about it,’’ says DiPaolo, who recently taped his latest comedy special, “Raw Nerve.’’ “Like everyone else in their 20s then, I thought ‘Animal House’ was so damned funny. I was crushed, you know? He was a true talent.’’
For Belushi, the Vineyard was a place where he could kick back, where he didn’t have to be “on’’ all the time. Though he clearly had a dark side, says Bilzerian, he didn’t see it on the island.
“He’d go in to New York, and we couldn’t find him,’’ says Belushi’s friend, who remembers him as “an angel.’’ “I don’t know about that part. Who can find someone when they don’t want to be found?’’
After his death, fans had no trouble finding Belushi’s gravesite, near the entrance of Chilmark Cemetery. It was such a popular destination that his widow had his body moved to a remote corner a year after his death.
“I may be gone,’’ reads the original headstone, “but Rock and Roll lives on.’’
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.