It’s been one year since we learned that Otto Petersen, of the famed comedy ventriloquism duo Otto and George, passed away. Not only was Otto a tremendous comedian, but there was so much more to him even beyond his act that might not be apparent to fans who went to see his comedy. He was a fascinating guy with a great history and a tremendous respect for art, culture and the comedy of the greats who inspired him. Otto’s stories about his early days working as a street performer in New York are absolutely priceless, not only for what they revealed about his experiences, but also as a window on New York City in the 70s.
Otto had also just started writing for us a few months before he died, and shared two pieces with us, giving insight into his love of film, and and his thoughts about a comedian who changed his life. On March 17, 2014 we published, “Otto Petersen Picks 1974 as the Greatest Year in Film” and just after he passed, we published his story about his inspirations “Otto Petersen’s These Comedian Changed My Life.” You can also read his good friend Joe Conte’s piece saying goodbye to his friend, published originally on May 5, 2014 and Jim Florentine’s thoughts about his friend, published this December.
There are many people today sharing some of their favorite Otto and George performance clips, so instead of putting together a clip list we wanted to share Otto’s writings, and his one hour episode of Unmasked with Ron Bennington. Listen to the hour, and read some of the excerpts, they will enrich you.
During the Unmasked episode, Otto talked about some of the amazing encounters he had while coming up in the business. Otto never had a regular job outside of entertaining people– his very first job was as a street performer, with George. During the Unmasked, he has some great stories about some of the things he experienced while working as a street performer in New York City in the 70’s and some of the run-ins he had with some extraordinary people . Here are just a few of the stories he told during the one hour Unmasked.
* * *
Otto Petersen: John Lennon hung around with me and gave me two bucks. And everybody like goes – “well, did you save it?” It’s like – I didn’t know the guy was going to get killed. (laughs) He was always there. “You should have saved the two bucks.” Right. Here they are. Whatever. He was always in the park. But that one time he stopped and then later on after he was dead, and I read his biography, I felt good that I made him laugh during a troubled time in his life. He was in trouble in the mid-70s, I guess with heroin or what not…. I thought shit like that was going to happen all the time. (laughs) It was amazing. Yeah, he was so cool. He was really nice. He said – make sure the dummy gets at least a $1.50. (laughs) He was funny. The Beatles were always funny guys.
* * *
Otto Petersen: 45th and Broadway was another great corner for me. That’s where I met Peter Falk. Peter Falk shilled for me for an hour. He hung out. He kept – (Peter Falk impression) Alright start the show over again. That was terrific. This is really working out. And then he kept, putting a dollar in. C’mon you cheap bastards, the kid’s working hard. And then he gave me 50 bucks at the end of an hour and a half. He told me I had a lot of guts. That was awesome.
Ron Bennington: And he was just a guy walking by, sees this.
Otto Petersen: Yeah. He had some time to kill before he was meeting some agent or something like that. Yeah, he stayed with me a long time. He stayed through like 5 or 6 shows. He was great.
* * *
Otto Petersen: Yeah, I used to work with Eddie Murphy back – right before Saturday Night Live. He was cool. We used to meet in Flushing, Queens on 71st and Continental. And we’d meet there and take a bus to a club called the Rainy Nighthouse in – I think it was in Kew Gardens, Queens. And then when we would drive a gig, Eddie’s thing was he would always fall asleep when we got to a toll, so he wouldn’t have to chip in money. He would do it funny. He would like snore loudly with his head back. (laughs) And then he used to say – I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 21. He would say it every time I was with him. Before they even had that positive thought shit. (laughs) But he did. He did pull it off. He was a millionaire by the time he was 21 and I remember that. He would always say it. And then he would spend a lot of time working on his hair in the car. He would that picking and patting thing. He did a lot of that.
* * *
Otto Petersen: Another time when I was street performing, Yul Brynner was doing “The King and I”. (laughs) At the Minskoff Theater on 46th and Broadway. He was doing a revival of “The King and I”. And I’d be in the middle of a show and a limo would pull up and fucking “Westworld” would jump out and bust up my audience. (laughs) Everybody would go – oh fuck it’s the guy from “The Magnificent Seven”. Holy shit. And ruin my fucking show. And then one time he caught me between shows and I was counting my change and he came over to me. And he was like – (Yul Brynner voice) I’m sorry. I busted up your tip. Would you like to come to a rehearsal? So I got to see him rehearse “The King and I”. But I only knew him from “Westworld”. I loved that movie.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Did you ever have any of those kind of troubles where somebody tried to steal your hat or George?
Otto Petersen: Yeah. George was stabbed in Central Park. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: It’s so weird. I didn’t read about that in the paper. (laughs) Now who stabbed him?
Otto Petersen: A Puerto Rican, what do you think? (laughs) It’s a cliche, but yeah.
Ron Bennington: Everyone enjoy that moment before we edit it out. (laughs)
Otto Petersen: He was of Hispanic descent.
Ron Bennington: Oh, that’s better.
Otto Petersen: I know because the scent was coming in my direction. (laughs) But I still have the scar here from that. I was holding on to the head stick, George’s head stick. And he cut me here, so I was bleeding after that. And everybody thought it was a great story and a good compliment. Oh, it’s a compliment. They stabbed the puppet.
Ron Bennington: Did he realize that George was a puppet?
Otto Petersen: He must of been on Angel Dust or some heavy drug because he had a weird look in his eyes. His pupils were gigantic. And he was fixated on the doll and he wasn’t looking at me. And he was like doing one of these and just getting all amped up. And then just jumped out and said “El Diablo!” and stuck him and ran.
* * *
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.