I started performing in Guam when I was 14,” entertainer Christopher Linnell said. “Guamanians didn’t do standup or entertainment so it was easy for me to become famous there.” He laughed. “I was the obnoxious white kid performing as Crisco the Clown. I even had a card. My mother designed it. No one remembers an obnoxious kid, but when you hand them a card, it’s paper marketing.”
Now 52, Linnell recently completed a book, Pretending to Make a Living: Memories of My Four Decades as an Entertainer, Comic, Actor, Broadcaster and Tour Guide.
He began his local career after moving to Petaluma two years later. Unlike Guam, where he was a celebrity, here no one knew him. In October, 1977, after being here six months, he and his dad took part in a 21-mile walkathon. “Because it wasn’t a race,” he said, “and because everyone else was walking and we were running, we came in first. There was no prize, either.
“That’s what makes a good joke,” he added. “If it’s a list, there have to be three.”
There may not have been a prize, but he got to meet two disc jockeys from KTOB, the Petaluma radio station. “They fell in love with me because I was funny. I don’t know if I should say that though – oh geez, I just said it.”
Several months later, he saw a flyer for a Petaluma High talent show. He was unhappily attending Casa Grande High. “Petaluma was this stupid chicken town, my first class was gym and it was always foggy and 55 degrees, after living six years in a tropical paradise where – in my own mind – I was a cultural icon.”
He performed in the show and the hosts were the KTOB disc jockeys. “I did my act of celebrity voices, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come back to the radio station and read some ads?’”
He began with the Sunday morning religious programs. Since it was believed few people listened to the show, a newbie could make mistakes.
Young, brash, fearless and funny, he didn’t make many, he was too busy learning how to be a DJ. He moved to the Saturday morning spot, then the popular Saturday night spot.
In the early 1980s, an on-air joke got him a job at KSRO in Santa Rosa. “I spent five years there, four years at KTOB and more than six months at both stations,” he said. He was working on the side as a clown and “considered entertaining my real job.”
Linnell had a chance to prove it when the KSRO ratings dropped and he was let go. “I said I’m going to be a full-time entertainer. It freaked out my wife, but I knew what I was doing. Within a couple of years, I was doing far better than I’d done on radio.”
He’d kept some radio work, was doing clown shows, offering singing telegrams from his stable of impressions, acting in movies and TV commercials.
“My entertainment career,” he said, “is based on interaction with people. It’s all improv.”
How long has he been an entertainer? Almost his whole life. By the time he was 2, he was watching not his mother’s soap operas but the commercials. “I’d recite them; mimic the actors. “It’s Mr. Clean,” he boomed. “It’s good for your bathroom.
“Later, Flip Wilson was my hero.” And he turns into Wilson, squealing his catchphrase, “The devil made me buy this dress!”
Back in own persona for a moment, Linnell said, “I wanted to be black. Their skin is so much nicer than ours and their hair was always perfect. They were so cool.”
His other favorite alter ego was Elvis. “Are you lonesome tonight?” he crooned so realistically one looked to see if Elvis had returned to the building.
Linnell loves karaoke nights. Suddenly Tom Jones appeared, crooning, “Why, why, why, Delilah?” From Jones, it was an eye blink to Sammy Davis singing, “What kind of foooool am I?” He said when he does Johnny Cash, “people will be talking but then they hear Cash singing and they stop, shake their heads and say, ‘My God, I thought Johnny Cash was here.’”
In 1989, he stopped his Crisco the Clown routine. “I was getting too old. I was, like, 30. It was hard to be faster than a 5-year old. The kids had punched me in the groin so much, I’d taken to wearing a cup.” Also, the singing telegrams had been a big hit.
When they slowed, he switched to what he calls “corporate comedy,” hired to come in during dull but required meetings such as safety updates. “Employees would be falling asleep. But I’d do a game show, incorporating the safety information. If the material is presented in a funny fashion,” he said, “people remember it better.”
That lasted, he said, until 9/11, “when every corporate comedy job was cancelled. That’s when I started doing wine tours, tours of Yosemite, history tours of San Francisco. I was a history major in college.”
By the time commute traffic got to be too much, Linnell said, “Screw this. I’m going to write my book. I always wanted to write a book.” That was in 2010. And he did. Two, in fact. The first was a screenplay. “But I had no way to sell it. I needed to be a salesman, which I’ve never been good at.”
So the screenplay sat on his desk and he went to work as a driver for FedEx and also the Sonoma Wine Trolley. And, when the season ended, it really was time for his book.
And now that the book’s written, what next? Linnell’s not sure – but stick around folks, he’ll be here all week.
Christopher Linnell’s Pretending to Make a Living: Memories of My Four Decades as an Entertainer, Comic, Actor, Broadcaster and Tour Guide is available at CreateSpace.com/4280385. He’ll be at the Petaluma Library, 100 Fairgrounds Drive, at 2 p.m, Saturday, Nov. 2.