THE GOOD HUMOR MAN; DRUMMER FROM SPIKE JONES' BAND KEEPS 'EM LAUGHING WITH WACKY ANTICS.
When the music fills the room at the Reseda senior center, it's as if the show biz high jinks had never stopped.
Joe Siracusa - who spent six years as raucous bandleader Spike Jones' drummer and sound-effects and gag man - is in the spotlight again.
The wiry, mustachioed Siracusa, 76, is often the only man in the roomful of women at the twice-weekly dance class for area seniors, uninhibitedly twisting and turning, kicking and shaking his hips in time to the music.
When the former gagman feels the silliness quotient needs boosting, he reaches into his ``bag of tricks.''
As the dancers gyrate to a Dixieland tune, Siracusa joins in with his slide whistle, then keeps the beat banging a pair of clacking spoons against one thigh. The music takes on a Greek accent, and Siracusa clangs a school bell and blows a train whistle, yelling, ``All aboard!''
The beat picks up and so does the jokester, inserting the blare of an auto horn, ringing sleigh bells and explosive mock sneezes - ``Ya-choo! Ya-choo!'' - as the dancers finally break up with laughter.
``This class is a real delight,'' Siracusa says, his grin as wide as the plaid on one of the Spike Jones' band members' suits. ``I just make a fool of myself, have everybody laughing. I've been doing that all my life, and I'm not going to stop now.''
Siracusa's routines were perfected in the late 1940s and early 1950s while devising sight-and-sound gags for Jones, whose frenetic Dixieland jazz band, one critic complained, ``played like fugitives from a speakeasy with the cops coming in the front door.''
``Joe's our band man, quite a percussionist,'' said Joanne McColloch, a dance instructor at Valley Senior Service & Resource Center in Reseda. ``He just brightens our class and makes it fun.''
``I never saw such a kindhearted man,'' said Martha Goldberg, 81, who sometimes joins Siracusa in his chicken dance, which comes complete with chicken and egg puppets, rooster crowing and other high jinks. ``With all he has to take care of, he comes in and makes things brighter for everybody.''
The past few years haven't been easy ones for Siracusa, who's the father of two daughters and two sons. He was widowed in January 1997 after Eleanor, his wife of 55 years, died of a stroke during heart surgery. That left him as the major caregiver for his pastor son, Jim, who suffered debilitating head injuries in a 1989 auto accident in which Jim's wife was killed.
Nowadays, the former drummer finds comfort in hosting a weekly Bible study group and delivering roses from his garden to cashiers at his local market and post office.
And, of course, spicing up his dance classes. But then, Siracusa has always loved to entertain. You could say it's in his blood.
His father and his grandfather both were tuba players and bandmasters in Sicily; his dad came to the United States in 1905 and played in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus band.
Cleveland-born Siracusa first played bells in his grammar school rhythm band; a photo hanging in the hallway of his Reseda home shows a grinning lad of about 7 or 8, wearing plus-four knickers, with his bell-ringing band buddies.
He learned to play several instruments, but his hands were itching to get ahold of a pair of drumsticks.
``I picked up the sticks and just started playing without any instruction,'' he grinned, mimicking a riff on an imaginary snare drum.
By the time he was in high school, Siracusa was a percussionist in both the school band and orchestra, and worked as a timpani player with the Cleveland Concert Band. After graduating from high school at 16, he played drums for performances in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
At age 20, he married high-school sweetheart Eleanor, 21. ``I put my arm around her one day and never let go,'' recalls an unabashedly sentimental Siracusa, dabbing at his eyes.
Drafted in 1943, Siracusa's Army unit was bound for combat in the South Pacific until his superiors took a liking to the band he'd organized, which was particularly adept at imitating Spike Jones' raucous Dixieland band style so popular with soldiers.
So while most of his buddies were sent to Fort Dix to train for combat, bandleader Siracusa was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, with orders to join the Glenn Miller band.
``My drums saved my life,'' he said. ``I kissed my drums and said, `Thank you, God.' ''
But through a wartime snafu, his orders changed and he and some of his band members were loaded onto a ship bound for New Guinea, where he was to become a combat medic. Halfway there, the ship received word that the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
``They stopped the ship and we started playing, `California, Here I Come,' '' he said. ``We knew the war was over - or would be soon.''
Discharged from the Army in 1946, he wrote to Spike Jones, promising that he could reproduce virtually all the sound effects that kept the bandleader's shows fast-paced and silly.
When the band played Cleveland, Siracusa was summoned backstage to meet the man dubbed ``King of Corn'' by a generation of listeners.
``Spike was sitting there in his zebra-striped bathrobe drinking iced coffee,'' the musician recalled. ``I sang `The Sheik of Araby' with a Jewish
accent, with some hiccups and gargle sounds.'' By the time he'd stopped singing, he had the promise of a tryout.
Told to join the band in Los Angeles after its tour, Siracusa bought a new suit and hopped a westbound train. Soon he was part of ``The Spike Jones Musical Depreciation Review,'' on a countrywide tour, earning $150 a week - with no promises.
The first stop was Fargo, N.D., where the young drummer wowed the dancers - and Jones, too - with his frenzied drumming, his ear-splitting sound effects and his crazy antics.
``After the curtain came down, Spike yelled up at me, ``Joe, you got the job and you got a raise,' '' Siracusa recalled with a grin. ``I was born to be a City Slicker.''
For the next six years, he was a pivotal member of the craziest band anywhere, a raucous group of musicians that played virtually every song double or triple time, punctuated by gunshots, cowbells, auto horns, slide whistles, screams and other sound effects and sight gags.
Siracusa devised new sound-and-sight gags for the band - soap bubbles coming out of the instruments, a trombonist's pants rising and falling with the instrument's slide, a breakaway curtain that collapsed, engulfing the band, at the end of the show. He scoured music and pawn shops for discarded musical instruments and noise-makers, the same ones that make up his ``bag of tricks'' today.
``I used to come out with the trombone and trip and fall into the orchestra pit,'' Siracusa said. ``I was in good shape then and could do it.''
Jones, a prankster himself, used to vie with Siracusa to see who could come up with the best gags. It was the bandleader who devised a suit with a second head attached so he could boast that he employed the only two-headed drummer in show business. But it was Siracusa who rigged the heads so he could take a drag off a cigarette - and have the smoke come out of the second head's mouth.
``The gags we played on each other turned out to be the best part of the show,'' Siracusa said, laughing.
As long as there was music and joking, Siracusa was happy. But when Jones, stung at music critics' dismissal of his band's musical abilities, decided to end the gags and play regular dance music, the drummer lost interest. He left the band in 1952; Jones continued to tour and had his own TV show through 1961. He died of cancer in 1965.
Wore producer's hat
Siracusa may have retired his drumsticks, but he didn't retire from show business. He began making movies. Working for UPA Pictures, he produced ``Mr. Magoo,'' ``Gerald McBoing Boing'' and ``Madeline'' animated films. Then he formed his own company, producing Ross Bagdasarian's ``Chipmunks'' TV cartoon show. Bagdasarian and Siracusa took turns providing the voice of chipmunk Alvin, the trio's troublemaker.
He also did musical arranging and producing for films that included ``The Pink Panther,'' provided sound effects and film editing on ``The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,'' and sound effects for both ``Dr. Seuss'' and ``The Cat in the Hat'' (for which he won two Emmys). He won two Oscars for sound effects and editing on ``Mr. Magoo.'' And in 1991, he received a lifetime achievement award from the International Animation Society.
But after nearly half a century in show business, the time had come to retire. Now he delights in visits from his nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
But the one-time drummer never gave up music entirely. Until son Jim's injury, Siracusa and a group of Spike Jones veterans and others banded together to form the Phunharmonic Orchestra, organizing and performing benefit performances that raised more than $20,000 for the Salvation Army. He's had several requests from other groups - and urgings from talent agents - to get the band back together to play local gigs, but he's turned them all down.
``I've been told I could make a lot of money,'' he said. ``But I do it for fun, for love, that's all. I said once I'll play again - when my son Jim can sit in the audience and applaud. And I believe it'll happen, someday.''
Until then, he hones his jokester skills by keeping his dance class in stitches.
``I love it,'' Siracusa said, grinning. ``I'm a ham. I say if I can make 'em laugh, well, that's what I'm here to do.''
Photo: (1--Cover--Color) THE GAGMAN
Wacky musician Joe Siracusa finds solace in silliness
(2) Joe Siracusa, center, keeps his dance partners at the Valley Senior Service & Resource Center laughing with his routines. ``I've been doing that all my life, and I'm not going to stop now,'' he says.
(3) Bandleader Spike Jones, left, and Joe Siracusa tried to outdo each other with funny new gags for the zany orchestra.
(4) ``I never saw such a kindhearted man. ... He comes in and makes things brighter for everybody,'' says Martha Goldberg, 81, joining Joe Siracusa in his prop-laden chicken dance.
Terri Thuente/Daily News
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. LIFE|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1998|
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