Al Canal got his catchy stage name before he started performing stand-up or even thought about a career managing comedy clubs.
It was the late 1970s. Al was too young to drink alcohol in Missouri, but not Illinois, so one night he crossed the river to go to a bar with four friends. One asked why he wasn’t his usual talkative and jovial self.
“I said, ‘I went to the dentist today, and he said I need a root canal,’” recalls Al, 57, who now manages the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville.
The friends quickly dubbed him “Al Canal” and continued the joke at the bar. At one point, they convinced a table of girls that he was a TV personality.
“The next day, I thought it’d be kind of funny if I got baseball caps made that said, ‘I know Al Canal,’” he said.
The caps were a huge hit. Al began selling them to hone his marketing skills and later added “Do you know Al Canal?” bumper stickers.
Today, the vast majority of his acquaintances, co-workers and even some friends think Canal is his real last name. It’s on his email and Facebook page and the Wildey website.
Edwardsville mayor Hal Patton knows Canal is a nickname, only because he’s Al’s employer. The city owns the theater.
“I wish it was a more dentist-friendly story,” said Hal, 47, a dentist who performs root canals.
Theater in need
The Wildey began as an opera house in 1909 and showed movies until 1984. It sat vacant for 15 years before the city bought it and renovated it into a community center.
Aldermen were concerned about high operational costs two years ago, when they brought in Al as general manager.
“We were a little apprehensive about hiring a comedian to manage our struggling theater,” the mayor said. “But he had lots of experience going into comedy venues and reworking them and reviving them.”
We were a little apprehensive about hiring a comedian to manage our struggling theater, but he had lots of experience going into comedy venues and reworking them and reviving them.
Mayor Hal Patton on hiring Al Canal
Al reduced the number of Wildey shows and added variety — concerts for all ages and musical tastes, classic films, stage plays, etc.
He also helped cement the theater’s reputation as a small, but desirable venue for national touring acts, such as Judy Collins, Dave Mason and Billy Bob Thornton.
Finally, Al boosted efforts to rent the second and third floors for private functions.
“The Wildey was on wobbly ground, and he stabilized it, not only the programming but the finances,” the mayor said.
Unofficially, Al has become the city’s in-house comic, entertaining employees such as Cheryl Watson, Hal’s executive assistant.
“He’s absolutely hilarious,” she said. “The man’s got a comeback or answer for everything.”
Cheryl, 62, also is impressed by Al’s color-coordinated wardrobe, which includes more than 70 brimmed hats accessorized with feathers. He thinks a theater manager should look sharp out of respect for patrons.
The only time Al goes hatless is when he attends the Kentucky Derby each year. He wears a brightly colored linen walking suit with matching shoes.
“He has many, many fashionable hats,” Cheryl said. “He wears a different one every day. I don’t know that I’ve even seen him wear the same hat twice.”
During a recent weekday, Al made his way to the front row of the Wildey balcony, where he likes to hold meetings. Boldly patterned carpet follows an art-deco theme.
“I was told that they reproduced the carpeting that was here in the 1930s, but if that’s true, I don’t know. I wasn’t here in the 1930s,” he deadpanned.
Al grew up in University City and Creve Coeur, Mo. His father owned a small grocery store and butcher shop, and his mother was a homemaker rearing three children.
Al had a speech impediment but charged ahead with jokes and wisecracks in high school. He figured he was the only person smart enough to learn “Albonics.”
“I guess I’ve always had a little bit of sense of humor,” he said. “But if you would have told me I was going to be in the comedy or theater business or I was going to be a stand-up comedian, I would have been like, ‘No.’”
A visit to a Clayton, Mo., comedy club in the late 1970s proved to be life-changing. Al wore his customized cap, and the comedian called him up on stage.
“He said, ‘It’s nice to know you, Al Canal,’ and I reached into my pocket and pulled out a bumper sticker, and I said, ‘It’s nice to know you, too. Would you like to buy a bumper sticker?’ And the crowd went crazy.”
On the road
The club owner invited Al to come back and perform five-minute stand-up routines on Friday nights, earning $30 and free drinks. He made another $90 on caps and bumper stickers.
The success led him to quit college after earning an associate’s degree at St. Louis Community College at Meramec and travel the Midwest with his act.
“I was a prop comic,” he said. “In one 40-minute show, I would use a full-size mannequin, an automobile door, a bowling ball ... Not counting the big stuff, I had three other cases of props. By the time I was done, the floor was covered.”
I was a prop comic. In one 40-minute show, I would use a full-size mannequin, an automobile door, a bowling ball ... Not counting the big stuff, I had three other cases of props. By the time I was done, the floor was covered.
Al Canal on his stand-up comedy routine
Al encouraged audiences to yell out catch phrases or answers to silly questions, which helped him develop a loyal following.
“It was almost like going to the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ because the crowd was involved,” said comedian and longtime friend Alex Reymundo, 51, of Louisville, Ky. “They knew what was coming. They played along with him.”
Al also expanded his product line to include “I slept with Al Canal” pillow cases, “I’d rather be with Al Canal” women’s nightshirts and “Al Canal was here” panties.
His act was rated PG, except for one cuss word and a mannequin bit.
“I would wheel her out as a famous stripper,” he said. “I put motors in her boobs so her tassels spun around for the big close. People loved that.”
A YouTube video shows Al doing stand-up in 1981 at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. He was a lanky young man with dark-framed glasses, a red cap and mop of hair.
Janel Ellsworth, 42, watched the video in 2014 when preparing to interview for her current job as Wildey assistant manager.
“He kind of looked like a serial killer — a person you’d want your kids to stay away from,” she said. “It just cracked me up.”
Finding his niche
Al got tired of traveling after six or seven years and began managing the Funny Bone in Westport Plaza, where he performed periodically.
One of Alex’s favorite bits was Al’s interpretation of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” using an actual car door with birds attached to wire hangars.
326 Seats at the Wildey
70 Hats owned by Al Canal
“This was probably the biggest prop any comedian had ever carried on stage,” Alex said. “It must’ve weighed 200 pounds. He pretended like he was driving the car and the birds were coming at him, and he would just scream. It was hilarious.”
Al went on to manage other clubs in St. Louis, Fairview Heights, Tulsa, Okla., Kansas City and Denver. He created his own booking agency and wrote jokes for other acts.
Today, Al lives in Creve Coeur, Mo., with his wife, Peggy, who works in hospital human relations. Daughter Madeline, 23, is graduating from college this spring.
Al uses the daily commute to think of ways to attract people to the Wildey and keep them coming back.
“Nowadays, you don’t have to leave your house to be entertained,” he said. “So if you’re going to get people to leave their houses, you’ve got to show them not just a good time, but a great time.”
Janel is amazed by Al’s energy, even when he’s had a long, busy or stressful day.
“Once an event starts, he’s full-on Al Canal,” she said. “He’s there to make sure everything goes smoothly. It’s like a whole other persona. He’s in his element.”