By Dave Woods
Digital market development manager
BRANSON, Mo. —
Gary Presley said he doesn't remember much about the first time he performed on stage as a comedian.
"The family was doing a radio show in Springfield back in 1962 and they needed somebody to play comedy," said the seasoned stage veteran. "I did, and I've been doing it ever since. I'd get a few laughs and say a little something funny and get a few more laughs. It just grew from there."
More than 50 years later and with thousands of stage, radio and television shows under his belt, Presley said he does remember the day his stage name, Herkimer, was coined.
"Lloyd Evans, a radio announcer, gave me that name," he said. "I didn't come up with it. He just put that name on me. He used to be an announcer for the Carter Family Show back in the '40s and '50s. June Carter, who was Johnny Cash's wife, had a song out called ÔHerkimer the Bull.' I'm sure that's where it came from."
The strange name stuck.
Now, Presley takes the stage six days a week as Herkimer, the clever and funny hillbilly who always seems to come out on top of the situation at hand. Gary, his brother, Steve, and Presley's three sons and a cadre of other family members and talented entertainers, draw crowds to "Presleys' Country Jubilee," one of Branson's heritage shows.
The family is billed as "Branson's First Family of Entertainment." Gary Presley shares the comedy spotlight with his son and grandson.
"I have three sons in the show," he said. "Eric (whose on-stage character is named Cecil) is my youngest son. Greg, who plays harmonica, is my middle son and Scott, who plays lead guitar and does vocals, is my oldest son. I have a grandson named Ben and he plays Little Cecil. We don't try to push them on the stage too much. Just enough to add a little flavor to the show."
Eric is dad Herkimer's comedy sidekick. Presley said he has watched his son's talents develop since his first appearances as a 3-year-old and has watched Eric's natural humor grow.
"Working with Eric on comedy is just so much fun. He'll come up with an idea and it just goes from there," he said. "I can see him more relaxed all the time. He's always been funny. Even when he was a little kid he was funny. He's a natural."
Presley said the key to being a good comedian is simple. Riding the wave of audience laughter and reading their reaction is important.
"It's knowing what's funny and what's not working and knowing when to get off the stage," said Presley. "It's true. You got to know when to leave before you die out there."
Before most kids had started kindergarten, Presley's sons were regularly featured on stage in the '70s and early '80s.
"All three of my sons would be dressed alike," he said. "They were called little Herkimers back then. Greg and Scott went on to become musicians, and Eric kept hanging with the comedy. Thank goodness he did. He bails me out when I get in trouble on stage."
Hopefully, Presley said, his grandson, Ben, will grow into the business because "I'm about worn out," he joked.
"I have other grandkids, but Ben has a special talent and comes up with his own special moves."
Not all of young Ben's on-stage antics stay in the show.
"Sometimes he does things that we have to tell him not to do again," his grandfather said, laughing.
With a half-century of experience, Presley said each season the family keeps the comedy fresh and relevant. But he added that some comedy ages well.
"Some of the things I did 50-some years ago I still do now. I just update the story," he said. "I've always tried to include some current events other than old corny jokes. We try to do everything."
Every four years Herkimer runs for president -- he has since he campaigned against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Reminiscent of comedian Pat Paulson's regular satirical runs for president, Herkimer did political fights that never worked out in his -- or Paulson's -- electoral favor. Herkimer and Paulson, who was a six-time candidate for president and fellow Branson show comedian, attempted to mount a presidential debate, but it never came to pass.
The Presleys change up their show's offerings often.
"As far as the comedy, we have things that we've picked up over the years," he said. "We write our own jokes and some are just mistakes that happen on stage, and if it works we leave it in the show."
Some of the clan's comedy is laden with double entendres and pop-culture-related humor.
"We bump the line a little bit," Presley said. "It's fun to hit on things that are happening in the news right now and not go too far in either direction."
With TV shows on RFD-TV and Family Net, "Presleys' Country Jubilee" hits about half a million homes each week. Presley is optimistic concerning the show family's future.
"I see nothing but it growing," he said of the show's TV programs, live stage show, national visibility and Ozarks heritage.
"We get people from all over the world at our show," he said. "They come to the show, and they want to see some hillbillies and some Ozarks flavor. That's what they have heard about, and we take care of them and give them what they want to see."
Presley speaks highly of his on-stage family and crew of professional entertainers and musicians.
"Everybody is good," said Presley. "I've always tries to surround myself with really good talent. That way I can just cruise through the whole thing."