By Kevin Kelley
Rick DeChant was all business when he worked as an administrator for the federal Transportation Security Administration and as a commander with the U.S. Coast Guard; so much so that people who knew him in those capacities couldn’t imagine him in skits with late-night Cleveland TV hosts “Big Chuck” Schodowski and “Lil’ John” Rinaldi.
But, yes, the same Rick DeChant, who for years solemnly served as master of ceremonies for the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Fairview Park City Hall, also performed as “Samurai Weather Man” in a skit by the same name on WJW-TV’s “Big Chuck and Lil’ John Show.” In the skit, Lil’ John, playing a stage manager, tells the Samurai Weather Man to wrap up his report. An angry samurai instead picks Lil’ John up and throws him through the weather map.
DeChant recalled that he heard a loud sound, then a groan coming from Lil’ John. DeChant had become so engrossed in his character that he threw Lil’ John too far – beyond the mattress that was supposed to break his fall, he recalled.
DeChant was among the former “Big Chuck and Lil’ John Show” performers who participated in the annual Ghoulardifest this past weekend at the LaVilla Conference and Banquet Center in Cleveland. (For folks who may be new to the Cleveland area, Ghoulardifest is named after Ghoulardi, the name of the TV movie host played by Ernie Anderson, who later became a legendary voiceover artist. Ghoulardi’s show was a forerunner to “The Big Chuck and Lil’ John Show.”) This year’s Ghoulardifest featured a special appearance by comic Tim Conway, who appeared in skits alongside Anderson.
During panel discussions at Ghoulardifest, DeChant and others recalled the antics behind the locally produced program. DeChant recounted stories of how Anderson, and later Schodowski, led softballs teams that played local teams to raise money for charity. The Ghoulardi All-Stars kept jugs under their bench, DeChant said.
“That wasn’t Gatorade,” DeChant said, adding they All-Stars were really drinking wine during the games.
While working as a part-time assistant in the WJW-TV news department in 1977, DeChant got to know Schodowski, who directed the station’s newscasts. During the newscasts, DeChant would often do imitations of public figures and offer wisecracks in an effort to make Schodowski crack up while doing his job, he recalled. Schodowski found DeChant so funny he decided to use him in some skits.
One skit, written specifically for DeChant and entitled “Radio Sound Effects Man,” turned out to be the longest skit in the history of the legendary Cleveland program.
The skits always ended with a bad joke, punctuated by a crazy laugh recorded by Jay Lawrence, a former Cleveland radio disc jockey and voice actor. One day while the crew was editing a skit, the tape with Lawrence’s laugh became jammed. The taped skit had to be completed quickly, as a scheduled newscast was about to begin in the same studio, DeChant told West Life.
“I just looked at Chuck and said, ‘I think I can mimic it,’” DeChant said. The Fairview Park native quickly recorded a second version of the crazy laugh that was used for some time on the show. DeChant said he even received royalty checks for several years for his six-second laugh.
At Ghoulardifest Sunday, DeChant said that if he’s around for Schodowski’s funeral, he’d like to loudly yell out the laugh at the end of the church service as a tribute.
DeChant made his way up the news department ranks, eventually becoming the producer of the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. He left Channel 8 in 1984 to take a public affairs job with the Illuminating Company but continued to appear occasionally in “Big Chuck” skits for the next few years.
However, the journalism tradition continues in the DeChant family. His daughter Nicole, who once was mortified with embarrassment when her friends saw her father in his pajamas on TV with Big Chuck and Lil’ John, was recently hired by NBC News in Chicago after working at NewsChannel 5 for three years.