Hours after Don Rickles’ April 6 death, Rob Lederman was driving to the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls. This was the last place he saw Rickles. His dog-eared copy of the now-late comedian’s memoir sat on the passenger’s seat. He likened it to a pastor on Sunday.
“A pastor has his Bible on the way to church,” Lederman said. “I’ve got my Rickles book on the way to a show.”
Lederman was heading to the Niagara Falls casino to perform at Barrel of Laughs, a monthly Thursday night showcase. On the way, he was reminiscing about the advice Rickles gave him some 30 years ago: “You’ve got to learn to own the room.”
In the 1980s, before Lederman opened a club (now Rob’s Comedy Playhouse) or became a 97 Rock radio personality in his native Western New York, he was touring nationally as a full-time comic. Lederman was headlining a small comedy club inside a Reno, Nev. casino. Rickles, the sweetly acerbic legend, was headlining the theater stage. Rickles’ regular opener wasn’t available, so Lederman got a call:
Would you open for Don Rickles?
Lederman’s answer was a quick yes.
Rickles, he knew, watched his openers. If he liked you, Rickles would pull you aside after the show, hand you a bottle of champagne with his caricature on it, and “give you this little love tap on the side of your cheek, like, ‘You did OK, kid.’ ”
Lederman wanted that bottle. He wanted that slap. But by the end of the show, he wasn’t sure he’d uncorked enough laughs to deserve them.
“It went OK, but I was used to working comedy clubs,” said Lederman, who waited and waited after the show, wondering if Rickles would approach him.
Finally, he did.
“You’re very funny,” Rickles said, “but you’ve got to learn to own the room.”
Lederman asked Rickles to explain.
“You, as one performer, always have to be bigger than whatever room you’re working,” Rickles said. Then he gave Lederman the slap and a green bottle of champagne.
Lederman began applying Rickles’ advice: He started to walk to stage, filling the available space. He aimed to be “bigger than the crowd.” He became the owner of whatever room he was in.
A few years later, Rickles was headlining at the now-defunct Melody Fair in North Tonawanda. Lederman got another call to open.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to show him what I learned from him,’ ” Lederman said.
He did. That night, Lederman felt like he “killed it.” Afterward, Rickles greeted him with another slap and bottle.
“You made this huge influence on me, sir,” Lederman told Rickles.
“You owned the room,” Rickles said. “You did it great.”
A couple decades passed before Lederman had his final encounter with Rickles — this one, five years ago at the Seneca Niagara Events Center. Rickles was headlining and Lederman had tickets. At the casino, Lederman dropped a few names and got himself backstage to say hello to Rickles.
“Oh yeah!” Rickles said, after Lederman reintroduced himself. “You learned how to work the big room.”
Lederman had Rickles in mind last night during the Barrel of Laughs show. The comics were reminiscing about Rickles performing in the same building. “I realized last night how much I learned from him,” Lederman said.
When he got home around 10:30 p.m., Lederman took a glance at one of his Rickles bottles.
“It’s a trophy,” he said. “If a guitar player had Jimmy Page give him a guitar… he’d never touch that guitar again.”
Lederman will touch that bottle, but he won’t uncork it. Rickles' advice flowed his way years ago. Rickles’ champagne is staying put.