Shank Hall switches gears this Sunday to host a comedy tribute to C. Cardell Willis, "Milwaukee's King of Comedy," April 22 at 8 p.m.
Organized by Willis' mentee and award-winning Milwaukee-based comedian Dobie Maxwell, the evening's laugh-heavy line-up includes acclaimed stand-up artists Chris Barnes, Brady Street, SteveDeClark, Tyrone Pierre Dumas, Richard Halasz, David Lee Hendrickson, Nola Jaye, Art Kumbalek, Chrys Lavelette, Ira Novos, Mark Shilobrit, Cliff Watson and P.M. Zych.
"This will be a fantastic, one-time only reunion of comedians for a past generation," says Maxwell, adding that with hilarious routines, surprise guests and a giant cake, "it will be a tribute fit for a king."
Mayor Tom Barrett has proclaimed April 22 to be C. Cardell Willis Day in Milwaukee.
Willis was instrumental in the development of Milwaukee's stand-up comedy scene. Gaining recognition in the 1970s, he brought attention to an art form that had previously been scarce in the area. He also exposed all-white audiences to the talents of a black artist in a time of racial tension in Milwaukee.
At that time, there were no comedy clubs in the city, and Willis helped introduce live comedy to the audiences of Southeastern Wisconsin.
"Cardell was the host of the only stand-up comedy showcase in Wisconsin when I started in 1983," says Maxwell. "It was every Monday at Sardino's on Farwell, and it was an unpaid open-mic showcase. He and his manager, Shirley Schaak, ran the show, and anybody who wanted to perform had to go through them. They were both sweet people, and always would go out of their way to be nice to young performers."
There is special significance to the tribute's location. Shank Hall was formerly a club known as Teddy's where Willis and his cohorts would often perform.
"There's some significant comedy history there," Maxwell says.
Willis was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and passed away in 2007. He would have been 75 on April 20.
Admission to the Milwaukee's King of Comedy tribute is an $11 donation at the door. All proceeds will go directly to the Boy Scouts of America and The American Diabetes Association.
Maxwell emphasizes that while Willis was a great comedian and a pioneer in the Milwaukee comedy scene, his legacy as a mentor and community activist is what is most enduring about his memory.
"He wasn't the most well-known comedian in the world, but like a lot of the great baseball managers, his teaching prowess was world-class," Maxwell says. "He was a leader, a mentor, a friend – any one of those things would be fantastic, but he was all three."
Willis was involved in the civil rights movement and for decades acted as an inner-city Boy Scout leader. For those Boy Scouts – and for the comics he took under his wing – his encouragement and guidance will last a lifetime.
"Every single time I go up on a comedy stage, even now, a little bit of him is with me," Maxwell says.