Curtain Call

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Like his son, Dick suffered from bipolar disorder. Patrick Gerace, a childhood friend of Don's, recalls visiting him one day only to find Dick Becker (who passed away several years ago) sitting out on the front lawn in his underwear reading the paper; he had completely reassembled the living room outdoors.

Don had one sister, Beth, who was born deaf, and his mother remembers that he always seemed to understand and communicate with her better than anyone else. He was very enjoyable as a baby, his mother says, and he was a very smart, bright child, but by the time he got to junior high school he started acting up a bit — albeit in his own way.

"You know how kids will hide a comic book or something behind the book they're supposed to be reading?" Marion Becker remembers. "Don got in trouble for doing that with Buckminster Fuller." Marion knew her son suffered from mental illness, but the attitude toward such diseases in the 1960s was a far cry from what it is today. She simply dealt with it the best she could. "Handling it with Don was one thing," she says. "I could deal better with Don, but it was much more difficult to live with his father." She and Dick Becker divorced shortly after Don graduated from high school.

Gerace recalls his buddy as eccentric and clever, funny and cool. He remembers going to Don's house for the first time as a kid and noticing idiosyncrasies, like the fifty pairs of sunglasses nailed to the ceiling of his room. But he was more intrigued by his bespectacled new classmate at Kunsmiller Middle School, who was turning him on to Charlie Parker and obscure literature like The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Don attended East High School as part of the school's voluntary enrollment policy, but after his parents discovered how frequently he was ditching class, they transferred him to Lincoln High, closer to home. It was there that he and his buddy Gerace penned a poem dedicated to Lincoln's then-principal, "Doc" Brainerd, on the front page of the December 8, 1970, edition of the school paper, The Lincoln Log.

Fellow Lancers give a cheer

Understanding that Doc' is here

Cheer loud, cheer strong

Keep cheering all day long

You give us courage you give us concern

Optimism and the will to learn

Understanding is your major trait

Doc' in our hearts there's no room to hate

Open minds in these halls are yearning

Contract a desire for much more learning

It wasn't until after the paper came out that sponsors realized the first letters of each line spelled out the phrase "Fuck You Doc."

"We would hang out under the bleachers with the artists and the actors and the misfits," Gerace says, adding that Don grew his hair to his knees just to piss people off at straitlaced Lincoln. "It was kind of like That '70s Show, hanging out in the basement, talking and taking copious amounts of drugs. I remember the very first time he ever gave me LSD. I was heading out to work in about twenty minutes, and he knew better and said, 'Don't worry, this will be in and out of your system in about ten minutes.' So I'm sitting in the kitchen at Green Gables Country Club surrounded by boiling pots and giant knives, and I'm starting to peak for the first time in my life and just flipping out. Don thought that was the most hilarious thing he'd ever heard. Typical Don."

After graduating from high school, Don flirted with classes at the University of Colorado at Denver but never really buckled down. He worked briefly as a roofer and at a printing shop, earning enough money to afford rent at an apartment, but he would take off on hitchhiking trips and get fired for not showing up. A creative bohemian, he haunted bars and coffee shops, chain-smoking with friends at Paris on the Platte or Muddy's. But it wasn't until taking the stage as a standup comedian that he found his first home.

Standup comedy was virtually non-existent in Denver until George McKelvey, a young comedian from Los Angeles, planted the seeds in the late 1970s.

McKelvey, who is mentioned several times in Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up, came here after a doctor suggested he move his asthmatic son out of Los Angeles. He started an open mike on Monday nights in Glendale at a bar called the Chicago Speakeasy. Don was one of the first through the doors, and unlike so many standups who struggle initially, McKelvey recalls, he got it.

"He had good stage presence right from the start," McKelvey says. "He had wonderful lines, some really good material. I remember he had some line about how "innuendo" sounded like an Italian suppository. And every time he would do a joke that didn't work, he wouldn't get flustered. He would just slowly explain the joke and then really condescendingly say, 'Hence the humor.' It was great stuff."

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Adam Cayton-Holland