Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
December 2, 2002

A.C. tour buses become showman's bandwagons
Charlie Prose's national popularity rides on
videos given to drivers to show to their passengers.


       There are no disappearing rabbits, magic wands or colored handkerchiefs in Charlie Prose's act. But make no mistake: He's a magician.

         He turns bus drivers into salesmen faster than you can say, "Pop this into the VCR, please." The 57-year-old entertainer has amassed a huge following among senior citizens by giving tapes of his performances to tour-bus drivers, who play them for passengers on rides to and from casinos and resorts.

         The low-tech marketing effort, coupled with Prose's G-rated comedy and his knack for filling seats, has made the Atlantic County resident a headliner in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and a favorite in cabarets, music fairs and playhouses in between.

         He has never chatted on television with Letterman or Leno, and that's fine with him. "I have a TV show, but it's not on cable and it's not on a broadcast network. It's on every night, though, on thousands of tour buses," he said.

        Born Charles Procopio, Prose grew up as a grocer's son in the coal-mining community of Mount Carmel, Pa. At 13, he bought a used saxophone from the cookie salesman who visited his father's store. Soon, he had his own band - and a new stage name.

         By the late 1970s, he was entertaining sellout crowds in Wildwood by playing saxophone and piano, singing, and telling stories - about growing up, about his children, about his life.

        Seeing tour buses loaded with senior citizens arrive for three- and four-day stays in Wildwood, Prose had an idea. "I said to myself, 'It'd be nice if they had something to watch or listen to on the bus.' I always thought if I could get people to still hear me after I had gone to bed, that would be great. And the buses were perfect for that," he said.

     Instead of waiting for record companies to discover him, he took his act to the streets. At first, it was Prose cassettes. He or his assistants would go to bus drivers before and after shows and hand out the cassettes with pads of order forms so anyone interested could send away for a tape later.

        After casinos opened in Atlantic City in 1978, Prose had two new forums. One was showrooms; for years he performed three shows a day six days a week at the Playboy Casino. The other was buses, which ferried millions of low rollers to and from the Boardwalk.

        By the 1990s, the motor coaches were being equipped with TV monitors and videocassette recorders. So Prose had a video made of a concert at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino and distributed it to drivers. "These people are going three, four, five hours on the bus to get home. And on the way home from the casino, they are not happy campers. It's doom and gloom. And my tapes make folks happy," Prose said.

        Talk about a captive audience.

         Those who have watched his career take off say his personal warmth has earned him a special allegiance with fans and drivers. The drivers aren't paid or compensated to play the recordings. But Prose spends on postage to correspond with the people on his 350,000-name mailing list, and said every letter, telephone call or e-mail got answered.

         "Today, he does this act all over the country, and he builds it up the same way," said Chris Kraras, president of White Star Tours of Reading, which specializes in senior-citizen bus tours. "They'll play a venue a couple weeks and then go out and put these tapes on every bus driver's cassette player, and by the next year everyone wants to see this guy they've heard.

        "It happened that way in Laughlin, Nev., in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, in Canton, Ohio, in Pittsburgh. Name almost every major venue up to Hamilton, Ontario, plus Niagara Falls, Syracuse," Kraras said.

         Prose's videos - An Evening With Charlie Prose and Love & Laughter - have gone platinum, each selling more than 50,000 units or reaching $2 million in retail sales.

         His viewer may be sitting alone on a bus streaking along an interstate, but somehow Prose makes a connection. He attributes it to his homespun comedy, his willingness to show vulnerability, and the lack of profanity in his act.

        The medium helps, too.

         "A variety show like his lends itself to buses, since it's not a movie you have to concentrate on. You can look away and come back to it," said Gary Latshaw, a Pittsburgh concert promoter who has promoted Prose shows in various locations for 15 years.

        "I deal with big names all the time - Johnny Cash, the Oak Ridge Boys, you name it. But Charlie Prose is the only one we can bring back every year and have him sell out year after year. When people call to make reservations - and I've heard this 1,000 times - they say, 'I'm coming to see Charlie Prose. He's a friend of mine.'

        "He can't have 50,000 friends - you and I know that. But that's the way they feel," Latshaw said.

        Sandra Roberts, 57, of Tallahassee, Fla., said she was hooked immediately by Prose in March on a bus to a casino in Biloxi, Miss. "I didn't realize anybody could get their point across anymore without using filth, since Red Skelton died," she said.

        Prose, who spends 200 days a year on the road, lives with his wife of 38 years in Mays Landing, just outside Atlantic City. He still plays the casinos at least once a year.

        The Charlie Prose Christmas Show, in its 13th year in Atlantic City, will play Thursday through Dec. 13 at Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel.

        "Show business is a hard business," Prose said. "It's difficult to break through, to get yourself out there and known. The record companies control the distribution, and without records or TV exposure there's no recognizability and, therefore, no work.

        "This was just a different way of becoming a headliner," he said.

MARY GODLESKI / Associated Press
Charlie Prose, shown at Bally's Park Place Casino in Atlantic City, has combined a low-tech
marketing effort with G-rated comedy to become a favorite at casinos, cabarets,
music fairs and playhouses.