Larry Heagle learned early that he loves the spotlight.
As he tells it in his memoir, “Not Really Sane, Not Really Sorry: Tales of an Itinerant Performer,” he got a solo spot on a cowboy song in second grade at St. Joseph’s Catholic Grade School in Menomonie. Upon receiving applause from the audience of families, relatives and friends, he writes, “I was officially addicted.”
As Heagle, now 79, described the sensation recently in a phone interview: “I got that little solo in a cowboy song, and I got a hand, and I went ‘Ooh, I like that a lot.’”
The Downsville native’s memoir tells of the many times he has received applause in his life as a musician, comedian and stage actor, including regular runs at local establishments such as the Eau Claire Howard Johnson’s and opening dates for show-business legends including Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette. He also gained recognition through a memorable commercial for the Leinenkugel Brewing Co.
The book also explores other aspects of his life, including a brief try at Catholic seminary, his time in the National Guard, and 11 years as a middle school English teacher.
“I wanted to let people know what my life has been like all the way through and why I chose to do what I’ve done with it,” he said.
Wil Denson, Heagle’s longtime friend, acknowledged Heagle’s gift for entertaining.
“He’s a performer,” said Denson, retired theater professor at UW-Eau Claire.
Denson saw that gift when he and Heagle acted in shows together and when Denson directed Heagle onstage in settings such as UW-Eau Claire Summer Theatre. “The thing I was always impressed by is audiences love him; audiences respond to him,” Denson said. “Consequently, for me he could sell tickets.”
As a drama major in college, Heagle acted in shows and often presented folk-music concerts. At his mother’s urging, he earned his master’s degree in English, so he would have something to fall back on, and went on to teach middle school. But after 11 years, he realized where his heart and his true talents lay.
At the time he made the decision to entertain full time, he had been spending his summers performing for UW-Eau Claire’s Summer Theatre, playing in bands or doing his solo shows combining music and comedy at venues such as Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge on Clairemont Avenue in Eau Claire (where America’s Best Value Inn now stands) — “so it was a logical transition.”
The regular Howard Johnson’s gigs were especially crucial to his career, he said, expressing thanks to hotel owners the Kaiser family.
“I owe them a debt of gratitude because they let me hone my craft out there,” he said. “I was out there at least a week a month, sometimes more. It got to the point where regulars would come in and say, ‘Are you here again?”
“Not Really Sane, Not Really Sorry” chronicles tales from Heagle’s many miles performing on the road, throughout Wisconsin and in 10 other states plus Canada. Some of the more colorful stories involved his experiences opening for some of the biggest names in the business. Among those notable recollections:
• Heagle was booked one night to do 20-minute sets before both shows by the legendary Cash at the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point. When he got to the gig, Cash’s manager said he was to do 15 minutes for the first show, and then was done for the night.
But when he got off the stage, which was well-received by the audience, the manager was there to greet him. The star was impressed, the manager said, and Heagle could then do the second show too – all 20 minutes of it.
“That was really funny that night,” he said.
• While opening for Wynette, in Cable, Heagle learned that not all stars are especially down-to-earth.
He did his opening set, and the extended applause suggested the audience wanted more. But Heagle declined, as he had learned while opening for one of his heroes, Emmylou Harris, it is considered rude for the opening act to ever return for an encore (although Harris was gracious when he met her backstage afterward).
Shortly after leaving the Cable stage, he saw Wynette approaching so he introduced himself as the show’s opening act. He writes: “She did not stop walking nor did she hesitate in the least. She did extend a hand. The extended hand was applied to my upper right arm and included a brushing push. ‘Oh,’ she said while extending the pushing hand.”
• As a longtime Green Bay Packers fan, Heagle was delighted to be booked as opener for iconic Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke at a corporate golf outing and luncheon in Appleton. Invited back the following year, Heagle arrived in the country club’s parking lot and noticed another vehicle pulled up at the same time — it turned out to be Nitschke.
The fearsome football player saw Heagle and, as he writes, gave the entertainer another indication he had done well at the first event: “You again!” Nitschke said. “Well, I’ll tell you something. I’m not following you this year.”
“I’d always loved Ray,” Heagle said, expressing his surprise and delight at both of their interactions.
Heagle discovered through those experiences that stars aren’t so different from those who don’t shine in the spotlight.
“I learned that famous people are very much like ordinary people in that you never know what they’re like until you really meet them and get to know them a little bit,” he said.
Although he added, “Most of the time you don’t get a chance to meet them at all because they stay on their bus until just before they’re introduced.”
Of course his recollections of the seminary, military service, teaching and others feature humorous antics by the author — and that is true to life.
“In each situation I was somewhat of the class clown, as much as I could get away with in the military, which is not a lot,” Heagle said. “But I’ll tell you what, I was never a good solider. You wouldn’t want to be next to me in combat in a foxhole. I’m not a coward, but I did not like the whole idea of being in the military at all. It takes a lot of discipline and it takes a lot of spit and polish, and that ain’t me.”
Heagle took advantage of his natural wit for the Leinie’s commercials. He shot several television spots for Leinie’s, the best-known one involving Heagle and his friend Denson fishing in a canoe. After Heagle gives his pitch for the beer, he tells Denson, “Wil; show them the stringer.” Instead of fish, the stringer holds five Leinie’s cans. “There’s a Leinenkugel’s missing, Larry,” Denson points out, to which Heagle responds: “Turtles.”
“I think it epitomizes anybody that’s from Wisconsin that’s ever fished and pulled up a stringer and seen half a fish sitting on the stringer because the turtles had come along and ate half their dinners,” Heagle said.
After the commercial, the two of them were regularly recognized in the region, including at a tavern in Wabasha, Minn., during a bicycling trip. “The bartender said, ‘Hey, you’re that turtles guy on the commercial!’” Heagle said. “He looked at Wil: ‘Hey, and you’re the other guy!” Heagle laughed. “So we got some notoriety.”
Denson, too, was recognized for the ad, including from one of his students.
“One day in a musical comedy class I was teaching, a girl raised her hand. She said, ‘My dad says he knows you from the ‘Turtles’ commercials,” Denson said. “Now we’re in the second generation.”
The lighthearted tone turns serious in a chapter titled “August 29, 2005 — The Day My Life Changed.”
Heagle writes about his serious motorcycle accident and how two years later, after two surgeries, he tried to rely on non-narcotic painkillers but finally pleaded with his doctor for something stronger to ease the excruciating pain. The doctor was reluctant to give him fentanyl but, at Heagle’s insistence, prescribed the drug, about which much still was not known at the time.
Heagle writes movingly of how, with the help of his wife, Kim Wilson, he eventually overcame his addiction to the opioid. His story stands as a powerful, first-person narrative of his difficult journey.
“Which is exactly why I put it in there,” Heagle said. “…I made some big mistakes, and hopefully people can learn from the (mistakes) I made.”
Heagle is especially proud that section won the praise of his beloved and respected brother, the Rev. John Heagle, who is widely known as a pastor, licensed psychotherapist, author and speaker.
On with the show
Heagle’s love of performing remains ardent even today. Now of Fall Creek, he no longer travels to gigs outside the area, and the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented him from doing public dates locally. But he has visited friends to present a series of spur-of-the-moment “safe distancing mini-concerts.”
“If we’re going into town, we check to see who’s home,” he said. “And if they’re home I say, ‘Would you mind if we stopped over and did a little mini-concert?’”
Then he and his wife, Kim Wilson, set up about eight feet away from the select audience, and he starts a show that sometimes exceeds the “mini” label.
“In many cases it goes for a half-hour to 45 minutes because I’m having too much fun,” he said.
Among the appreciative audience members is Ron Keezer, retired UW-Eau Claire music professor and former band mate of Heagle’s. It was a show Heagle was especially delighted to present. “What was so cool is he and I go back — I don’t want to count back the years — probably 50 years,” he said. “He was my first drummer, and we traveled together all over the territory.”
As a matter of fact, Keezer and Heagle made some music together on that April afternoon. At one point, Keezer, a percussionist, went into his garage, brought out an empty 5-gallon bucket, turned it upside down and joined in.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” Keezer said, adding that it had been years since he previously had played. “You never forget the tune so you know where the brakes are and everything. … And it was fun to reconnect.”
Keezer also shared some memories of that old band, called Full Circle. Besides Heagle and Keezer, the group included Clarke Maylone on piano and vocals; Clarke’s wife, Joanne, on vocals; John Buchholz on tenor saxophone; and Lenn Braunling on guitar.
The group played at now-closed venues such as The Last Frontier, at the intersection of Highway 29 and Interstate 94, and The Black Steer, where The Metro now stands.
Keezer talked about how much fun they all had together.
“We were all young,” he said. “It was the hippie days, so we all had long hair and bell bottom trousers and outrageously colored outfits.”
Heagle fronted the band and was a big hit with the crowd for talents such as comedy bits and song parodies. “People just ate it up,” he said
Keezer was especially moved by Heagle’s appearance at his home last month because Keezer’s wife, Mary, passed away recently.
“That’s really unique, I think, very needed,” Keezer said of Heagle’s mini-concerts. “Helps bring people together.”
Which is characteristic of Heagle, he added. “He’s been such a friend over all these years.”
Heagle makes clear what he gets out of those spur-of-the-moment performances as well: to never stop doing what he loves to do.
“You betcha!” he said emphatically. “I tell my wife, I’m going to keep doing this until I can’t remember the words or I can’t play the guitar anymore because of arthritis, whatever comes first.”
“Maybe both,” he added, although the book and his continued performances suggest he needn’t worry at this point.