Gilbert Gnarley is gone. So, too, is Rev. Deuteronomy Skaggs. And Ranger Bob.

Those goofy alter egos of radio funnyman Gary Burbank didn’t perish in some microphone massacre. It was simply time to let them go, time to move onto new things. Time to Play It Forward.

“There are times I regret I don’t have a show, but that passes fast and I’m a better man for it,” Burbank is saying as he sprawls on a sectional couch that occupies a good bit of the media room at his Alexandria home. It’s the same house that he, his wife and his children have lived in for 25 years, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired retreat located deep inside the woods, far from the mania of the afternoon airwaves.

Burbank hung up his WLW microphone nearly a year ago — after a quarter-century in local drive-time — leaving only his Earl Pitts character intact. (His syndicated “Pitts Off/You Know What Makes Me Sick?” schtick is still broadcast daily in some 200 markets, including here.)

“I’ve stopped walking around the house, talking in different characters,” Burbank laughs. “I’ve stopped following the news and sports, and living and dying by it. I can catch Sarah Palin from the peripheral because I don’t have to write a line about (the political campaigns).”

These days, Burbank is turning his time and talents to the music charity he’s founded, Play It Forward, and to his vision for a 1,200-seat concert venue in northern Cincinnati, Gary Burbank’s Cincy Roadhouse — locating next spring inside a former furniture big-box adjoining Dave & Buster’s in Springdale. “It’s a proven concept for people who don’t like clubbing or bar-hopping, but do like a dinner and a show.”

Burbank plans to be the opening act for performers such as a Bonnie Raitt or Willie Nelson, “artists who can’t fill a 20,000-seat stadium anymore, but still have a loyal following.” Part of a national concert circuit of “roadhouses” modeled on Pittsburgh’s Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse, Burbank hopes for about “30 to 35 shows a year that would be big-name shows. But I also want to make it a showcase for local artists.”

Burbank is playing gigs on his own as well as with a band, Blue Run. He writes the songs on his blues and slide guitars, performing at benefits such as a recent appearance for Sojourner Recovery Services. A favorite tune of his is “Candy Flower”:
Baby’s like a candy flower smell
And she tastes good, too
Cherry, strawberry or chocolate
Any flavor will do
Baby’s like a breeze in the ’morn
Blowing through the bedroom screen

Later, in his Mercedes, Burbank loads in a CD with some more of his tunes, including a rockin’ number titled “Mediocre Man.” (“There’s a leak in my fountain of youth,” he croons.)

Little wonder that the songwriter has founded a charity to benefit musicians.

“Play It Forward is now a 501(3)c, we have just hired an executive director, Liz Wu, and we’re working on a CD where Cincy bands donate their songs.” The foundation, in turn, will benefit local musicians with medical or financial needs. “An artist may be playing in a bar and not wearing a tux in the symphony, but he still is a trained musician who will never get paid much.”

Gary Burbank is not himself. His actual name is Billy Purser, as evidenced by the “Pursers” knocker attached to his front door. His actually took his first radio job in 1964 as DJ “Johnny Apollo” at KLPL in Lake Providence, La. Four years later, he moved to WAKY in Louisville as Gary Burbank — a name taken in honor of a similarly deep-voiced announcer, Gary Owens, and “beautiful downtown Burbank” from the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in. The Burbank moniker stuck.

Some musings from a career spent on drive-time:

• “I don’t think Earl Pitts is my best character by a long-shot, but it is the longest running one in syndicated radio (22 years). There are nuances to Earl, though. He’s not your typical blue-collar character. He’s a little more sinister than that. What he says may make sense, but then it turns out Earl has a whacked-out reason for believing it.”

• “Radio today is more smoke-and-mirrors than substance. ... What you hear on radio is mostly angry white guys. Program directors have found that nut cases will stay tuned to the radio longer, and it’s all about those Arbitron hours. It’s mean-spirited comedy. If there’s no one lying on the ground bleeding, then it’s not considered funny. They should make radios in the shape of a pacifier, because (listeners) are basically being pacified.”

• “The fact that I survived all the insane things is a blessing.”

• “One of the highest compliments I was ever paid is when I was told I was a commie pinko like Jim Borgman.”


Somewhere along the way, Burbank — a Memphis native — diverted into the restaurant business. Specifically, pit barbecue. At times, those Burbank’s Real Bar-B-Q restaurants fed Cincinnati’s soul and taste buds. At times, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

“I tried to get out of Burbank’s some years ago because I didn’t agree with what was going on there at the time,” he recalls. “I was getting my name off the building when they Chapter 11’d.” Burbank finally opted to stay in, however, and now favors the new management, saying the Burbank’s eatery in Sharonville pulls in about $1.8 million a year while staying true to serving quality barbecue.

“Great barbecue takes a little time, but it’s worth it,” says Burbank of his place today. “Great barbecue is not about boiling it, not about grilling it. It’s in the rub, in the hickory smoke. It’s served with fresh collard greens. It’s not a frozen product or watery. It’s from the shoulder. It is definitely not all in the sauce.”

Burbank points to Pain’s on Lamar Avenue in Memphis as the world’s finest, but hastens to list his own restaurant as well. “I got in trouble once for saying Montgomery Inn is not true barbecue, but it’s not. It’s not pulled pork.”

Burbank wants it clearly understood he’s not here to play the role of curmudgeon. “How can I be bitter? Life has offered me more than I deserve.” The attitude comes through in his lyrics:

I don’t resent your youth
Or that you prefer Zima to scotch
It’s your turn to rule the world
So kids, take your best shot

All this said, Burbank is definitely not out to pasture. “I’m more busy now than when I was working,” he concludes. “I’m earning an ‘F’ in retirement.”

The Burbank Writers Group

Gary Burbank will be the first person to tell you that no one genius could have created all the material for his show over the years. Certainly there were on-air sidekicks such as Duke Sinatra (a.k.a. John Davies) and Heather Feather Pickle. But a braintrust of a dozen writers fed the manic machine that was the Broadbank Burbcasting Corporation (BBC), and the group still meets regularly — most recently in September at the El Pueblo restaurant in Blue Ash.

Here’s a rundown on where they are now:

Ross Bergman: Bergman moved to New York City where he performs with various improv troupes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea, and continues to write song parodies for the American Comedy Network.

Bill Brohaugh:
Brohaugh has gone on to write books such asWrite Tight, Unfortunate English andEverything You Know About English Is Wrong.

John Bunyan: Bunyan is one of the long-termers, writing for Burbank about two decades. He even contributed the final Gilbert Gnarley bit, and continues writing humor for Late for the Sky productions. Hs day job is chief financial officer of GBBN Architects Inc.

Rocco Costellano: The well-known local personal athletic trainer spent the better part of a year as a foil on the Burbank show. “He was so funny, making me the butt of jokes about a loud guy from New York, (an) ex-boxer.”

Kel Crum: Crum was last seen, as he puts it, with tattered jeans, porkpie hat and a knapsack over his shoulder, strolling down a railroad track humming “Gentle On My Mind.” He works at the classical music station WDPR in Dayton.

Rob (Big Tom Pygmy) Ervin: Ervin has worked for WOXY and WAIF, and has belonged to two local bands, Monkey Biscuit and The High Strung Lifters.

Eddie Fingers: Mr. Digits currently has a gig in Burbank’s old time slot and lives with his wife, Deborah, and their two children, Jack Daniels and Sam Adams (this according to his official bio). Some suspect he may be incestuously related to “Duke Sinatra.”

Tim Mizak: Mizak, who moved to Hawaii, continues to write Earl Pitts copy for Burbank’s syndicated show. He also rents snorkel gear to unwary tourists.

Joe McDonough: McDonough is a resident playwright at both the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where his new play,Travels of Angelica, will be produced in January.

Roger Naylor: Naylor, the legendary Cincinnati stand-up comic, has moved to Sedona, Ariz., where he writes for publications such as theArizona Republic. He still maintains that JTM stands for “Jesus! That’s Meat?”
Jim Probasco: Probasco is a retired public school music supervisor and freelance writer/magazine editor (The Activity Director’s Companion) living in Kettering. He describes his interests as “comedy, music, fishing and lancing boils with frozen sushi.”

Slim Tempo (aka J.D. Riggs): Riggs works for Burbank Creations, Gary’s merchandising company.

Mary Thomas Watts: Watts has become a Wilmington activist and says MyOhioNow, the casino initiative, is a bad idea. “The hell of it is, we don’t get to decide. The rest of the state gets to decide for us.”

P.F. Wilson: Wilson writes for a little magazine we like to callCincy, and also contributes to the American Comedy Network and Morning Sidekick radio.
Kevin “Doc” Wolfe: Wolfe is an ad copywriter and freelance writer. He recently helped host a Channel 48 retrospective on Burbank to find out how this group — in the words ofEnquirer media critic John Kiesewetter — “put together arguably the most creative program in Cincinnati’s rich radio history.”

Other writers: Brian Bateman, Leah Burns, the late Bill Tooker and a host of others we’re sure we’ve forgotten. Sorry, but we must be off. Bah!THE GNARLEY FACTOR

If you took a vote on Gary Burbank’s most hilarious character, it might not be Earl Pitts. In fact, Gilbert Gnarley — a resident of the St. Pia Zadora Golden-Buckeye Retirement Home in Pisgah — tops the list of most people we chatted with in compiling this story. Gilbert/Gary were famous for calling people on the phone to ask dazed and confused questions.
A few Gnarley moments:
• The call to Sears corporation, pointing out its new solar-calculator would be obsolete when the sun burns out, and suggesting a consumer warning label be put to that effect on the calculator.
• The call to Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup company to complain about “protrusions” on the bottle and complaining “he was becoming enamored with the syrup as he tried to pour it.” A few months after the bit aired, Burbank noticed the design of the bottle had been changed, removing Mrs. Butterworth’s bosom. Gilbert then called back, outraged that he had been “cheated out of two protuberances. I’m missing two breasts of syrup!”
• The call to the KY Jelly company, curious why they were marketing a Kentucky jam spread, and what — well, let’s not go there.Burbank as Gilbert Gnarley in a 1994 video special.