Playing with fire

The Action Comedy Team takes its act to the high seas

SEA AND LAND<br>Anita and Dave Gregory entertaining and relaxing on one of their many cruise-ship gigs.

Anita and Dave Gregory entertaining and relaxing on one of their many cruise-ship gigs.

When asked what makes the perfect audience volunteer to be blindfolded while they juggle knives in front of his face and rifle through his pockets, Dave and Anita Gregory operate like the finely tuned, tag-team comedy duo that they are.

“He needs to be a straight man,” shot the handsome, diminutive Dave, a lock of his thick brown hair falling in his face as he animatedly moved his hands and head.

“But not uptight,” offered his petite, gregarious wife, Anita, without missing a beat.

“Not a clown who’s gonna take over the show,” continued Dave.

“You look for the bald guy with the jacket,” added Anita. “You kind of learn how to profile them as they come in to take their seat.”

Dave and Anita are full-time comedian-jugglers. Yeah, every artist/performer has heard the oft-uttered joke to the effect of, “But what’s your real job?” Even Anita’s mother was guilty of thinking along those lines when first told that her daughter was marrying a juggler.

But that’s exactly what the local husband-and-wife duo does for a living (Anita is also a part-time mobile notary). Professionally known as the Action Comedy Team, Chicoans Dave and Anita spend about half the year out at sea cracking jokes and bullwhips, and juggling knives, bowling pins and fire for the guests of various cruise lines around the world. And whether they’re on stage or off, they are definitely always on.

The couple in action at home.

Dave Gregory has been performing on cruise ships since 1989. He was doing comedy in Las Vegas at the time and got hooked up with the world of cruise-ship entertainment through a fellow comic.

The 43-year-old cut his teeth on comedy while attending Berkeley Christian School. At the ripe old age of 11, he would skip class and hop on the “F” bus to nearby San Francisco to perform on the street. Dave frequently found himself doing his street act alongside the likes of a young Robin Williams and Harry Anderson, who became well-known for his portrayal of Judge Harry Stone on the popular ‘80s NBC sitcom Night Court.

“I did juggling and comedy at Pier 39, before there even was a Pier 39,” joked Dave. “My parents knew it, but they could not stop it. They beat me, they’d lock me in my room. It got to where the principal would pick me up every morning and take me to school.”

“His mom had to call in the big guns,” explained Anita.

“And because I was short, everyone thought I was 7,” continued Dave. “I was the kid with the cigar.”

The funny kid with the cigar eventually hooked up with the girl with the funny name who liked to sing and dance (Anita’s maiden name is Bottem, the butt of many schoolyard jokes).

The couple met in 1998 while performing at the Renaissance Faire in Novato, where native Chicoan Anita was singing and dancing with the Irish Guild. After staying up all night together on that first “date” during which the full moon was in Pisces (both were born March 7), they each drove home with their fingers crossed—unbeknownst to the other—that they would eventually get married.

Shortly after they met, Dave left for a week-long gig on a cruise ship. While he was away, Anita taught herself to juggle, endearing herself even more to the smitten Dave.

“No other girlfriend of mine ever learned how to juggle,” he said. “Most of them tried to get me to quit!”

Dave pulled up his Bay Area stakes and moved to Chico ("I imported him,” is how Anita put it). About six months after their full-moon meeting, Dave and Anita tied the knot. The couple’s relationship seems to be a match made in heaven—both personally and professionally—and they prefer to talk about it above all else.

“People still think we’re newlyweds,” offered Dave proudly.

“We still engage in a lot of public groping,” said Anita, who is five years her hubby’s junior.

“Of each other,” they added in unison, as if they were delivering an on-stage punch line.

Their comedic timing makes Dave and Anita’s off-stage conversation so engaging. And it’s the magic of their relationship that seems to make their professional act so good.

The couple describe their act as “variety art,” and they credit the existence of cruise ships as a factor in much of the survival and renaissance of Vaudeville-influenced entertainment. It’s a combination of magic, hypnotism, comedy and juggling, done while dressed in flashy outfits including the velvet Shakespearean jester duds that are custom-made by local seamstress Nelly Gonzalez for their Renaissance Faire gigs, and the sparkly dresses and “tacky-tailor” blazers happily acquired in the capital of tacky—Las Vegas.

“If we tell people we’re jugglers, they think, ‘OK, birthday clown,’ “ said Anita, explaining that the Action Comedy Team wishes to keep its rather sophisticated act from being dismissed as mere kids’ stuff. “If we tell them ‘variety art,’ they say, ‘Well, OK.’ “

Cruise-ship gigs for the Action Comedy couple can last anywhere from three days to seven weeks, and take them to all corners of the globe—including Hawaii, Haiti, Europe and Easter Island. Dave has been to every continent but Antarctica.

The Gregorys recently returned from a three-week cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage. The rest of their time is spent on land, performing at area casinos and fairs, and at larger regional comedy clubs such as San Francisco’s Punch Line and Catch a Rising Star in Las Vegas.

They also earn a chunk of their living bringing their Vaudevillian act—which includes mentalism and Houdini-like escape tricks—to corporate America, tailoring each performance to the special needs of the company event at which they are hired to perform. They’ve juggled bone saws for Stryker Medical Instruments, and cell phones at a Verizon convention at the Cow Palace.

With only three days to practice instead of the 10 the couple had requested, Anita found herself dropping a few cell phones as her enlarged image was broadcast across the massive Cow Palace on the giant Megatron screen.

“If I make a mistake, I do it on the Megatron,” said Anita with a laugh. “I don’t want anyone to miss it!”

The Gregorys seem to love everything about their life as cruise-ship entertainers—from the mingling of the many nationalities that make up the guest lists, staffs and entertainers, to meeting new and old friends at different ports.

The two speak fondly of the British stand-up comics, the Spanish guitarists and the Juilliard-trained classical performers with whom they have shared ship space. They’ve rubbed elbows with Ukrainian-born comedian Yakov Smirnov, and they say they love the ubiquitous Argentinian gauchos (comedic-folkloric entertainers who seem to appear on every cruise line) swinging their hide-covered, lead bolas.

They’ve performed meet-and-greets after being up for 24 hours, endured layovers for hours on end, and have come close more than a few times to literally missing the boat.

While they agree that it’s a bit odd to be living with both their boss and their audience the entire time they are on a ship, they love the unpredictability and the craziness of it all (like the time they landed in Africa and Dave was told that he had to juggle bowling balls on ice skates).

“The world is so ripe for, and needing, comedy right now,” said Dave, in a rare moment of seriousness. “Comedy tends to do real well when the world is going crazy.”