I am one of the luckiest guys I know. Last night I had a casual dinner with one of my favorite actresses, a woman who is as sweet and kind in person as she is on screen. That bit of fortune got me to pondering and reflecting on some of the other wonderful, lucky experiences in my life of which I’ve had many.
Donnie Waddell was one of those experiences. My friend just tragically passed away. It leaves a huge gap in my life in addition to losing one of my favorite reasons for attending WonderFest in Donnie’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky.
I met Donnie a long, long time ago. I thought it had been at Louisville’s 1985 RiverCon, where Dan O’Bannon and I were sent to promote our movie Return of the Living Dead (that was the sole promotion we were allowed to do for the film). But Donnie told me we had met even earlier, when Donnie first ventured out to California. Regardless, our friendship became thoroughly rooted when Donnie first asked me to be a guest at WonderFest in Louisville, Kentucky. It was there I also became friends with writer-artist-caricaturist extraordinaire and all round nice guy Frank Dietz.
Frank was already a regular at WonderFest and after that first one I became a WonderFest regular, too, and WonderFest became our second family.
Above: Donnie (wearing one of my WonderFest shirts) and David Colton, founder of the Rondo Awards which are presented during each WonderFest.
Frank and I would always do whatever we could to get as much Donnie Time as possible because Donnie Waddell was Louisville’s comedy genius. If he had chosen that career path, I have no doubt that Donnie would have become the next Patton Oswalt (whom he physically resembled) or Robin Williams. He was that funny.
Donnie was often Frank’s and my chauffeur around Louisville, driving us to the off-campus WonderFest events. One night we decided to play a trick on Donnie. While I kept Donnie distracted, Frank borrowed some hot red frilly undies from one of the convention’s lady guests. Frank snuck out, somehow got into Donnie’s car and hung the delicate underthings on Donnie’s rear view mirror. Then Frank returned to our dinner table.
Eventually, it came time to leave. We followed Donnie to his car, then we all got seated inside. Donnie turned on the engine and then looked up at his rear view mirror. Without missing a beat, Donnie launched into well over a half hour’s worth of comedy riffing and improv, using the undies as a prop. I thought that Frank and I were going to die from asphyxiation we were laughing so hard. Different voices flew rapid fire out of Donnie’s mouth as he drove us back to the hotel hosting WonderFest (Donnie was an extremely skilled mimic; he could do just about anybody. And he didn’t just do impressions of the usual famous stars; he also did dead-on impressions of people like Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen.
Above: That’s Donnie (far right) sitting next to me during a dinner at VinylFest.
Eventually, for reasons I can’t fathom, Donnie and WonderFest drifted apart. Although I always saw him there, he was no longer part of the show’s staff. I felt bad for Donnie because I knew how much WonderFest and its long line of media guests meant to him. Whenever I would return home from WonderFest my sons would always ask, “Did you see Donnie?” He had charmed them, too, on that very first WonderFest trip.
Above (from L to R): Writer and Creature of the Black Lagoon collector par excellence David Schow, Donnie and Video Watchdog founder and editor (and Mario Bava biographer) Tim Lucas — all part of our beloved WonderFest family.
Besides being hysterically funny, Donnie Waddell was incredibly generous. From time to time I would receive surprise gifts in the mail from Donnie, usually obscure books or DVDs he thought I would like. The same thing would happen at each WonderFest. “Here, Bill. I thought you might like this.” It was typically something very precious to him he had found at Half Price Books (or some other Louisville shop) that he thought deserved a larger audience.
I miss my lovable teddy bear of a guy, his kind, generous soul and his devastating wit. Some people that you meet in life are unique and irreplaceable.
Donnie Waddell was one of those guys in spades.
RIP my dear, dear friend.