TAMPA — Watermelon smashing comedian and Tampa-raised Leo Gallagher Jr., better known simply as Gallagher, died Friday, his former manager confirmed to Variety and TMZ. He was 76 years old.
“Gallagher had been hospitalized in California after suffering multiple heart attacks in recent years,” Variety reported.
Gallagher rose to fame through prop comedy, particularly using a giant wooden mallet named the Sledge-O-Matic to smash food and other objects, culminating in him splattering a watermelon.
He was born on July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and spent his early childhood in Cleveland before his parents moved to Tampa hoping the air would be good for his asthma.
The website of late Tampa radio personality Tedd Webb says Gallagher “spent a lot of time as a boy cycling back and forth in his neighborhood along El Prado Boulevard near Manhattan Avenue. . Friends remember him shouting insults and weird comments at anyone who wanted to listen as he passed them on his inflated Schwinn.
Gallagher’s father built an ice rink on Armenia Avenue. He attended Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Dale Mabry and graduated from HB Plant High School in 1964. He later enrolled at the University of South Florida, but moved to Los Angeles while he he only needed one credit to graduate.
He eventually returned to Tampa and worked at Lum’s Hot Dog restaurant on Hillsborough Avenue. It was then that he began developing his Sledge-O-Matic routine, based on a TV infomercial for the Ronco Veg-O-Matic.
Gallagher’s first break came when opening for musician Bobby Rydell in Tampa. He then toured with musicians Jim Stafford and Kenny Rogers until the late 1970s.
In 1975, according to IMDB.com, he starred on “The Mike Douglas Show,” a nationally broadcast television talk show.
Five years later, Gallagher filmed his first television special, “Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening,” during which his larger audiences were introduced to his watermelon antics. IMDB.com describes the special as one “for which the public was ill-prepared”.
Later, audience members wore raincoats and brought umbrellas to his shows to protect themselves from flying fruit.
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During the 1980s, he remained a pop culture icon with regular appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”, and “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour”.
Variety estimates he performed more than 3,500 live shows during his four decades on the road. This includes 16 TV specials airing on HBO and Showtime.
He was controversial. The racial, sexist and homophobic jokes that were acceptable early in his career were later found to be offensive.
He didn’t care.
“They said, ‘Gallagher, you can’t be on TV, you’re not sensitive to the needs of the disabled,'” he said on a 2013 show. ‘Me too. That’s why I use all their parking spaces. I don’t know why they have to be so close. It’s not like they have to walk.
Through it all, the people of Tampa considered him one of their own.
“Gallagher, a Plant High School and USF alumnus, has passed away,” Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco wrote on Facebook.
Clark Brooks, a Tampa stand-up comedian and editor of the satire website Tampa News Force, said Gallagher was “a real game-changer, dominating cable TV comedy for years before everyone film specials. The fact that he’s from Tampa put the Bay Area comedy scene on the map before there was even a scene.
Information from a 2013 Tampa Bay Times profile on Gallagher was used for this report.
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