A middle-aged comedian stuffs his leopard-skin shorts and shoots for the stars.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last. You can only go so far with this kind of support before you have to produce,” says Dingwall.
Next up, he’s set to star in his own online variety show called the Dave Dingwall Show. The first episode taped just two weeks ago.
David Dingwall is finally in pole position.
It’s taken a lifetime of struggling to get to this point, teetering on the edge of show-biz success. One of the first things Dingwall will tell you is that he’s had a tough life, though he’s not complaining or looking for pity.
Dingwall says he endured an abuse-filled childhood and that the experience left him feeling like an outsider. Like say, a white man living in a black man’s world.
As a kid, Dingwall says his father, a merchant marine, would get drunk, chase him into the street and sometimes hit him. His mother struggled with mental health issues.
When he was about nine years old, Dingwall was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes syndrome, a rare bone disorder that affects hip development. It was so bad that he was moved into the Children’s Seashore House (founded in Atlantic City, it since relocated to Philadelphia as part of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) for three years, where he had to recline in traction much of the time. The experience set him back two years in school, and in other ways.
“It made it more difficult for me to get back into society,” says Dingwall. “I saw some of the craziest things,” he continues. “When I wet the bed, they’d put me out in the hallways where the kids would go out to the dining room and put me in a diaper.”
Dingwall was released from the hospital at 12 years old, and bounced around households, staying with his parents only when his father was out of town on duty. In 1965, a 20-year-old Dingwall moved to New York City for a few months before heading to Arkansas for college. But he was kicked out of three colleges in the state for acting out in attention-seeking capers, each one crazier than the last. He describes entertaining the other students all around town, and says they’d follow him around just to laugh. A comedic pied piper.
“I’d dress up like a bird and sit in a tree because I used to whistle,” he says. “And I’d go into laundromats and get nude and spin around the dryer. I’d go into frozen food aisles and [friends] would cover me up [with frozen foodstuffs] and I’d hand someone a box of peas as they were browsing around.”
Like many an entertainer, Dingwall sees choosing showbiz as being related to early childhood experiences.
“I want to be accepted, very much. I think that’s always been a big part of my life. I always tried to overcompensate because of how I was raised,” says Dingwall. “When you have that in you, you’re always trying to make up for something that wasn’t given.”
After two years of acting out, Dingwall finally got the message when Louisiana College suspended him for a year. Upon returning, he buckled down. In 1973, seven years after he first entered college, Dingwall earned his bachelor’s degree. After graduation he secured a job as a teacher and got engaged to a girl he’d been dating for a few years. For the first time, Dingwall’s life was relatively smooth sailing—and it scared the bejesus out of him. One day, he left his fiancée waiting in their new car while he dropped some letters at the post office in Alexandria, La. He dropped the mail and froze.
“I couldn’t go down the steps,” admits Dingwall. “Even though I had just given this beautiful girl an engagement ring and had a new life, a new job, I just couldn’t handle all those good things that were happening to me.” After hiding behind a pillar for about ten minutes, he eventually ventured down the steps. But he couldn’t go through with the engagement. Instead, he completed his master’s degree and moved back to the Northeast, where he first got a job teaching psychology at a high school in Pennsylvania, and then teaching history and English at the College of Performing Arts in Philadelphia. While still teaching, he booked his very first paid gig as an entertainer at Kenney’s, a long-forgotten dive bar on Frankford Ave., where he did impressions—Johnny Mathis, Dean Martin, Elvis—and sang the American Songbook.
“I remember people looking at me. I remember the eyes as I was walking out there,” he says, recalling his stage fright. “You could feel them. You make a mistake when you look at the eyes too long.”
In 1980, Dingwall won first place in the All-American Talent Awards (for “Solo Novelty: Jazz Tap”). He quit teaching and started selling fences part-time while working on securing paying gigs.
Three years later, T.V. Atlantic Magazine published a picture of a 38-year-old mustachioed Dingwall with the ringing endorsement: “We predict stardom for young entertainer David Dingwall, now appearing in the Atlantic City and Philadelphia area nightspots.”
Dingwall found his groove. He says he supported himself for the next ten years working about three gigs a week, playing the mountains, the casinos, clubs and private parties.