Today is a good day for Ed Graham.
Waking up later than he cares to, Big Daddy Graham, the man known to millions of SportsRadio WIP (94.1-FM) Philadelphia sports radio fanatics, stand-up comedy lovers and classic rock fiends as – so iconic is he, so synonymous is the nickname to the man, that the sobriquet requires no quotation marks – is starting his mid-morning with a good dream.
A good dream beyond the good life of living in Mullica Hill, driving off to the nearest Jersey shore point after his many jobs are well done, sitting and reading on the warm, soft sand, until it’s happy hour, then kicking back with a cocktail before the next gig. Maybe a comedy show by himself, or with pal Joe Conklin for their “Two Funny Philly Guys” live showcase. Maybe a signing for one of his books such as “The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists,” that he’s co-written with Glen Macnow. Or maybe just a Quizzo hosting affair in a bar where he’s well paid and even more so, beloved.
For Graham, real name, Ed Gudonis, Big Daddy is not just an epithet when it happens to be a lifestyle, it’s the very thing that defines him, and has for nearly 40 years.
Back to that dream.
“It’s 10:30 a.m.,” said Graham. “I’m sleeping a lot now, which is good. I’m taking so many pills – 23 a day – some of them are really laying me out at night. I wake up with a tremendous wave of relief because I’m coming out of some really long, involved dream. Sometimes they’re dark, the dreams. But, I wake up and I know it’s just a dream. And in all of these dreams, I am walking. Or standing. There is no wheelchair in these dreams. That’s the good part. I’m moving. Then, the plot twist comes in that I couldn’t do any of the adventures, good or bad, in my dream, because I am in that wheelchair in reality and probably will be for the rest of my life.”
Graham – Philly’s most physically active entertainer not named Jerry Blavat or Chill Moody – had his life turned upside-down coming back from a literal day on the beach in Sea Isle, with his wife Debbie, on July 21. “I had a good swim in the ocean, not a lot of cats my age do that, but I did all the time.”
Settling into their shore home that sunny afternoon, Graham was standing, having a minor argument with his wife, when he got knocked down by what he called “an insane pain that wouldn’t quit.”
Knocked down in that he couldn’t get up. “Not a joke like, ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ either. I actually didn’t fall. My lower back along the beltline suddenly got this horrible pain.” Graham has had three back surgeries in his life so he knows what aggravated lumbar pain feels like – this was different. “Tried sitting, walking, Nothing. I gently laid myself on the floor trying to get rid of this pain. When I went to get up again… I couldn’t. I never got up again.”
One minute Graham was standing in his living room. Then, he wasn’t. “Not a car accident. Nothing like where I tripped down steps or moved differently or suddenly… from standing to not standing… paralyzed in 60 seconds.”
Taken from home to a Cape May hospital by ambulance – then to Jefferson for emergency surgery, as the situation grew desperate – Graham explained that his doctors found that a blood clot had burst in his back, then bled into his spinal cord, thus causing him to be paralyzed. “Just this freak one-in-a-million thing… no doctor ever told me I’d probably never walk again, that the chances were slim until I pried it out of a doctor at Magee (Rehabilitation Hospital). Then, I knew.”
Maybe I shouldn’t say it like this … but going through cancer was a cakewalk compared to being paralyzed.Sports radio host and comic, Ed “Big Daddy” Graham
Though Graham will eventually refer to himself as “eternally busy” and as a “social butterfly,” his life in the area bears testament to an obsession that says something beyond mere busywork. Coming out of Southwest Philadelphia and West Catholic High School (both, like the author of this piece), Ed Gudonis, became Big Daddy Graham in 1982, and never looked back.
Along with playing every comedy club along the East Coast, and the stages of Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre and Pitman’s Broadway Theatre, his videos (for satirical clips such as “Let’s Call In Sick” and “Action News Theme”) and radio bits (“Nuns!,” “Walk On The Mild Side”) made him the toast of the mid-80s, and Philly showcases such as WMMR’s Morning Zoo and WXPN’s Kids Korner.
By the 90s, his brash, boyish humor, coupled with his knowledge of all-teams Philadelphia, made Graham a part of local sports radio at 1210 AM’s, “The Sports Attack,” before moving into overnights at 94WIP and its follow-up “Overlap Show” with Angelo Cataldi and the Morning Guys. Along with being at 94WIP for over two decades, in 2014, he began recording a podcast, “Big Daddy Graham’s Classic Rock Throwdown,” on Wildfire Radio. Along with his Macnow book, recently updated, Graham penned “Last Call,” a serious book about a solitary figure in his life, his father, that sold over 30,000 copies, then he adapted that same work into a one-man show, which he performed at Society Hill Playhouse and the Media Theater.
If you didn’t see these events, you could find many of them on Graham’s CDs and DVDs – several of which are sold out and rare – and if you’ve managed to miss him at clubs and theaters, the guy has a regular routine of colleges and corporate events, private parties, sports banquets, golf outings, fund-raisers and regular Quizzo hosting nights.
Even when he’s had back surgery (several), a diagnosis of throat cancer (2010), and over 100 hours of uncontrollable hiccups that led to the reveal of atrial fibrillation (2016), he’s made it back to being what comedian Patton Oswalt calls “stage healthy,” an old showbiz adage where someone sick as a dog could comeback with boundless energy and clarity to wow crowds.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it like this… but going through cancer was a cakewalk compared to being paralyzed,” said Graham. “I never had a deep, dark moment with that, because the rate of survival was high. The radiation was hard though, there was that. It was in remission when my teeth fell out that was rough… the not eating, the big sores on my neck.”
Around that time, Graham remembers going into a bar – the beginning of a joke, for sure – something he hadn’t done much while in cancer rehab. “I just stopped in for a scotch, which I used to hit pretty heavy for a minute before that,” he said. “Anyway this guy comes up to me, said he likes my stuff, said his brother had the same cancer I had and said that it took about seven months until he was able to really eat again. “How’s he eating today?” asked Graham. “‘Oh, he’s dead,’ said the man.’ I loved that,” exclaimed Graham with a laugh. “I tell that joke on stage still – not a word changed.”
He’s on a roll.
The good thing about cancer, said Graham, was that he lost weight. Nearly 60 pounds. Not that he wants such a debilitating disease again, “But… cancer was a great diet,” he said, holding back another chuckle, before mentioning that in 2010 he hit 202 pounds, with a 6 feet, 2 inches frame. “I looked great then. Now I’m sure I’ve gained 20 pounds already if not more. I appreciate everyone coming over to visit the house, but, they have to stop bringing food. I can feel myself getting blubbery in this wheelchair. All this, and I need to go on a diet as well.”
The roll continues.
While discussing allowing friends to visit him at home after 3:30 in the afternoon means that Graham has gotten past his afternoon of in-home therapy and bath time. “That’s so they don’t have to watch me get my balls washed… unless they do want to watch me get my balls washed… that and what’s left of my tiny little white man’s dick which has shrunk to the size of a marble.”
I’m trying not to laugh at his peril, but I can’t help it, or help marvel that Graham has his humor intact.
“It’s all I have left,” he said, quietly. “It hasn’t always been that way since October. At first, I put on that funny face when the camera crews came in, then again for the radio drop-ins that I do. Unfortunately, my wife does not see this face all the time, this humorous face, because when it’s just she and I, it’s about being down to business: lifting me, pills, having her wipe my ass, this, that. When I get an opportunity to remember that I have a sense of humor, I go for it.”
It’s hard maintaining humor when so much of your life, even the recent bits, seems so far behind you. During our conversation, Graham talked about the phantom feeling he had where his feet are on a bar rail. “Sometimes I feel as if my legs are crossed – everything but lying flat which they are in this bed.”
Like Sinatra recalling his summer winds, Graham mentions his place in Sea Isle and talks about living along the sands. Just this summer, there he was, getting to the beach at noon, nestling in, and not leaving until around 8 p.m. “I could easily leave my chair on the beach and walk up to the Carousel for the happy hours, where you’d find a variety of men and women, aged 20 to 60, hanging out. What am I gonna do now – get wheeled up the beach in a chair with those giant blue tires? I shouldn’t be thinking about the beach – yet. But, come January 10, I will be, because that’s when it starts for Jersey shore rats of which I’ve been my whole life. This summer was the first Labor Day weekend I missed since 1972.”
Graham does mention one happy recent shore memory tied to John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Johnny Doc’s wife is a Magee rehab person, and I know John’s a North Wildwood guy,” said Graham, a natural storyteller. “He’s getting off an elevator as I’m getting on, and I tell him I’m missing Labor Day. Quick exchange. ‘See you later. Hang in there.’ Know what John did? He had his guys bring up Sam’s Pizza and Lou’s Fudge, all Jersey shore fare.” Graham goes on to mention that among his Magee visitors were faces such as former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil and former 76ers owner-turned-motivational speaker Pat Croce. “I was almost relieved when Pat left – I’m kidding – he’s so intense with that long goatee and his loud Croce motivational talks I mentioned something about hope, and he started yelling that hope was bad. YOU HAVE TO DO.”
Another recollection of things past comes down to the business of being Big Daddy Graham, the work of radio overnights, hosting gigs and comedy gigs.
“Work? I’m not really doing much. WIP has let it be known that as soon as I’m ready to go back on the air I can… but that will require permission from my doctors, from ENTERCOM HR, from my wife,” said Graham. “I don’t think I can ever do my overnight shift again. WIP wise, maybe I can ease my way back into it – maybe co-host a shift with someone else once a week. WIP said they can bring and build a studio in my home. Every host at the station sends me texts to have me on-air during their shifts. I don’t know though, I don’t want to be the sick guy in your face all the time.”
Mention the possibility of a home studio being built by 94WIP, and Ava Graham, his daughter from 94WIP’s Morning Show, stated that her station’s been tremendously supportive, and willing to set up digital communication lines in her parents’ house. Two things work against this, however: one is that Big Daddy sleeps 10 to 12 hours a day. And the other is that he is disabled. “He is on disability,” noted Ava. “So if you go back to work in any capacity… I mean he’s not Frank Gallagher from ‘Shameless,’ but, this becomes something we have to assess. Everyone at WIP will put my dad on any show at any point, but, there’s more that goes into it all, and he has to figure out where he stands, financially, for years to come. He can be in this wheelchair for the next 20 years, and it’s not cheap. You fight tooth and nail for everything with insurance. There are very serious discussions to be had coming up.”
(When asked where Graham stands with his employers, Spike Eskin, program director of SportsRadio 94WIP, wrote back “Big Daddy is a valuable member of the WIP team and a great guy. I wish him good health and all the best in his recovery.”)
Beyond that, Graham’s literal and figurative bread and butter – where he shines – is in the live setting, often a more intimate option of private and public events for which he is well paid.
“I’ve lost a lot of money,” he said. “WIP is doing their best, but, that money will get cut in half. Besides, I’ve never made a lot of money on WIP (author’s note: most radio personalities in the Philly market average between $31,000 to $45,000 a year). “What I do get, from my affiliation with WIP, because I am with WIP, is the chance to make money from appearances.”
From hosting Quizzo at Tom & Jerry’s on McDade Blvd to P.J. Whelihan’s in Maple Shade and Blue Bell to private functions – they’re done for right now. Ava is taking up the Quizzo slack at Chickie’s & Pete’s Drexel Hill and South Philly.
During our interview, Graham was preparing for his first two private parties from a wheelchair. He feels funny about doing it – he‘s not a guy to use a dais, instead, he’s all about roaming the crowd, working it, interacting with people in the audience. “I like taking a wireless mic and moving around the tables, weaving my way through to get close to everyone. There’s nothing more boring than a comedian at a podium. Podiums are for lecturers. I think that’s why I’m so popular among private party throwers – I’m good at them. Now, I can’t weave. Now, I’ll be at the height of everyone else sitting down.”
Big Daddy sounded as if he feels hopeless, devastated, embarrassed to ask anyone he’s working for about wheelchair ramps. Graham also feels lousy that he is without proper wheelchair accessible transportation (“New Jersey Paratransit is my best friend,” he said) which is why a GoFundMe page has been started, followed up by a Dec. 27 benefit at the Media Theater. He needs wheels beyond his chair.
“I’m not nervous, though, about doing these private gigs,” he said. “What’s the worst that can happen to me? I’m in a wheelchair.”
My guess is that for a guy so used to thinking on his feet, he’ll have no problem thinking sitting down. Graham’s comedy is in his head – improvisational and in reaction to every situation and every story. Graham just has to get out of his own way.
Ava knows that her dad is getting inside his own head. “Knock on wood, things are OK at home as far as his health goes,” she said. “My mom is very much on top of everything. His mental state? It’s here and there. For a guy who was always on the move to now only be able to get up with the use of a crane, then out into a chair that he can only roll into his living room? It’s not thrilling. He was a very busy man. On the radio. Quizzo in bars. Comedy shows. He’s a workhorse. He never stops. His saving grace is that he can do his favorite things – watch TV, read, see his friends I come to the house to watch Eagles games with him. But he misses being engaged – and engaging. He misses the radio. He misses the people.”
January 2020 is something Big Daddy sounds more positive about – he’ll get a colostomy bag, a game-changer in that his wife Debbie will no longer need to tend to his dirty diapers. “It’s as much as shame for my dad as it is my mom that she has to take care of his bathroom habits now,” said Ava.
“I didn’t just ruin my life, I ruined my wife’s life,” said Big Daddy. “This took down several people – my being paralyzed took out the two of us.”
Graham is looking forward to doing what he hopes to become regular gigs at Magee Rehab when he gets his modes of transportation in easy order. A large part of how and why he has been able to move on, physically and mentally, from his being wheelchair-bound is due to that rehabilitation hospital’s staff in his estimation.
Mary Schmidt, Magee’s Spinal Cord Injury Program director, can’t say much, legally and ethically, about Graham’s case or give out information about those who aided in Graham’s care. She was able to speak in broader terms.
“Someone with an injury such as his, who comes into an acute rehab environment – very different from an acute care hospital and certainly different than a skilled nursing unit – you know from him that he came in as a paraplegic,” stated Schmidt. “What we do in acute rehab is that we work to get a person medically stable, and get rid of medical complications that come from whatever the disorder is that affected him, get him stabilized.
“The toughest pro athlete out there will get the loop knocked out of them during this process – even getting out of bed is taxing. With that, there is the anxiety of not being able to do what the patient used to do.”
That’s where Graham got the most help from Magee in his estimation, something that went beyond the physical difficulties. He was able to feel more like himself once he got over medical issues. “There’s a difference between being sick and having a physical disability; when they’re getting up and getting active we can get over being sick, and move to see what we can do with what you have,” said Schmidt.
“Jackie and Rachel and Robin at Magee, I loved them, but, they had to fight me to do everything that they got me to do,” said Big Daddy. “Look, I was a pretty good basketball player into my 40s, even against guys who played Division 1 ball. I never bothered with the stretches and everything. I just wanted to play ball. Stretching was a pain in the ass. That’s what rehab was to me, a pain in the ass, but Jackie, Rachel and Robin got me up and running. Maybe it was because they were all women, but eventually, they won out, got me out of bed and made me do what they told me to do. They made me realize that, as I was getting out of Magee within six weeks, the stronger I made myself, the easier it would be on my wife. That worked. I would not have responded to a drill sergeant. I would’ve said ‘fuck you’ to the rehab people as I did to coaches who tried to strong-arm me. I would’ve killed that guy in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ too. But they appealed to me getting better and stronger so that I could be stronger for my family.”
Magee also prepared Graham for a life back in comedy and Quizzo as they pushed him into hosting showcases for fellow rehab patients, something Graham was even more reluctant to do, at first. “They pestered me to do stand-up comedy when I couldn’t stand up. I didn’t like the idea. I didn’t want to do it. Finally, to get them off my back I figured that I’d do a Quizzo night as part of their Friday night entertainment – sometimes they have a guy with a guitar. Sometimes they have a singer. And I had a great time, so great that I did a few more. I looked forward to them.”
An engaged Graham is a sympathetic and empathetic Graham, a Graham he wasn’t sure how to embrace. He mentions if you see someone in a wheelchair, lend them some small hand or help. “It’s never just about the chair, but rather, the things around it – simple travel, doing the smallest things you always did.” Then he stopped. “Along those same lines though … who wants to be thought of as an invalid? See, now I’ve got it out of my head – look at you, you’re a fucking therapist. “
Graham then comes face to face with how it is he feels – about those who are wheelchair-bound, about his own condition – and the empathy it takes for humanity to keep things on an even keel. He realizes that disability itself is as evolving a psychic and emotive ideal as it is a psychical one. That people in a wheelchair must be treated as different as they are the same as anyone else in need.
“You know who’s gonna treat me the same – Angelo Cataldi,” said Graham with a laugh. “I went to dinner with him and his wife and he still went and made me pick up the check. How’s that for your closer?
The Big Daddy Graham benefit is Dec. 27 at the Media Theater, at 7:30 p.m. with Joe Conklin, Eddie Bruce, David Uosikkinen, Tommy Conwell; Jimmy Shubert, The Legendary Wid; and WIP’s Ray Didinger and Al Morganti. The benefit will include a silent auction. 610-891-0100 or mediatheatre.org.