Star piano-wielding political satirist Mark Russell has died aged 90

Mark Russell, Washington’s sociopolitical satirist and stand-up comic, who spoofed, teased and laughed about celebrities, politicians, politicians and popular culture behind his star-studded piano for more than 50 years, died March 30 at his DC home. He was 90.

The cause was complications from prostate cancer, his wife Alison Russell said.

From the waning years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration to the presidencies of 10 subsequent CEOs, Mr. Russell poked fun at the foibles and failings of the familiar, the pompous, and the powerful in monologues full of pithy one-liners and musical ditties. He called himself “a political cartoonist for the blind”.

Long an institution on Washington’s stages and in hotel bars, Mr. Russell gained a nationwide following on public television, where he made regular shows for 30 years. During the 1980s and 1990s he toured with his show, performing live at public and business venues in cities and towns across the United States.

In addition, he wrote syndicated observations for newspaper pages, in which he quipped how “a broken campaign promise to change the way Washington works is exactly the way Washington works.”

As a performer, Mr. Russell projected an arresting aura of showmanship that most viewers found difficult to resist: the warm stage persona, resonant baritone, sly smile, signature bow tie and dark-rimmed glasses.

Mr. Russell composed and sang the material while accompanying himself on a piano, which he played standing up for most of his career. He eventually decided that playing while seated, as most pianists do, gave him more speed on the keyboard and made it easier to improvise. “When a joke dies,” he said, “it’s easier to fill in.”

Inspired by social satirist Tom Lehrer and comedian Mort Sahl, Mr. Russell’s humor could be caustic and sarcastic, but his tone was amicable and good-natured, often ringing as one friend teasing another. He aimed his satirical arrows at Republicans and Democrats alike. Each party, he said, “thinks the other has no sense of humor. You are both wrong.”

He was a fixture at the Shoreham Hotel’s Marquee Lounge in Washington when the Watergate scandal propelled him to wider prominence. Journalists began featuring his quips in their articles, urging him to appear on television to cheer up an otherwise somber era in American politics.

So rich in satire were those Watergate years, Mr. Russell once said, that he could “just rip and read” his material straight from the Teleservice tickers. After President Richard M. Nixon resigned, he said, “I had to get back to writing my own material.”

In 1976, when Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), the influential House Management Committee chairman, became embroiled in a sex scandal involving a secretary who said she could neither type nor use the phone, Mr. Russell sang a tune from “The Rain in Spain”: “The Reign of Wayne just seems to go down the drain.”

Two decades later, Mr. Russell wrote a song honoring a special prosecutor during the Clinton era, “When You Wish Upon Ken Starr.”

When Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for President as a Democrat in 1984 and invoked a multicolored patchwork quilt to symbolize his “rainbow coalition,” Mr. Russell countered that Republicans had their own quilt. Pulling a white handkerchief from a pocket, he urged viewers to heed all the shades of vanilla, ivory and cream.

After Sen. Strom Thurmond (RS.C.) married a woman 44 years his junior in 1968, the comedian told an audience, “Societally, Strom Thurmond’s next wife was born yesterday in South Carolina.”

Mr Russell said politicians have often asked his jokes to be borrowed in order to appear mildly self-deprecating. He once told an audience that former Vice President Walter Mondale went to California and the crowd thought Mondale was “a little town near Pasadena.”

Mondale, Mr. Russell later told a reporter, “called me and said, ‘I like that. I want a dozen more of these.’”

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Mr. Russell’s career was at its peak, and in those years he is said to have been among the brightest luminaries in a group of political and social satirists that included Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, later night talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and the Capitol Steps, a troupe of ex-congress staffers turned songwriters.

“Even in Seattle, where political correctness feeds on good manners and social integrity, the satirist Mark Russell has a following,” wrote John Levesque, television critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, in 1997. “Russell is a master at condensing information , a kind of walking, talking Readers Digest, with a touch of irony.”

Marcus Joseph Ruslander was born in Buffalo on August 23, 1932; He said he took Russell in the mid-1960s because “when your name was the least complicated, you changed it”.

His father, a gregarious man, was a gas station owner who encouraged his two sons to pursue pranks and show business aspirations. Mark’s younger brother Dan became cocktail lounge pianist Dan Ruskin, occupying the piano at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel for years.

The two brothers made their professional debuts as kids when their father put them on a boat to Detroit to visit an uncle and told the purser the boys were putting on a free show.

After the family moved to the Washington area in the early 1950s, Mr. Russell worked at his father’s gas station in Alexandria for a time, then attended George Washington University (about an hour and a half) and joined the Marine Corps. In later years he circulated a short biography which read in part: “Education – some. No heavyweight schools.”

His desire was to play jazz piano, but he soon realized he lacked the talent. Instead, he played piano at crew clubs in Japan and Hawaii and composed ditties that taunted officers and senior NCOs in his unit.

While still in the Marine Corps, he began playing and singing in bars near the naval base in Quantico, and after his discharge he decided to try it professionally, first at the Merryland Club, a striptease bar in downtown Washington.

In the late 1950s he moved to the old Carroll Arms Hotel, a now-defunct saloon on Capitol Hill that drew its drinking and carousing clientele from the convention halls in the mid-20th century. From there it went to the Shoreham’s Marquee Lounge and then to greater attention on public television.

Mr. Russell’s first marriage to the former Ward Rebekah ended in divorce. In 1978 he married Alison Kaplan, a television advertising and promotions manager. In addition to his Washington wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Monica Welch of Kensington, Md., John Russell of Providence, Utah, and Matthew Russell of Tucson; a brother; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Mr. Russell has earned a reputation among Washington insiders for his adept knowledge of how the city’s political class works and plays. He frequently attended congressional hearings to deepen his knowledge of the legislative process and the personalities involved.

Mr Russell said he had to develop a thick skin to deal with politically powerful hecklers who do not always approve of his barbs.

He once told the New York Times that Senator Russell Long (D-La.) walked into the Marquee Lounge one night and disapproved of something the comedian was doing about the Peace Corps. An argument ensued, with the powerful senator becoming increasingly vocal and disruptive.

Mr. Russell boomed back, “Listen, Senator, if you give me the same time in the Senate tomorrow, I’ll let you take the mic. Otherwise your time is up. Sit down.”

Long reportedly walked away upset.

But altogether Mr. Russell could not do without Congress. Often asked if he has a writing team, he replied, “Oh yes, I have 535 writers. One hundred in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.”


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