From Ring to Swing
His professional wrestling days are fading, but lounge lizard Gigolo Johnny still loves a crowd.
By Carl Kozlowski
"It's always weird when you do parties, because you're entering someone's home--their world--as an outsider," says Gigolo Johnny, who entertains at 150 or so private parties a year. "I don't want to borrow from Forrest Gump, but you never know what you're gonna get. It might be great--might be leftovers."
Gigolo Johnny spends his days as food-factory worker Mark Gallo. He spends his nights doing lounge-style gigs at the Babaluci restaurants in Bucktown and Hoffman Estates or rolling up to homes and businesses in his black Chevy sedan, unloading an array of speakers and minidiscs with instrumental versions of classic tunes, and putting on a show.
One frigid December night he'd already spent an hour at each of three holiday parties when he crashed a friend's party at an apartment in Little Italy. He was tired and cold, and he said he could use a beer. But he set up his equipment in the living room, then kicked one leg into the air and boomed, "Hey, how are ya?"
The crowd of 60 or so people laughed, and before they could answer he burst into his opening number, "It Had to Be You." Given that he has a voice like Tony Bennett's, he could have just sung. Instead he riffed throughout, as he bobbed and wove through the crowd, pretending to hit on women and making verbal digs at the guys. For the next hour Gigolo Johnny kept them laughing and applauding. The outsider had transformed himself into the center of attention.
"As a kid growing up, entertainment was always a big part of my life," Gallo said later as he puffed on a cigar. "I remember my folks used to watch the Lawrence Welk Show, and I would dance in front of the TV for them. That was a big show, and it was fun to see them dig me more than the show."
Now 35, Gallo grew up in Pilsen when it was still largely Polish and Italian. He soon had a magic act to go with his Welk antics, and he would perform in talent shows at school and for friends around his neighborhood. "My sixth-grade teacher wanted me to perform at a Christmas show, but I was out of practice and messing all the tricks up," he says. "To cover, I started to blame the audience--turning it around on them and making it look like they were the problem. I was out to cover my ass, but they enjoyed that more than the act itself."
Gallo could amuse his classmates, but he wasn't popular. While the other boys played baseball, he played Sinatra records and watched professional wrestling on TV, attracted by its "sense of theater."
Shortly after he graduated from high school he tracked down Chicago wrestler Ray McCord and became his student, learning how to take a fall, put the other guy in a choke hold, react to a choke hold. He had his first professional match when he was 18, in 1984, and when he had to create a ring character for himself he hit upon the idea of a lounge-singing hero named Johnny Mercedes. Five years later wrestling organizers turned his character into a villain, and he became Gigolo Johnny Mercedes.
Meanwhile Gallo and a partner were donning matching masks and wrestling as the Tokyo Bullets. They traveled all around the world. "We called ourselves 'the biggest thing in the wrestling business,' but because we pretended to be Japanese, we couldn't do the joke interview segments that could have really taken us to that level," he says. "Back then, wrestling was entertainment, sports, and magic all combined. I always wanted to either be a wrestler or a rock singer. I didn't have a band, so wrestling was it for me."
But in 1992 he broke his collarbone and was out of action for four months. He decided he had to get out of wrestling, though he knew he wanted to go on entertaining people in some way. In 1993 he teamed up with some friends to do a weekly cable-TV show called Razor Tales. The program's focus was supposed to be sports talk, but Gallo would arrive in his old Gigolo Johnny Mercedes lounge-swinger threads, tell a few jokes, and burst into song. The character was a hit with the show's fans.
Gallo would still wrestle on the side, but he says he was never the same. He kept looking for options, and four years ago he started getting singing gigs. He thought about using his real name; instead he just shortened his stage name.
Word of mouth is Gigolo Johnny's main form of advertising now, and business is good--though Gallo sometimes dreams of moving to Vegas with his wife and two kids.
At a birthday party for a 70-year-old man held in a restaurant in Barrington in January, he playfully teased the old ladies, flirting with them while their friends and occasionally their husbands watched with surprise. He launched into his opening number, "Rags to Riches," and wove in comical pleas for pie and references to his impending middle-age paunch. "Hey, I gotta work off lunch!" he exclaimed, kicking up his heels. Soon he had the guest of honor singing along with him. Little kids ran up to tug on his tux pants and ask him questions.
"You never know how kids are gonna take your show," he says, chuckling. "I once went to a VFW party and a kid doused me with a soda. His father restrained the kid, but he came back a second later to hit me with a cake. I tell ya, it reminded me of my wrestling days."
Not all of Johnny Gigolo's gigs are that wild. During the holidays he also does volunteer shows at senior citizens' homes. "I like to give back to the community," he says. "But those are hard rooms to work. It's sad because it brings back old times for them, there's a lot of tears, and it's hard to keep your composure. For me, it's like giving them therapy--because music is good for the soul."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.