SPOFFORD — George Carlin cut his comedy teeth in the Granite State, performing routines in front of his fellow campers each summer at Spofford Lake, an old acquaintance said Monday following news of Carlin’s death.
Carlin died last week of heart failure at age 71, bringing to a close a prolific comedy career that spanned several decades.
But long before Carlin had comedy albums and television specials, he was a youth striving to entertain at the all-boys Camp Notre Dame, a Catholic summer camp in Spofford that was home for about eight weeks each year to about 200 kids from around the northeast.
“He was a notable character in the camp. People knew who he was because he was funny,” said Leo Cullum, who attended and worked as a counselor for the camp from 1948 to 1959. The camp, now closed, was owned by Cullum’s uncle.
Cullum, 66, who now lives in Malibu, Calif., is a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine.
One of the camp’s big events was a Saturday night talent show that would bring many of the kids on stage to sing or perform a trick, Cullum said.
“George would get up and do monologues,” Cullum said. “One of his main competitors was a fellow we called ‘Wacky’ Wilson. He had always won the talent contest. Lo and behold, after a couple of years of George doing his things, he finally beat Wacky Wilson in the talent contest.
“Wacky’s talent was he would put on skits, get people to perform. They were great also. Fast forward about 25 or more years from camp there, you go to the beginning of ‘Saturday Night Live’ when George was asked to be the first guest host. They were interviewing, they weren’t sure they were going to use him. He said, ‘Well, I know the director.’ And the director turns out to be Wacky Wilson — Dave Wilson.
“Dave was doing the exact same thing he did in camp,” Cullum said. “Putting on skits. And George was doing monologues.”
Carlin was eventually thrown out of the camp, Cullum said.
“My uncle was a tremendously strict disciplinarian. George was a photographer, and we would take trips out of Spofford. George was caught stealing film for his camera. My uncle got wind of this, packed George up and put him on a bus home,” he said.
But that wasn’t the last Cullum would see of Carlin.
“I ran into George in later years. He had a tremendous soft spot for Camp Notre Dame. When he was an adult he would come back and visit the camp and visit my uncle. He told me that he still had rocks from where we learned to swim. I said I had an old Camp Notre Dame T-shirt. I sent it to him and he sent me all his (comedy) videotapes. It really had a big impact on him.”
News of Carlin’s death last week saddened his old acquaintance.
“I had some things to send him,” Cullum said. “I had found some old postcards from Camp Notre Dame.
“I feel like it’s a little, tiny piece of my personal history that I’ve lost, but kind of a significant thing,” he said. “I like to say that I knew George Carlin.”