In the sprint to host his first St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, Boston city councilor Bill Linehan has heard a parade of bad jokes. (The worst: “An Irish guy walks out of a bar. Yes, it is possible.”)
Linehan has been reminded of the lessons learned at previous breakfasts. (The most important: Don’t invite Guy Glodis, the former Worcester County sheriff whose boorish jokes offended the audience.)
Aspiring entertainers far and wide have offered Linehan their talents. (Perhaps the most un-Irish: state Senator Barry R. Finegold of Andover has offered to play a trumpet.)
Most important, Linehan has been reassured of his fallback if he freezes on stage. (“Just sing a song,” Linehan said, recalling advice he received from previous hosts.)
This Sunday at 10 a.m., Linehan will step onto the largest stage of his life, presiding over the 2½-hour television production, one part political roast, one part variety show. An audience of 600 at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is expected to experience the annual rite, with thousands more watching a live television broadcast on NECN. The breakfast, which costs roughly $50,000 to produce, is underwritten by Suffolk Construction Co., Lincoln Property Co., and other sponsors.
The event has traditionally been hosted by the state senator representing South Boston, but this will mark the first time the job has been handed to a city councilor, which could become a new tradition or a one-time opportunity.
“I just want to get through it,” Linehan said this week over eggs and French toast at Mul’s Diner in South Boston. “I’m just a city councilor, not a statesman.”
For the past 11 years, John A. Hart Jr. played emcee as the sitting state senator. But Hart resigned in January to take a job at a law firm, leaving his office and the breakfast behind.
“It’s almost like the Oscars for our hometown,” said Hart, who recalled the first time he played host, in 2002. “I was probably as nervous as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I remember being in the anteroom at the Iron Workers hall saying to my wife, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to pull this off?’ ”
Hart learned to listen for bits of humor over the course of the year and scribble jokes on paper he tucked into a file for St. Patrick’s Day. Hart said his mother always fretted that her son was not funny, so she clipped anecdotes for him from Reader’s Digest.
Linehan issued a press release asking constituents to contribute jokes. They responded with 50 to 75 zingers. Two of the jokes may make the show.
He has also sought counsel from friends such as John M. Tobin Jr., a former city councilor who has run comedy clubs. Tobin has often cringed at the breakfast, watching as seasoned politicians shook at the knees with nervousness as they butchered jokes on live TV. Others have made the mistake, Tobin said, of delivering an “11 p.m. nightclub act at 11 a.m. in front of clergy.”
“But Billy’s been on stage before, and I don’t just mean in a ward committee debate,” Tobin said. “The guy can sing, I mean really sing.”
Linehan, 62, grew up the oldest of eight in South Boston in a home steeped in music. His grandfather was a stoic, sober man whose stiff affect melted when he stood at family parties to sing, mesmerizing his kin with his tenor. The city councilor’s mother, Edie Linehan, sang in minstrel shows and attended The Boston Conservatory. The children were expected to do more than listen.
“At age 4 or 5,” Linehan said, “we were thrown up on a chair and expected to entertain.”
He still sings Irish ballads and plays rock ’n’ roll riffs as a guitarist in the family band, the Linehan Brothers. As a boy, Linehan sat on the curb in South Boston and watched St. Patrick’s Day parades go by that included local heroes such President Kennedy and longtime US House Speaker John W. McCormack.
He caught his first glimpse of the breakfast in 1967, when as a 16-year-old, he squeezed into the Captain’s Room on the second floor of Dorgan’s restaurant. Linehan was working for Michael F. Flaherty Sr. What he saw was a much more informal affair, more of a gathering for politicians before the parade than the variety show it has become today.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino cautioned the rookie host not to be intimidated by the Southie lore surrounding the breakfast. Menino urged him to make it his own, Linehan said.
“He said, ‘Bill, you have an image of what this is supposed to be, but just be Bill Linehan. That will carry it.’ ”