Park City’s Funny Girl
January 4, 2013
Dee Macaluso can’t help it. It runs in the family. The veteran comic, actor and improv whiz always knew it.
"I suppose you think you’re funny, young lady," Sister Mary Nara used to yell at her back in eighth grade.
"And you know what? I did," quips Macaluso. "It’s genetic. My whole family was funny," she says. "Dad’s favorite form of punishment was to pummel me with one-liners. Bottom line is it helped me survive 12 years of Catholic school."
Macaluso, who moved to Park City in 2001 from Houston, grew up in Kenmore, New York, a sleepy suburb of Buffalo. "It was a perfect small town with real corner stores and a Main Street with a Woolworth’s and a soda fountain. All the houses had front porches and cars in the drive so you knew everyone on the block," she recalls.
She was the youngest of five children. "As the baby of the family, I was basically an ongoing science experiment for my brothers ‘What happens when you do this?’ ‘Ouch!’ and the sibling scapegoat. I tell people I was feral, raised by four slightly older animals."
School was a cinch for Macaluso, in spite of the nuns. "In eighth grade I won the award for ‘best all-around girl,’" she recalls. "My excellence in nothing in particular is still my strong point. It was in the senior year play that I learned one of those heartbreaking but important truths: I would never be the beautiful ingenue; I would always be the funny sidekick." True to form, Macaluso embraced the role and ran with it. She’s run hard and far over the years and she’s rarely lost her sense of humor.
After high school she attended Buffalo State College, studying English and communications. Her first job after graduating was as a writer and public-relations person for Goodwill Industries. "I got a local radio show and won a national award for a series of humorous radio spots I wrote and produced," she says.
In 1973 Macaluso married her high school sweetheart. "I put it off as long as I could," she chuckles, "but everyone around us was getting married and, well, what the hell else are you supposed to do?"
When daughter Sara was born, Macaluso settled into her new stay-at-home role. "I was just the best mom ever," she boasts.
"When Sara was a baby, Buffalo had the biggest snowstorm ever, the infamous blizzard of 1977. I wanted to move far away because I was so sick of hearing people talk about the snow. ‘You live in Buffalo! Are you gonna’ go on about this for the rest of your life?’ Apparently they were, so we moved to Houston, Texas."
Macaluso spent the next several years playing suburban mom. "I had another baby, Katie, and worked evenings after daddy got home, selling appliances at Sears," she says. "I would crack droll, straight-faced jokes with my co-workers and hear the whooshing sound as they flew right over their heads.
"One day I saw an ad in the paper for auditions for a comedy troupe. I went to the audition and it was all improvisation. We just had to make stuff up. I was in heaven. A week later I was in the Houston Comedy Workshop touring company.
"I loved that job so much. I finally felt like I had found home, found my people. They were the people who ‘got’ me, the people whose bright wits actually made me laugh to my core."
Macaluso soon moved up to the resident company and found herself working full time, performing and writing the shows. "Every show was followed by a half-hour of improvisation and that became my drug of choice," she laughs.
The Houston Comedy Workshop turned out several comedians who went on to further fame, including Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, and Janeane Garofalo.
In 1991 Macaluso struck a deal with her family. "For my 40th birthday, they said I could go to Los Angeles for the summer casting season. I moved in with Janeane, who’d been there awhile. I auditioned for ‘Night Court’ and a couple of other sit-coms, did stand-up at the Improv, and was cast in the season opener of a show called ‘Anything But Love’ with Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis. Then summer ended and my husband said it was time to come home. Back in Houston, I immediately fell into a depression."
It was a harbinger of what was soon to come. Tragedy was stalking in the wings. The laughter died abruptly when her husband took his own life.
"After my husband’s death, everything in my life went to hell," Macaluso confides. "For the next seven years I stayed in Houston and struggled to keep the family together. My youngest daughter was having a really hard time. The only thing that offered any solace was getting outside and away from the city. I found that, if I went out into nature, I could calm myself and feel normal."
That explains Macaluso’s next move. She took a job as a river guide with a Houston-based company. She was away for days at a time, shepherding tourists down the Rio Grande River in west Texas. "The river trips were a huge part of my healing process. You realize you’re not the most important thing in the universe. You’re letting Mother Nature move through and heal you."
On a river trip in 1995, she met Bob Peresseni. "He called me a week after the trip and asked me out. I almost said no but my ‘angels’ guided me. We went to dinner and, oh my gosh! He’s so beautiful and such a beautiful soul. He’s like an idiot savant of spirituality. He doesn’t even have to work at it."
The two dated in Houston for four months before his work prompted a move to Park City. They settled for a long-distance relationship for several years until her youngest daughter graduated from high school. "In 2001 we packed up and headed West," Macaluso says. "I dropped Katie off at Arizona State University in Phoenix and was in Park City the next day." The couple married in 2002.
A renewed, almost resurrected Macaluso realized it was time to rekindle her other passion, improvisational comedy. Within the year she was teaching an improv class in town and was a founding member of "Off the Top," the first resident improv troupe in Park City. Over the next few years she did improv around town, appeared in shows at the historic Egyptian Theatre and in many films and TV commercials. Last fall she was a hit with a show-stopping musical number in "What the Bleep," a local comedy fundraiser lampooning Park City life. Last month she recorded a series of audio books. "That was great fun. I got to play with a lot of dialects and voices, which is one of my favorite things."
Though Macaluso abandoned Buffalo for Houston because of snowy winters, she doesn’t mind the snow in Park City. ‘At least you can get outside and play in it here. And in the summer I still love to get out on a river." She kept her river raft and has logged several trips down the Colorado River since moving to Utah. Her most recent outdoor passion is mountain biking. "I took it up two years ago and I am fierce! I have the scars to prove it."
As Macaluso eases into her 60s, she admits she doesn’t get as much work as she used to. "It’s an awkward age for an actor but I’ve had quite a run. Last summer my nephew asked me to perform his wedding. So I got an online ‘ministership’ and conducted my first wedding. It might become something of a side career, doing weddings and other rituals for non-church-affiliated people. I still think I’m pretty funny, you know."
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at email@example.com
Favorite outdoor activities: Mountain biking, river-running
Favorite foods: Turkey dinners and anything her husband prepares
Favorite music: Blues
Favorite reading: Nonfiction, political novels
Bucket list: European travel, Paris first; more river trips