Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Papa Joe; Chevalier Passes

By Micah Roberts
Gaming Today

Papa Joe's 'Sports Buffet' was a syndicated hit
The sports world lost one of it’s all-stars Friday when sports talk radio host Armand Chevalier passed away at the age of 62. Chevalier, better known as Papa Joe, suffered a stroke in April that had paralyzed his right side. He was originally from Pittsburgh, but it was Las Vegas that he called home and established many lasting relationships.

His Sports Buffet radio show went national, but had a distinct Las Vegas flair to it as he invited callers to give them their picks for the week. His show was unlike any other where the callers were the show and he was the moderator. He despised the Yankees and Cowboys, yet did it a way that fans of those teams still loved him.

For over two decades Las Vegas sports fans were treated to this type of delicious radio. Callers became celebrities like “Bubba” with his lead pipe cinches or “Top Gun” from Florida who had his own intro music. They would give their picks and Papa Joe would grade them. It was next to impossible to get in on the show as the lines were always jammed.

I used to be a regular caller myself during the early 90’s and had a system of trying to get in that worked about half the time. Knowing that there was a five second broadcast delay, I would try to time when the on air call sounded like it was almost over and then make my call trying to beat the hundreds of others trying the same strategy to get on to the show with that open line.

His afternoon daily show was contagious and allowed for myself and thousands of others to vent frustrations with anything in sports with his “Bite Me Wednesday’s” edition. No matter how good or bad any of his caller's takes were, he would find the angle immediately and spin it in an instant to make it sound more interesting.

His show was a lot different from what we have on radio now where the hosts are the stars who rarely take phone calls, opting to talk about what they want to talk about. Papa Joe let the callers set the topics and let them be the stars, chiming in with his two cents in his own clever way usually with a good natured zing at the end of the conversation.

Papa Joe loved all his callers and wanted to meet them so he organized gatherings where all the callers could meet each other and Papa Joe himself. He had a weekly softball team that he invited listeners to show up where they got to see him pitch with his ‘79 striped Pirates box hat.

Chevalier also had a news letter that used to go out to thousands of listeners and in 1994, during the baseball strike, his presence in the sports world was never more acknowledged than a story ran by USA Today on the cover of their sports page. The photo on the cover had him draped with thousands of baseball cards from listeners supporting his grass roots effort of his protest of baseball for what would eventually be a lost season, something that not even world wars could do.

Current ESPN Las Vegas 1100am radio producer Clay Baker was one of those loyal fans who sent his baseball cards in while living in Lansing, Mich., but also had the privelidge of working with Papa Joe in Las Vegas from 2002 throgh 2008 as his producer.

"Rather than interview a player, Papa Joe was more interested in what the fans thought. On his show, the callers were priority," Baker said. "His fans were encouraged to roar and debate his topics, daily, and they never let him down. I'm grateful to have worked with Joe and his friendship was a blessing."

"Joe's first stint in Vegas was dealing dice and 21 at the Slots O'Fun, but working on the floor was short lived," said Baker, who then quotted Joe on the matter, 'After my first day, the Pit Boss told me: If you were ever hanged for being a craps dealer, it would be an injustice to the rope. Eventually, I was assigned to the 'Eye In The Sky' and that afforded me similar work at the Hilton and Four Queens.'

He was genuinely loved by everyone because he actually seemed to care about us. He was one of us. He would have a beer and discuss topics like regular guys do at a bar. It was that same type of comfortable approach that made him such a loved icon on air.

A few years later I ran into him while I was running a sports book and we had a good laugh about his early years on the radio and how I used to get in to the radio shows. When talking about the show and everyone in his radio world family, he glowed with the same pride he did when it was initially happening.

He had quite a few relationships with people all over town, but he especially was fascinated with the job of sports book directors, who he always called “Boss Bookies”. He was intrigued with how the operation worked; how and why numbers were moved along with what the “wise guys” were doing.

When talking about the wise guys on air, he would stretch out the pronunciation in a different hush-hush tone, “Wiiiizzze Guyyzz”, as if he was telling a secret and if it got out, someone might get whacked. I always chuckled every time the voice came out.

I was proud to have been invited as a regular guest on his shows and reflect fondly of my younger years trying to get on his shows as a caller, but I was more honored to have just been his friend.

Las Vegans, and everyone else who had the chance to know him, or hear him are going to miss him, but his legacy will not be forgotten. Not only did he have one of the most unique relationships with his callers, but he was also somewhat of a pioneer with syndicated sports radio shows. He set the pace and tempo of an industry that we know as common place today.

"Joe Chevalier fell in love with radio by chance and it changed the world forever," Baker said. "Joe eventually quits the casino business, does radio full time in Las Vegas, then took the nickname Papa, from the Bourbon street bar and soon he was a Vegas legend. Papa Joe never had to make a demo tape. Papa never typed up a resume for a radio gig, he was just the genuine article. The fans knew it and Papa Joe Chevalier became the first star of an industry that had no stars."

Very well said Clay Baker.

Thanks for all the memories Papa Joe, rest in peace!

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