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Tucked in a dismal Laurel shopping center, the Irish Pizza Pub offers surrealism for the whole family. The decor is Celtic psychedelic, crammed with shoulder-high plaster castles and armored knights and a thatch-roofed bar as long as a bus. On murals that stretch from floor to ceiling, ecstatic leprechauns and ruddy-faced peasants frolic across endless fields of dancing mushrooms: a Yeats’ fairy world as depicted by a punch-drunk R. Crumb. A back wall is girded by a painted shrine to former employees and patrons now deceasedaqua-gray portraits of baseball-capped men with tipsy grins and frosty beer mugs; smoke from their eternally smoldering cigarettes wafts into clouds of their “Irish Heaven,” the work’s title.
Amid this hyper-Hibernian sensory overload (who knew that green could fade in so many shades?), it makes perfect sense that the Irish Pizza Pub is one of the few joints around where working leprechauns can still get a steady gig even when it’s not St. Patrick’s Day.
On weekends, Sammy and Michael Rossa 4-foot-tall father-and-son duobring on a shtick that trumps the tepid stuff found in typical Irish-American bars, with their four-leaf-clover fakery and framed photos of Ronald Reagan.
On a recent Saturday night, Sammy, a bearded man in a tuxedo and green hat, tells jokes and stories and plays old Irish songs like “Peggy O’Neill” on the piano, while Michael, in a matching outfit, works the tables, making animal balloons for children. It’s been their routine for more than 20 years, and their act is well received: Pub regulars have grown up with these leprechauns, and they treat them like family. “People call us all week long and say, ‘Are Mike and Sammy gonna be here?’” says manager Bonnie Helwig. “A lot of them only want to come in if they’re here.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Sammy was working a part-time job as a Santa’s elf at Laurel Shopping Center when he caught the attention of local bar owner Jack Delaney, who was opening up a new place, the Irish Pizza Pub. Taking the stage name “Johnny O’Pal” from the bar’s phone number, “PAL-JOHN,” Ross worked opening night and has been there ever since, even after Delaney died and new ownership took over. In ’75, Ross’ son Michael joined the act, which in addition to the pub fare includes a bevy of commercial and private gigs at chain stores, industrial shows, and shopping malls, depending on the season.
For the 74-year-old Ross, the leprechaun gig is only part of a remarkable show-biz career that goes back to the ’40s, when he appeared in the movie Top Man, starring tap-dancer Donald O’Connor. He has also worked with the Three Stooges, Jackie Gleason, and Lawrence Welk, among many legends. His biggest screen role came in The War Lord, a Charlton Heston adventure epic from the mid-’60s; Ross played the falconer Volc, one of Heston’s band of warriors pillaging 11th-century Europe. In recent years, he has appeared mostly as a stand-in in a variety of Hollywood pictures, from Hustling with Lee Remick to the Tom Selleck bomb, Her Alibi, in which Mike also made a cameo as a clown.
Sammy says he’s proud of his film efforts, but he holds it no higher than his other work. “Once in a while, people come in and say, ‘You made movies? What are you doing here?’ he recalls, sipping a soda after a shift at the Irish Pizza Pub. “I say, ‘What do you mean? This is chopped liver?’ This is good, honest work. This is not a podunk place. This is a nice, neighborly placewell-regarded. How many places can you go and find a live leprechaun?”
The 40-year-old Mike, who comes off as soft-spoken next to his blarney-encrusted father, says that the parents of the wee ones he entertains often tell him the Rosses are the best show around. “Many times, people will go to the competition, like Chuck E. Cheeses, with all the electronics, and they complain to us that they didn’t get as much out of it as they do here. That’s the parents as much as the children.”
Sammy puts it another way: “You build up a following amongst some people who will tolerate you and like what you do. This kid was here one daylittle boyhe says, ‘Are you a real leprechaun?’ I thought, ‘I’m dressed as a leprechaun, I’m here, I’m assuming the posture.’ So I said, ‘Yes, I’m a real leprechaun.’ He says, ‘I don’t think you are’ so I shut up real fast and I thought to myself, ‘Sammy, you gotta say something different.’ So the next time a child asked, ‘Are you a real leprechaun?’ I said, ‘It depends on you. If you think I am, I am, but if you think I’m not, I’m not. It’s up to you.’ So the kid says, ‘I think you’re a real leprechaun.’ See, the child made the decision, and that’s the best way.”
Sammy enjoys celebrating his “Irish heritage” in his routine, even though he’s Jewish. “OK, I’m half-Irish,” goes his usual gag. “I were taller I’d be all-Irish. Of course we’re Irish. Have you ever heard of an Italian leprechaun? A Jewish leprechaun would be called a leprecohen.” He can work any angle that’s handyhe knows all sorts of music, from Russian folk tunes to Italian love songs. “I just did a French restaurant that opened up,” he says. “I was dressed as a gendarme and I had the accordion.”
The holiday season is the duo’s busiest time of the year, and one upcoming gig is a private party for Price Waterhouse at the Bethesda Hyatt. They’ll be doing an old routine, and one of their favorites: Sammy and Mike and some hired guns dress as Keystone Kops and make a “surprise” appearance. “It’ll be people playing games for play money,” says Sammy. “At 11 p.m., we’ll blow the whistle and we’ll raid the place. And we’ll go, ‘The game is over. Everybody get outta here.’ The people will exchange their money and win prizes.”
The Rosses still live in their native Baltimore, where a local custom shop provides them with the outfits needed for their myriad roles. “We’re not wealthy, but we’re doing all right,” says Sammy. “We’ve got some stocks, and I started saving years ago. I’m paying off another house with my second wife, ’cause my first wife got one house. It’s like any divorce, but we’re friendly now.”
The Irish Pizza Pub remains their professional home away from home, a place of real human comfort amid the make-believe trappings, a sanctuary where they’ve made lifelong friends. They’ve taken to their avuncular roles as well as their fairy-tale ones. Sometimes, children who know their Irish folk tales dash over to Sammy and make demands that border on leprechaun harassment. “They say, ‘Where’s your pot of gold?’ like they’re gonna knock me over, like the Mafia or something. So I say, ‘It’s in my heart,’ which is true. That pot of gold is kindness, being good to other people. But they’re too young to know it’s deeper.”CP