In Youngstown, Ohio, Richie Bernaki is a something of a celebrity. Commonly known to his associates and acquaintances as Richard Elmsworth, and remembered by many others as Ultimate Donny, the personage under which he cut his teeth and shed his clothes as part of the seemingly mythical Gil Mantera’s Party Dream, Bernaki now plays guitar and sings in the indie rock outfit Sam Goodwill. He also appears twice on Baker’s album, Baked (http://staybaked.bandcamp.com/album/baked). Rust Belt Hammer (finally) caught up with Richie at the Royal Oaks (http://rustbelthammer.com/2014/02/07/youngstowns-favorite-dive-bar-the-royal-oaks/)) to talk Donny, Party Dream, Sam Goodwill, life as a dad, life in Youngstown, and playing the role of Youngstown Joker in an independent play called “Pittsburgh Batman.”
RBH: You are Richie Bernaki. You are Richard Elmsworth. You were, and maybe are, in some fashion, Ultimate Donny. A man of many faces….
Richie: Yes. Sure. Why not? I guess I still am Ultimate Donny, ‘cause I still do some Ultimate Donny-style bullshit in regular life.
RBH: Is it a character, is it just an extension of you?
Richie: It’s both. Definitely an extension of myself, maybe just a very narrow spectrum of myself, and then heightened to a very crazy degree.
RBH: How did it form?
Richie: The whole Gil Mantera thing, we did that on a whim. Gil had his name, he was “Gil Mantera,” and I’m like, “Fuck, I need a cool name too.” So, for at least a year or two, I was Donny. I acted like Donny. At some point, we were starting to gain some momentum in Columbus, Ohio, started to get some big shows there, I made an announcement in the middle of the show that I legally changed my name to Ultimate Donny.
It is kind of me. There’s a lot of bungled stuff going on in Ultimate Donny’s mind. He doesn’t quite understand stuff, or understands things so well that they don’t make any sense.
RBH: I’ve seen you on stage in present time, and some of that seems to still be there.
Richie: It’s there. It’s always there. If I were to do any sort of stand-up comedy, and didn’t have anything prepared, which is usually what happens, we would go down an Ultimate Donny path for sure.
RBH: Which leads to what?
Richie: It all depends. I just did this improv thing in Pittsburgh a little while ago. And it was weird. There was an improv troupe, and they wanted some local celebrities. I’m not local to Pittsburgh. Not too much of a celebrity either. But Jared couldn’t do it. He’s Pittsburgh Batman and Lord Grunge. He asked me if I could do it. I said, “sure.”
They said, “Don’t worry about being funny. We’ll take care of that.” And I went out, and from the very first word, whatever it was, they knew they were dealing with a fuckin’ maniac.
RBH: For those who don’t know, and it’s been documented and you can read it online (insert PD wiki link), but can you talk a little bit about Party Dream?
Richie: Of course. Our friend Gage, who now has a porn empire and an e-cig company in LA, um, well there was me, Gage, and Gil Mantera, we did a one-time show at Cedars and we called it Party Talk. Gil Mantera was “Gil Mantera.” I’m not sure who I was. And I’m not sure who Gage was, but it was really weird. We had magic tricks, terrible songs, Gil didn’t talk at all. He was nervous as hell, it was his first stage experience.
RBH: Musically, what was going on on stage?
Richie: An old Yamaha keyboard with presets. Almost 100% presets. We had one that sounded almost industrial, I think we called that “Vietnam 2.”
It was the beginning of Ultimate Donny, I suppose, but I didn’t really fully realize Ultimate Donny until I got to know myself, and then, magic.
RBH: What would you say is not necessarily musically influential, but stylistically influential on you?
Richie: Movies. I love movies. “Dolemite” has been one of my favorite movies for a long, long, long time. I’m a big fan of Rudy Ray Moore.
It’s like when Steven Seagal kind of does that Italian thing and he takes it to another level. Like that first movie he did. It was pretty awesome. I can’t remember. It’s a three-word movie title, I know that. It’s not “Hard to Kill,” and it’s not “Out for Justice,” you look it up. His name is Nico.
(I looked it up. He was referring to “Above the Law,” which was indeed Seagal’s first flick.)
(At this point in the interview, we took a brief recess to wait out an escalating shouting match between two patrons of the bar, primarily because it was getting picked up on the microphone, but also because we wanted to listen in…)
RBH: All right. So, uh…
Richie: Man, it’s only 8:22.
RBH: Haha. So, do you have any particularly outstanding memories of the Party Dream years?
Richie: Oh yeah. Well, I guess it’s easier now because I’m not married or anything. There’s a lot of absolutely insane stories. I still probably won’t share them.
We did a lot of touring. And fucked up things happened all the time.
RBH: And that was your only job?
Richie: We did it for four or five years. It was my only source of income, and I wasn’t rich, I wasn’t even Youngstown rich, but I was hanging on. At the very beginning of 2006 I quit my job, my brother (Gil) had just graduated from OSU, we did that and just hit the road. And we did that until 2010.
RBH: Was there any particular event that led to calling it quits?
Richie: No event. I think just personal issues and things like that.
RBH: Do you want to talk about what Gil’s up to these days?
Richie: I would but I have no idea. I don’t know what he’s doing.
RBH: He’s in LA, right?
RBH: When was the last time you talked to him?
Richie: I don’t know. Two years? It’s been awhile.
RBH: If he called you next week and said he was gonna be back in Ohio, and he wanted to do a Party Dream set for some reason, would you be in to it?
Richie: Oh yeah. That would never happen. I thought you were gonna ask if he called would I be happy to hear from him (haha). But if he wanted to come back and, like, kill a show in Youngstown, that would be fun.
RBH: Does your daughter know anything about Ultimate Donny?
Richie: Yeah. She’s young. She’s only nine. She’s seen some of the tame stuff and really likes it. But I don’t know if she could ever be ready for that kind of crazy shit we did.
Now it’s making me giggle, thinking of some of the all ages shows we did. Makes we wonder what the kids were thinking.
RBH: So you’ve been playing with Sam Goodwill. You want to talk a little about how that came to fruition and what that has been like?
Richie: Even when Party Dream was still going on, I was a big fan of Sam (Buonavolonta, frontman for Sam Goodwill). I always thought he was a very talented singer and writer. And I’d hear some songs, and I knew our voices would sound good together. That probably came out very stupidly after a couple of drinks, like, “Sam, ah man, we need to write some songs to make people cry. You know, our voices would sound good together, I have a feeling.” Now we’re finally trying to do that. Maybe not make people cry, but write some songs.
He asked me a couple times if I would join as a multi-instrumentalist, and the only thing I could do really well is sing. I play guitar, but not really well, and I don’t play any other instruments. And so I said, “no.” And that was that for a while. He asked me again, and I said, “I just don’t think I can do it.” He asked me one more time, and it was when he had two months and a small tour lined up, and his guitarist hurt his fingers and couldn’t play guitar and had to drop off. So I told him I’d try it.
RBH: There seems to be a revolving door of players that join Sam, but you, he and Bob (Young, drummer) have been working together for a while. About a year. It seems like a pretty solid core.
Richie: This seems like a really nice lineup. We all get along well, and play well together. So we’re hoping this sticks for a while.
RBH: What do you enjoy most about playing in Sam Goodwill?
Richie: I really like the songs. And I feel that I contribute. I don’t feel like I’m an extra, just chugging along. I definitely feel like I contribute vocally, and as someone who keeps everybody’s spirits up. Our little tours are silly.
Ran into J. Mascis when we were in Northampton, that was pretty sweet. We had a day off in Northampton, Massachusetts, and I think he lives there. It had to be him. He was just walking around with his son. He had that wizard grey-white long, straight hair. Some purple shirt with a boutique stompbox on it, it was him, dammit.
(The conversation flips back to Party Dream, as we discuss alternate scenarios in which the band could still exist in 2014)
Richie: I think we were at a point where, we could’ve taken a just a small break, looked back on what we did right and didn’t do so right, and we definitely could’ve focused, and given attention to things that would’ve boosted us as far as popularity. I think we definitely could’ve gotten to that next tier, and we were just a small step away from that.
RBH: Do you ever think about leaving Youngstown?
Richie: I never give it a thought. For one, my daughter lives here. She needs her dad. That’s reason enough. But other than that, I love Youngstown. I don’t think I’d consider moving even [without her].
I’m very loyal to Youngstown. I’ve got a lot of love for it.
RBH: Can you talk a little bit about “Pittsburgh Batman”?
Richie: Ooh man, that was a wild ride. That thing is crazy. Jared Weeks, who is Lord Grunge from Grand Buffet, he wrote the thing. He played Pittsburgh Batman. The first run of it, last year, not only was I the only person in the cast who didn’t live in Pittsburgh, but I was the “Youngstown Joker.” My character was the only one who didn’t live in Pittsburgh. And I was the villain. THE Youngstown Joker.
It was a small miracle that it even happened. We did a lot of touring with Grand Buffet, we had a million ideas. “Pittsburgh Batman” is something that came up.
I sent Jared a message like four years later saying we should do that and he was almost done with the script. He sent me the script and I remember sitting on the couch and just giggling. It was so brilliant, so wonderfully written, very Pittsburgh-centric, fantastic. First year we did it it was sold out, three nights in a row. Felt like a rock star.
RBH: Will it happen again?
Richie: Maybe. I mean, there could be like, a sequel. Or it could be anything. “Pittsburgh Pac-Man,” who knows?
RBH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Richie: I’ll take you up on that beer.
We hope to catch Richie some time soon in “Pittsburgh Pac-Man.”
Nick Baker is a rapper sometimes and an occasionally contributor to Rust Belt Hammer. Did we mention Richie is on his album, twice? Check it out at staybaked.bandcamp.com. Contact him at email@example.com
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