Tim Conway was Tom Conway growing up in Chagrin Falls, but when he got to Hollywood it was changed to satisfy an arcane rule that decreed no two actors could have the same name.
There was already a guy named Tom Conway working in the movie business so the Chagrin Falls High School class of 1952 graduate had to settle for Tim.
Tim Conway would go on to find success as the bumbling Ensign Parker in “McHale’s Navy” and later as a variety of memorable characters on the “Carol Burnett Show.”
Riding the wave of fame, Tim Conway would go on to become as much a Chagrin Falls icon as its waterfall and the Popcorn Shop and for five decades it basked in the reflection of his talent, fame and successes.
On May 14, the town lost some of its gleam when Mr. Conway, 85, passed away.
Everyone’s favorite son
One of the first things he did as a Hollywood success was to renovate the East Orange Street home where he was raised and where Dan and Sophia Conway would live out the rest of their years.
It was an illustration of the kind of son, man and good old hometown boy he would become.
While no one could be prouder of his success than his parents, it was the town itself and most everyone in it who could not have been more excited about his success even though he was born in Willoughby. The almost native son was transplanted to the Village of Chagrin Falls at a very young age making him an “almost lifer.”
The other thing that happened when Mr. Conway became famous and made a new and big name for himself was to get another big new name, the village’s “favorite son.”
Not just as the only child of Dan and Sophia but the entire town where he was raised and nurtured were protective and proud of his accomplishments as what some have said in eulogizing him, “a comic genius.”
He would later credit Chagrin Falls – along with his parents – as the reasons he saw the zany side of life.
Mr. Conway would explain that his parents were funny without knowing it and that is exactly what made them so hilarious. The town itself with the illogical name, the schools, teachers, friends and happy childhood also fed the flame that would fan the fire that gave birth to some of the most memorable characters ever created.
The first official honor bestowed on this favorite son came in 1965 during his run as Ensign Pulver when during the Blossom Time events of that year, he was named honorary chief of the Chagrin Falls Suburban Fire Department.
The plaque he was given noted that Mr. Conway possessed the qualities of a good firefighter, “the ability to stay calm and responsible in chaotic situations.”
That same year, he was asked to write the forward to the Zenith, the high school yearbook. He took the task seriously. The theme was making new memories. In the final portion of his thoughts to the Class of 1965 it became clear how he felt about his hometown:
“You have unknowingly had the best pasture in which a child could romp. Now the gates are open and a world of challenging adventures awaits. Let me be the first to challenge you. I defy you to find a more pleasant memory than the one called Chagrin.”
There were other local accolades. In 2000, Mr. Conway was enshrined in the Chagrin Falls Alumni Association’s Achievement Hall of Fame.
It was Ensign Parker of the McHale’s Navy TV show that had catapulted the hometown boy into the famous personality and townspeople adopted an unspoken rule about how to behave around their favorite son.
No gawking or rushing to get autographs or photographs. Should anyone encounter the star on Main Street, treat him no differently than if he had taken his mother’s advice, avoided Hollywood and gotten a good steady job at Chagrin Hardware, a favorite haunt before and after he became famous.
Mr. Conway came home often in those days and rarely missed the chance to stop by the hardware store, a place as revered in Chagrin Falls as Mr. Conway himself.
Two weeks before his death, Mr. Conway’s stepdaughter and step-granddaughter stopped by the hardware store to get him “something Chagrin,” according to Jack Shutts, a member of the Shutts Family which continues to own the store today.
They settled on a T-shirt featuring a drawing of the hardware store, Mr. Shutts said. “They told us Tim was feeling much better, so we were hopeful.”
Mr. Shutts said his family and the Conways have a long history. Before he bought the hardware business, his father Ken Shutts worked with Dan Conway at Fram Gas in the village for many years.
Mr. Shutts remembers during the 1950s, his dad sold black and white TVs at one point and the medium was so new he put one in the store window to get the attention of customers.
Tim Conway walked past the store every morning on the way to school and every day, in what seems like foreshadowing of his future life, would stop to watch the TV.
“More than once my dad would have to go out and shoo him away with a ‘go on get outta here, you are going to be late for school.’”
Mr. Shutts also clarified the fact it was Tim Conway’s mother who promoted the idea of her son getting a job at the hardware store.
“She came to my dad and told him, ‘I don’t want Tom going to California, can you give him a job?’”
The elder Mr. Shutts would later say on balance he had a hard time convincing Mrs. Conway that comparing a job at the hardware store with one in Hollywood would be a hard sell in convincing the young Conway to stay home.
Returning the love
Mr. Conway never forgot where he came from or what it had given him and he returned the favor many times over.
During one episode of McHale’s Navy, Mr. Conway as Ensign Parker can be seen reading a copy of the Chagrin Valley newspaper of the day, its front page to the camera and its name flag in full view. It was as if he were waving to everyone back in his hometown.
He would also give back to his hometown in other ways, through benefit appearances at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre.
In 1965, during the hit run of McHale’s Navy, Mr. Conway raised money for the River Street playhouse by climbing on stage to portray another swabby, the character Ensign Pulver, in “Mr. Roberts.”
There would be many other visits to Chagrin Falls for the comedian.
His last outing on the CVLT stage was at a performance and book signing in 2013 for his memoir “What’s So Funny – My Hilarious Life.” It follows his rise as the country’s most beloved comedian and his beginnings as son of unintentionally hilarious parents and growing up in a town enchanted by its inadvertently funny name.
Beyond Chagrin Falls
As it turns out, he was preordained to become a comic genius when he was designated class comedian in his 1952 yearbook.
Little did anyone know at the time that he would go on to fulfill the accolade and star in two hit television series, “McHale’s Navy” and the wildly popular Burnett show.
The characters he invented while a member of that cast are legendary. One will always stand out as classic – the “nervous dentist.” In it he manages to shoot Novocain into everything but the patient, including himself. The patient was played by his friend and co-comic conspirator Harvey Korman.
After screening the skit to a Chagrin Falls audience in 2013, Mr. Conway would reveal that of all of them he liked the nervous dentist skit best but not for the reasons one might expect.
He would tell the audience that one was memorable because it was largely off-the-cuff. Mr. Korman did not know what to expect and In failed attempts to keep a straight face, he had “wet” himself.
It was the challenge for Burnett show actors to see if they could break each other up and Mr. Conway was the best there ever was.
It takes a strong bladder and near athletic timing to be a comic and to pull off the fumbling ineptitude that infused so many of the characters he created. His creations “Mr. Tudball,” “Dorf” the golf guru and the “Old Man” were much loved. They all had comic clumsiness and incompetence in common, but Mr. Conway made sure each demonstrated genuine humanity.
No stand-up comedian, Mr. Conway was a physical comic, slapstick in the best meaning of the term. That would take its toll later in life with back pain which he said got its start while playing high school football three of his four years in high school.
He was one of the smallest players on the team but it was also a small high school and Coach Ralph Quesinberry took what he could get to field a team, Mr. Conway would recall.
The visits home would be fewer and farther between after his mother passed away and the home on East Orange sold.
October of 2013 would be his final visit to Chagrin Falls. He came home for a book signing event for his memoir “What’s So Funny – My Hilarious Life.”
On that same visit, a commemorative paver bearing his name was unveiled on the sidewalk in front of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre.
At the time, Mr. Conway hinted he was thinking about slowing down, coming back to Chagrin Falls and maybe even buying his boyhood home, which just happened to be for sale at the time.
Nothing came of the plan and after the book tour Mr. Conway dropped out of sight. He missed a Carol Burnett reunion show and word came later that he was dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
Within a day or two of his passing, Chagrin Falls remembered its favorite son. The little theater honored him with a tribute posted on its marquee at River Street and Main. “Thanks for the laughter Tim Conway,” it said.
Over at the Chagrin Falls Historical Society, staffers dipped into its collection and put together its own tribute, a small display of Conway memorabilia. The end date for the exhibit has not been decided.
This week, former Chagrin Falls High School assistant principal Tom Moe took to the Chagrin Falls Alumni Association Facebook page to recall one encounter with the young Tom Conway:
“I remember him walking into my office when I was assistant principal of the high school. He sat at my desk and typed a letter supporting a bond issue. He told jokes nonstop. After he left, I found his cumulative record which included notes from his elementary teachers that he ‘needed to settle down.’”
Mike and Ruth Carlton lived across the street from the Conway home for many years and recall their boys playing with the Conway kids during their summer long visits to East Orange Street.
“Ruth already knew Tim from Bowling Green (State University) and I knew him because we went to Chagrin together,” Mr. Carlton said.
“He was two years ahead of me and us younger kids always admired the older kids but at that time, he seemed to me to be a kind of a shy kid.”
He recalled one summertime episode his boys will never forget.
“They were out playing and this limo pulls up in front of Conway’s and out comes Suzanne Somers. Our boys went gaga and couldn’t get over the idea Suzanne Somers was actually in our neighborhood.”
Mr. Carlton said he believes the world underestimates contributions made by people who come from small towns in the middle of America. One of them is Chagrin Falls and a kid named Tom Conway who gave the gift of laughter back to the world.
“He grew that sense of humor from what he learned growing up here, the values he was taught and the experiences he had,” Mr. Carlton said.
Former neighbors, Richard and Jackie Parsons, now of Florida, lived across the street from the elder Conways and agreed with their son’s claim they were indeed funny people, although Mr. Parson gave the edge to Mrs. Conway.
He adds, “We went to Dan’s funeral and Tim spoke, kept us in stitches about his father’s thrift. Tim truly loved Chagrin Falls.”
I had the joy and honor of interviewing Mr. Conway three or four times over the years. He always remembered me or, at least, pretended to.
A kinder man I have rarely met and he always seemed to fit back in Chagrin like the proverbial old shoe. There was no entourage or handlers. He was just Tom Conway on a visit home. Relaxed, funny, friendly and not a hint of ego.
The first time I had the pleasure of “officially” talking to him was on one of these trips. This time he had all six of his children in tow.
The summer visits, Mr. Carlton remembers, were the counterbalance to the Conway kids’ life in Los Angeles, their father would say.
During that and subsequent interviews, Mr. Conway talked about all sorts of things. He maintained Chagrin Falls had not changed a bit since his childhood and the downward spiral of television entertainment.
He loved to talk about his friendship with Don Knotts, his co-star in the movie “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” and his lunch group that included friends and fellow funny men Don Rickles and Bob Newhart.
On one visit he came home as a recently divorced single father. Mr. Conway became uncustomarily somber at one point and bared his soul about his failed marriage. It was a “too much information” moment.
The interview eventually got back on track and the story was written without reference to his divorce. He was one of the kindest men I have ever met.