Written by Jim Duncan
Photos by Duane Tinkey
Steve Berry is the ideal spokesman of Des Moines’ best intentions.
“He is handsome, kind and well-spoken—the kind of guy you ask to be the best man and give the toast at your wedding,” says Lee Rood, a columnist for The Des Moines Register.
If you watch TV or attend shows and fundraisers around town, you likely know Berry—or at least have seen him in action. He served as KDSM Fox 17’s on-air face and weekend movie host through most of the 1990s and hosted the “Family Fun Game” from 1993 to 1999. He has been master of ceremonies for the Arthritis Foundation and Variety—The Children’s Charity telethons for years and KCCI’s theater critic since 2007. House of Mercy has called on his services for its annual “Family Feud” fundraiser, and Bravo Greater Des Moines for its gala. Berry has been a regular guest on KCWI’s “Great Day in the Morning” and “The Doggone Travelin’ Show.” He’s also been a spokesperson for Green Mountain grills the last 11 years.
On stage, the 54-year-old Berry has played myriad roles, usually leading men like Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” Berger in “Hair,” Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” and Tony in “West Side Story.” Berry says that Jesus was the most challenging role as far as musical range, but Jean Valjean was the most physically challenging “because of wool costumes and the need to lift and carry a 200-pound man seven times a night.”
Like his father, Dale, Berry has become a Des Moines Community Playhouse legend. Berry “never ceases to amaze me,” says John Viars, the Playhouse’s longtime director. “He’s one of the most naturally funny people I know, which, by no means, is an indicator of lack of depth. On the contrary, his heartfelt portrayal of Jean Valjean last spring in ‘Les Miz’ was one of the deepest, most emotionally wrenching bits of acting I have ever seen—a memory that will last for years—and yet, without missing a beat, he goes right back to playing the smart aleck or the lounge lizard.”
The lounge lizard Viars refers to is Joey Libido, a role Berry created in 1993 and has re-created thousands of times since then. “A buddy and I were brainstorming one day and we both thought the lounge singer that Bill Murray played on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was hilarious,” Berry recalls. “I wanted to make Joey completely naïve about his lack of talent. The role never gets old because it’s such an audience participation show that opportunities to ad lib keep it fresh.” (To watch Joey Libido in action, click here.)
Joey Libido resembles a 1980s Holiday Inn lounge act, with an ego and costumes that are part Tony Orlando and part Tom Jones. His caped tuxedo reveals lots of chest hair and bling. Joey loves women except for an ex-wife who sometimes performs with him, at least in adult venues. Joey is so versatile that he can perform at everything from children’s parties to honky-tonk bars and comedy clubs, where the act becomes edgier and Joey’s cocaine problem is part of the humor.
Berry believes that Joey has played shows in every county in Iowa, plus at Treasure Island Casino in Minnesota, on cruise ships and in Nashville, Indianapolis and Fort Myers, Fla. He’s also opened for national acts, including Tony Orlando, Jay Leno, Phyllis Diller and Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and has performed benefits with Joan Rivers, Frankie Avalon and Cloris Leachman.
“Phyllis Diller asked me to take her out for Chinese food when she was in Des Moines,” Berry recalls. “We went to Kwong Tung. She loved the place, and I loved spending time with her, but wouldn’t you know it? It was the only time in my life when I went out for dinner and did not see a single person I knew.”
Although he graduated from Drake University Law School in 1986, his heart was in the theater. “My third year of law school was coming to a close and all my classmates were studying frantically for the bar exams. I knew I wasn’t going to take them and I had a lead role in Drake’s production of ‘Hair.’ So my classmates were staying up all night cramming and I was hanging out with naked coeds in the theater department,” he muses, sounding a bit like Joey.
That same year, Berry played the lead in “West Side Story” at the Playhouse and thought he was ready to take on Hollywood. “My problem (in Hollywood) was supporting myself while I auditioned,” he says. “The only job I have ever been fired from was waiting tables. All hopeful young performers need to be good waiters to survive. I am not cut out for waiting tables.”
He returned to Iowa, determined to survive on his performing skills. “The only person in town who was making a living at that was Mike Pace,” he says. “I just cold called him and asked if I could take him to lunch and pick his brain. He was so gracious and generous. We started with lunch and talked through happy hour. He helped me launch my career, and we have become good friends.”
When Prairie Meadows opened its casino, Berry went to work there as a writer, producer and copy editor. By 2001, he thought he, and/or Joey, were ready to take another shot at Hollywood. His timing couldn’t have been worse. That was the year of a major screenwriters’ strike, and no one was hiring because there were no new projects. Berry managed a repertory theater in Santa Clarita and worked with out-of-work stars like Deborah Winger. By 2004, he says he was ready to come back to Des Moines, “without any regrets.” He rejoined Prairie Meadows and now serves as the organization’s spokesman.
Berry and Joey continue to invade each other’s turf. Berry has been master of ceremonies for organizations like the Drake Alumni Association, Des Moines University, American Heart Association and Animal Lifeline for years. Last year, Bravo Greater Des Moines hired Joey to replace Berry. Ann Williams-Flood, a friend and fan of Berry’s, recently laughed about that: “I called Steve to see if I could book his friend Joey Libido. He told me he would ask him and get back to me. Asking the price to come to my home and mingle with friends, he quoted $69, which, if you know Joey, is just such a Joey number.”
Des Moines comedian Willie Fratto-Farrell, who has performed with Joey, put it this way. “Steve is a little standoffish, maybe shy, probably rude. I love Joey—great dresser, great stories. He told me that back in the day, he wrestled Engelbert Humperdinck in their underpants to Elvis’ delight. I would work with Joey anytime, anyplace, but not Steve.”
Joey, adds the Register’s Rood, “is the one you want to introduce to your fiancé’s ex-girlfriend at the wedding reception.”
Steve Berry’s Favorite Musicians:
Sammy Davis Jr.
Steve Berry’s Favorite Movies:
“The Shawshank Redemption”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
“Five Easy Pieces”
Joey Libido’s Favorite Musicians:
Joey Libido’s Favorite Movies:
“Fun With Dick & Jane”