Swanberg is master of impersonations

January 8, 2010

A former pastor-turned-comedian credits a late night talk show with helping him create perhaps his most famous impression.

Dennis Swanberg, who has been on the entertainment circuit full time since 1995 and is slated to appear with Gospel recording artist Larry Ford in a concert at Wayland’s Harral Auditorium on Jan. 29, says friends at Baylor University encouraged him to imitate world-famous evangelist Billy Graham.

“I had been messing around with voices since high school – Mr. Haney on ‘Green Acres,’ Barney Fife on ‘Andy Griffith, (sportscaster) Howard Cosell, (boxer) Muhammad Ali and different actors. Several friends said, ‘Hey, you gotta do Billy Graham.’

“So, I started working on it and one night he was on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson and Billy said, ‘You know, Johnny, I’m a sinn-uh…and you’re a sinn-uh.’ Johnny said, ‘What about Ed (sidekick Ed McMahon)?’ and Billy said, ‘And Ed’s a sinn-uh, too. And we must all repent and turn to Jesus if we want to live for-ev-uh.’ I just love to hear him say, ‘For-ev-uh,’” Swanberg chuckled, mimicking Graham’s familiar North Carolina accent.

The Austin native (he played for state championship football teams at Reagan High in 1967 and 1968) was invited to Graham’s mountain retreat at Montreat, N.C. several years ago. “They called and said can you come entertain Dr. Graham and his family at ‘The Cove’ and I said, ‘Let me pray about it….YES!’ Swanberg related with a laugh.

He said he had a “good ear for voices” as a youngster and would imitate his coaches and his high school principal and enjoyed impersonating actors.

“John Wayne was always John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy Stewart in every movie. Now, actors do a lot of different accents so they aren’t as easy to mimic,” he explained.

Swanberg, who has authored several books and created many videos and CDs, says he does about 150 performances a year, ranging from churches to colleges to major companies and organizations with a motto of “Loosen up, Laugh and Live.”“When I was a young pastor in Rogers (southeast of Temple) and Saginaw (near Fort Worth), I’d do youth camps and Valentine banquets, then I got to doing bigger programs. I remember being in Lubbock one time and taking my Big Chief tablet and figuring up that if I spoke so many times a year, could I make a living at this like Grady Nutt and Jerry Clower (Southern humorists who made it to the big time).

“When I went to pastor in West Monroe, La. (he jokes on a CD that “I was there four years. Four years is as long as I lasted at any place. After four years they were tired of me and I was tired of them. Free at last, free at last, thank God I’m free at last”), the Lord gave me lots of opportunities to speak and entertain and I decided I had to do one or the other. I couldn’t do that and pastor as well.”

Swanberg – known by many as “The Swan” – finally told his wife, Lauree, “What do you think, Baby, can we do this? She said, ‘Go for it.’ I had one event booked and wondered if I’d made the right decision.”

As providence would have it, James Dobson, founder of the “Focus on the Family’ ministry, heard a cassette tape of a Swanberg performance and about six months later saw him at a program in Sarasota, Fla. “I had never met him and he said, ‘Swan, I want everything you’ve got.’ I hated to tell him, ‘You’ve already got everything I’ve got.’ Since then I’ve done dozens of events for him,” Swanberg recalled.

He went on to host “The Dennis Swanberg Show” on the Trinity Broadcasting Network for a couple of years and later taped more than 100 episodes of “Swan’s Place” for Family Net in Fort Worth over about 10 years.

On that program he was able to feature many of the gospel singers who appear in the popular Homecoming videos produced by Bill and Gloria Gaither – including Ford.

The 55-year-old father of two grown sons also appeared in several of the Gaither videos himself but admits, “I can’t sing. They could have been singing ‘Watermelon, Watermelon’ and I wouldn’t have known all the words.”

Swanberg says his humor, story-telling and motivational material – maybe about planting trees for future generations you’ll never sit under, or making hospital visits, or funny things that happen in church – come from his own experiences, including his growing-up years.

“Sometimes I think of an idea and put it on my phone message system. The other day I was thinking how big we were on naugahyde (artificial leather) years ago. It smelled like leather but if it tore, you just bought you a Ronco Naugahyde kit and dabbed it on.“I talked to my partner in Nashville recently and he asked if I was ready to do a new DVD. I told him I had a page full of new stories. I try to recall things people have in common....simple things like Grandma’s Sucrette box full of bobby pins…things people haven’t thought about in a long time and it hits their funny bone.”

While his audiences tend to be 40 and up, Swanberg said, “Some of my biggest fans are teenagers who know my material – “hug your mother,” he says in his high-pitched female voice. “Kids enjoy hearing stories about Mom and Dad.”

A pastor for 22 years and now a member of North Monroe Baptist Church, Swanberg says he received some excellent advice from veteran gospel singer Gary McSpadden years ago.

“He told me that if you’ll take care of the churches, they’ll take care of you, even though you may some day lose your celebrity status. Also, Marshall Edwards, the chaplain for our high school team and my father in the ministry, said to never leave the church – always stay tied in. I think that’s the key for the long haul.”

Tickets for the Swanberg-Ford concert are $20 and are available through the Office of Alumni Services at 291-3603.