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Home turf

Penn Jillette makes stop in Greenfield and is glad he did

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Penn Jillette speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette  in on a tour promoting his book “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday,” which has just come out in paperback.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Penn Jillette in on a tour promoting his book “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday,” which has just come out in paperback.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette, sporting a Greenfield cap, speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Penn Jillette, sporting a Greenfield cap, speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette  in on a tour promoting his book “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday,” which has just come out in paperback.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Penn Jillette, sporting a Greenfield cap, speaks at Greenfield Community College Friday night.

GREENFIELD — “When I came back to town, I didn’t realize Greenfield had turned into Brooklyn.”

Penn Jillette, internationally known comedian, author and illusionist, returned to his hometown of Greenfield Thursday night, and spent Friday walking around town before speaking at Greenfield Community College.

“When I last left Greenfield, it was a depressing, dead factory town,” he admitted.

He was impressed by all the changes that happened while he was away.

“Now, the old Clark’s Sport Shop has turned into a great performance place; it’s a club I’d love to play,” said Jillette. He was referring to the Arts Block, at Main Street and Court Square. If he had more time in town, he said, he’d try to take in a show.

In 2007, Jillette went on national television, saying that a Walmart was just the thing Greenfield needed. The town was featured on former Showtime series, “Penn & Teller: Bulls**t!” in an episode that focused on small towns’ resistance to the retail giant. On the show, Jillette lampooned Al Norman, nicknamed the “sprawl-buster” for his anti-Walmart agenda.

Jillette has since changed his mind.

“The way Greenfield looks now, I think we might have been on the wrong side of that one,” he admitted.

He couldn’t believe that the sleepy town he’d left now sports two Thai restaurants, a revamped Bank Row block and a used record store.

Jillette said he spent $200 at John Doe Jr. Used Records, buying new copies of old favorites, from stand-up comedy albums to old “dirty party records” from the 1960s.

His appearance at GCC was one of a handful of speaking engagements to promote his 2012 book, “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday,” which was recently released in paperback.

Jillette was also taken aback with the venue. Since he’d last seen the community college, it’s undergone major renovations.

“It used to be a depressing idea of a community college, a place I wouldn’t go. Now, I’m sitting here and enjoying it.”

Jillette sat in a cushy chair in front of the southern-facing, all-glass wall of the upstairs library, watching the sun go down on what he said must have been “the most beautiful day of 2013.”

“Sitting here, I can’t imaging why I ever wanted to leave Greenfield.”

It was a matter of opportunity, or lack thereof, that made Jillette strap a few belongings to his back and set out on the open road, to make a go of show business. He said he knew he wasn’t going to get his big break in Franklin County.

He made his way across the country five times, he said, hitchhiking and hopping trains for transportation, performing his juggling act anywhere he could to make a living. Though it was tough at times, he said he never thought of packing it in and heading home.

It was make it or break it, and he made it.

He credited his show business success, in part, to his lack of skill in any other area.

“It’s been said that those who have something to fall back on, will,” he said.

His previous jobs included washing dishes, raking leaves and other unskilled positions.

Jillette has performed for thousands of people, including near-nightly shows in a 1,440-seat Las Vegas theater named after him and his partner, Teller. All those hours on stage didn’t stop him from having some pre-show jitters Friday.

“I’m more nervous about tonight than any other stop on the tour,” he said as we talked before the show.

Usually, he said, his talks are mostly monologue, and his on-stage Vegas act is tightly scripted.

Back in his hometown, though, he wanted to focus more on the post-talk question-and-answer period. The audience asked him about atheism, his magic act, why Teller’s so quiet, and more, and he answered each at length.

Though Jillette was pleased to see all the changes that have come to Greenfield, he was equally happy to see that some things have stayed the same.

“Time stands still at Wilson’s Department Store,” he said. “I went into the ‘employees only’ area, where I worked in shipping and receiving, packing boxes,” he said. “They still had the same tape-dispensing machine I used. I could have gone right back to work.”

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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