For Eddie Mekka, the Big Ragoo, acting began with 'Fiddler on the Roof' role in Worcester

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  • Eddie Mekka
    American actor
Eddie Mekka
Eddie Mekka

WORCESTER - Eddie Mekka wasn't thinking about an acting career when he auditioned for a role in the Worcester County Light Opera Company production of "Fiddler on the Roof" in 1970.

"There was a girl in the show (`Fiddler') I really liked," he recalled during a 2011 interview with the Telegram & Gazette.

Mekka, 69, died Saturday at his home in California. No cause has been listed, although a post on his Facebook page said he died peacefully.

Throughout his life, he remained fond of the city where he grew up on Francis Street. He graduated from Burncoat High School in 1970.

In the earlier interview, Mekka said he was a shy schoolboy for much of his time at Burncoat. He started coming out of his shell after being elected class treasurer and being forced to give a speech that surprised him by going very well. He was also a gymnast.

The WCLOC combined with a drama group at the Worcester JCC for "Fiddler on the Roof," which was staged at Atwood Hall at Clark University.

"Because I was a gymnast, I could be one of the Russian dancers (in 'Fiddler'). It was the first time I had heard myself called a dancer," Mekka said.

Another surprise came when Mekka was singled out for praise in a review of "Fiddler" for the Worcester Telegram by Marilyn W. Spear.

At the end of Act One in "Fiddler" in a wedding celebration, male dancers with hats and bottles standing on top of them make their moves without (hopefully) letting the bottle drop. Mekka didn't.

"Marilyn Spear pointed me out as one of the bottle dancers and said I was a wonderful dancer," Mekka said. He said he still had the review. Did it help point him in a certain direction? "Yeah, it did. It helped me. It was a pat on the back and it was in print."

Was the girl impressed? "She was impressed. I followed her to the conservatory in Boston."

Their paths would part, but Mekka was on a road forward to establishing his acting career.

He was Edward Mekjian then. He changed his name to Eddie Mekka, although many people always thought of him as the "Big Ragoo" from his role as the back-flipping and singing Carmine Ragusa on the hit TV sitcom "Laverne & Shirley," which ran from 1976 to 1983. He was known for his rendition of "Rags to Riches."

"A world-class talent who could do it all," wrote Cindy Williams, who played Shirley, on Twitter. "I love you dearly. I'll miss you so much. But oh the marvelous memories."

After high school, Mekka took courses at Worcester State University and the Boston Conservatory of Music, and then moved to New York City. He drove a cab but was cast in "The Lieutenant," about Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy. The show was short-lived, but Mekka received nominations for both a Tony and Drama Desk award as best actor.

Buoyed by that success, he headed for Los Angeles for auditions with shows and an ultimate rendezvous with "Laverne & Shirley."

After the sitcom ended, he held his own by touring the theater circuit in shows such as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," movie appearances (he kissed Madonna in "A League of Their Own"), and television (he was a regular for a while on the CBS soap opera "Guiding Light").

In 1999 Bradford T. Kenney, at the time the artistic director of the former Wachusett Theatre Company (later the artistic director of the former Foothills Theater and now artistic director of the Ogunquit Playhouse) brought Mekka back on a Worcester stage to appear in "Fiddler on the Roof." The show was staged by Foothills Theatre. This time Mekka had the lead role of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman in a village in 1905 Russia that's about to undergo tragic changes.

"He was proud to be from Worcester. He talked about it often," Kenney recalled Thursday. "He embraced the company and embraced it like he was their dad. He was a man of great joy. He loved being in the theater."

Eddie Mekka, playing Tevye, and Chrystal Sturtevant of Auburn, playing Grandma Tzeitel, during an August 1999 rehearsal of "Fiddler on the Roof." The show was staged at Foothills Theatre.
Eddie Mekka, playing Tevye, and Chrystal Sturtevant of Auburn, playing Grandma Tzeitel, during an August 1999 rehearsal of "Fiddler on the Roof." The show was staged at Foothills Theatre.

Two years later, in 2001, Mekka returned to Worcester to reprise the role in a production of "Fiddler" staged by WCLOC, which was celebrating its 65th season, at Quinsigamond Community College.

In 2011, Mekka appeared at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts in a national touring production of the musical "Grease."

Kenney brought Mekka to the Oqunquit Playhouse to perform in "Hairspray" and, again, "Fiddler on the Roof." Sally Struthers ("All In The Family") played opposite Mekka as Tevye's wife, Golde. Kenney had just heard from Struthers concerning Mekka's passing. "She was heartbroken," he said. "The people around him adored him. There's no other way to describe it."

When Mekka was asked in the interview if he would like to get back on a sitcom again, he said, "I would love to do that, except that there's so much reality ... standing in between. It's way out of hand now."

But when he was in Worcester he was back home. He frequently visited friends and family here as well as Ogunquit, Kenney said.

The opening night of the Wachusett Theatre Co. production of "Fiddler" in 1999 played before a packed house with nearly 350 people, who gave a standing ovation at the end.

Stepping forward to briefly address the crowd, Mekka thanked the audience for "proving that there is life after 'Laverne & Shirley.' "

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October 1, 2016: TV and Broadway star, Eddie Mekka, a member of the Burncoat High School Class of 1970, poses for a photo at Union Station with fellow classmates, Joanne Gale DiPinto, left, and Anne Lapierre Fratantonio, during the Burncoat High School "Mega 70's Reunion", bringing together all of the graduating classes from the 70's decade.
October 1, 2016: TV and Broadway star, Eddie Mekka, a member of the Burncoat High School Class of 1970, poses for a photo at Union Station with fellow classmates, Joanne Gale DiPinto, left, and Anne Lapierre Fratantonio, during the Burncoat High School "Mega 70's Reunion", bringing together all of the graduating classes from the 70's decade.
The cast of the ABC Television Network's hit comedy series, "Laverne & Shirley" was headed by Penny Marshall (left center) and Cindy Williams (center right). The story of two young women working in a Milwaukee beer factory in the late 1950s also starred (from left) Phil Foster as Laverne's dad, Frank De Fazio; Michael McKean and David L. Lander as the girl's zany friends Lenny and Squiggy; Eddie Mekka as Carmine Ragusa, and Betty Garrett as their landlady.
The cast of the ABC Television Network's hit comedy series, "Laverne & Shirley" was headed by Penny Marshall (left center) and Cindy Williams (center right). The story of two young women working in a Milwaukee beer factory in the late 1950s also starred (from left) Phil Foster as Laverne's dad, Frank De Fazio; Michael McKean and David L. Lander as the girl's zany friends Lenny and Squiggy; Eddie Mekka as Carmine Ragusa, and Betty Garrett as their landlady.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester's Eddie Mekka, the Big Ragoo on Laverne & Shirley TV sitcom, dead at 69

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