Willie Farrell at Tumea & Sons5/31/2023
Willie Farrell is Des Moines’ resident comedian. He has lived here his entire life, though his talent could have opened big doors out east and west. He is also the scion of Des Moines’ most famous Mafia connection. Lou Farrell was an Al Capone lieutenant. Willie is father to arguably the greatest softball player Des Moines has produced.
We asked him to lunch recently, and he insisted on Tumea & Sons, a southside Italian café with a reputation as the best bargain lunch in town, especially since Noodles closed.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. I remember when Dairy Queen was the only place to eat. Then ‘Papa’ Joe Cataldo decided to make Italian sausage sandwiches and sell them in the parking lot here. It was strictly catering. Meredith would buy them in big quantities. Papa Joe and his brother married two sisters. That kind of thing was common and why all third-generation southsiders say we are all cousins. We might be.
“Two restaurants tried to make it in this location and failed. Joe Tumea made it work from day one. He came to Iowa as a teenager; his wife Lou (Lucretia) came here at 13. They worked as tailors and saved money to open this place. There is nothing like it on the southside now. It’s fabulous in every way. The walls are a history museum of the southside. The bocce ball court is the best in town.”
The appreciation is mutual. Willie has his own booth.
“This was (DJ) Dick Young’s booth. I always wanted it. Dick told me to wait till he died.”
Over freshly made ravioli and chicken diablo, we discussed family, comedy and sports, and why sports are funny. Willie has a reputation for being both the best and worst softball dad in town.
“I tried to make it to every game (daughter) Claudia pitched. I missed a couple. For her sake, I tried to sit where she couldn’t see me. I once sat in a leftfield tree, at North, but the umpire was terrible and I started yelling at him. I yelled so loud that the umpire assumed it was (Grand View manager) Lou Yacinich. He threw him out of the game.”
Claudia (a four-time college All American) had the nickname “Peaches.” Was that a Tumea’s thing?
“Yes, when Jenny was pregnant with her, she craved Tumea’s cream-filled peaches. So when Claudia started coming in here to eat by age 3, they all called her ‘Peaches.’ Later they changed her name to ‘Princess.’ I think the reason Claudia stayed at Grand View, after Iowa recruited her hard, was me. She didn’t want to make me drive three hours to Iowa City 20 times a year.”
Willie is a big Iowa Cubs fan.
“Yeah, that goes back to when the Oaks played here. I watched Vida Blue pitch a game and then sit with fans in the stands. That does not happen anymore, but I still sit in the same seats I did back then. I love the day games.”
What are his professional big league teams?
“The Bears, though that is hard these days. At my age, I cheer for long suffering underdogs — the Lions and Browns now. In basketball, I follow players more than teams. I love Steph Curry and Luka Dončić, so I guess the Warriors and Mavericks are my teams. I don’t watch much hockey, but I cheer for the Blackhawks. In baseball, it’s the Cubs and the Yankees. When I was 5 and 6, Dad took me to Kansas City to see the holy trinity — Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. I think I loved Yogi as much as a comedian as a ball player.
“My main team, though, is the Hawkeyes. I love Caitlyn Clark. I think the two best coaches in America are Lisa Bluder and Jan Jensen. Lisa had the vision to realize she had a generational player in Caitlyn and turned her loose from her first game as a freshman. That’s so important. There used to be a joke that the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points in a game was Dean Smith (his college coach).”
The Chicago Cubs are a good source of humor?
“They are all about frustration. They lead the majors in runners left on base. The Cardinals know the best way to get the Cubs out without scoring — just load the bases and wait.
“Claudia laughs at my Cubs obsession. They can be playing the Dodgers on the West Coast after midnight, and I will be watching with a single malt Scotch and yelling. Only my dogs listen, and they just wish they knew how to help me. I swear, if Babe Ruth could put on a Cub’s uniform, he would take a third strike with two outs and the bases loaded.”
Is there a difference between playing Atlantic City and Las Vegas?
“A big difference. In Atlantic City, I play the Borgata. They have a thousand-seat theater, and it’s sold out every show. The entire audience looks like central casting for ‘The Sopranos’— all gold chains and track suits. I go by Willie Fratto there and gave up telling those guys I was from Des Moines. They’d just say “No, you ain’t from Iowa, no Italians there.” Now, I just tell them I am from Chicago.
“In Vegas, you get a mixed crowd. Lots of Asians, Hispanics, tourists from all over. They mostly come to the show because they have coupons. When the Riviera was there, they had a comedy club and a ‘Crazy Girls’ topless show. One night, the Crazy Girls’ MC was sick, and they asked me to fill in. After each joke, they told me ‘make it dirtier.’ I didn’t know why because all I saw in the audience were Japanese tourists who didn’t speak English.
“I always like playing Des Moines. I did a regular show at Prairie Meadows when they opened. I hope to return there soon. Spaghetti Works had a great comedy club. That’s where I met Tom Arnold and Louie Anderson. I will be at the Funny Bone here July 21-22. Then on Aug. 5, I will do a fundraiser for Rescue Animal Lifeline Iowa, at Events Center West where Billy Joe’s used to be. Then I have a week in Laughlin and another in Vegas beginning in late August.” ♦