Otis Day by night Music: Actor turned lip-synched 'Animal House' gig into a real act. The job makes him want to shout.

June 27, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

"National Lampoon's Animal House," 1978's film tribute to collegiate revelry, was the first major movie for many an unknown actor who later shed his toga and grew up to be a major star.

Among them were Tom Hulce and Kevin Bacon. But DeWayne Jessie, who was then one of Universal Studios' stable of character actors, was the only alum of the film to parlay a role in "Animal House" into a living monument to the film.

"They didn't want a big name, but they wanted someone audiences could identify with," says Jessie, who played singer Otis Day. Before "Animal House," Jessie had received an NAACP Image Award and had been in numerous Universal Studios productions.

"Animal House" turned Jessie into the strutting, shouting James Brown-esque front man of the roadhouse group "Otis Day and the Knights."

And Jessie turned Otis into a career and an alter-ego.

Jessie bought the rights to Otis Day and the Knights nine years after the movie premiered. It took him that long to raise the money. He formed his own band under the moniker, with himself as Otis, of course.

"DeWayne is more earthy, I believe," says Jessie, 46. "Otis is pTC earthy too, with an entertainment side."

Immediately after the release of "Animal House," Jessie was deluged with calls from people clamoring to get a piece of the dynamic Otis Day and the Knights.

But promoters, talent agents and other industry types eager for Otis soon found out the hitch: Otis Day and the Knights weren't a real group. In the movie, Jessie lip-synched, and his Knights were actors as well.

"Universal thought I couldn't sing," Jessie says.

The interest at the time was enough to inspire Jessie, who'd always dreamed of a singing career, to turn Otis Day and the Knights into a real band. His band.

"You know what? This could be something," he recalls thinking to himself. "That's the real success story."

In the movie, he brought the toga-clad masses to their knees, literally, with "Shout" at a Delta house frat party. And he also rocked the house at the Dexter Lake Club, where one of a quartet of white-bread road-tripping Deltas yelled out the now-classic greeting, "Otis, my man!" The particular frat boy, Boon (Peter Riegert), received a classic stare of contempt from Otis in return -- a stare that fans still want directed at them.

"They just want me to give them that look," says the L.A.-based performer.

The reconfigured band released an album in the mid-'80s, and since it formed, it's been touring nearly 12 days a month, every month, playing private parties, corporate gigs, arenas and, of course, fraternity houses.

"I've played at every frat house in the country," says Jessie, who also claims he played the biggest toga party in history.

At engagement after engagement, he says, fans attempt to re-create the inebriated vibe of the movie.

"Just about every show I do, you see one or two people with togas," he says.

When Jessie played the New York Stock Exchange, he found he could even release the inhibitions of hard-core business types.

"There were all these studious stockbrokers with their ties wrapped around their heads."

In concert, Otis Day and the Knights play a mix of original material and "Animal House" favorites, such as "Louie Louie" and "Shamalama Ding Dong."

Jessie is proud and not at all tired of being a living, breathing "Animal House" artifact. He fully understands its nostalgic value and says he enjoys the film now more than he did 20 years ago.

"I love when John [Belushi] comes down the steps and Stephen Bishop is playing that corny, lame song and he breaks the guitar," he says.

Another of Jessie's favorites is the scene in which Flounder (Stephen Furst) fires a gun into the air, causing Doug Neidermeyer's (Mark Metcalf) horse to suffer a fatal heart attack.

"That," he says, "kills me off."

Otis Day and the Knights

When: Tonight; doors open at 6

Where: Bohager's, Fleet and Eden streets

Tickets: $15

Call: 410-481-SEAT or 410-563-7220

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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