One summer day when Ted Dondanville was a young buck at Red Arrow Camp in Woodruff, Wisconsin, he showed up for scuba lessons to find that one of the two counselors assigned to his group was, shall we say, under the weather. Ted’s relatively healthy counselor taught the class, while the other, still feeling the after-effects of a night of debauchery, donned scuba gear and plodded into the freezing water.
“He just took a nap on the bottom of the lake,” remembers Ted, now a full-grown adult. The class was about 45 minutes long, and the other counselor was appropriately wowed. “Like it's actually impressive scuba diving to be so relaxed that you can sleep with the regulator in your mouth, all so you can escape the boss.”
Bang the drums and cue the bugle, boys. This is the legend of Chris Farley, camp counselor.
He was just a scene stealer
Tom Farley says yep, that improbable lake nap actually happened. Chris’s oldest brother and author of The Chris Farley Show was also a camper and counselor at Red Arrow Camp. The boys’ father, Tom Sr., spent idyllic summers there. Brothers Kevin and Johnny camped, then cooked, then led cabins of their own. Tom’s son is the latest to attend. So fair to say Red Arrow Camp is something of a Farley family tradition.
“My mother had four of us boys, one of them being the future Chris Farley,” says Tom. “So yeah, we were going to camp for seven weeks.” But not just any camp. While Tom credits the Farley parents for giving the kids their distinctive personalities, Red Arrow Camp, he says, was a close number two. We’ll take Tom’s word on that, but it’s clear that the Farleys left their mark on Red Arrow as well.
Young Chris was in the camp limelight well before he was a counselor. “One thing about Chris being a middle child,” says Dondanville. “He had a gift for getting attention.”
About a third of Red Arrow’s campers were Catholic, including the Farleys, and the lot of them would board a school bus on Sunday mornings to head to mass. Chris would hold court on the bus ride, says Dondanville, his first notion that “Hey, that guy’s funny.”
But it was mass itself where Chris made a real impression on young Ted. “If the priest had any interaction with the crowd, that was a mistake. ‘Anyone here who's Italian, raise your hand.’”
Chris Farley’s hand would shoot up.
“‘Who's Irish?’ And he was in the front row, raising his hand for everything. He was just a scene-stealer, even as a kid.”
“I Was Kind of Scared”
“His voice sounded like he swallowed a megaphone, it was so huge,” remembers camper Patrick Arnheim, ten years old when he first met counselor Chris. “I was kind of scared.”
Even when Chris was joking around, “he had that loud, kind of ‘hey!’ voice,” remembers Tom. Besides the sheer volume, those moments when Chris was actually angry “sounded pretty funny! For eleven and twelve-year-olds, that could be confusing.”
But the campers weren’t scared for long, thanks to a larger-than-life counselor who would cartwheel his way down the wooden docks to the lake. That clear, blue water “was freezing at the end of June and you had to pass these swimming tests,” remembers Arnheim. The way that Chris got the youngest group of kids (in other words, the ones who didn’t know better) to take the leap? By promising them there was a large heater in the lake. “So we jumped into the ice-cold water and he got such a kick out of it. There was so much laughter and energy coming out of this huge guy.”
Fred Parker, a camper assigned to Chris’s cabin, remembers Chris demanding that his boys do things designed to get them in trouble. And when the campers followed his wayward instructions, it was Chris’s job to reprimand them. “There was a large bear skin hung up in the mass hall,” says Parker. “If you got in trouble, he was like, ‘OK, you gotta go kiss the bear.’” Worse yet, Chris required you to fetch a stepstool so you could kiss the bear on the mouth.
And yet, the kids couldn’t get enough. “We would literally fight with each other to see who got to sit next to Chris at mess hall,” says Parker, “because he would have you in stitches.”
But if Farley was entertaining the campers, the boys were also there for his amusement. “He was teaching a physical fitness class of all things,” says Dondanville. “So he arranges this game, sort of like Red Rover. I was big for my age because I was one of the oldest campers. Chris had me and the other big kid running into each other, slamming into each other like a football drill. He basically turned it into a jousting match for his own entertainment.”
It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Chris in the middle of the scrum. A high school football player, Farley was surprisingly athletic, fast, and agile, remembers Arnheim. “He could do a cartwheel on a dime, and he would. And it was one of those things where maybe some of his bum crack was showing when he did a handstand. He was silly.”
But perhaps the funniest camp activity to visualize is Chris Farley: Master Equestrian. “They had Chris teaching horseback riding,” says Tom, reasoning it was a way to keep the rowdy counselor “way out in the fields separated from camp so at least he was out of sight, out of mind. Literally, put out to pasture.” The camp powers-that-be might have reconsidered the assignment the day someone brought in a pony for the young campers to see. “Chris got on and the thing just buckled. The equestrian was yelling “get off my horse!” and Chris was just laughing hysterically.”
It was all fun and games, except for the times when it wasn’t so much fun. If Chris knew your vulnerable spot, says Arnheim, “he would needle it.” And there was always the thrill and threat of physical danger.
“I must have been 11 or 12 and I woke up in midair,” says Arnheim. Chris and another counselor were “throwing me around like I was baseball. It was an unpleasant way to wake up.”
Farley’s fellow counselors could find themselves in harm’s way as well. Dondanville remembers stories about counselors knotting themselves together with bulky tug-of-war ropes, then heading out on a multi-bar drinking binge. Dumb fraternity-style fun, until Chris would decide to, say, jump off a small bridge. “The other six guys would suddenly be dragged to the rail, shouting ‘damn it, why did we rope ourselves to him?’”
Swallowing fish for laughs
Camp Red Arrow was also the birthplace of Chris Farley the comedy performer. Remember, he wasn’t one of those kids who grew up immersed in children’s theater or drama camps. In high school, Chris reveled in contact sports. “But camp gave him that first taste of performing before a crowd,” says Dondanville. “It was his first time being good at it and loving it.”
After his first turn in a camp play went gangbusters, each year “they would write in a character that had nothing to do with the story, just for Chris to be in the show,” says Tom. “Everyone wanted to see him because he was fearless even then.”
Chris could do it all, from fairy tale villains to pelvis-thrusting Elvis impressions. And of course, anything for a laugh. There was a local guide near the camp who would take boys out to fish for walleye or other exotic creatures, and Chris created a comedy routine based on the character. “Part of the skit was he had to swallow a live minnow,” says Parker. His fellow counselors supplied the props--real, wriggling minnows, and huge ones at that. “He would down two or three. And when he got offstage, he threw them up.”
Even Chris’s dad got in on the act. “When I was young, he was the biggest man I'd ever seen in person,” says Arnheim. A camp show standard was a ballet spoof where the strongest counselors would do dance poses, then catch one of the biggest camp staffers in a hilarious leap. One year, the campers were expecting the heavy counselor to come out for his jump “when Papa Farley walks out and I'm telling you, he’s probably 550 pounds. And a voice exactly like Chris. ‘Hey there!’” Pandemonium.
The laughs were catnip to Chris, but it was more than that. “It was Chris feeling that ensemble, feeling trusted and accepted,” says Tom. “That’s where he really learned that skill that he adapted so easily to Second City and of course SNL.”
Oh yeah, Saturday Night Live. What’s it like for a kid when your camp counselor shows up on the biggest comedy show on TV?
“We were all so excited,” says Arnheim, a counselor himself by the time Chris broke into the big time. “But I think everyone was so shocked.”
It was no surprise to Dondanville. “He was a legend in grammar school, he was a legend at summer camp, he was a legend at Marquette. He’d been building up his fan base his whole life.”
That star quality was obvious, and it had nothing to do with fame. When Chris was at Second City but not yet known outside of Chicago, he came back to visit Red Arrow when his younger brothers and Dondanville were counselors. “He wasn't a star yet but all the kids gathered around him,” he says. “Chris wasn’t in TV and movies yet but he was treated like a legend by all of us.”
He was always the funniest guy in the room, says Arnheim, quoting SNL castmates like Adam Sandler and Norm Macdonald who would tell you the same damn thing. “Every counselor wanted to be Chris Farley. They all joked like him. They all did his whisper thing, shook guys’ shoulders and shouted ‘get ahold of yourself!’ He was the funniest dude in the world.”
Shine a light
“It's a funny thing about comin' home,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you.”
Arnheim recently returned home to Red Arrow for the camp’s 100th anniversary. The cabins looked the same, the smells were familiar. And yet, of course, Patrick’s grown-up perspective made everything different.
“I went back to that mess hall where 120 of us ate together at the same time, three times a day. It seemed so little, just a bunch of tables. It's a beautiful place, but as a kid it was huge. And I remember when Chris walked into the mess hall, it was almost as if there was a spotlight on him.”
“He remembered your name,” says Dondanville. “‘Hey, little Mickey!’ He talked to you personally. It’s why everybody thought they were Chris’s best friend growing up. He could be very mean to you in a crowd if you were the butt of his joke, but one-on-one he made you feel true friendship.”
Camp with Chris “was joyful,” says Parker. “Very, very fond memories.”
“Chris inspired me to become an artist,” says Arnheim. He wrote letters to Chris when he first went to New York to become a performer himself, and Farley would write him back. “He was already on SNL and who knows what he was going through. But sure enough, he made time to put pen to paper, just because of the fact that I had Red Arrow in my blood.”
Arnheim knows Chris Farley would have been a Red Arrow legend whether he became famous or not. Every kid wanted to sit at his table. Everyone had a Chris Farley imitation of their own. And Chris was “always inclusive, never exclusive” with his attention. “You got his lighthouse to shine on you because it went around. And when he shined the light on you, that was a really special moment,” says Arnheim. “He would just shine a light.”
Top image: Tom Farley