When Joe Longo speaks, it is like someone else is talking.
“I always liked people that could change their voice,” Longo said, as he recalled what first drew him to voice impersonations. And the impersonation is strictly that: vocal. With a gaudy orange jacket and orange and brown tie over a bright red shirt with the top buttons undone, Longo did not look like John F. Kennedy or Dean Martin, let alone Allen Iverson. But he certainly sounded like them.
The jacket was given to him in 1995 by an older woman whose friend knew Longo. It had belonged to her late husband, but she thought its theatrical flair fit Longo, so she gave it to him. Longo wears the description “theatrical” like a badge of honor.
“When I’m out in public, it’s like candid camera,” he said. He does his impersonations, he sings, and sometimes he gets a job or a free meal out of it.
One of his favorite haunts is Pat’s Steaks. “They say when I hang on the corner, I attract business,” he said, noting that he sometimes lands himself a free sandwich made of cheese and onions on a hoagie roll. No meat, of course: Longo has been a vegetarian since 1981. After about an hour of joking and laughing, Longo became serious. “I know what goes on in a slaughterhouse and it’s very cruel,” he said.
But Longo was not always a wandering impersonator eating cheese and fried onions on a hoagie roll. His life is almost as diverse as his voice.
Longo grew up in South Philadelphia, the son of a tailor. As a child, he wanted to be many people, but one person was always conspicuously missing. “There was probably too little of me. This is the germination of the imitator,” Longo said.
In 1965, Longo joined the National Guard to avoid being sent to the jungles of Vietnam. “We never thought we would be in an area where we would be shot at,” Longo said. Then race riots broke out in Newark, N.J., and Longo was sent in to maintain order.
He was confused and frightened. “I wanted to show them that I wasn’t there to kill them,” Longo said, describing how he held his gun away from his body in an attempt to reassure people. It was a gun he said the other guys did not trust him with in the first place. “The guys considered me a clown,” Longo said.
Longo has always been a bit different. When he got out of the National Guard, he thought he might become an Augustinian priest. He had been inspired to after reading up on the life of St. John Neumann. But the other seminarians were younger, and Longo was too old-fashioned. He did not fit in, so he dropped out.
A few years later, he met Joan Clancy. “He had dark glasses on and I thought he was blind,” Clancy said as she recounted seeing Longo for the first time. It was nighttime and yet Longo was still sporting sunglasses.
The two became friends, and soon Longo had moved into Clancy’s Roxborough home. The relationship, she notes, is strictly a friendship. “He came to stay for three months, he stayed for 24 years,” she said.
Recently, however, Longo found himself sleeping at Jefferson Hospital. Like many other 67-year-old men, Longo is not in prime physical condition. He has a list of maladies, the worst of which may be his hyperacusis. “Imagine being in a bed with a steam whistle right next to your bed and you can’t get away from it,” Longo said, describing how his hyperacusis makes everyday noises painful to hear.
He has had to deal with hyperacusis for quite some time, but he said it really started to get bad in late 2003. Longo was despondent. He sat around the house in constant pain, and in the depths of his suffering contemplated suicide.
So he took to walking the streets in an effort to distract himself, with some success. Still, walking is not as easy as it once was, either. After noticing some pain in his legs, Longo was admitted to Jefferson Hospital, where they diagnosed him with a blood clot and discharged him the following day.
But Longo returned that same day with knee pain. When he was told that his knee pain was not something they could treat, he slept in the waiting room, and performed his one-man show for a guard. The guard was so entertained that he hired Longo to perform at a party for his mother.
“He’s got all this talent. It’s really a shame he hasn’t gotten further with it, but we’re trying,” Clancy said. She enjoys some of his impersonations, especially the Richard Nixon one, but said that it is at a piano that Longo really shines. And she is disappointed that she has not yet been able to help Longo reach his full potential.
For Longo, though, the world is his audience. He communicates with people through his impromptu performances, and gauges their personalities by how they react to him.
There is some disappointment that he has not achieved great fame, but he nevertheless loves to perform. “The guard at the hospital today said I made his day,” Longo said, then a moment later added, “But that made my day.”