In 1974, the late John Belushi and his wife, Judy, first visited the Vineyard, a place they had learned about while visiting a musician friend in Boston. At the time, John was enjoying his first taste of success as a comedian and Judy was working as a radio producer. The couple were taking their first vacation since moving to New York City and were touring places in New England.
“Just like everyone else, we fell in love with Lucy Vincent Beach,” says John’s widow, Judy Belushi Pisano. Five years later, John had attained stardom as one of the original cast members on “Saturday Night Live,” and the couple bought a house near Lucy Vincent. The Vineyard became a respite for the Belushis, who visited as often as they could up until the star’s death in 1982. His wife eventually settled here, remarried, and raised a family on Island.
On Friday, July 12, following a screening of the film “John Belushi: Dancing on the Edge,” Ms. Belushi Pisano will talk about, among other things, the times she and her former husband shared on the Vineyard. The film and discussion will be the focus of a catered event at the M.V. Film Center to benefit Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS).
Ms. Belushi Pisano served as executive producer for the film, which was aired on A&E in 2010. It features photos and footage of Belushi and interviews with many friends and associates of the star including Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Karen Allen, Mary Steenburgen, James Belushi (John’s brother), and herself. Also interviewed for the documentary were comedians such as Jimmy Fallon and Tracy Morgan, who were influenced by Belushi.
Ms. Belushi Pisano was not happy with the first version of the film. “At the end it didn’t pop,” she said. “It just sort of lost it with the direction that it took. I told them that’s what I thought and I ultimately ended up working on it more intensely than I had planned to.” She helped change the focus of the documentary to ensure that the portrayal of her late husband was a fair one.
“I think people lose the balance a lot with John,” she said. “They miss a lot of what was great about him. They’re more interested in how he died. The people who are really interested in him are interested in getting a sense of who the guy was.”
Belushi was the rare star who was as large a personality off-screen as on. At the age of 30, Belushi had the country’s number one film comedy, was starring in the number one late night television show, and had the number one album – a feat which has never been matched. The imdb.com (Internet Movie Database) page for “Dancing on the Edge” gives an apt description of the film and TV star: “Sweet and wild…raw and explosive…John Belushi didn’t just act, he set off sparks.”
The many interviews in the film help illuminate both sides of the comedic genius, whom his good friend Dan Aykroyd eulogized by calling “a good man but a bad boy.”
Some of the photos in the film were taken on the Vineyard. Thomas Hallahan, co-chairman of the screening event, said, “I think it will take people back to an earlier time on the Island. The film talks about the Vineyard being a real respite for John — a place where he could be himself.” Mr. Hallahan was working at the Hot Tin Roof during the time that Belushi was here. “He hung out with everybody,” he recalled. “He was different from other celebrities.”
Ms. Belushi Pisano recalls the days she spent on the Vineyard with her famous husband. “You felt you were part of the community,” she said. “It’s very different now. We went out a lot in the summer.” She describes Belushi as, “the perfect Vineyard guy. He was a great beach bum. He loved driving around in a Jeep listening to music.”
She recalls another favorite pastime, “He loved to go into Take It Easy Baby [former Circuit Avenue boutique owned by Belushi’s friend Larry Bilzerian] and just hang there. He’d sell stuff. He’d say to people, ‘You look good in those shorts…You should buy that.’ Sometimes people knew who he was. Sometimes they didn’t.”
Belushi is buried in a cemetery in Chilmark. Ms. Belushi Pisano repeats a story that is included in her memoir “Samurai Widow:” “One day we were driving past the cemetery. I said, ‘If anything should happen to me I’d like to be buried there.’ He said, ‘I’d like to have a Viking funeral. That was the last conversation we had about it. After he died, I got a couple of people on the phone and they told me, ‘No, you cannot do a Viking funeral.’ I figured I’d go with the next thing we talked about. It seemed more peaceful than going somewhere in Chicago.”
She is an active member of the Vineyard community. She serves on the board of The Vineyard Playhouse and gets involved with one fundraising event every year. She has chosen to help M.V. Community Services this summer by participating in the film and discussion event.
“I think they’re a really vital part of the Island nonprofit sector,” she says of the organization. “They touch so many people.” MVCS provides help to Islanders in need through their five core services — CONNECT to End Violence, Early Childhood Programs, Disability Services, the Island Counseling Center, and the Thrift Store in Vineyard Haven. MVCS is only partly funded through government agencies.
“John Belushi: Dancing on the Edge” was originally aired on A&E’s Biography channel. Currently it is not available on Netflix, at the local video store, or through any of the major online film providers. The screening next weekend will provide a rare opportunity to get an intimate look at a star who loved the Vineyard and was embraced by the community.
“John was so personable,” said Ms. Belushi Pisano. “He had such a powerful energy.” Of the film, she says, “It is some kind of a sense of closure. A way to have a moment again and think about it and let it go.”
“John Belushi: Dancing on the Edge,” 7:30 pm, Friday, July 12, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $100. Benefits M.V. Community Services. 508-693-7900 ext. 374.