After losing his brother to AIDS, Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate, Howard Stern Show producer and funny man, gets serious about HIV awareness.
by Chip Alfred
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes / www.etccreativeinc.com
For more than a quarter-century, he’s been at the helm of one of the most talked-about radio shows in the world. On the air, Baba Booey (real name Gary Dell’Abate) is part of a shock jock’s show infamous for its off-color and outrageous segments. Off the air, he’s a suburban family man, a football coach, and one of the music industry’s most dedicated HIV/AIDS activists.
Born on Long Island the youngest of three boys, Dell’Abate grew up surrounded by a large Italian-American family and depicts his childhood as “very chaotic.” His mother, who was clinically depressed, suffered nervous breakdowns and was in and out of psychiatric wards. “She was very loving, but her mood swings were unbelievable,” Dell’Abate recalls. Known for her frequent tantrums, her behavior was unpredictable, embarrassing for the family and sometimes volatile. When Gary was nine, she reacted to his repeated bullying at the hands of the boy next door by bashing the bully’s mother with a bunch of garden shrubs. Another time, she chased her son’s classmates with a high-heeled shoe as a weapon during a school field trip. Yet there is no anger or resentment in Dell’Abate’s voice when talking about his mom. “It’s made me who I am. I think the adversity has helped me in my work as the ringleader of organized chaos.” On the other hand, his father was calm and stoic—a war hero turned ice cream salesman who took the family on long road trips during his off-season. That’s when Dell’Abate got hooked on the radio. “Music was a big part of our family,” he says. A loyal fan of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and an avid reader of “anything and everything,” he became a trivia expert with a vast knowledge of music and pop culture. He earned his bachelor’s degree in communication from Adelphi and completed several radio internships, but Dell’Abate couldn’t find full-time work in his field. Frustrated by a series of dead-end jobs, he made a birthday pact. If he didn’t secure gainful employment in radio by his twenty-third birthday, he would hang it up. Nine days before he turned twenty-three, Dell’Abate landed a gig at WNBC in New York as a part-time traffic assistant. “Being the traffic boy wasn’t what I was meant to do with my life,” he admits, “but I had my NBC ID and I was psyched.” It was his foot in the door to the career he wanted.
At WNBC Dell’Abate was determined to meet everyone and learn everything that might help him get hired full-time. He checked the job board daily and applied for several opportunities—all to no avail. Ignoring warnings from co-workers about Howard Stern, Dell’Abate applied for an entry level position on Stern’s show and interviewed with Robin Quivers and Fred Norris, the other members of Stern’s on-air team. Finally, he met with the self-described “King of All Media” himself, Howard Stern. The interview only lasted thirty seconds and ended with the words Dell’Abate was longing to hear. “You’re hired.” What he didn’t expect were the next words out of Stern’s mouth. “Temporarily—let’s see how it goes for a month.” Dell’Abate never imagined it would last more than twenty-seven years. He became the producer of Stern’s show, which moved to syndication on New York’s K-Rock a few years later. On a show famous for offending people, nobody is off-limits for Stern and his crew—including Baba Booey, who is the butt of their jokes on a regular basis. “It’s all good-natured fun,” Dell’Abate says in their defense. “If I didn’t feel the love, I wouldn’t do it.” In fact, the nickname Baba Booey came about on the air when the team was having a laugh at Dell’Abate’s expense. After he errantly referred to a character on The Quick Draw McGraw Show as Baba Booey instead of Baba Looey, everyone on the show had a field day with it. From that moment on, the man formerly called Boy Gary became Baba Booey. Over the years, Dell’Abate—with a mentally unstable mother and a gay brother—has dealt with potshots on the show that hit a little too close to home “Everybody has to balance a job and a personal life, but ours is more public,” he explains. “You just do the best you can.”
In 1988, working on a show as successful as Stern’s, Dell’Abate was living his dream. He was a young single New Yorker, taking advantage of all the city had to offer. Life was good—until the phone rang early one weekend morning. Suddenly, his world was shattered. It was his oldest brother Anthony telling him their brother Steven had AIDS. “I was stunned. I couldn’t speak,” Dell’Abate remembers. He was aware Steven was gay, but he was just unable to process this information. “In my heart I knew Steven was at risk, but like everyone else I was in complete denial.” The entire family rallied behind Steven—especially his mother—as his health started to decline. Steven stayed with his parents until he was admitted to the hospital, where he eventually landed in a special ward for AIDS patients. According to Dell’Abate, most of the other practitioners in the hospital at the time didn’t know how or want to deal with people living with AIDS.
“The whole process was as brutal as it gets. It was eight months from the time he went into the hospital to the time he died. It was very slow and painful to watch.” Not a day goes by that Dell’Abate doesn’t miss or think about Steven. He reminisces about the older brother he loved whose life was cut short at thirty-four. “Steven had a sharp sense of humor. He loved the movies, theatre, music, and he was a big sports fan.” From time to time he would come home with tickets for the whole family to see a Mets game. “It was Steven who actually made me a New Yorker—taking me to concerts and dinner—because he loved the city so much.” Dell’Abate’s deepest regret is not spending more time with Steven when they were both living in New York. At family gatherings on Long Island, he would watch Steven play with their nephew and think, “In five years I’ll be married, have kids and a house in the suburbs. He’ll come to visit every weekend and he’ll be the best uncle!” It didn’t dawn on him that wouldn’t ever happen.
“After Steven died there was a lot of sadness,” Dell’Abate reflects. “I said to myself I will do something in his memory.” It wasn’t until he saw the movie Philadelphia and was so moved and shaken that he knew it was time to take action. Dell’Abate volunteered at a fundraiser for Lifebeat, Music Fights HIV, an organization that uses music and celebrity to educate young people about HIV/AIDS and provide support to the HIV-positive community. In 1995, he was asked to join Lifebeat’s board of directors, where he has served continuously for the last sixteen years. “Gary took the loss of his brother to AIDS and channeled that into fighting the disease. I think that’s an incredible example for anyone to follow,” says former Lifebeat executive director Ben Wymer, who adds that Dell’Abate has been instrumental in raising funds (including winning $200,000 on Don’t Forget the Lyrics) for Lifebeat’s programs. Wymer says Dell’Abate’s passion and connections in the entertainment industry have been invaluable resources for the organization. “Gary mentioning Lifebeat on air helps keep HIV/AIDS in the face of an audience that may not be confronted with it very often in their daily lives.” Dell’Abate says his work with Lifebeat “helps me to keep my brother’s memory alive.” A recovering chocoholic, Dell’Abate initiated a sweet fundraising project for Lifebeat in collaboration with Crumbs Bake Shop. The Baba Booey cupcake, a rich chocolate and peanut butter treat, is available on-line and at twenty Crumbs locations nationwide. With one dollar from every cupcake sold going to Lifebeat, the project has generated approximately $50,000 to date.
In 2010, Dell’Abate released his autobiography, They Call Me Baba Booey, which was a New York Times Best Seller. His motivation to write the book was to tell his story from beginning to end—something he couldn’t do on The Howard Stern Show. “I wanted people to understand a little more about me and what I went through.” The book reveals details about Dell’Abate’s personal struggles—some of which he had never spoken about publicly. “The chapter about Steven was one story I did want to tell and probably one of the chapters I’m proudest of.” As he worked with writer Chad Millman on the book, the emotional memories of his brother’s death poured out of him. “I started to cry as I’m telling [Chad] the story. I cried when I proofread it, and I cried when I read it for the audio book. I think it would be hard for anybody not to be moved by it.” Another challenging chapter in the book for Dell’Abate is titled “The Pitch, 2009.” A huge Mets fan, he was asked to throw out the first pitch in honor of Autism Awareness Day. Even though he had done it once before, Dell’Abate admits, “I sort of worked myself into a panic about it.” Not only did the pitch end up nowhere close to home plate, it struck the umpire standing four feet away still putting on his mask.
Dell’Abate was blasted on Major League Baseball’s official Web site, MLB.com. “Baba Booey threw a ceremonial first pitch that, based on unofficial research here at MLB.com, was the worst in the history of modern Major League Baseball.” Dell’Abate hoped his fumbled toss wouldn’t end up on television. Of course, the video went viral; it was the pitch that was seen and heard around the world. “I can laugh more about it now, but at the time I was humiliated.” Fortunately, Dell’Abate is a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
At fifty, Dell’Abate is busier than ever. Following two decades on terrestrial radio, he’s now in his second five-year contract with The Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM. (In 2006, Stern accepted a five-year $500 million deal to take his show and staff to satellite radio, making him the highest-paid personality on the radio). Dell’Abate, who describes his boss as “part dad, part big brother and part good friend,” has nothing but praise and affection for Stern, who’s presented him with a number of high-profile opportunities. Dell’Abate can be seen on the televised version of Stern’s show, broadcast on Howard TV. He contributed to Stern’s book, Private Parts, and appears with Stern in the film adaptation. A lifelong gadget collector, Dell’Abate writes a monthly column about technology for Sound & Vision magazine under the pseudonym Gadget Gary, and he’s working on a pilot for VH1 about rock and roll memorabilia. As for his efforts in the battle against HIV and AIDS, “The biggest issue right now is that there’s a whole generation of younger people who don’t understand the situation and how bad it could get again. They haven’t seen what we’ve seen,” he cautions. “They think AIDS is something somebody else gets. You have to make people understand that it’s still happening.”
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Chip Alfred interviewed fashion designer and AIDS advocate Kenneth Cole for the November 2011 cover story.