subscribe: Posts | Comments

Banjo not an obvious choice for Fringe performer Keith Alessi


Among the nine acts included in this year’s Fort Myers Fringe Festival is Keith Alessi’s Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life. Alessi will be on the Foulds Theatre stage at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (May 30), 5:30 on Saturday (June 1) and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday (June 2).

Alessi has been performing variations of the show since he debuted it at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2018.

“I only intended to do five shows at Toronto Fringe, but I’m now up to 370 performances seen by more than 30,000 people worldwide, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland the last two years,” Alessi notes.

Dating back to 1947, Edinburgh Fringe is widely regarded as both the granddaddy and Super Bowl of fringe festivals worldwide.

“Edinburgh is 4,200 acts, 24/7 for a month,” Alessi relates. “You can get up at 3 in the morning and go see somebody. It’s epic, to say the least. Everything’s a venue. You can go see a show in a barber shop or the basement of a laundromat. Just about any space in town gets converted into a venue. It’s just an incredible town and it’s an incredible festival.”

In fact, Alessi will be heading back to Edinburgh in August after warming up with shows at Fort Myers Fringe followed by the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival at the Cook Theatre in the FSU Performing Arts Center in Sarasota on June 7 and 8.

His return to Edinburgh only makes sense. He sold out his entire run at Edinburgh in 2023 and received a “Pick of the Fringe” award.

“Our ticket sales this year are running two-and-a-half times what they were this time last year, so we’ll probably sell it out again.”

Alessi also hopes to sell out his three performances at Fort Myers Fringe.

The show’s appeal inheres largely in its inspirational message coupled with Alessi’s gift for storytelling. As the title denotes, banjoes figure prominently in the storytelling. In fact, they’re akin to characters in a play. But the choice of banjo isn’t obvious, not even to Alessi.

“I was a first generation Italian. I didn’t have banjos ringing in my ears growing up.”

Then one day, he was watching some TV, when the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” came across the airwaves.

  • Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed
    A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
    And then one day he was shootin at some food,
    And up through the ground come a bubblin crude.Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.Well the first thing you know ol Jed’s a millionaire,
    The kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”
    Said “Californy is the place you ought to be”
    So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly

    Hills, that is. Swimmin pools, movie stars.

“It was something about the sound of the banjo that made ne want to learn how to play it,” Alessi reminsces. But life got in the way. Specifically, corporate America, where Alessi ascended the ranks becoming CEO for Westmoreland Coal Co.

Although he did not make the time to learn to play, he did start a world class banjo collection.

“I collected baseball cards and stamps and coins as a kid.”

Now an adult, he turned his attention to banjos.

“At my peak, I had 52 of them in closets, under beds, and anywhere else I could stash them. I’ve since reduced my collection. A guy doesn’t need a separate banjo for every week of the year. But I’ve kept the ones that are more meaningful to me.”

Eight years ago, Alessi decided to retire from corporate life and take up the banjo in earnest. As fate would have it, he was diagnosed two weeks later with esophageal cancer in the course of a routine check-up.

“Until the time I received my diagnosis, I thought I was perfectly healthy. It came literally out of left field in a routine physical examination. Yeah, it was a wake-up call, to say the least.”

The prognosis was bleak. Doctors gave him a 50 percent chance of surviving for a year, but only a 15 percent chance of living for five.

“I threw myself into trying to learn to play the banjo while I was going through my treatments because it kept my mind off of the medical issue at hand.”

He also joined the Circle of Musicians in Virginia, where he not only learned to play old-time banjo music, but forged friendships that helped him heal both physically and emotionally from trauma dating back to his childhood.

Those experiences lie at the core of “Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life,” which he created with his producer, Erika Conway.

“[In the show] I really encourage people to pursue their long-delayed passions,” Alessi explains. “You shouldn’t need a death sentence to pursue something you feel strongly about.”

It’s a lesson that Alessi learned the hard way.

“When I was a corporate CEO, I used to always admonish my people to have a balanced work life situation, and there’s a lot to be said for that to have outside interests from work. [Ironically] for me it took this major life event to really wake me up.”

But while banjos make a consistent appearance in Alessi’s story, he wants everyone to know that Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life is not a concert.

“I make sure people understand that on a good day, I’m an intermediate player,” says a self-deprecating Alessi. “That was never the point. Pursuing something for the joy of it is good enough. You know, I grew up of a generation where you didn’t do something unless you could be the best at it, and that’s probably why those banjos stayed in the closet as long as they did. But when I joined the Circle of Musicians, it really was a revelation to me that just the process and the interaction in the community was enough. I didn’t have to be the best at it.”

It’s this type of realization that underpins the philosophy that Alessi imparts during his performance.

Since its inception in 2018, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life has also become something of a cause, allowing Alessi to indulge his penchant for philanthropy.

“Anything we raise goes to the festival itself. We’ve raised close to one million Canadian dollars since 2018.

As this suggest, Alessi is a big fan and ardent proponent of fringe festivals.

“Everybody has a story, and stories matter,” adds Alessi, waxing philosophic. “Without the fringe festival movement, many stories, such as mine, never get heard. My journey to the stage was so improbable. There’s no way I would have ever found my way there but for the fringe circuit. So people supporting not just the fringe festivals, but live theater, allow voices to be heard in this day and age of corporate media that edits what gets seen and what doesn’t. What I love about fringe festivals is you see some of the best stuff that you’ve ever seen and some stuff that isn’t so good, but you know what, it’s all unfiltered. It’s uncensored. And it comes from a variety of backgrounds. And I couldn’t be more grateful to the fringe circuit. It’s very important.”

Fort Myers Fringe opens Thursday, May 30, with a 5:00 p.m. “Flamingle with the Artists opening reception at the Alliance for the Arts, followed at 6:30 by a preview show. The festival wraps on Sunday with a 5:30 p.m. awards ceremony. In between, there are nine shows taking place in the Foulds Theatre, Fringe Space and the Off-Broadway Palm. No show lasts for more than 60 minutes. All proceeds go to the performers.

For more information, please visit

May 28, 2024.

Comments are closed.