For Earl Patterson Howze Jr., it all started innocently enough as a working man's search for a way to make a few extra bucks.
Howze had heard that the Buffalo Bisons were looking for people to peddle beer at their baseball games in War Memorial Stadium. He wanted to supplement the salary he was making as a Buffalo firefighter. This seemed like a good way to do it and a chance to catch an occasional inning of good minor-league baseball.
"It was going to be a low-keyed thing," Howze recalled with a smile.
That was 1979. Nowadays, a lot of adjectives could be applied to Howze as he prepares for his 10th Bisons baseball Opening Day. "Low-keyed" is not one of them.
Decked out in a white tuxedo, bringing the fans to their feet when he leaps onto the Pilot Field dugout and performs his variation on Pee-Wee Herman's "Tequila" dance, Howze is now part of the Bisons' show. A good argument could be made that his local recognition factor is higher than that of most of the players who have worn the Bisons uniform in the 1980s.
Now they call him "The Earl of Bud." Soon, he may become the first beer vendor in America with his own agent.
"I'm amazed at it all," said Howze, 35. "I get stopped everywhere to give autographs. Kids want me to speak at their schools. I get all kinds of requests to make personal appearances. I can't believe it."
Neither can the Bisons. Howze has surpassed their wildest dreams in becoming one of the team's most popular ambassadors. There even have been
some exploratory talks with Budweiser Beer about including Howze in the company's national promotions.
"I'd go as far as saying Earl has become an integral part of this team," said Bisons President Robert E. Rich Jr. "His enthusiasm, the revelry he brings to the game, it's exactly the image we've been trying to project with Bison baseball."
Howze has parlayed his baseball popularity into another part-time job, selling beer -- and dancing -- at Buffalo Sabres games in Memorial Auditorium. His busy appearance schedule also includes weddings, birthday parties, Kiwanis Club meetings, even a bar mitzvah coming up.
Sports fans know him for his happy feet, but there is a serious side to Howze, a lifelong city resident who still works for the Fire Department.
There's nothing lighthearted about battling your way into a burning building to help in a rescue or having five fellow firefighters and good friends die in an explosion, which is what happened to Howze five years ago.
Howze works at Engine 32 on Seneca Street, in the same firehouse as the men who were killed in the infamous propane explosion that leveled a city block on Division Street. Howze was temporarily assigned to another station house at the time, but he was at the fire that night.
There's no trace of the "Earl of Bud" grin when he talks about it.
"Dec. 27, 1983," he said. "None of us will ever forget that night. I remember arriving on the scene and thinking it looked like a bomb was dropped in a war movie. Then we heard on the radio that we had lost some of our guys. I worked the rest of the night with tears pouring down my face. It was the hardest night of my life."
But the job has its rewards, too. Howze is proud of helping to carry a choking woman out of a burning East Side house in 1980. "The smoke was so thick you couldn't see your hands in front of your face. My air supply got cut off. At one point, I fell through a hole in the floor. But we got her out of there. I was glad to get myself out of that place."
A divorced father of three, Howze said memories of his own boyhood make him want to help today's youngsters stay in school and out of trouble.
He grew up on Masten Avenue, three blocks from the Rockpile and in a neighborhood that was tarnished by drug dealing and gang violence. Strongly influenced by the no-nonsense attitude of his parents, Howze refused to join the street gangs and held jobs from the time he was 13 years old.
"More than once, they pulled knives on me and threatened to kill me because I wouldn't join their gangs. They thought I was acting like I was too good for them," Howze said. "I learned early to be a fast runner. I always have been."
His father, Earl Sr., worked at the Trico plant. When Earl Sr. and his wife, Mary Francis, divorced, Earl Jr. moved in with his father. When Earl Sr. died 18 years ago, Howze was badly shaken.
"I lost it for about a year. I dropped out of school. I didn't do anything," Howze said. "I didn't go to drugs, but I was just in a daze. I just felt completely lost without him."
The transition from anonymous beer vendor to community celebrity evolved naturally from his enjoyment of people, Howze said. He said his first experience as a dancing beer seller actually came at a Sabres game in 1984.
"I was just selling beer at first. But I figured it would be best to learn people's names, talk to them. Kind of like a bartender," Howze said. "I've always liked to dance. I won my first dancing contest at a party when I was 6 years old. So one night, I just started dancing when the 'Tequila' song came on. Everybody started yelling and cheering. I thought there was a fight on the ice, but they were cheering for me. So I started to turn it on a little more. After that, I was getting requests to dance every night."
Now his dance is a structured part of the Bisons' entertainment package, with the Pilot Field scoreboard urging fans to clap along.
Howze this season plans to debut another song-and-dance routine, but will continue using the "Tequila" number, his proven show-stopper. When he tried to introduce Michael Jackson's "Bad" last year, it struck a sour note with some fans. "I had to convince the Bisons that 'Tequila' was the song the fans wanted," he said.
His relationship with Rich -- a member of one of Buffalo's wealthiest families -- has grown in the years since the Rich family bought the team in 1983. Rich said the stories he had heard about Howze and his work in the stands actually figured in his decision to buy the team, which was then in dire financial straits.
Now, Rich considers Howze a personal friend and says he discusses "every subject under the sun" with his favorite beer vendor.
"I had never been to a Bisons game in the Rockpile when Mayor Griffin asked me to buy the team. But a group of guys I know went all the time and they would tell me stories about this great beer vendor who would sell you a beer and then sit down and enjoy the party with you. Not drinking, but just having fun with people," Rich said.
"They were right. You can buy beer from anybody, but buying one from Earl is a special experience."