Delaney's 'leprechaun' had vaudeville past

Delaney's Irish Pizza Pub opened in 1970 in the Montpelier Plaza with a new gimmick: a 4-foot 'leprechaun' who mingled with the customers, telling jokes, playing various instruments, making balloon sculptures, performing magic tricks and, most important, leading the crowd in traditional Irish tunes. Sammy Ross, the "leprechaun," masterfully worked the room, and with good reason: he was a seasoned actor with a resume dating back to the 1940s that included Hollywood films and vaudeville.

Ross was born in 1923 in Baltimore. His early years in show business included vaudeville shows around the world. He toured with Lawrence Welk, the Three Stooges, and Jackie Gleason, playing Radio City Music Hall and European venues. He toured with the USO, performing for troops during World War II.

Prior to performing as "Johnny O'Pal" at Delaney's, he appeared in two movies: "Top Man" (1943) with Donald O'Connor and Lillian Gish; and "The War Lord" (1965) with Charlton Heston and Richard Boone. In 1967, he was in an Arabian Nights pilot for CBS called "Sinbad," but it was not picked up by the network.

In 1969, the owner of the soon-to-open Irish pizza parlor saw Ross working as one of Santa's elves at the Laurel Shopping Center, and hired him on the spot to be Johnny O'Pal.

While working at Delaney's, Ross appeared periodically in other Hollywood productions. In 1982, he appeared in a television special, "The Mondo Beyondo Show," which featured avant-garde comedy performers and was hosted by Bette Midler. He also made two more movies: "Trading Mom" (1994) with Sissy Spacek and Maureen Stapleton; and a TV movie, "Willa: An American Snow White" (1998).

His son Michael, also 4-feet-tall, joined his act at Delaney's in 1975. The duo worked non-stop, and were hired by stores, industrial shows, shopping malls and private parties.

In a 1997 interview with the Washington City Paper, Ross defended his work at the pizza parlor: "Once in a while, people come in and say, 'You made movies? What are you doing here?' … I say, 'What do you mean? This is chopped liver? This is good, honest work. This is not a Podunk place. This is a nice, neighborly place-well-regarded. How many places can you go and find a live leprechaun?"

Ross played Johnny O'Pal for 27 years, retiring in 1997 to his home in Baltimore. He lived for several years in a nursing home in Pikesville before succumbing to Alzheimer's disease in 2010 at 87.

Richard Friend helped research this article. History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Is there something or someone you'd like to know "whatever happened to…?" Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com.