Pat DeMars, a well-known radio personality and frequent actor in local and regional theater productions, has retired, leaving Grand Forks to join his wife, Lana, at the cabin they’ve owned for years in the mountains near Blacksburg, Va.
He’s been a radio celebrity of sorts since he joined KJ108 in 1994, and has been involved in community theater for more than 30 years.
DeMars, who wrapped up his career as one of the “Big Dawgs” morning show on KJ108 in December, has entertained a diverse audience, whether as a redneck character on radio or in a wide range of roles for local and regional theater productions.
“I love to perform,” said DeMars, a native of Hannah, N.D., in northern Cavalier County.
He enrolled at UND in 1984 and “kind of fell into radio” after taking a course in broadcasting, which led to a reporting job at KFJM on campus. After professional radio stints in Grand Forks, Fargo and Minot, he joined KJ108.
Along with his radio partner, Bill Tanner, DeMars said the “Big Dawgs” show, with its adult humor, appeals especially to men ages 18 to 50.
DeMars’ character “is a redneck version of myself,” he said. “It’s allowing my id to come out and play a few hours in the morning before I have to stuff him back in the box.”
The show’s audience is “mainly men and people who aren’t offended by a lot,” he said.
“Early on, we were able to convince our management and our team and others who worked with us, what we were doing was right for the station," DeMars said. "That became important, because I think through the years we pushed some of the boundaries for Grand Forks a little bit. And as long as we had that support, we were able to try to increase the entertainment value that we brought to Grand Forks, specifically to adult men basically.”
He doesn’t get specific, but alludes to “very adult” humor, he said. “We did some adult things. In the end, it worked.”
Among loyal “Big Dawg” listeners, “there’s a whole variety of people,” DeMars said. “There are people who are in on the joke, who know that Bill and I were doing characters, kind of presenting a certain type of a person. And there were people who weren’t in on the joke and liked the fact we were there to represent them. Am I talking around it enough?”
Theater-goers in this area also will miss the talents DeMars brought to the stage in local and regional theater productions. Over the past 30 years, DeMars has “become a public celebrity with his work in theater and work with radio,” said David Paukert, longtime friend and fellow actor.
Paukert fondly remembers their work on several “Radio Hour” shows and when they teamed up to portray profoundly contrasting Felix and Oscar -- the hypochondriac-clean-freak and the unabashed slob -- who became incompatible roommates in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
DeMars had played the slovenly Oscar Madison several times, Paukert recalled. “I was Felix No. 4 to his Oscar. He commanded that role very well – his physicality, his way of portraying that role was spot on.”
“He was very consistent, very natural as a performer,” Paukert said. “You always knew if you had Pat in your production, you’d always get what you needed."
Paukert enjoyed watching DeMars “take on roles that stretched him as an actor,” he said. Paukert was especially impressed with his performance in a Fire Hall play, "The Boys Next Door," about a group of five men who were disabled and mentally challenged.
“He was outstanding in that role,” Paukert said.
DeMars has also directed theater productions, including “Arsenic and Old Lace,” with his wife, Lana, as stage manager.
“Pat has a really amazing fan base of people, from all the different things he has done,” Paukert said, adding that “his radio persona and his personal persona are at opposite ends – he’s gentle, kind and low key. He’s actually pretty shy.”
A fellow actor, Deb Todhunter, first appeared with DeMars in 1989 in the Fire Hall Theatre’s production “School for Scandal,” the first of several performances in which they shared the stage.
“He’s professional, he’s even-keeled," she said. "He’s the epitome of a quality actor -- he’s an actor’s best friend, he really was.”
“He just embodies whatever character he’s supposed to portray,” Todhunter said. “If he’s supposed to be a southern, you know, uneducated whatever, that’s what you see in him. If he’s supposed to portray an Italian guy, he does that with aplomb.”
As an actor, DeMars “really embodies the person, the personality and the character of the person. He becomes that -- I don’t know how else to describe it. But he really becomes the character,” she said.
Todhunter remembers DeMars' performance as Pap and the King, a combined role, in “The Big River,” a 2012 Frost Fire Theatre production.
“I think he was just excellent – well, he’s excellent in all of them, but I think, in that one, you can totally see the person he’s (portraying) in what he brings to the stage,” she said.
That combined role “really challenged Pat,” said Paukert, who directed the show, because it involved singing “and he has limited singing experience on stage. He worked extremely hard to make it work. We thought he did a great job.”
Paukert, who also performed with DeMars in various shows, remembers him as “very giving as an actor, gracious and helpful, well-prepared,” he said. “He always put me at ease, and made the process really comfortable and enjoyable – and that was important.”
DeMars appeared in a number of Frost Fire productions, such as "Annie, Get Your Gun,” “The Music Man” and “The Big River,” Paukert said.
“Pat is good at his craft; he has really good instincts, and so he brings a lot of talent to the table,” he said. “He’s willing to step outside his comfort zone.”
Pat and Lana DeMars, who also have had an impact on animal welfare in Greater Grand Forks, are ardent supporters of the Circle of Friends Animal Shelter.
“When you get involved in animal rescue, what happens is you start collecting them. They’re called ‘foster fails,’ because they don’t make it out of your hands,” DeMars said, noting that he and Lana have two dogs, four cats and two parrots.
The couple also were a driving force in the development of the Grand Forks Dog Park.
“The first time they took their dogs to the park, their dogs didn’t get along with the other dogs,” Paukert said with a chuckle. “There’s some irony in that.”
As he moves on to join Lana, who retired as a support scientist from the U.S. Human Nutrition Research Center, DeMars said, “I’m retiring from radio, mainly because … I’m not going to find a better job than this one that I’ve had for the past 27 years, so I’m not going to try. I‘ve done everything that I ever creatively wanted to do here.”
In their Virginia mountain home, he and his wife “want to enjoy that cabin with our pets – that’s going to be our main focus in life,” he said. “So whatever I do out there will be secondary to living in the cabin, chopping wood and being a lumberjack.”