It’s another Friday night in the smokers’ car on the Amtrak train northbound from San Diego to Los Angeles. Every square foot is packed, standing room only. These folks are not in a mirthful mood.
As the train heads toward San Clemente, a droning voice from the intercom announces the coming stop. Time for the ear plugs.
But then something remarkable happens.
The announcer’s flat, disembodied baritone begins telling the packed train how San Clemente was once the site of the Western White House, the place where an erstwhile President uttered several immortal words.
Suddenly, the voice changes, becoming familiar. Yes! It’s him. Richard M. Nixon! “I’mmmmm not a crook,” the announcer says, imitating the 37th President to the final inflection. Nixon couldn’t have said it any better.
The crowd breaks up, everyone laughing. A red-faced fellow seated with two cans of Budweiser on his folding tray can’t believe it. “It’s got to be a tape recording,” he says.
That’s no tape, sir, that’s the bagman.
Meet Ron Houston, an Amtrak baggage handler fast gaining a reputation as the Rich Little of the rails.
Aside from duties loading luggage and collecting tickets on the San Diego-to-Los Angeles turnaround, Houston commandeers the on-board microphone several times each week and offers passengers a cavalcade of impersonations, each one tailored for an upcoming stop.
For San Clemente, it’s Nixon. As the train pulls into Anaheim with a load of Disneyland-bound youngsters, the 27-year-old trainman offers up Mickey Mouse, Goofy and the latest cartoon sensation, Roger Rabbit.
At the Del Mar station, which sits beside the famous race track where the turf meets the surf, Houston occasionally gives a top-notch version of Mr. Ed, the talking horse of TV fame.
At Oceanside, he entertains loads of Marines headed for nearby Camp Pendleton with his rendition of Popeye. “Remember what Popeye said when he ordered that big chef salad?” Houston asks.
The Leathernecks stare dumbfounded at the train speakers as Houston rips into his imitation of the cartoon old salt: “Oh, there’s nothing like a little Olive Oyl!”
That has the Marines guffawing.
A San Diego resident, Houston has been doing his railway antics ever since he came on board Amtrak two years ago. His motive is simple: to give passengers something to chuckle about.
“I like anything that will make people laugh on the train,” he said. “It makes it more down-to-earth feeling, a lot more comfortable.”
His performances, however, are typically subject to the whims of whatever conductor is commanding a particular train. Some of the train masters frown on Houston’s impersonations, preferring instead to stick to the book when announcing station stops.
Moreover, Houston reins in his quips during weekday commuter runs, which are filled with regular passengers who could quickly grow tired of the routine. Instead, his bread-and-butter performances come on weekend evenings, when the Amtrak cars fill with neophyte train travelers unacquainted with the show.
“Everyday commuters, they need the break; it gets old,” Houston said. “But on weekends you have all types of people traveling, new people or folks who are transferring to another train.”
Houston acknowledges that his impersonations, in particular the Nixon ditty, could offend some passengers. No harm intended. His routine is meant to shorten the ride, to ease the bumps, to inject some levity into what is often a humdrum trip.
“I’m not out to upset people,” he said. “They may have liked Nixon, but I’m not trying to make him sound bad. He was a great figure in our history. Watergate was just a major happening. If someone was offended, I’d be the first to go up and apologize to them.”
But most passengers seem to love the show.
“I thought it was marvelously entertaining,” said Ann Kulchin, a Carlsbad councilwoman who often rides Amtrak and serves on a regional agency studying improvements to the rail corridor. “He was so good and had so many voices. He really livened the train up.”
A native of Louisiana, Houston grew up in Bakersfield. Trains have been a part of his life since he was a toddler. His father has been a switchman for the Santa Fe railroad ever since Ron can remember.
Houston spent lots of time during his youth watching cartoons and drawing. Later he turned to rock music. He once bought a Rich Little album but recalls “never really getting into impressions” because his youthful voice could not capture the proper tones.
After high school, Houston got a job as a switchman and brakeman for Santa Fe. During slack times he’d work at a local record store in Bakersfield or play drums with a rock band.
He was drawn into comedy by watching reruns of old “Honeymooners” episodes and “goofballing around with my friends,” Houston said. “They’d laugh and that would just fuel the fire and egg me on.”
On a whim, Houston moved to San Diego and began work with Amtrak two years ago. His comic career blossomed almost immediately.
While riding the rails one day, he spotted a car crowded with children on their way to Disneyland. Switching the public address system to the one rail car, Houston improvised a short routine, using the voices of Goofy and Mickey Mouse.
“When I did it, they just became instantly quiet,” Houston said. “They couldn’t believe Mickey and Goofy were on board. And when I mentioned the name of their group, that was it, it was like Christmas in the summer. They went nuts.”
Word spread quickly and a star was born. Parents would board the train with their kids and request that Houston do the Mickey Mouse routine they had heard about.
Other impersonations soon followed, among them Johnny Cash at the Fullerton stop (“Fullerton just sounds like the kind of town he’d sing about,” Houston explained), Jimmy Stewart and Peter Lorre. Houston said he is still trying to work Pee Wee Herman into the act.
Although he would like one day to perform comedy on stage, Houston said his true dream is to star in a horror film, a la the villainous Freddie Krueger of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. But instead of the acid-faced Krueger, Houston would like to play the victim, screaming off into the night.
For the time being, however, Houston is happy working on the railroad and living in his small apartment in downtown San Diego with his cat, Livingston.
“I love working for Amtrak,” he said. “It’s almost like a big family. And I hope what I’m doing is a treat for the riders. There’s a lot of bad in the world at this point, so when you see people laugh, that’s something to treasure these days.”