Jacksonville's Grandma Lee shows she's 'Got Talent'
Grandma Lee steps out in front the nation again tonight, telling a few jokes, looking for laughs and votes.
Her real name is Lee Strong; she's 75 years old; and she's one of 20 semifinalists on "America's Got Talent."
Ten, including Jacksonville's Strong, will perform tonight (9 on NBC). Wednesday night, after the viewers have voted, those 10 will be cut to four. The second 10 will be featured next week. The two weekly episodes are the highest rated shows on TV.
For Strong, it's been an unlikely rise to fame. The three judges have given her nothing but praise from the first time she stepped on the show's stage. The audience has chanted her name: "Grandma Lee, Grandma Lee."
Not bad for a comedy career she started a little more than a decade ago while in her 60s.
She was born in Oklahoma but married a Marine and moved all over the world with him, raising four children along the way. They were living in Homestead in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew roared through and destroyed their home.
One of her sons, an attorney living in Jacksonville, talked them into moving up here. In 1995, her husband of 37 years died and she took a buyout from her job as an phone operator for Bell South.
She'd always told jokes, always had people laughing. When her husband was stationed in Germany, she was part of a group that entertained troops. But that was it.
Newly retired and widowed, she got on stage at the Comedy Zone in Mandarin.
"The first time I went to an open mike night," she said, "I knew that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
And that was that. She hooked up with other wanna-be comedians.
"We'd get in a car and go anywhere, Orlando, Savannah, for two or three minutes in front of an open mike."
Within a year, she was getting paid to be funny at other Comedy Zones, at other clubs around the country. Now she spends most of her time on the road.
"When someone gets married or something, I come home," she said. "I've been to Alaska. I've been to every state except New England, Oregon, Montana and Hawaii.
"It's awesome. When I go home, I do laundry and repack again."
Her children had some reservations when she started, but they're fine now. All four of them flew out to see her a couple of weeks ago. Two of her sons plan to be in the audience tonight.
She has one minute and 45 seconds to impress the viewers and the judges who, by now, are accustomed to her brand of comedy.
"Of course, I clean it up for TV," she said, "but I'm a little edgy. I can be clean as a whistle, but in a club, I'm edgy. Not gross, though."
Ninety-nine percent of her humor is true, she said.
"I did invent an ex-husband named Duane," she said. "I don't talk about my real husband, but I made up Duane. I say that we were married 35 years and got a divorce. He thought he was God. I did not."
(OK, she also made up the bit about David Hasselhoff leaving his thong in her limo.)
And now Grandma Lee is a star.
"I can't go anywhere without being recognized," she said. "At the airport, at Walmart in Jacksonville, McDonald's for an iced tea, four or five people come and say 'Oh, my God. I voted for you, I hope you win.' It's unbelievable.
"I like it."