TAMPA — Before she took the stage with a cane and dark cataract sunglasses and a tube of K-Y Jelly as laugh props, before she was voted "Tampa Bay's Funniest Person" at age 80, Dottie Casper was a by-the-book mom whose children weren't always laughing.
It was Miami in the 1950s and '60s. Her husband, Mark Casper, was a divorce lawyer. Her first-born daughter, Susie Cano of Tampa, recalled a strict upbringing, and a parenting script that often came to this: "I'm your mother, and I said so."
With the hippie movement, the parenting shifted. They took their youngest son, Kenneth, to communes for summer vacations. Mom's "I said so" became "How do you feel?" As the children left for college, the mother returned to school to study psychology. She became a marriage counselor, advising some of her husband's clients.
They were married for 45 years, until Mark died in 1993 at age 65. It was a relationship, Mrs. Casper said in a 2008 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, that inspired some of her stage humor.
"Bless you, my husband," she said more than once from the stage. "If you could see me now, you'd roll over in your ashes and fall off the mantel."
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Dottie Casper died Sept. 28 in her Northdale home. She was 83. She had been diagnosed with leukemia a year ago, her family said.
In recent months, she had taken to using a walker, but had not lost any of her previous spunk.
"Dottie was a firecracker," said Brian Thompson, general manager of Side Splitters comedy club in Carrollwood. "She enjoyed life and seemed to get the most out of every moment."
It was at Side Splitters that Mrs. Casper enrolled in a stand-up comedy workshop at age 77. Her jokes were blunt. Most were about aging. Many were adult-themed.
The one about her large bag: "Old ladies carry these big pocket books because we are afraid of being without something we may need right away, like (taking items out) … eye drops … saliva replacement spray … K-Y Jelly."
The one about lap dancing: "We had to find some partners, and we went to a nursing home. We had some really willing men there. It was too bad though, because after only two sessions, we lost our partners. They all got up and started a Full Monty group and went into competition with us."
The one about Gasparilla: "Fortunately, at my age, I don't have to lift my T-shirt very high to flash."
"They don't expect these things out of an old lady," she told the Times in 2006. " People enjoy the unexpected."
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It wasn't until after her husband died that Mrs. Casper found her funny bone. But even before the jokes, it was a life of continual reinvention.
While at Mount Holyoke College in the 1940s, she became a pilot. After raising five children, Mrs. Casper became a schoolteacher, and a swimming instructor. Then she pursued the master's degree in psychology, which led to marriage counseling.
In the 1980s, she and her daughter Karen Zabriskie co-founded a company called Affect Plus, which offers continuing education through home study to mental health professionals.
In retirement, she won local awards for photography and statewide awards for table tennis. In 1996, she helped found a seniors group called OWLS — Older, Wiser, Lively Seniors — in her Northdale neighborhood. On stage, she joked that the group's name actually had a double meaning: Older Women Love Sex.
In her six years in comedy, Casper performed around the state and auditioned for NBC's Last Comic Standing and America's Got Talent. She also landed a comic role in the film Jules Dongu Saves the World, which is in post-production. Her character sleeps with a man 50 years younger.
Her line: "You big hunk of burning love, come home to mama."
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