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Who wants to marry Rick Rockwell?

A millionaire from O'Hara became TV network's catch of the day

Sunday, February 20, 2000

By Ellen Mazo, Sally Kalson and Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Whatever Rick Rockwell does, he does large. He cycled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to promote a comedy club. He took a shot at the Guinness Book of Records for the longest performance by a stand-up comedian. And this week, he became the most talked-about bridegroom in the world, courting, choosing and marrying a mate in two dizzying, advertising-packed hours of TV spectacle watched by millions and decried, drooled over and dissected by even more.

In the five days since Rockwell and his comely if shell-shocked insta-bride, Darva Conger, tied the knot on "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" on Fox TV, family and friends from here to California have filled in the picture of how a bright, athletic, sociable kid from O'Hara has happily become a symbol of the decline and fall of Western civilization.

"He's a big thinker. He's always been a big thinker," said childhood friend Ron Skalski, who contends that Rockwell used to crack up the nuns at St. Scholastica elementary school in Aspinwall.

Born Richard S. Balkey, he grew up as everyone's favorite class clown, and graduated with top grades from Fox Chapel Area High School in 1975 and Penn State University four years later.

He liked the limelight so much that he gave himself the stage name Rick Rockwell in the 1980s and crisscrossed the country doing stand-up comedy. He turned his routine into a profitable inspirational speaking business for corporations, and made big bucks in real estate deals.

His biggest deal may have come on Tuesday's TV extravaganza. By the closing minutes the confirmed bachelor turned into the world's most controversial newlywed.

Emerging from the shadows, Rockwell picked emergency room nurse Darva Conger, 34, of Santa Monica, from among five finalists lined up in wedding gowns. There'd been an original cast of 50 contestants of all heights, hues and hair colors. As the show progressed, the viewing audience grew from 16 million to 23 million.

The couple had never met.

When chosen, the platinum-blond bride looked stunned, her face frozen in a smile bordering on terror. She began shaking visibly. Rockwell led her to center stage, enfolded her in his arms and initiated a long, passionate kiss, during which her shoulders appeared as stiff as a coat-hanger's.

 
   

What does it mean?

Making sense of the million-dollar TV union

 
 

He fixed his gaze on his bride-to-be, drinking her in and grinning in triumph. His lips could be seen forming the words, "You are so beautiful," and "I'm so happy."

And why not? Bride and groom had both signed prenuptial agreements before the show, so he had nothing to lose but his bachelorhood, and only for as long as he chose.

Rockwell clearly had hit the big time. It's one thing to entertain a room full of corporate executives, but how many comedians get to become an agent provocateur in the culture wars just by saying "I do" on nationwide TV?

Not bad, say friends, acquaintances and family who know Rockwell as an ambitious, hard-working entrepreneur with a gift for gab and self promotion.

The second-oldest of six children, he spent his early years in Aspinwall. His father, Clyde Balkey, a self-employed contractor who now lives in Shaler, built the two-story, brown-and-white-brick house on Kerrwood Road in O'Hara where the family moved when Rockwell was in seventh grade.

His mother, Joanne Rizza Balkey, turned her baking expertise into a successful business, Nutcracker Sweet. His parents divorced 10 years ago after 35 years of marriage.

Joanne Balkey fondly remembers a lively, close-knit brood. His friends say Rockwell worked and played hard.

"Even as a kid he always had a paper route, or he caddied at the golf course," recalled Todd Mathias, who grew up across the street. "I never heard him say he wanted to be rich, but he always knew how to get things done. He was always well-liked."

At Fox Chapel Area High School, Rockwell formed a floor hockey team, joined student council and practiced public speaking as one of three morning announcers over the school's public address system.

He was a personable guy, about 6 feet 2 inches, who amused friends with his Groucho Marx imitations. He got a chance to cut up senior year as the school mascot, the Fox.

Rockwell went on to Penn State, where he majored in health and fitness. Even then, Mark Horgas, who played ice hockey with him there, noticed his former teammate's desire for the spotlight. Like the time the team was at a hotel near Philadelphia and Rockwell went onto the empty stage in the lounge to regale guests with his comedy.

"He had this joke routine pretending to be Jackie Stewart, who was this race car driver, and this safecracker routine, you know, making a noise like the dial spinning. That was just Rick," Horgas said.

After graduating in 1979, Rockwell got a sales job with Johnson & Johnson, which high school friend Skalski remembers as a chance for the budding comedian to practice.

Skalski was still at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1980 when Rockwell stopped by.

"He was selling all this feminine hygiene stuff, and of course he had all the women laughing at this bar we went to that night," Skalski says.

The next morning, the two went for breakfast in the cafeteria. "It's Sunday morning, and all of a sudden Rick stands up on a table asking for a date. Yeah, he got a date. I don't remember who. He was just so funny. That's how he did things. He always had dates. Lots of dates."

Rockwell had begun perfecting his comedic routines in the late '70s.

"He was always a whore for publicity," cracked local comedian Billy Elmer. "I mean that in the best way, in a show-biz way." Elmer remembers him for his part in the movie, "Killer Tomatoes Strike Back."

"His comedy isn't about being funny," said Chris Ciardi, another fellow comic. "It's about being comfortable and liking himself. "

As late as last fall, Rockwell was still getting up on stage at the Funny Bone, one of his old stomping grounds.

"He would do a big funny hunk about Pittsburghese," said Funny Bone owner Jeff Schneider. "He was always a very professional comedian. When you booked him, it was in stone."

Every time he comes to town, he visits another old friend, Jim Krenn, on the WDVE Morning Show.

"He's a real 'Burgh kind of guy in that he's never changed," Krenn says. "I always saw him as being well-adjusted."

Their old friend was ready for the big time, so he headed to California. He knew he needed a catchy stage name.

"He had my younger two sons looking through the phone book trying out names," said his mother, who believes he settled on Rockwell after Norman Rockwell, one of her favorite artists.

Clyde Balkey would spend winters in California, helping refurbish houses his son bought then resold at huge profits. Rockwell took his comedy routines on the road, but was always looking for more ways to make money.

He came up with a plan -- to turn his nightly gigs into financial windfalls by showing button-down corporate types how to loosen up their presentations. He billed himself as a motivational speaker.

He got richer and richer -- rich enough to be certified by Fox as a multimillionaire bridegroom-to-be.

"I think he's committed to making this marriage work," said high school friend Jay Crawford, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "He told me so."

Crawford was a wedding guest.

The two buddies were among the last of the marriage holdouts from their high school class. As the still-single Crawford explains, it gets harder to find the right woman.

"He's so set in his ways," he said. "He's immaculate. You have to take off your shoes when you walk in his house. The older you get, the harder it is to find someone with the same value systems. He was engaged a couple of times. It just didn't work out. I think this will."

Former girlfriend Gina Ord isn't so sure.

Ord, who lives in San Diego, got to know Rockwell in the 1980s when he played a Mission Beach nerd named Skippy on a nightly variety show "San Diego at Large."

Ord could not be reached for comment after she was interviewed Wednesday night by a San Diego TV station. She said she had talked with Rockwell by telephone a few days before his wedding.

"On one hand he was saying he felt it was his destiny, which seemed really strange to me. And then, on the other hand, he was turning around saying, 'Don't think I haven't thought about what this will do for my career.' And then the real clincher was, I said to him, 'Well, this pretty much negates any chance that we would ever get back together,' and he was quiet for a second."

He then told her: "Gina, I can get this annulled anytime."

In California, Joanne Balkey was sticking by her son and his bride, expressing hope in their union even while acknowledging her desire for a traditional Catholic wedding.

She talked with her new daughter-in-law for 45 minutes after the wedding, and pronounced her "very level-headed."

"The first thing [Conger] wanted to do was call her mother, who couldn't be there because her brother was in the hospital. I liked that," Balkey said.

She also would like nothing better than to see them married again in her home church. "I'd like to have them come back and maybe do it again with a priest."

Post-Gazette Weekend editor Scott Mervis also contributed to this story.



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