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In aftermath of cancer diagnosis, retired CEO finds meaning in music

An obsession with banjos and a recovery from cancer fuel this true-life solo show.
Keith Alessi wrote and stars in Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life, playing Friday and Saturday at Langham Court Theatre. SUBMITTED


Where: Langham Court Theatre, 805 Langham Ct.
When: Friday, April 5 at 7.30 p.m.; Saturday, April 6 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $35 from

Tomatoes give Keith Alessi heartburn, which is a problem because he’s a third-generation Italian and tomatoes once accounted for much of his diet. He was raised on the fruit, and endured tomato-related acid reflux for years before an even bigger problem came to light.

Alessi, 69, was diagnosed with his Stage 3 esophageal cancer in 2015, evidently due to the harmful acid reflux his tomato intake triggered.

Alessi’s remarkable journey from corporate boardrooms to fringe festival stages across North America is the framework for Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life, a true-life solo show written by and starring Alessi, and directed and produced by Erika Conway. The Windsor, Ont., native is a natural-born storyteller, even if the arc of his musical travelogue and humour piece seems more like a work of fiction than a mirror image of his life.

But it’s all true — and it’s remarkable.

An accountant by trade, Alessi eventually became a senior executive for several private and public companies. Along the way, he began collecting banjos out of interest. He never learned how to play them, but had developed a deep appreciation for the instrument as he rose through the world of business. “The entire time I had this obsession with banjos. I couldn’t play them, but I kept collecting them, with the idea that I would get to play them one of these days.”

He was the CEO of the oldest independent coal company in the United States when he retired from business, and thought he would go “all-in” on the banjo with his new-found free time. Two weeks later, his cancer was diagnosed. Doctors informed him he had a 14 per cent chance of making it through five years. “I was told I had less than a year to live.”

His physical and emotional recovery from cancer led Alessi to a circle of old-timey musicians in the mountains of Virginia, to where he moved in the 1990s and lives part-time today. His banjo playing eventually improved, as did his health. His cancer is now in remission, eight years removed from his initial diagnosis.

“My friends were always saying: ‘You need to tell this story.’ And that’s what really led me to the stage. I had no aspiration to do it, but people were telling me I had to tell this story.” His initial plan was to do five performances of Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2018. It was an immediate hit.

“Now, we’re up to show No. 340,” he said.

Alessi tours the world with the project, donating all of his gate receipts. Thus far, he has donated $940,000 to regional theatres and cancer charities in each city he performs across the world. Proceeds from three productions of Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me in Victoria on Friday and Saturday will benefit Langham Court and Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, according to Alessi.

“I made a decision early on that I wanted to use the show as a mechanism for raising money. But it’s also taught me a lot. It has changed my perspective on things. This has just been an amazing way of contacting with people on a level that I never had in the business world.”

Alessi, a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen who has led major corporations on both sides of the border, was a multi-millionaire when he retired. According to Forbes magazine, Alessi earned $4.6 million US in 2014 as the CEO of Westmoreland Coal Co., which meant he could afford to donate his profits from performing. “I’m in a little different position than most artists are,” he said. “I did well in business, so this is a passion project.”

Passion is a recurring theme in Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me. Alessi said he waited too long to pursue his, but the emergence of the banjo came at an opportune time. Better late than never to find a reason for living, he said.

“People have a tendency to think: ‘I’ll get to it later.’ But you shouldn’t need a cancer diagnosis to be the wake-up call for you.”

Alessi doesn’t know if he will ever retire the production, even though it could be argued its original purpose has been served. However, he does talkbacks with audiences after every show, and it’s clear there’s still a need for Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me on the international theatre circuit.

“We were in Rosebud, Alberta, the week before last, for six shows, and they were probably the six most emotional talkbacks I’ve ever had. People were giving testimonies about their journey, about changes they wanted to make. So as long as I’m having that kind of affect on people, I’m going to do this for as long as I physically can.”

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