Saturday, May 22, 2010
An Interview with Hank Garrett (May 17, 2010)
Kliph Nesteroff: When did your nightclub act start?
Hank Garrett: I've always been a clown. I started in the Catskills when I was sixteen. I started working these hotels up in the Catskills but I was also very much involved in working out. I was a power lifter at the gym. I broke the New York state record at one point. A gentleman had approached me and said, "You know, you could make a lot of money as a professional wrestler." He represented a guy named Toots Mondt. Toots Mondt was a promoter in New York. Met Toots Mondt [and] started professional wrestling when I was seventeen. I am now in The Wrestling Hall of Fame. They changed my name to Hank Daniels, The Minnesota Farm Boy. I'd never been out of New York!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: I didn't know anything about Minnesota. I didn't know what a farm looked like. They shipped me off to California and they dyed my hair blonde. I wrestled as Hank Daniels, The Minnesota Farm Boy for a while in the WWO, The World Wrestling Organization. I was trained by a guy named Bibber McCoy who was a pro wrestler. He was my mentor ... When I came home, my mother did not know that I had gone out to California to be a wrestler. She thought I had gone out there to be an actor.
I came home and I was up to two hundred and sixty pounds. She saw the blonde hair and she opened up my suitcase; she was helping me unpack. I had a fan club and the youngest member was about one hundred and nine. Little old ladies made my wardrobe. Hand sewn. Spangles and beads and fringes. My mother pulled out this jacket and it was all spangled and she looked at this blonde hair and she went, "Oh, my God! Tell me the truth!" I said, "What?" She said, "Are you a communist!?" (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: At one point, I lived in Harlem. I was a street hoodlum from Harlem. I was home from a wrestling tour. We lived on a fifth floor walk-up and the building was on fire. My mother and father had a fruit and vegetable stand in the public market and they rushed toward the house and they were stopped by the fireman. My mother was screaming, "My baby is upstairs!" They rushed up the stairs and they banged on the door. This fireman was probably five foot six and maybe one hundred and fifty pounds. I came to the door and he said, "Where's the baby?" I said, "What baby?" He said, "There's a woman out here screaming about a baby!" I said, "That's my mother!" He said, "You're the baby!?" My mother, seeing that I was fine, said to the fireman, "Don't carry him, you'll hurt yourself."
Kliph Nesteroff: Yesterday morning I spent some time on the phone with Larry Storch.
Hank Garrett: My dear buddy Larry. I call Larry every once in a while. He's living in New York. Larry was a great influence in my becoming a stand-up comedian. I ended up being Tony Bennett's opening act for four years. Larry got me started in comedy. I would run down to catch [Larry Storch's nightclub act]. He gave me so many pointers. I was working the Catskills when I was sixteen years old.
Kliph Nesteroff: I was talking to Larry Storch about Don Adams. They grew up together. Of course, Don Adams was a nightclub comic as well.
Hank Garrett: Yes, he started in nightclubs.
Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently Don had a real dislike for doing stand-up. His nerves got the best of him. With the success of Get Smart he was being offered a hundred grand to do Vegas, but after a while he couldn't do it. He hated it.
Hank Garrett: In fact, when he did [Playboy After Dark] Don said that and he loved doing it because it was over in a few minutes. I'm a member of a group called Yarmy's Army [named for] Don's brother Dick [Yarmy]. We keep the memory of Dick alive. It's a bunch of comics and we meet every second Tuesday of the month. We get together at Jerry's Deli and just have a good old time. We raise funds for the Motion Picture [Television Country House and] Hospital and now we're doing the same for the children's hospital. We used to go and cheer Dick up when he was getting [cancer] treatment and that's how it got started. That's how Yarmy's Army got started. Shelley Berman is our elder statesman. We've got so many wonderful comics. We have a great time.
Kliph Nesteroff: Shelley's career has really rebounded with Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Hank Garrett: Sure has. He's marvelous. Shelley's one of these guys - you tell a joke and the joke falls flat and he'll say, "You realize you've just wasted fifteen minutes of my life?" (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: Isn't there some story about something that happened with Shelley in the late sixties - he was filmed having some kind of tantrum and then after that he could no longer get work?
Hank Garrett: He was doing his own show. He was doing monologue pieces and some interviews. What happened was he had his own show and [offstage] a phone rang. He was doing it live. A phone rang and he just went through the roof. That was the end of that. They suddenly saw a side of Shelley they didn't like. He started screaming and carrying on about this phone that interrupted his monologue. That's was pretty much it. After that, the show was canceled. He was doing it live so they couldn't cut that out.
Kliph Nesteroff: At what time did you move from wrestling to acting? Were you doing them both simultaneously or did you quit wrestling and commit to show business?
Hank Garrett: Because of Nat Hiken ... There was a comedian named Mickey Deems. His wife was Nat Hiken's secretary. I met Mickey up in the Catskills when I was doing my act. He said, "Gertie has set up an appointment for you to see Nat Hiken. He's doing a series called Car 54, Where Are You? Would you go in?" Show you how bright I am, I walked in and I spoke to Nat Hiken. He said, "Okay. You're Ed Nicholson." I said, "No, no. I'm Hank Garrett." He said, "No, idiot! Nicholson is the character you're going to play on Car 54." He introduced me to Al. He said, "Al Lewis? This is Hank Garrett. The two of you are going to be partners on the show." And that's how it started for me. But I had to sign a contract, a release, that I would not wrestle anymore because if I got hurt it would hold up production. But I did anyway. I went back and wrestled a couple times as "Hank Star." Nat found out about it though, and he said, "Hank don't do this. Please." I said okay and that was the end of my wrestling career.
Kliph Nesteroff: Nat Hiken was a wonderful writer and is underrated today. What kind of a guy was Nat Hiken?
Hank Garrett: Oh, he was amazing. Nat would walk on the set, look at the set-up, and say, "I don't know. I don't know. Tell you what..." And he would make the changes right then and there and the changes were [always] for the better. He was amazing. Just an amazing guy. Very soft spoken. Just incredible. We would laugh all the time.
Kliph Nesteroff: Were you familiar with Nat Hiken at all before?
Hank Garrett: I watched the Bilko show, of course. That's how Joe E. Ross got his start. They cast Joe E. on the show as the cook. Nat liked him and wrote [Car 54 Where Are You?] for Joe E. [Ross] and Fred [Gwynne] and for Al [Lewis] and myself.
Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of a guy was Joe E. Ross in real life? Was he as gruff...
Hank Garrett: (laughs) Yup. Yeah. He was a knockabout comic. Burlesque. Not even burlesque. He was just a dirty comic. To give you an idea: When the show became successful, a bunch of us came out to California. Joe E. Ross went to Sy Devore and got this beautiful suit. At that time they had barbers at Sy Devore's. They shaved him. They restyled his hair. Next day Joe E. had to dress himself. So he had a pair of sneakers and this suit on and the button was in the wrong buttonhole and there was foodstains all over it! And Sy Devore ran into him and said, "Oh my God! Joe, give me back the suit. I'll give you back every penny that you paid for it." Ross said, "No, no! I love this suit!" Devore said, "Then sell me the label. Please don't tell anyone it's a Sy Devore suit!" That was Joe E. Ross.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: At Gold Medal Studios, where we shot in the Bronx, we had a little cafeteria. You [ate] whatever you wanted and [then] you told the cashier what [you had eaten]. So, I [tell the cashier] I had a tuna fish sandwich and a coffee or whatever it was and the cashier says, "Three bucks." Joe E. Ross would walk up and he didn't have to say a word. They looked at his clothes and they said, "Okay. You had the cottage cheese and the scrambled eggs." It would be all over his uniform. He was quite the slob.
Kliph Nesteroff: He used to be in a comedy team with a guy named Dave Starr. Do you know who that is?
Hank Garrett: Oh, Dave Starr, yeah. He had the reputation of being one of the dirtiest comedians in the business.
Kliph Nesteroff: So, it was an odd pairing of these two filthy comics...
Hank Garrett: (laughs) They'd vie to see who was dirtier.
Kliph Nesteroff: There is a film - I'm pretty sure it's the only footage of Dave Starr's nightclub act - and it's with Joe E. Ross...
Hank Garret: Oh, God.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's like a stag film. It's called Tease-a-rama with burlesque dancers. Betti Page hosts it...
Hank Garrett: Oh!
Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know if you're on the internet, but I could send you a clip of it...
Hank Garrett: I'm computer illiterate.
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, it is something to see. I also have Dave Starr's comedy LP...
Hank Garrett: Oh my God!
Kliph Nesteroff: It's called The Nearer the Bone, The Sweeter the Meat...
Hank Garrett: (laughs) Yeah, Dave would come around [to us], the youngsters. He would say (speaking in gruff voice), "You guys don't know anything about comedy. Jesus Christ." "Oh. Okay." We'd just sit there and listen to Dave expound.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was that in the Catskills?
Hank Garrett: No, this was in New York City. We used to hang around a place called the B & G Coffee Shop [Ed. Note: Near the Brill Building it was known as "The Home of The Bottomless Cup"]. It was kind of the center for comics. We would all meet and lie to each other about how good we did the night before.
Kliph Nesteroff: Typical comics (laughs).
Hank Garrett: Yes (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: We should talk a little about Al Lewis.
Hank Garrett: One time we were on a break and we walked over to a little Italian grocery [in Car 54, Where Are You? wardrobe]. This was in The Bronx. We walked in and were going to grab a sandwich. So Al asked for a ham sandwich. And this guy just kept slicing and he said, "Sure, what else ya have?" "Well, a Coke." "Sure, officer. Have anything you want!" Al reached into his pocket for some money and the guy says, "Oh, no, no, officer! You no gotta pay!" I said, "Al, pay the guy. Let's go." He said, "He won't take the money!"
Kliph Nesteroff: When you were working together - was Al opinionated, politically, at that point?
Hank Garrett: Always. He had an opinion about everything. He would tell you how to stand. He would tell you [where to put] the camera. There was one time - Al and I were in the car. Al was deaf in one ear. I had an ear infection. And we're sitting there, the lights are on, and they say "Action!" We couldn't hear the "Action." The two of us are sitting there staring. They just kept yelling action. Finally, Nat Hiken came over holding a big sign that said "Action." I went to Al's home a few times [and met] his wife and kids. Then his wife was in a horrendous automobile accident. Sweet, sweet, sweet lady.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was he much of a teller-of-tall-tales by that point?
Hank Garrett: Al? Oh, yes. (laughs) He was a scout for a basketball team... oh yeah, oh yeah (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: It is hard [for me] to write an article about him, trying to separate fact from fiction because he told so many stories.
Hank Garrett: Oh, I know. My God.
Kliph Nesteroff: And so many of them contradict each other.
Hank Garrett: (laughs) That was Al! He talked about having this Galapagos turtle in his room. I said how did you get a Galapagos turtle in [your room]? They weigh in excess of four hundred pounds. He said, "Well, a friend of mine left it." (laughs). Amazing guy. Amazing guy. Constantly running for office and then involved in the restaurant Grandpa's.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know that Fred Gwynne was the one who designed the [logo for] the menu [and awning] at Grandpa's? It was a drawing that looks like Grandpa Munster and it was Fred Gwynne's artwork.
Hank Gallard: Oh, I didn't know that. Fred was fantastic. He put out several children's books with his drawings. Just marvelous.
Kliph Nesteroff: Any final thoughts on Al Lewis?
Hank Garrett: I miss him. He was fun, fun, fun. A fun guy to be with. His stories were amazing. Most of them weren't true. But we had an incredible time together.
Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about working with Nipsey Russell?
Hank Garrett: I first met Nipsey in Harlem. He was working the Baby Grand [Theater]. Nipsey was the poet laureate of Harlem. Wonderful act. He was at the Baby Grand for sixteen years. He was the resident comedian and the house MC. Then ... suddenly I saw Nipsey working on the set [of Car 54]! I had been such a fan of his. He was marvelous, just sensational. He played Andy, head of telecommunications for our precinct. Just a fantastic, brilliant, brilliant comedian. He lived two blocks away from me. I was at 108 east 111th and he was at 55 west 110th. I knew Nipsey for many, many years.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Gene Baylos?
Hank Garrett: Oh my God. We had Gene on the show. He played Backdoor Benny. He played a burglar that we tried to get to go straight. Gene was very famous up in the Catskills and then he wound up working the clubs in Vegas. He was absolutely hysterical. If you said to Gene, "Gene, I'm going to Dubuque, Iowa" he would give you a list of every cafeteria in Dubuque. He never went into a restaurant. He would find a cafeteria. That way he didn't have to leave a tip.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: Yeah. Gene was marvelous.
Kliph Nesteroff: Every nightclub comic that I've talked to of this time period has mentioned that Gene Baylos was pretty much the funniest act they had ever seen.
Hank Garrett: Oh, absolutely! Gene did things that other guys thought of doing ... There was a talk show host, Les Crane, and Gene ran into a tailor shop and got a piece of chalk from a tailor. He grabbed Les and said, "We'll take two inches off the sleeve and we'll shorten the crotch..." And he chalked up the guy's suit while he's standing there. And walks away! (laughs) That was Gene.
Kliph Nesteroff: He was well known in nightclubs. Why do you think he never gained more fame? He didn't get into film and television like the other guys did.
Hank Garrett: Gene, when he had that kind of exposure, got very nervous. He became frightened, actually. We had to really calm him down when he did our show. He was so frightened that he wouldn't remember the lines. Once he was comfortable he was marvelous. We had him back on the show twice.
Kliph Nesteroff: Talking about Dave Starr reminded me of another guy with a similar gruff voice: B.S. Pulley.
Hank Garrett: (laughs) Pulley! We had him on the show - and he did a fairy tale. He was also known as one of the filthiest guys in the world! The B.S. does not stand for Bernard Shaw. He worked with a guy named H.S. Gump. So it was bullshit and horseshit.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: Yes, Pulley was marvelous and Nat Hiken was a big fan of his. Hiken hired him to do Uncle Grumpy. He would do these fairy tales to children then he would tell these stories. "So gather close little children while I talk to you about..." And then you would go see his act and, oh my God, filthiest act possible.
Kliph Nesteroff: Nat Hiken used B.S. Pulley in one of his last projects, The Love God, a Don Knotts film.
Hank Garrett: Yes. He loved him. Nat Hiken used to have fighters on the show. He was a great fight fan. We had Sugar Ray Robinson. God, we had a lot of different fighters on the show doing different parts.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jake LaMotta.
Hank Garrett: Yes, Jake LaMotta. Rocky Graziano.
Kliph Nesteroff: You worked on Mel Brooks' The Producers?
Hank Garrett: Yes. It was a small part. I played the stagehand and Mel wanted me to stop Ken Mars from coming backstage ... and he runs backstage and he says, "You will please become unconscious" and he hits me in the head with a piece of wood. Mel was wonderful. I've been so fortunate to work with some of the greatest people in the world.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Mel Brooks already?
Hank Garrett: I learned so much [from Your Show of Shows]. I used to go to the theater in New York [where they filmed]. I used to climb the fire escape and go through the roof and [sneak] down and watch them perform. Because of Sid Caesar's influence I ended up doing That Was The Week That Was in London. In fact [on that show] I would teach dialectic giberish... which I learned from Sid. I was appearing at the Copacabana with Tony Bennett. Peter Ustinov was in the audience. He had the offer to do That Was the Week That Was with David Frost in London, but he couldn't do it because he had a couple movie commitments. He asked me if I would be interested in doing an audition. I said, "Sure!" The producer of the show [called me.] I did the gibberish and next thing I know I'm in London. I was there for eighteen months. They would interview me as a different character each week and then they would translate what I said. The Polish ambassador, the Chinese laundryman, each week a different thing.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever participate in the American version?
Hank Garrett: I never did.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter Dick Shawn at all when you were in The Producers or in nightclubs?
Hank Garrett: We had the same manager. Bobby Bernard. I would watch Dick and he was a brilliant performer. The first time I saw him was up in the Catskills. He just killed the people. Tore the place apart doing his Massa Richard [bit]. Someone told me that he passed [away] on stage?
Kliph Nesteroff: That's right, yes, in the middle of his act. Quite the way to go for a nightclub performer.
Hank Garrett: Joe E. Ross died performing.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did he!?
Hank Garrett: Yes! Joe E. was living in some housing complex and they had hired him to do a show. Horrendous. They were paying him a hundred dollars. Joe E. was working, suddenly felt ill, sat on the edge of the stage and keeled over.
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh wow.
Hank Garrett: His widow went to collect the hundred dollars. They gave her fifty. They said, "He never finished the show."
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh my God.
Hank Garrett: Yes, exactly... and Joe E. was married to... hookers.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah!
Hank Garrett: Yup.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: And he went through something like ten or eleven wives...
Hank Garrett: The one I knew was [number] eight. He introduced her as his "dialogue coach."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Hank Garrett: (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: I have a recording of Joe E. Ross' nightclub act. It's from the early seventies. It's certainly interesting but it's also obvious from the sound of the recording and the sound of the amount of people that it's probably one of those one hundred dollar gigs.
Hank Garrett: Oh, I'm sure (laughs). Oh, Joe E. What a mess.
Kliph Nesteroff: You probably know the story of Parkyakarkus. Harry Einstein also died on stage.
Hank Garrett: No, that I didn't know.
Kliph Nesteroff: Are you familiar with him? He's also the father of Bob Einstein and Albert Brooks...
Hank Garrett: Oh, sure!
Kliph Nesteroff: He was performing at a Friar's Roast for Lucy and Desi when they were still together, around 1958. It was a star studded dais. Milton Berle was seated in the spot next to Parkyakarkus. When Harry Einstein delivered his ten minute roast piece [it] brought down the house. Just destroyed. Walked back to his seat, sat down, had a heart attack, fell face flat on the table. Audience still laughing from his act, laughs uproariously again because they thought he was doing some kind of shtick. Then Milton Berle, realizing something was seriously wrong, stood up and literally shouts, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Again - huge laugh.
Hank Garrett: Oh my God.
Kliph Nesteroff: But he was already dead. He had passed away.
Hank Garrett: There is another story about a guy named Al Kelly, who did double talk. This is the story I heard. It also involved Milton Berle. Al felt ill and he passed out. He fell to the ground and Milton knew that he was taking nitroglycerin tablets. He said," Al, where are your tablets?" Al says, "It's in the skirtleflum with the friggienaum." Milton says, "Al, not now for Chrissakes!"