Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Interview with Ronnie Schell



Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on an episode of You Bet Your Life. Had you already been doing stand-up at that point? How did that come about?

Ronnie Schell: I was a senior at San Francisco State College. I did a little nightclub act at a place called The Purple Onion in San Francisco. That was in the Summer of 1958. I would go to school in the daytime and work there at night. On the bill with me was Phyllis Diller and The Kingston Trio. A little later it was The Smothers Brothers. We were all on the bill together. George Fenneman, the announcer on the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life was also from San Francisco. He had gone to San Francisco state ten years earlier. 


He came down at the request of John Guedel, the producer of You Bet Your Life to see about Phyllis Diller. So, he obtained her for the show and while he was down there, he liked what I did. He said, "Hey, how would you like to come on the show too?" I said, "Yes, I'd like to." And that's how I got on. He said, "We've got to find a gimmick for you." I said, "Well, I'm a stand-up comedian." He said, "We need something more." I said, "I know. I'll be an expert on beatniks." Beatniks were big in the fifties in San Francisco up in North Beach and that's how I got on the show. I won six hundred dollars and the duck came down when I guessed the secret word... which was table.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you have any interaction with Groucho other than on air?

Ronnie Schell: Later. I was later doing The Tonight Show with Carson and he happened to be in the audience. He came backstage afterward and my God, he remembered me. He said, "I remember you. You were on my show." I guess what he saw on Carson's show he liked. He said, "You remind me of Don Adams" and was very friendly. They said that sometimes he could be rude, but he never was with me. Just the nicest.


Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about the atmosphere of the You Bet Your Life taping?

Ronnie Schell: I went down there, the producer said, "Okay, he'll ask you a series of questions. You'll come back with these answers." We went over the material and I said, "Now, listen, I'm a comedian so I might think of an ad-lib or two. Do you mind if I do?" He said, "Okay, but remember two things. The comedian on this show is Groucho Marx and number two this is on film and we can cut at anytime and edit anything... so don't be too funny." And that's how I wasn't too funny. They say it's on YouTube... whatever that is.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen the Phyllis Diller one for sure. I'm not sure if I have seen yours.

Ronnie Schell: I came two weeks later. That was Phyllis with her old nose.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the same time you had played The Taylor Supper Club in Denver...

Ronnie Schell: Twice.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you had played The Empire Room of The Palmer House in Chicago.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, I played that twice. I played that room with Al Hirt. In fact, coincidentally, September 9th, 1959, I opened there that night and that was the night that the Groucho Marx thing was on television. So, I never saw it initially. The Taylor Supper Club was owned by a guy named Sammy Toole. He just liked entertainers and for the majority of my career in those days, I opened for bigger names. Of course, in those days everybody was a bigger name than me. In fact, they still are. The first time I worked there I worked with a group called The Chordettes who were popular at the time. 


The second time I worked with The Modernaires. They used to be on with Glenn Miller. It was quite interesting. When I was in the Air Force, right out of high school, about the second year I started doing stand-up comedy. I stole material from some guy I had seen in San Francisco. I started doing it to get out of KP - in those days, they had Kitchen Police. The guy in charge of me said, "Would you like to emcee a show? You're funny." I said, "Well, I don't know." He said, "I'll get you out of KP." I said, "You got it!" That's how I got started. During that second year I was called to Washington DC because they had heard about me and they needed an act to go on during the intermission of the United States Air Force Dance Band - The Airmen of Note. The Glenn Miller Air Force Dance Band. It was started by Glenn Miller during World War Two. We traveled around and it was a wonderful show. We just traveled around all over the place [LOUD SOUND]. Sorry, I dropped the phone here. It was a different atmosphere then, not like a comedy club. It was variety entertainment. Usually a comedian and a singer or a novelty act. Not like today where five comedians come on and that's it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, that Glenn Miller Air Force Dance Band - was that separate from something I heard that you did called the Jazz Time Revue?

Ronnie Schell: Yes, that had to do with a smaller group ... one played strictly Glenn Miller music and we toured with different singers ... we had a funny incident in 1964 on Armed Forces Day, we were asked to entertain... just a second. I have a call on my other phone. Hello? Yes? You did? Oh, good. Are we still going out for dinner? Okay, I'll be here. I'm doing an interview with Vancouver right now. No, it's all right I just... geez, my teeth didn't come in. So, she's going to try get them tomorrow. I went all the way over there. She's going to try get it for me tomorrow. Okay. Bye. Okay, I'm sorry. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That's okay.

Ronnie Schell: So, the story I was going to tell you was that we were at the Waldorf-Astoria. This was 1964. The head of the whole thing was a rear admiral in the navy. He was in active duty and he thought that he was the greatest thing that ever lived. He came up and said in front of the band, "I'm going to introduce you fellows. What do you call yourselves?" "We're the Airmen of Note started by Glenn Miller in World War Two. You might call it the Glenn Miller Air Force Dance Band." He said, "All right, that's fine. Now, will Glenn be here tonight?" Of course he had died in 1944.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you started out doing impressions in your act.

Ronnie Schell: I never did impressions. I started out doing lip synchs. I was a little different because I wouldn't take a funny record. A lot of guys were doing Danny Kaye and Spike Jones. I would take serious records and make them funny through my actions. So, I was a little more unique than some of the other record acts.


Kliph Nesteroff: July 1959, you appeared on The Jack Paar Show.

Ronnie Schell: I never appeared with Jack Paar, but I did appear on the show after he left. I think it was a week afterward. What happened was that Hugh Downs took over. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Long after 1959 then... when Jack Paar walked off...


Ronnie Schell: Yes, that's when I appeared. So I never actually got to appear on there with Jack Paar. That and Ed Sullivan - I had never done that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember who else was on when you did The Jack Paar Show?

Ronnie Schell: Yes, Alan King, the comedian.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was that whole experience like for you? I guess it wasn't quite as exciting without the main man there - but if it was so close to his walk-off, there must have been an interesting atmosphere.


Ronnie Schell: In those days, there were only three networks. When you did the show you had to fly to New York. [Eventually] I did The Tonight Show twelve times with Carson. It was a nerve wracking thing because you'd fly all the way there, you'd do your monologue and hope you'd be invited over to sit down, which he did for me every time. As all comedians will tell you, you'd have to try to prepare what to talk to Johnny about during commercial breaks because he would sort of turn off. That was nerve wracking. But I was lucky, it went very well for me every time... otherwise I would not have been called back. I did it out here too at NBC in Burbank. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Sometimes when I go through old newspaper clippings for research - I will stumble across something, but then my interview subject will tell me that it never happened. So, sometimes what was in the press was simply fraudulent publicity department stuff. But I have this clipping from 1959 that says you were on Jack Paar with George Jessell and Edward Everett Horton.

Ronnie Schell: Nope.

Kliph Nesteroff: Must be a different Ronnie Schell.

Ronnie Schell: You know, for a while I was mistaken for Ronnie Graham. He was in New Faces of 1952 and he wrote a lot with Mel Brooks. Very funny guy. They'd say, "Oh yeah, I remember you. Mr. Dirt commercials." I'd say, "No, no. That's Ronnie Graham." So, they may have made a mistake on that. I can remember a lot of the other people that were on a lot of the other shows I did.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read in an Earl Wilson column...

Ronnie Schell: I was a big favorite of Earl Wilson's.

Kliph Nesteroff: He mentioned seeing you perform at The Blue Angel in 1959 and Frank Sinatra was in the audience. Do you remember that?

Ronnie Schell: Yes, he was. I sure do [remember that]. That was opening night. That was quite an experience. In my career I worked with Sammy [Davis Jr.] twice. Never met Dean Martin. Was always afraid to meet Frank Sinatra because he had such a volatile reputation, I wasn't sure that he would live up to my fear standards. I'm probably one of his biggest fans. Sinatra came in to the Blue Angel. I'll never forget this. I had done the first show. Milton Berle was there and Stan Freberg and Burl Ives. They were all in the audience. Oh, and Henry Morgan. Remember Henry Morgan?

Kliph Nesteroff: I love Henry Morgan.

Ronnie Schell: Not Harry. Henry.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, the caustic satirist.

Ronnie Schell: That's the guy. They were in the audience. When the show was over I got to talk to Shelley [Berman]. I didn't talk to Henry Morgan. I was sitting in the showroom and all of a sudden somebody said "Look who's here." I looked over my shoulder and there was Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Their first time around. Then I looked and [saw] Earl Wilson and Jimmy Van Heusen. Then I turned back and all of a sudden it was like the room lit up. There was a certain electricity. I looked over my shoulder and there was Frank. I remember the date he had. 


A girl named Judy Meredith; a starlet. The funny part about it was he really loved my act because he was a liberal in those days and I had sort of a liberal bent in some of the politics that I did in my show. Well, if you read the Earl Wilson thing it says that Frank Sinatra saw Ronnie Schell and he did this and this and this, but he never comments on whether Frank enjoyed it. That sort of bugged me for a while. That was a memorable opening night with all of those people. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was The Blue Angel like as a venue?

Ronnie Schell: It was not a commercial room, if you know what I mean. There were commercial comedians like Fat Jack E. Leonard and Shecky Greene and Don Rickles. They would play the more commercial rooms like Basin Street East and The Copacabana. Then there were the [Blue Angel style] rooms where people like Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman and more intellectual acts... why they thought I was an intellectual I don't know. [Maybe] because I'm San Francisco and had a Mort Sahl association? That's how I got hired there.  


It was a small room and it almost looked like a funeral parlor on the inside. But they had great acts. Phyllis Diller worked there and... that was the difference [although] they didn't specialize in jazz. The reason Frank Sinatra came in on opening night was because he had sponsored an Australian singer who had been hot for a while and she was on the bill with me. Her name was Diana Trask and she would sing love songs and mood songs.

Kliph Nesteroff: You started appearing on Don Sherwood's radio show. You were friends with Don Sherwood, the radio personality.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, but how would you know about that?  

Kliph Nesteroff: I just do my research.

Ronnie Schell: Boy (laughs). Don Sherwood was my best friend in San Francisco. He was, without a doubt, and I say this without reservation, he was the greatest radio personality that I ever worked with. I think, incidentally, that Herb Caen was the best newspaper columnist. Don - he came into the Purple Onion one night when I was there and we took a liking to each other and he had a boat and I went on his boat. We traded lady friends and all that kind of stuff. The ladies were so attracted to him. I would get his rejects. 


We became friends and then I started doing his radio show, [phoning in] from Indianapolis or wherever and talked about doing the show and talk about the town and everything. Then I started writing stuff for him and he got a local television show and I started doing sketches. That went on for seven years and even when I moved to LA I would still come back and do the show for him. He was signed to replace either Paar or Steve Allen.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Steve Allen left Tonight to do The Steve Allen Show in 1956-57 and Paar eventually came in. Paar left Tonight in 1962-63.


Ronnie Schell: Then in 1957, he was signed to take the place... he was going to be the new Steve Allen. That's how it worked. He lasted two days. He didn't even make it to New York! He lasted two days in Chicago and then came back to San Francisco (laughs). But he would have been, had he taken that job, as good - not better - but as good as Johnny Carson. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic to the end. He smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes and passed away at age fifty-seven. By that time his health had failed him and he was wearing a tank on his back and his career went out the window. So, that's the story of Don Sherwood, but he was sure loved. If you talk to anybody from San Francisco during that time and you listened to the radio - he was number one, all the time. Anybody who listened to the radio listened to Don Sherwood.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did appearing on his show...

Ronnie Schell: It was a great experience, but it didn't help my career outside of San Francisco. It gave me good experience in front of a television camera and also on the radio. I was more insecure on the radio for some reason. That's why I never made a comedy album. Shortly after Bob Newhart made his first Button Down Mind, they asked me. I was working the Hungry i. They said, "We'd like to cut a demo for you at the Hungry i. Would you mind?" I said, "No, not at all! I'd love to have one." I've got the original demo. I did forty-five minutes and for half of that you have no idea what is going on. All you hear is laughter. When it was over they said, "You know, you're great but you don't come across. They've got to see you." So, I never pursued it after that. I was never a "material comic" like Newhart who had these firm comedic bits. I was extemporaneous and sort of wild.

Kliph Nesteroff: Then again, Edgar Bergen had a great radio career and he was a ventriloquist.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, that's true and he was also the worst ventriloquist. His lips moved.

Kliph Nesteroff: Don Sherwood was on KSFO - owned by Gene Autry. Did you ever encounter Gene Autry?

Ronnie Schell: Gene Autry, yes. The Golden West Broadcasting company. There's the Sportsman's Lodge, a motel restaurant that all the older entertainers go to when they come into town. One time I was in there and Pat Buttram introduced me to Gene. By that time all he had left were his [baseball team] The Angels. But he was nice man. Rich (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were the people that asked if they could cut that comedy record demo for you?

Ronnie Schell: Warner Brothers Records.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah, yes. They had Allan Sherman. They had Bob Newhart.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, they were good. Allan Sherman was the producer of The Steve Allen Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Everyone talks about The Purple Onion and The Hungry i as the main two comedy venues in San Francisco at the time. I wanted to ask you about a couple of the nightclubs in the Bay Area during the era - like Bimbo's 365 Club.

Ronnie Schell: I played there. Bimbo's was more of a Vegas type venue. They had showgirls and they had commercial acts. A typical bill would be Mel Torme and Shecky Greene. They wouldn't work The Hungry i or Purple Onion. It was like a Vegas nightclub with dinners and that. I worked there, I came back while I was on Gomer Pyle, and I worked there with Al Martino for a month. December 1968 for a month. Al Martino cooked me dinner.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Anne's 440?

Ronnie Schell: That was a great club. I never worked there, but that was where Lenny Bruce would work. It was a no holds barred club. A lot of gay and lesbian people would go there. I remember there was a female impersonator... Charles... can't think of his name. It was more for far out people; smoking grass and all that kind of stuff; not that that's necessarily bad... or good. That's where I saw Lenny Bruce for the first time. He could do anything he wanted and he was in good shape then. 


I later worked for Lenny at a club down here [in Los Angeles] called Cosmo Alley. That was sort of thrilling. He owned the club with a little guy named Coen and Theodore Bikel the singer had a piece of the action. Lenny would come in and work from nine to twelve and I would work from twelve to four. In those days there was no two o'clock go home thing. That was a thrill because he was truly a genius, but he didn't start out that way. He started out as a very commercial comic doing impressions. 


Kliph Nesteroff: Cosmo Alley is also where George Carlin and Jack Burns got their start.

Ronnie Schell: They were both very good friends of mine. Jack is still around. I met them at the Hungry i, but yes, you're right. They did play Cosmo Alley. They had a very good act. Much more commercial than later. Then Burns went with Avery Schreiber. Jack is still around, but he's sort of a recluse. 

Kliph Nesteroff: They recorded a comedy record at Cosmo Alley before they were famous.

Ronnie Schell: Is that right? Let's see, who else played there? I was on the bill with Maya Angelou - the poet laureate. But in those days she was a Calypso type singer. They had a lot of folk singers in those days that played those rooms.


Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of which, you had a long association with The Kingston Trio.

Ronnie Schell: I toured with them on and off for a two and a half years. What happened was they auditioned for The Purple Onion two weeks before I did. We became good friends and when they went on the road for the first time they needed a comedian and I was picked. We were driving down a street in Phoenix, Arizona when they heard their record Tom Dooley for the first time on the radio. They opened the windows and turned it up for everyone to hear.

Kliph Nesteroff: You have mentioned that Shelley Berman has disdain for you.

Ronnie Schell: Yes. I don't know why that is. You may get a feeling for that when you interview him. I don't care. It might be interesting to say "You know who I interviewed? Ronnie Schell." And see what he says. Feel free to and let me know what he says. I confronted him. We have a group called Yarmy's Army that meets every month. Shelley comes occasionally and I actually confronted him and said, "Shelley, what's the burr up your ass about me?" "No, I'm not going to talk about it here." I think what he thinks, I don't know this to be a fact... I think he thinks I stole some material from him. But I don't do that kind of material. 


Or maybe I said he's a pain in the ass and somebody told him. Ask him. I'm curious. All I'll say is I've known him... I think I met him at The Blue Angel. He hasn't mellowed, so you better be careful what you say. But do ask him about Ronnie Schell and see what he says. I stole material when I started, but I didn't have an act. All the material that I stole was record acts, not written material. I did serious records and made them funny. There were two songs I did that [I did because] I saw this other fellow do. Toot-Toot-Tootsie and I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat. Those I just stole from the guy, but I was in the service and he was in San Francisco.
 
Kliph Nesteroff: Later on you had some people write material for you, right? Larry Hovis and Ed Hider?

Ronnie Schell: Oh yeah, that's right. Larry Hovis and I worked a club in Santa Monica called The Horn. He and I had the same manager, Dick Link, who managed Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors, so we became friends. Hovis did a season of Gomer Pyle until he got Hogan's Heroes. He was a very good comedian, but he was a great jazz singer. Fantastic jazz singer, but he didn't push that as much as the other things. Last time I saw him we did an Andy Griffth reunion show down in Alabama. Then he died a year later of, I think, lung cancer. He smoked. That's Larry Hovis, a good guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that common - to have people writing material for you? 

Ronnie Schell: No, it wasn't. When I was making a little money I thought I would try it. It never really worked out for me.  

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the nightclub Fack's...

Ronnie Schell: I worked there with a partner. I teamed up with a guy from Vancouver named Pete Garrett. He went back to Vancouver and became a furniture salesman. We did a comedy act called Garrett and Schell. We did college things and the owner of Fack's, a guy named George Andrews saw us and said he'd like to hire us. So we did that room - it had a lot of jazz. Carmen McRae and Don Rickles worked there and Don Adams. [Loud Sound]. Oh, dropped the phone again. During that engagement was when someone offered me an audition at The Purple Onion and they hired me for eighty-five dollars a week. That was more than I was making with Pete. I told Pete and he didn't care that much. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What year would that have been - when you were in a comedy team?

Ronnie Schell: 1957.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had aspired to be a pro-ball player.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, that was while I was in high school. Before I went into the service I had always wanted to be in the Pacific Coast League, which was the San Francisco Seals and they went defunct. The Giants took over. I think Vancouver was in the Pacific Coast League.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, they still are.

Ronnie Schell: So, in high school I wanted to be a pro-ball player. I was a first string first baseman and then I went into the service and played Air Force baseball, but I sort of realized I wasn't good enough.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned your manager Richard Link. What was he like?

Ronnie Schell: He was a good guy. He was the most honest man in the business. If he had one fault it was that he would tell you how much Andy Griffith was making, how much Jim Nabors was making, how much I was making. He just liked to brag about all the big deals he was making. Other than that he was the most honest guy in the business. He's still alive. He lives with his wife out in Hawaii. He made the tallest showgirl in Lake Tahoe - Tina Brenner was her name. Anyway, he's a good guy.  


I'll tell you how he hired me. One of the first albums The Kingston Trio ever did was called College Concert. If you've ever seen it, it's on Capitol Records and I did the liner notes. I was also on the album introducing them and he came down to San Diego to see me with The Kingston Trio. We were working there with some jazz stars and he signed me on that.

Kliph Nesteorff: You mentioned Don Adams...

Ronnie Schell: He wrote some good material with Bill Dana. Don was a loner. I think his only friend was Don Rickles. He was a very funny, caustic comedian. The first time he worked the Hungry i, I got to know him pretty well. I fixed him up with some girls. Some ladies. One lady I fixed him up with, well, I had never seen the lady in the light. I said, "This lady you'll love her, Don. She looks like Shirley MacLaine." Well, he had the date, it was a blind date and the next time he saw me he said, "Did you say Shirley MacLaine or Barton MacLane?" True story.

Kliph Nesteroff: You once shared the bill, I read this, with Carol and Cleo: The Chin Twins. Do you have any recollection of them.


Ronnie Schell: Oh yes, yes, yes. That was in Pittsburgh at The Holiday House. It was me, Neil Sedaka and The Chin Sisters.

Kliph Nesteroff: The clipping says they spoke "Chinese and Gaelic in a Boston accent."

Ronnie Schell: You know, I don't remember. Could have been. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Joe E. Ross?


Ronnie Schell: Met him once. I guess he was funny in his own way, but I don't think he had a very good nightclub act as I recall. His last show that he did - it was here in Burbank, California in an old folk's home. He was offered two hundred dollars for two shows. He died between shows. When the wife got the cheque it was only for a hundred dollars because he only did the one show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, I had heard that story from Hank Garrett.

Ronnie Schell: How did you connect with Hank Garrett?

Kliph Nesteroff: I wrote an article about Al Lewis, so that's why I was speaking with Hank. You guested on Bob Newhart's first television show - in the early sixties.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, that came about because - sort of a long story but I was working a club called the Twin Tree Inn in Dallas and I worked another club called The Tidelands in Houston. The owner called me and said, "There's a new comic here, never really worked a club before. I think he needs some advice or some help. They're recording him." I said, "Okay." So, I went down to Houston - and it was Newhart. I met him and my attitude was, "Okay, this is the way you do it, kid." I walked out and did the show and I remember he said to me [incredulously], "Do you really like working in nightclubs?" I said, "Yeah, I enjoy it." He didn't like it in the beginning. But he remembered me and when he was doing his first television show he hired me.

Kliph Nesteroff: And that show was directed by Coby Ruskin - who went on to direct a lot of Gomer Pyle episodes.

Ronnie Schell: That's right. I forgot about that. Coby Ruskin was a journeyman director you could depend on. He always did his homework and he was a good guy. He looked like Jack Gilford and did some Jack Gilford impressions - very well. The split pea soup coming to a boil - one of his bits - very funny. Coby was with me to the end of Gomer Pyle. He did most of the Gomer Pyles along with a guy named John Rich and Gary Nelson. I was working in Fresno at a place called The Hacienda and Dick Link called me and said, "Listen, we're doing a spin-off [of Andy Griffith] and there's a part for Jim Nabors's best friend." I said, "Great! Is it funny?" He said, "No. But it's [a lot] of money." So, I took a night off from my nightclub act to go down and audition and that's how I got it.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Aaron Ruben like?
Ronnie Schell: He was great. He was a genius. A little Jewish guy from Chicago who went in and caught the flavor for The Andy Griffith Show by going and hanging out in the little town of Mount Airy, North Carolina for one month and captured the essence of that one small, little town and made it Mayberry. He was great in the sense that he also knew the Gomer Pyle character. He was our producer. Have you ever heard of a guy named Nat Hiken?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I love Nat Hiken.

Ronnie Schell: Aaron Ruben was his cousin. I worked in Vancouver once. I did a television show up there - it was about cooking, I think. I remember I was on with Diana Canova who was Judy Canova's daughter and had done a series with Billy Crystal. Remember that show?

Kliph Nesteroff: Soap?

Ronnie Schell: Soap! Right. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I didn't know that was Judy Canova's daughter. Judy Canova - her radio show is really, really funny.

Ronnie Schell: How old are you?

Kliph Nesteroff: Twenty-nine.

Ronnie Schell: How do you know all this stuff?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know. I'm a sad, lonely man.

Ronnie Schell: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: The Judy Canova Show is great. Mel Blanc is great on it. 

Ronnie Schell: Well, I never met her, but I fell in love with Diana Canova but... I didn't get anywhere.

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of old radio, someone whose voice comes up a lot in old radio and movies is Sheldon Leonard. 

Ronnie Schell: Well, he was our executive producer. He was great. He was like a script doctor. He'd come in every Monday, would read the script and he could find what was wrong and how to make it funnier. He was just the best script doctor of all time and a very rich man, I might add.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the writers that moved over from The Andy Griffith Show and worked on Gomer Pyle like Everett Greenbaum?


Ronnie Schell: Yes, I knew Everett, he passed away and his partner Jack Ellison. Everett was in love with somebody on the show... I can't remember... ah, it's just gossip, I don't know. Ben Jolson and Art Baer became friends [of mine] afterward, because when we did The Jim Nabors [Comedy] Hour they were two of the head writers on that show. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, you did Good Morning World - Bill Persky and Sam Denoff's smarmy pre-WKRP radio station sitcom.



Ronnie Schell: They were fans of mine. I worked with Tony Curtis on an NFL Football Follies of 1970 that they wrote. That was fun. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that in preparation for your part in good morning world, you had actually filled in on the air for a pair of disc jockeys in Hollywood. 

Ronnie Schell: Yes, it was KFWB I believe. They had a morning disc jockey show and so we filled in. I had done the Don Sherwood show in San Francisco, so that didn't frighten me. In those days, all the disc jockeys had deep voices like Gary Owens. So, whenever anybody asks me "How come you didn't become a radio personality?" I always say, "My voice wasn't down to it." I never had any ambitions in that field because I had a high voice.


Kliph Nesteroff: Billy DeWolfe was on Good Morning World. What was he like offstage?

Ronnie Schell: The best. One of my good friends and he loved my wife. He called me every single night and reviewed the television fare for the evening. "The scoundrel laughs at his own jokes! I can not stand that!" Then when he saw my act he said, "Very good, Mr. Schell, but keep your tongue in your mouth!" (laughs) He was a real character. He had been under contract to Paramount for years and had starred in a lot of big movies with Bing Crosby and things. He did one movie with Bing Crosby in which he got the girl and he used to always say to me, "I got the girl, Mr. Schell, away from Mr. Crosby." His advice to me was always, "Mr. Schell, put it away. Put it away. Save it for later." The money. He was a wonderful guy. His best friend was Doris Day and he always had different names for everyone. My wife wasn't Mrs. Schell or Jan - it was Miss Tilton. "How is Miss Tilton? Give her my best." "Are you going to come over?" "Busy, busy, busy." That was his top line. "Mr. Schell, I'm busy, busy, busy."


Kliph Nesteroff: Another actor I imagine you must have worked with more than once is Charles Lane.

Ronnie Schell: Yes. He was born in San Francisco. We did - I can't remember what show we did. I used to hang around all these veterans because I wanted to get all the scoops about early Hollywood and everything like that. He was very, very friendly. Gee, he was in everything, wasn't he. A good guy. Born and raised in San Francisco and so was Morey Amsterdam. I knew Morey and he was always complaining, "I can't undersand it, Ronnie, Herb Caen never mentions me." He'd get bugged by the slightest things. Herb Caen in his column in San Francisco never mentions him so he'd get bugged by it. He was there because we did the show together on the same lot, Gomer Pyle and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were close friends with Jerry Van Dyke.

Ronnie Schell: Jerry Van Dyke was best man at my wedding.We were closer before I got married. After I got married we sort of drifted away because Jerry is a bit of a playboy and likes to hang out. I didn't [after i got married]. He never said anything, but he sort of resented it. Although, he called me two weeks ago and he wants me to do The Sunshine Boys in Dallas.

Kliph Nesteroff: His Tonight Show debut resurfaced recently.  His stand-up act.

Ronnie Schell: Oh yes, he started as a nightclub comedian. I know both of them pretty good, he and Dick, and Jerry is much funnier than Dick. He's not as talented, but he's much funnier. Like he said himself, the problem with his career was that he had a hit brother. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on an episode The New Dick Van Dyke Show. He has been very candid in subsequent years about some of the problems he's had over the years...

Ronnie Schell: Yeah, he's an alcoholic. I never knew it. I found that out later. I didn't socialize with him much because he wasn't that social, but I liked him. Always got along with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared in a couple episodes of Adam-12. They used a lot of comedians in straight roles.


Ronnie Schell: Yes the only [Thumping Sound]... sorry, I keep dropping my phone. There are only two shows where I've laughed at myself. One was The Patty Duke Show where I played an insane poet and the other was Emergency - same company as Adam-12.  The only thing I remember is that I was on location at a supermarket. EmergencyI did four of those and one of those really breaks me up. I played a drunk who crashes his car. It just came out very funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are some pretty campy, funny episodes of those shows. One had Norm Crosby playing a wife beater.


Ronnie Schell: Those were supervised by Jack Webb and I spent some evenings with Jack Webb over at his house. Jack Webb was one of the greatest guys... when he was drunk. But when he was sober - don't go around him. You know, it's usually the other way. The night I met him I guess he was drunk because he couldn't have been nicer. The sadness of all this is that most of the people we're talking about are dead. This town is not like it used to be. 
Kliph Nesteroff: But they live on through their work...

Ronnie Schell: I guess so.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that Jack Webb went through a transformation the more he played Joe Friday. He started off in the forties as a very liberal jazz guy...

Ronnie Schell: That has happened to a lot of people. Frank Sutton who played Sergeant Carter [on Gomer Pyle] was a liberal... until he started making money. By the fifth year he was a conservative. It happens to a lot of them. My only association to Jack Webb was that I was very close to Bobby Troupe who was married to Julie London, one of Jack Webb's ex-wives, and they still hung out together. Bobby Troupe played at my wedding reception - he was very close to my wife.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the jazz musicians turned comedians like Jack Sheldon?

Ronnie Schell: Yes, I like Jack a lot. He plays every Thursday here in Los Angeles - I need to go over and see him. I met him on The Merv Griffin Show and he laughs all the time. He thinks I'm funny and I like being around people that think I'm funny. I will say this - and he will not deny it - he used a lot of my material in his act. Oh, a lot. He talks about it. He says, "I used your thing the other day about San Francisco and streets of modest means..." and I said, "You can't use that!" He says, "Yeah, I'm using it." (laughs). I should go on record that two people we haven't mentioned that are my two best friends down here were Jerry Goldsmith the composer and Harvey Korman. Two guys completely not alike, those were my two best friends. I used to go out at least twice a week with Jerry and his wife and I used to meet three times a week with Harv.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is a connection between comedians and musicians and comedy and music. A lot of great comedians play an instrument, and if they don't they at least have a serious appreciation for music.

Ronnie Schell: You'll also find that most comedians are great cartoonists. I'm a cartoonist and I also play piano and trumpet, so I have an affinity to musicians. Also if you're working a nightclub and the musicians love you, the audience usually doesn't get you. "The band loved me!"

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, means you bombed. How about Frank Gorshin?

Ronnie Schell: I knew Frank real well. Frank was a marvelous impressionist and wanted to be taken more seriously as an actor, but he just wouldn't let go of those cigarettes and that's what killed him. Frankie Gorshin. He's gone too. You haven't mentioned John Byner. 


Good, funny, friend of mine. I used to have a baseballl team; a softball team in the Encino Men's League. We played there for ten years and I played first base. We won the league one year. I had two pitchers: John Byner, Martin Mull. In right field I had Harvey Korman... terrible. Second base was Jack Riley. I had one good ball player Steve Yagger; he played shortstop - and Fred Willard - he played left field. John Byner and I got to be pretty close and now he lives in Florida with his third or fourth wife. He does great impressions. Jackie Mason is one - and I knew Jackie too. That was my wife's favorite comedian. When I worked Vegas I worked Caesar's Palace opening for Carol Burnett. In the lounge was Jackie Mason. We went to see him and my wife said, "Now he's funny!" She remained his biggest fan, but offstage he's sort of weird.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's gone a bit awol. 


Ronnie Schell: He's very right-wing, but he's still funny. Not his serious rants. I have done a whole bunch of stuff like The Smurfs and Wait Til Your Father Gets Home over at Hanna-Barbera Studios. I got to work with Mel Blanc and the guy who invented the fake heart...

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Winchell.

Ronnie Schell: Yes, Paul Winchell. I got to work with him on a series and I worked with Arnold Stang. Tom Bosley. I remember one day I did a show over at Hanna-Barbera and Pinky Lee was one of the guests. It was a thrill working with all of these people - especially people I had watched growing up. Just a thrill - like Robert Mitchum and guys like that. 


Kliph Nesteroff: Well, thanks so much Ronnie. That's about all that... 

Ronnie Schell: I anticipated this question, but you didn't ask it. I'll answer it anyway. "What do I think of today's young comedians?" I usually work at these comedy clubs with these young comedians, some of whom are extremely funny, but I differ with them in two areas. When I work I always wear a suit or a tie. I think there should always be some aesthetic separation between you and the audience. If you're dressed just like the guy in the front row, he doesn't think you're something special. And I'm not against profanity, but to use "motherfucker" every other word for no reason... Pryor did it, but with a purpose. So, I think that's the difference... my feelings about comedians today. If you need anything else, feel free to call me... I would like to know what Shelley Berman has against me. 


Kliph Nesteroff: Okay, thanks so much, Ronnie.

Ronnie Schell: All right, well, good luck. I love your town. It's like San Francisco fifty years ago. Great town. And they have a lot of the same thing that we have a lot of now in San Francisco.

Kliph Nesteroff: What's that?

Ronnie Schell: Many, many, Asians.

Kliph Nesteroff: Uh huh...

Ronnie Schell: We've had an influx. I think ours are illegals. Are yours illegals?

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence) 

Ronnie Schell: I have nothing against... I'm just stating a fact.

Kliph Nesteroff: Okay, thanks Ronnie.



12 comments:

Kevin K. said...

These interviews are just the best. I don't know why it takes a 29 year-old to get the most interesting information out of these guys but I'm glad you're doing it.

Booksteve said...

Very nice! I had a lead on interviewing Ronnie myself a couple of years back but it fell through. I'm sure yours was better than mine would have been!

ghoul said...

Growing up near San Francisco, I remember a lot of the names and places he referenced. Thank you for the great interview.

Bhob said...

A terrific interview! Fun to read. Actually, Burns and Carlin got their start at The Cellar in Fort Worth in 1959 before they headed for LA in 1960.

Michael Powers said...

When you talk with guys who played the hungry i, ask about the proprietor, Enrico Banducci. He owned and ran the place for 40 years, I knew him extremely well, and he was an incredible character. Like Jules Podell, everybody has stories about Banducci, who acted as his own bouncer and was even more colorful. In fact, Schell was a guest on a TV special along about '85 paying tribute to Banducci and his nightclub, and told a joke I love: "I've gone bicoastal. One place is in Tijuana and the other's in Newark."

Anonymous said...

In his autobiography, the legendary and notorious comic Paul Mooney said the first time he did standup, he had no material, so he lifted his act verbatim from Ronnie Schell.

Henry Morgan... there's a name you don't hear much any more. Was he as difficult as people said he was? As a lifelong admirer of James Thurber, I remember reading in one of Thurber's letters, he said the "newer crop" of humorists, like Morgan were inferior. He said something to the effect of the amateur atmosphere of the college humor magazine clung to people like Morgan like lint on their blue serge suits. Thurber apparently didn't like Henry Morgan.

I remember another letter, written by Stan Laurel, where he says how much he hates the Ritz brothers. He calls them typical nightclub comedians, crass and vulgar.

I go further back. My comedy heroes were active in the '20s and '30s. I can't help but see people like Jack Carter and others from the late '40s and '50s as young upstarts.

David Kaye said...

Wow! What an interview! I noticed the other day that December 23rd was the 80th birthday of America's Slowest-Rising Young Comedian, and after some Googling came up with this interview. Gosh, you have such an incredible depth of knowledge about performers; I'm in awe!

gene sculatti said...

Just found your site, and loved the Ronnie Schell interview. Brilliant, and so many connections revealed. Now I'm onto the other interviews.

Bob Marrama said...

leplialRonnie, enjoyed your interview. You have had a great exciting life.Mine was much more modest but a very happy one, mostly traveling the world many times with a beautiful heiress. I still remember the year we spent in Texas doing our travel show.I'm retired in Orlando,would love to hear from you. Bob Marrama bobrm246@aol.com

Anonymous said...

A fantastic interview. Extremely interesting.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I loved Ronnie Schell as a child.

Bob Schulenberg said...

What an amazing interview! One of the most informed I've ever read. I was looking up Ronnie Graham, with whom I'd been acquainted and saw the name, Coby Ruskin!
Lucy Ruskin, Coby's wife was a very close friend of mine as was Aaron Ruben's wife, Sandy. I was with Sandy and her son, Tom, when she died of cancer. I was helping Tom by living with Sandy. She and Lucy were best friends - also Estelle (and Carl) Reiner and Charlotte Rae. Although I'm younger, they all became my friends too.
And one correction for Ronnie Schell: Nat Hiken was Sandy's cousin. They'd grown up together and Sandy always said he was really like a brother!
Again, I want to praise and congratulate you on your encyclopedic knowledge of the subject!