Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Interview with Jack Carter - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched an episode of Tales of Tomorrow from 1951 that you starred in. It must have been your first dramatic role on television.

Jack Carter: Yeah, like a science fiction thing? When I was in New York I did a lot of those CBS dramas. They were very big then. I did some big ones as I am basically an actor. I started out as an actor and a mimic.

Kliph Nesteroff: Very, very early in your career you appeared on radio with Fred Allen.

Jack Carter: Yes, I did The Fred Allen Show. I did impressions. It was a real thrill for me to meet Fred Allen at his height. It was one of the biggest shows in radio. He did a thing that was [a take-off] of a movie Danny Kaye had done, where he'd be different people, you know? So I did the different people. I did Cary Grant and others. We became close friends, Fred Allen and I. He was a brilliant man.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was quoted, referring to you as "one of the most outstanding comedians that has ever appeared on my program."

Jack Carter: Yes, I used to walk New York with him. He was brilliant. He'd have observations on every corner of every street. When I came back from a trip to Europe, he helped me punch up a monologue on things I had seen in Europe. The great Fred Allen.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you actually start performing comedy? I know you have a theatrical background, but when did you first start with stand-up?

Jack Carter: I don't even remember. I was an actor and I was in a stock company on Long Island with Christopher Morley, the playwright. He introduced me to a man named David Lowe who was at a big station in New York. He was the guy who handled Dinah Shore and he took charge of me. Davey took care of me. I started doing a mimicry act. I went on The Major Bowes [Amateur Hour] that was big in those days. I won the show and I did three different shows on the NBC Major Bowes Program. I had that many impressions. Then I went on the road with The Major Bowes Amateur Hour group. In my group was Morris Miller who became Robert Merrill, Frank Sinatra and Paul Winchell the ventriloquist. We were all getting forty bucks a week. Sinatra got eighty because he was a pro. Ha!

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw an ad that is from pretty early on - so I am not sure if you are the Jack Carter in question. From 1942 - an ad for Morey Amsterdam at The Beacon Theatre, 20 West Hastings Street, in Vancouver. Also on the bill, "Jack Carter - International Comedian." Is that you?

Jack Carter: Yes, that's when I met Morey. We became fast friends until the day he died. He was my mentor. Yes, we met in Vancouver. You really found a thing like that?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes and I am calling you from Vancouver today.

Jack Carter: Oh, my all time favorite city. My God. I was the King of Vancouver. I played The Cave there for years.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have film footage of you performing at The Cave and rehearsing with Fraser MacPherson and his Orchestra...

Jack Carter: Fraser MacPherson. Oh, what a sweet man. Yes, I love Vancouver. I haven't been there in years. I had a bad experience with a game show there and nearly lost my hands.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh my God (laughs).

Jack Carter: Yeah, there was this game show where the set went up and down. If you missed a question, the set went up or down. I tried to hold on to the set as a gag. I didn't realize it was coming down with these steel clamps. Caught my hand and nearly took my fingers off. They rushed me off to the hospital somewhere. The producer was a friend of mine, Bill Armstrong. Yes, the set went up and down and I thought if I held on it wouldn't go down, but my hands got caught in a metal brace.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jesus, sent to the hospital?

Jack Carter: Yes, my fingers were nearly severed. I was lucky I didn't lose my hand, y'know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Vancouver has bad luck with game shows. Alex Trebek hosted one here in the early eighties and the production company went bankrupt and he didn't even get paid.

Jack Carter: That's the one I did! And Jack Wasserman, the columnist used to take me to the best Chinese restaurants there and a cute Scotchman used to take me out golfing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Webster?

Jack Carter: OH MY GOD, YEAH! Jack Webster! That's the name! Oh, he was such a cute guy. He would take me golfing up North.

Kliph Nesteroff: My neighbor is bandleader Fraser MacPherson's son.

Jack Carter: Oh, yes, well, he was a lovely man. I played The Cave two or three times a year. I had a whole Canadian act with jokes about Nanaimo and Jack Wasserman the newspaperman. Oh, I loved Vancouver. Had jokes about Capilano and The Stanley Park bridge being paved with gangsters. There was an after hours hang out that I used to go to and they were all mafia brothers ... the one where they investigated the murders. The Playboy? What was it?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Penthouse.

Jack Carter: The Penthouse! The brothers. Rocky and Joe and their mother.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Phillipone Brothers.

Jack Carter: Phillipone Brothers, yeah. The FBI was after me for years to tell them what I remembered and what I saw. They called me because there had been some killings and they wanted to know what I knew.  I used to go there every night. "I didn't see! What murder?"Although I got a mickey one night. A hood's girl sat down with me one minute. When I got home I got so sick I couldn't leave.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the owners ended up getting assassinated.

Jack Carter: Yeah, that's why they called me. They wanted to know what I knew, how often I went there. Yes (laughs). I was a regular there after my shows. Across the street from The Cave was the steakhouse run by the little guy. What was it called? Hy's. Hy's Steakhouse. Hy got caught in a whorehouse running out in a towel. He said, "If you see a girl with big tits - screw her. It's paid for." That was my joke about Hy because he was in a fire. And there was a kid singer, Kenny Colman. Anyhow, it was a great city. I love it. I did a TV movie up there not that long ago with Fred Willard and the comedian - the one that throws confetti in the air.

Kliph Nesteroff: Rip Taylor.

Jack Carter: Rip, yeah (laughs). Morey Amsterdam I met in Vancouver and we played an old vaudeville theater in old town. Then we went up to Yakima, Washington and Morey and I became fast friends. He would write for me and help me constantly. He was a great man. He was married to Mable Todd then. You found a billing of that show?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Jack Carter: Wow.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was from 1942, so I thought maybe it was not you. It seemed too early.

Jack Carter: Yeah, I was nineteen years old. I had gone out to San Francisco and worked the 365 Club, which was famous. From there I got booked up North and met Morey there. I came back to Los Angeles and I stayed with him in North Hollywood. I always stayed with him when I came out to the West Coast.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have an ad from a few years later. January 1946, you were playing The Terrace Club on Collins Avenue with Benny Fields in Miami.

Jack Carter: Yeah. Benny and Blossom Seeley. Benny was a poor man's Harry Richman. He wanted to be a great star. He was married to a wonderful woman, Blossom Seeley. She was a big star. There were a lot of clubs in Miami then. The Five O'Clock Club, The Beachcomber, but mostly I worked the big hotels there. The Eden Rock, The Fountainbleau, The Copa City. Funny you should find that (laughs). That was just a one week engagement or maybe only three days or something.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well they placed an ad in the paper for it. 1946 you also played The Latin Quarter, Bill Miller's Riviera...

Jack Carter: Yes, Bill Miller's was beautiful. Those were great days. That was the most beautiful club in the world. Bill Miller was alive until just recently. He lived to be one hundred. He was a great boss. He was the first boss that ever said to me, "You've got to get out and mix with the people. You've got to say hello to them!" I used to hide backstage, y'know. He was a wonderful man. That was the most magnificent club in the world, across to Jersey on the Palisades on the cliffs. The roof would retract. He had a movable roof. I was on the bill there with Gower Champion and Marge. They were dancing and his cane caught her eye and it puffed up. It swelled up and it was shocking. I was also on the bill with Eddie Fisher and Tony Martin and the Demarcos, the dance team. Tony Martin and I remained good friends. He's still alive. He's ninety-four.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I had heard he's still alive. I thought he was maybe even older, maybe ninety-seven.

Jack Carter: A lovely man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you were a regular at the Loew's State theater.

Jack Carter: I closed Lowe's State. I was on the closing bill. I doubled. I was appearing in a show on Broadway called Call Me Mister.

Kliph Nesteroff: December 26, 1948, the final show.

Jack Carter: 1948, yes. I was on the closing show with Georgie Jessel and I forget who else now.

Kliph Nesteroff: Harvey Stone.

Jack Carter: Harvey Stone? No. He came later. He got out of the army and did an army act. Funny story about Harvey Stone. Harvey Stone fixed his nose and it destroyed his career. He had a big hook nose and it was funny and he was cute. He fixed the nose and never worked again. That also happened to a performer named Gil Lamb who was a like a poor man's Ray Bolger. Harvey died at sea on a cruise ship. At the time he and his wife were estranged. The cruise ship called his wife and said, "Your husband Harvey has died. We don't know what to do with the body. We have it on ice. Should we hold it for you until we get ashore or should we fly it back to New York?" Harvey's wife wasn't too thrilled with him and said, "Oh, well, few people knew this, but Harvey always said that he wanted to be buried at sea." She got rid of him that way (laughs)! They dumped him in the ocean. And that was the end of Harvey Stone.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jack Carter: I love that line. "Few people knew this, but Harvey always wanted to be buried at sea." Here's a Jew from Detroit who never saw a boat in his life. That's a classic showbiz story.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know that I've ever seen a photo of him pre-nose job.

Jack Carter: Oh, he was marvelous. He did an army act and once that started to fade after the War, it got tiresome. His whole act was borrowed from a guy called Johnny Burke - Soldier Burke. He used to do all the old army jokes. But we all did them. When I got out of the army I did them too. I used to kiss my discharge button. That was my running gag.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sometimes your act would be quoted in columns. I think it was Earl Wilson who mentioned you were doing a character called Harry Von Smell...

Jack Carter: Harry Von Smell? Like a take-off on Harry Von Zell? Maybe.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1949 The Friar's staged a mock boxing match between Milton Berle and Buddy Baer for charity. Before the fight there were performances from Al Kelly, Red Buttons and Jack Carter.

Jack Carter: Sure. Yes. I did a million things when I was living in New York. Every two minutes you were on doing a show or a benefit all over the place. I remember that. I remember that night. Those were the good old days.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Al Kelly the master of double talk?

Jack Carter: Ah, he was a cute little man. He did a show once. We were entertaining horse people of America at The Waldorf. It was for horse owners. They hired him to double talk them and this crowd never knew that he was double talking. They had never seen that. He'd say, "You know, when your horse has the frayhayvem, you've got to pull him tight by the reigns, otherwise he'll clebblelayem." They said, "My God, he's right. The little guy is right." He walked off and never got a laugh. He said, "What the hell is the matter with those people?" I said, "They believed you!" I remember that (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: He only ever had that one gimmick, but he was always funny.

Jack Carter: Yes, he was one of the best at it. You had to be able to last an hour in a nightclub. Most comedians had maybe twelve or fifteen minutes. GODAMMIT! I can't turn this off! I'm trying to turn this TV off. Okay, there we go. Okay, you see when we started... you'd work in theaters and you'd do twelve or fifteen minutes, but once you worked in a nightclub as a headliner you had to do an hour. You had to have some power. Some command of an audience. Very few people could do it. Milton Berle could do it. In a way, Shecky Greene could do it, but he had to be a little crazy first. Shecky had to have a reason to get mad and angry and then he was brilliant. He could sing like I do too. I sing and sang in seven musicals, although I never really sold that aspect.

I should have and then I would have done more musical shows. Although I did quite a few. Sammy Davis could work an hour and a half, but that was another ballgame. Once you worked clubs you had to really develop and do more adult routines. Not dirty, but just adult themes. Alan King could do a long act and had lots of monologues - a lot of which he borrowed from a man named Sam Levenson. That was a tough go to be a headliner of a nightclub. When we all started we worked with bands in twenty different theaters. You'd work with Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey's band. They'd have a dance team, a comedian and the band. You'd do seven or eight shows at The Paramount, The Strand, The Roxy.

Those days I did mimicry, impressions, comedy, but once you got into nightclubs it blew up, it developed, it got bigger. You did adult themes like gambling, dating, going out and business. I had an act everywhere. I had a Vancouver act, I had an act for Florida and I had an act for Las Vegas. My Las Vegas act was brilliant. Many people tried to copy it, but nobody could. It was all about running all over the place, one hotel to another, staying up all night gambling, let's walk on the highway, maybe we can get hit by a truck, go to the hospital, get some sleep, then go to another show. In those days there were shows at five in the morning! Don Rickles at five in the morning!

Even Don Rickles has trouble killing an hour. He does twenty minutes of insults and forty minutes of apologizing, but God bless him he's still going. Friends of mine saw him the other night and said he wasn't bad. I can't believe what with politically incorrect today that they still put up with him. "The black guy! I'll make you feel at home. All aboard! The Texan! The Fag!" Y'know? But he's marvelous. I'm the only one that makes him laugh. I demolish him.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet him? Was it in those Miami Beach days?

Jack Carter: I think so. Well, actually I met him in Philadelphia. He used to work at a place called The Celebrity Room. It was in a back alley. By Florida we had already become close friends when he was working for Murray Franklin. Then in Vegas we became good friends. I used to get him dates and we'd go out and we'd waterski. He was a nebbish. He was scared to death of women and he had no social life at all! I got him going and running. When I got married, he threw the wedding for me at The Sahara. And who did I go to see that night? I went and saw Shecky. Boy, did he work me over when I went to see his show! It was hysterical.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your name comes up a lot in the gossip columns of that era. They're constantly talking about this or that showgirl that you were dating...

Jack Carter: Ah, a lot of that was crap. I was scared to death of showgirls. I only went with classy ladies and I married them. Nah, that was just column stuff. I probably put that stuff in myself.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jack Carter: There was so many columns then and you had to feed them. Earl Wilson was good to me and always covered my shows. Leonard Lyons did more elegant stuff and cultural things. There was Frank Farell and in New York. There were millions of 'em. I was born in Brighton Beach and we owned a candy store. All the circus acts used to come in our store. JoJo the Dogface Boy, Zip and Pip the Twins, The Bearded Lady, all came into my father's candy store. And the vaudevillians all came into a restaurant called Lowe's and they would all play The Brighton Beach Theater which was at the end of Ocean Parkway. It even had The Zigfield Follies play there, so all the big stars - Jolson and Jessel would come in. Who would have figured that years later I would be cohorts with 'em? I traveled with Jessel on the road and played golf with Jack Benny! God, that was something.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about that?

Jack Carter: I met the Benny's on a train coming home when I was in the army. I met Mary and the whole family. I became lifelong friends with them. George Burns and I were lifelong friends until the day he died. He came to all my weddings. He kept saying, "You keep doing it until you get it right."

Kliph Nesteroff: I think I watched you perform on a Dean Martin roast of Jack Benny.

Jack Carter: Yeah, I did a lot of them. They rarely show me when they're selling them, y'know, but someone told me I'm on one now.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is a funny moment where you're standing in front of that large, circular "Man of the Hour" logo and you wallop it like it's the J. Arthur...

Jack Carter: Like the J. Arthur Rank logo, yeah. Yeah, I was inventive. I also get ignored by this thing on PBS - The Pioneers of Television. They left me out completely! I go through life being left out! It's the bane of my existence. When I was on NBC doing my show eight til nine, before Sid Caesar's show... in the Sunday Times in the television listings, my show wasn't even listed! Imagine that! From eight til nine on NBC - The Jack Carter Show - not even mentioned in the newspaper in the spread of the different shows coming on! I talked to the NBC press agents and they said, "Well, what can you do about it?" That's what the NBC press agent guy said to me! Story of my life! Left out! Never got on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then again, never tried. All I got was a picture in a barber shop here and there (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jack Carter: I've always been a press un-favorite. They just write me up, "Brash, breezy, fast, fresh, wiseguy." Never gave me credit for any other talent. It was always Sid Caesar, Sid Caesar, Sid Caesar! Sid Caesar everything! And I was treated like crap.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your first show was out of Chicago right?

Jack Carter: Yes, my first show was out of Chicago and my ratings were tremendous. We had to import the acts and import the costumes because the cable went the other way. Then they brought me into New York and they murdered me. I'll never forget when the head of NBC called me up, Pat Weaver, y'know?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Jack Carter: He called me up. He said, "Great show Jack. Cut it out. You're fired." "Why!?" Max Liebman was screaming and yelling that I was interfering with his great Show of Shows. Max Liebman put the kibosh on me; the kill on me. William Morris had such a "great" contract that I got a thousand a week to be paid off whereas Berle's contract was for twenty thousand.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that The Saturday Revue or The Cavalcade of Stars?

Jack Carter: That was The Cavalcade of Stars. That was the one I started on Dumont. Imagine that. The Pioneers of Television thing never mentioned me! I created Saturday night [television]. I made it live! The Dumont Cavalcade. I gave it to [Jackie] Gleason. I suggested Gleason. I got him that job and the rest is history. He was working The Blue Mirror in Newark. A dive. I said to the sponsor when I left to go to NBC, "There's a guy Gleason. He doesn't so much do jokes as sketches, but he might be right for your show." So they got him after they tried several people. They tried Morey [Amsterdam], Jerry Lester, nothing worked. We remained close friends.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were hosting it - what was the format? Did you do a comedy monologue first and then...

Jack Carter: Yes, a comedy monologue and then I'd have acts on and I'd involve myself with the acts. I had good writers. In fact I had one writer that was standing outside in the freezing cold outside my doorway. He gave me a monologue that was so good that I did it that night. His name was Walter Stone and he stayed with me and stayed with Gleason writing with a kid named Marvin Marx for twenty years. I discovered him that night in the freezing cold with a monologue in his hand. I did the entire thing that very night - it was very funny.

Yeah. So I went from Dumont to NBC. The great William Morris Agency buried me constantly. From Chicago to New York - after I was big hit and my ratings topped everyone. My salary was $3750 in New York and my guests got $7000! The great Morris office made this deal! The star of The Jack Carter Show got $3750, a raise from $3500. At Dumont I was getting $2500. Here my guests are getting $7000! I know because I got Basil Rathbone, I got David Niven, I got William Bendix. I got everybody that ran away from the Berle show. They'd come in to NBC to do the Berle show. Milton would abuse them, manhandle them, and they'd quit! The Morris office would call us. My writers and I would chuckle, waiting to hear who quit.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jack Carter: "Would you like to have David Niven?" "We'd love it!" "He's in town." "He's not in town - he came in to do Berle and he walked!" Rex Harrison I got that way, Bendix and several others. I always laughed about that with my writers Ben Starr and Larry Klein - two great writers.

Kliph Nesteroff: How come your show originated from Chicago to begin with?

Jack Carter: Yeah, because the cable only went the one way at the time. You had to go to Chicago. I remember my very first show. We had George Raft on and Cass Daley and we were eight minutes short because I had a drunken producer and a terrible band. Finally we fired them and I got the great Lou Breese who was a bandleader in Chicago at Chez Paree. He knew how to play for the acts, so then my show straightened out and it was a big smash out of Chicago. I had all the big acts that appeared at the Chez Paree. Martin and Lewis. Tony Martin. I got them all. I got Dean and Jerry their show. They appeared on my show first and did the famous sketch with the director, you know, "Make up!" with the [powder] slap. I just found some pictures of when I hosted The Tonight Show in between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. That was never mentioned in that Pioneers of Television either.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you about that, because that was an interesting interim full of guest hosts - Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, Rudy Vallee, Jerry Lewis, yourself... all the footage is lost and no one even remembers it.

Jack Carter: Yes, I did it for four weeks and I was great. My co-host was the same guy that worked with Jack Paar. What was his name?

Kliph Nesteroff: Hugh Downs.

Jack Carter: Hugh Downs! Absolutely! On one of my funniest shows he said, "My God! You're great! I've never heard such laughter! You'll be here a long time." I said, "You'll never see me here again." It was too funny. It was big funny. They wanted polite, genteel laughter. Carson was perfect. They didn't want big screams and I was getting big screams. Not a mention that I was ever there! But it no longer exists. That footage was all burned up in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Even my NBC show when I was on for that hour disappeared.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is at least one episode of The Jack Carter Show that exists.

Jack Carter: Well, I had one that Bullets Durgom got me, my manager then, but we gave it to Jack Haley because he wanted to use some footage from it... and he lost it. It was the only copy I ever had. There was a big lawsuit Paul Winchell had with NBC and he won fourteen million because they burned up some of his shows and he owned them. But Steve Allen lost all his shows. They burned all of his up in Fort Lee because they needed storage room. A lot of the old kinescope film just deteriorated too.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ben Blue was a regular on The Jack Carter Show.

Jack Carter: Oh, I loved him. He was the funniest man that ever lived. I always put him down as one of the funniest men that ever lived in a class with Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr and those kind of people. I was going to do a one man show all about the life of Bert Lahr, had it all written with a writer and then the Lahr estate wouldn't let us do it. The guy who wrote the show was Herb Hartig. He also wrote a Jolson show. I should have done a one man show way back. 

Kliph Nesteroff: When Milton Berle was sick you also filled in as guest host on the Texaco show.

Jack Carter: I filled in for him and I was the only one he would allow to fill in. I did Berle - an imitation of him - and he was a big fan. He would come to all of my openings. A couple of times he would jump on stage and "help me out" (laughs). Once I forgot the lyrics and he jumped up and finished the song for me (laughs). The fourth time I filled in for him, hosting, where do you think he was? He was in the wings watching me! He wasn't on vacation. He'd be there. He'd stand in the wings and watch me do sketches and things. He'd yell at his writers. "Why can't I do that?" They'd say, "Because you refused to learn it!" He couldn't learn anything that was really long. It had to be a physical thing, a shtick. When I booked a star we planned a three part sketch where we used them well. I used my guests very well.

I had a sense of what to do with them. Cesar Romero was dynamite doing comedy with me. I used him so many times. I'll never forget we were doing Julius Caesar and Cesar Romero was Caesar and I was Marc Anthony. We got a call from NBC to cut it out because Max Liebman had on Sir Cedric Hardwick and they were doing Caesar with Sid Caesar and I had to dump it. That whole season I had to wait until Max Liebman had written his show before I could write mine! We'd have to find out what they were doing so that we couldn't do it too. I had an opera singer named Donald Richards and great dancers and a choreographer that put me in the numbers. I had a great comedienne and she's still alive, Connie Sawyer. She was much funnier than Imogene Coca and we did great sketches. I got called in by Pat Weaver. "Great show last night. You gotta cut it out. Liebman is screaming. No more comedy sketches. No more opera. We hired you to do just straight vaudeville." That was my lot in life.

                           ON TO PART TWO!


Anonymous said...

I remember Jack Carter well from
my youth. He was seemingly everywhere, on every kind of tv show, featured or in small parts;
he must have worked constantly.
Always good, professional. Decade
after decade!
Looking forward to Part Two!

Sam Kujava

greg6363 said...

One of the neglected comic figures of the 20th century. Never given his due. Great character actor as well.

Michael Powers said...

I can't wait to hear what he says about Johnny Carson later. The standard take is that Carson killed his career by exiling him from the Tonight Show then archly referring to him with contempt for years. People forget how mean Carson was. Or is it that they admire that?

Yowp said...

Ran across this in Dorothy Kilgallen's column, Mar. 25/48:

"Hottest new personality along the Great White Way is Jack Carter at La Martinique. Both Fred Allen and Jack Benny think his comedy is wunnerful."

Yowp said...

Dorothy Kilgallen, Mar. 25/48:

"Hottest new personality along the Great White Way is Jack Carter at La Martinique. Both Fred Allen and Jack Benny think his comedy is wunnerful."

Another great interview, Kliph.