Sunday, July 31, 2011

An interview with Bobby Ramsen - Part Three

Bobby Ramsen: I had four or five cardboard cartons filled with my memorabilia and I haven't looked at it for years. I started looking through it about six months ago and there's so much there; reviews from Variety and so on and so forth. I never did run across, in my memory, the [bad] review that you read to me and asked me about. It was in The Florida Sun and it was written by Paul Bruin. He was a very tough critic. He didn't like too much of what he saw in the early fifties. I think he mellowed later on when he had a radio show; an interview show. 

He called me ten years later and he said Jane Powell was in town and would I come by. He treated me very nicely, but he was rough with me in the beginning. After Paul Bruin wrote that scathing review, four or five days later, Gene Baylos opened at The Copa City. He started his review of Gene Baylos with: "I owe Bobby Ramsen an apology."

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, Baylos.

Bobby Ramsen: "I reviewed his show at The Nautilus and I said that he did some old jokes and stuff that's been around. Last night Gene Baylos opened the show at The Copa City and his jokes are as old or older than Bobby Ramsen's" and he proceeded to do a surgical job on Gene Baylos! Are you going to use that review? It's okay if you do, but where the dickens did you find that sixty year old review?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, this is the clipping I have here. It's from The Miami Daily News. Saturday, July 7th, 1951. The column is by Herb Rau. It's just one or two sentences done. He talks about Danny Thomas, Danny Kaye - and then down to a nightclub recap. "Don Cornell who undoubtedly will become one of America's most important vocalists before too long heads the show at The Nautilus Hotel's Driftwood Room ... the contrast between Cornell and the other act on the bill, comedian Bobby Ramsen, is so marked that such show building seems hardly possible. Ramsen is a lad with a great memory. Uses jokes mouthed by practically every comic who has played Miami. As a result there are more laughs at a wake than in the Driftwood Room. Cornell, however..." and it goes on. But that's all it says about you.

Bobby Ramsen: Ah, well that's something entirely different. Well, Bruin also joined in the massacre.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were brand new at that point, weren't you? You hadn't been doing stand-up that long.

Bobby Ramsen: About two years. A little bit longer. There was a fellow named Leo Schull. He was an enterprising man. Leo Schull started something called Actor's Cues - 1943, 1944, 1945. He ran off a mimeographed sheet with a logo and it was a list of "John Golden is casting a new comedy... they need a character actor, a juvenile etc." Some of them would say "looking for young male actors age 15-19" or whatever. I would take those and I'd go. There was a show being produced called Career Angel

I went up to the offices in the Palace Theater building. They had offices above the actual theater. A different entrance. I went in to see a man named Don Appell. He was casting. He asked me what I did and he used to tell the story about this fourteen year old kid that came in to see him. He asked me what I had done. And I gave him this huge list of credits (laughs) that would have taken someone thirty years to accomplish. Anyway, I got the part.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's interesting reading that page from the Miami Newspaper. The whole page is just a who's who of anybody in show business, appearing or about to appear in Miami. There's one for old timer Alan Gale.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh, he was just a wonderful comedian! What a terrific comic he was! He was an older man, but I was such a kid that he could have been in his late twenties and looked like an older guy to me. But he had a Jewish bent to his work, he spoke with an inflection and he had some wonderful material. Where was he appearing?

Kliph Nesteroff: At the place where was the house comic. The Celebrity Club. I have an album by him and I believe it is recorded at the same place - Jack Silverman's International Celebrity Club.

Bobby Ramsen: So you've heard his work!

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have about forty minutes of his act. He does sound like a grizzled veteran.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, he was very glib and just a wonderful comedian. He also worked in New York and he used Freddie Stewart who was a singer entertainer. Who are some of the other names in there - I'm interested.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, there's a personal appearance listed for the guy who played Mr. Kitzel on Jack Benny.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh yes, Artie Auerbach.

Kliph Nesteroff: They don't even mention his real name in the ad.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, his real name was Artie Auerbach. "Meester Benny, Meester Benny."

Kliph Nesteroff: He was performing with Polly Bergen at The Olympia.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh yeah, that was the big presentation house. That was vaudeville - more or less. Movies and a stage show.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Paddock presents Miami's answer to Martin and Lewis: Storm and Gale.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, well I'll tell you who Storm and Gale are. Howard Storm, still alive and well, became a director. A very important director. Did all the sitcoms and was used by MTM, Mary Tyler Moore's company. Here's a little story that may be of interest. He's a very nice guy and I met Storm and Gale at that time. Gale's father was in the business. He might have been a puppeteer. His name is Lou Alexander, but he changed it to Gale for Storm and Gale. At that time they were just starting out and they were very gung-ho and we sat and talked in a little coffee shop somewhere and I wished them the best of luck. 

Years later when I was doing sitcoms in California, Howard was busy directing - and not just for MTM, but many companies. Very close with Valerie Harper. I think he directed most of Rhoda. Valerie Harper had a falling out with MTM over some contractual glitch, business, whatever. She sued MTM. During the trial, Howard came as a witness on behalf of Valerie. Well (laughs) I have to laugh. Couldn't he see the handwriting on the wall? Didn't he know what would happen [to him] if she won the case? She won the case! He never worked again! He did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but he did himself in. 

Something similar happened with Dick Martin of Rowan and Martin. Rowan and Martin sued George Schlatter for using... I think it had to do with... they felt that they weren't being paid enough and they were claiming they invented Laugh-In. And George was saying that he invented Laugh-In. It was one of those things. From left field, Steve Allen the comedian came as witness on behalf of Schlatter. When asked, "Why would you do that?" Steve Allen said, "I just feel that I know the facts and although I'm not particularly friendly with George Schatter... I just felt it was the right thing to do." Anyway, he came and spoke as a witness for George Schlatter who won the case. There was another story with Groucho Marx in his later years. He had a young lady who was a companion. Her name was Erin Fletcher...

Kliph Nesteroff: Flemming.

Bobby Ramsen: Which?

Kliph Nesteroff: Flemming.

Bobby Ramsen: Flemming. Thank you. So she lived at the house and Groucho was happy to have her there. Before I get into the story of the fight over that and Groucho's will, I will tell you a personal story. I opened for Bobby Darin at the Flamingo Hotel. I was at The Flamingo in 1966. Bobby had been away from the business for a couple of years and this was a big comeback. He had invited mucho celebrities. It was all on him. He flew them in at his own expense. They were the audience for the opening at The Flamingo in 1966. Nancy Sinatra - Bobby and Frank [Sinatra] had had a falling out over some words they had exchanged, but he remained friendly with Nancy. 

Nancy came with Samantha Egger, Henry Mancini and his wife, Jackie Cooper and his wife Barbara, and Groucho. Groucho and Erin came. I came over to the table and he was very complimentary. I was standing and talking to him and Erin was sitting next to him. I had never met Groucho before. I was absolutely thrilled to be introduced to him and to have him compliment me and tell me how much he enjoyed the show. I said, "Groucho, I've met a lot of people in show business, but this is one of the biggest thrills of my entire life just saying hello to you." She emitted a little noise that said volumes. 

She lived with him so it is a different kind of thing when you live with someone on a twenty-four hour basis. I said, "It's such a thrill meeting you!" And she emitted, "Ugh." Anyway, it was wonderful. Now, getting back to the trial. Groucho died. Arthur Marx I knew from a distance because I had done a couple episodes of Alice - and he was one of the writers on the show. He also wrote a couple of books that I read. He wrote a book on Dean and Jerry - very unflattering - and a book about Bob Hope - very unflattering. So he was one of those authors; a tell-all or tell it like it is. 

He wrote a few books about his life with his father Groucho. When Groucho died he left a substantial amount to Erin Flemming. Arthur and the other children sued. They didn't like the idea that he was giving away "their" money. So you get the picture. They have a trial and Erin won the award. One of the big factors was George Burns. He came unsolicited. He called and said, "I want to come to that trial and I want to say a few words." He got up... do you know this story?

Kliph Nesteroff: I read the Groucho biography by Hector Arce and he gets into this. Please go ahead.

Bobby Ramsen: What happened was, Mr. Burns got up and he said, "I want the court to know that I knew Groucho through vaudeville in the tens and teens and twenties. When we all came to California we all knew each other for a lifetime. And the happiest I have ever seen Groucho was when I went to his house and he was in the company of Erin Flemming. She added years to his life." And that clinched it. She won the case.

Kliph Nesteroff: Going through more Miami Beach entertainment listings... some of the other acts performing there around the same time... Buddy Walker, Mister Show Business. Does that name mean anything to you?

Bobby Ramsen: Uh huh. It means absolutely nothing. There were so many people. I can tell you this. It's very possible that it might have been the best friend of Red Buttons. The best friend of Red Buttons was a guy named Alan Walker. I do believe Alan Walker was formerly a stand-up. It is possible that he billed himself as Buddy Walker at one time. I knew him hanging around the Friar's Club back in the early fifties. Milton Berle had a guy named Buddy Arnold who was a former entertainer and ended up being Milton Berle's best friend and fed him jokes. It must have been the era. They all seemed to have someone with them who was a former entertainer who was now their best buddy. There's a story with Alan Walker. 

Winchell was so inventive with his phrases and that was part of the fun of reading him. The night that I opened at The Copa and I was a big, big hit - I said to my manager and public relations guy that they had hired for me - he got me in every column - I said, "You know it took me ten years to get here." It was just a comment I made and I didn't think anything of it. He fed it to Winchell and in Winchell's column two days later it said, "Bobby Ramsen, the Copa click said it took him ten years to get to The Copa. Ha ha! Sometimes the Great White Way is the Great Wait Way!" 

Also, Winchell could make a star immediately. He was walking with Red Buttons and Buttons was a good friend of his. Buttons said, "Let's go into this club. There's a gal here who has been around a few years, but she is very good. Her name is Roberta Sherwood." He said, "All right." So he and Red walked in and they sat down. Winchell was taken by her and thought she was wonderful. Every day, for a month, he mentioned her in his column. 

He made a star out of her. He had that kind of power. Anyway, getting back to Buddy Walker and Alan Walker... Alan Walker had a drinking problem. He had given up the sauce and then went back to it in a big way. Winchell put in his column, "Alan Walker, the writer, Red Buttons' best friend, has fallen off the wagon... with a splash!"

Kliph Nesteroff: Same paper - playing at the Place Pigalle - BS Pully.

Bobby Ramsen: Yeah, Pully. He had a career and he had an audience. I remember the Place Pigalle and there was another place called The Music Box. That was another one of the places he was at. Martha Raye had a place. The Five O'Clock Club.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you play the Five O'Clock Club?

Bobby Ramsen: No, I never did play it, but I used to go there after my shows at the Nautilus. I used to run over. It wasn't too far away. I used to sit and talk with Martha. She was a wonderful, wonderful lady. She was terrific. She was married to a former dancer Steve Condos. The Condos Brothers. They opened the show at the Copa many, many times. They both came in. I worked at Mister Kelly's in '52, I think it was. I keep getting Mister Kelly's in Chicago mixed up with Mother Kelly's in Florida. 

But I did play Mister Kelly's in Chicago with Lou Rawls. He packed the place. He had a hit record called Tobacco Road. It was one of the few times he played his home town. All the people that he grew up with came to see him and the place was jam packed. I loved it. Chicago. Rush Street. It was terrific.

Kliph Nesteroff: We left off last time briefly mentioning the inception of Rodney Dangerfield and his transition from his original act under the name Jack Roy.

Bobby Ramsen: Fabulous story. Do you happen to have a book called The Big Broadcast?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, but I do have The Last Laugh by Phil Berger which talks about Jack Roy - Rodney Dangerfield.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, I have a copy of that. The Last Laugh.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's quite excellent and for a long time it was the only source of information on a lot of guys, especially Lord Buckley.

Bobby Ramsen: You're right. A lot of people read the book. Yeah, you're right. The book was a big hit and of course all the comics got a copy of it and he became friendly with Adam Keefe. He gave him a lot of information. I filled in for Eddie Davis at Leon and Eddie's and ran the celebrity nights on Sundays. He used to come in every Sunday and get up. Mr. Berger became friendly with Adam and Adam Keefe gave him a lot of information. 

Anyway, the story I'm going to tell you. The Big Broadcast 1922-1950, which were the golden years of radio. During The Jack Benny Program, in the script, once in a while he would pick up the phone to make an outside phone call. When he picked up the phone as Jack Benny the comedian, the people who assisted him were the operators. There were two operators, two characters, who took the calls at the studio. Their names were Brenda and Gertrude. So he'd say, "Rochester, I'm going to call, Mary. Maybe she can find the article we're looking for." 

So he picks up the phone and you hear click click click. "Operator? Operator?" And now they come on. "Oh, Gertrude. It's him. I wonder what he wants this time." It was always with resentment. So there's a little smalltalk before they answer his thing. "What are you doing tonight, Gertrude?" "Well, tonight Love in the Lagoon is playing at The Pantages. I can hardly wait. My two favorite movie stars are in the picture." "Who's that?" "Gloria Knishmeister and Rodney Dangerfield."

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Bobby Ramsen: What a wonderful name it is. I knew Rodney. He had a plan to go into La Martinique and sign with Sol Tepper, but then his wife got sick and he had to put her into some kind of mental facility. It was very, very hard for him and he became a salesman selling aluminum siding. Then he decided to go back in the business and he chose the name Rodney Dangerfield. 

I remember walking into the Golden Hotel in Pleasantville, New Jersey and it said, "Appearing tonight Bobby Ramsen and late show Rodney Dangerfield." When I saw the name I thought, "My God, what a great name!" And then when I stayed to check out the show, it turned out to be Jack Roy! And it was wonderful. He put together a bunch of new stuff and he talked about changing his name, but he never told the story of where the original name came from. It took him a little while, but he got rolling. He was very ambitious.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did the two acts differ? Jack Roy vs. Rodney Dangerfield.

Bobby Ramsen: Well, basically it didn't differ at all. Jack Roy was a conglomeration of little pieces. The same thing that I was doing and that a lot of people were doing. "A scene from life!" And then boom you go into it. Morey Amsterdam used to come out and do one joke after another. He was the first one I ever saw walk out with a newspaper. He used it in a different way, but it was years before Mort Sahl ever walked out with a newspaper. 

Morey was the first one I saw come out with a newspaper and say, "Let's see if there are any items here of interest. Ah! Here's one. Bayonne, New Jersey swept by hurricane. Hmmm. This is the first time Bayonne has been swept in years!" You know, and then the next page something else. Of course, Mort was doing topical stuff, but for Morey that was a good hook. So it was that kind of a thing that Jack Roy was doing and he also had a reputation for being angry. They called him Angry Jack. 

So his attitude was different than as Rodney Dangerfield. When Jack Roy was working it was with an edge. He was mad that this was happening and that was happening. As Rodney he kind of softened it, but basically it was the same thing. The truth of the matter is... he was doing Henny Youngman! The king of the one-liners. 

All of Rodney's jokes were great, terrific, one-liners and this character he built around it with the "no respect." To this day they use it on news programs. "Mubarak has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East." That kind of a thing. He found a wonderful character and that is an important secret to becoming a successful comedian. To find a hook and be "The Guy Who..." I got lucky when I first came around because I had a ring that I wore on my little finger. I used to use the drummer. A lot of comedians were using the drummer to accentuate their punchline. Milton Berle used it all the time. A new drummer came in at a club I was working at. My regular drummer took the night off. 

So I started to accentuate my punchlines myself with my ring. I kept it in. For instance, a big laugh joke I used with the ring was, "I was on the train. I took the train when I got this job. I wanted to come here in the worst way. I did. My train. There was a young couple that was just sitting across from me. Then the conductor came through and said, "Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!" The groom was very nervous and a very young guy. Instead of handing the conductor the ticket, he handed the conductor the marriage certificate. 

The conductor said, "That's good for a lot of rides, kid... but not on this train!" So when I got to "a lot of rides, kid" I'd hit my ring. "That's good for a lot of rides, kid," click - click, "but not on this train!" So I did that with a few jokes and it enhanced the joke and it enhanced the laugh.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's a newspaper ad that I'm looking at right now. It's for you and Jane Morgan at the Americana and it's from 1957, but you're billed as Bobby Ramsen - TV Comedy Sensation. Now it's my impression that you hadn't really done any television until Garry Moore in the early sixties.

Bobby Ramsen: Let me think back. 1957... I must have done a shot on some talk show just prior to my going to work with Jane. That's all I can think of. I always tried to find a couple of television shots on television because it kept up my health plan with the union, but you're right. I had only done Garry Moore... and Phil Silvers had a pilot. I was on that. The very first network exposure I had was when I first went to New York. A friend got me on The Robert Q. Lewis Show; The Show Goes On. Do you remember that show?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't remember it, but I love Robert Q. Lewis.

Bobby Ramsen: Well, he came out of daytime radio. Then they gave him a night time show and he had a very nice way about him and a lot of people liked him. He had those big black glasses.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was very smooth.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, absolutely. I don't remember the name of the company, but they'd hit a button and the top of this cigarette lighter would open and a flame came out. They would say, "A thousand dollars will be sent to the Red Cross if we hit this button and it doesn't light!" Of course, the lighter always lit up. I must have just done The Robert Q. Lewis Show and that is it. The Show Goes On sponsored by the lighter company.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Bobby Ramsen: I did something on that show that Jerry Lewis stole and has not stopped using.

Kliph Nesteroff: What's that?

Bobby Ramsen: I did an impersonation of Bette Davis and - this was completely off the top of my head on the air... well, a lot of people were doing Bette Davis at the time. The guy who did it best was a guy named Rae Bourbon...

Kliph Nesteroff: The drag....

Bobby Ramsen: That's right. Exactly. He did a Bette Davis to stop all Bette Davis's. But guys like me and Jerry Lewis and stand-ups were doing it, but nothing like Bourbon who did this whole thing and, like you say, he worked in drag. He was wonderful. Anyway, what happened was, I was standing there and I'm swinging my arms with a cigarette. Saying, "Phillip! You've been seeing other women and you're a cheater. A cheater, cheater, cheater!" And then you'd shove your teeth into your upper lip and make a monkey face. 

It dawned on me that the microphone was just up over my head. So, I went with my hand to lower the boom and they brought the boom down into the shot and I hung on the boom like a monkey hanging with one arm. Every time Jerry Lewis is on television now - and this had been fifty years ago - he sits down on the panel and he tells the guy to lower the boom and he puts his arm up like he's hanging like a monkey. So... it doesn't bother me. I'm happy when I see it. Carson did it with the elderly lady, which he took from Jonathan Winters.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Carnac.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes! Steve Allen was doing that for years!

Kliph Nesteroff: Robert Q. Lewis. Did you get to know him or was that the only time...

Bobby Ramsen: No, no, that was the only time. And in fact, I only met him after the show.  He went to the same high school as me in the Bronx and we spoke a little about that.

Kliph Nesteroff: What is the story of this Phil Silvers pilot that you were in?

Bobby Ramsen: Well, they were desperately looking to find something for Phil Silvers. He was a name. He was talented. He was funny as hell and he deserved his own show. This was around 1951. It was very early and they wanted to get that man on television. So the show that they came up with was not too far away from the Robert Q. Lewis thing. He was signed with MCA. A friend of mine at MCA was the one who booked this particular pilot. I even remember the name of the gal who was running the thing. Her name was Penny Malone. 

The format was young people come on - young Bobby Ramsen comes on and does his stand-up and, "What can we do for you?" "You can get me a writer to write me special material so I can have my own material." That was the gimmick and that was my excuse for being on the show and Phil was as sweet as sugar. A delightful man. A lovely, lovely gentleman. The show never sold, but a couple of years later he got You'll Never Get Rich. It was such a big hit and was changed to The Phil Silvers Show and everyone refers to it today as the Bilko show. That was the story with Phil. But, once again I repeat, they couldn't wait to get this guy on television. This was one of the things they came up with. They desperately wanted him on.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did that pilot have a name?

Bobby Ramsen: Oh, gosh. Yes, of course it had a name. I can't say [what it was] for sure. If MCA was involved then MCA could have put the package together. I do know I was sitting on the third floor of NBC. They had a lounge kind of set-up on the third floor at NBC Radio Studios - that famous entrance that they show on Saturday Night Live and other shows. The Rainbow Room. 

If you took the elevator to the third floor, actors could sit around. There was a registry called Radio Registry that called actors if they were needed for an audition or a show. There was a blackboard that one of the pages would write the names on and then there was a direct line on the table that you could press a button. "Robert Ramsen calling. My name is on the board." "Oh, yes. You have an audition for Home is What You Make It on NBC." They'd give you the name et cetera. A lot of actors would be sitting around there. One time Marvin Marx, who ended up being the headwriter for Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners... Marvin Marx, a marvelous comedy writer ... he became a big man in Hollywood...

Marvin was sitting there and someone came running out of one of the studios. We the People was on the air and they said, "Is there anyone here who can do an impression of Winston Churchill!?" Marvin says, "I can do Winston Churchill!" They dragged him into the studio and he was on the air in a matter of minutes. 

So you could get a job just hanging around on the third floor. Another thing happened where I was sitting around with an actress. I don't remember her name. Around 1946-47. They came running out and they said, "We need two actors! Two actors to walk down a path. We want to use your feet!" I said, "I'll do it!" She said, "I'll do it too!" They needed a boy and a girl. So we ran in and Fred Coe was in the booth. Fred Coe! He invented all of this for Godsake! And there he was. He said, "All right. Now just walk down this walk." We walked down a little garden path and they just used our feet. They gave us each a dollar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bobby Ramsen is the greatest comedian who ever lived and there isn't even a dispute about that anymore.