Monday, September 19, 2011

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in show business pretty much your entire life. You started when you were a child?

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, I started with Ringling Brothers. I was six years old. My father was a carnival concessionaire and my mother was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian and a ticket-taker. I was born in the Bronx, but our winter quarters besides Florida was Newark, New Jersey. With carnivals you worked X amount of months per year and in winter you worked one spot. Certain carnivals would be linked up with circuses. In other words, circuses never had freakshows and rides, they just had the big tent with the three rings. Adjacent to them they would bring in shows like World of Mirth and they would attach themselves. Then when you went through the fair grounds, you'd go through the carnival and the circus would be behind. You'd have to pass by all the rides, all the concessions and it was markedly a big deal.

When I got out of the Service in 1947, I worked in the Bay Area as a big band singer. I sang with Jack Fina and some dates with Frankie Carle and Del Courtney. These were fairly decent bands. Fina became very famous for Bumble Boogie and Warsaw Concerto. He was the pianist for Freddie Martin and then he went off on his own. Del Courtney, of course, was big in the mid-thirties. In the mid-fifties when big bands kind of faded, I went into comedy and formed a comedy team. Antone and Curtiss. We did a lot of Sullivan shows, worked all over the world and when he passed on I teamed up with a guy named Bill Tracy. Curtiss and Tracy. We did all of the main shows. When we split up I switched my name to JC Curtiss.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw that. And you grew some facial hair at the same time (laughs).

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, I had a goatee and moustache. It was all part of reinventing yourself. When Bill and I broke up I was still Jackie Curtiss, but I had started doing some acting. I joined the Screen Actors Guild when I got a lead in an episode of Dragnet. When I went down there I had to file my name, but the rule with SAG is that you can't have a name that is the same or sounds like someone else. There was an old cowboy star named Jack Curtis. I only had a few minutes to choose something so I said, "How bout JC Curtis?" When I did the Dragnet, I got a lot of calls from people, "Do you have a twin brother? I thought it was you on Dragnet, but it said JC Curtis!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, let's go back to Jackie Curtiss for a moment. How did you form your first comedy team?

Jackie Curtiss: I was with a guy named Al Bellow and we were Bellow and Curtis for about six months. We worked the West Coast. While we were in Fresno there were two clubs there and I went and saw this singer named Marc Antone. Al Bellow was a real flake. A real whacko. I had to leave him. At the time my agent said, "You ever heard of Marc Antone?" I said, "Yeah, I just met him." "I'd like to see you two team up." So he put us together. It clicked. He learned the act because I had written all this stuff. The agency booked us and, boy, we just took off. We worked all of the major clubs and we worked Eddie's in Kansas City with Gretchen Wyler who was the star. Every act I ever worked with I ended up writing little bits for and became friendly. She took a liking to us and she asked if we would go with her to Jack Silverman's International in New York. She was a big favorite of Ed Sullivan. 

He always came to see her shows and she told Ed that he should see the comedy team that was opening for her.  He called us over to the table afterward. This was on a Tuesday night. And we were on his show that Sunday. We were a big hit with him. He used us many times. I became a very personal friend of his, which is something nobody ever really knew about. Whenever I was in New York I would have dinner with he and Sylvia at his apartment. Not even my partner [knew]. He just took a liking to me. We had a similar past. We were both orphaned at a young age. He was a great guy. People don't know what a wonderful man he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about that very first appearance on his show?

Jackie Curtiss: Well, you have to understand that my being a carny and growing up as an acrobat in the circus and being a conman and learning to shortchange at a young age... I had a different attitude about people, even in show business. I never really thought that I had the talent. I was just a survivor my whole life. I wasn't in awe of anybody. It's hard to explain to people. I just thought of [celebrities] as real people. Maybe that's why I lucked out and became close friends with a lot of people because there was never an ego thing that I had to worry about. Marc and I were working at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky in the two-week interim before we went into Jack Silverman's. 

One night I was up until about three in the morning writing. In those days, when you got a room they just gave you a double bed. You had to share a bed. I was up there with a light on the desk writing and my partner said, "My God, Jackie, it's three in the morning. Go to bed." I said, "No, I'm writing our opening for Ed Sullivan." I wrote this outrageous opening that was all putting down Ed Sullivan. At that time I didn't know Gretchen was going to bring Sullivan in! I just figured some day we'd do the Sullivan show and I wanted to be prepared!

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember what it was...

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, sure. He introduces us, "Here they are - Antone and Curtiss!" We walk out and Marc says, "Well, Jackie boy. Here we are on The Ed Sullivan Show!" And I say, "Big deal!" "Big deal!? We've been trying to get on this show for years!" I said, "Yeah, sure, but on account of this I don't get to watch Maverick!" "Maverick? Don't talk like that or Mr. Sullivan won't let us appear!" I say, "What is this Sullivan? Sullivision is what it is. Every week he announces the same thing!" And I do an impression of him. As I'm doing this, Ed Sullivan walks out and stands behind me and with my arms I reach out and touch him as I say, "It's a really big show and... a... really... big.. chest... and a really big neck... and a really big jawbone... and if this is who I think it is... I'm in really big trouble!" And I look at him, scream, and jump into Marc's arms. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Jack Silverman's International like as a venue?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, it was a great, great venue. It was on Broadway, just down the street from The Ed Sullivan Theater. All of the top comedy stars played there. It was downstairs. It was a basement, as a lot of nightclubs were in New York. There was a radio host who had a show from there, behind these glass windows that looked out into the theater. I would say Jack Silverman's was just a step down from The Copa as far as being a big place to play. It was great. It had a twelve-piece band and it was famous for its Monday nights. It was what they called AGVA night; American Guild of Variety Artists. All of the acts that wanted to audition for agents would come in on Monday nights. Mike Durso, who was the bandleader at the Copa would come over on their night off and play for all the acts. All the Catskill agents and the agents from Pennsylvania would all come down. All the acts would come down and do their stuff to get booked.

Kliph Nesteroff: And was there still at that point an actual guy named Jack Silverman...

Jackie Curtiss: Oh sure, yes, he owned it.

Kliph Nesteroff: And was he a Mob guy or was he...

Jackie Curtiss: They were all Mob guys!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: The Mob was an integral part of everything and I became a darling of the Mob many years later as JC Curtiss.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the comic hangouts in New York like Hanson's...

Jackie Curtiss: Hanson's Drugstore was the big one. Hanson's was where we all went. I was introduced to it late. When Marc and I went to New York to do the Sullivan show we were the toast of the town, but also the burnt toast of the town. We were getting so much attention, but we weren't anything like New York comics. Starting on the West Coast, I had no idea what New York comics did. I didn't know one subway joke from the other. The automat. Broadway.

I wrote stuff like "The Drunk Airline Pilot." Since I was an ex-acrobat, I wrote a hypnosis bit. I dressed as a little boy with short pants, a little boy's hat and a lollipop. My partner would say, "What are you reading in that book?" I'd say, "Oh, this is a book on hypnosis. You read the book and then you can do anything. You can sing, you can dance, you can tell jokes, you can do impressions..." He says, "Oh, really? Let me see the book." He takes the book. "Hmmm, all I have to do is say, 'Sleep. Sleep. Sleep." And I'd be out. He'd say things like, "Sing an entire song like Billy Eckstine!" And I'd do Eckstine. "Now sing like the foggy singer Mel Torme!" And I would. And each time he'd say sleep I'd either dive or do a backflip or land on my head. So it was real slapsticky and everything put in there. Jokes, impressions, all of these things and I'd just beat myself up. People would cheer and we got lucky. But going to New York - my God, these New York comics... they loved us and hated us at the same time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the New York comics you would run into at a place like Hanson's?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, I knew them all. Because of doing the Sullivan show and everything... the first ones we met... before New York... we followed them into The Tidelands in Houston. A comedy team called Norman and Dean. Harvey Norman and Stanley Dean. I still talk to Stanley Dean, he lives in Upper New York state. There were Norman and Dean, Phil Foster, Joey Bishop, Marty Allen and a lot of singers also hung out there like Bobby Darin... If you said the name I would probably have known them.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gene Baylos.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, Gene Baylos. At AGVA Night they'd have a comic host to introduce the acts that wanted to audition. This one night Gene Baylos was the comic. He's introducing this singer, Frank Vestri, and his whole act was devoted to songs with the word "heart" in them. You Got to Have Heart, Heart of My Hearts... and he said to Gene that he didn't want Gene to introduce him. "I introduce myself." He stood backstage with the microphone and introduced himself as if he weren't him! "Now, ladies and gentleman! Here he is! The voice with a heart! Frank Vestri!" Then he puts the microphone down and goes out. He was a fairly good singer, but we had an expression in the business for when  you had to applaud somebody. You "applauded with blood in your shoes." You didn't want to, but everyone is looking and you [were obligated] to applaud. 

He gets out there and he does this You've Gotta Have Heart and "thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory!" And he genuflects, makes the sign of the cross and "You Got to Have Heart!" Everyone feels obligated to applaud. Gene Baylos walks back out and he has this little piece of paper in his hand. He walks up to the microphone and says, "Will the immediate family ride in the last car?" The place just... it was such a relief to laugh at this idiot. Gene Baylos was wonderful. Gene was the cheapest guy I ever met, but he was a wonderful guy. He made a little rubber pocket. He always wore a vest. He made a rubber insert to put into the vest pocket and he'd go to the automat. He'd walk through and pick up used teabags and put them in there. Then he'd go over and get water - he wouldn't even buy a teabag! But he was a great comic and had a lot of devices. He'd walk out with little candy kernels in his mouth and bump something and spit them out like teeth. But he was a very, very good comedian. He was a comic's comic and we all learned from him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gene Baylos is one of those legendary names associated with the Hanson's Drugstore crowd as is Joe Ancis, best known as being this shadow figure that was sort of the alter ego of both Lenny Bruce and Jack Roy/Rodney Dangerfield.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, well, Rodney wouldn't be Rodney if not for Stanley Dean. Stanley Dean took him off the street and got him on the Sullivan show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh really?

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, I'll have to give you Stanley's number. He'll give you a lot of stories. He was really responsible for Rodney. Rodney was just selling siding and a funny guy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the other day that you and Marc Antone had flown to Vancouver for...

Jackie Curtiss: Our favorite place to play was The Cave Supperclub. Worked The Cave, Oil Can Harry's.... The Cave we worked a lot. Also, later, when I was JC Curtis, they used to have a show emanating from The Cave when it was all re-done. It was a television show and they flew people in from all over and I flew up and did shows with Hans Conreid and Brook Benton. It was great. They'd fly you up from Los Angeles on a Friday, you'd tape two shows, and it'd be an all-star thing on a local station. That was when they had redone The Cave. The original Cave I had loved. It had all stalactite from the ceiling and it looked like a real Cave. When I went back they had painted it all white and it was a phony Cave. But the original one run by Isy [Walters] - he was a character.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have an ad for you two - Jackie Curtiss and Marc Antone - Smash Hit - Comedy Stars for 1958 - Brought Here at Great Expense - One of the Best Acts To Ever Hit... Eureka!

Jackie Curtiss: (laughs) Lenzi's! (laughs) Yeah, that was a good job too. That was a great job. We worked there about three times. Marc was a beautiful guy and a bit older than me, but like an older brother. I had a little portable, art deco radio. One day I decided to a pull a gag and let's have some fun. Because Eureka was Eureka. It's the boonies, y'know. We walked out onstage for the first show and we did the whole show with me holding the little art deco radio. Never said a word about it. Did our show, did great. Never said anything about it. After the show we waited to see if anyone would say anything about it. Sure enough, a guy came over and said, "Hey, let me buy you guys a drink. Loved your show. Listen, what was that radio you were holding all about?" I said, "What radio?" Marc fell off the stool. We got that idea from a magician we worked with at The Cave. He was a dumb act. You know what a dumb act is?

Kliph Nesteroff: No talking.

Jackie Curtiss: Someone who doesn't talk. Burt Lancaster was one of the most famous dumb acts of all time. He was a "catcher" in the circus and never said a word. Anyway, this magician - in his act he smoked six or seven cigarettes at the same time and the smoke never stopped coming out of his mouth. He was a real good magician and one night after the show we went to a restaurant and we noticed on the back of his hand he had written, "Answer Phone." It looked like a tattoo and he had it on his hand every night. We weren't going to bite, we never asked, we never said anything. One night we were in the restaurant and a waitress was serving our food and a phone rang. He put the back of his hand right up to her face and it of course said, "Answer Phone." That was his gag. He had that on there in case a phone rang anywhere! 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you and Marc Antone had a fifteen week run at Billy Gray's Band Box.

Jackie Curtiss: Billy Gray's Band Box. When Marc started out in Steubenville his babysitter was Dean Martin. That's when he was Dino Crocetti and worked as a dealer in one of the casinos there. When Marc started to sing in high school Dean was quite the guy around town. He gave a hand-me-down tuxedo to Marc. That was the first tuxedo that he had when we worked together. Now, because he knew Dean he was a friend of Jerry's later on. The time that we were booked into the Band Box, Jerry was filming Geisha Boy at Paramount. Marc, because of his friendship with Dean, called and said we'd like to come see Jerry. He met Jerry when Dean and Jerry came to Steubenville after they became stars. We went over and it was great. 

Jerry took us in, showed us around, showed us the set. We were in his office and he was showing us slight-of-hand tricks when he got a phone call that blew his mind. He ran right out and flew right through a screen door. We found out later that his dad had just driven onto the Paramount lot with, as he put it, a schvartze. It was his dad's Black girlfriend. In those days, in the fifties, that was a big no-no. You will remember Harry Belafonte reached over and touched the hand of Pet Clark on live television and forty stations in the South complained. So that was our episode with Jerry and later we worked for his father at the Coco Club in Phoenix, Arizona. He was a nut job. He would say, "I was funnier than Jerry!" Jerry had a reputation... a real dichotomy. 

He was either the best guy in the world or the worst guy in the world. Just like Frank Sinatra. Many years later my son who is a cinematographer, he's now the head cameraman on Hoarders, was shooting a show for A&E with Jerry Lewis. Jerry made a remark, "I pride myself on the fact that I remember the names of everybody I have ever met or worked with." My son from behind the camera said, "You ever know a man named Marc Antone?" Jerry said, "How do you know that name?" He said, "My dad was his comedy partner." Jerry said, "Your dad is Jackie Curtiss!?" My son couldn't believe it. "Is he still alive? He was such a funny guy! Please give him my best!" Anyway, Jerry came in and had watched us at Billy Gray's and treated us great. However, when we were with Dean... Dean treated Marc very badly.

Kliph Nesteroff: How so?

Jackie Curtiss: Well, we drove all night. We had been at the Top of the Park in Denver, Colorado.  We had our first job in Vegas at the Showboat on Boulder Highway. We had to drive for two days through blizzards to get there. We had a terrible time. We got there, rehearsed, got everything done and Marc said, "We've got to go see Dean!" So he walked into The Sands and here was Dean sitting at a blackjack table with everyone around. Marc goes up to him and taps him on the shoulder. Dean turns around and says, "Tony Antonucci! Whaddaya doing here?" He said, "Well, my name isn't Tony Antonucci anymore, Dean. I'm now Marc Antone." Dean goes, "Marc Antone?" Sarcastically. Marc said, "Well, hey, it beats Dino Crocetti! This is my partner Jackie Curtiss." 

"Oh, yeah, I heard you teamed up and were doing an act like me and Jerry used to do. Well, you gotta come see my show. I'll talk to the Maitre'd..." and this will be wonderful. Of course, we go talk to the Maitre'd [come show time] and he says, "Nope. Nobody said anything about anything." Still he doesn't get it. Marc waits by the stage door. Dean walks out, takes one looks and says, "Oh, I forgot all about you, Tony!" "That's all right!" I know this is all bullshit. So they're walking through the casino and Marc is talking a mile a minute, not watching. Dean just... walks away from him. Marc is walking down the casino talking to himself. I walked up to him and said, "Marc. He's gone." Marc goes, "Oh? Oh! He probably got called away!" After a couple of months it finally dawned on Marc that... Dean didn't want to know anybody from his past. 


MontyAlban said...

The comment about the Mob guys running nightclubs was interesting. This has come up in other interviews. Was this a result of speakeasies becoming nightclubs at the end of Prohibition? Perhaps you could do an article on that. As always, a fascinating interview.

Kenatra said...

Very Interesting and Educational interview...thanks for sharing this with me.

Ken Allan Phillips

Anonymous said...

that was an amazing article! thank you so much for still having your memories JC! i couldn't remember my eye color let alone all those years ago! :)

John Tayloe said...

Lovely! Lovely! J.C., you're such a gentle warm loving supportive and funny guy. I remember some of this history from your book, which everyone should read by the way.Stay well you mensch>

John Tayloe

Anonymous said...

Frank Vestri was my father and he had enormous talent. He was a little schmaltzy and schticky, but everyone had to have a little of that back in those days to get noticed. He passed away at the age of 42 in 1973 when I was only 10 years old, and it would be nice if he were remembered in a better light than how he was portrayed by Mr. Curtiss.

Tracy Newman said...

I would like to get in touch with Stanley Dean. He was my boyfriend in the mid 60s. He introduced me to Don Sherman, who just passed away on Wednesday (the 23rd of May... 2012. Pancreatic cancer.) I'd like to tell Stanley, and talk to him anyway. It's been quite a while. It's fun to see the names in this blog!!! I hope someone contacts me. - Thanks, Tracy Newman

Anonymous said...

really nice o find this gem of a interview with my "grampa jack" thanks for it...

Anonymous said...

Im confused. IMDB lists a JC Curtiss who was on Dragnet, and passed away in 2000. Different Curtiss?