Kliph Nesteroff: You started out in a group called The Millionaires.
Pete Barbutti: Correct.
Kliph Nesteroff: I know you spent a lot of time during the inception of your comedy career in Spokane, but it sounds like you did Vegas before that.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, very briefly. We started off in my hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. I started as an accordion player when I was a kid. The neighborhood I grew up in, Kliph, was all Italian, Irish and Polish. My grandparents came over from Italy and they still had the cultural background. Everybody when they got to be six, seven or eight years old - had to have music lessons. The girls got piano or violin and the boys got accordion. That was just the way it was done.
So I took accordion and did very well. By high school I had almost given it up, but had to take an elective subject - so I took band. The band teacher was a very hip, young guy. He got me interested in modern music. I got out of school and had a chance for a music scholarship at Penn State, [but instead] I organized a group when I got out of high school called The Millionaires and went on the road. That was the beginning of my first commercial venture.
Kliph Nesteroff: Were The Millionaires a jazz ensemble?
Pete Barbutti: Yes, jazz and vocals. That was an era when jazz was real serious. That was the beginning of rock n' roll rearing its ugly head. This was in the fifties. Nightclub owners would say, "Do you play rock and roll?" We'd say, "No." They'd say, "Do you do comedy?" We'd say, "No." The agents kept saying that the venues were narrowing down. Well, we couldn't get into rock and roll because that was artistic blasphemy, so we decided we'd try some comedy. In the beginning we stole a couple of routines from other groups we saw and changed them a little. As the years went on I found a little aptitude to create my own.
Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the groups you copped material from?
Pete Barbutti: Well, groups you probably have never heard of. The Four Others... and all the vocal groups like The Four Freshman, Four Jacks and a Jill, The Modernaires, The Pied Pipers and all that.
Kliph Nesteroff: There was a comedy music act at the time called The Vagabonds.
Pete Barbutti: Sure, I knew them very well. In fact, Babe Pier still lives here in [Las Vegas]. He's the last survivor.
Kliph Nesteroff: I am familiar with Babe Pier, but I had no idea he was in The Vagabonds. I know him simply as a mimic.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, he was. He was not in the original four. One of the original four left and Babe joined the group very early on. He was with them for many years.
Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting. So, you and The Millionaires went into a place called The Cloud Nine Lounge.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, in The Frontier Hotel in Vegas - January 3, 1960. I have a theory that the patron saint of musicians is Saint Cecelia - an ex-chick singer and she has a macabre sense of humor. We came to Vegas and we went to set up a couple days before we opened in the lounge. We had a real strong music group and we sang well together. We did comedy routines and by this time they were pretty good. All the pit bosses in the casino and all the people in the lounge in the afternoon who heard us rehearsing came up and said, "You guys are gonna kill 'em! You're the hottest thing we've ever heard! You're on your way!" We figured that we were the next Louis Prima or Mary Kaye Trio and we were going to take over this town.
Then we found out we working opposite Frances Faye who was a well-known act within the business. She sang and did novelty songs and was a bad piano player - but a pretty good singer. In fact, she did an album with Mel Torme. She was an interesting lady. She was also the most miserable person who ever walked the face of the earth! She was gay - which is neither here nor there - but she had a girlfriend who was her manager named Terri. When you met Terri... it was hard to believe that Eva Braun died in that fire. I mean, she was just miserable. Anyway, she brought in a band with six horns, drums and bass. She had a grand piano set up at the front of the stage, on an extension, into the audience. It was like a baby grand. She had an eight foot extension built and she had her grandstand set up across the stage. I went to her and I said, "Ms. Faye - how are [The Millionaires] going to set up? We'll have to move your music stuff."
Then Terri said, "You don't touch anything of Frances Faye's! Do not put one hand on anything!" So there was the piano extending into the audience, two rows of music stands, a drummer on a riser... and we were allowed to set up behind that. The audience literally couldn't see us. They couldn't see us. We couldn't turn up the mics because the monitors were back there and in those days audio science wasn't very advanced. The mics would feed back. I mean, we were terrible! Nobody could see us! Nobody could hear us! The entertainment director at the time was a guy named Bill Miller. He was famous in the business. He had a club right across the George Washington Bridge on the Jersey side called The Riviera.
Kliph Nesteroff: Right.
Pete Barbutti: Bill Miller's Riviera. Everyone played it - Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, everybody. So he was the entertainment director at The Frontier Hotel. He was on vacation in Florida. His first vacation in five years with a little Japanese girl who was one of the showgirls from a show called Holiday in Japan. So he was on vacation and we were so bad that they called him and said, "You have to come back and fire this band!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: He said, "Wait a minute. They're only signed for three weeks, so they only have a week and a half left. Just let them finish off the week and a half and we won't book them back." The casino manager said, "No, they're running people out! You've gotta come back!" He was livid. So he flew back prematurely and the crowning blow... we were going up on stage and Frances Faye was in a wheelchair. She wasn't debilitated, but she was suing someone for a fall so she was in a wheelchair.
She rolled by me as I was walking toward the stage - without making eye contact she grabbed me by the sleeve. She knew who I was. She said, "My piano keys are sticky. Take a little soda water and clean them." How much worse could it get? We went up on stage, so I grabbed the mic and I stood on her piano. You know, this was so disrespectful, standing on her grand piano. I told the audience, "This is the worst gig we have ever had and the worst hotel we have worked and this is the worst town I have been in! We're going to do one last show and then we're leaving this stupid gig!" The audience thought this was a routine - they were laughing! So I brought the trombone player up on the piano with me and then I brought the guitar player up.
And they were shouting, "Where's the drummer?" So I said, "You want the drummer up here too?" The audience cheered. So I brought the drummer up onstage and we did a show - not knowing that Bill Miller was in the audience! He was in the back. He had flown in to fire us and he was sitting with Donald O'Connor. So we did this one show and the audience loved us. So Bill Miller said, "I don't know what the problem is." Frances Faye left within the next three or four days and we stayed on with Billy Eckstine, who was an angel and let us do anything we wanted and then with The Treniers and Della Reese. We stayed there six months. Frances Faye never got booked back and we stayed six months.
Kliph Nesteroff: So how and why did The Millionaries disband?
Pete Barbutti: We went back on the road for a little while and then we came back to Vegas as we had some obligations we had to meet. We worked at The Thunderbird Hotel. While we were there the guitar player, who was considerably older than the rest of us, said, "I don't want to travel anymore so I'm leaving. I'm just going to join one of the house bands." He left the band and then the drummer, who was outstanding, got a call from Harry James. Buddy Rich was leaving and he got a chance to take Buddy Rich's place... his life dream. Then there was just the two of us left. We stayed at The Thunderbird with pick-up groups in the lounge.
One of the owners was a guy named Lee Deer. He had a lot of juice. He wasn't on the licence because he had a felony conviction back in Wichita, but he was one of the big owners. He liked us and he kept us there. He said, "Look, why don't you put together a bigger group? Get yourself a girl singer and I'll book you here forever!" I went out and got the best piano player in town, the best bass player in town, the best girl singer - a girl named Kay Brown, who was Maynard Ferguson's first wife. We put together this group. We used to practice - All. Day. Long. Literally. We became the toast of the town and then they brought in an entertainment director because the lounge was getting so busy.
A month later he gave us our notice. We went up and worked Reno, did a record for Capitol Records - and we were only together for three months! We worked Reno, we worked Tahoe... we had a couple of routines that the owner said, "Look - don't do those routines in the meat of the night because all the gamblers stop. They all can hear you, they stop and they turn toward the stage." It was really an outstanding group. One night the manager came to me and said, "You're having some problems with the group." I said, "What are you talking about? I've never been with a happier bunch!""No, this is happening and that is happening."
The drummer, who was probably the least talented, thought somebody was stealing money. We showed him that nobody was - and he was embarrassed because he had committed himself to the notion. He decided to leave. The piano player got so bugged that he just got in his car and left and the group broke up. I had signed all the bills for all the uniforms. We had double breasted Italian suits and real nice shoes and color coordinated shirts. I had signed a bill for the chick singer's gowns and I mean everything. So, the group broke up and I was stuck with three kids, a fourth on the way, and not a dime in my pocket. I called Frank Ross from The Mary Kaye Trio.
There were three people in it - Norman Kaye, Mary Kaye and Frank Ross. Frank was the comedy talent in that group and Mary Kaye was one of the greatest singers who ever lived. I went over to his house and he made some spaghetti - which is what Italians do when they get depressed. We sat down, ate spaghetti for three hours, and he said, "You've got to get out of town. You've got to go where nobody has ever seen or heard of you and start over." He put me in touch with an agent. The agent said, "I have a gig for you. It's a new club opening in Spokane called The Stockyards Inn. It doesn't pay much. It pays three hundred a week, but you could start over up there."
The agent's name was George Burke. I don't know why I remember that. This was fifty years ago. I said, "Okay, but George I am embarrassed to tell you this - but I don't have the funds to get to Spokane. I don't have a car." A bus ticket was twenty-nine dollars and it took twenty hours to get there. I said, "Can you send me the money for the ticket and I'll pay you back?" He said, "Look, I'm only making thirty dollars off this deal. Talk to the guy in Spokane." So I called Spokane and this little mousy guy named John Powell answered. "What's the trouble?" I explained. He said, "I'm going to send you an airline ticket." The ticket was nine dollars more than the money I was making! I landed in Spokane in January.
It was raining and freezing cold. I showed up with long hair and a goatee and a real hip looking topcoat. I looked like I was an alien in Spokane. Spokane is a real conservative town. So I showed up there. He picked me up at the airport and drove me out to the club. All the way out there he kept saying, "You know, this isn't a jazz gig. This isn't a jazz gig." I said, "Okay, Mr. Powell. Don't worry about it." We get out there. It was a medium sized, rectangular room with a bar along one wall and there was no stage or anything. The guy who owned the club - his name was Rocky Rodrock. He was a caricature of himself. Rocky's family had a zillion dollars from the real estate business and mining and timber. So he said, "Gee, dad, I think I'd like a nightclub." So his dad said, "Here, Rocky. Here's a suitcase full of money."
He built this club and everything about it was wrong. He said to me, "What do you need?" And I said, "Well, Rocky... is there a piano?" He said, "Well, we could probably get you one. What kind of a piano?" I said, "A piano bar." He said, "What's a piano bar?" My description wasn't detailed enough. I said, "It's a piano with a bar around it and the people can sit there and converse with you while you're playing and singing." He said, "That's a great idea!" So I went in at night for the gig and he had bought an old upright piano, put it up against the wall and he built a bar so that people were staring at my back when I played. The piano had broken notes and everything, but I had to do it. There was no microphone. After a couple of days Rocky said, "Is everything okay?"
I said, "Rocky, you know what? There's no lighting. Maybe if you had a little lighting." He said, "Okay, I got you covered." So the next night I went in and he had a big wire hanging down with a hundred watt light bulb, like it was a poolroom, over the piano. I told him, "You know, I can't see the people." So he went and bought a mirror and mounted it on the piano! Then I got pushy and asked for a microphone. He said, "You know, the whole club is wired for sound." So he got one of these little desk microphones like they had in old movies, you know, "Calling all cars!" He got one of those. The crowds were coming in. There were a lot of things going on politically in Spokane at the time. There was a new mayor, so I started making jokes about the new mayor.
One night I was right in the middle of a story. Right over the same sound system that I was using comes this announcement, "Johnson! Party of three! Two chicken fried steaks and meatloaf!" Everything was wired into the same system (laughs). So I flipped and I started to scream and the manager whose name was Mr. McClusky... I think his name was Jim, but even his son called him Mr. McClusky.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: I did the improbable when I addressed him by his name without the mister. I said, "McClusky!!!" He came running into the room as if there were a fire and I started dressing him down and screaming. The audience thought it was the funniest thing that they ever heard. This agent was in there - John Powell. He went to Rocky. He said, "Rocky, the room is jammed. I think Pete should get a raise." Rocky said, "True John, the bar is up two thousand percent - but we wanted to sell food not whiskey."
When he said that I pulled John Powell away. I said, "John, forget about it. The guy is an idiot! There's no money in food. You make more money on one martini than you do on a steak dinner." Anyway, John Powell came back the next night and said, "When you close here, I got you booked across town in another place called The Plantation Club. The guy who owns it has been in to see you and he loves you. I'm getting you another hundred bucks now. When you go over there you'll have a band behind you." I was big time now - it was like I was back in show business. So, the band consisted of an organ player named Tony Pasco - and everything he played - didn't matter if it was bebop or Beethoven, it sounded like something you'd roller skate to.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: A terrible sound. The rest of the band consisted of one drummer - and that was the owner of the club! Perry Williams. They had a pretty good crowd, so I started singing songs to start the shows. The Lady is a Tramp and songs like that and the drums are going behind me; terrible drummer. The organ player was awful, but at least he was playing something. Right in the middle of the song the drums stop. I'm not going to turn around and say, "What the hell is that?" I'm a pro - so I just keep singing. Out of the corner of my eye I see my drummer walking down the side aisle - he picks up two menus. "Party of two? Come with me." It was surreal!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: I was there for a couple of months and business was very good. John came to me and said, "I've got you booked into Seattle during the World's Fair. I got you booked downtown, it's the hottest joint, and it's not on the fairgrounds. It's a little lounge called Rosellini's 410. It's a five star restaurant and Holiday Magazine winner. I think you'll do good." I never saw the contract, but it paid five hundred a week, which was a fortune. I never saw the contract. It was five shows a night! Forty-five minutes on and fifteen off all night. I had a trio behind me, a real good trio, so I could stretch a little. But the same people came in every night. The rounders came in. They became my fan club, so I had to keep doing new material.
When I started I had maybe a show and a half. I stayed there for a year. While I was there John Powell came to me and said, "There's a new savings and loan opening in Spokane. They're fans of yours. They wanna know if you would do a one hour TV special for the opening." I said, "Well, what's involved?" They said, "Well, you'll have to write the show because we don't have any writers in Spokane and you'll have to help direct it because the TV station doesn't know how to do it... and you'll have to produce it and get the talent and rehearse it..." I said, "Well, how much does it pay!?"
"It doesn't pay anything, but you get a copy of the tape." So I said, "All right." I was working five nights a week, get a couple hours of sleep, fly to Spokane, work three or four hours, fly back to Seattle, take a shower, go to work - it was a horrible schedule. But I was young and I could handle it. We finally finished producing this show and it turned out better than we anticiapted. So this guy John Powell took the tape and he went to L.A. to The Steve Allen Show.
John was a funny looking guy. He was real small and he had real curly hair and he wore big horn-rim glasses. Looked like a Casper Milquetoast kinda guy. He went down there with this huge, two-inch wide video tape. It weighed about forty pounds with the box. He said, "I'd like you to see this comic from Spokane." The writers were [Stan] Burns and [Mike] Marmer. They had also written Ernie Kovacs and Carol Burnett. Brilliant guys. They said, "Yeah, well we don't have time today, John." So John Powell was there every single day. They started to write routines about him! They called him the sponge. These guys are born and rasied in Los Angeles so to them Spokane is some place where it rains all the time.
They called this guy the sponge and they started writing this character the sponge. Finally, they got sick of John Powell being there so they got one of the pages, a guy named Jerry Goldstein who later went on to be a big manager in the business, they said, "Jerry! Put on a Westinghouse jacket and some glasses and get a cigar. Go out there and tell him you're a producer and get rid of him." They were all laughing. Jerry went out there and he came back and he said, "He wants us to watch a couple minutes of the tape." It was in between shows... they used to tape two shows a day. It was at Vine and La Mirada right across from the Hollywood Ranch Market there.
They brought the tape in, cued it up. Jerry Goldstein watched about ten minutes of the tape and he went and got one of the writers. He made him watch it. He said, "Cue it back up." He went and got the other writers and the producer Milt Hoffman. Then they went and got Steve Allen and they watched the whole tape. They called me the next day and said, "You have to be on the show." Three days after that I became a regular on The Steve Allen Show.