Kliph Nesteroff: We've been talking about how you started in the business. When you first got into comedy you weren't a solo, but a member of a jazz trio and then started injecting comedy into that act. You said you did an LP with them for Capitol Records?
Pete Barbutti: It was never released! Never released because the group broke up. Capitol said, "There's nothing we can do. We can't promote it if the group doesn't exist."
Kliph Nesteroff: A live recording?
Pete Barbutti: Yes, live at Mapes Hotel in Reno, which doesn't exist anymore.
Kliph Nesteroff: And before you came on board with The Steve Allen Show you did a campus tour with a comedy team called Bobby Wick and Ray Brand.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, they're both gone now too. We didn't just do colleges, but we did Moose Clubs and Elk Clubs and I was their piano player. I would say to them, "Guys? Why don't you do this or this?" I was sort of writing their act while I was backing them up on the piano. This was while I was working up in the Spokane area.
Kliph Nesteroff: I read that when you were performing at Rosellini's in Seattle, again very early in your career, Bob Hope was in the audience.
Pete Barbutti: Yes. Well, the World's Fair was there. In fact, there's another anecdote you'll appreciate - some people who aren't in the business won't. I always had and still have an old beat up trumpet. I mean, it has got dents and tape and glue. It still plays, which is remarkable, so I do all these routines about it. I had it in Seattle and, of course, it was during the World's Fair. A lot of big stars were coming in to work the Fair. One of them was Roy Rogers and he brought a full orchestra. His conductor was Rafael Mendez, the classical trumpet player who was like the greatest trumpet player in the world.
I was working this night and someone sent up a note that said, "Rafael Mendez is in the audience." He was there with Roy Rogers' manager Art Rush. I read the note and said, "This can't be the Rafel Mendez?" Someone in the back said, "Yes, it's him!" Some drunk at the bar said, "Have him sit in!" I immediately admonished this drunk saying, "Wait. You don't understand. This is not like Dizzy Gillespie or something. This is a classical trumpet player who works with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic..." Rafael said, "I don't mind!" So he got up and picked up my old beat up horn and said to the band, "Tico Tico in A minor." He played three variations on Tico, Tico that were scary [they were so good] and then he ended on a double high B, which was scary - and then he handed me the trumpet and walked off stage! There I am standing with this beat up trumpet and all I had to do was stand there looking at the trumpet - and the laugh got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It was one of the longest laughs [of my career].
The next day I took my three kids to the World's Fair to see the show. Roy Rogers' manager left tickets for us, and they brought Trigger out - who must have been one hundred years old - and the kids got to ride Trigger. We went up in the stands and Rafael Mendez got up to do his spot and said, "I'd like to dedicate this to my buddy and another great trumpet player - Mr. Pete Barbutti." The audience all applauded and I turned to my kids, "Did you hear that!" The kids just looked at me and said, "We rode on Trigger!" (laughs) That put things into perspective.
Kliph Nesteroff: September 1962 you played The Hungry i.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, I think I had just done my first Steve Allen Show. I worked the Hungry i and I got a terrible review from a guy who never saw the show. I forget his name. It wasn't Herb Caen, but it was one of the San Francisco columnists and he had had a fight with Enrico Banducci. I was working opposite a folk singer. That was the big thing then. It was a good experience for me to be working a cosmopolitan place. Nobody knew who I was, but it was a good awakening. I didn't do well, but it wasn't the worst gig in the world either.
Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about your first Steve Allen experience? Coming to Los Angeles and...
Pete Barbutti: Well, it was - for some reason - easy for me. I've always felt a connection to Steve Allen. He's a piano player, he's a jazz buff and a comedian. So I always felt like we were connected somehow. Of course, Steve Allen understood the tiniest, hip thing that I would do during a performance. If I put one word in there - Steve would just laugh like hell! He understood everything. He was like the world's hippest person and he was just on top of everything. So he would request me, "Get Pete back, get Pete back." We always had this great relationship when I'd sit on the panel. He wouldn't do any pre-interview or anything. He said, "Just do whatever you want" and he always trusted me. It was pretty amazing.
Kliph Nesteroff: One episode you were on with Gypsy Rose Lee...
Pete Barbutti: Yes, jeez, I can't even tell you the amount of people I was on with. I did so many talk shows over the years and I had so much material. Most comics have an hour total if they stretch, but I literally had hours of material. I could do talk shows and do something different every time, so I became king of the talk shows. I could do something that was half music and half monologue and that was kind of unique. I did Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and I did The Tonight Show when it was in New York. Carson had just taken over and they told me, "This is your first show, so don't go to the panel. Do your stand-up and walk off." "Okay, I understand the pecking order." So, Mel Torme was on right before me and Carson loved Mel. Mel was hot. He had a couple of big records and he was doing movies and TV. I went on next and whatever I did it was very "inside," like the fourth trumpet player routine. Very hip. The band laughed, they roared at it, Mel laughed and Carson laughed.
I finished the routine and I was walking off and Carson came and got me. He took me to the panel and did two full segments with me. Everyone was saying during the break, "He's never done this! He's never done this!" Then he was telling a story to me and to whoever else was on the panel - and Mel Torme started laughing. Carson assumed that he was laughing at the story. Carson got all buoyed up. Mel Torme then said,"I'm sorry, John, I don't mean to interrupt you. I just can't stop laughing at that thing Pete did." Carson turned off like a light switch! It was as if I had been trying to out-do him, which certainly was not my intent. He said, "Okay, we'll be right back." We went to break and someone asked me to leave. Fred DeCordova was the producer, but he was already one hundred years old, so he wasn't doing much. Peter Lassally was the real producer. He was a big fan of mine and would call me four or five times a year and say, "I mentioned your name to Johnny, but he said, 'No way! Never!' He kicked over a chair. He's still mad."
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow, what year would this have been?
Pete Barbutti: This was probably mid-sixties. I was doing Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas anytime I wanted to. Then I started doing the Arthur Godfrey radio show. I was working Reno at Harrah's. It was a room that seated ninety. Tiny room with a full orchestra. I was working with Frankie Laine or somebody. The same group of people came in every night. They were very, very hip. I could tell they were in the business. So after being in there three or four nights I walked out into the casino and they were standing there. They said, "We just wanted to say hello and tell you how much we've enjoyed you. We're the production company for The Arthur Godfrey Show. He's over at the Nugget in Sparks, Nevada. We're doing the show from there and we've been coming in here every night because we just love you!" It was Peter [Lassally] and the bandleader and Arthur's secretary. Peter said, "I'd love you to do Godfrey, but he wouldn't know what the hell you're talking about! But you should come over and meet him."
I went over the next afternoon and sat in the audience for the first show. They used to do three in one day. They took a break and Peter motioned me up and he said, "Arthur, this is Pete Barbutti." He said, "So you're the guy that has been keeping my people up every night, eh?" I said, "I'm afraid so, Mr. Godfrey." Godfrey said, "Why don't you stick around and do one of our shows?" Peter shook his head yes. I said, "Okay, Mr. Godfrey, thank you." I wasn't on first, I was sitting around on their panel and thinking, "What the hell am I going to do that he will understand?" Then I figured, "Ah, fuck it. I'll just do what I do." I did something really off-the-wall and when I got finished the other people were laughing and Godfrey was staring at me like I was an alien. He stared at me for several seconds, but it seemed like a year. Then he started laughing and convulsing and he couldn't even talk. There was something about what I did that tickled him. I have no idea what it was, but I was sort of the antithesis of him. He was from the old days of radio when if you said "hell" or "damn" or anything religious you were finished. He was like the father of radio.
He said, "When you come to New York - you call. I want you to be on the show." I assumed he was just being polite. I went into New York and did a couple of Merv Griffin shows a couple different times. Next time I went back to New York I figured I better call him because he's going to think that I think I'm too good for the show or something. Godfrey picked up the phone himself. He said, "Get over here! We're doing three shows a day for the next ten days and you're going to do all of them." I said, "All right." And he let me do anything I wanted to; whatever I wanted to say, any subject. Whatever I did he would break up. As soon as I said hello he would start laughing.
That introduced me to a whole new audience because the people that watch Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin don't listen to the radio. With the Godfrey people and all the people that travel and work in the offices - a whole new audience. That existed in those days, more than it does today. Then I did The Garry Moore Show for a season and the same thing happened. I got letters and letters from people saying, "Who are you? We've never heard of you!" And I had been on TV shows already, but it was a completely different audience.
Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on a TV show called On Broadway Tonight.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, it was a summer replacement and they had Rudy Vallee on as the host. Rudy Vallee, about one hundred years ago, recorded Winchester Cathedral with a megaphone. It became a hit and then for some reason there was this retro-record and they did it again and then everybody wanted Rudy Vallee. He was the host of the show and he was a terrible host. Not a very bright man. I think he also holds the record as being the stingiest of people - along with all the other people that are famous for that, but Rudy was number one. The producer was Irving Mansfield. They had pretty good people on the show. I did a couple of those and then the network picked it up for a regular season. The first one I did had Judy Garland, Tony Martin and Diahann Carroll all on the one show. It was a bigtime show and that again was a whole new audience, a variety Ed Sullivan type of thing.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you have any run-ins with Rudy Vallee? He was kind of a square...
Pete Barbutti: He didn't have any idea what I was doing. I'd run into him from time to time and we'd talk. We had a good relationship, but Rudy Vallee lived in a different world. When they picked up the option and it became a big budget show... I think they paid him five thousand dollars to host the summer replacement and now they were giving him twenty-thousand a show. The producer said, "Rudy, do me a favor. We did eight shows last summer and you wore the same suit for all of them. Get some new suits." Rudy said, "Well, it's obligatory for the producer to buy the wardrobe." Irving said, "I'm not going to buy a full wardrobe for you! I might buy a few suits..." "Put that in writing." "No, I'll give you my word - I'll get you some suits." "Put it in writing!" So Irving, to spite Rudy, had his secretary come in. He said, "Type this up. I, Irving Masnfield, agree to buy Rudy Vallee a few suits." That was exactly the language. Rudy went down to the tailor and he had two suits made. The show lasted one season. When it ended he sued Irving for another suit because the word "few" implies at least three!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: He sued him for the third suit! I ran into Irving and he told me about that.
Kliph Nesteroff: How did you hook up with Nat King Cole and start touring with him?
Pete Barbutti: Well, I was hired to do the comedy in the show and also to write. Nat's records... everything he recorded sold a million back in that era. He was the king. He owned Capitol Records. He was going on the road because he needed a ton of money. The IRS... they sent a guy from Mississippi to audit him. This was 1960, so I don't have to tell you the relationship there. He showed up at Nat's house. He lived by a golf course in Los Angeles and it was [in an] all white [neighborhood]. No black people. I think it was called Muirfield Village. Every year Nat had three new cars. He had a deal with the dealership. His wife Maria liked a Cadillac, he liked to drive a Lincoln and he also had a Jaguar. The deal was that they would come every year when the new models came out and they'd pick up the old car and drop the new one off - and Nat would write them a cheque for a thousand dollars. So it only cost him three thousand dollars a year for three new cars. He never changed the oil, never changed a tire, never bought a sparkplug - they were new cars all the time. So the guy from the IRS saw this and came down on Nat hard. Nat had to pay off a six-figure thing. So, he had to go on the road. In those days the tax bracket [for someone wealthy] was around eighty percent.
Nat booked this tour and put together a show with a full orchestra and sixteen singers and dancers called The Merry Young Souls; eight black, eight white, eight girls, eight boys. They would be dancing together onstage so the tour couldn't include any Southern cities. There was no theme to the show, so they brought me in to write the connective tissue to hold the show together. Nat had to do some lines in between, so I wrote him some jokes. Again, Nat Cole was a piano player. I mean, he was a famous singer, but he was a magnificent piano player. In fact, Oscar Peterson told me that Nat was the most important piano player of our generation because he changed from the Art Tatum style up to the new style of playing. He was the biggest force that came along in a hundred years.
We connected right away. We had the same taste in music and we were both very liberal. There was a bus for the singers and the dancers and the band. There was a truck with all the lighting and equipment and then Nat and I flew everywhere first class. Our schedule was such that we'd go to the airport in the morning, we'd go to the town, there'd be a limousine waiting at the airport to the hotel. We'd get a couple hours of sleep. I always got the connecting room to his suite. We'd get up, order some room service, go down and do the show, then come up afterward and play piano and joke. He drank J&B Scotch and I'd drink a Root Beer or something and have some food sent up. Every now and then we'd go out for dinner. Go to sleep around one in the morning - get up about five and do the same thing. We did forty-one one-nighters in a row.
Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.
Pete Barbutti: You never even knew what town you were in. I woke up one time in the hotel and I couldn't find a phone book or any matches or an ashtray or anything that would say "Omaha" or whatever. I had to call my wife and say, "Look at the schedule and find out where I am."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: I was afraid to call the front desk and ask, "What town are we in?" The guy would have thought I was a whacko. But Nat was just special. One of the greatest people that ever lived, an incredible talent and just one of the nicest human beings.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was this his final tour before he...
Pete Barbutti: Yes. I left the tour... I didn't want to leave it. I had a chance to do a couple of big TV shows in London and the guy that was appointed Nat's manager was a guy that not even Nat liked. A young Black man out of UCLA, a football all-star. The NAACP put pressure on Nat to have a Black manager. He had a guy named Carlos Gaston before, a Latino guy, and they said to Nat, "You need a Black manager." This was 1962-63. This guy's name was Ike Jones. Nobody liked him. Everybody hated him. So I said to Ike, "I have a chance to do these two big TV shows in London. They're full orchestra and everything. They're big time shows." He said, "No. You leave - you're finished." So, I left, they hired another comic, and Nat only lived another couple months. That was his last tour, yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: I have a thing here, says you hosted a telethon on KXLY featuring Jim Nabors, January 1965.
Pete Barbutti: Mmm hmm, boy, I don't remember. I know Jim Nabors, I've done... where is KXLY?
Kliph Nesteroff: Spokane.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, well, probably. I hosted a bunch of things up there. I also did a pilot for a TV series that was from the same guys that wrote The Steve Allen Show. They put it together and we started taping it in Spokane and then they couldn't be there. So I had to direct this. Washington State had a great studio because one of their alumni was... the famous guy... You Are There... what the hell is...
Kliph Nesteroff: Edward R. Murrow.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah! Edward R. Murrow. He went there, so he donated all kinds of great equipment. They didn't know what to do, so I was directing and (laughs). I remember I wanted to do this thing with a concert piano and every note I would hit would go, "Bok, bok, bok!" And then I would open the piano and thirty chickens fly out (laughs). Just a one minute thing. So this guy brought all these chickens in and we filled the piano with chickens and put the lid down. I said, "Can they breathe?" He said, "Yeah, it's not that tight and we'll put a little wedge so it stays up a quarter inch." So, I would go ahead and play the piano and we would dub in the music. So, I pounded on the keys and looked around like, "What's happening?" I run over and lift the lid and none of the chickens moved! Thirty chickens just laid there and stared at me (laughs). I fell on the floor laughing so hard. That was funnier than if they flew out!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) So, the premise of this show was like a variety...
Pete Barbutti: Yes. That was what was hot in those days.
Kliph Nesteroff: Spokane is a strange place to be taping a variety show.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, well this guy John Powell had a lot of connections because it was his home. He went to WSU, so he knew a lot of people there. When UNLV, Las Vegas, got their first division one rating for football the first game was against Washington State in Spokane. One of the boosters from UNLV came to me and said, and a lot of mob guys helped the school get started, "The only way we can get this game on the schedule is if we put together a fundraiser for WSU." I called a bunch of friends and a bunch of comics and impressionists and the late Joe Williams, the singer that was with Count Basie for years. A monster of a singer. Joe said, "Yeah, I'll do it." Joe Williams sang a couple songs and the comics did a couple of routines.
We did a routine where I had t-shirts made up. One t-shirt said "UNLV" and one said "WSU." Joe played a Black athlete [being recruited]. We did this whole sketch about this guy from UNLV talking to the athletes saying, "You know, if you come to Las Vegas, you're only a couple hundred miles from Los Angeles and Hollywood and we'll get you seats for all the great concerts and we have private plane." The guy from WSU says, "Well, we're only sixty miles from Richland and you can go up there and watch the wheat grow." Then the UNLV guy says, "We're only forty miles from the world famous [Playboy] bunny ranch. We can get you a girlfriend anytime you want." Then the guy from WSU says, "Hey, well, we've got some sheep out here that you can..." Anyway, the pay-off to the thing is they say to Joe Williams, "Where are you going to go to school?" He says, "I'm gonna go to Gonzaga. If it's good enough for Bing Crosby, it's good enough for me." And then he sang a Bing Crosby song.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1965 you played Lake Tahoe with the Spage-Age Lounge favorite Esquivel.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah!
Kliph Nesteroff: I've never talked to anybody who played with Esquivel. What was he like?
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, he was a character. Esquivel was sort of a jive and shuck artist. He had good musicians and he had good singers and he would "direct" them, but nobody would be looking at him.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: It's like... who's the guy that wrote Raindrops Are Falling on My Head?
Kliph Nesteroff: Burt Bacharach.
Pete Barbutti: Burt Bacharach! He's a jive artist too. His songs all sound the same and they're all terrible songs. Burt Bacharach, he would work Vegas and he'd have a full orchestra and he'd be directing them and cuing them and nobody would even look at him. They'd all be looking at the sheet music. It was all straight-ahead. All nonsense. So, Esquivel was the same thing. He was a mediocre piano player. He had a little technique, but he wasn't very creative.
He had good singers and musicians and at the time his lead trumpet player was Louis Basil, who was a monster of a lead player. He ended up in the show bands here in Vegas. He's back in Los Angeles now. He's still one of the top guys. Esquivel was an egomaniac. He was an egomaniac! Whenever I was on a show with him or had to mention or introduce him he always said, "Remember! It's Ess-KEE-vell, not Ess-KWEE-vell! Ess-KEE-vell!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: Always a pain in the ass.
Kliph Nesteroff: You also appeared in 1965 on That Regis Philbin Show.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, you know Regis took over from Steve Allen. That's how that happened. Steve left in disgrace. Westinghouse produced that show. Westinghouse is real whitebread, you know. Steve had a segment on the show called Meeting of the Minds.
Kliph Nesteroff: Right.
Pete Barbutti: I'm sure you're familiar with the premise.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.
Pete Barbutti: And the first one, I was there for the taping and he did it without an audience. He said, "I don't want the audience to laugh at what these people are saying." The first subject was crime and punishment. He would get six character actors and they were all very bright people. He would say, "We're taping in one month - and you will be Sigmund Freud. The subject is crime and punishment." This guy would go to the library and get everything he could on Freud's views about crime and punishment. Next guy would be Aristotle. They were not all from the same era.
When the segment went on they were dressed in period [costume] and Steve would just be in his suit. He'd say, "What do you feel about this?" And Freud would say whatever, "All crime is because people are crazy." Whitehead would say, "No one should ever be punished for a crime." Westinghouse would say, "Steve! You can't have them say that on the air!" So they were down on him about that. Anyway, so Steve Allen had an affair with a girl singer named Jennie Smith. She was an absolutely gorgeous singer. A pretty good singer, but a gorgeous girl.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have a record by her.
Pete Barbutti: Jayne [Meadows, Steve Allen's wife] got wind of it and it became a little more overt than it should have been. Jennie was a whacko anyway. Steve was going to break it off and Jennie attacked him backstage with a pair of scissors and tried to stab him...
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow.
Pete Barbutti: Anyway, this thing got [out of control] and the police got called. It hit the news and so Westinghouse went to Steve Allen and said, "Look, either take out Meeting of the Minds or we're going to invoke the morals clause." Well, Steve was already worth about fifty-million dollars or maybe one hundred million. He said, "Hey, take a hike!" He owned all the tapes. He owned everything and said, "Forget it," and walked away. He got out of that world and he tried to come back about three years later but... it didn't work.