Monday, October 17, 2011

An Interview with Bobby Ramsen - Part Five

Kliph Nesteroff: I've been speaking with many of your contemporaries. With the help of your contributions I have been amassing, quite by default, an elaborate portrait of post-war supperclub culture as a whole.

Bobby Ramsen: Very interesting. Sounds like a great hook and that this is all coming into being. Hopefully it is of interest to those who did not live in it. In Steve Allen's book he says, "There are three hundred and sixty-four comedians in America." How he zeroed in on that number I do not know, but can you imagine? He had a pretty good estimate. I guess he went to AGVA, the big important union for nightclubs. AGVA was formed for circus people originally. They were in competition with SAG and AFTRA. If you worked in a nightclub the jurisdiction ended up being with AGVA. From 1945 to 1955 it was a party. People had money in their pockets. People were celebrating the victory. People were going out and enjoying themselves. Every other door in Chicago, Boston, New York City... was a nightclub! There were so many clubs and so many acts. Not just comedians, but singers and dance teams and contortionists. There were so many acts, all AGVA members. Philadelphia was filled with nightclubs! Philadelphia comedians had a reputation for being able to do an hour and a half or two hours. They could just go on and on with material and songs and parodies...

Kliph Nesteroff: It's also incredible how few people wrote their own material back then.

Bobby Ramsen: Practically nobody did. Then a new era started. Trying to put my finger on it - if this wasn't the beginning of it - it was right around the same time. Mort Sahl wrote his own material. Nobody had that reputation prior to Mort Sahl. There was somebody else that was formerly a gagwriter.... now that I'm thinking about it... he was really the start... Morey Amsterdam. He was a gagwriter, had his own radio show on the MGM station WHN. I don't know where they got the call letters. MGM the movie company owned the station and he had a show called The Gloom Dodgers. If I stayed home from school with a cold or whatever I could listen and Morey was on for three or four hours - everything off the top of his head!

There was no script. He would kid around with the orchestra leader, he would kid around with other people in the studio. When Jack Carter came out of the service in 1945,  Morey invited him on the show and Jack was a frequent guest on The Gloom Dodgers. Morey had a reputation for writing his own stuff and also performing. I don't know if you have ever seen his stand-up, but some comics would use a fiddle as a prop. That's how Henny Youngman did it. Morey sat in a chair with a big bass cello and he used a cello to play a few notes between gags. Jack Benny may have used a violin to separate the gags in between jokes in vaudeville. Morey would ask the audience for subjects and he would tell a joke on any subject. Carpenters! Maids! Landlords! He had a joke for everyone of them and he was terrific. And Morey had his own nightclub in New York called The Playgoers Club.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh really?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes! It was on Sixth and it was downstairs. It was the sub-basement of the building. The Copacabana was the same thing. It was the basement of the Hotel Fourteen. Morey said, "I get most of my customers because people think this is the subway."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bobby Ramsen: So people used to walk down and he had tables and chairs - nothing elaborate. He would walk out and do his routine. This was during the War. I was a radio actor at the time. Some fellow radio actors and I would go to The Playgoers Club and that was one of the first times I ever got up onstage and told a joke.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes. Morey was doing a routine and he needed somebody to pick a card. I stood up and I said, "I'll pick a card!" At that time the tailors and big companies were making something called a "Victory Suit." It was a suit without cuffs - to save material. They took the cuffs away from pants. I went up onstage and I said to him, "Is that a victory suit?" He said, "Oh, you want to do jokes? Alright." So he answered, "Yes, this is my victory suit." I said, "Well, it looks like you lost." He said, "Good. Now you can go home and tell all your friends you were a big hit at The Playgoers Club."

Kliph Nesteroff: What a cool story.

Bobby Ramsen: So that was the very first time that I did it in front of an audience. Morey is everything people told you and that Bill Persky said to you. He knew more jokes than... he knew every joke ever written. Clubs like Morey's club during the war and then right after the war - everyone was going out and enjoying themselves and, Kliph, there was one club after another. You could go to a town if you were a comedian... if you were a comedian and you went to Boston or Chicago or Philadelphia, you could get yourself a room, go up to a couple of agents and stay there for a couple of years! Maybe longer! And play all of the different clubs that they had. It was seven days a week, not just weekends. Some of the clubs were only three days and there were signs out front. "Dancing and Floorshow! FRI! SAT! SUN!" That was the sign. Sometimes when I say this - someone that is from my era gets a big laugh out of it. "FRI! SAT! SUN!" There was a tremendous amount of work for all kinds of different acts. There was so much work. A lot of the material was blue! They did a lot of blue material in those days, although not myself. Especially in the Boston area.

I played a year in Boston doing all those small clubs. And they were terrific comedians with strong delivery. They did a lot of parodies. They'd sing songs like Matches. "Matches! Matches! You strike them on the floor, you strike them on the walls, I know a guy who strikes them on his balls! Matches! Matches!" And one lyric after another and some of it was pretty blue. The audiences loved it. The places were packed. There was nowhere else to go - television had not come around yet.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was there anybody doing that blue material whose name I would know today?

Bobby Ramsen: I think we touched on a guy named Dave Starr.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Bobby Ramsen: Davey Starr had a reputation for working very blue and the bulk of his income came from stag parties. The same thing Myron Cohen was doing with the farewell parties for young men going into the service. Davey Starr was very big. He wasn't the only one, but I can't think of any other names. They'd maybe have a stripper and hire Dave and he'd get up and do an hours worth of jokes that were bawdy and blue. Some stuff you couldn't even do in a nightclub.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever encounter a comic named Bert Stone?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes! He got me a job in Chicago. Bert Stone was a wonderful, wonderful comedian. He was a good looking guy. Dressed impeccably. A good talker. Wonderful talker with a lot of charm. Then I bumped into him when I started playing Vegas and he looked awful. He had let his health deteriorate. He was drinking. He was a shadow of his former self. He teamed up at one point with a guy named Eddie Shine. It was Stone and Shine. Eddie Shine was a little Irish tapdancer and a wonderful guy with a lot of charm. He and Bert got together and they played a club called the Silver Frolics in Chicago. I was working at a club in Boston. He gave me a call and he said, "I can get you a job at the Silver Frolics in Chicago. Do you want to come? It's three hundred dollars a week." It sounded like a million bucks. I said, "Absolutely!" He got me the job for two weeks at the Frolics. I hadn't heard about them for a long time and I ran into him years later in Vegas as I said - around 1969 or 1970. I first met him around 1950.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Bert Stone was involved in a salacious scandal around 1955-56.

Bobby Ramsen: Really? Please tell me. I am not aware of this.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a Black mistress. He was married to a white woman and he was cheating in Miami Beach with a Black singer named Joanne Duval. Something happened where Bert Stone tried to break it off and she attempted to commit suicide - slashed her wrists and it became a big news story in Miami. She said she was killing herself over Bert Stone. She was six foot two with dyed blonde hair.

Bobby Ramsen: I never heard the story. I was not aware of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: "Stone's real name, LaRoche. The cross complaint stemmed from a fight between the two women in the powder room of the Sans Souci Hotel in Miami Beach during the early morning hours of September 17. Mrs. LaRoche suffered a fractured knee-cap and a torn earlobe in the may lay." So, not only did Bert Stone's mistress attempt suicide, but his mistress and his wife tore each other to shreds at one point.

Bobby Ramsen: Well, I must tell you that Bert was high [on drugs] quite a bit of the time. I was not into that, but Bert was. He also came to see me in Vegas and he looked awful, but he also had little cigarette burns all over his body. You could see it on his hands and he was wearing this short-sleeved polo shirt and I said, "What the hell is that, Bert?" He said, "I don't know. That sex will drive you crazy." I pretty much ran from him. We didn't spend too much time... but at the time that I knew him he had been impeccably dressed, took care of himself and had a wonderful delivery. We all knew each other, Kliph. It's such a small business. As Steve Allen said there were only three hundred some odd comics in America.

Kliph Nesteroff: And two hundred of them were named Jackie.

Bobby Ramsen: Now you can go see six or seven hundred comedians at the local comedy club for goodnesss sake. I remember calling my friend Rodney Dangerfield... couldn't get him on the line, but I got his buddy. A guy named Joe... I don't know if you're aware of him...

Kliph Nesteroff: Joe Ancis.

Bobby Ramsen: Joe Ancis, that's right. Joe was a former comedian who finally gave it up, but was a terrific writer and a terrific editor and helped Rodney put together what they put together. I knew Rodney all the way back. I met him in Boston. He came to play some clubs in Boston. He was a good friend of another guy named Danny Rogers. He played all the clubs in New York and they were good buddies. Joe must have been there when they came up with the "I Can't Get No Respect" phrase.

Kliph Nesteroff: So you knew Joe Ancis?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, I met him a few times with Rodney. I met him when he used to stop into Dangerfield's. I met Joe a couple of times. Anyway, I phoned that one time and I said, "Where is Rodney?" Ancis said, "He bought a house in Connecticut and he just drove Eddie Shine up to the house and then he'll be back. Eddie Shine is going to be house sitting for Rodney for a few weeks." That was the first time I had heard Eddie's name and he was doing a double with Bert Stone.

Kliph Nesteroff: Last time we spoke I asked you who a certain comedy team was and you told me and since then I spoke to one of them. He asked me, "How in the world did you know who I was?"

Bobby Ramsen: Who's that?

Kliph Nesteroff: The comedy team of Storm and Gale. Howard Storm and Lou Alexander.

Bobby Ramsen: So you mentioned Storm and Gale and he was surprised!

Kliph Nesteroff: He says hello.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, that's when I met them. We were all young. We met in a restaurant and we were talking about material and finding a hook. Lou became a very important agent booking groups in lounges in Vegas and did very, very well and Howard Storm became a director of sitcoms. Yes, I've known Howard and Lou since 1950.

Kliph Nesteroff: Someone else I was speaking to, whom you also know, I was talking to for a completely different reason. I had no idea he had written material for you. I'm speaking of the film director Larry Cohen.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh my God, how did you end up with Larry Cohen?

Kliph Nesteroff: [Reason Deleted]

Bobby Ramsen: Ah ha.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is a scene in Larry Cohen's film Hell Up in Harlem in which you get murdered and have a hot dog shoved in your mouth.

Bobby Ramsen: That's right. The character was called Joe Frankfurter.

Kliph Nesteroff: I asked Larry Cohen how is it that nightclub comedian Bobby Ramsen comes out of nowhere for this thirty second cameo in a 1970s action movie. He explained that he knew you from way back and that he had written routines for you.

Bobby Ramsen: That's right he did and we became very, very close. Unfortunately, we haven't seen each other for a while. His mom was a big fan of mine and she used to see me up in the Catskills. We all lived in the same building in Riverdale, New York. She told me that her son was a comedy writer and a wannabe stand-up. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He was writing for a very important show, The Defenders. He did a few scripts for The Defenders. Very important job. His mother wanted me to meet him, so I went downstairs and the rest is sort of history. We became very good friends. He came with me on the different dates that I did and he wrote me a Diner's Club routine and I did it at the Copacabana. I was a big, big hit. The reviews were wonderful for that routine. He's had a wonderful career out there [in Los Angeles]. He made an independent film called Bone. Yaphet Kotto played the part.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let me ask you about some other obscure comedians of the era. Lenny Kent.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes. Lenny was around. I got friendly with Martha Raye. She had a club called The Five O'Clock Club in Miami. One of the first jobs I ever did in Miami came in and caught my act. She was very supportive. She was married to a dancer at the time named Nick Condos. This was around 1950-51 when I was at The Nautilus. We were talking about different comedians and she said, "You take Billy Vine, Jackie Miles, Lenny Kent. These are all war babies." I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "When the war came along most of the comics went into the service. These guys - Jackie Miles, Lenny Kent, Billy Vine - those guys were never drafted. So they became names because they were the only ones around!" So that's where Lenny Kent came in.

Kliph Nesteroff: That makes a lot of sense. All three of them - there names are all over the place at that time. Especially Jackie Miles.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes. Exactly. There weren't too many guys and Jackie was a terrific comedian. He had a very, very slow downbeat kind of style. He would take, like Danny Thomas, an old story and make a ten-minute masterpiece out of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Like you say he ascended during the War period as a popular comic and a big-time draw, but then as the fifties came along and into the sixties - his career fell off...

Bobby Ramsen: Absolutely. I was going with a girl singer who opened the show for him in Baltimore. I drove down to Baltimore to spend time with her and that's where I met Jackie Miles and that was 1952-53. So his popularity lasted until about 1955 and then, you're right, it was over. I don't know if he did any television, but he played the clubs. Lenny Kent you couldn't put into Jackie Miles' category talent wise. Lenny didn't have that much talent.

He was one of those guys who liked to hang around comedians and every now and then said, "Yeah, I'll get up." He'd get up and do some jokes. I saw him at the Latin Casino, a very important club in downtown Philadelphia. Things got so good they went across the Walt Whitman Bridge to Camden, New Jersey and opened up a bigger Latin Casino. I saw Lenny Kent in downtown Philly before they moved. Lenny was just... alright. He couldn't compare with most of the guys that were working at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I watched footage of Lenny Kent bombing and bombing hard on his only Toast of the Town appearance.

Bobby Ramsen: That'll give you the general idea.

Kliph Nesteroff: You can see the flop sweat thirty seconds in. His first gag falls flat and he shouts up to the balcony in this sort of mock tone, "How do you like me so far!?"

Bobby Ramsen: Yeah, he really wasn't cut out to be a comedian. He was a wannabe. He had friends in the business who liked him. Everyone was looking for a catchphrase and he would tell a story about a Texan he met at a bar and the Texan kept saying, "Hot damn! Hot damn!" He made that his catchphrase. It just didn't... it didn't work.  Let me tell you another story. In downtown Philadelphia there was a place called The Walton Roof. The roof of the Walton Hotel and a very prestigious nightclub, upscale and just a classy place.

They played all the biggest stars. The Walton Roof played like a Victor Borge or a Hildegarde. You've got the regular people downstairs at Latin Casino. This was 1952. Frank Sinatra had married Ava Gardner... and they've got a bad marriage. She drove him crazy. She was a very happy-go-lucky lady and she wanted to have a good time and she and Frank just didn't hit it off. They liked each other, they loved each other, but they personally just weren't getting along. They broke up and Sinatra went through hills and valleys and ended up in a valley. He was playing Bill Miller's Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey. A summertime nightclub that was only open for the summer. It had a sliding roof. They could retract the roof and you could see the stars and you would dance under the stars. But Sinatra played it and you could shoot off a cannon and it wouldn't hit anybody. Nobody came.

So he was going through a hard time and he got booked into the Latin Casino. The Latin Casino in Philadelphia was run by this gentleman David Dushoff and Dallas Gerson. So Frank Sinatra is working there and the room is shaped like a railway car. Long and skinny with the tables on the side. As you'd enter the club all the way at the very end was the stage. Behind the stage were the dressing rooms. Sinatra had already done motion pictures and had hit records, but it appeared as if it were now over. This is just prior to From Here to Eternity. Nobody is coming to see him. Okay. Years later I opened for The Supremes. It was the first time they played The Copa. Berry Gordy and all the people from Motown were sitting ringside. Then I went on tour with them and played The Latin Casino in Philadelphia.

So, Sinatra had played there during the valley he was in. The owners Gerson and Dushoff are sitting at the table in front of the door. On his way out after Sinatra does his two shows he passes the table where they're sitting. When I was working there with The Supremes a waiter came backstage. He said, "My name is Joseph. I am going to be your waiter. Anything you would like Mr. Ramsen, I will get for you and your wife. You let me know what kind of liquor you would like and there will be a bottle of each liquor for you in your dressing room. If there is anything I can do for you, let me know. Everything is on the house courtesy Mr. Dushoff and Mr. Gerson." It was a dream job. We had the best time. Place was packed, the shows were going well, the girls were very kind. I said to Mr. Duchoff, "I've been around a lot and there are few clubs that treat performers this well. I'm just wondering... I could understand if you were to do this for Milton Berle... but why do you give opening acts like me such great treatment?"

He said, "Bobby, it's not big deal to buy somebody a dinner or treat them to a few drinks. When Sinatra was going through a bad time and nobody was coming to see him - he worked for me and there were only four people in my club. I would sit with my partner at the table by the door and Sinatra would come in, pass the table, do his shows and on the way out pass the table again. I never greeted him hello. I never said goodnight. Neither did he. At the end of the first week he had a tab for seventy dollars and I took it out of his salary. Years later when I became close with Sammy Davis Jr I would say, "Please ask Frank Sinatra to come and work for me." Sammy would come back and say, "I'm sorry, Dave, Frank told me to tell you that if you were the last nightclub owner on earth he wouldn't work for you." Dushoff said to me, "If I had said hello and I had said goodnight and if I had tore up that seventy dollar tab - that man would work for me to this day and pack this room. So any act that comes through this club - opening act - closing act - they can have dinner and drink whatever they want."

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a comic named Lenny Gaines?

Bobby Ramsen: Lenny Gaines is an interesting story. There is always somebody who hangs around on the fringes of show business. He hangs around the Friars Club. He hangs around Hanson's. He just hangs around and he is loved by the people he hangs around with. Lenny Gaines' wife was a singer in the group that backed up Perry Como on The Perry Como Show. One of the sweetest women I have ever met. Her name was Marilyn. Just sweet as sugar and Lenny was the nicest guy in the world. He told great stories. Some of the funniest men that ever lived were butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. They just never had the guts or never had the drive, but to sit with them at a table? They were a scream. Lenny Gaines was one of those guys. He went to Hollywood once. Milton was rolling on the floor at the stories Lenny would tell. Anyway, they all got together. Jan Murray, Hal March, those kind of guys that were hot and big at the time. All those guys.

They got him a job at the Gatineau Country Club in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. They gave him two, three, four hundred for the week or whatever it was. Goes up to the Gatineau Country Club and he's going to do an act. He going to tell stories and so on and so forth. "Ladies and gentleman! The Gatineau Country Club is proud to present! Mr. Lenny Gaines!" He walked out on the stage and said, "Badah. Bwahhhh.... Buh-buh-buh-bwah...." He couldn't talk! He froze! And that was the end of the engagement!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bobby Ramsen: So it was one of those things. A man who couldn't do it on a professional basis, but was hysterical at a table. There was a place that everyone used to go on Thursdays. All of the actors and comedians and Milton used to hang around there in Los Angeles. The Caffe Roma. You can ask Howard Storm about the Caffe Roma. Howard used to hang there also. Lenny Gaines became a greeter at Caffe Roma because everyone knew him and everyone loved him. That is what he finally ended up doing. He also got an acting job in New York, New York; the Robert Deniro - Liza Minnelli picture. He got a few acting jobs.

Kliph Nesteroff: He must be dead, huh?

Bobby Ramsen: I would say probably so. He had a few years on me so...

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm speaking with a man tomorrow who is in his nineties. A gent named Stan Irwin who used to book Vegas.

Bobby Ramsen: He certainly did! He put me into Vegas! Absolutely. Please tell him I say hello. Stan was a stand-up comedian and a guy named Del Webb fell in love with him. He just thought the sun rose and set on Stan Irwin. Del Webb was a builder of different venues and became associated with a place called the Sahara Hotel. Milton Prell loved Stan also. Del Webb built the hotel and Milton Prell was a promoter. He used to run a little bingo game somewhere and the rest is history. And he loved Stan and he used to use him as a stand-up comedian.

The day came eventually that Stan became the booker and the entertainment director of the Sahara Hotel. That's where I met them. This was after my Copacabana opening with Julius LaRosa, which opened all the doors to Vegas. I went into the Sahara Hotel with Teresa Brewer and then they brought me back a few months later with Pat Boone. Stan later had a part on some television show. Some sitcom where he played the chauffeur. I don't know how long it lasted.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was the television sitcom version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Bobby Ramsen: Ah, I didn't realize they used the same name as the movie. That's terrific. Anyway, that's how I know Stan and he was booking the biggest star. He's the one who put Rickles in the lounge.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I got Stan Irwin's number from a guy named Milt Moss.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, of course. Milt is good friends with another comic named Will Jordan.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. Will Jordan gave me Milt Moss' phone number. Milt gave me Stan Irwin's number. One person leads to another. It's also interesting how all these guys were comedians, but Milt is best known for acting in commercials and Stan is best known for booking the Sahara.

Bobby Ramsen: It's true. You never know where someone is going to wind up. Most of the writers that wrote for All in the Family and Alice and Rhoda - that era of guy - it's almost a guarantee that ninety percent of those guys started out as a stand-up comic - drifted into something else and did very, very well. They have a group that meets every now and then in the city, but I don't get to it as much as I would like because I am in Jersey.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes. What a wonderful man he is. And his father is an old friend of mine. They're terrific people. Yes, I've been asked to go and Gloria, my darling wife, and I will definitely be there. He is so talented. Have you seen an example of his work?

Kliph Nesteroff: Certainly. He and I have parallel lives in different art forms. We specialize in the same genre and belong to a mutual admiration society.

Bobby Ramsen: That's wonderful. His work is really fabulous and he is a wonderful, wonderful artist. His dad, Bruce Jay Friedman, and I go way back. I first met Bruce around 1950-51, so we go back a long way. I was thrilled and proud to be included in the third edition. Is there a chance that you'll be in this area for the event?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, unfortunately I'll be in Los Angeles meeting with [name withheld].

Bobby Ramsen: Well, it would be great if you could come.

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