Kliph Nesteroff: You participated in a weirdo venture that nobody remembers. The United Network.
Pete Barbutti: Oooh... yeah.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Las Vegas Show with Bill Dana.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, Bill Dana. I remember we had two writers that were hot and cold. They would write you the funniest thing you ever heard and then the worst things you ever heard. They had a cadre of comics. The comics were Jo Anne Worley, Ann Elder, John Byner, Jackie Vernon, me and a guy from New York named Danny something or other.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Sheldon too?
Pete Barbutti: Jack Sheldon was the bandleader. They wanted a bandleader who was somewhat of a character. Jack couldn't conduct and he couldn't read a score. It was an all-star, medium sized band. Bill Dana was the host. The director was a guy named Win Opie, who was clueless. I mean, Bill Dana is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world. Terrible host. He didn't have the charisma to be a host, but he was still a genius. They'd have a technical problem and they'd say, "We can't get this or that." The director would be screaming, "Get that camera out of there!"
Bill Dana would step forward and say, "Win, why don't you just lay off camera two and then the guy with the handheld can move to point B and then you switch here and you got the whole thing covered." It was like - why couldn't anybody else think of that? He would do that probably twice a week. Anyway, we had the biggest stars from John Wayne to Maureen O'Hara. The biggest stars did it. Bill and I hit it off. We'd do these routines together and I found that I could always break him up, which was wonderful.
After we finished a show on a Friday the producer came in. David Sontag. Another no-talent. He said, "I'm sorry to tell you, we've done our last show." Bill Dana said, "What do you mean? Two weeks notice?" "No, we're never doing another show. We're finished." Nobody got their cheque. It was called the United Network. Bill Dana flew to New York and went to the people who were bankrolling the show. He said, "I don't really need the money, but pay everyone else and if there's anything left you can pay me." That's the kind of guy Bill Dana is.
Kliph Nesteroff: Who was bankrolling it?
Pete Barbutti: It was a cattle company out of Kansas. The show was actually doing some numbers. They had us on at two am in the Midwest. At four am in New York. They didn't give us any kind of a timeslot, so it was just terrible, but the show was starting to get some numbers and starting to make some noise. Bigger people wanted to do it. But their accountants went to them and said, "You know, if you bankrupt the show you can come out and do this and do this and switch these funds over here and take a loss here and make this much money here..." That's what they did. It had nothing to do with the artistic content.
Kliph Nesteroff: It was supposed to be an actual television network like NBC or ABC - and this was its flagship show.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, the United Network.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did they ever have any other programming?
Pete Barbutti: No, nothing else.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's such a weird...
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, the show could have gone... you know Carson was going to bring The Tonight Show here [to Las Vegas] when he was trying to buy the Aladdin Hotel - which is now Planet Hollywood. He was going to buy the Aladdin Hotel. Wayne Newton crimped the deal.
Kliph Nesteroff: Ah.
Pete Barbutti: Wayne was very tight with the governor at the time, Bob List. Both right-wingers. So they got together and they started a big investigation of Carson's money sources. Carson had spent a couple hundred thousand having plans drawn up. He was going to bring The Tonight Show in!
Kliph Nesteroff: This is the seed of hatred between Carson and Wayne Newton...
Pete Barbutti: Yes. Yes, so Wayne bought the hotel and his partner was a guy named Ed Torres - one of the most hated human beings in this town. A Mob guy and hated. A vicious, crude man. Shecky Greene hated Ed Torres. Ed Torres owned The Riviera at one time and it was Shecky's birthday. Shecky's manager told him that Ed Torres wanted to bring in a cake. Shecky said, "Tell him not to bring in a cake! I hate that son of a bitch."
So Shecky is doing his act and right in the middle of it, here comes Ed Torres with a great big birthday cake. He says, "Happy Birthday, Shecky!" And he hands it to Shecky. Shecky looked at Torres. Shecky looks at the audience. He takes the birthday cake and he smashes it into his own face right on stage, and he ground it in! Threw it on the floor and he stomped on it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.
Pete Barbutti: Torres ran offstage.
Kliph Nesteroff: Tell me more about this Johnny Carson - Wayne Newton venture...
Pete Barbutti: Well, it was a big feud, man. Carson really hated him. Hated him! And Wayne is not a nice person. He's not a nice person and he's not an honest person. I don't wish him any bad luck, but there is such a thing as karma and he is having his problems now. He can't sing. He has no voice at all.
Kliph Nesteroff: That went on for a long, long time - the back and forth between Newton and Carson...
Pete Barbutti: Yeah. Johnny and I had a strange relationship. Like I told you back in our first thing - he wouldn't let me on and I was blackballed. Then I got a call from John Davidson who was subbing for Carson. I said, "John, I'd love to do it and you're a good buddy, but I'm not allowed on the show." Davidson said, "Well, let me ask Peter Lassally." Peter called and said, "As long as Carson is not here you can do it." So I did it with John Davidson and something like fifteen other co-hosts. I'm talking about every other month! Whoever was hosting they'd call me and I was doing it a lot.
Then I got a call from someone at the show, "Can you come down on Friday and do the show?" I said, "Who's hosting?" He said, "Carson." I said, "But I'm on the list." The guy said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that. I know there's a list, but I didn't realize you're on it. I'll find you another date." Later the guy called back. He said, "I mentioned your name to Carson. He said, 'Great." So I went in and did the show and I never said anything about it to Carson - and he never said anything about it to me. Then after that I got called frequently and we developed this relationship again. He would refer to me even when I wasn't on the show. He'd say, "That sounds like something Barbutti would say!" or "Get the 'cor-deen out. Get Pete and his 'cor-deen out." They had rules.
Carson walks in and he'd be flanked by two producers and a security guard. You were never to approach him when the show was starting. But when he came in he'd always leave his guys and come over to where I was and tell me the latest dirty joke and I'd tell him the latest dirty joke and we'd laugh. There'd be some inside joke and then he'd refer to it on the show. They had these rules. Never touch him! Never interrupt him! But with me he'd say, "We'll be right back." And I'd grab his arm, "Wait, wait, wait! I've got to tell you this one more thing!"
I'd always apologize later, but he'd say to me after, "You know what? I don't care what you do because you always score and that makes the show look good. Tomorrow on the subway people will say, 'Did you see Johnny's show last night?' They might not even remember your name, but they'll remember it was on Johnny's show." So he was very gracious. He invited me to his home... which I didn't go to. I thought that was a little bit... he was a little bit... he was a very private person. Nobody really knew him.
Kliph Nesteroff: But that's something. To be invited to his home? That didn't happen to very many people.
Pete Barbutti: Yes. Even Ed McMahon wasn't invited to his home. He was very private. I went in once to do the show and the bass player Joe Dibartolo said, "Hey, Petie, did you see the show last night? We were doing a number with a bass solo and when we came back from break the audience screamed. Johnny said, 'That was great! Doc, what's the bass player's name?" He'd been in the band twenty-two years and Carson didn't know his name!
Kliph Nesteroff: The illusion was that Carson was tight with the band because he himself was a drummer...
Pete Barbutti: Yes. Yeah.
Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you were on an episode of Merv Griffin... an interesting line-up... yourself, Edward Everett Horton and the comedy writer Jack Douglas.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah. I was fascinated with Jack. He was one of those guys who would always tell a story that you knew was ninety-nine percent true and he was a very, very clever guy. He went to Alaska and he was writing a book or something and he had wolves living in his house. I mean, he was a real bizarre human being.
Kliph Nesteroff: I'm just familiar with him as Henry Morgan's writer and as Jack Paar's writer...
Pete Barbutti: Well, he did have a locked in sense of humor. I found him wonderfully entertaining and he was fun to talk to.
Kliph Nesteroff: Another episode of Merv Griffin... you were on with Fat Jack E. Leonard and Allan Sherman.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, Allan was a good, good friend and a very creative guy. He was a nice human being and I did some shows with Allan in New York when he hosted a late night show. I don't remember the name of it. It was like a talk show, variety show and they had different hosts every week and I did it with several people. A couple I did with Allan and he was just the dearest man. He was supportive and you could hang out with him and talk and laugh. He was a real good guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: Didn't he have a sad ending?
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, he died young. He was never happy. He had the built-in Jewish guilt, like he was born with it. He was a very talented guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jackie Vernon?
Pete Barbutti: Yes, Jackie was a good buddy. I spent more than one night at Jackie's house in New York. He and his wife Hazel were very nice people. Jackie was sad. Jackie was one of those people who... when he got nervous he ate. He ate and ate until he got so big he could barely carry it around anymore.
Kliph Nesteroff: How come Jackie Vernon never became more of a household name?
Pete Barbutti: Um, I don't know. He was a little too hip for the crowd. A nice man.
Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned in passing that you became a regular on Garry Moore's program - one of the many incarnations.
Pete Barbutti: A dear, dear man. A dear, dear man. Terrible writers. That show had a cadre of performers that included myself, Jon Byner and Ron Carey. There were all these talented people, but the routines were horrible! They were all by Garry Moore's old writers and they just rehashed old things. Same sketches, they'd just change the names. It was embarrassing. We had to rewrite all of the routines before they could go on the air.
Garry was very, very nice and extremely kind to me. He called me into his office after the third week. He said, "We just got the feedback from the first show - we show it to people before it goes on the air. They have a button on their chair they push - approve - disapprove - and your set came out on top. Better than anything else on the show." He was very, very gracious. Nice man. He had a drinking problem.
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really?
Pete Barbutti: Yeah.
Kliph Nesteroff: I knew he had a cigarette problem, of course.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, he had a drinking problem. I don't think he ever drank when he worked, but he did one show with the Marquis Chimps. They had a built in fear... in those days most of the animal trainers were drunks. Many animal acts were averse to the smell of alcohol. Garry Moore rollerskated out on stage. He was going to do an act with the Marquis Chimps on rollerskates and they all took off and climbed up in the lofts at CBS and it took hours to get them down.
Kliph Nesteroff: Garry Moore retired in the middle of his career. He could have go on much longer. Did it have anything to do with that issue?
Pete Barbutti: Uh, I think it probably did. And he had enough money and Garry was a simple man.
Kliph Nesteroff: He was so prolific in the fifties and sixties doing multiple shows and then just - boom - cuts it right off - and nothing.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, well, Carson did the same thing. Carson left and he left. You didn't see him on anything. He didn't do any specials or the US Open... he was just gone.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were a regular on Jackie Gleason's summer replacement...
Pete Barbutti: Right, yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Away We Go.
Pete Barbutti: With a young George Carlin and Buddy Greco - and it had a great band. It was Buddy Rich's band. A killer band. Buddy Greco was at the height of his career and George was being very creative. I went in to do an episode and I went to the band room because I know most of the musicians. I was in the band room and everyone in there was either reading a book about physics or economics. Then I went upstairs to our dressing room and everyone up there is smoking dope! It was like, "What's wrong with this picture!?"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) The reverse.
Pete Barbutti: (laughs) Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get to know Carlin?
Pete Barbutti: Yes. George was a good friend. He kept a house here in [Las Vegas] for tax purposes, so we'd talk. Just a good guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: And Buddy Greco?
Pete Barbutti: Buddy and his wife Leslie opened a club in Palm Springs. Buddy fell into hard times here and declared bankruptcy. They bought a mini-ranch way past The Strip, way out by the airport. They had horses, burros, dogs everything. They bought the hotel nearby and they made a lot of money. Then they moved out to Palm Springs, bought this club.
Instead of leasing it they bought it and found out - before they could open it - there were a lot of code violations. Put a lot of money into it and as of a year ago the club is bankrupt, they lost their home, and now they're living in London, England. They have nothing.
Kliph Nesteroff: There are a lot of male singers from that era that are still alive - and you don't hear from them much. Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, Tony Martin...
Pete Barbutti: Herb Jeffries is still alive! 96!
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes and Tony Martin is 97.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, well, Tony looks 97.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: And he sounds 97.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter tells me that they just recently moved him to a home a couple weeks ago.
Pete Barbutti: I wouldn't doubt it. I did a show with him two years ago and they said, "Would you mind announcing Tony?" I said, "No, problem." But I said, "You know, somebody has got to take him off. You can't just let him walk off to music. Someone has to go, 'Tony Martin!" So, I did that at the end of his set. I went, "Tony Martin!" People were shouting, "Bring him back!" I said, "He's moving so slow - he isn't even off yet!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: It took him about ten minutes to get off the stage!
Kliph Nesteroff: You did a show a couple years ago with Jerry Vale.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, Jerry has no voice at all anymore. Jerry is content to watch the ballgame and drink some wine. He's never gonna sing again. He had a very bad stroke and he could have come back from it, but I think it became too difficult for him. Jerry is one of those acts who... even when he was good he wasn't good. He came in to see Shecky one night and he sat in what they call King's Row. The first row of booths. When the show was over Shecky said, "I want to introduce a great buddy of mine. Jerry Vale!" The audience cheered and Jerry took a bow. Shecky then said, "When Jerry leaves the carpenter comes in and raises the booth a half a tone."
Kliph Nesteroff: In his heyday, he was not the most popular guy.
Pete Barbutti: Well, Jerry was very unhip - very corny, y'know. And yet, his best friends were Sinatra and Jack Jones. Nobody understands that.
Kliph Nesteroff: And Jack Jones is still around.
Pete Barbutti: Jack is still around. He lives in Palm Desert. He got married again and I think that's number eight or nine. He introduces her as his final wife. She's a lovely girl. Jack seems very happy.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Don Rickles? I saw a photo of a marquee in which you were playing the lounge and he was in the main room.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, the Sahara. He was one of the acts that was part of that cadre when I was working there. Don has been a good friend for... probably thirty-five years. He's one of the gentlest, sincerest guys you'll ever meet. He has exactly the same act he had twenty-five years ago. He has never changed it and he doesn't care.
Kliph Nesteroff: One of your comedy records... intrigues me more than the others because of the label it was on. It was pressed by Chicago soul outfit VeeJay Records.
Pete Barbutti: That was the first one I did.
Kliph Nesteroff: They were not known for putting out comedy records so how did that come about?
Pete Barbutti: VeeJay signed me, Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge all at the same time. Randy Woods was a guy from Chicago who moved to LA and started the record company. He bought a whole bunch of defunct record companies and inherited their tapes. That album did very well for me. It sold quite a few and it got played a lot. Randy Woods - I called him about residuals. I called him and the number was no longer in service. Randy, going through his inventory, found a package still unwrapped from a group in London. It said, "We have this band and we'd like you to hear us. Do whatever you like with the tapes." It was a band called The Beatles.
It had eight songs on it, so Randy released eight singles with a Beatles song on one side and one of his groups on the flipside. Then he released an LP of four Beatles songs and six of his, then another album with... and so on. He did it over and over until he made a million dollars. Capitol Records sued him. They went to court and he won the case. So he moved to Mexico and nobody has seen him since.
Kliph Nesteroff: VeeJay put out some good music.
Pete Barbutti: Yes. They weren't necessarily... they were getting more mainstream when Randy was running it.
Kliph Nesteroff: You put out a comedy LP on Decca. The Very Funny Side of Pete Barbutti. How did that one come about... and how were some of these recorded?
Pete Barbutti: The Very Funny Side of Pete Barbutti was done... the first one was done at The Slate Brothers in Hollywood and the second one was done at The Playboy Club in New York. I used a few trumpets and a rhythm section on that one. They were the guys from Merv's band. Danny Stein and Bill Barry. The drummer was Jake Hanna, one of the best drummers in the world. The engineer called me in after the first day.
He said, "I don't want you to listen to this album yet because we've got a lot to put together." They taped two full nights worth. Four shows. He said, "Are you planning on releasing a religious album?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Listen to this. The drummer - Jake Hanna - every time you tell a joke, Jake hits the bass drum and says, "Jeez-uhs Christ! Jeez-uhs Christ! This guys nuts! Jeez-uhs Christ!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: (laughs) Jake must have said it forty-eight times during the hour.
Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on Pat Boone's old TV show...
Pete Barbutti: Yeah. I outed Pat Boone as a cigar smoker - right on the show. Pat has a locker at the big cigar shop in Beverly Hills. Whenever I did his show we'd always smoke a cigar together. I said, "Nobody knows this - but you're a cigar smoker!" The audience went, "Oooooh..." This Christian audience. He said, "Well, my wife won't let me at home, but every once in a while after dinner..." Y'know? Well, he also drinks good brandy and curses and tells dirty jokes! Outing him for the cigar was enough. He's a nice guy, Pat.
Kliph Nesteroff: Very strange line-up on one episode. Yourself, Pat Boone, Ella Fitzgerald and a young Kenny Rogers.
Pete Barbutti: Yes. Ella was, of course, one of the great treasures of our lifetime. One of the dearest ladies and the greatest artist who ever lived and the kindest person. Kenny Rogers, well, he had no idea what he was doing.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: Kenny was a very, very good bass player and he worked with a group out of Houston called The Bobby Doyle Trio. They came to Vegas. It was Bobby, Kenny and a drummer. They used to sing like the Hi-Los and they were incredible. Bobby Doyle was a brilliant musician.
They came to town and backed The Kirby Stone Quintet and that's how everyone in town knew about them. Steve Wynn liked him and he signed him up and he was working downtown at the Golden Nugget for scale, just in the lounge. He left and had his big hits and movies and he was gracious enough to come back and work for Steve Wynn for the same money.
Kliph Nesteroff: Earlier you mentioned a comedian named Frank Ross...
Pete Barbutti: He was one of the Mary Kaye Trio. Mary Kaye was a singing group par excellence and always had top notch guys. Frank Ross really created lounge comedy. The shtick of stopping people and taking their money, running out into the casino to place a bet in the middle of their song and then running back and jumping onstage. He was the one who created the concept of a lounge comic - of going onstage without really planning anything and just letting it happen. It destroyed a lot of people too because it required a different kind of person to do it - but he was the guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was he actually considered a comedian?
Pete Barbutti: No, he was just considered one of The Mary Kaye Trio.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were in an episode of Get Smart.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah!
Kliph Nesteroff: How did that come to be? You didn't do much acting at all.
Pete Barbutti: No. Well, it was one of the writers who was a fan of mine. He called and asked if I'd do it and I said, "Sure." I didn't get along very well with Don Adams, but then again nobody did. Don was one of those guys that was just so bloody insecure that he had to carry his Emmy's around with him in his car.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the issue between you and Don?
Pete Barbutti: We just didn't get along. He was unapproachable. He would walk out. Do his lines. Disappear.
Kliph Nesteroff: He did Vegas at the height of his fame, performing at the Sands Hotel.
Pete Barbutti: Yes, he did the same act over and over. I liked him and thought he was clever, but he never put anything into it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently he hated doing stand-up and was only doing it because it became such a huge payday for him...
Pete Barbutti: Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: I've heard from many, many sources - all of them reliable - that he was a big joke thief.
Pete Barbutti: Terrible. He was never a nice man.
Kliph Nesteroff: Another guy that a lot of people say was often unpleasant... you did his talk show... Joey Bishop.
Pete Barbutti: Funny guy. He thought funny, but he wasn't easy to get along with. You had to understand him. I can honestly say he was a good friend. But he was sometimes out to lunch. He would drift off and you would have to bring him back, but when he was thinking he was very, very funny. I walked into the Sahara Hotel where I was working.
He was working in the showroom and I was working in the lounge. Joey was sitting by the bar. I was walking by with my wife and we were arguing about [the best route to] drive to the Sahara. He said, "Hey!" I said, "Hey, Joey" and went over. He asks, "What the hell you two arguing about?" I said, "Oh, you wouldn't believe. We were arguing about how to get to the Sahara!" He said, "I'll tell you how to get to the Sahara. You do poorly in three other hotels!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: Very clever guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky didn't like him. Shecky calls him a politician.
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, but... Shecky was the number one [stand-up comedian] in the world. If you're judging by his standards... those are awfully high standards. He wants a guy to be creative and inventive and... I mean, Joey was funny, but he wasn't Shecky Greene.
Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you about some of these strange shows that you ended up doing in Canada in the late seventies and early eighties.
Pete Barbutti: Well, someone from Toronto came and saw me at the Sahara in Tahoe. He said, "We represent so-and-so and we're thinking of doing a sitcom." So it ended up being called Pete's Place and it took place in Vegas, but we shot it in Toronto. It was about a guy who owns a small club off the Strip in Vegas and celebrities would come in as a favor to sing and things happen. The mics don't work, the roof falls in, the bartender gets arrested and so on. That was an experience and a half for me. We did fifty shows - thirty minutes each - and I wrote them all.
I frequently would be writing, in long hand at four in the morning, the very show we were going to do that day. We'd show up on the set at eight o'clock and it was great. The music for the opening was a little gospel song I wrote. I wanted Ray Charles to record it, but I couldn't get to Ray. His manager was unapproachable, so I asked Bill Cosby and he said, "Sure." It was Cosby singing the opening with a sequence of a yellow Rolls Royce driving down the Strip with all the marquee lights beaming down.
Car stops at a red light and the camera pans and shows me sitting in the back with a big cigar and a tuxedo. The light turns green, the Rolls drives away, and I'm next to it on a bicycle with my trumpet over the handle bars. I pedal down the Strip and I come up to this club with the same Roman Greco printing as Caesar's Palace and it says Pete's Palace. And then the 'A' falls down and it just says Pete's Place. That was the stock opening. It was all shot up in Toronto.
Kliph Nesteroff: And it was actually done in a bar in Toronto.
Pete Barbutti: Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Brunswick Tavern.
Pete Barbutti: Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Which is still there. Still a dive.
Pete Barbutti: Still a dive. I think then it was called the New Brunswick Tavern.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Yes. While you were there you guested on all sorts of other crummy Canadian TV shows...
Pete Barbutti: Yeah, I did Canada AM and all of those...
Kliph Nesteroff: There was a Canadian jazz musician named Peter Appleyard...
Pete Barbutti: Yes! That's how it all started. I did Peter's show with a bunch of guys and their producer said we should do something with this guy - let's do this sitcom.
Kliph Nesteroff: While you were there you were also doing The Alan Thicke Show...
Pete Barbutti: Alan Thicke, yeah. Before that it was The Alan Hamel Show and he was great to work with. I'd come on with the accordion and he'd say, "Why do you have the accordion?" And I'd say, "Because this is a low-class show."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Pete Barbutti: I'd say, "Let's start this show right." And I'd play The Tonight Show theme on accordion, but I'd play it real bad - like a polka. Alan Hamel would break up and laugh, but Alan Thicke had a different audience. You couldn't joke with him. Different group.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you commute to Toronto? Did you live in Toronto for a while?
Pete Barbutti: No, I'd fly up and work for two weeks and then come back to Vegas and work and then fly back two weeks later...
Kliph Nesteroff: Do copies of Pete's Place exist?
Pete Barbutti: It exists on tape, but I don't know what the guy is gonna do with it. The guy who is the producer... the guy who owns it... is a guy I wouldn't trust.