Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard something along the lines of you being a child stage hand for Red Skelton...

Dick Curtis: Well, I'll tell you what that was. We were a gypsy family. I had a hustling father and two brothers, a sister, my mother and I. My father was a real estate hustler. He would hustle in one town until they got wise to him and then he'd take us and we'd run to another town. I was a gypsy from the time I was born until about 1936. I was raised principally in Indianapolis, Indiana. That was one of the places we fled. We were living in Hollywood, California in 1935. We fled to Indianapolis and my mother finally had enough of this - and we stayed there. I was standing on the street corner shining shoes in 1936, selling papers and tap-dancing for pennies. Everybody was doing something in those days with a ukulele or a guitar or something to make money. I used to run errands for all the actors in town because we had four vaudeville houses at that time. One day in 1936 I was backstage at The Lyric Theater. I said, "Who needs something?"

I was eight years old at the time. This guy yelled, "Hey kid! Grab me a copy of Variety and a Coca Cola." "Right!" I ran down the street to The Harrison Hotel where my mom worked in the lobby selling cigars and newspapers. I grabbed the papers and she said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Running errands for actors!" "Who?" "Today it's for this tall guy with red hair. His name is Skelton." He was twenty-three and he was working at The Lyric Theater in Indianapolis. I got back to the theater. We went to his dressing room and he sat me down and told me jokes and stories. We had a wonderful time. I said, "Red, when I grow up I want to be just like you." He said, "Well, you've got to work hard to do that, pal." But we had something in common. He had been an orphan and I had spent time in an orphanage too. My mother was sick unto dying at one time and she put us all in an orphanage because there was no way to take care of us.

Red had been an orphan in Indiana. For the rest of his life we were friends. I have the last photo he sent me here with one of his old cigars and an old paintbrush that his wife sent me. That's the Red Skelton story, but over the years Red would stop in to see me. I'd be at a nightclub in Vancouver or Wichita or someplace and he'd be coming through town. He'd come up on stage and "critique" my act (laughs). I worked for him too at CBS. Red got so big that they couldn't pay him enough to keep him there. What they did was they said, "Okay, you own eight o'clock - Thursdays. That's yours." He could sell it to anyone he wanted for an hour. When I was on The Jonathan Winters Show - Red had a piece of that action and my cheques used to come out of Red Skelton's office.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are all kinds of stories about Red Skelton's battles with his writers.

Dick Curtis: Uh... yeah, but I don't know those stories. I wasn't in on that so much. Red was kind of a provocative guy. He liked naughty stories, but he never did any of that in his act. He did that privately. In those days when we worked nightclubs... I did the worst nightclubs in the world - and I didn't do dirty stuff. I worked a strip joint in Baltimore called Eddie Leonard's Spa.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mmm hmm (laughs).

Dick Curtis: It was nine til two in the morning, three strippers, a trio and me. That was the show. Eddie Leonard was an ex-boxer. He was a champ fighter and when he retired from the ring... the mob, of course, owned him. They gave him a nightclub and some slot machines around town as his retirement. I opened at Eddie Leonard's Spa in Baltimore on Christmas Eve.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) This was in 1952. Can you imagine who would go to a strip joint on Christmas Eve in 1952?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: But I was in a tuxedo. In those days we all wore tuxedos. I walked out to these three guys wearing overalls in the front row. I said, "Good evening, gentleman. My name is Dick Curtis..." "Get off you faggot!!!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I thought, "Hoo boy." So I brought on the first stripper. When she got through I went back up and said, "It's such a pleasure to be here at Eddie Leonard's Spa..." "Get off you (grumble)(grumble)!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I put the next stripper on and then Eddie Leonard walked up to me. He said, "Hey, kid. Don't you know nuttin' dirty?" I said, "No, I don't do that Eddie. People tell me I look like a choir boy." He said, "You better learn something dirty or you're on your way out of here." I went over to the bar and I said, "Does anyone know any dirty jokes?" This drunk is laying on the bar and he says, "(Hic) Here's one for you kid!" He tells me this vile joke. I go up on stage after the stripper is finished and a guy yells, "Hey you, get off the..." I said, "Hey! Hold it. First of all, I put six years in the Marine Core so you don't scare me... and I just learned a dirty joke." The guy says, "Oh? Okay." I told this dirty joke and the guy said, "That's it?" I said, "That's it." He said, "Get off you (grumble)(grumble)!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I got off the stage and Eddie Leonard came up to me. He said, "Hey, kid. Don't do those dirty jokes in here 'cause you look like a choir boy." He kept me for six weeks! I used to say, "Eddie, why do you keep me here?" He said, "Shut up. You got a tuxedo. You make my show look good." Lenny Bruce was working right across the street. We used to meet each morning and commiserate with each other in the delicatessen there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was this the period in which Lenny was still doing impressions?

Dick Curtis: Yes. He was working a place called The Five O'Clock Club in Baltimore. We all worked, as I say, in tuxedos. He used to do Jimmy Durante and all the [impressions] of actors that people expected. Then we'd all go in the coffee shop at two in the morning and compare notes. I knew Lenny Bruce from then - right up to when he died. He was a brilliant guy. A lot of people don't know - he learned what he did on stage from Joe Ancis.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Dick Curtis: You ever hear of Joe Ancis?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, there's not just a Lenny Bruce connection with Joe Ancis, but a Rodney Dangerfield connection too.

Dick Curtis: Right! Well, Rodney was okay, but they were all selling roofing and siding out of New York in those days. We'd all meet at the drugstore in New York. They'd all say, "Look, I gotta go. Gotta go out to Jersey - I'm selling siding."

Kliph Nesteroff: Right (laughs). Was the drugstore Hanson's?

Dick Curtis: Yeah, Hanson's! We all hung out there looking for work. Joe Ancis was startling he was so good, but he had no courage. He couldn't go onstage. He had stage fright so bad. He and Lenny roomed together. Lenny developed that style of his from sitting around with Joe Ancis. Joe talked about art and literature like a hoodlum (laughs). And he was wonderful! He entertained on the sidewalk in front of Hanson's and he was just terrific. 

Lenny was just starting to get hot and he was working a club on the Sunset Strip. Lenny was the house emcee and he was a sensation! The place was just packed for Lenny, but one of the bosses hated him because he'd make jokes about him. Lenny would say, "There's the boss! Hi boss! He balls his own dog, y'know." So, the guy hated him. The Mary Kaye Trio was booked in there and they watched Lenny and said to the boss, "We can't work with Lenny." He said, "Why? He's the hottest thing in town." They said, "Yeah.... but our comic..." Their comic was the drummer and he was so weak a comic that he would die following Lenny. So, they let Lenny off the week that The Mary Kaye Trio was in there - because they were going to do a record. 

It was one of the first on location recordings. They let Lenny go for a week. About the same time I was working in Anaheim at a nice little neighborhood club, but the audience was all bowlers from the bowling alley next door. That was the audience, but for some reason I was doing well there and the owner said, "Listen, I'm gonna raise you up to $175 a week." About that time a guy walked in and said, "How would you like to work Nevada?" I thought he meant Las Vegas. I said, "Where?" He said, "Hawthorne, Nevada. It pays four hundred a week." I said, "You got me." I went to the boss and said, "You've got to let me go for two weeks. This guy is gonna pay me..." He said, "I held you over!" I said, "I know, but I need the money!" He said, "Well, you better find me somebody good [to replace you]." So I drove into Los Angeles that night. I went to the coffee shop where we all used to hang out on the Sunset Strip. There was nobody in there except Lenny. 

I sat down with Lenny and said, "Who's around right now that's out of work?" He said, "Me." I said, "Ah, c'mon. I'm looking for somebody. I need somebody." He said, "I'm tellin' ya! I'm out of work!" And he told me the Mary Kaye story. I said, "Do I have a job for you. It's in Anaheim..." He said, "Anaheim!?" "It pays $175 a week." He said, "I'll take it!" So he replaced me while I went to Hawthorne, Nevada. When I came back the boss said, "Where did you find that guy?" I said, "He's a big star!" "Nuh uh. Not in my room he ain't." 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the coffee shop on Sunset? Was it Jerry's Deli?

Dick Curtis: Let me think. It was a deli run by a young Jewish couple. Everybody hung out there. I don't think it was Jerry's. This was up the street from the Crescendo on The Strip. They were enormously popular with show business people after hours. Then they opened a place down on Vine Street and it did well for a while, but then it kind of petered out.

Kliph Nesteroff: I love hearing about these hangouts. The delicatessens and the coffee shops and the automats. How about back in New York? I understand that Hanson's Drugstore had a back entrance that went upstairs to where all the agent's offices were...

Dick Curtis: It was in the Brill Building. We hung out there because [an agent] might have a job. I didn't hang out there as much as Lenny and those guys because I had no separate income and I had two babies at the time. I had to pay the rent wherever I went, so I would go into New York for a couple of days to try and get something and I would take the first job that lead to Baltimore or Washington or somewhere. We all worked out of Philadelphia in those days too. You ever hear about The Nook in Philadelphia?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Dick Curtis: The Nook was at 12th and Locust in Philadelphia. It was just a little coffee shop. It could not have seated, including the counter,  forty people. It was just a tiny little place, but it was a favorite of all the comics in town and everybody had their picture up around the walls - and you could go there and find out information; who was working, who had a job - that kind of a thing. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Dick Curtis: Philly in those days was real good because there were after-hours clubs. They couldn't legally sell booze from midnight Saturday until eight o'clock Monday morning or something like that. So everyone had an after-hours club with entertainment - including the Catholic Church! It was in the gymnasium of the Catholic Church and it was called The Holy Ghost.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: They booked a show and sold booze (laughs). I worked with Nat King Cole over there at the Erie Social Club. I worked there with Nat King Cole, Vaughn Monroe and God, everybody played there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Joey Bishop came out of Philadelphia.

Dick Curtis: Yes. By that time Joey had a modicum of success and he was playing better clubs. He was working the best clubs in Philadelphia and Baltimore at that time, but he was always in the coffee shop with us at night. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you met Jonathan Winters for the first time in 1951 in Columbus.

Dick Curtis: Yes, it was either Columbus or Dayton. I think it was Dayton. I was with Horace Heidt. Do you remember Horace Heidt?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Dick Curtis: He was a charming guy who formed a band in college and went on from there to be successful for the rest of his life. Every new thing that came along - that's what he did. Triple-tonguing trumpeteers - everything. I met Horace at that same theater where I met Red Skelton. Horace used to go out conducting an amateur show called The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Show. He'd go out and say, "Good evening, ladies and gentleman. This is Horace Heidt. I give the youth of America a chance to be stars!"

I was eight years old. I would run alongside him and say, "Mr. Heidt? I am eight years old and I sing songs and I tell jokes and I know how to..." He would say, "Get out of here, kid! Get out of here!" One night I followed him right to his hotel door and he said, "Does your mother know you're out at this hour?" I said, "Yeah, that's her over there." I pointed to my mother over at the cigar counter. He said, "Madame? Is this your son? Would you please tell him to stop bothering me? I am not going to put him in show business!" He went to the elevator and my mom said to me, "Are you trying to get me fired?" "But he gives youth an opportunity and that's me!" Every year he came back and I'd go up to him, "Now I'm nine years old! Now I'm ten years old, Mr. Heidt!" We moved back to California because my mom started working at an Army hospital there. I picked up the phone book and Horace was right there in the phone book - living in Van Nuys. He answered the phone. I said, "Mr. Heidt, my name is Dick Curtis and I'm a comedian and a singer. I would like to join your group." 

He said, "Oh, I'm sorry, son. I have just retired." I thought, "Ah, God! No luck at all!" I was working at the old Hollywood Canteen and USO and all that kind of stuff. One day my mother said, "You're in show business. Do you know somebody named Desi Arnaz?" I said, "Well, he's Cuban and he sings and he plays bongo drums and he's a big movie star." She said, "No, he's a sergeant in the Army and he works with me out at the hospital." I said, "This can't be the same guy." She said, "No, I'm telling you he's a sergeant in the Army and he wants to know if you'll help them do shows." I went out to the hospital and sitting next to my mother was Staff Sergeant Desi Arnaz. I walked up to him and he said, "Your mother tells me you know a lot of good jokes and you sing. You want to help us do shows for soldiers?" I said, "Sure!" I joined Desi's group. We started touring camps. That was my first introduction to Desi. Did I stray from the question you were asking?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, we mentioned that you encountered Jonathan Winters years before he was...

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. Time went by and I was back in show business in 1949. I was in China in the Marine Core until 1948. I had a Marine Core respite until the Korean War and I got called back for that, but when I got called back for the Marine Core and was about ready to get out - Horace Heidt was back in show business. He had a radio show and a television show and he was touring Army and Marine Core camps. He came down to Camp Pendleton and I got on the radio show. He liked me so much he said, "How would you like to do a television show with us down in San Diego?" I said, "Sure!" I had never done a television show. We did the television show and he said, "Son, you're very good. I'd like you to join my group." I said, "Well, I'm still in the Marine Core and I won't get out til September." 

He said, "Let me talk to your commanding officer. Everyone knows me." So, he walked right into the general's office in Camp Pendleton. Now, I don't know if you know Marine Core generals, but they're one step away from God. He walked over to his desk and said, "Hello, General. My name is Horace Heidt. Of course, you know me." He said, "Mr. Heidt... I'm conducting a war. It's called the Korean War. Maybe you've heard of it. You, son, get back to your outfit." I did an about-face and I was gone. Horace came out in the hallway and said, "I don't think he knows me." I said, "Horace, he doesn't care!" Horace said, "That's crazy!" I told him to go and say you need someone to represent the Marine Core in your show. They will send me immediately. That's exactly what happened and I joined Horace's group. 

We started playing all around the country. We were playing different towns and we pulled into either Dayton or Columbus. I used to go to the radio stations to do promotion for our shows. So I went to this little station in Dayton - WLWD Crosley Broadcasting. They said, "You know we have an ex-marine working here. He's kinda funny." They introduced me to this guy Jonathan Winters. He came out of an office and started going off like he always does. I was enthralled by him! I said, "I want to introduce you to Horace Heidt because you'd be good for his show!" I took him over, but Horace was in one of his moods

I said, "Horace, this is Jonathan Winters. He's really a very funny guy and I think you oughta use him!" Horace said, "Dick, every city we go to you bring me somebody you think is talented. It usually turns out to be wrong! I'm very busy! Stop bothering me!" He walked away. I said, "Jonathan, I'm sorry." He said, "No, it's fine. I'm really glad I saw that because I don't want to be here either." I never saw him again until I auditioned for The Jonathan Winters Show at CBS [in 1967]. He didn't remember me, but he liked what I did and that's how I got the gig.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

An Interview with Pete Barbutti - Part One

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.