Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Interview with Bobby Ramsen - Part Six


Bobby Ramsen: Garry Moore was a delightful guy and lived a very quiet life, I think, in Westchester. He lived under his real name - Moffett. There's a story about some delivery guy coming to his door. "I have a package here for Mr. Moffett." "Thank you, I'll take it. I'm Mr. Moffet. "Gee, anybody ever tell you that you look like Garry Moore?" He lived a very quiet life as Mr. Moffett when he went home.

Kliph Nesteroff: After you did The Garry Moore Show - you also did an appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show.

Bobby Ramsen: I did. Where did you find that out?

Kliph Nesteroff: I know it all.


Bobby Ramsen: Well, God bless ya. Yes, I did do Gleason - it was The American Scene Magazine. I hardly saw Gleason. He kept to himself. I knew Frank Fontaine pretty well. We had met a few times through the years.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Frank like?

Bobby Ramsen: Oh, Frank was just about the sweetest guy in the world. He had twelve kids. Yeah, a load of kids and just the sweetest guy in the world. I'd see him around every now and again in Yonkers. He had good friends in Yonkers and we'd have a few beers together. He was a family guy. He said to me backstage, "Keep to yourself, Bobby. [Gleason] is in a terrible mood today." I didn't even know Gleason, but I was there for a week because I went to rehearsal - but I didn't do anything. You may have heard this about Gleason - he never came to rehearsal.


So I didn't see him all week. He showed up the day of the show. He walked in, walked down the center aisle and the actor Barney Martin... who ended up playing Seinfeld's father... Barney would do all of Gleason's stuff during rehearsal. When Gleason showed up the day of the show - it was like he owned the theater with this bravura attitude. I heard a line about people that act like this - "They walk through life as though they're looking for a balcony." He walked down the aisle like that. He just stood there and Barney Martin went through the sketch that had a pratfall where he rolls out a window. Behind the set he would roll onto a mattress. Gleason wanted to avoid having to do that kind of a thing again and again and again. He wanted to just see someone else do it. And then he would do it just the once during the taping.


I saw Gleason when I was a kid at presentation houses on Broadway; The Paramount, The Strand, The Capitol. The Paramount was owned by Paramount. The Strand was owned by Warner Brothers. The Capitol was owned by MGM. Those three houses had stage shows. Big bands, singers, a comic. Sinatra made it at The Paramount Theater. I saw him there. I stayed for two shows and someone threw a penny onstage at him. Frank picked it up and said, "Only one kind of an animal throws a (s)cent." I stayed for the second show and someone threw a penny! "Only one kind of an animal throws a (s)cent." I said, "Oh. It's in the show." (laughs) That was a bit! But he was a big hit there. As a matter of fact, I saw him walking up Broadway because he used to walk from The Paramount to rehearsal at what is now The Ed Sullivan Theater. It was then Studio 54 on 54th Street, a CBS house with a marquee. Now you see it on television every night. Sinatra used to walk from the Paramount dressing room to Studio 54 to do Your Hit Parade


This was around 1944 and all of that happened so fast. Of course, all the young girls in the audience were paid to do all the yelling and screaming. The way his career was built was just unbelievable - but deservedly so. A voice like that only comes around once in a lifetime. He would walk the streets and I used to see him. Gleason used to play the smaller houses like the Loew's State, which wasn't as big as the other three houses. The Loew's State was also owned by MGM. Marcus Loew had owned Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Mr. Mayer technically worked for Loew's. He was on salary. A very good salary, but he did not own the film company. Marcus Loew and the theater people owned Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The government came along years later and put a stop to it saying, "This is a monopoly. Either you're going to be an exhibitor or you're going to be a production company." They remained a production company and sold all of their theaters. 


Getting back to Gleason. Kliph! Gleason was the worst stand-up you ever saw! The absolute worst! He had absolutely no material. All he had was an attitude and the bug eyes. He had that one take he could do. His big impersonation was Peter Lorre. He'd say, "You ever see that picture where Peter Lorre walks out and he says..." And he'd put on those bug eyes. "(In Peter Lorre voice) Did you get the information? Did you get the information?" That was Gleason's stand-up! That was the whole thing! Then I went to see him in a show - I think it cost me a dollar to sit in the balcony - it was called Follow the Boys. Gertrude Niesen, a big Broadway star, was in the show singing a song called I Want To Get Married. It just went on forever. The lyrics were a little risque and the audience would applaud. It was very good and very funny and Gleason was in a couple of sketches. He played a sailor. Kliph, this guy in a sketch was unbeatable. The difference between him doing his stand-up and seeing him work in a sketch? He was brilliant - and you can see that in The Honeymooners. As a stand-up... he wasn't very good.


Kliph Nesteroff: Right. I had heard that before.

Bobby Ramsen: There are only thirty-nine episodes of The Honeymooners. Just one season! Incredible! Of course, he brought it back when he did his other shows. The Honeymooners go to Italy and he thinks Arrevederci is an Italian guy after his wife. "Who is this guy Harry Devecci!?"

Kliph Nesteroff: And Art Carney so brilliant...

Bobby Ramsen: Oh, yes, the whole thing was just so marvelous. An absolute gem. You know - Rickles is doing Gleason. That's who he's doing. He's doing Gleason. Actually... you know who you should call? Please do this. Pat Harrington Jr! If you get a hold of Pat Harrington Jr. and ask him about the club that his father worked at. It was an insult club. People could not... it was on 52nd Street. I think it was owned by a guy named Fred Lamb. 


There were four guys up on the stage... four Irish comedians. Vince Currin, Pat Harrington Sr, a young Jackie Gleason and another guy. And they wiped everybody out! That's who Don is doing! That's who Rickles is doing! He's doing Gleason at this club that I'm talking about. And Pat Harrington Jr is the sweetest guy in the world. I did a couple episodes of One Day at a Time


If you call SAG and ask for the agency department - just tell them your name is Kliph Nemiroff and you have a job for Pat Harrington Jr. It is as simple as that. You'll get his number. You must ask him about him the place his dad worked on 52nd Street.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, that sounds amazing.

Bobby Ramsen: Crosby and Hope used to come in there and they'd be rolling in the aisles with the insults. It was strictly an insult club.


Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Bobby Ramsen: I said to Milton Berle at lunch one day - because growing up I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to be Milton Berle. I asked him, "Who was your idol?" He said, "Healy. Dan Healy." The guy who put together The Three Stooges. They called it Dan Healy and his...

Kliph Nesteroff: Ted. Ted Healy.

Bobby Ramsen: Oh! Thank you. Yes, thank you. He did a million little movies. He was signed to MGM and he did a bunch of movies. Milton said Ted Healy and it was that same kind of attitude; the ballsy guy up on the stage. Ted Healy used to wear a hat, a fedora, with the brim up and had a certain attitude. Jackie Gleason had the same attitude.


Kliph Nesteroff: Around the same time you did the Gleason show, you did a pair of Ed Sullivan shows. Right?

Bobby Ramsen: There was. They were very difficult for any comedian. We got friendly with Ed, my wife and I, and we had dinner with him a few times. Very sweet guy, unassuming and always at the end of the meal he would say, "Sylvia, what am I going to have for desert?" And she'd tell him and order it for him. Always. Very nice guy, but something happened to every comedian that ever worked his show. He asserted himself at the expense of the comedian. He had Bob Precht, his son-in-law, and he was executive producer. Also a lot eye rolling when he came to you and told you that Ed wanted to see you. It always happened - and to every comedian. Every comedian! No matter who you talk to! Very few got away without a torturous afternoon and evening. 


He'd see you at the Copacabana and say, "I want that routine. I want you to do that routine on my show." So you'd get there and you'd do that routine at three o'clock for the rehearsal audience. No taping, you'd just do a run through of the show. And, invariably, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, Precht would come to you and say, "Ed wants to see you." To every comedian! You'd go and you'd wait. Bob would roll his eyes. You'd go in and see Ed. "You're not going to do that routine on my show tonight. Have you got anything else?" So, you'd give him something else. And whatever else you gave him, "That's what I want! That's good! That's what you'll do on my show tonight." No matter what you did! It happened to me twice - well, actually three times. There was one time where I was cut, but twice for sure I was told not to do what I did at the three o'clock show and it was a very difficult afternoon for several comedians. 


Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, I had heard it from a few different sources.

Bobby Ramsen: Tony Martin, who is almost 99 years old, went through a period where he also did that to the comics on his [nightclub] show. He always had a comic open the show. From the wings someone would shout, "He's not ready yet. Do another five minutes!" Or worse - he would walk out after you had done ten minutes when you were supposed to do twenty or twenty-five and say, "Okay, that's enough. I'll take over from here." You never knew when he was going to want another ten minutes or ten minutes less or whatever.


Kliph Nesteroff: The first episode of Ed Sullivan that you did - on the same episode were Jack Carter and Totie Fields. Do you remember that?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, I do remember that. Very well. Totie Fields, Jack Carter... anyone else?

Kliph Nesteroff: Al Hirt, Albert Roche, The Wallace Brothers and Tommy Cooper.

Bobby Ramsen: Tommy Cooper was an English comedian. You ever hear of a comedian named The Great Ballantine?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, from McHale's Navy.


Bobby Ramsen: Yes and he was wonderful. He did a comedy magician act where all the tricks go bad. Tommy Cooper stole his act. Anyway, I was at somebody's house and they had a tape of this gentleman who took Ballantine's act and kept working all the time in England. One night he was doing Ballantine's act and he died onstage. He had a heart attack and he died onstage. Somebody had a tape of that and showed it to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's an audio recording out there... I know it exists because Albert Brooks has a copy... of his father dying...

Bobby Ramsen: Yes! Parkyakarkus. He died at a Friars Roast. Yes, he played Parkyakarkus on The Eddie Cantor Show and that is so interesting. At that roast, while they were dealing with the collapse of Parkyakarkus, Milton Berle yelled over to Tony Martin. He said,"Tony, sing a song!" Well, Tony Martin's big hit was There's No Tomorrow! So he sang There's No Tomorrow! What an addendum to the story. Boy, oh, boy. Very talented family. Very inventive.


Kliph Nesteroff: I once spoke to Bob Einstein about this and over the course of the conversation I made the mistake of comparing his father, who was a regular on The Eddie Cantor Show, to another dialect comedian and Cantor regular - Bert Gordon. Bob got quite angry. I guess his father always resented Bert Gordon because people got the two of them confused. Neither Bob or his father thought Bert Gordon was particularly funny, so there was some resentment there.


Bobby Ramsen: Yes, well, I'm sure had you known it was a sore spot you would never have brought it up. But I could understand your mentioning it. You never know who is going to be sensitive to what. Dick Van Patten and I were good friends. He was a radio actor and we knew each other as kids. As child radio actors. We were about the same age. We used to walk the streets together in New York. We saw a guy who had too much to drink who fell down. He was lying in the doorway of some building across from Madison Square Garden. 


I casually said to Dick Van Patten, "This guy has had too much to drink. He's probably from the circus." I didn't mean any harm. Walking by was this little tiny guy with a wax moustache. I will never forget him. Impeccably dressed. He looked at us and he said to me, "This man is NOT with the circus. This man is NOT with the circus." He must have said it four or five times. He took such offense at it. I never forgot that. This man wanted to drive it home to me that this man was not with the circus. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Strange memory.

Bobby Ramsen: I was looking at an old Daily Mirror where they listed all the shows. There must be three hundred listings of dancers, singers, contortionists. I have an old one - with and ad of me at The Elegant Nightclub with George Kirby. Same page Don Rickles is opening the show for Jerry Vale at the Boulevard Club on Long Island and there was a stripper billed Rita Gable. Jerry married her.


Kliph Nesteroff: What was working with George Kirby like?

Bobby Ramsen: Well, this ad is a full body ad. It's a picture of me head to toe. Left hand billing - Bobby Ramsen and joining Bobby is George Kirby. That show... he never showed up. He never showed up. I did the gig. They put somebody else in. I guess it was the time when he started getting into... wasn't there prison time involved?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, for heroin trafficking.


Bobby Ramsen: Yes. Very talented and unfortunately that's what hurt him. He disappeared. And he did some stuff with Sammy Davis. I did a Bob Hope special. The Bob Hope Salute to the Palace Theater. Sammy was on that show and I was in a sketch with Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller and Sid Gould. The sketch took place in the jungle. George Burns was a guest on the show and I watched Bob Hope and George Burns rehearse what they were going to do that night. It was wonderful to see. They were giving it their all at two in the afternoon and loving every minute of it. The difference between their generation what we see now... well, those guys juggled. They tapdanced. They ballroom danced. They acted. They did comedy. They were so well-rounded with such a vast amount of experience behind them... It was a different kind of a thing.


Kliph Nesteroff: I have a clipping from an Earl Wilson column that says - 1967 - you were in attendance at a place called The Upstairs at The Downstairs for a salute to Gene Baylos - including Nipsey Russell, Joe E. Lewis, Totie Fields, Bobby Ramsen and Henny Youngman - and host Phil Greenwald. Do you remember that?

Bobby Ramsen: I do remember it. I am in a little state of shock. That stuff is out there fifty years later - that there's a place you can bring that up on your screen... it's so mind boggling and so wonderful. It's wonderful to hear. Earl Wilson was a very, very nice man. Came from the Midwest - married to a lovely lady. He hit it lucky in New York. He used to quote all the comedians. Earl's Pearls was one of the devices he used and he'd put a quote of a comedian's act in it. Press agents used to get a client and place something like, "Gene Baylos was at Jack Dempsey's last night. He said the crowd at Madison Square Gardens must be dressed in Saks Fifth... yadda, yadda, yaddda...." whatever the joke might be.


But that press agent would have Gene Baylos as a client, Jack Dempsey as a client, Madison Square Gardens as a client, Saks as a client! With the one joke he'd get four of his client's names in a column! There was a comedy writer named Jay Burton. He had this knack. He could write one-liners and he would feed it to a press agent over a cup of coffee and insert whoever the press agent was handling for a fee! Jay Burton was getting paid for this, but someone said to him, "Jay, why are you giving those away? You should be feeding them directly to Earl Wilson." So, sure enough, he did and then the items started to say, "Jay Burton the writer said the other night..." Soon he gets a call from Bob Hope! Hope says, "I've been reading your stuff in Earl Wilson's column. Jay, if you're ever in California, come to my house. I want to talk to you." That started a major comedy writing career.