Sunday, September 9, 2012
An Interview with Babe Pier
Babe Pier: I worked all over the place. I started playing Polish and Italian clubs in 1949 and places like Nu-Champs by the Sea in Newport. The emcee there was Elmer Shakeshaft. I worked with him a lot. He did pantomime and tap danced while I did impressions; Cagney, Jolson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, you know, those guys
Kliph Nesteroff: Soon enough you joined a nightclub act called The Vagabonds, a comedy music group.
Babe Pier: Yeah, they caught me at Murray Franklin's. Don Rickles started there after me. I was there with Roberta Sherwood for a year. Murray Franklin was an ex-fighter who owned this little joint and it was great. I knew Rickles for years. His act was the same thing back then. Same exact bit.
Kliph Nesteroff: August 1956 you played the 500 Club in Atlantic City with the Vagabonds.
Babe Pier: Yeah, we worked it all the time as did Dean and Jerry. We worked the 500 for years. It was Skinny D'Amato's club. And the Vagabonds had their own club in Miami Beach, 732 Biscayne Boulevard.
I stayed there a long time with them. It was great. Dean and Jerry used to come in and fool around and Tony Bennett would sing with us. It was big. It held around five hundred. It was a big joint. I'd come out in the middle of the Vagabonds act and do impressions. "We found a guy," they'd say. "We discovered this guy in Florida."
Kliph Nesteroff: December 1956 you and the Vagabonds were at the Chez Paree in Chicago...
Babe Pier: Oh, that was great. That was the big time. We opened for Sarah Vaughn and Cab Calloway. We worked it many times by ourselves. The Mob was always good to us. We would work their special club dates and, of course, they ran the Chez Paree. They were great guys - to us.
Kliph Nesteroff: One of the most notorious Mob joints was the Beverly Hills Country Club in Newport, Kentucky.
Babe Pier: We worked it a lot. Beautiful. They had big gambling and when the cops showed up they folded up the walls - and it was funny as hell (laughs). I remember thinking, "I've never seen anything like this." It was like out of a movie.
We played the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles. Big time. Held a lot of people. We used to work it and Ciro's. A couple of The Boys ran Ciro's too.
Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you left the Vagabonds and formed a similar style tuxedo clad group called The Happy Jesters.
Babe Pier: Well, we all started working lounges. The big league was the lounge. The Jesters had a better set up than The Vagabonds... which was peculiar. I worked the Stardust with them. I left the Vagabonds. There was a beef over it. They were similar. The Vagabonds had more class, but the Jesters had a lot of screams. They were funnier. With the Jesters it was three of us and with the Vagabonds there were five of us. The Happy Jesters broke up when I figured I could work better by myself.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the other comedians adept at impressions like Jack Carter.
Babe Pier: Yeah, we worked with him. He was a nervous wreck. He was funny though. He worried about everything.
Kliph Nesteroff: George Kirby.
Babe Pier: I hung out with George now and then in Florida, but we didn't work together because we were the same. Will Jordan is still my friend. I call him now and then. He was a great impressionist. He's kind of an oddball. You know what I mean. He's different than other show guys. Frank Gorshin was my friend. Worked around him. He followed me into a couple of joints. Rich Little I knew for years. Hung with him and we did some television specials. We did a big HBO special with all the impressionists.
Joe E. Lewis used to come in to see us when we were at the Stardust. Sat with him and had drinks. Shecky Greene would call me up in the middle of his act. "Babe, come on up and do some impressions." We used to go back to back with him perfectly. Shecky did some funny impressions just fooling around. He'd do Sophie Tucker and a couple of character actors. He wasn't a real impressionist, but he was pretty good at it.
We opened for Buddy Hackett, but I was never around him much. Funny as hell. I was closest with Milton Berle and Buddy Lester. Buddy Lester was a rough guy. He didn't take any crap. Jerry Lester and Buddy Lester were never that close.
Kliph Nesteroff: There were a bunch of these multi-man acts in the nineteen fifties. Groups in matching outfits playing instruments real fast and doing quick, hokey comedy bits. The Vagabonds, The Happy Jesters... there was also a group called The Goofers.
Babe Pier: The Goofers were funny as hell and then you had The Treniers. They were altogether different, sang tunes and clowned a little. I eventually split from the groups and went on by myself. I did like a Frank Gorshin, y'know. The Vagabonds featured Pete Peterson and he was one of the great buffoons of all time.
Danny Kaye loved him. Pete could do anything; sing, dance and he was funny as hell. Tilio Rizzo did the deadpan. He didn't say anything and they'd use him as the foil. "He ain't gonna say anything? Throw him out!" They'd throw him out, he comes in again playing. Vagabond Ted Peddi was a very funny guy.
He took over for Pete Peterson. Tough shoes. And Lenny Levitt was the drummer conductor. Dominic Germano was the lead front man. He did all the moving and he sang and there was Al Torre, who was similar to Dominic, acting as a straight man in and out of the routine. That was it. That was The Vagabonds.