Monday, September 3, 2012
An Interview with Leo DeLyon - Part One
Leo DeLyon: The very first thing I did was Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. That was as important as American Idol. It was radio, coast to coast, on CBS. Three contestants. They were actually mostly professionals, but they were way back on the ladder, early in their career. It would shock you to know some of the people that were on the Talent Scouts show; George Shearing, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, you name it. Lots of big people - and mind you, not many of them won.
There were three people on each show and they would do their little bit. At the end they would come out for a few seconds of a reprise. They had a big applause meter projected on a screen for the studio audience. Whoever got the highest applause won. I went on there and I won. I almost passed out! I just went on the show to get the hundred dollars! Everyone who went on got a hundred dollars no matter what. If you won then you would be on the Godfrey morning show for the next four days. It was network. Out of that you would get little nibbles from various agents.
A lot of them wanted to know what I would do in person. So they booked me into a small theater in Jamaica, Queens in New York. They had a form of vaudeville, y'know, about six acts. Low and behold I tore the place asunder. My agency started putting me in slightly bigger theaters. No clubs yet. Just theaters. I did about twelve theaters. After that I was on my way to a bigger theater that was like the AAA is to the majors. It was the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore. That was my first real big exposure and that was with Peggy Lee.
Kliph Nesteroff: Around this time you started to play Harold Minsky's Carnival in Manhattan.
Leo DeLyon: Oh, yeah. Yes, that was great. That was in 1949. Do you have the date?
Kliph Nesteroff: I have down that it was 1949 with Tommy Raft, Professor Lombardi...
Leo Delyon: Yes! They were like burlesque people. The Carnival was a real fantastic theater/restaurant. About an eight hundred seater. It was on 53rd and 8th in Manhattan. Yes, the Carnival. The one who opened it originally was Milton Berle and then Minsky took it over and made it like a burlesque revue. It was a funny show.
Tommy Moe Raft was a very famous burlesque comedian. Professor Lombardi was hysterical. He used to come out with a xylophone and play what he thinks are really marvelous pieces - he was a real weird looking guy - a stripper named Nevada Smith would go out behind him and do all kinds of things. After six measures or so she would walk off. The audience would applaud and he would carry on like they were applauding his xylophone playing.
His facial takes were absolutely marvelous! I remember that very well. An interesting side story to that... there was a line of very beautiful girls and dancers... and a production singer. Like, "Here she comes! There she goooooes... the girl right heeeeerrrrrrr...." You know what I mean. That production singer at The Carnival was a guy that I met and by an amazing twist of fate our lives became very entwined. His name was Ralph Young. You ever hear of a vocal team called Sandler and Young?
Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.
Leo DeLyon: This was Ralph Young. Ralph Young then went on to become the main production singer at the Latin Quarter in New York and then the Copacabana. He was the first vocalist with Les Brown. Downbeat chose him number one over Frank Sinatra in the late forties. As years go by - he then joined up with Tony Sandler and became part of a revue show in Vegas. Really made some noise for about fifteen years. It was a time when rock and roll owned the industry and it was a miracle that they were selling albums and drawing big crowds.
I was friendly with Ralph. I wrote their first ten arrangements and then they got real big. I was working then with Phil Silvers. I couldn't leave Phil Silvers for a new act, but they really went on to be big. Many years later when I was no longer performing in clubs I was doing a lot of voiceovers, commercials and work for Hanna-Barbera.
Around that time their conductor died. Ralph begged me to come in and conduct for them. I said, "Ralph, you're out of your mind. I haven't done that in years. You guys are way beyond..." He said, "No, no. You wrote the original arrangements!" So for seven years I became their arranger and conductor. And that was Ralph Young, who was the production singer in 1949 at the Carnival.
Kliph Nesteroff: The first big presentation house you played after the Olympia in Miami was a three-week engagement at the Strand in 1949.
Leo Delyon: Oh yeah, that was it. That was the main blast-off for Leo DeLyon. It was a series of little stages from the Godfrey thing to little theater dates and then - without question - the Desi Arnaz revue at The Strand. That's where I was with Desi and that began an interesting relationship. I worked with him and Lucille Ball later on doing personal appearances.
The Strand was called the Warner Theater later, but that was with Desi Arnaz and the whole Desi Arnaz Revue. I'm the only one that ever closed one Broadway theater and then opened within three weeks at The Roxy. I think I'm the only one who that ever happened to. I was a lot happier at The Strand, though. The Strand was a 2400 seater and The Roxy was 5500. The Roxy was just about five hundred short of Radio City. You had to work much, much broader. I did well. I was there for the Easter revue with Vivian Blaine.
Kliph Nesteroff: How many shows a day would you be doing?
Leo DeLyon: At the Strand you would do four shows a day and at The Roxy four shows a day.
Kliph Nesteroff: There is no way you could have had five thousand people in the audience for all four shows every single day.
Leo DeLyon: Well, during the Easter period it was pretty darn close.
Kliph Nesteroff: Remarkable.
Leo DeLyon: The only time I worked that theater again was in 1951 with Josephine Baker. I toured with her. Of course, you've heard of Josephine Baker...
Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, and that was a very big deal when she came back to America to do that tour.
Leo DeLyon: It sure was. I was with her for eight months. We toured for eight months and the first house that my wife and I bought - we called it the House that Josephine Built (laughs). It was a great experience. That was 1951. In 1972 I ran into Josephine Baker in the green room of The Merv Griffin Show. She was much older and I walked over, "Madame Baker?" She said, "Oui?" We used to speak French together. When I toured with Josephine my French went forward leaps and bounds. Anyway, I see her in the green room. I said, "It's me. Leo." All of a sudden the expression on her face... she took my cheeks between her hands, "Leo!" I almost started crying. It was so beautiful after all those years.
Kliph Nesteroff: When you were with Josephine Baker... Buddy Rich was also part of that tour?
Leo DeLyon: For most of it. Buddy Rich and Harry Sweets Edison, who was a beautiful and fabulous trumpet player. He was with Count Basie and he did most of Sinatra's records. He did wonderful solo work with all the Nelson Riddle things. Harry Sweets Edison. The Josephine Baker tour - it was Buddy Rich and (laughs) that's another story and a half.
Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Rich was known for being a temperamental guy. A hip guy - but real difficult.
Leo DeLyon: Yes he was. He was hard, but we got along great. There's a line that he used way before Don Rickles, but Don Rickles seems to have gotten the credit. He'd say, "Cheer down. Cheer down!" If I just came from seeing some great tenor player I'd run into Buddy and say, "Jesus, Bud! This guy! You gotta see him!" He'd say, "Leo, Jesus, cheer down." I got along great with him because I know how to bend with the wind. A lot of people and musicians in his band - they hated him because he was a monster. But he always had a great band.
Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting that he and Josephine Baker were there together. Both had a reputation - I don't know if it's fair or not - but they had a reputation for being difficult.
Leo DeLyon: Unfortunately a lot of that gets so distorted at times. First of all, I must tell you this. Buddy Rich and Josephine Baker were from two different planets. Buddy Rich loved - he adored - Josephine Baker. She was unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. Originally he was only with the show in the sense that his band was being used, but he didn't conduct the show. She had her own pianist. It was her husband from Paris. He came over just to get the show started and then he had to return to France. He was a big arranger in Paris.
The Buddy Rich Band would play the first number, something big and flashy. He had great soloists, a whole bunch of guys, very famous musicians, and he'd tear the place a part with this good band. Then I would come on and do my act - and then I would bring on Josephine Baker. She used to change costumes and between costumes I would come out. I would create some wild reason for why she wasn't out yet and most of the time that was all ad-lib.
Sometimes it took her longer. Although I wasn't that kind of a performer, I was getting screams with my creating scenarios of why she was late. Then she did a dance as part of her act. She did a Moroccan number where she came out with a fez. As she did that - the drummer - not Buddy Rich - but his regular back-up drummer... his back-up drummer was the only one that could read music... Buddy Rich couldn't read music.
So, the back-up drummer, Stanley Kaye, came out and she would do her number to the drums, "Boom-chick-a-bing, chicka bing-bing boom!" Then Harry Edison would come forward and play some incredible jazz - almost Arabian but jazz trumpet stuff and he would be blowin' while she would be dancing around him and the drummer and the whole thing. It became a real big part of the show. Finally, Buddy got so jealous that he decided he wanted to do that particular number with her. Sure enough, when he did take it over - the number - which usually ran about five minutes - then ran ten or twelve - because the theater came apart!
Buddy Rich - the way he played and carried on - Josephine went out of her mind with ecstasy! It was so perfect for what she was doing! From then on he became part of the show and toured with us. By that time the band really had the music under control and Buddy would bullshit. He'd just stand in front of the band as if he was conducting when he wasn't drumming. It was mutual admiration. She wasn't that temperamental, but I think where she got that reputation was the fact that this was 1951.
She would make a big deal when we came into a city like Cincinnati where there was a dubious color line. She would say, "I don't see any dark musicians in the band. I'm not going on unless you put a few Black musicians in the band." "Well, Josephine, we can't do that. They have a union." "Consult the Black union and get some Black players! I'll go up to my hotel room and wait." "Josephine, we have a contract!" She said, "Well, I'll deal with that when we go to court!" Sure enough, they contacted the Black local. In those days they had a white local and a Black local for the union and she put a couple of Black musicians in there.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between the first show of the day and the last show of the day in these big presentation houses? Not just with Josephine Baker, but in general. Jack Carter told me that when he would play Loew's State or the Capitol - the first show of the day was often full of derelicts who'd come in off the street for somewhere warm to sleep - drunks and hobos who had been wandering the streets all night.
Leo DeLyon: (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: He'd be doing his act for hobos sitting there with their bag of wine.
Leo DeLyon: (laughs) Okay, yes, that's true, but it varied. That was true in Manhattan. It wasn't true in Chicago or Pittsburgh or Detroit. It varied with the city. It also varied with what part of the week it was. If it was a holiday weekend that didn't apply. As a rule, the first show was... pretty good, reaction wise. The second was a bit of a let-down. A little tougher and a little thinner. The third one - it gets better.
But the best was always the evening show, the last one. That was when they were the most receptive. It also depended on what kind of an act you did. Now, Jack Carter, God, what a fan I was of his! And I knew him quite well. The type of work he did and the type of work I did was like night and day. In fact, he and I used to be on the same bill a number of times. Not in theaters, but in club dates and things like that. But in Manhattan (laughs) - his description is quite wonderful!
Kliph Nesteroff: May 1949 you were playing the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis. Lou Holtz followed you in.
Leo DeLyon: May '49? I don't remember playing the Nicollet or getting to Minneapolis before I was with Sandler and Young. I never played the Nicollet.
Kliph Nesteroff: I have down that you played it May 1949 and the same month you were on television - doing a spot on The Texaco Show.
Leo DeLyon: Yes, that's true, the Milton Berle show, yeah. I may have been slated for the Nicollet, but I don't remember playing it. I must have been slated for it and then had to pull out of it in order to do the Berle show.
Kliph Nesteroff: Also 1949 - you played the Los Angeles Orpheum with Pinky Lee, Guy Rennie and the Mayo Brothers.
Leo DeLyon: Oh, yes! Yeah, that was great (laughs). I think that was the year Eddie Fisher was doing one of his earliest dates there. My wife and I bawled him out for flashing the money he got paid. He was so excited, "Look at all I'm getting paid!" I said, "Listen, you jerk! Get to a bank and put that away! Whaddaya doing?" He was much younger then, only about eighteen or nineteen years old.
Kliph Nesteroff: Who was this comic Guy Rennie? Remember anything about him?
Leo DeLyon: I do remember him. Yes (laughs). He used to play the bass and then sit across it like you ride a horse and do all sorts of nutty things. But I never heard much about him after that. I had a lot of fun with Pinky Lee, though. He was a nice guy and I shocked him. He was working on a special little number. He was doing it with just piano. I got hold of a piece of manuscript paper. I scribbled out some minimal background and passed it to the musicians. We shocked the hell out of him when he did the bit - and the whole band came in, y'know. He went crazy - in a good way. He said, "Where the hell did that come from!?" I remember that date quite well. The RKO Palace, downtown Los Angeles.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were playing presentation houses way more than other comedians your age. Most comedians that were your age would start out in nightclubs or stripclubs - and here you are just starting out - and you're performing at these massive theaters. Why was that?
Leo DeLyon: Well, because I was not a comedian really. It was hard to peg me. I spent a lot of time at the piano. If you could picture a mixture of Victor Borge, Jonathan Winters and Don Rickles - that's me. I was like a musician who was really off the wall and had a very unique voice. I was in Ripley's Believe it or Not. I could reproduce eighty-six of the eighty-eight notes on a piano [with my voice]. I used three or four different ranges.
I used to do a lot of cartoon voices. I even did commercials - way back before they used electronics - for certain suds and soap commercials - I would produce the sound of a Martian washing machine. The guys all knew I had a crazy imagination. They'd say, "What would a Martian washing machine sound like?" And I would do some of these weird sounds vocally.
Kliph Nesteroff: You had a manager named Jack Talan.
Leo DeLyon: (silence) Wow. Yes, I did. He was my manager and my main booster in the very, very beginning after I got on the Godfrey show. In fact, I think he got me the Godfrey show. Very handsome, aspiring actor, but he never did become an actor. He went on to become a Victor Borge rep, I believe. He was also a bigshot with MCA. Unfortunately we had a parting that was... we were real close friends and our parting was extremely sad and upsetting to me. He had a gambling thing and he had power of attorney for my contracts and everything. He got into tremendous debt and he was signing over a lot of my stuff to cover his debt. I had to split. It broke my heart because we had been real good friends.
Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Oriental Theater in Chicago. You were booked there by a guy named Charlie Hogan...
Leo DeLyon: Charlie Hogan was the main strength behind Bob Hope.
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really?
Leo DeLyon: Yeah, he used to book Bob Hope for a lot of things when Bob Hope was doing the presentation houses. Yes, I worked the Oriental Theater and I think I worked it twice.
Kliph Nesteroff: This date is January 1951 with the Three Sons, The Cathalis Four and the Sherman Hayes house band.
Leo DeLyon: Do you have me down for the Chicago Theater? I was at the Chicago Theater once with the Josephine Baker show and then four years later with June Valli. It was wonderful. I enjoyed the Chicago Theater more than the Oriental. I don't know why. It was bigger. It had a bigger and better band. I did quite well at the Oriental, but did better at the Chicago. And I was in a revue at the Palmer House. My stuff wasn't that great in nightclubs. Certain clubs I would do sensational - the intimate ones like the Blue Angel.
I played the Blue Angel three times and I loved it. I played the Hungry I in San Francisco and I loved it. You could go up there and ad-lib half your show. That's what kept me so alert and I loved it. I wasn't a joke teller, I wasn't a story teller and I didn't do gags. I did funny ad-libs within the context of what I was singing. People would call me a one-man Spike Jones [Orchestra] because I used to take classical pieces and throw in the most ridiculous sounds and voices. I would do George Gershwin's Summertime, sing it with the most gorgeous soprano voice and right in the middle [fart sound] and it would get screams.
One of my proudest recordings... I have a tape of my winning Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and you can hear Arthur Godfrey... he refused to see any of the performers until the actual broadcast. He would never ever see a rehearsal. And you can hear him laughing his head off and smacking with the palm of his hands - pounding his desk as he is laughing. The audience was, of course, laughing too - but the more he would laugh like that... anyway, it was a very proud moment for me. Alan King and Gene Baylos... when you mention certain names...
I just loved Gene Baylos. He was so great. If he got a good write-up in the paper (laughs) he'd go over to a newspaper stand and tear out the write-ups from each paper (laughs). Oh, Jesus. Jack Carter, you mention. Jack Carter and I - one of the dates we did together - I remember in particular. He was emceeing. There was a singer, a dancer and myself. It was a one-nighter.
While they were getting my piano into position - I was already on and I was talking to the crowd. All of a sudden one of the legs on the piano - something happened to it - and it fell to one side. While they're trying to fix it, I'm talking and giving a blow by blow description of what they're doing and why. I'm talking to the audience and it has nothing to do with my act. I had to carry on and ad-lib like that for fifteen minutes. It seemed like an eternity, but they were laughing and screaming.
Now they got the thing back in place - and I go into my regular act - and I had to fight for my life! I'm saying to myself, "Where did this audience go!?" I had to fight real hard to sorta go off to some kind of applause! I said to Carter, "What the hell happened?" Jack said, "You know what the trouble was? You couldn't follow yourself! That insane ad-lib - that created a wild hysteria. When you got into your own stuff - which is usually quite wild - it seemed tame by comparison." But Carter - he was a funny guy. And a wonderful actor, by the way.
Kliph Nesteroff: Don Rickles mentions you in his autobiography and having seen you at a nightclub called The Sawdust Trail. When did you meet Rickles? Early on?
Leo DeLyon: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He was wild. There's so much to say about Rickles. I met him in 1954 in Detroit. He was appearing in some weird club.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Leo DeLyon: And I was appearing at the Statler Hotel. I could get wild in a club and I did, as certain clubs had that kind of clientele. When I say wild - not raunchy. I see people working today I think, "Jesus!" We were forbidden to say "hell" or "damn." Anyway, I could work in the [classy venues like] the Statler Hotel or the Waldorf and at the same time I could work [barrooms like] Minsky's Carnival - and get a little wilder and more marginal. Very little of my act was written.
Most of it just grew through a series of years and shows. Things would come along. When I was at the Statler in Detroit, Don Rickles was at a club and that is when I first met him. I was there with my wife and my first son who was only two at the time. We used to kid around alot. And then I ran into him several years later in Washington, DC where he was working a sort of burlesque club. He had grown a little bit in stature, but strictly in clubs. I was at a big nightclub in Washington around the corner from where he was. Do you have the name of the clubs I played in Washington?
Kliph Nesteroff: Nope. All I have down is that you performed with Dinah Washington (laughs).
Leo DeLyon: Dinah, yes, I performed with her Easter 1960 at the Brooklyn Paramount. My agent would tell bookers, "Well, he's not a comedian. He's a comedy musical entertainer." So they had a hard time booking me in certain ways.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was Don Rickles' act like when you first met him?
Leo DeLyon: He had very little of an act. He had one thing where he would imitate Peter Lorre doing an Edgar Allen Poe piece. It was the Man with the Glass Head or something like that. However, from that he would just go off on millions of tangents with the audience. That essentially became his whole persona, insulting them and handling them. That's all I can remember. He used to act a few things out. I used to wonder how he didn't get beat up as soon as he walked out the door. Through the years he refined it. That was it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Now, how about the Sawdust Trail? What was it like?
Leo DeLyon: The Sawdust Trail was really where I was born. I started there September 21st, 1947. It was around the corner from the famous Camel [Cigarettes] sign in Times Square. It was a saloon with sawdust all over the floor and spittoons and so on. It was a hangout for the theatrical crowd. Actors and wannabe actors would come in there for beer.
You could also have sandwiches and stuff and the waiters were all former vaudevillians. They had garters on their sleeve and an apron and they'd walk around. Each one from time to time would get up. They were all just barbershop quartet members and they would sing a lot of Italian songs, a lot of Irish songs, it was quite a thing. That's where Jack Talan came in. He used to hang out with the other unemployed actors. Many times famous actors would come in there. I didn't know their names, but I recognized their faces.
A lot of stage actors came in there. There was a little, oval-shaped stage in the center of the floor made out of tile. There was a platform with a microphone and on one side there was a white grand piano and on the other side there was another white grand piano. You would have two pianists facing each other and they would alternate. They would play ten minutes together before the other one would go off. It was like tag, y'know.
That was The Sawdust Trail. They used to have a microphone near me at the piano where I would introduce different singers. Teresa Brewer got her start there at age sixteen. She was allowed to sing there only because her aunt was there as her chaperone. She would sing a few songs and then leave. Jo Sullivan was a soprano for whom I used to play piano at auditions.
She also was on Broadway in a couple things and in the original Most Happy Fella. She ended up marrying the composer of Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser. She became Mrs. Frank Loesser and inherited his whole ballgame when he died. And a guy named Walter Bachelor was one of the owners of the Stardust Trail - and he was part owner of the Copa and part owner of the famous Willard Alexander Agency. They used to book very famous bands.
I went in and auditioned for him just to get the piano playing job. I got the job strictly as a piano player. With each passing month, more and more, I would take advantage of that microphone. Finally I started heckling some of the singers! Not with lines, but by injecting certain sound effects. Finally these things started building up and I was doing my own thing. I was starting to develop an act - and I started to draw people on my own.