Saturday, January 7, 2012
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Kliph Nesteroff: Couple of weird - probably awful gigs you did in the 1950s... You performed for "1300 grocery store employees" in Lubbock, Texas and you performed at the Miss Wool Pageant...
Dick Curtis: (laughs) Yes, that was in a geodesic dome! They had a huge one next to the hotel in Porter, Texas - which smells like paint thinner. By then I was so big in Texas that they would book me into anything. They'd say, "Dick can't fail. Book him for it." At the same time my agent booked me into an industrial show that was rehearsing up in the Catskill mountains at Grossingers. It was a show for Chevrolet or Ford or something like that. You know what industrial shows are, don't you?
Kliph Nesteroff: They're sort of self-contained musicals about a particular product - done for the employees or people within the company, right?
Dick Curtis: They were like a Broadway show except they were about the product. They would hire guys like me because I could work in all phases of the show and then do my nightclub act later that night for the dealers and their wives. Also, I was a writer so I could fix things that didn't work. I got a lot of work that way. My God, I get a pension from Actors Equity because of it.
Anyway, we were rehearsing in the Catskills at Grossingers. I would rehearse all day then drive back to LaGuardia, get on a plane, fly to Dallas, charter a plane and fly to these dates that I had. Then I'd fly back. I was really worn out - rehearsing and flying and driving. I got down to Porter and they said it was the "Made of Cotton" Festival and this was the beauty contest.
I said, "Who's on the show?" They said, "It's you, a girl singer and that game show host from New York that does Who Do You Trust. I think his name is Johnny Carson." I said, "You hired Johnny Carson to do this show? What do you need me for?" They said, "Well, we know you. We don't know him at all." Johnny got out of the car with Ed McMahon and I was sitting on a bench in front of the hotel. I said, "Hi, Johnny." He said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "You and I are doing the Made in Cotton show together." He said, "You're on the bill with me? Jesus, what does that tell you about what they think of my act!" We did the show and I flew back to the show at Grossingers. That night I did my nightclub act in the main dining room - and the audience was a convention of FBI men!
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow.
Dick Curtis: Now I'm so tired from flying and driving and rehearsing - I was falling asleep standing up. I went out and for some reason, this happens with a lot of performers, I did the show and I could have belched and people would have screamed and applauded. It was just one of those nights. I did about an hour and I was thinking, "Now I can go to sleep." I was walking down the hall and this girl ran up to me. She said, "You are absolutely sensational! Do you know who I am?" I said, "Yeah, you're pretty, perky Peggy King." Do you remember who that was?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, she was on The George Gobel Show...
Dick Curtis: Yup. She said, "You must replace Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie!" I said, "I must?" She said, "Oh, yes." We were both staying at Grossingers and there was a phone in the hallway there. She picked up the telephone and she said, "I'm going to call Gower Champion and his wife because you have got to replace Dick Van Dyke when he leaves the show." I said, "Don't mention my name." Because she was calling them at three o'clock in the morning.
So she calls and says, "Hi, Gower! It's Peggy (pause) Well, that's a hell of an attitude! I'm calling to do you a favor! Yes, I know what time it is! I found you your replacement for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie! If you want to hear the name you better stay on the line. Dick Curtis. Yeah? Well, I never heard of him either, but I just saw him destroy an audience tonight!"
She said, "Uh huh. Okay. Well, remember who told you when the time comes! Good night, darling." She hung up and said to me, "You have an audition tomorrow at 10am at the theater in New York." I said, "Okay... thanks... I think." I had never auditioned for a Broadway show in my life. Auditioning for a Broadway show is very special. You have got to cover the stage - you know what I mean? You have to show them that you can dance, you can sing, belt it out to the balcony - all of that.
But I didn't know that! I went to the theater with my manager and there was a line-up at the stage door around the block because they were having an audition for all the teenage kids in the show. I walked up to the stage door in my blue suit and the first guy in the line goes, "Hey, hey, hey! Where you going?" I said, "Oh, I have an appointment." He goes, "Oh! Hey! This guy here's got an appointment! Listen, I got an appointment too, pal!" We went back onto the street because I didn't want to get killed. Should I get into the end of the line? A lady walks by carrying two shopping bags. An old woman. She goes, "What the hell is all this?" I said, "It's an audition for a Broadway show, ma'am and we all have to wait in line." She said, "Oh!" And she gets in line!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Dick Curtis: (laughs) I walked around to the box office and fortunately there was someone there and they let me in through the front. There was a guy on stage with the piano and I walked up on the stage. I looked out at the footlights and I couldn't really see. I shouted, "Anybody here?" Gower went, "Good morning." I didn't see him - he was sitting in the back. He said, "You're Dick Curtis? Ms. King seems to think you're quite talented." I said, "Well, she's a nice girl." He said, "Uh huh." I said, "Would you like to see me do something?"
He said, "That would be nice." I thought, "I'm not starting off very well here." I did something from my act, but it didn't show me singing or dancing or anything. I finished and they said, "Very good. You'll hear from us. Thank you." I never heard from them again. Everyone who replaced Dick Van Dyke from that day on - and even Dick Van Dyke said it to me, "You should be doing this part because you're right for it." I would just say, "Oh, shut up."
Kliph Nesteroff: And one of your most legendary credits was on The Dick Van Dyke Show just a few years later.
Dick Curtis: Yes. That was an accident. I had just been fired by a television station in Dayton, Ohio. I took my three children and my wife and we moved to the West Coast. I said, "I've got to get out of this nightclub business and into television. I'm getting too old. I'm almost thirty-five!" We drove to California. I went to Los Angeles, rented a house in Beverly Hills, and went directly to Desilu. I thought, "Maybe I'll bump into Desi and he'll remember me." I made my way to the office of the guy who managed Andy Griffith - and everybody else. I sat down at his desk.
He said, "What can I do for you?" I said, "I want you to manage me." He said, "I can't. I've got too many clients now." I said, "I know, but you must - because you're the best there is and I don't want anything less." I showed him a brochure from my television show in Dayton, Ohio and it was full of good pictures. He said, "Wait here." He went down the hall, came back and said, "Walk down to the third door." I went down to the third door and there was Carl Reiner sitting with the writers Persky and Denoff. They were looking at my brochure. I said, "Hi, I'm Dick Curtis."
Carl said, "It's so fortuitous that you came here today - because we're looking for a guy just like you to do a new series called Good Morning, World. Would that interest you at all?" I said, "Oh, yes." They called me a few days later and asked, "Would you do The Dick Van Dyke Show for us? We'd like to see you in a part." I said, "Oh, sure." Who would turn it down? And that was Coast to Coast Big Mouth, which won Emmys for everybody.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's a great episode. You have a such a great part in it.
Dick Curtis: Oh, yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: In that episode you play a game show host. And later you went on to host a couple of game shows in actual life. Had you ever hosted a game show before you played one on The Dick Van Dyke Show?
Dick Curtis: Not a game show host, but I had hosted a lost of television. I did a show called AM New York. I hosted television in Cleveland, New York, Boston and a lot of different places. I was hosting television shows that weren't very important.
Kliph Nesteroff: Carl Reiner hired you for that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but you never ended up doing Good Morning, World. Why not?
Dick Curtis: You know, I never knew. Goldie Hawn was in it and Ronnie Schell. We all knew each other because we were all looking for work at the same time. Regis Philbin was around too. We used to always say, "Poor Regis. He can't do anything."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Dick Curtis: And he becomes a millionaire! I used to audition for a lot of the same things that Regis did.
Kliph Nesteroff: And the man whom you demanded be your manager must have been Dick Link.
Dick Curtis: Yes. Dick Link.
Kliph Nesteroff: You put out a comedy record and it's interesting because it was pressed by a label best known for releasing eccentric albums by black comedians during the nineteen seventies - Laff Records. Your album was Live at the Horn - Santa Monica on Laff.
Dick Curtis: Right. Well, the Horn. Rick Ricardi owned it and he had been a voice coach at 20th Century Fox for twenty years. He was a great opera singer himself. He retired form 20th Century Fox and he was a great chef - a gourmet chef. So he opened a place called The Horn in Santa Monica, near Wilshire. Opening night, everyone who was in show business was there. His meals were so wonderful and he'd get up and sing and then Jimmy Cagney would get up and sing and everybody else would get up and sing. From then on it was a celebrity place. But they found that they weren't making money selling food so it just became The Horn where people came and sang. By the time I got to The Horn it was probably 1962 or 1963. Larry Hovis was a good friend of mine. You familiar with Larry Hovis?
Kliph Nesteroff: Hogan's Heroes and all the rest...
Dick Curtis: Yes. Larry Hovis was a drummer in the Bill Gannon Trio. I thought Larry was one of the most talented people. I almost quit show business to become his manager because I thought he was so good. We became fast friends until the day he died. We were very close. He introduced me to Dick Link because he managed him too. That's how I found Dick Link.
Larry Hovis introduced my to Rick Ricardi at The Horn. By then The Horn was a place where if you were a hit - you were almost ensured to get a television series - because everyone in show business went there to see the show. It was mostly singing and comedy was slowly introduced into the place. It was hard to find comics whose act fit that room because it only seated maybe one hundred people. That's for me. When it's like a living room I couldn't lose. I became a regular at The Horn and I worked it for the next ten years.
I treated it like a gymnasium and I used it to keep my act in shape. One night while I was working at The Horn a guy came up to me and said, "I'd like to put out a record of your act." I said, "Okay. Who are you?" He said, "I own Laff Records." This guy had just moved over from selling jazz to comedy because Shelley Berman and all of them had become such a success. Comedy records were in. He recorded me at The Horn and some other places. I think it sold... seven copies. I bought five. My wife bought one. I never heard from them again.
Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember exactly who that gentleman was?
Dick Curtis: He owned Laff Records... but I can't remember his name.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was it Lou Drozen?
Dick Curtis: Yes! Lou Drozen, that's the guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: Laff Records had an interesting run and I think you were one of the first people that they pressed. Then they went exclusively to black stand-up comics. They were the first to record Richard Pryor. Years later he sued them. They cashed in on his fame by releasing all the old outtakes.
Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. The record business in those days was Mob controlled. It wasn't a fun business to be in.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Mob taped Bill Dana's act off television with a reel-to-reel and then turned it into a comedy record and made a lot of money off of it. He had nothing to do with it and got no money for it. His manager tried to do something about it - but they started getting threatening phone calls.
Dick Curtis: Right, crazy stuff.
Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Vancouver nightclubs in the nineteen fifties. Do you have any stories about The Cave Supperclub or Isy's Supperclub? Those were the two big ones.
Dick Curtis: Yes. I got booked in 1956 and it was the week of The Grey Cup - between the Montreal Alouettes and the Edmonton Eskimos. There was a headline in the newspaper that said, "Eskimo Fan Greeted With Punch In Nose." I worked for an agent named Joe Rollo who was a hard-talking New Yorker. I said, "Joe, I need you to change my contracts." He said, "To what?" I said, "Put that I'm to be called 'comedian.'" He said, "You're the emcee." I said, "I know. I don't want to be billed as 'emcee,' I want people to know that I'm a comedian."
I went up to Vancouver and it was cold as hell and I went in for rehearsal. There was a wonderful five piece jazz band at The Cave at that time. They were wonderful. The show that Isy Walters booked... he was sitting down in front of the stage. He has got a pencil and a stopwatch. He's timing everybody's act and assigning them their time. The show consisted of Japanese Can Can dancers... about ten of them.
They sang, they danced, they did acrobatics. Their manager was a guy who looked like a sumo wrestler... and behaved like one! Isy was timing these Japanese Can Can dancers and cutting and slashing pieces of their act. Their manager was very upset about that - because they were stars to him. But the real star of the show was Yogi Yorgesson. Yogi became one of my best friends in life before he died. Yogi was one of the most wonderful, humble guys you would ever meet. He was a big star and he was the star of the show. He's sitting there and we shake hands.
I said, "Hi, I'm Dick Curtis." He's says, "Hi, I'm Yogi Yogesson the Swedish Hindu Mystic." (laughs) That's what he called himself. Isy was making notes and I said, "I'm Dick Curtis. The comedian." He said, "Oh, yes, the emcee. You do six minutes and then you do..." I said, "Yes, I know how to emcee, Isy, but that's not what I do. I have an act..." He said, "Well, you do six minutes." I said, "Isy. I am ready to go to the airport right now if I don't get twenty minutes for my act." Yogi was sitting there and said, "Isy, it's all right. I'll just take a couple things out." Isy said, "No! You're the star! Dick, I'll give you sixteen minutes."
I said, "No, I'll do twenty minutes and I'm going to emcee the show. Without that I am going to split and get on a plane." I didn't even have the money to take a plane - I was bluffing. Opening night came and the Japanese Can Can dancers were a sensation! You couldn't have asked for a better opening act. I did twenty minutes of jokes and introduced Yogi. After the first night Isy conceded, "That's a good show. Stick with it. It works."
We all stayed in a hotel in downtown Vancouver and we all hung out in the coffee shop. In the coffee shop was a jukebox and the little girls [from the Can Can act] would sit in the booth and they'd put nickels in the jukebox. The big song at the time was Shake, Rattle and Roll. The girls were singing, "Sake, lallal and loll! Sake, lallal and loll!" Suddenly, I got an idea. We got the band together at The Cave - I said, "When they're singing [the traditional Japanese song] - right in the middle you guys go [fanfare] and they'll jump into 'Sake, lallal and loll!" Oh, it was so cute you wouldn't believe it. That night they destroyed with that.
Kliph Nesteroff: Right.
Dick Curtis: The day we were rehearsing that number, a guy came up on the stage out of the audience. He was in jeans and a t-shirt and he looked like a kid. He was a midget. It said on his shirt, "Davy - Midget Wrestling Champ of Canada."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Dick Curtis: He said, "Are you the comic?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Good. Cause I break up shows." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, I come in and break up shows. It's real funny the way I do it." I said, "You break up a show here and I'll break your nose." He said, "No, no, I'll see you tonight." Two nights later I'm doing my act after sake, lallal and loll has destroyed them. I look down the aisle and here comes "I break up shows" running toward the stage. He runs up the steps and I just straight armed him.
He flipped backward. Isy was sitting at the table timing everybody and he starts laughing like hell. I brought on one of the Japanese dancers or something and I went down to the front row and sat with Isy and this midget runs up and says, "Hey, I helped you, didn't I!?" I said, "Yeah, you son of a bitch." The guy with him took a swing at me and a fight started like you wouldn't believe. It turned into a riot.
Isy and I ended up under the table. They tried to tear my tuxedo and the waiters tried to stop it. Fights were breaking out all over. I went to the dressing room to take care of my tuxedo, which was torn. Yogi asked, "What are you gonna do?" I said, "I'm gonna go out there and introduce you." He said, "Do me a favor. Don't." I said, "Yogi, I can't leave it like that. I have to go out and talk to this audience."
So I walked out onstage and there was dead silence. I got to the microphone and I said, "Ladies and gentleman during World War Two I was in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. I worked alongside a lot of Canadian kids. They were good men then. And they're good men now..." I did a whole thing to calm them down. I don't remember what I said. Then a guy from the back shouted. "You're right! It's Isy Walters who is wrong! That little guy should be kicked out!" And then the whole riot started up again!
Isy was sitting in the front row holding his head. It's the end of the night and I head out the door and a real tough looking guy walks up to me and says, "You're in real trouble." I said, "Really? Who are you?" He said, "My name is Phillipone."
Kliph Nesteroff: Ah ha.
Dick Curtis: He said, "You're going to be glad I'm here because they're waiting for you out front." In those days I had a busted up nose because I had been a fighter. The Phillipone's [1950s Mob family that ran Vancouver nightclubs] liked me because I looked that way. He said, "I'll walk out with you. It'll be okay." So we walk out the front door of The Cave - and here is a line of guys waiting to beat me up. They saw The Phillipones and the crowd disolved. They left. The Phillipones took me up to their club and we were best of friends from then on.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Penthouse.
Dick Curtis: The Penthouse, yes. Oh my God, they were like old time Chicago mobsters. And tough. Oh my God, were they tough.
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, one of them died like an old time Chicago mobster. He was assassinated while standing in front of his club smoking a cigar.
Dick Curtis: Yeah, they shot him, yeah. The day after this brawl at The Cave the headline in the Vancouver Sun said "Eskimo Fan Greeted With Punch In Nose." There was a whole story about what happened. The next day I walked into Isy's office and he was sitting at his desk with that newspaper in front of him. He was on the phone.
He put it down and I said, "Isy! I was in the wrong. I'm sorry. I'll get on the first plane out of here." He said, "I know you're wrong and you know you're wrong, but that goddamn phone won't stop ringing and everyone is saying that if I fire you they're gonna boycott my club! So you can't leave!"
So from then on people were shouting, "Don't start any fights until we've seen the whole show!" And the Phillipone's were there every night and we went to their club afterward. When Isy Walter's opened his own club, Isy's, I called him and said, "Good luck with your new club." He said, "Yeah, if you're booked in here - no fights. Okay?" Oh, I've got a million stories.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Will Jordan: Unlike yourself - a lot of researchers are not that accurate.
Kliph Nesteroff: You never finished your story... you went up on stage at a party that Henry Morgan attended.
Will Jordan: Yes. He was nice to me for a moment and then he said, "I could write you an act and make you a star... but I won't." Completely uncalled for. Senseless little bit of arrogance. It was unpleasant and unnecessary, but I still found him very, very talented. If I ever had a chance to appear with him, which I didn't, I would have jumped at it.
Kliph Nesteroff: And we were also talking about Robert Q. Lewis.
Will Jordan: Yes, getting back to Robert Q. Lewis. Robert Q. Lewis was gay, but it wasn't that simple. Like Tony Randall, they were two very un-Jewish looking guys who were both very Jewish in real life. One was Rosenberg and the other was Goldberg and they both came from successful families. Both had tremendous voices. I mention that because it's not something you usually associate with a gay - a great deep voice.
Robert Q. Lewis loved Broadway shows and later on when his career disappeared he was a gypsy, which is the slang term for gay guys that are in the chorus of Broadway shows. He became one of those. You can see him, literally, as a bit player in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He's one of the little guys there doing nothing. Robert had not been as big as Steve Allen, but he was pretty big. He had some big shows and several different shows of his own. He would get up and say things like, "Sun-shine, Sun-shine - Ooh-la-la!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Will Jordan: Now that's not something Tony Randall would do, although he was rumored to be gay as well - beyond his manner of speech. Tony was a very physical guy. He went to the gym and everything else. The rumor was that his kids weren't his kids. He had a great speaking voice. He was kind of nasty too. I remember I spoke to him about doing impressions and he bragged that he could do an impression of Robert Montgomery. I did too, but neither of us did it too well. I knew him for years, but he never gave me a nice hello. I never met Jack Klugman, although I imagine I would have got along better with him.
Klugman was one of those Philadelphia guys and they all knew each other. Norman Fell, Eddie Fisher, Joey Forman, Guy Marks - it was sort of a Philadelphia clique. But all of a sudden, one day, Tony Randall gave me a big hello. We used to work out at a popular gym here in New York called Gotham. You'd go there and probably see Sid Caesar or Lee J. Cobb working out. Tony Randall had always been nasty and insulting. I was there once and they said, "Telephone for Mr. Jordan!" And Tony Randall said, "It must be Ed Sullivan. You're canceled!" And you know what? It was Ed Sullivan... and I was canceled!
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, man!
Will Jordan: (laughs) I told him about it. He said, "Tell this on The Merv Griffin Show!" But I never had a chance to tell anyone about it... until you... just now. Anyway, one day, years later, he was nice to me for the strangest of reasons. Years ago when I worked with Tommy Sands at The Roxy Theater... before Tommy married... what's her name...
Kliph Nesteroff: Nancy Sinatra?
Will Jordan: Yeah, Sinatra's daughter. Very nice boy and everything. A tiny little guy from Texas. Tommy Sands was very nice. The kids packed it to see him and there were groupies that were there trying to get to him... and some of the groupies would jump on me - hoping that I could introduce them. So there were these two girls - exquisite - one of them had the most gorgeous looking body I had ever seen. I took a picture of her actually. She wouldn't let me score with her, but I came close. This is circa 1958. I kept trying to make out with her, but no. She wanted to make it with Tommy Sands.
Now - all these years go by and there's Tony Randall and he's suddenly nice to me. You'll never believe why! Strangest reason in the world! It was because Donna, this little girl, had become the live-in girlfriend of Jack Klugman - and had been for many years.
Somehow in conversation she let it slip that she liked me. For some reason that made Tony Randall feel I was acceptable - just because I might have had an affair with Klugman's girlfriend. I mean, I didn't, and it doesn't mean anything, but it was such a strange... Randall was nice to me after that.
Kliph Nesteroff: Tony Randall was a great comic actor, but he didn't seem to be too funny as himself...
Will Jordan: He hated the fact that he was a big hit on radio. He would go out of his way to say radio was crap. He was on I Love a Mystery and I don't know what else. He was a great radio actor - and if not great then at least competent. But he kept putting down radio. I wondered for what possible reason. When Elliot Reid [set me up to do an] interview with Peter Lind Hayes, which I wanted to use in a book, he was not that nice. He was nice enough because Elliot Reid had connected me with him.
It was over the phone and he just kept saying, "Mimicry is crap. Mimicry is crap!" I said, "Peter, I'm doing a book on mimicry. You can have your opinion, but that's not really what I'm talking about. What's the point of telling me this?" Many mimics will do an extraordinary impersonation, but you'll never see it or hear it because it's too inside. According to Larry Storch, Mickey Rooney does the greatest impression of Jean Arthur. I worked with Mickey Rooney on a pilot for a show that never aired. I never thought to ask him, but that is something obscure.
I bet it's better than the bad Clark Gable and the bad Lionel Barrymore he did in so many of his movies. The same with Peter Lind Hayes. He was supposedly famous for imitating Ethel Waters. These are the things they are known for offstage. Peter Lind Hayes was just... well, a very talented man - no question about it... but not too friendly to me. There were certain people that just didn't like me. Ed Asner - I don't know why. These things happen before I even open my mouth. I guess it's just chemistry or there's something about me. On the other hand, Art Carney was literally in awe of me! At least that was how he acted and I have no idea why.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's seldom that I am surprised when someone like yourself tells me that "so-and-so was a nasty person." Usually it's someone that I would have assumed as much.
Will Jordan: Buddy Hackett was the nastiest person in the world. When he was on What's My Line he was so cute. These obnoxious people could be charming when they were onscreen.
Kliph Nesteroff: I am surprised to hear you say Arnold Stang was not nice, however.
Will Jordan: Well, they just considered me beneath them. "You're not gonna ad-lib better than me." Neither Stang nor I were known for being great ad-libbers. They also kept trying to create confrontation between me and John Byner. They said that Ed Sullivan's son-in-law preferred John Byner. Bob Precht didn't like me that much, but Sullivan did. But by then Sullivan was prematurely senile and everything.
When the production was bought by Andrew Solt of Sofa Productions and they did these Best of Ed Sullivan specials - I wasn't on it. One of the guys that did one of the three or four biographies of Ed Sullivan just happened to live right across the street from me. He's the nicest guy in the world. I forget his name now.
Kliph Nesteroff: Gerald Nachman?
Will Jordan: No. Way before Gerald. I forget his name, but he has one full chapter called The Mimic - about me.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Bowles?
Will Jordan: Yes! Yes. A very, very nice man and I owe him a lot for doing that.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's a good book.
Will Jordan: He lived right across the street, but I think he's dead now. Then, of course, Nachman and there's a book by the guy who was Ed Sullivan's press agent. A nice, little guy - very creepy looking - but nice.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Will Jordan: Solt would not let me say that I invented "Really Big Shoo" and they were going to use that all over the package. They just refused to let me tell that story and explain that Sullivan never said that.
Kliph Nesteroff: SOFA Productions is the worst. Naturally, they guard the content of the show like a hawk, which is fine, but they don't let anybody see the program. They own over a thousand full episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show and in all these years of owning that library, they've only ever released four episodes. The four episodes with The Beatles are the only full episodes they've ever made commercially available. It seems like lunacy to me, but they'd rather chop them up - give you two minutes of a comedian's seven minute act or package them as Ed Sullivan Presents Rock n' Roll in these truncated versions with a nineteen eighties synthesizer dubbed over the credits - I mean, it's just garbage. SOFA Productions is run by the worst possible people...
Will Jordan: They did some stuff with PBS here in New York, but they would make it a half-hour of disassociated clips. I couldn't get jobs in the Catskills after a while because Jackie Mason would come in before me and do his Sullivan. I said, "But I'm the originator!" Then I got Bob Hope on my side. Jack Carter had done an appearance on the Como show. At different times different shows were more important than others. At one time the Paar show was the most important one. The show that probably made more stars than any other, and this is just my opinion, was the Steve Allen Sunday night show. He didn't have the ratings that Sullivan had, but it made more stars.
The truth is the amount of people that became famous from The Ed Sullivan Show were very few. You can't really mention more than two or three. But those that became famous from Steve Allen? Steve and Eydie, Don Knotts, Andy Williams, Tom Post - quite a big list. The difference was that they were regulars. I turned it down because my manager advised me wrong. He said, "Don't do the Steve Allen Show." Steve wanted me to open one of his shows as if it were the Sullivan show. If you had turned to ABC that night then the first minute would have looked just like the Sullivan show - but I turned it down and that was a mistake. My manager was very good, but he told me several things. He told me not to walk out on The Palmer House in Chicago, where I was doing an Ed Sullivan revue, in order to do Judy Garland's first television show. It was, granted, a flop.
Judy Garland had seen our revue open in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton. She went crazy for it. She stayed and watched the show again and stayed all night with me plotting out a complete show. The show was to be ninety minutes for ABC. This was sometime around November 1955. We sat there and Sid Luft had written a script. It worked good for me because we were going to do a take-off on Country Girl where I would be Bing and she would be Grace Kelly. Then we were going to do a take-off of On the Waterfront where I would be Brando and she would be Eva Marie Saint. The topper was going to be A Star is Born and I was going to do James Mason.
She thought my James Mason was just great. On top of that she and Sidney liked me so much that they said, "You're going to be the emcee." But I couldn't get out of my contract with the Hilton and Statler Hotels. I said, "You've got to let me out. It's only three days. I will give you my salary three times over!" "No, no we can't do that." "I'll just walk out on you!" "Then we'll sue you!" I didn't call their bluff and the truth is they could have sued me and I could have lost a lot of money - and it's true that Judy Garland's first show did bomb. But! But to have emceed a ninety minute Judy Garland show and three sketches? Later on William Morris dropped the ball. She did her show on CBS and who did they get to accompany her? Rich Little instead of me! These are bad breaks. I didn't dislike Rich Little. It was insulting in this particular circumstance and I'm visual and he's not.
Kliph Nesteroff: I saw you do your Sullivan impression on a latter day Ed Sullivan Show - by then everyone had seen your version and several others... but when you turn your back to the audience and then face the camera again without saying anything... the audience audibly gasps at the uncanny resemblance...
Will Jordan: I was into that almost from the beginning, but I was more interested in the voices. Larry Storch was interesting, but he wasn't a strong with physical resemblance. The best physical resemblances were done by Marilyn Michaels when she did women and Frank Gorshin when he did Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Rich Little looked a bit like Nixon when he wore a prosthetic and he could look a little like Jack Lemmon. He could get away with not looking like people too much because his voices were so strong.
Kliph Nesteroff: I watched Rich Little do what looked like a steal of Gorshin's Lancaster on a Dean Martin roast a little while back.
Will Jordan: Gorshin, even if he didn't look like the person, could make an interesting face. He was also not particularly nice. He was when I first met him at The Horn in Santa Monica. He was great. The first thing he said to me was, "I'm not really a mimic." I said, "Boy, you could have fooled me." Chuck McCann tells the story of how he got Frank his first break on Steve Allen. McCann says that Gorshin auditioned as a singer.
He wanted to sing because he thought he sounded like Sinatra. Steve Lawrence and Vic Damone were both unquestionably Sinatra copies, both excellent voices. Gorshin's singing voice wasn't as good. Gorshin looked like a little skeleton - very odd looking little creature. Story goes that he auditioned and the entire cast would really help you on that show - laugh it up and applaud.
Chuck said that as Frank was leaving... and of course, this is Chuck's version so Chuck McCann is the hero (laughs) and it's probably not true... he said, "What's the hat on the piano for?" Frank said, "Oh, I do some impressions." Stan Burns told him to do some. They all sat back down and the first thing Gorshin did was Kirk Douglas' face. That scored heavy and he got the show. Bill Dana was there too and he says that's not the way it happened. I like them both. I'm a close personal friend of Chuck. His first wife had been my girlfriend. Bill, I think, is probably more accurate. Bill Dana along with a few others did an act where... they were intellectual Martin and Lewises. There was an act called Igor and H - and then there was Dana and Wood.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, Gene Wood.
Will Jordan: Oh, you know about that? They were quite good. I saw them both at the Village Vanguard in the early fifties. They were quite good, but they didn't make it. Bill Dana became friendly with Don Adams. When Don Adams auditioned for The Steve Allen Show he did his famous bit with the William Powell character. "Look at those arms! Look at those thighs! Are those the thighs of a homicidal maniac?" That was pure, one hundred percent Bill Dana. "Would you believe?" is Bill Dana. The little expressions are important in that characterization and that was all created by Bill Dana. Don Adams' act with Larry Storch's brother was nothing but old jokes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Don Adams was getting a hundred thousand dollars to appear at The Sands Hotel when he had his Get Smart fame, but apparently detested doing stand-up.
Will Jordan: He told a funny story, a true story, funnier than anything in his act. There was a club in Boston called The Latin Quarter owned by the same people that owned the actual Latin Quarter. It was the father of Barbara Walters - Lou Walters. No one ever mentions it, but he had the identical lisp! Same side of the face and everything. No one ever mentions that. Boston's Latin Quarter - the comedians always bombed. Yet the Latin Quarter in New York was wonderful. You knew that when you played the Latin Quarter in Boston it would be a bomb, yet you played it because it was the Latin Quarter.
Anyway, story goes - Don Adams, who wasn't doing that well and was an unknown somehow got the gig. He really wasn't big enough to get that. He was booked to open for Mae West. A very strange booking. Why would you put a comedian on in front? It should have been a singer. So Don has an act that isn't too good in a room where comedians never go over. On top of that they only gave him eight minutes. That's not enough in a nightclub. Maybe it is in a comedy club or on TV, but in a nightclub it's just not. He decided to do it anyway.
Mae West said, "Son, I want to hear your act." What more could happen? Mae West says, "Son, you've got to take out this joke and that joke..." By now it's impossible. In those days he needed the money and the Latin Quarter in Boston was prestige, so he went through with it. He went out and, of course, he bombed. But he bombed so badly that Mae West got nervous and broke out it in a sweat! Normally she wouldn't give a shit what happens to an unknown comedian. So he walked over to her and she was shaking like she was going to vomit. Don says to her, "Well, I warmed them up for you!"
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Will Jordan: Now, why couldn't he be that funny in his act?
Kliph Nesteroff: One person who is much funnier to me offstage than on is Jack Carter. In person - my God, he is just the funniest guy of all time.
Will Jordan: He was the biggest comedian in Montreal. Jack Carter was the king of that city!
Kliph Nesteroff: He was also the king of Vancouver in the sixties. He was here all the time.
Will Jordan: Yes, well, he had a great nightclub act! He was a prodigy of Morey Amsterdam and a little bit of Milton Berle. Before Morey Amsterdam he was just a mimic and he wasn't that funny. Morey got him going and later on Jack Carter became such a rapid joke teller that he became almost better than Morey. He was very good onstage and he had several things going for him. He was a very good mimic.
Still to this day - with all the Al Jolson impressions - Jack Carter is still the best! That's the best one and it was never known. There were two or three people... one very famous was from Canada - Norman Brooks. Not a great performer, but still successful because he did this great Jolson voice. The other guy was from Scotland, believe it or not, named Clive Baldwin. Not a great performer either. Jack Carter, not only did he have the Jolson voice, but he had the mannerisms. The other two guys, not that I didn't like them, did An Evening with Jolson and everything else.
Jack Carter was so nervous he couldn't stay in an impression for more than thirty seconds. He would put his fingers in his mouth, spread it open and stick his tongue out and make a funny Jolson out of it. One of the reasons that Jack Carter was so good at it, apart from the fact he was a great mimic, is that he was the only mimic, with the possible exception of Guy Marks, who was a bass. He wasn't a baritone, he was a bass. Jack Carter's voice is so deep and so powerful that he could do Jolson without trying! Anyone else who did Jolson would have to strain. I could never get that deep. I can do him in speech. The audience thinks speech is everything, but to me it was voice. Of course, the public doesn't give a shit. But Jolson. Carter had the voice and he's the one who should have done it as a one-man show... although he probably would have tried to make it funny. Then again Jolson never stopped trying to be funny and it was pathetic sometimes.
When Jolson was at his peak people would laugh because it was Jolson. Mark Leddy, who later went from being the right hand man of Fred Allen to being the right hand man of Ed Sullivan, would tell me stories about Jolson at the Wintergarden. Jolson was a horrible man. He would see a comedian do a good joke and then he would say, "Send my lawyer to this guy and tell him. 'Stop doing that joke. It belongs to Al Jolson and you're stealing it from him!"
Kliph Nesteroff: Whoa.
Will Jordan: A horrible man, yet very charismatic. He would open up at the Wintergarden - packed - he had this enormous following. He'd open with these jokes that were stolen and they wouldn't go over. Then he would sing a few songs and that magic must have come through because he was unbelievable when he sang. Mark Leddy said that an hour later Jolson would tell the same jokes - but get laughs this time! That's extremely interesting. Although he was big in films, we can't really see that [Jolson greatness].
Kliph Nesteroff: No, I've never understood it. People say Al Jolson was the greatest performer that ever lived - and everything I've ever seen or heard of his indicates the contrary. I've consumed a lot of great show business from that era, but have never found anything of Al Jolson's enjoyable.
Will Jordan: Yeah, it was the kind of thing where you can't see it unless you're there. It doesn't come across. There will always be such contradictions. The highest paid mimic in the world doesn't look like anybody he imitates - Danny Gans. Al Jolson, supposedly the greatest entertainer in the world, was short, ugly, imitated blacks and was practically illiterate.
The guy who played Schlepperman with Jack Benny was a writer. He got up at a college and lectured about comedy... God, I wish I had the tape of it... and he talked about Jolson. Some of the things he said were fascinating. He said that when you went to Jolson's home or office... his bed was on a throne.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Will Jordan: He would look at the script and he would make corrections. Then the writers would look at the corrections. One of the corrections said, "MAKE BETTER." The story Schlepperman told about Eddie Cantor was absolutely priceless. He said that Eddie Cantor was the most egotistical guy in the world.
This story was partially recreated in the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars, a very nice little musical. In that movie he reads the fan mail and all of his cast and assistants sit around and laugh and applaud - and apparently some of that was true in real life. The story goes that the writers were really sick of this tremendous ego and this perception that he was a great family man. Everyone knew that he was having a big affair with Joan Davis and surely many more than that. He would read the mail, write the script and do everything at once.
He was a mad egomaniac, but he was talented and he managed to put on a better radio show than Jolson. Anyway, the writers could no longer take this bullshit from Cantor. They decided they would compose a letter and tell Cantor what they really thought of him - without his being able to tell it was from them. So they put it in some sort of envelope that they could spot, because he had huge piles of fan mail. He was going through all of it and he would say, "Send a picture to this person!" and "Do that for this one!" and so on. Constant motion.
Cantor was a very hyper guy. Finally it comes to their envelope. The letter says, "You degenerate bastard. You're probably screwing Deanna Durbin and Dinah Shore and God knows what you're doing to poor little Bobby Breen!" It goes on and on and of course nobody hears this - Cantor is just reading it to himself. And the writers are just dying to see Cantor's reaction to this endless stream of insults. Not a single muscle moves on his face. Finally he folds it up. They say, "Eddie? You were so quiet! What did the letter say?" Cantor says, "Oh. Someone wants me to sing Margie."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Eddie Cantor once called you the greatest mimic he had ever seen.
Will Jordan: I think he said, "The greatest mimic this town has ever seen." Although that was very complimentary - Groucho said to Jack Carter and me that we were the best he had ever seen. But you know, I think they just wanted to make these grandiose statements. Because when you find out that this great compliment - somebody else got that compliment too? Then you don't really know if it's true. My friend Eddie was very lucky. He played pool and Fred Astaire became a pool aficionado.
He went to Fred Astaire's house and I got invited. I couldn't even tell you which end of a pool stick was which, but I got the chance to talk with Astaire. Everything he said was complimentary. He was just one of those people. I asked Astaire, "Who was your favorite dancer?" He would say, "Eleanor Powell." And then the next moment, "Oh, no, no - Rita Hayworth." And then, "Oh, but Ginger Rogers..." And he just would not want to negate anybody. He was very critical of his own work, but he was an exact gentleman in real life - just as he was in the movies. A bit of a nervous old lady in him, but very nice.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1954 - you played The Last Frontier with Marilyn Maxwell, Will Jordan and Garwood Van's Orchestra. Do you remember anything about that gig?
Will Jordan: It was a bomb for me. I made a mistake. When I played my opening night with Eddie Fisher - it was a big triumph for me. I was offered either two weeks starring at The Mocambo or as the supporting act at Ciro's.
I took the two weeks starring at The Mocambo. It didn't mean as much as it sounds. The deal was for that and two weeks in Vegas with Marilyn Maxwell. I didn't get the reaction I wanted so I started to do more time... and that's deadly. You can't do more than your time in Vegas because they want to get the crowd out of there and into the casino to gamble. If you do too long in Vegas you were in a lot of trouble. I don't know if it says it in the review that you have there, but one said, "Will Jordan started to do his whole act over again," which was true.
I started to do another sequence of my act that was too long. It wasn't a good night for me. However, some good things started to happen. I got a great break from Joey Bishop. I was hired to replace Joey Bishop for his last two shows at La Vien Rose. It was with a girl who was hot at the time, Lillian Roth. A nice woman, but she didn't do any business. I went in for the last two days and it was just deadly.
However, my agent at MCA said, "If you do good enough we can put you with Eartha Kitt." Monte Proser was running it and he had been running The Copacabana and was then replaced by Jules Podell. Proser was much nicer than Podell and a different kind of guy. We did three shows. Me, a dance team and Lillian Roth - to virtually no audience. For the last show about two hundred prom kids came in to see the show. I really can't imagine why they would come to see Lillian Roth, who you would think would appeal to older people. I guess they came just because it was a nightclub. Anyway, they made it for me. They screamed.
Proser came back and said, "I don't have time to use you in the Eartha Kitt show and I don't have the money to pay you to do the Eartha Kitt show, but I gotta use you." They squeezed me into a very overbooked show. It was with a group called The Lancers. They opened, I was the lead-in and Eartha Kitt would close. Eartha Kitt had something like twenty hit records when we did La Vien Rose.
Stan Freberg came in to see the show one of those nights and he was very snotty to me. David Frye told me he was a real nice guy, but he was not nice to me - and I really loved him. He came in and he said in a snide voice, "You know, I do Ed Sullivan too."
Kliph Nesteroff: I was trying to get in contact with him the other day, but I was told that if you want to interview Stan Freberg - he charges you five hundred dollars for the privilege.
Will Jordan: Oh, God. Yet, David Frye said he was great. The bit that he did of Sullivan was great, but his impression wasn't. The bit was hilarious. When he imitated Harry Belafonte on his records it was funny, but it didn't really sound like him. It was close enough.
Kliph Nesteroff: His voices were funny. He wasn't really doing impressions...
Will Jordan: Right and a great, great writer.
Kliph Nesteroff: And you put out some comedy records - your first was on Jubilee - Roast of the Town.
Will Jordan: Right. We didn't have much script there. That was just a favor that was done me. Kermit Schaeffer had done the LP of...
Kliph Nesteroff: Bloopers.
Will Jordan: Yeah, bloopers. So what happened was that many of the bloopers were not available... so we did them as if they were the real tapes... but they weren't!
Kliph Nesteroff: Ah.
Will Jordan: I did Winston Churchill and I did Louis Armstrong. And, of course, it included the famous line [of a children's host saying], "That'll hold the little bastards." Everyone connected with it says that line was never said. The other famous one that people know of, that apparently was never actually said, involved either Bob Hope or Red Skelton. "If women's dresses get any shorter we'll have more cheeks to powder and more hair to curl." These were popular rumors, but there's no evidence that these things were actually ever said.
Kliph Nesteroff: So if we go back and listen to some of those Kermit Schaeffer blooper records... some of the voices we will hear are Will Jordan posing as real people - and we're none the wiser.
Will Jordan: Yes - and definitely as Winston Churchill and Louis Armstrong. There were also many other people involved. As a favor for having done that they put together a [comedy] record for me. It was all done quite cheaply and the music was public domain. It was on Jubilee. Years later I made a record for Jubilee in which they cut out my Adolph Hitler bit because they felt people would think that I stole it from Lenny Bruce. My record came out after Lenny's.
It was a long session and there were things that made it on that I didn't want on there. Old jokes. I did my Frankenstein bit on there and you can hear a bit of where Mel Brooks got his Young Frankenstein stuff. Not all of it, most of that was Mel, but the incongruity of Harry Richman being the Frankenstein monster is what I did. When you see the monster singing Puttin' on the Ritz - you might think of Fred Astaire, but that song was written for Harry Richman. Harry Richman was a larger than life character and, for me, thinking of the Frankenstein monster being like that is much funnier. Mel took that.
People told me at parties that Mel would sometimes steal statements that people would say in real life! Years before Mel was anything - in 1947 - I said to him, "The gays love Frankenstein." "Yeah? Why?" I said, "Because life is created without a woman." Well, Mel picked up on that and he would tell it at parties. It's not even that funny, it's just an observation. But it was my observation. He really stole everything, in spite of the fact that he is a genius. And I think Lenny Bruce was [a genius] and Jackie Mason was [a genius] and I think Jack Carter was [a genius]! That's why it hurt so much when they stole from me.
Kliph Nesteroff: Now throughout all of that - did you remain friends with them? Did you cut off contact with them? Did you confront them about it?
Will Jordan: I remained... I stayed sort of friendly with Mel because one of my best friends was Ron Clark who wrote High Anxiety and Silent Movie and created The Kopycats. When I confronted Jackie Mason... he not only stole Sullivan from me, but he stole another bit which I thought was pretty good. He had got into that confrontation with Ed Sullivan with the fingers - so he was going to be doing an appearance on The Hollywood Palace.
I told him, "I have a great bit for you." His friend was there too and both Jackie and his friend deny that I said this. I said, "I've got the bit for you to do. Let's pretend that I'm Ed Sullivan the comedian trying to get on the Jackie Mason TV show!" I started to do the Sullivan gestures and Jackie said, "You can't do gestures like that on my show." And it was hilarious - a scream. He said, "Great." He never called me back, did The Hollywood Palace and did that bit. This was a friend and it was very painful. These things weren't necessary for these guys. Maybe the Hitler bit meant something to Mel, but Lenny Bruce didn't need to take my Sabu. I don't own Sabu, but I owned the funny way to do it. I did it in my comedy way.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Mason is notorious for not being the nicest guy...
Will Jordan: Ron Clark wrote Jackie Mason's opening for his Broadway show and Jackie didn't want to pay him. Jackie was making a lot of money. He had five Broadway shows all sold out. He flopped in movies. He did one movie called The Stoolie and it was quite interesting, but still Jackie was not a success there or on TV. Even though I don't like him I do think he should have been a success on television. I could never befriend Jack Carter, but he was friendly with Steve Allen - who was my old friend. Mel didn't write Silent Movie or High Anxiety. It was definitely Ron Clark.
Kliph Nesteroff: Why could you never befriend Jack Carter?
Will Jordan: His thievery was the most devastating. He literally took it away from me. People say, "Oh, people steal all the time." I say, "They didn't steal a joke. They stole my livelihood!" Suppose someone had stolen Frank Fontaine's character? His character would be the easiest in the world to steal. Anybody could do that! It didn't happen, but if Jerry Lewis had thought to do it or someone else like that - there'd be no Frank Fontaine. That's the only way I can give you a range of comparison to the harm it did me.
One interviewer said to me - referring to it - "Oh, that Jack Carter bit?" How about that for a piece of pain? I never really recovered from Jack Carter. He was my friend. On top of being a bastard - he was cheap! He asked me to get him into The Mocambo for free - and he had a lot more money than I did in 1954. A lot more money. You know he did an hour show before Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca?
Kliph Nesteroff: Of course, yeah.
Will Jordan: He was very cheap and very rich. I hung around with him because I thought he was a genius, but I thought he was the last person in the world who would do that to me. It was almost as if he was saying, "Well, I've spent all this time hanging out with Will Jordan - I better get something out of it. I can't have wasted my time hanging around with this loser." One day I said to him, "How can you do this?" And he said - I remember this vividly - he said it backstage at a benefit - "You're small time... and you always will be."