Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Interview with Marilyn Michaels

Kliph Nesteroff: I was listening to your recording of Tell Tommy I Miss Him.

Marilyn Michaels: Oh, God. I was seventeen years old. Hugo and Luigi were among the biggest producers of pop music in the industry and they were looking for a girl singer to do a follow-up song to Ray Peterson's Tell Laura I Love Her. Somebody brought me in. I sat down at the piano. I performed. I played. And I got the recording contract. That's how that happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that when it came out in England there was some kind of controversy and the lyrics had to be re-done.

Marilyn Michaels: Yeah, I don't really remember why. When you've done a lot of stuff you forget the details. We did do a special lyric for England, that's true.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did The Ed Sullivan Show several times, but long before that - your uncle had been on the show.

Marilyn Michaels: My uncle was a great cantor. Probably the greatest. His name was Moishe Oysher. I started out with my uncle. When I was fourteen years old I recorded a Hanukkah album with him. He is documented in everything as being the greatest cantor. He was also an actor in Yiddish art films in the thirties. There are several documentaries that feature him. One is narrated by Orson Welles. It's called Raisins and Almonds.

Kliph Nesteroff: I did listen to one track he did with The Barry Sisters.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes. He did lots with them, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. He starred in these Yiddish movies and he was a movie star. It was an amazing career and a story unto itself. My mother was Fraydele Oysher and an actress in the Yiddish theater.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you started in nightclubs - was it the natural outgrowth of having recorded a couple songs for RCA?

Marilyn Michaels: I started in the Catskills and I sang at some places in the cities. One of the agents immediately saw that he could make some money from me. He started to book me in the Catskill Mountains. I got fifty dollars a show - three shows a weekend - in 1961. It wasn't too shabby. One thing led to another and I was called to fill in. I must have auditioned for GAC or MCA. One of the big agencies. They called me to fill in for somebody on The Ed Sullivan Show and at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. That was really the beginning of my career. I also auditioned for George Schlatter.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Marilyn Michaels: They were doing a thing called New Faces. This was way before Laugh-In. George Schlatter was the producer of this thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did it ever air?

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it did. He took me into his back room... I thought, "Oh no. He's going to make a pass at me." But he actually showed me how to invert my one eye so I could do Barbara Streisand.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh really? George is a good guy.

Marilyn Michaels: He is one of the all-time greats. One of the all time great television producers.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure. I'm friendly with George. He tracked me down last June...

[details deleted]

Marilyn Michaels: Oh, no kidding! Oh my God, Kliph. What a compliment. Wow. That's so great. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Anyway, October 1963 - you were playing the Town and Country with Jackie Mason.

Marilyn Michaels: That was my first nightclub gig. In fact, the first time I did an act without my mom was with Jackie Mason and it was in the Catskills. I had good luck with him. It was a thrilling time. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There are a lot of different stories about what it's like to work with Mason.

Marilyn Michaels: Well, he was very popular with the ladies. He was quite the ladies man. I even had a little crush on him myself. I'm not going to talk about it here, but there was some very funny, racy stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: November 1963 - you and Rip Taylor played Carl Hoppl's in Baldwin, Long Island.

Marilyn Michaels: How the hell do you know this? It was one of the first jobs that I ever did - and the first job that I ever got fired from. I played it the day after President Kennedy got shot. It should have been canceled, but it was the stupidity of "the show must go on." I was very young and I went. Everyone was very drunk. Of course, they fired me. There was no way to control that audience the day after Kennedy was assassinated. They were unruly and... just forget it. It was impossible. They were throwing spitballs. The country had to mourn. I can't believe that you know this. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did Rip Taylor bother to perform?

Marilyn Michaels: I don't remember Rip being on the show. All I remember is that horrible experience of having to sing and the horror of that whole feeling of having to perform that night.

Kliph Nesteroff: You signed with Warner Brothers in 1964.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it all evolved. First it was RCA and I don't even remember how they signed me. I must have been doing some television already. These things mushroom, which is what happens with a career. You get a little hot and they sign you to a recording contract. I was also signed to ABC Paramount around the time I won the part in Funny Girl playing Fanny Brice. I remember recording that album while rehearsing. It's something you only do when you're twenty-two, darling.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1964 you were playing Harold's Club in Reno. What was...

Marilyn Michaels: My God. How old are you? How do you know this? You've got to move to New York. What are you doing in Canada? What are you doing there? Wow. Okay. Keep asking. Go on.

Kliph Nesteroff: What...

Marilyn Michaels: How does a young guy like you know me? Tell me that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, several people have asked me to interview you...

Marilyn Michaels: What!? Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: My fanbase. Your fanbase.

Marilyn Michaels: Okay, okay, go on.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Guy Marks. He's kinda forgotten, but was known for being a great impressionist.

Marilyn Michaels: My God, what a genius. The man was a genius. I remember seeing him on The Perry Como Show. When I worked with him - I was closing the show and he was opening for me. I was in his thrall. I think he thought that I was coming on to him. He did the greatest Humphrey Bogart that anybody had ever done. He was one of the great unsung talents of the business.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that he abandoned his career at some point. He became a kind of recluse and wandered off into the desert...

Marilyn Michaels: God. Oh, no. Comics are so fucked up.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marilyn Michaels: You can quote me on that. It's so true. It makes me sad. We were working at this place and nobody knew me. Nobody came. On the weekend it would be packed and then in the middle of the week - nobody was there again. One night they said, "Bob Hope is coming." It was a Tuesday night and there were more people on the show than in the audience. It was a Tuesday night and there was only one table. Bob Hope was sitting there. I'll never forget that.

Kliph Nesteroff: From there you had a nice run in Las Vegas with Phil Silvers and Leo DeLyon.

Marilyn Michaels: Leo and I were very good friends. I was very young and he thought I was a baby. I mean, I was. Leo would write letters to my mother. He was a doll. He was just the best and very funny. There were no days off for that engagement. I remember that. It just went on and on. Nobody was monitoring or taking care of the performers.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were recruited for Funny Girl - how much of their decision to use you was influenced by the fact you did an impression of Barbara Streisand in your act?

Marilyn Michaels: I don't think it hurt. I don't think it hurt. Although I look completely different. I'm shorter, my nose is thick - and I ended up doing more of a Fanny Brice impression than Barbara Streisand.

Kliph Nesteroff: Had you been a fan of Fanny Brice before being cast in the role?

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, completely. She was a brilliant comedienne. She was basically a Jewish dialect comedienne. Everything she did - she did it in a Jewish dialect. Being a dialectician, it was natural for me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm most familiar with you from your appearances on The Hollywood Palace. You did it several times, but do you recall anything about your first...

Marilyn Michaels: Louis Armstrong was on the initial show. I remember because he autographed his album for me. All my family was so thrilled because I was working with the great Louis Armstrong.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you did an episode of Hullabaloo... 

Marilyn Michaels: That was the first time I met Sammy [Davis Jr]. We did the show Hullabaloo together and Joey Heatherton was on it. She was the hot kitten at that time. It was a thrill working with him. Every time it was like being shot to the moon, but the producer took me aside afterward and asked me not to embrace or kiss Sammy at the end of our number. He said we would lose the South. I was appalled!

Kliph Nesteroff: You also did an episode of The Name of the Game with Sammy.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes. He played a rockstar. It was another great experience. I was in the middle of my first divorce and I had to run from Vegas to Mexico and back to shoot the Name of the Game. It was always an incredible high to work with him. When I did Funny Girl in 1965 he took the time to do publicity photos with me before I went on tour. I worked with him on The Flip Wilson Show and did sketches with them both. I adored Sammy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were only twenty-two when you did the Copa in July 1965. What do you remember about doing the Copa?

Marilyn Michaels: Another great experience. I had already done Carson and everyone sent flowers opening night. Everyone was coming in. It was Cinderella time, but you had to do three shows on the weekend. Only the young 'uns can do that sort of hard work. Four goombahs surrounded me as I approached the stage for each show - protection, y'know. They made you feel important and it felt great.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also performed at the Sherman House in Chicago around that time?

Marilyn Michaels: Gosh, I don't remember. I think maybe that was with Gordon MacRae. He liked big tits... somebody told me that.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you played The Latin Quarter, which wasn't really a comic's room.

Marilyn Michaels: The girls in their pasties! The famous Latin Quarter show girls wore these little cone shaped things with tassles and sequins on them to cover their nipples. It was funny and also a little cheesy. The sound system at the Latin Quarter was an old time piece of shit. I hated it.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the mammoth Catskill resort - The Concord.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it was like you "made it" if you headlined The Concord. Big place. At the time they had these "knockers" to applaud with. They didn't use their hands, they used these wooden sticks with wooden balls at the end of them. If they really liked you then they used their hands.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview with Jerry Coe

Jerry Coe: I don't know that I could be of any help to you.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you did have your own act - years ago...

Jerry Coe: Years ago I was in a team. I tell you, it was such a brief interlude.

Kliph Nesteroff: If we could schedule a time for an interview...

Jerry Coe: I don't think it's something we should pursue at this point and time. I appreciate your interest. I'm sure you've got enough material already based on who you've already talked to. Did you find Shecky down in Florida or California?

Kliph Nesteroff: He's back living in California.

Jerry Coe: I'm from the era of Shecky Greene and Sammy Shore. Shecky's wife... her father was Vido Musso. You may or may not remember him as a top jazz artist. He was with Stan Kenton and was one of the head arrangers. We were Chicago kids. I worked as a team for four or five years and then did a single. We were the very tail-end of vaudeville. We did play a couple of vaudeville houses. Anyway, I wish you the best of luck and...

Kliph Nesteroff: Chicago was a bit of a hotbed. Shecky Greene, Sammy Shore, Jack E. Leonard, Danny Thomas, George Gobel...

Jerry Coe: Yes. Joey Bishop, of course, got his legs there at a club. They adopted him and he went directly from the Vine Gardens in to the Chez Paree in Chicago and onto The Copa in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: Which was unheard of, right?

Jerry Coe: Yes. A big jump. He was a very talented guy. I read a little bio of his a few months ago from the Vine Gardens. A long, narrow, little room with mirrors. He used to play the mirrors off the audience and do a very funny bit.

Kliph Nesteroff: And what was your comedy team...

Jerry Coe: We went from comedy to tragedy, basically. The stuff that we did... it was unfortunate timing for us to become a team. At the time Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were coming into their own, so it had its trials and tribulations, but we were a good opening act. We traveled with Sophie Tucker and Vic Damone.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was your partner?

Jerry Coe: A fellow by the name of Dick Lynn. Yes, I think he stayed with it after I retired.

Kliph Nesteroff: I regularly speak with a man of that era - Jack Carter.

Jerry Coe: Oh, well, that should be a wealth of material if you're talking clubs and vaudeville.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I keep discovering new layers of his career. He started in 1941 and he's still acting. He has a recurring role on a new TV show now.

Jerry Coe: And you've hit up Norm Crosby? Pat Cooper?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Jerry Coe: I'm sorry you never got to meet Mickey Freeman. He was wonderful. His claim to fame was as Zimmerman on the Bilko show.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm trying to track down Mickey Deems.

Jerry Coe: There was quite a crew around. Herkie Styles.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, the drummer turned comic.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, who was the other drummer turned comic that just passed away? He used to do the...

Kliph Nesteroff: Charlie Callas.

Jerry Coe: Charlie Callas. Very funny man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I was scheduled to interview him and then he passed away the week of the interview and we never got the chance. Same thing happened to me with Hal Kanter.

Jerry Coe: Are you domicile in New York?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, Canada.

Jerry Coe: (laughs) Canada - and you were talking to Bobby Ramsen?

Kliph Nesteroff: Bobby is great. He had a very slight career, but he seems to have absorbed every story in the history of show business.

Jerry Coe: One of the things I learned early on because of the timing and our exposure to these upholstered sewers was that talent was not necessarily the criteria for success. In working bills with Sophie Tucker and Billy Daniels and Vic Damone - there were shows where you had different acts who were in varying stages of success - or lack thereof. It reached the point where it was like the story of Willy Loman. It was too late for them to channel into a different area. Early on I felt that I was pretty squared, I had a wonderful exposure and I had a wonderful education, but I would have to channel into another direction once I decided to take route and settle down. Which is exactly what I did. I married a gal from Boston and went from comedy into the securities business in 1955 and that was a forty year gig. I had five years of working professionally as a comedian and then just as an appreciator of acts - which is one of the reasons I joined the Friars Club. But I just left it because one of the reasons I had joined - does not exist anymore. The Hennys are gone. The Alan Kings are gone. You have Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone, but c'mon. That's not what I joined the club for (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Jerry, just as we've been speaking here, I have found something. Wednesday, September 14, 1949 - The Vine Gardens in Chicago. Jerry Coe and Dick Lynn with Dolly Kaye, Susan King and the Mel Cole Orchestra.

Jerry Coe: Oh, well, where in the hell did you dig this up?

Kliph Nesteroff: I just have it right here in front of me.

Jerry Coe: But where? How do you access this?

Kliph Nesteroff: I just know how and that's all I have to say.

Jerry Coe: Goddammit (laughs). I got a chill just listening to it.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another Jerry Coe on the circuit before you and his name keeps coming up. He was a tap-dancing accordion player.

Jerry Coe: Oh, that's funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: "Jerry Coe and Dick Lynn are a couple of youngsters fresh from Chicago's borscht circuit who need more experience for niteries. Lads have ingratiating personalities and obvious ability, but routines are rehashes of current comedics rather than their own stuff. Satires on radio programs provide yocks and showcase their imitative vocal efforts. Stuff needs pruning."

Jerry Coe: That was our first nightclub date. That was the first night. Irv Kupcinet, the columnist, was a great booster and encouraged us a great deal. Then we wound up doing material that we wrote and some that we bought. Paul Gilbert. Do you remember that name?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Jerry Coe: Oh, he was a great comedian and entertainer. Multifaceted. As a matter of fact he wound up doing a movie with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. His daughter is an actress. Melissa Gilbert. He sold us a piece of material. Something I haven't thought about in a hundred years - there was a writer out of New York. His name was Sid Shaw. He came to Chicago the second time we played the Vine Gardens. He observed our material and came up with a bit he thought would be terrific for us. It was called I Hated the Book, I Knew I'd Hate the Movie. It was a take-off on best-sellers that were made into movies.

We did a scene from Going My Way, which encompassed a lot of opportunity for us to do shtick. The Lost Weekend. The gimmick in this bit was that they finally ran out of best-sellers in Hollywood so now they were making movies out of technical books. So we did a scene from a tennis guide for beginners. The Type Writer Manual starring Marsha Hunt, Gregory Peck and Evelyn Keyes. Hunt. Peck. Keyes. It got a lot of intellectual nods, but not a lot of laughs. I tell you this because Kupcinet, whenever there was a benefit to be done, he would make a call to every act in the city and they would do whatever they could for free between their normal shows.

We were called and brought our piano player to this hotel. We preceded to do this bit of material I Hate the Book. In the middle of this self-contained piece of shit, everyone's head went to the left and there was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They had just come in from the Chez Paree and they're waiting to go on after us. We were standing there with flop sweat. We finally got off to a mediocre response. Jerry went up to the mic. He said, "A year ago nobody knew us. Now I just say, 'Nyeah!' and everyone falls on the floor. When we came in tonight there were two young fellas that are just starting out and I think they do a terrific job." We came out, polished their shoes, kissed them and walked off.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great.

Jerry Coe: Now, in New York we had just got through playing a big club with Sophie Tucker. We meet this comic who is doing a game show - George DeWitt.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Jerry Coe: DeWitt says, "I've heard of you guys. I've really got a bone to pick with you. You stole my material." I said, "We stole your material!?" He says, "Yeah, I Hated the Book, I Knew I'd Hate the Movie." I said, "Did you buy this material from Sid Shaw?" He says, "Yeah!" I said, "So did we."

Kliph Nesteroff: You guys were signed by Shecky Greene's manager - Al Borde.

Jerry Coe: Yes, that's a funny story too. We were signed by Al Borde and then there was a gal I was seeing at that time who wanted us to go with Freddy Williamson and Joe Glaser. Glaser had Sugar Ray Robinson, Louis Armstrong and Bob Hope. Through some shenanigans with AGVA at the time, they canceled the Borde contract because we had both been underage when we signed it, so we went with Fred C. Williamson and Joe Glaser.

Kliph Nesteroff: What were some venues that you would have played in Chicago other than the Vine Gardens?

Jerry Coe: Basically it was the Vine Gardens. The rest of them - we had a tremendous following of people that went to what was comparable to the Borscht Belt in Wisconsin. Oakton Manor. We had a big following of people from Toronto, Chicago and places in Wisconsin and what have you. The only club we played was the Vine Gardens. The rest were all [one-nighter] club dates. We went on the road and came east. We were ready to go to Vegas when I got called into the navy. When I wound up doing a single, they were looking for someone to do a single in a show called Meet Your Navy.

Going through boot camp, they kept me there and put me in special services. We did a show and it was a big deal for me. Did it for two years. I was living at home, commuting to Great Lakes, Illinois and I did a show a month using recruit talent coming through the base. I combined it with professional acts I brought in from Chicago. I had Cugat, Vaughn Monroe, The Step Brothers, anyone that was coming thourgh

Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of club dates in Florida?

Jerry Coe: The hotels. The Sherry Frontenac and the Sans Souci. Wherever there was a night open.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was a hot area back then.

Jerry Coe: Oh, yes. The neighborhood now that is all walkers and senior citizens was really a hopping place. A lot of things going on. As a matter of fact, Jack Carter was playing a club there and he was rapid fire. I think Rickles was there at the time. And Gene Baylos. People used to say I looked like a young Gene Baylos. I didn't know what to say about that. I don't think Gene Baylos ever looked young.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Sophie Tucker like to work with? I hear she could be very tough...

Jerry Coe: She was very, very, very difficult. We played the Town Casino in Buffalo, New York, which had a stage larger than most of the clubs we had ever been in. We got big responses. The first two weeks we were there we did it with Vic Damone. They held us over with Tucker because we were doing so well. Harry Altman was the owner of the club. My partner Dick Lynn was a heavyset visual comic and he did a take-off on Sophie Tucker.

Altman came and said, "Look, we love you guys and you're staying over - but cut the Tucker bit. I don't want problems with this bitch because if she doesn't like it then I'm gonna hear about it." I said, "It's not done in a mean-spirited way. There's nothing she could take offense!" He said, "Please do me a favor and cut the fucking thing. Just take your money and do your act." I came to the club the day Ted Shapiro, her accompanist and gin partner, was rehearsing the band. I went up to him and said, "Hello, Mr. Shapiro. My name is Jerry Coe, I'm the comic on the bill." I told him about the number and he said, "You do Tucker?"

I said, "My partner does and I think it would really work with us both being on the same show." He said, "Listen, keep the number in, but come to the club early and come to the dressing room before the first show. Early." So we arrived early and went up to her dressing room. There was a mirror and it was covered with a giant pair of pink bloomers. That's the first thing you see as you (laughs) walk into this room. This humongous pair of bloomers. She's sitting there at her dressing room table. She doesn't even turn around to look at us. She just sits there at the mirror and says, "I understand you boys do me. Well... do me good." And that was it. We brought her orchids every night for her entrance. Until one night. A Saturday night. Altman wanted a big turnover so he cut five minutes from our act. No one told her. She was a perfectionist in terms of getting on at the right time.

She was at an age where you don't move that fast. We assumed - and assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups - that she was told. And she wasn't. We finished and went off. As we walked backstage we learned words we had never heard before. It was absolutely horrendous. The anger she had. But we went on to travel with her to the Elmwood Hotel in Windsor, Ontario. It was a good experience.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the Oakton Manor and that is where Shecky Greene and Sammy Shore were when they did a two-man act together. Did you ever see the comedy team of Greene and Shore?

Jerry Coe: Sammy Shore was working with Shecky. Yes. They were very funny boys, needless to say. They did a thing called Nature Boy. Shecky loved to sing it. Sammy would come out in a fright wig and a leopard skin outfit with lettuce and a stalk of celery and do visual shtick. I don't recall their material. I would have stolen it if I did.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think what you just described actually was their only material.

Jerry Coe: It would be very difficult for Shecky, with his ego and his talent, to be any part of a team. You know, when he's on, he's on. Shecky had more real and imagined ailments than one could shake a stick at. He would either have a polyp or this or that. And when he went through the drinking thing...

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of legendary stories, yes. Do you remember a guy that was in Miami Beach around that time named Bert Stone?

Jerry Coe: Oh, sure, yes. Bert Stone - I think he also worked in a team. Stone and Shine.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eddie Shine.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, Eddie Shine was a hoofer. Bert Stone was a story teller and a very funny guy. I don't remember him from Florida, but from Chicago.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a comedian named Allan Drake?

Jerry Coe: Yes, I remember meeting Allan Drake. Everybody used to finish their last show and head over to The Croyden Hotel restaurant. Joey Bishop was usually there telling war stories and I remember Allan Drake from that period.

Kliph Nesteroff: The reason I ask is because there is a crazy story about his wife being murdered by the Mob.

Jerry Coe: Jesus.

Kliph Nesteroff: Allan was doing a show in Washington, DC the night his wife was out at The Copa with a mobster and they were the victims of a hit that evening.

Jerry Coe: Next to Joe E. Lewis getting his throat cut, I haven't heard such a crazy story. Joe E. Lewis was a singer when he first started out. He was knocking off his engagement at the club he was playing and The Boys wanted him to come over and play the club that they had. I don't remember the names or what have you. But he didn't come and they decided to do a number on him. They cut his throat. He lost his vocal chords for a period of time. It segued into comedy - and drinking. I'm sure there is a more accurate version of this. It was written up and done in the movie they did of his life, but yeah. He was left for dead for a while.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jeez, I guess I really need to read The Joker Is Wild.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, that was bizarre.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned The Step Brothers. A great act.

Jerry Coe: Oh, a great opening act. Yes. They had just come off doing a movie with Bob Hope and I booked them to come up to Great Lakes, Illinois to do a one-nighter. They were just tremendous. I have a vivid recollection of walking into the dressing room. All I could smell was wintergreen massage stuff that they were putting on their legs so they wouldn't tighten up!

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great.

Jerry Coe: You're a very astute guy in terms of digging all of this up. I didn't even know these facts existed. I have no problem speaking to you. You're a very collegial type of guy and very warm and easy to talk to. As I'm talking to you I'm thinking, "I'm going on and on with this guy and I had nothing to say!"