Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part Four

Jackie Curtiss: I was a shoeshine boy when I was a kid outside the theater. I was shining the shoes of all the stars. Some became friends. Two of my absolute best friends were The Nicholas Brothers. Fayard's wife was here yesterday. We're very close. I've been through three wives with Fayard and two wives with Harold. I was having dinner with Fayard and Barbara. We were waiting for Harold when we got the phone call that he had a stroke. Fayard, Harold and I were inseparable. 

We were known at The Thunderbird as the walking Oreo cookie. We did the Ziegfeld Follies together for fifty-six weeks. For fifty of those weeks we were not away from each other. We would go over to the other side of Vegas - the Black part of town. You talk about hitting it off. We were inseparable for years.

Kliph Nesteroff: They might be the greatest American performers of all time.

Jackie Curtiss: They were the greatest dance team that ever lived. Fred Astaire even said that. Right here in my kitchen I still can picture my wife Bobbi, who was a tap dancer, and Harold learning new steps on the kitchen floor. Great memories. Harold was wild and militant. Fayard was the sweet one. As a matter of fact, right in the chair that I'm sitting in right now... Harold was sitting here and he was disgusted. He heard that Gregory Hines was leaving Sophisticated Ladies and that was the story of the Nicholas Brothers. Gregory was a great dancer, but another pain in the ass. 

Maurice was nice. Gregory was another ego thing. We were sitting here and Harold and Fayard were talking. I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "Well, Hines is leaving the show and they're looking for someone else." I said," Harold, call the producer and tell them you're available!" "Ah, they don't want me. I'm too old." I said, "That's your show! He's doing you onstage!" Of course, Fayard leaned over, "You listen to Jackie! You call him up!" Son of a bitch, he called them up and they went nuts! They grabbed him and you should have seen the reviews. He did two years with that show, but only because I nudged him into it.

Kliph Nesteroff: They're my all time favorites, no question about it.

Jackie Curtiss: Did you ever get to meet them?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, never.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, you did miss out. They were glorious and funny and sweet. Harold, oh, talk about a guy with words. We were standing in the casino at the Thunderbird when this Black girl walks by. And they were into big asses. And this girl walks by with an ass that was unbelievable. Harold nudged me and he goes, "Oh my God, Jackie! Look at the food dropper on that chick!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: That's what he said. We talked about Lena one time because I had worked with her. He said, "Oh, Lena. Jackie, I gotta tell you something. I once heard Lena Horne fart and it sounded like a Harry James chord."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Great Guy. Boy, you talk about missing someone...

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Henny Youngman.

Jackie Curtiss: Henny. You know how he made most of his money? Selling jewelry. Had a bag with him at all times. His brother had a shop. He carried it with him and sold it to fans for outrageous money. Marc and I were in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was a great nightclub there called Pierre's. Henny was at it and Marc and I had flown in to do a golf tournament club date. 

We didn't know Henny was in town and he didn't know that we were in town. We were at the hotel having breakfast and Henny walks in and spots us. He says, "Antone and Curtiss! Antone and Curtiss! I don't believe it! What are  you doing in Tulsa?" We said, "Nothing." He said, "I know!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Another great one.

Kliph Nesteorff: He was all about getting the money...

Jackie Curtiss: Money, money, money and that jewelry. He would forget what town he was in. He would be doing Florida references in Hollywood. People would look at him, "What?"

Kliph Nesteroff: There's the joke that Milton Berle told. "Why does Henny Youngman do one-liners?" "Because he can't remember two."

Jackie Curtiss: That's true. I was at the frequent flyer lounge in Barbados waiting to catch a ship when Milton walked in. This lounge held maybe forty people and Milton always makes an entrance no matter where or whom. He spots me and says, "Jackie Curtiss! Do you know what they call a Jewish widow? A born again cocksucker!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Right in this lounge!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Nobody got offended. They all laughed. And then he did twenty minutes!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: When I was running the Playboy Club out here I hired comics [rather than singers and other acts]. Sammy Shore came in and said, "What are you using [only] comics for?" I said, "It's good to have a room full of comics!" Four months later - guess who opens The Comedy Store? For him to say, "Why would you use comics?" and then open this place four months later... I have a copy of the Arnold Schwarzenegger roast and Milton Berle was the emcee. You know about Berle being hung the longest of anybody? Schwarzenegger gets up and said, "So nice that Milton Berle is here. He's sitting right here, but backstage in the kitchen there's a busboy sucking him off." That was a big roast. They had every comic in the world there.

Kliph Nesteroff: You're extremely adept at impressions. Your Henny Youngman voice is remarkable. Did you know the impressionist David Frye...

Jackie Curtiss: David Frye was excellent. He did different people and I learned Gregory Peck from him. He did a great Nixon... but he was a very strange guy. He didn't get along with too many people, but I admired him. He was very, very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the topic of roasts... Don Rickles.

Jackie Curtiss: Don is a sweetheart. Deep down inside he's a sweet guy. You ever hear about how he got his break in Hollywood?

Kliph Nesteroff: Dean Martin or...

Jackie Curtiss: No. Lenny Bruce. Lenny was being brought in by the Slate Brothers on La Cienega Blvd. My club was a couple blocks away. They brought Lenny in and this was going to be the biggest thing in the world. The Slate Brothers... do you know who they are? They were not too bright. Anyway, every star in town was gonna come see this outrageous, dirty comic, this wild thing, Lenny Bruce! Don was in town and making the rounds. There was nothing open for him, but he wanted something. Everyone was looking at him as someone who was trying to usurp Jack E. Leonard. In fact, when people would ask him about Rickles he would say, "Oh, you're talking about my road show."

Anyway, Don was in town. They knew he was in town. Lenny came in and... which one of the Slate Brothers was it? The dumb one. Anyway, Lenny gets introduced, walks up onstage and does one joke. Lenny said, "Kid looks at his father and says, 'Dad, what's a homosexual?' Dad says, 'Shut up and keep sucking.' They grabbed him. Slate grabs him and takes him off. They fire him. 

They put a call out because there were all these stars there. Don Rickles went on in a pinch. And every star in town saw Don Rickles. And that's how Don got his break. Nobody likes to admit to any of those things, but that's what actually happened. The great thing was - there were all those celebrities. For Don to come out there, you know, he was wonderful. He knew a little bit about every star and nailed them. It was wonderful. 

Bill Tracy and my partner were watching him in the Sahara lounge because we were opening for Connie Francis or somebody. We're there and Don looked over at my partner. He said, "There's Jackie Curtiss. Now there's a funny guy. But more than a funny guy - he's very benevolent. He hires cripples! Look at his partner. Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were disabled, but it's just that you don't have a glass in your hand." Because my partner always had a glass of booze in his hand.

Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned in passing Dave Barry - a comedian also great at voices.

Jackie Curtiss: Dave did all kinds of cartoon things too. Dave and I were very close. We did a lot of shows together and I produced shows that he did. I gave his daughter her first job. He was also in Some Like it Hot. He was the band manager with the big glasses. You'll have to look at it again to see Billy Gray as the agent that hires the band and Dave Barry as the character with the thick glasses.

Kliph Nesteroff: Is there a connection with them both being in that film? I know Dave Barry played the Band Box a great deal.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, sure. Billy Wilder was very close to Billy Gray. I'm sure he asked him, "Can you get me somebody?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Dave Barry was once quoted saying, "Jack Carter is the Muhammad Ali of bullshit."

Jackie Curtiss: (laughs) That's great. There's another quote. Herb Caen was writing a column in San Francisco. He was the one that dubbed Milton Berle the Thief of Bad Gags. Dwight Newton was another columnist in San Francisco. He interviewed Fred Allen. Fred Allen had lived in Oakland and the Bay Area. He asked him if he had any advice for young people that want to get into show business that live here in the Bay Area. "Leave Oakland."

Kliph Nesteroff: How bout Alan Gale.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, I met him in Florida with a group of people. I met him once. He was very, very big down in Florida. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Miami Beach was a huge show business hub. Did you guys play it at all?

Jackie Curtiss: Marc and I worked The Americana and we worked The Fountainbleu. Bill and I worked The Beachcomber and, of course, we worked The Playboy Club all the time. Marc and I also worked the Copacabana in Cuba and we worked The Copa in New York with Billy Daniels. Billy Daniels was great to work with. You know anything about The Copa New York?

Kliph Nesteroff: I've heard plenty of Jules Podell stories.

Jackie Curtiss: A great line he threw at Joey Villa. You know about Joey Villa?

Kliph Nesteroff: Not really.

Jackie Curtiss: Another pain in the ass comic! He went to work at the Copacabana, which was an odd thing because he really wasn't good enough to work there. But it was lollipop season when they didn't serve drinks. They'd book Frankie Avalon and all the teenagers and serve soft drinks. So they had Joey Villa come in. During rehearsal Jules Podell would come over and [growl], "Come 'ere, Curtiss! Come in the kitchen!" And he was a real hood. He would introduce us to his sister who oversaw anything that left the kitchen, checks and balances and so forth. He'd stop everybody. Dishwashers had to stop. Cooks had to stop. "This is Antone and Curtiss. They're the comedy team now. I want you to show them respect. If they need anything you get it - but they don't get anything for nothing. If they want to buy something, fine. But you don't give them anything for nothing." 

So that's what he would always do. And he'd always ask the question, "Are you funny?" I'd say, "Oh, Mr. Podell, I sure hope so because you're paying us a lot of money." He'd say, "Good answer." When Joey Villa came in he said, "Are you funny?" Joey Villa, idiot that he is, says, "Mr. Podell, let me tell you something. I am probably the unfunniest comedian you have ever booked. I am terrible!" And walked away. That night Joey Villa went out and he made the H-bomb look like a three inch salute. He had flop sweat up and down his neck. Jules Podell went up to him afterward and said, "Hey, kid. I like you. You keep your word."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: True story! He died about four years ago. He was big on cruises and the lower echelon. We called him Pancho Villa... because he stole material from everybody. But Podell... if there were hecklers or anything, the first thing they did was cut their service off. If it continued then... they disappeared! The lights would go out when the song had ended and then suddenly there'd be nobody there. He had guys that would just go in and grab them. Billy Daniels was onstage when we were there.

After we got finished I would always go and watch the headline act. I'm sitting there and Billy is sitting on the piano and he's singing Sally. And a guy up in the balcony with a girl goes, "Sing it, nigger!" Billy just kind of looked up and... you know how you tip your hat? He did that with his hand, "Okay, there you are." And he sang and when the lights came on - the guy was gone. After the show I went into the dressing room and I said, "Jesus, Billy, that was terrible." He said, "What?" I said, "Weren't you upset with what that guy said?" He said, "Jackie, let me show you something." He opened his robe and he had these scars and holes all over his chest. He said, "I've been shot at. Knifed. Beaten up. If all they're gonna do is call me a nigger - I'm ahead of the game."

Kliph Nesteroff: Woah.

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah. That was Billy. He was great.

Kliph Nesteroff: More obscure comedians. Sonny Mars.

Jackie Curtiss: Sonny, ahhhh! Sonny was one of my best friends! His son is Kenny Mars. Kenny was in Young Frankenstein and The Producers. That's his son. Sonny Mars knew Joey Bishop from way back. They used to hang out. Sonny, oh God.

I think he and Joey did an act together for a couple weeks. Joey was at the Sands and Sonny was in Vegas. He knew that Joey had this thing where people from his past were always coming up to him and hitting him up for money. Sonny put this face of despondency on and walked over. Joey is trying to get away from him. "Joey!" "Oh, uh, hi, Sonny." He said, "Joey, you know in this business... some people make it and some people don't. Some people have it all! Some people are just poor. I just want you to know Joey... I don't know how things are... but if you need a few bucks..."

Kliph Nesteorff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: (laughs) That's the way he was. Full of jokes.

Kliph Nesteroff: You say he and Joey Bishop were in a team at one point...

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, I believe so.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was shocked to learn that Joey Bishop was once in a comedy team with Jack Soo.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes. And there was another guy. Something and Bishop. But, yes, he could have been with Jack Soo. In those days in Philadelphia they just boxed around.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Harry Ritz and The Ritz Brothers?

Jackie Curtiss: Harry Ritz. That's where Jerry Lewis got the idea for his characters. He got it from Harry Ritz and Martha Raye. His dad, Danny Lewis, told me that. He used to love Harry Ritz and he loved Martha Raye. If you think about it... Martha Raye with the mouth and Harry Ritz with the eyes? You know, that's it. Harry Ritz was in The Band Box... I would say... three times a week. That was his hangout. He and Billy. Oh, was he funny! There was a writer that put together their shows who was hysterical. Sid Kuller. He and Harry Ritz came in every night together and Sid Kuller wrote the Band Box shows. The Band Box was across the street from what is CBS Television City and Canter's was up the street.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about George Kirby. Did you know him?

Jackie Curtiss: Kirby! Great impressionist! Good singer. He could have made it as a singer! He tap danced. But, of course, he was Black and so he didn't have much of a chance.

Kliph Nesteorff: Phil Foster.

Jackie Curtiss: Phil Foster, all right. When Red Buttons was hanging around Hanson's Drugstore and everything... the saying was, "If one of us makes it... we all make it." You know, we'll all help one another. So in the early fifties, Red Buttons gets this big [television] show. "Ho ho, hee hee!" He becomes big and he disappears.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: No one can find him! He has left his shadow somewhere on Broadway just laying on the street. Of course, he falls from grace and all the guys - they want nothing to do with him. He's around and he's contrite and he doesn't know what to do. He feels terrible and he comes into Hanson's and he's begging everybody. Buddy Hackett, Joey Bishop... nobody will talk to him. Finally, someone says, "Okay. But don't ever do that..." He says, "I'm sorry. I lost my head." One of those things. Seven or eight years pass and Red Buttons gets a shot with Marlon Brando in Sayonara

He's up for the Academy Award. He says to the guys, "Guys, you gotta pray for me. If I make it - that means for the first time in history a borscht belt comic is winning an Academy Award!" They all went over to Joey Bishop's house in New Jersey to watch the Oscars. Something like ten comics. Buddy Hackett, Phil Foster, Joey Bishop and everybody. It's broadcasting from the Orpheum. So, Red Buttons wins and everybody cheers. Phil Foster says, "Hey. We gotta send Red a telegram." He goes to the phone and he gets Western Union. "I want to send a telegram to the Orpheum Theater. Red Buttons." The telegram reads, "Congratulations - and goodbye again."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: There was a restaurant called Three Corners or something like that. It was located where Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York come together. Phil Foster had a very famous bit. He did a blind date routine that was famous. So, in this Tri-State restaurant they had a spot that could seat six people, but it was one where they could insert a partition so that it's now four and two seats.

But you can't see over the other side when they put the slot in. These two comics are sitting there. "So, how'd you do tonight?" "Oh, it was great. I killed them and I finished with the Phil Foster blind date routine." The other guy says, "You son of a bitch! What the hell you doing Phil Foster's routine for? You know that's mine!" Just then, Phil Foster was sitting on the other side and looks over the top and says, "You guys don't mind if I do the Phil Foster blind date routine, do you?"

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw Phil Foster do an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show, his debacle of a talk show. The day they announced its cancellation, Foster was a guest and in that great dour, sardonic persona - just ripped Lewis and his show to shreds. He was hysterically funny.

Jackie Curtiss: He was very bright. Phil was good. I don't think he was anti-comic. He treated me well. A lot of stand-ups... Dick Shawn... didn't like other comics.

Kliph Nesteroff: There were a lot of stories about Red Buttons when he had his television show about how he treated his writers...

Jackie Curtiss: He was mellow when I knew him. At the end he was great. I saw him just before he died. But you know, it's mellow with age. A lot of these guys we just knew each other by name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Charlie Callas...

Jackie Curtiss: Charlie was another whacko. A drummer. Shecky almost killed him. Charlie went on Merv Griffin and did one of Shecky's routines. Then he sits on the panel and has the gall... Merv says, "That material sure is great." Callas says, "Well, I write great material." He says he wrote it! Charlie wasn't all together. He never dreamed that Shecky would be watching The Merv Griffin Show. He wasn't conscious that way. 

Charlie did not know that Shecky had seen the show. We were just going in to the Wagon Wheel in Tahoe. We were following Shecky in so we heard about this. Charlie Callas walked in to see Shecky's show. Callas walks in and Shecky can see Charlie in the back of the room. He takes off... runs after him to kill him! Charlie runs out and the security guards had to hold Shecky back. They're screaming at Charlie, "Get out of here!" Shecky all week long had been saying on stage that he was going to kill Charlie Callas!