Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Interview with Harry Jarkey



Kliph Nesteroff: Your uncle worked with Singer's Midgets?

Harry Jarkey: That's right. Nate Eagle owned the Singer's Midgets. He was with a carnival and they worked in the movies. My uncle was their personal manager.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've heard that Singer was an autocrat and the midgets hated him.

Harry Jarkey: Yes, that's right and Nate Eagle was the one who kind of kept them together. They were quite famous. Yes, that was my uncle and he had some famous people.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did it have any bearing on your own entry into show business?


Harry Jarkey: No. We were kind of a spread out type of family. My sister lives in New York and she's ninety-two years old. She was in show business. I was fourteen and she was seven. My fame happened before God! There was no television when I started in Bay City, Michigan. In the wintertime they had nothing to do and they would look forward to me coming up there every year. I didn't care where I was. I would quit what I was doing and go up there, work up there, and then go back to my other show business. I did it every winter. In the day my closest friends were Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle and Frankie Laine.


Kliph Nesteroff: Earliest billing I found for you is from January 1935. You were midway between High Point and Greensboro, North Carolina performing at a walk-a-thon...

Harry Jarkey: That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: The chief emcee was Jack Freeman. Co-emcees were yourself, Jack Kennedy and Johnny Cahill.

Harry Jarkey: The walk-a-thon days. There was a guy named Frank LoVecchio. He changed his name to Frankie Laine. He was one of the contestants. There were a lot of people like that. Danny Thomas and I were as close as any two people could be. I met him in Detroit, Michigan when his name was Amos Jacobs.


Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of an act was he doing?

Harry Jarkey: Well, he was doing the same type of act. The reason we kind of bonded was because he was doing more Jew stuff than anyone else. I thought he was Jewish! He's Armenian, you know that. He went to Chicago and changed his name. You know he founded St. Jude? When I came out to California I got together with him and for ten years we were very involved with St. Jude.


He was one of my best buddies. A guy I looked up to was Milton Berle. He was more of an actor-comic than just a stand-up comic. Today it's a three hundred and sixty-five degree turn. People in show business don't do jokes anymore. It's all situation things. But I've done just about everything there is. I performed at all the walk-a-thons and nightclubs. In my day the big thing was supperclubs and beer gardens. We made a big five dollars if we worked one night.


Kliph Nesteroff: What were the circumstances under which you met Milton Berle for the first time?

Harry Jarkey: He came through Detroit. I did a lot of nightclubs and a lot of show business in Detroit. In fact, that is where my TV show was. It was called Our Friend Harry. That was way back, oh My God, how many years? Sixty years? When television started that made a big change in show business. There was a time when the comics working - there was no television. And when we would work in different towns we could do the same material over and over again. Today, you do it on television once and that's it. Goodbye.


Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of material would you do when you were emceeing one of these walk-a-thons? These walk-a-thons were popular in the early nineteen thirties and you had these desperate, broke people in the midst of the depression entering the contest to make some money. Naturally, they lasted for hours and hours and hours - which means, I guess, the emcee was talking into a microphone for hours and hours and hours. So what kind of material would you be doing?


Harry Jarkey: Everything was off the cuff. We worked in shifts. One emcee would work from six to twelve and then another guy would go on from twelve to six. We'd get people off the floor to sing and it was one of those things. It was very good. Detroit turned out to be one of the best show business teachers for comics because there were so many nightclubs and supperclubs. It was like today's comedy clubs. You'd go in there and try new jokes and stuff like that, but it was an altogether different time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were certain shifts during a walk-a-thon more desirable than others? More difficult at one point during the evening as opposed to another?


Harry Jarkey: Oh, it mattered a lot. The prime time was just like it is now. From six in the evening to twelve - they were wide awake. After that it became sparsely attended and people just came in to visit and help keep the people awake that were participating in the walk-a-thon. You'd be talking sometimes just to yourself!

Kliph Nesteroff: Once the walk-a-thon fad died - I guess toward the end of the nineteen thirties - you started performing on the Grand Ole Opry.


Harry Jarkey: Oh, yes. In Nashville I worked on the Grand Ole Opry and I did a lot of work with the Frances Quiggs Orchestra. I knew most of the country stars down there like Owen Bradley, the piano player who invented the echo chamber. I was in Nashville until I was nineteen. It's actually where I started with the walk-a-thons and worked with Red Skelton. Red Skelton was also working the walk-a-thons. From there I went on to play supperclubs all over the United States.

Kliph Nesteroff: 1939 you were playing in a vaudeville revue at the Kramer Theater in Detroit.


Harry Jarkey: It used to be that you would work as a comic and there would be a singer and maybe a line of six girls and a novelty act. This was all over the United States. It was a circuit, you know? In Atlanta there was the Henry Grady Hotel where I would see Dick Van Dyke and his partner doing a pantomime act. They did a record act. It was people like that who would come in and work for two weeks and then go on to another town and work two weeks. If they were accepted, they would work for another two weeks. So I used to do like a seasonal thing. Go from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio and then to Atlanta, Georgia and then go down and work the circuit in Miami Beach. I did that for most of my life.


Kliph Nesteroff: Miami Beach was a big show business hub. What venues were you booked at?

Harry Jarkey: They had a lot of condos down there. It was sort of like you do on the boats, where they pay so much for the week and they get their food and show for the week for a flat sum. You would always make sure you did the show before the food came out or else you were dead.

Kliph Nesteroff: Comedian Jackie Miles was a regular around Miami Beach at the time.


Harry Jarkey: Oh, yes. Joey Bishop, Jackie Miles, Sid Caesar. Jackie Miles was a stand-up comic and he did... in those days there were more physical things. Like Milton Berle. He was famous for stealing. He would "find" someone's joke because they "lost" it. So, he worked through there. Andy Griffith! He worked down there. I knew Andy Griffith when he was still a school teacher. He was working supperclubs on the side.


His record What it Was Was Football was famous. I was working with him in Atlanta at the Henry Grady Hotel when the people from New York came in and stayed there. They caught him doing this and figured he would be the perfect guy to do No Time For Sergeants. That's where he got his big break. He really had no act, just the football bit and he did a thing on Romeo and Juliet.


He didn't do many nightclubs. He was just a teacher and he made that one record. It wasn't too long after that... it was kind of an amazing thing that these two people from New York happened to be in Atlanta when he was there, took him out of the club in Atlanta and took him to New York to do No Tiime For Sergeants. He never changed his attitude. The way he talked was him.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1942, you were playing the Club Gloria...

Harry Jarkey: Columbus, Ohio.


Kliph Nesteroff: With Joe Venuti.

Harry Jarkey: Yeah, Joe. They used to bring a lot of name bands into that club. In particular, they'd bring in a singer and a novelty act and I was the emcee there for three or four months at a time. In fact, that was one of the seasonal jobs during the many years when I did travel.

Kliph Nesteroff: One name that pops up a lot - you were always playing it - the Wenona Beach Casino.


Harry Jarkey: I had my ninety-ninth birthday in August and a guy in Bay City put a little ad in the paper that said,"Harry Jarkey is celebrating his ninety-ninth birthday and if you'd like to send him a card, here is the address." Well, I have had literally hundreds of birthday cards from people who remembered me from when I worked there and that was well over a half century ago. A lot of them say, "We came there and you are responsible for us getting married." One girl wrote to me and said, "I was eighteen when I saw you there. Now I'm eighty-eight."


They didn't just send me birthday cards, they wrote me the whole history of their life. That place was one of the second homes of my life. I sit here and I read some of these cards - and I hope I'm not boring you - this one lady says, "You looked at me." Can you believe that? "I remember you because fifty years ago I was in the front row of the nightclub and you looked at me." What the hell? Why would she remember something like that? So, yes, the Wenona in Bay City, Michigan was a big part of my life.


Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I looked it up and the first time you performed there was in 1935.

Harry Jarkey: (laughs) Yeah and I can still remember those days. I tell you I did a million shows. I did a stint in the Far East working bases over there. I've gone through the whole list of anything you can do in show business.

Kliph Nesteroff: New Year's Eve 1945 you were playing the opening night of Harry Eager's Frolics.


Harry Jarkey: Oh God, that was in Chicago. Harry Eager was the one who brought Danny Thomas to Chicago. When Danny left Chicago they closed the club and Harry Eager opened up a different one. Danny recommended me to Harry Eager for the opening. I was still in Detroit. I would drive to Chicago, but I mostly stayed in Detroit. When we started television in Detroit I was working there and Johnny Pival had WXYZ. He was the one that brought me in to do television.


Kliph Nesteroff: What was Harry Eager's Frolics like?

Harry Jarkey: Well, it wasn't too much to talk about. It was the second floor of a nightclub and there wasn't too much advertising. He just gave up when Danny left. He tried again but... in those days of Danny Thomas... most of the people that would go to see him were not Armenian, they were Jewish. When they saw Danny Thomas' name it was like a spotlight in the sky.


When he went into New York as an opening act... the night he went in to work the club, opening night was sold out. People didn't understand why a newcomer like Danny Thomas would sell out on such short notice. Unbeknownst to them, everybody that was in the club that night was from Chicago.  So, they followed him all over. He was one of the nicest guys in this business. He was never a politician either, which was a plus for him. He never went out and did any campaigning. He was just a nice guy.


Kliph Nesteroff: September 1943 you were playing the Club Madrid in Louisville, Kentucky.

Harry Jarkey: Oh, yeah. At that time I was doing national guard stuff and at night I worked in the nightclub there. I doubled as a worker and a comedian.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Club 509. That was a well-known venue in Detroit.


Harry Jarkey: When I was working steady in Detroit I must have been working regular at six different clubs. I worked the 509. I did the Elmwood Casino in Windsor. I was doing the Palm Gardens where Danny Thomas worked. It was a small supperclub. Those things are all extinct now.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1946 you were playing the Club 509 and you "did a take-off on trained dog acts."

Harry Jarkey: Oh, yeah, yeah. I had mechanical dogs that I used to wind up and do a "dog act." One would turn over, one would flip, it was just a gimmick. It was tongue in cheek.


Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about Detroit comedian Jackie Kannon?

Harry Jarkey: I knew him very well. We were good buddies. In Detroit, at one time, there was a hotel there and every night at around two in the morning a lot of the comics would come in and talk about how they did. We would give each other a report and score. It was a famous hotel called The Detroiter.


Kliph Nesteroff: October 1947 you played Ka-See's Nite Club...

Harry Jarkey: Oh, in Toledo.

Kliph Nesteroff: With the Mad Cap Harmonica Duo.

Harry Jarkey: Yes, Johnny Pueolo and his Harmonica Rascals. You remember them don't you?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Harry Jarkey: How old are you?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm thirty-two.


Harry Jarkey: Why are you interested in this? The age you're in... show business now is nothing like it was in my day. Today is exactly the opposite. In those days if you used the word "damn" you were expelled. Today if you turn on the television today... I have a friend that does warm-up for sitcoms. He told me that every week when they go in with the writers and get the show together, they always try one new word to do on television - to see if it passes. You gotta admit that today it is pretty raunchy. So I pray for you (laughs).


Kliph Nesteroff: September 1952. You were playing the Century Nightclub in Delphos, Ohio.

Harry Jarkey: Oh my goodness, yeah. Those clubs were just... week to week you worked a different place. You tried to make friends so you could work a return job there.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1957 you were playing the Lake Club in Springfield, Illinois with the Buddy Kirk Orchestra. Years later, in the nineteen seventies, you were playing the Buddy Kirk Steakhouse.


Harry Jarkey: Yeah. That's what we did too. Sometimes I'd work with a band for the first time and then they'd go someplace and call me, "Can you come and work with us at this particular club?" So, I'd pack up and go to another job.

Kliph Nesteroff: By the early sixties you started playing the Playboy Club circuit. I guess initially the Chicago Playboy Club.


Harry Jarkey: Right. I was known as the PTA act. Cause I wouldn't do anything dirty just out of spite. But I did work those and I went to Hefner's house a couple times while I worked there. The Playboy Clubs were strictly for people that had business with other men and corporations. They'd take them to the Playboy Club and they could mark it off as an expense. So, they didn't really go there for the entertainment. They went for the purpose of income tax.


Kliph Nesteroff: So that made it difficult.

Harry Jarkey: Yeah!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of Hefner's favorites around that time... Lenny Bruce.

Harry Jarkey: Yes, Lenny Bruce I remember. He was a little bit raunchy, but he did work. That's all I can say about him. Shecky Greene was funny. We used to cross each other on the road, although we rarely worked the same place at the same time, but we had a good camaraderie. It was like a family thing where you'd see him maybe once or twice a year in those days.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Slate Brothers?

Harry Jarkey: The Slate Brothers? I used to do a bit where I passed a hat. They sent me a telegram asking me permission to do that bit. We never worked in the same city at the same time.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Don Rickles...

Harry Jarkey: I had no association with Don Rickles, but when I used to do the parties at Danny Thomas' house he would be there. We would acquaint that way.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1940 you were at the Continental Club in Chesapeake.


Harry Jarkey: That was a gambling joint. In those days they were not legitimate, so it would be like a dining room and then there was a secret door you could go through to where all the gambling was. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So it was run by the Mob.

Harry Jarkey: Yes. Well, I wouldn't say that! I want to live a little longer! I don't know. They were involved. There's no doubt about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about the Club Top Hat. It was in Detroit.


Harry Jarkey: It was just another small nightclub like the 509.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Kannon started there.

Harry Jarkey: That's right and Shecky Greene worked it. Buddy Lester. Jerry Lester. They worked these places. Jerry Lester was the big one and Buddy kind of followed him. It was like Dick Van Dyke as compared to Jerry Van Dyke. They didn't talk for years. When Dick quit doing his pantomime, Jerry stole his mule train bit and they didn't speak to each other for years on account of that.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Club Gay Haven...

Harry Jarkey: The Gay Haven was comparable to the 509 and Top Hat and like that. They were on the same level. If you worked those... the Gay Haven, the 509, the Top Hat... that was a week's work. You didn't get any fame out of that. You got very small compensation for working. Two shows a night. 


Kliph Nesteroff: You were one of the first people to work the Elmwood Casino in Windsor.

Harry Jarkey: Yes, and I continued to for quite a few years. Everybody went through there. Gypsy Rose Lee, Danny Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr, the Ames Brothers - people like that. They were famous for bringing in names. Also a place called The Bowery in Hamtramck, which was an area inside of Detroit. The Bowery brought in names like Sophie Tucker and Ella Fitzgerald.


Kliph Nesteroff: It seems weird that Windsor would have the biggest nightclub in the area. Was there a reason?

Harry Jarkey: Yes, you're right, but I never looked into why that was. At one point Detroit was the sports capitol of the world; soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey and football. But like everything else here, it all went downhill.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1951 - you were playing Kin Wa Low's Supperclub.


Harry Jarkey: Oh, yes, it was just another nightclub, but it was a little different because it was more of a dinner place and just brought in a little entertainment. That's all they had there. My act was kind of a family kinda thing, so I was accepted all over in many places. I don't think I had many cancelations.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1954, the Paradise Room in Atlanta with singer Gene Austin.

Harry Jarkey: Gene Austin was famous for saying that he wrote My Blue Heaven. He didn't, but he did make it famous. He was the first person I ever saw with a house trailer.


Kliph Nesteroff: May 1955 - The Gus Stevens Restaurant...

Harry Jarkey: Biloxi, Mississippi, yes. That's right. That was a strip joint. Johnny Rivers worked there with me with his trio. They had a stripper and me. It was one of those clubs.

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1963 - the Holiday House in Pittsburgh.


Harry Jarkey: That was a good supperclub. I was there four weeks. I was booked for two and held over for two and that was a big deal. If you were held over there you were a star... but you didn't get any more money. They paid you the same amount of money.

Kliph Nesteroff: When Danny Thomas became the most powerful television producer in show business - was there a chance for you to capitalize on that and go to Hollywood...


Harry Jarkey: Well, at that time I was pretty independent. I was making enough money that we were just friends. That was one thing I never did. I never asked him for any kind of favor or anything - and I think that's why we were so close. I used to go out there to Los Angeles and house sit for them a lot. When they had their big annual party before the St. Jude benefit we'd go stay with them for two or three weeks and help make up all the invitations and things like that. We were pretty family oriented.