Wednesday, April 23, 2014
An Interview with Orson Bean - Part One
Orson Bean: I substitute-hosted beginning with Paar. I was a guest with Johnny ninety-six times. When Johnny Carson retired NBC released a list of the top ten most frequent guests. I was - if you will pardon the expression - under Charles Nelson Reilly.
Kliph Nesteroff: There are a lot of people who claim to have been on the show a hundred times and probably weren't.
Orson Bean: Bob Hope had the most because he used to pop in unexpected. It annoyed Carson because sometimes he popped in just as he was getting to a punchline... just like a waiter at Lindy's.
Kliph Nesteroff: I miss the spontaneity that talk shows once had.
Orson Bean: Paar was a conversationalist and he had people on that weren't just plugging their next project. He had people who loved to talk; Jack Douglas and Oscar Levant and Alexander King. They were talkers. That's what they did. I think today audiences wouldn't put up with someone spinning a yarn that lasts longer than thirty seconds.
Kliph Nesteroff: Paar was responsible in a big way for shaping American comedy as the first to really push Jonathan Winters, introduce Woody Allen and a lot of others.
Orson Bean: People used to always ask me, "What's Paar really like?" What you saw is what you got. There was no false front that he put on. There wasn't a Jack Paar that he put on to do the show. If he was in a pissy mood then you saw it and he was annoying. He'd talk about his fat daughter. I was on endlessly with Arthur Godfrey and he was another one with, "What's he really like?" Those are the two people you really didn't need to ask that about.
Kliph Nesteroff: Paar is referenced more often that Godfrey these days. When Arthur Godfrey died they interviewed Andy Rooney who had written for him. They asked Andy Rooney, "How do you think Arthur Godfrey will be remembered?" Andy Rooney said, "He won't be."
Orson Bean: Wow.
Kliph Nesteroff: He said that the day after Godfrey died. He was right.
Orson Bean: Isn't that odd? I wouldn't have thought that at the time.
Kliph Nesteroff: Rooney said that even though Godfrey was on the air for hours and hours every single day - he didn't actually do anything...
Orson Bean: That's true.
Kliph Nesteroff: So there was nothing to remember.
Orson Bean: On the other hand, Ed Sullivan didn't do anything, but he's remembered. Then again he's probably remembered because he was easy to imitate. "On our shoe tonight we have fifteen Polish dentists drilling..." Fred Allen used to say of Ed Sullivan, "He's a pointer. A dog could do that show." I was on The Ed Sullivan Show seven times. In those days everybody watched it. Nowadays there are six hundred choices. In those days there were three choices, maybe four in the largest cities.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's crazy what constituted a ratings failure and canceled immediately would now be considered a hit.
Orson Bean: Yes, absolutely.
Kliph Nesteroff: Going back to the beginning of your career - one of the earliest things I could find on you - you hosted Pittsburgh's first hour-long television show - The Shoppers Revue.
Orson Bean: There was a full year's worth of nightclub work outside Philadelphia at the Moose Club in Altoona and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Harrisburg, that kind of stuff. I was honing my skills, getting no laughs. Gimbel's Shopper's Revue - a guy I knew worked at the advertising agency connected to the show. They called me because they fired this guy Bill Brandt. I lasted a few weeks. They fired me because people wanted Bill Brandt back (laughs). That was America's first television station as I understand, but that was just a brief episode in my life.
Kliph Nesteroff: What were some of the other pre-Blue Angel nightclubs you did?
Orson Bean: I worked the Latin Quarter in Fall River. Stuff like that. The marquee would say, "Three Big Acts - THREE - Fri/Sat/Sun - Direct from Boston!" People didn't have T.V. yet. You would go to bars on Tuesday to watch Milton Berle and Saturdays to watch Sid Caesar. I was writing new material all the time and trying it out, trying it out, trying it out. It was a full year's work in Boston. I got booked into a joint called the College Inn. During World War Two it was called the Mayfair and did quite well and then it closed down.
Rocky and Chippy - Rocky Paladino and Irv Chipman - an Italian and a Jew who were reputed to have underworld connections - opened a transvestite show. The place was packed. It caused a sensation. They had a mixture of drag queens and regular acts and I got booked to do my fake hypnotism act, which I was doing at the time. Bobby Ramsen was the emcee. I would get people up and whisper in their ear, "Play along." If I picked the people right they always played along and never gave me away because they became minor celebrities for the night. Rocky Paladino was quite impressed with my seeming powers.
Kliph Nesteroff: That era of minor nightclubs - dominated by Organized Crime.
Orson Bean: They were minor mafioso that had been drivers for the Mob or whatever and when they retired they were given a club to run in places like Schenectady, New York. Rocky and Chippy were fairly high up the chain. Rocky Paladino really took a liking to me. He used to call me Oscar Bean. "Hey, Oscar! Take a load off." I wore a three piece suit and had a crewcut. I would open, "My name is Orson Bean, Harvard 48. Yale nothing." None of his associates understood why he invited me to his table. He thought I was really hypnotizing people and was impressed with it. When he found out I wasn't - the shit hit the fan and I left town to Philly. But yeah, they were minor mafioso.
Before I went to New York and started at the Blue Angel, I was booked at this place in Albany. You had to take a bus to Albany and then another bus out to the highway to this joint. It was one of those Fri/Sat/Sun gigs and only the band laughed. When I came back they said, "Get out. You're fired." I didn't even get to go on. Then a few days later I walked into the Blue Angel like a bumblebee who doesn't know he can't fly. I didn't know you had to have a manager or an agent.
I walked in and the manager was sitting there. It was the afternoon and the door was open, dark, chairs were up on the tables. I saw a light upstairs and Max Gordon - not the Broadway producer - but another Max Gordon who owned it - was counting the receipts. He said, "What do you want?" "I'm a comic." "Say something funny." "Bellybutton." He got a half smile and said, "Come back tonight, I'm short an act." I went on and I got screams the first time. All the stuff the band had been saying was too hip for the room played in the Blue Angel. They signed me on the spot to a two-year contract.
Kliph Nesteroff: A contract? I didn't realize the Blue Angel worked that way.
Orson Bean: Yeah, it did. We all got a hundred and twenty-five a week which was fine money. There were four acts on the bill one time - Nichols and May, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt and me. A guy named Bud Howard introduced the acts and played the piano in between. One day I came in early and he said, "Listen to this song I knocked off." He played Fly Me to the Moon. I said, "That's great, but what are you going to do with it?"
Kliph Nesteroff: The earliest Blue Angel gig I have for you was June 1951 - Jane Dulo, Josh White, Stuart Ross, Eadie and Rack.
Orson Bean: A lot of us worked there and a hundred and a quarter was fine in those days because a burger was a dime.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Blue Angel could not be more different than those tiny Mob clubs you worked around New England...
Orson Bean: Wildly different and that's why my material worked there.
Kliph Nesteroff: There were all these clubs - the Blue Angel, the Bon Soir, the Reuban Bleu, the Number One Fifth Avenue. Is this what you would call an Uptown Cabaret?
Orson Bean: Yes. They were. I never worked the Bon Soir because if you worked the Blue Angel, you didn't work the Bon Soir. Jonny Winters worked the Bon Soir. We used to get together afterward and go to P.J. Clarke's for a burger. I was with him when he made up Maude Frickert. Maude Frickert was a dirty routine. She's sitting in her wheelchair and Lenny, the hired hand, comes in. She says, "What are you doing? Back out to the barn! Come in here unannounced? If the mister was still alive he'd thrash you! What? Don't stick that thing... oh... no...oh...ohhhhhh... ahhhh..." That was the very first Maude Frickert.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between these Uptown Cabarets and the Village nightclubs? These were the two places where you got a more intellectual type crowd.
Orson Bean: I worked the Vanguard a lot. The Blue Angel was owned by Max Gordon and Herbert Jacobi. Herbert Jacobi was a very elegant European queen while Max was just a Jewish businessman, all common sense. They owned the Blue Angel, but Max alone owned the Village Vanguard. So I worked there with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Josh White and people like that. I didn't work with Lenny Bruce, but I used to go and watch and I just worshipped him, this brilliant genius. He's remembered for talking dirty, but Letterman is far filthier on television than Lenny ever was in a club.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1951 you were doing a bit about Hitler getting booked at the Paramount.
Orson Bean: (laughs)
Kliph Nesteroff: Lenny Bruce famously did a bit about Hitler getting signed at MCA...
Orson Bean: Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Had he seen your act?
Orson Bean: I... don't... I'm surprised you remember... I don't even... I do remember the joke now. The agent submits the act and they finally say, "Who is this? Who is this?" "Hitler." "Hitler!" "All right, the boy made a mistake." My favorite routine of Lenny's wasn't even one of his famous ones. He was talking about nature versus nurture... he used to talk about racism and all kinds of stuff. The end of the routine was that the infant of a pair of brilliant astro physicists is lost in the woods, raised by a pack of wild dogs, finds his way out at the age of seventeen, goes on to graduate with honors from M.I.T. but a year after that he's killed by a car. I only heard him tell it once, but I never forgot it.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1951 - you were playing the Blue Angel and you were playing the Village Vanguard. But August 1951 - you played the Palace.
Orson Bean: It was the damnedest thing. Jerry Rosen signed me. I didn't have an agent when I started. It didn't last long. It was a scam. He tried to get his wife to be my manager. He booked me in the Palace of all the weird things. I had worked a few of the vaudeville houses because vaudeville had come back. I think it was in 1951 that Judy Garland played the Palace, two a day. That was the show where she famously sat at the edge of the stage with her feet dangling and sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
So vaudeville came back for a few years and all the acts that had been eking out a living at the Minnesota State Fair suddenly had venues to work. I worked with all kinds like LaFarge's Cockatoos and Gautier's Dogs and Monkeys. I worked with an act called Low, Hite and Stanley.
Low was a giant, Hite was a dwarf and they had a different Stanley every other time because they wouldn't pay him anything. "We're not going to pay anything to a regular sized guy!" It was a knockabout comedy act. The giant was an intellectual who was discussing Schopenhauer with me and I didn't know what the fuck he was talking about.
Kliph Nesteroff: On that Palace bill I have down that you were on the show with Buck and Bubbles.
Orson Bean: Yeah, I used to watch them every night. They were so brilliant. They starred on Broadway in the Black revues like Brown Sugar and things like that. There was a guy with a trained crow that was the damnedest thing I ever saw. I watched four shows a day. This crow was doing so much stuff and it wasn't until the second day I realized the crow was a fake. The guy was a ventriloquist. He had his arm up the crow and had a fake arm that the crow was sitting on. The crow moved with such subtle movements and it whistled God Bless America and the house came down.
Kliph Nesteroff: Buck and Bubbles, Danny Crystal, Dorothy Louden, Johnny Argo and Doris Fay and a monkey act called Captain Shaw and Bobby on the bill with you at the Palace.
Orson Bean: I don't know where you got this information, my God. Astonishing the amount of minutiae out there to be had. I didn't realize Dorothy Louden was on that bill, but I worked with her in clubs a lot.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Palace was an enormous thing and you were this little cabaret act. How did you go over?
Orson Bean: I finished my act by building a paper eucalyptus tree that I later did in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. That always got 'em, so if I didn't get many laughs they liked the tree. I'd build the tree and give a bogus historical lecture. So I managed to get by, but I wasn't a big smash at the Palace.
Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Blue Angel in September 1951 with Doodles and Spider.
Orson Bean: Doodles and Spider, I know the name.
Kliph Nesteroff: I believe it was Doodles Weaver and some guy.
Orson Bean: Oh! It must have been Doodles Weaver! I didn't put it together. Wasn't he related to Pat Weaver?
Kliph Nesteroff: They were brothers.
Orson Bean: Pat Weaver was very tall and distinguished looking - as is his daughter. Was Doodles kind of the black sheep of the family?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, exactly. He ended up killing himself years later.
Orson Bean: Did he!? God.
Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned this manager Jerry Rosen. You had to go through AGVA arbitration to get out of your three year contract.
Orson Bean: He signed me up and then had me sign a contract with his wife as my manager, so he was going to take twenty percent of everything I earned. I went to AGVA and they weren't much of a union, but they did get me out of that.
Kliph Nesteroff: The connection in that era between nightclubs and the Mob was so common. AGVA had a lot of issues about being tied to the Mob with this fella Jackie Bright. Penny Singelton later took him on. Do you remember anything about that?
Orson Bean: I don't. I just knew vaguely about it. I found the mafia guys, by and large, to be really interesting and pleasant. Most of us are morally homogenized - they aren't. If you cross them, you wind up with your feet in cement. But if you don't cross them, they are generous and they like being generous. I spent a lot of time with them when I was breaking into the business. I discovered that they attract gorgeous and brainy women - not just bimbos - because women are power fuckers.
It goes back to the days of the cave when the guy with the strongest arm got the woman with the least fur. Men are youth and beauty fuckers. Women are power fuckers. There's something sexy about the power of these mafia guys. I worked in these clubs and Friday nights were girlfriend nights. Saturday night was wives night.
Frequently the wives were former girlfriends, usually good looking blondes. As soon as they married everything changed and they were expected to stay home, grow a moustache, wear black and have the pasta ready. On Fridays the girlfriends would be there and it was much more fun. I remember seeing one of the girlfriends say something that offended the mafioso in front of his friends and he slapped her hard across the face and she cried. And then she apologized and he put his arm around her and everything was fine. Saturday night I remember seeing somebody say "shit" in front of the wife and a pall fell over the table.
I remember the guy sent flowers the next day. It was the same kind of dame, but she was a wife. Rocky, my guy in Boston, said, "Oscar, anyone gives you a hard time, you let me know and we'll take care of them. Okay?" He was always buying me drinks and was very nice until he found out my hypnotist act was a fake. And then ooh. Then I went to Philly for a year and then I went to the Blue Angel. A few years after that I was all over television, Sullivan and stuff, and I ran into Rocky. He said, "Oscar! Give me a hug! If it wasn't for me you'd still be in Boston!" He took credit.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were a semi-regular on The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street on NBC Radio in 1952.
Orson Bean: It had been a long running show on NBC and it was a send-up of the Sunday opera broadcasts. Instead of opera they played Dixieland jazz. They wanted to put it on TV so they brought it back on radio for thirteen weeks to generate interest. They called me Doctor Bean, Professor of Musicology and then I would do a comical monologue. Henry 'Hot Lips' Levine would play the Muskrat Ramble and I would do a fraudulent piece about the origins of the Muskrat Ramble.
Kliph Nesteroff: On one episode the guests were Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.
Orson Bean: Yes, NBC made everybody they had under contract come on my show. One time I had Fred Allen and Milton Berle together as guests. He was a marvelous guy, Fred Allen. I adored him. On Sundays I would see him along Broadway as he and Portland went to mass. Panhandlers would approach him and he always had a buck for everybody. He was always good for a buck.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were on the very first episode of I've Got a Secret when it was still in its creaky pilot stage. The regulars weren't on there yet, but Boris Karloff was the guest with the secret.
Orson Bean: Yes, I didn't do well. It's a minor skill being a panelist, but a specific one and I hadn't learned it yet. So I only stayed on a couple episodes. Later on I did a lot of Password and did seven years on To Tell the Truth. By that time I knew about being a panelist.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was Garry Moore like?
Orson Bean: I found him to be prickish. Personally he never made me laugh. He's dead, isn't he?
Kliph Nesteroff: Long dead.
Orson Bean: Yes, okay, never made me laugh, self-important and prickish.