Friday, November 7, 2014

An Interview with Maynard Sloate - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You were running jam sessions around Los Angeles in the late 1940s, booking jazz musicians at clubs like the Red Feather, the Susie Q and the Melody Room... the Melody Room was where a comedian named Ray Bourbon often performed.

Maynard Sloate: There were two Melody Rooms. The jam sessions I did were not at that Melody Room. Bobby Adler and a man named Harry Rubin owned the Melody Room on the Sunset Strip where Ray Bourbon performed. The other Melody Room was somewhere like Slauson and Van Ness and that's where I did the jam sessions.

Kliph Nesteroff: August 1949, you joined with a guy named Al Dale and formed a booking company, representing Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet and Ella Fitzgerald...

Maynard Sloate: And a lot more. We represented three New York agencies on the West Coast. Those agencies had all the jazz people. We had Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, The Ravens... It lasted a year.

Kliph Nesteroff: That seems like a big deal. How did you come to open Strip City? Going from booking huge jazz acts to running a strip club seems like a step down.

Maynard Sloate: I was playing drums. The last band I played with was Eddie Oliver, a society band. We played the Mocambo and the Del Mar Beach Club. As an agent the last thing I did was book the Melody Room. The guy who owned it had owned the Susy Q. He wanted to open a burlesque joint, so I booked all of his strippers. It looked to me like those clubs were doing a lot of business. I borrowed five thousand dollars from my father. Bill Robinson and Joe Abrahams owned a club called the Oasis. I got them to be my partners. I opened a club called Strip City. We found this club that had closed and been auctioned off. It was on the corner of Western and Pico.

Kliph Nesteroff: It opened in 1950?

Maynard Sloate: 1950.

Kliph Nesteroff: Strip City is famous for its Lenny Bruce association. Before Lenny Bruce did any other comedians play it?

Maynard Sloate: Yes, there were always comedians. None of the others were famous. None of them became stars. They were all working the strip joints.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the others?

Maynard Sloate: Well, we opened with comics named Jerry Moore and Dick Kimble. A guy who had a little success was Joey Carter. Then there was a comic at that time named Slick Slavin. Slick Slavin later became Trustin Howard, a writer. I think the most successful guy who came out of Strip City other than Lenny was the drummer. His name was Bill Richmond and he wrote all the movies with Jerry Lewis. He was our drummer at Strip City. Lord Buckley played it. And Slim Galliard. And Redd Foxx. When I got out of there I went into the Crescendo. Strip City was around for ten years.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Lord Buckley?

Maynard Sloate: Not a great deal. His original act was a vaudeville act where he worked with people out of the audience. He put them onstage, four or five people, and worked them like ventriloquist dummies. At Strip City he was doing the hip version of fairy tales and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and those things. He worked both Strip City and Jazz City. He was pretty nuts (laughs), but no problems. He was all right.

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about the early Redd Foxx?

Maynard Sloate: Redd Foxx never changed. He was not fun to be with. I don't know what to say. He became very successful, of course. I don't know. He was a dirty comic. He had no taste whatsoever. When he was dirty, it was obscene. He would do subjects that were just disgusting. When I talked to him about it he said, "Man, that's my integrity."

Kliph Nesteroff: This was at Strip City? He was not known for playing white rooms at that time.

Maynard Sloate: It was not a white room at that time. The final thing I did before I left Strip City was turn it into all Negro burlesque. "Negro" being the word of the day. So it was all Negro burlesque and Redd was the comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first meet Lenny Bruce?

Maynard Sloate: An agent - name of Lou Dorn - took me to a place in Downey, California. A nightclub called the Cup and Saucer. It's very famous. I'm making it famous. Anyway, the Cup and Saucer in Downey. Lenny had just come to town and Lou Dorn was booking him. Lou Dorn booked all kinds of people in the strip joints. He had the Colony Club in Gardenia, which was the biggest of them. He was probably the most successful of the agents booking strip clubs.

Lenny Bruce was playing the Cup and Saucer. All of the comics who were working in the Los Angeles area were doing pretty much the same act. At that time the army routine was probably the number one piece of material used by most comics. Lenny, having just come from New York, had different material. He was doing a straight, clean act with some impressions and it was different from what the local comics were doing, so I hired him. He played Strip City for seventy-five dollars a week, six nights a week.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was onstage for a significant amount of time each night.

Maynard Sloate: Yeah. At that time we were using two comics. One would do an hour and then the next would do an hour. But the strippers were doing the time. The comedian did fifteen minutes and they would introduce the strippers and do a little time before each stripper to give the band a break. And then the next comic would take over.

Kliph Nesteroff: They say Strip City is where Lenny Bruce came into his own.

Maynard Sloate: Well, Lenny was not doing what he became famous for, but it was probably his most creative period. Both at Strip City and when he worked for me at the Crescendo. That was when he was writing. Buddy Hackett got him a job writing for Leonard Goldstein at Universal. He was working on a Buddy Hackett movie, writing as they were filming. Rewriting, actually. That was when he was doing all of his real creative work from Strip City to the Crescendo to Anne's 440 in San Francisco. Unbelievable and brilliant. At the Crescendo we put a phone in for him and he would call people on the phone and it would come through the sound system. He would have conversations with babysitters, a maitre'd, whatever. He would just wing it and did some very funny things.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1951 - the vice squad busted Strip City. 

Maynard Sloate: Strip joints were a problem to the police department. The problem was that they used to come in to drink and pick up girls. One night there was a party of people in there and at 11:30, the coordinated time, a guy stood up and said, "You're under arrest." He grabbed the stripper. I said, "What are you doing and why are you arresting people?"He said, "I was shocked and embarrassed. We're arresting you for running a lewd and indecent show. I'm taking a stripper, a comic and an owner." So off we went. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the official charge?

Maynard Sloate: Conducting a lewd and indecent show. Scared the living hell out of me. I was a virgin, what did I know? And there was nothing going on. They were going to bust us at 11:30 no matter what was happening.

Kliph Nesteroff: So what happened?

Maynard Sloate: We paid off everyone in town including a catholic priest. Eventually it went to court and I was scared to death of going to jail. We got seventy-five dollar fines. They changed the plea so our lawyer told us to plead guilty to misdemeanors - disturbing the peace.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that a typical thing in Los Angeles at the time?

Maynard Sloate: Yes. The corruption was unbelievable between the police and the State Board of Equalization. It was all corrupt.

Kliph Nesteroff: How would you know who to payoff in such a situation?

Maynard Sloate: We entrusted a "morals attorney." Two or three years later, when we knew every policeman in town, we found out we had plead guilty to conducting a lewd and indecent show not disturbing the peace. So I called the lawyer and he said, "No! I did not!" I said, "Go find out." He plead us guilty to the wrong charge, apparently, and that held until my partner's brother-in-law became one of the most famous attorneys. He put himself through law school cashiering on weekends at Strip City. He became very famous as a first amendment attorney. Years later he said, "What ever happened to that charge?" I said, "I plead guilty to a lewd and indecent show. I think it means I'm a sex offender!" He said, "I'll take care of that." He got it dismissed.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention it was Lenny Bruce's most creative period. What about his drug habit - did it exist at that time?

Maynard Sloate: It didn't exist at Strip City. I remember him telling me that he would never do drugs because the thought of doing one night in jail was enough to scare the hell out of him. Then he became a first class junkie at the Crescendo.

Kliph Nesteroff: You entered into a partnership with Gene Norman's Crescendo in 1957. What lead to your involvement with the Crescendo? It developed into the most important club for stand-up comics in all of Hollywood.

Maynard Sloate: Yeah, and Gene had no sense of humor! He'd say to me, "Is he funny?" But he was a great guy, I liked Gene. Gene Norman had a partner named Chuck Landis. Chuck Landis wanted out. I owned Strip City and Jazz City. I was getting out of Jazz City because our lease was up. We didn't care to stay there any longer even though we were doing very well.

Gene Norman called me and said, "Chuck wants to buy me out. We've set a price and one of us has to buy the other out. The price is ridiculous because it's so cheap, but he doesn't think I can handle the club without him. If you'll come in with me, you can own half of the Crescendo." I was getting out of Jazz City and would have preferred to get out of Strip City. I said, "I'll have to bring my partner with me." So I bought the Crescendo and I sold Jazz City and Strip City.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you were involved with another club called the Avant Garde.

Maynard Sloate: After I sold the Crescendo I opened the Avant Garde.

Kliph Nesteroff: The opening show was Chico Hamilton with comedian Herkie Styles.

Maynard Sloate: Somebody mentioned Herkie Styles the other day at lunch. I haven't thought of Herkie in a hundred years. I knew him, but I knew nothing about him. I was at the Crescendo for about a year, maybe.

Kliph Nesteroff: Long enough to bring in Lenny Bruce.

Maynard Sloate: Yes. I gave him a contract for six months as an opening act for all of the headliners. The only time we couldn't use him was when the Mary Kaye Trio was headlining. Their manager, Billy Burton, didn't want a comic because he said, "We have a comic in our act." 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the general reaction to Lenny from the Crescendo audience?

Maynard Sloate: Gene kept him after I left. He'd give him some dates and finally he couldn't have him anymore. It just became impossible and became unfunny. He was no longer doing comedy, he was doing law.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you around for the notorious night that Lenny Bruce was fired at the Slate Brothers club?

Maynard Sloate: I was involved. Don Rickles had come to town. Don Rickles was playing Zardi's. A guy by the name of Jack Varden owned it and was a friend of mine. So I went in to see this comic he had brought in from Florida - Don Rickles. He was my sense of humor and he killed me. I was bringing people into Zardi's to see Don Rickles. Lenny Bruce called to tell me he was opening at Slate Brothers on the Friday. That was payday for Don Rickles at Zardi's and we went out for breakfast at the Gaiety Deli on the Sunset Strip after he got off work.

So this night was his pay night, but they weren't doing any business and couldn't pay him. He didn't pay Don Rickles. We had breakfast and I had made arrangements to go see Lenny and said to Don, "Do you want to come with us to see Lenny Bruce?" He said, "Sure." Well, as you know Lenny opened and closed in one night and the first call I got in the morning was from Lenny who tells me the story about walking off the stage and telling the audience to go fuck themselves.

So Lenny was gone and he called to tell me what happened. I said, "So I guess I won't be seeing you tonight." We had planned to go see his show and bring Don Rickles. So, of course, who did they get to replace Lenny? The guy who didn't get paid the night before. That was the beginning of Don's whole career.


Kevin K. said...

"Somebody mentioned Herkie Styles the other day at lunch." This is the only site in the world where I would read that quote.

All these interviews are great to read, Kliph. It's the closest thing we'll ever get to a time machine.

jeffmclennan51 said...

Kliph. It's Jeff From New Brunswick. Your work is amazing man. Mind blowing shit. Hope all is well my friend.