Friday, April 3, 2015

An Interview with Slick Slavin - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw your nightclub act in a short film called Stardust in Your Eyes.

Slick Slavin: Yes, I forgot that I even made that film. It would have helped me tremendously if I had remembered. People started calling me and asking me if I knew anything about it. It was in 3-D. Due to these 3-D festivals they have, it became a cult item. During that era of 3-D they would always send out a short with the movie like they did in the old days with a cartoon. They did shorts with big bands and things like that. I had forgotten about it completely.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were performing under the name Slick Slavin and then changed your name to Trustin Howard... or visa versa.

Slick Slavin: Yes, well, in the old days I did rock and roll movies and made records. You always had to kind of a rock and roll name, so that was it. But Slick has been gone a long time.

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1947 you were playing a club on Beverly Blvd called the Algiers. Comedians I've never heard of - Danny Beck and Ben Fromer - were on the bill with you...

Slick Slavin: Yeah, they were around at that time. The Algiers, that really goes back. On the bill was a woman named Miss Dana. She was a girlfriend of a guy named Jimmy Tarantino, who at that time had a magazine called Hollywood Nightlife. That became really big. They were almost as big as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. I had done some nightclub work in Chicago. I started doing nightclubs when I was fifteen, working strip joints. I put a moustache on. The very first place was a club called the Cuban Village on North Avenue. It was my first really big nightclub engagement and they really liked me. I could have stayed there forever, but when you're young you want to move around.

Kliph Nesteroff: There were a lot of comedians coming out of Chicago in those days... who were some of your contemporaries.

Slick Slavin: Yeah, Shecky Greene. We became real long-time pals.  Joey Bishop came in and played the Vine Gardens, although we never knew each other when we were on North Avenue six blocks apart. He was working six blocks down from me, a seventeen year old kid.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of guys got their break in Chicago like Joey Bishop, who was from Philadelphia. Danny Thomas, who was from Detroit...

Slick Slavin: Danny was really big in Chicago at the 5100 Club. He was a very nice guy. Oddly enough, later on, I became the head writer of Joey Bishop's late night talk show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where did you play when you came out west?

Slick Slavin: I played Bill Gray's Band Box. A dynamite, dynamite place. So many people got their start there. Buddy Hackett came in and was hardly known. He came in to Billy Gray's and began to move up. And then after Ciro's and the Mocambo closed down, the Crescendo was really the spot. I worked it with Billy Daniels.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Crescendo with Billy Daniels and the Lancers.

Slick Slavin: Yeah! And I worked a place on the south side of Los Angeles called the Casbah. Working was not always easy. You had to hustle for jobs. I used to go out and carry contracts in my valise. I hustled the south side of Los Angeles. I played the Oasis and the Red Feather, which had mostly Black entertainers, but I used to get work. The Casbah played big acts. I talked to the bosses. They said, "Do your act." There weren't many people in the place because Monday was quiet.  I did my act and there were just a few tables. One was a woman by the name of Sarah Haden who played Mickey Rooney's aunt in the Andy Hardy series. She was a drama teacher. All her students were there. They loved me. They gave me a real send-off. That was it. The bosses liked me and they said, "Would you be free to open tomorrow with Kay Starr?" I said yes and every celebrity and agent was there to see Kay Starr. I opened the show and did very, very well. Kay Starr was dynamite. It was a two week engagement for both of us. They held me over for four weeks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Some of those clubs - the Black clubs that you played - were there any Black comedians that you remember?

Slick Slavin: I used to cross paths with Redd Foxx. He always played around there. He tried to be very cool at that time. Smoking a cigarette, holding it a special way, talking very slow. That was kind of his way. He was a very sharp, nice looking man. Age took him down, but made him a star. They used to sell his albums in brown paper bags. And Lenny Bruce I knew very well, we were buddies.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before we get to Lenny, let's get back to Billy Gray's Band Box. It seems like a very seminal place and a comedy club before comedy clubs.

Slick Slavin: Oh yeah, it was dynamite. But the very, very best comedian of all was Billy Gray. Billy Gray was just dynamite. They played everybody. Gene Baylos was a very heavy hitter there. Baylos was dynamite. The people came in and they were ready to be entertained. It was a small place. Billy's partner was a guy named Max Gold. I would say it was the in spot for years. They played all kinds of acts. A little later it went into doing satires on movies.

Kliph Nesteroff: My Fairfax Lady.

Slick Slavin: Yeah, stuff like that and they did a thing on Trapeze with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. So that was it. They expanded a little bit. Whatever they did and whatever Billy did was just considered  great.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was almost a godfather to the younger comedians.

Slick Slavin: Oh God, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Noonan and Marshall, Dick Van Dyke before he was famous - they all played Billy Gray's Band Box.

Slick Slavin: Oh, yes. Tommy Noonan and Pete Marshall were very good friends of mine. Really good guys. They did an act that was a little different. They tried to be more cerebral than the average comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Marshal was surprised that he did well at Billy Gray's Band Box. He said he was a pretty goyish act and the Band Box was heavy Jewish.

Slick Slavin: That's right. We really had a nice group of people including Jerry Lewis. Everybody seemed to know each other and we were all very close. We all used to go a place called King's Restaurant, which had a deejay. That's where we all went - including Merv Griffin, boy singer. King's Restaurant was off of Santa Monica Boulevard.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet and get to know Lenny Bruce?

Slick Slavin: When I first came to Hollywood [in 1952] I got a booking at a place called the York Club, which also was in South Central Los Angeles. I went in on a Sunday night. I was opening on Tuesday. I wanted to get a feel for the place. Lenny Bruce was the act. The boss introduced me to him. He was wearing a tuxedo and was doing impersonations of Al Jolson. I figured he was the squarest guy I had ever seen. I saw his act and I figured this guy just doesn't have it. And in a tuxedo? So that was it. With Lenny it was hello and goodbye and I opened on the Tuesday. They had a good big band led by Vido Musso. Vido Musso has a daughter who is now married to Shecky Greene. Vido was a good name around Los Angeles. 

One agent said, "I have an audition set up for you at the Biltmore Hotel." Well, the Biltmore is big time. So I go into the Biltmore one afternoon and it was just the agent, a guy by the name of Joe Faber, who was the entertainment director. Nice man. We're sitting where the customers sit and he says, "All right, let's see your act. Just stand up and do it." I get up and I do my impressions and a couple of lines and all that and I figure I am a dead man. It's not that easy. I did it and a couple weeks went by. By now I'm getting ready to go back to Chicago. I get a call from this agent saying, "They want you to open at the Biltmore for six weeks." That was almost as high as you could go as far as clubs, but from then on there was nothing to match it. Eventually, I played all the spots I could play. Strip joints were very big in Los Angeles and that seemed to be the only place if you wanted to stay in Los Angeles to play. I went into this place in the San Fernando Valley. A strip joint with an older lady emcee. I said to her, "When do I rehearse with the band?"

She said, "You don't work with the band. You work when the band is off." I said, "No, my act is framed by music." She said, "Well, you gotta do fifteen minutes while they're on their break. You can do it. Just do every gag you know and talk slow." That scared the hell out of me. I did and it worked out okay. On Mondays we were closed. So she invited me to her home. Very sweet lady and I met her son. Her son was Lenny Bruce. That is when we became friends. Very good friends. Eventually I saw him do a metamorphosis. He was trying to be more "with it" than he was at the York Club. I find out he has a little daughter and is married to a gal named Honey Harlow and he's crazy about her. But she had already been to prison and was very heavy into drugs. I noticed he was trying to keep up, which isn't really his way - because to me he was a square. But he loved this lady. He talks a little bit about marijuana. I was really square. I didn't smoke and very little drink. I just didn't understand him getting involved. "Honest Slick," he said. "I only take an over the counter pill now and then and that's it." Anyway, you know what happened.

He was working a club in San Fernando Valley and started to talk really dirty. I figured they were going to throw him out. I never did that, Shecky never did that, none of us did that. But he was working this club and they were laughing. He began to feel his oats going in that direction. He was getting more reaction than when he was wearing a tuxedo and singing Swanee. As time went by I tried to talk him down. Shecky and I were in San Francisco and he was already pretty well out of his mind. It looked like he didn't eat. And he was very paranoid. He was scared to death. We tried to get him in a cab to a Chinese restaurant to get him a little food. We took him and his ankles were as big as his kneecaps. He just couldn't take the crowd while we were waiting for a table. While Shecky was trying to get us a table, he and I were alone and he hugged me. I hugged him and he said, "I can't stay. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't handle this." Eight days later he was dead.

Kliph Nesteroff: When he was doing Swanee - it was a comedic version, right?

Slick Slavin: Oh, no, no, no, he was doing Jolson!

Kliph Nesteroff: He was one of the comedians of that era who finished with a song.

Slick Slavin: Yeah, there was nothing to the act. Whatever he figured was comedy was not, to my way of thinking. It didn't register. When he started doing four letter words and things like that, he took hold. And he followed through on it. Everybody is looking for the thing that will take him to the top and that was it. He found that by doing the dirt, people began to dig it.


Sid Montrose said...

Wow Kliph, fascinating interview. I don't recall Slavin in Albert Goldman's book about Lenny. Maybe he should write his own book about 1950's LA.

Anonymous said...

The comic "Ben Fromer" that was mentioned is actually Ben Frommer, a heavy-set actor/comic who's been around for a long time. He appeared in "Plan 9 from Outer Space" as one of the mourners at Inspector Clay's (Tor Johnson) funeral and he had a recurring role in "F-Troop" as Smokey Bear, one of the Hekawi Indians (whenever Agarn or O'Rourke would ride into the Hekawi village, "Smokey Bear" was usually the guy who held their horses). IMDb has him with 130+ credits over a 40-year career. He died in 1992.