Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part Seven

Kliph Nesteroff: How about an Ed Sullivan favorite - the comedian with the rich kid persona - London Lee?

Jackie Curtiss: London Lee! He really got a free ride on Sullivan. He had a rich father who bought his way onto the show. I never thought he was funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Nobody did.

Jackie Curtiss: He was just one of those guys that got tight with Sullivan and he made him. London Lee. What a character.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was the heir to the Lee Jeans fortune. His parents literally paid nightclubs like the Fontainebleau to use him as a headliner. As an amateur comedian his first gigs were as a headliner in major clubs.

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah and bombing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ed Sullivan's favorites were only his favorites and no one else's. London Lee, Wayne and Shuster...

Jackie Curitss: Right! Although I was one of his secret favorites. I'd have dinner with him. But the ones that he really promoted and everything, good God.

Kliph Nesteroff: And yet that never really made them true stars.

Jackie Curtiss: I had a friend named Maria Neglia. She was on so many Sullivan shows, but it never did anything for her career. You know, I saw the name Kenny Colman on your website. I couldn't believe you interviewed Kenny Colman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know him?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, God, he gave me a heart attack. Joe Parnello was my pianist for a year when I ran the Playboy Club in Los Angeles. He suggested I use Kenny Colman because he was such a good singer. I heard him and he was fabulous. So I booked him not knowing this guy has something in his brain that doesn't work right! Opening night he comes out, sings a song and it's great and everything. After he finished - I thought he got good applause - he stops. He said, "How dare you fucking people not give me the applause I deserve! Don't you know what a great singer I am? Frank Sinatra tells everyone what a great singer I am! You fucking people!" 

I physically pulled him offstage and into the kitchen. I said, "What the hell are you doing!?" He said, "Well, these fucking people don't even know what talent is!" I said, "Well, this show is over. We'll talk about this..." I ran up onstage and I said, "Ladies and gentleman, I must apologize for Kenny. He's a great singer and a great guy, but he has just had a personal tragedy in the family and shouldn't have been doing a show tonight. Don't judge what just happened and I do hope you come back and see Kenny another evening." That was my introduction to Kenny Colman. He was the most narcissistic guy I ever met.

They were going to close the Playboy Club in Los Angeles when I took over. I said, "Don't close the room." I flew to Chicago and said, "Let me run the club." They stripped it down to hardly anything, but I ran it and I made them money. I put them in the black instead of the red and I ran it for fifty-six weeks. I had this place jumping. I got Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis onstage for free and then this guy Kenny Colman comes along and just about ruins me with one show.

Kliph Nesteroff: That is hilarious.

Jackie Curtiss: I started reading your interview with him and I could hear him with his "how great I am." The sad thing is, the guy was a tremendous talent. But he never became big - because of his personality.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in three different comedy teams over the course of your career. A guy named Al Bello was your first partner. What was the act?

Jackie Curtiss: When I first came to Hollywood I was working at Dino's Lodge when it was still called the Alpine Lodge. I was supposed to have a job at CBS, but the guy who was hiring me died. So I was stuck. I got a job as a valet at the Alpine Lodge and Al Bello was working there.

He played the bongos. He knew everybody in Hollywood. He found out I was a singer and we put an act together. We went to John Carroll, the actor, because I was having an affair with his daughter. He put up the money for us and we went into the Hacienda in Las Vegas. I was with the guy for six months and he turned out to be a complete lunatic. But a great drummer and a nice guy. He married a singer named April Ames. He had five kids and each one of them looked just like him. He looked like a poor man's Paul Newman. This guy was a complete wacko.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the act?

Jackie Curtiss: It was Bello and Curtiss. It was the forerunner of what I went on to do. We worked two nights and I noticed he had ink on his hands. He was writing the punchlines down on his hands! So it just wasn't working. I said, "Al, let's switch. You be the straight man and I'll be the comic." So that's how that happened. We had a lot of props. It wasn't that great, but we were fresh and crazy. In the paper they described us as "mad men." We got by on just being nuts. Remember those glasses that had slinkys on them? We used those in a hypnosis bit. So it was like a lot of props, so it was just stupid, but it got attention. After six months I couldn't take him any longer, so we broke up and I teamed with this guy Marc Antone.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Dino's Lodge like in those days?

Jackie Curtiss: It was very nice. Freddy the pianist was very popular and famous within the jazz scene. I had seen Al Bello on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. He was in an act called Romeo and Bello.

Kliph Nesteroff: You auditioned for Jack Paar's Tonight Show a year later...

Jackie Curtiss: We did the one show. Jack Paar liked us. We signed with Berger, Ross and Steinman and everything else opened up. The thing I remember about it was Molly Bee. She was a country singer. She had a pretty good career, but she was also, quietly, Dean Martin's trick.

She was on the show. She went on and sang songs and they went to commercial. Jack Paar just flipped! The profanity. "Who wrote that shit?" This and that. I couldn't figure it out. To this day I can't figure out what that sweet girl could have done to bring out this hostility. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He was famous for picking fights with all kinds of people. Tell me more about your agent. You once told me he was a creep.

Jackie Curtiss: Joe Rollo was an agent in Los Angeles. He had a reputation as a thief that I didn't know about it. He booked Marc and I into the Moulin Rouge with Billy Daniels. We were booked for the second time with Billy Daniels and Frank "Rocky" Sennett was running the Moulin Rouge on Sunset Boulevard. We were booked for fifteen hundred dollars on a Joe Rollo contract. There was a scam going on. When we closed at the Moulin Rouge on a Saturday night, we had to open at the Cave Supper Club in Vancouver on Monday.

Marc had a 1952 Buick. After the show we were going to get in the car and drive straight through to Vancouver. We went in to the office and said, "Can we pick up our check tonight instead of sending it to our agent?" The secretary said, "Sure, no problem." She cashed it and gave us twenty-five hundred dollars. I said, "Is this correct? Twenty-five hundred dollars?" She said, "Yes, that's what it says here in the contract." I said, "Can I see the contract?" We found out later this was called double contracting. Joe Rollo Agency made a contract out for twenty-five hundred dollars and then tells you you're only getting fifteen. So he got a thousand dollars plus ten percent of our fifteen hundred. I went down to AGVA and the guy there, I didn't know, was a very good friend of Joe Rollo!

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't AGVA known for corruption?

Jackie Curtiss: Absolutely. But I didn't know that either! We were fresh and new and innocent.

Kliph Nesteroff: They were around for years, but that was kind of their downfall...

Jackie Curtiss: Yes. We got to the point where we never paid them dues or anything. They were crooks

Kliph Nesteroff: One venue I'm curious about - Jack Silverman's International.

Jackie Curtiss: Jack Silverman was an entrepreneur on Broadway. I didn't really get to know him. I heard he was with the Mob. It was a great venue and a big club. On the right side in a glassed-in area was a radio show. I forget her name, but this woman had a late night radio show. They had an AGVA night there on Sundays with Gene Baylos and everyone else. Mike Durso, who was the Copa band, would come over and play for all the AGVA acts so the agents could book them.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of your Ed Sullivan appearances was alongside an act named Professor Backwards.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, he was brilliant. He did everything backwards and his act was great. People loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: So beloved that he was eventually murdered. You were on Ed Sullivan with the forgotten comedian Corbett Monica.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes and Corbett also had a brother who was a comedian named Ronnie Martin. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You recorded a novelty single for ERA Records.

Jackie Curtiss: The guy who ran Era Records had a couple of record labels here in Los Angeles. Herb Newman was his name. He put together a record called Herring Gives Me Heartburn. I did it with a full chorus and band. It was very Yiddish. He got in a station wagon and took Herring Gives me Heartburn to all the major cities and went to all the Jewish delicatessens. It sold like crazy. It made him a million bucks. I didn't get a royalty or anything, but Herb built his label up.

Kliph Nesteroff: You hosted a game show in 1962 called Time It.

Jackie Curtiss: It was put together for me. The whole thing ran about thirteen weeks on KCOP locally. The game was just a contestant trying to figure out what a scrambled picture was.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Latin Quarter in New York.

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, not the happiest gig. I remember that pain in the ass Barbara Walters! She was the daughter of the owner - Lou Walters. She was always backstage and we always slammed the door in her face. She was an annoying lady.

Kliph Nesteroff: That place was rough on comics.

Jackie Curtiss: It depended on the comic. If you did robust stuff like Marc and I did, it was fine. People like Jack Durant would do the Latin Quarter. You had to work the room like a low class club and then you would do well. Lou Walters wanted to be a big sophisticate, but if he booked comics like that in there - they died.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had an encounter with Tallulah Bankhead...

Jackie Curtiss: Ah, what a dream. I had four weeks with her at the Sands in Las Vegas when I was working there as a production singer. We would be in the dressing room with her - and when I say we - I mean six of the gay dancers. She was a fag hag. She would sit there in the nude. There'd be a knock at the door and if it was a female voice she'd put on a robe. If there were women around she kept the robe on, but around the men she was nude.

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

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, she sang. She was hysterical because she sang out of tune and she knew it and she would say the band was flat. You know who Tallulah's trick was? Hattie McDaniel. How bout that? Really interesting. She flew Hattie into Vegas and that was her big romance. I mean, try and picture that.

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I don't want to.

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, well, she would hump a doorknob, Kliph. Tallulah was very promiscuous, but had great class.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Mamie Van Doren?

Jackie Curtiss: I worked with her in Vegas for about six weeks. I met her before that when I was writing The Ray Anthony Show. She was married to him at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was a horrific break-up. He was beating her.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, it was terrible. It was really bad. He named their baby after Vic Damone. And working with Ray was... boy, you talk about a narcissist. He worked on his face all day. He wanted to look like Cary Grant and he did end up looking like an old, miniature Cary Grant. I would stare at his toupe until he'd say, "What are you looking at!" When we did the show there was a bad review that said: "They've done everything possible, but the one thing they can't do is give Ray Anthony talent." We had to go out and buy every issue of Variety and hide them. Don't get me wrong, I like Ray and I think he is very talented - but he has an ego that goes beyond.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote the Ray Anthony show with Lennie Weinnrib.

Jackie Curtiss: He was a very, very nice guy. For a local Channel 5 thing, The Ray Anthony Show was really good with a different guest every week. I met Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, wonderful people. So that made it worth the hell of working for him. Did you know Borgnine did Marty as a write-off? It was made as a tax write-off and was never going to be released, but just before it was finished, the tax structure with the government changed. So they released it and it ended up winning the Academy Award.

Kliph Nesteroff:  I know nothing about that. Bill Dana and Pete Barbutti told me, however, about being involved in a tax write off called The Las Vegas Show on the United Network...

Jackie Curtiss: I was on that! It was in Las Vegas and I got it through Jack Sheldon. In fact, I auditioned for the show he ended up starring in called Run, Buddy, Run. I did a screentest, but he got the show. You know why he got the show and I didn't?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Jackie Curtiss: Because I didn't smoke pot and he did! This is true! Don Adams got me the test. All these guys were there like Marvin Worth. They said, "Jackie, wanna smoke pot?" I said, "No." It was just a minor exchange. Don Adams told me later I didn't get it because of that! He said, "They really liked you, but they didn't want to chance it because everyone else in the production smoked."

Kliph Nesteroff: That's a real anecdote of the era. What do you remember of Jack Sheldon?

Jackie Curtiss: I met him on Bill Dana's show and he was very nice. He was just like Tony Bennett: stoned all the time. I watched Run, Buddy, Run and I thought he was a bad choice for the lead. He wasn't dynamic enough. The audience was just great on The Las Vegas Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Dana says none of the footage exists.

Jackie Curtiss: It really is a shame. There were a couple of years there where I did so many shows both with Bill Tracy and just by myself. There was The Woody Woodbury ShowThe Donald O'Connor Show, Della Reese, The Sheila Graham Show... all of these syndicated shows. I wish they would rerelease them or something because I really had some great moments.

Kliph Nesteroff: I know Woody Woodbury has been searching for copies of his show forever, but they don't really exist.

Jackie Curtiss: The Woody Woodbury Show - I was on the couch with Sheree North and Anthony Perkins. Woody had a segment where the audience could ask anyone on the panel a question. In our intro, Woody mentioned we had just performed with Liberace. So this guy from the audience asked, "So, what was it like working with a homo?" I said, "Well, before I answer your question, I just want to say that it is wonderful that you have the courage to stand here in front of millions of people and admit that you are homosexual. Just wonderful."

The guy goes, "I didn't say I was homosexual! I'm sayin' Liberace is homosexual!" I said, "Yes, but there's only one way you would know." Well, of course, they cut this out of the show, but the audience cheered and the security guy had to drag him out.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever encounter the famous comedy writer Harry Crane?

Jackie Curtiss: He used to come into the Playboy Club and he would lift my parodies and give them to Dean [Martin] and I would see my material the next week on Dean's show! I never said anything about it, but people would come to me and say, "Oh, you got that bit from Dean Martin."

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter shouted at me, "Harry Crane was the biggest fraud in the world!"

Jackie Curtiss: He did lift material. If you remember, Dean Martin would slide down the fire pole and do one quick parody lyric in his song. Just a line and in my act I had a whole bunch of those: "Love walked right in and scared the shhhhhh-adows away." I did all these things in a row and Harry Crane would steal them.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did The Della Reese Show several times. That program was co-hosted by Sandy Baron.

Jackie Curtiss: Della Reese's manager told me,"Della is opening in two weeks at the Cocoanut Grove. We have Burns and Carlin opening." I said, "Yes, they're very good." He said, "Nah, I don't think they're right." I got a phone call that night. "Della wants you." They went to William Morris or whoever it was and canceled Jack Burns and George Carlin. I went into the Cocoanut Grove in their place. We became friends again and when she got her show I was on it right away. Sandy Baron was very good on the show, but he wasn't very well liked there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why was Sandy Baron not well-liked?

Jackie Curtiss: Conceit. He was kind of arrogant and thought he was better than everyone. When he did the improv - he was kind of bossy. He treated us all like kids. Don't get me wrong, he did well with that bit.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked a few times with Trini Lopez.

Jackie Curtiss: I was at the Adolphus in Dallas. At the bar across the street there was this kid singing, just the sweetest, nicest little Mexican kid. We befriended him. We used to buy him lunch. Next time we saw him was years later. There was some bar on the Sunset Strip with a sign that said, "Trini Lopez." We went in. He said, "Mr. Curtiss!" Befriended him all over again. He was doing well. Another two years go by and I get a call from Bullets Durgom. You know Bullets?

He was Trini's manager at the time. Now all of a sudden Trini has all these hit records and he's doing big. Now he is Trini Lopez. I get a call from Bullets, "Trini is not too bright. Maybe you could help him with his lines. When he talks to the people he doesn't do very well." I said, "Sure, anything you want." And then his ego... he was one of these guys who hit stardom, but the ego blows it.

We were at the Flamingo the same time Sinatra was at the Sands. It was Sinatra who gave Trini his big break on Reprise Records. I said, "Trini, can you introduce me to Frank?" He said, "The easiest way to meet Frank is to have him record you. Get some hit records. Otherwise you're not going to meet him." Then he had the gall... he didn't want to a radio interview. He asked me if I would do an impression and do it for him! I went on the radio on the phone and did an interview as Trini Lopez!

Then a young singer came in named John Davidson who was opening for Jack Benny. He asked me, "Would you like to meet Jack Benny?" Nice gesture. Two days later I was down at a record shop in Las Vegas. I saw John Davidson looking to buy a Trini Lopez album. I said, "He's got cases of these in his dressing room. I'll get him to autograph one for you." He said, "Really, would he do that?" I said, "Absolutely. I'll bring it over tonight." So I go back to Trini and told him, "I saw John Davidson in the record shop and he was going to buy one of your records. I told him not to be silly, that you can autograph one of these..." "You did what!?" I said, "I told him you'd be happy to give one of these and..." He yelled, "Don't you know I get twenty-five cents for each album sold?! He should buy his own!" I grabbed three albums out of the cases, copied his autograph and took to John. To this day John Davidson doesn't know. On closing night I said, "I gotta get even with this guy." So I catered a huge party for all of the help. I told the hotel Trini was picking up the tab for the whole thing and then I told Trini they were having a party in his honor. When he got the bill he hit the ceiling. 


Kevin K. said...

Great stories. Kliph, you gotta track down every comic from that era and talk to them all.
And now I know how London Lee got as far as he did.

Anonymous said...

Jack Sheldon... Have you interviewed him? He must have a ton of Lenny Bruce stories. I remember seeing him on the Merv Griffin show. He had some weird, esoteric humor, and more often than not it went right over the heads of the oldsters in the audience.

One joke of his stuck in my mind all these years; I have no idea why. Merv was talking about the new trend of teaching infants how to swim. "they learn to swim before they learn to walk!" Merv exclaimed. Jack replied "But it's depressing; they can't walk to the pool." I found it amusing, but there was dead silence from the studio audience.