Saturday, December 4, 2010

An Interview with Alan Young

Kliph Nesteroff: I've been listening to many episodes of the NBC radio program The Alan Young Show in succession.

Alan Young: Oh, heaven help you.

Kliph Nesteroff (laughs) Having listened to several episodes in a row made me realize how many running gags you guys had.

Alan Young: Yes, well, we couldn't think of anything else.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) After listening to so many I had come to expect them and really enjoyed them. I loved listening to Jim Backus say "Awr rah wah wah" every time he left a scene.

Alan Young: Oh, he was so good. He was a great, great guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to start by going back and talking about your career in Vancouver. I read both of your books and in one of them you mentioned that you played The Orpheum Theater on New Year's Eve. Do you recall anything about that gig?

Alan Young: Yes, I do. That was my first time on any big stage. I had to get some make-up and I put on the make-up and I ended up looking like a cross between a vamp and I don't know what. I had bright lipstick on and rouge - I did everything the book said. And I looked awful. But the audience didn't mind.

Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of an act were you doing?

Alan Young: I was the emcee of a beauty contest or something. I remember there were a bunch of beautiful girls there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Hence the reason you remember it.

Alan Young: Yes. Of course, my girlfriend was in my dressing room waiting for me to come back down. I came back and one of the girls I had gone to school with, Wendy Stoker, I'll never forget, beautiful girl, rushed to the dressing room and threw her arms around me and said, "Oh, Alan, that was so good." She walked out and my girlfriend wouldn't speak to me for days. She didn't know what show business was like. That was the show at The Orpheum Theater on Granville Street. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That's the theater that Jack Benny saved. It still stands to this day, but they were going to knock it down in 1972.  Jack Benny had heard about that and he had played it during vaudeville many times - I think it was where he originally encountered Mary Livingston - and he put up the money to save it and restore it.

Alan Young: Isn't that great? I never knew that. It was a great theater. I forget who the manager was. He was very nice. It was on Granville Street, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you also appeared on a show on CJOR called The Bathtub Revue. 

Alan Young: That was my beginning.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was that show exactly and what did it consist of?

Alan Young: Well, it consisted of anything they found. Mostly old British entertainers and tap dancers (laughs) which didn't mean a thing on radio. I did a recitation of Stanley Holloway's Albert and The Lion. I did this recitation and they applauded - I think mostly because I was very young. I was about thirteen. They applauded and I said, "What do I do now?" They said, "Encore. They want you to do more." So I went back and started to do the whole thing all over again (laughs) which got a bigger laugh than the first time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now was this the gig you got by sitting around in the office...

Alan Young: No, later on I realized I wanted to be in radio. All I knew was CJOR. So, it was downstairs in the Hotel...

Kliph Nesteroff: The Sylvia Hotel? The Hotel Vancouver? The Georgia Hotel? I'm trying to think what hotels are still standing from that era...

Alan Young: No. It was knocked down. We didn't do it any good.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Alan Young: Anyway, I took a seat in the hallway. Just to sit there, I thought, "I'll meet somebody." A man named Dick Diespecker was the newscaster and also the program director. He came bursting out of the studio after the news and said, "Anybody got coffee? A cup of coffee?" No, I didn't have it, so the next day came and I had a cup of coffee ready for him. When he came bursting out of the news I handed him this cup of coffee. He thanked me very much and went about his way. I did this for three days. On the fourth day he came out and said, "Kid, where's my coffee?" I said, "I didn't have anymore money." He said, "You were buying this yourself?" I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "You're hired" and he made me his assistant. I was assistant to the program director ... I would type out his scripts that he wrote. There was one show, I forget what it was named, we went into rehearsal and there was one part that was missing - hadn't been cast; a cabin boy. I said, "Mr. Diespecker, I could do that."

So, I played the cabin boy. He didn't know that the cabin boy wasn't in the script when I got it. I typed it in. [Afterward] I confessed to him. He said, "You know, that helped a great deal, having a kid in there. Good boy." So, I was in like Flynn with him. He became a director and directed a show called Stag Party on CBC and he needed someone to write scripts. They didn't have anybody to write anything funny. I wrote the script for Stag Party. I hate to admit it, but after four weeks it was called The Alan Young Show. My name was Angus Young then and it was broadcast from Vancouver.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually The Alan Young Show, this Canadian version, started broadcasting from Toronto.

Alan Young: Yes, that's right. I got a call from the advertising manager of the Tucket Tobacco Company and he said, "Would you be interested in coming out here and doing a show?" I said, "Yes." CBC didn't pay very much. He flew out to Vancouver and came to visit me, I'll never forget that, at our tiny little house. He offered me this job. In those days you didn't have a contract with anybody, so I just flew to Toronto and did a show. I think it was called Time to Smile. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the studio like that you did that show from?

Alan Young: We did it from a place called McGill Street Studios on McGill Street of all things. We did it from that theater, I guess, for two years.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had live studio audiences for this show...

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Very good audiences.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did they wrangle the audience initially, before you were a celebrity?

Alan Young: I think maybe [the McGill Street Theatre was] already established [as a radio commodity] because they already had Shuster and Wayne and were used to having an audience there. I don't know. Thank goodness they had one, that's all I can say.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did CBC have any other comedy shows at that time? You just mentioned Wayne and Shuster, but were there others?

Alan Young: I think there was one from Winnipeg and what was it called? Two cockney fellows - they played two cockneys... I don't know what it was called. That was the only comedy show that the CBC had as I recall.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually The Alan Young Show became very, very popular on CBC Radio and if people tuned in on a Tuesday night between eight-thirty and nine pm, they would have heard The Alan Young Variety Show...

Alan Young: (laughs) I guess so. You've got more information than I have. I guess it became popular. We had no way of knowing. There was no such thing as a ratings gauge.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read an American newspaper blurb that said "Tickets to Young's program in Canada are as hard to get as tickets to Information Please are here."

Alan Young: Oh my goodness, isn't that nice? I wonder who wrote that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And another clipping from the Milwaukee Journal at the time called Alan Young "Canada's Bob Hope."

Alan Young: You know, nobody told me that.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Alan Young: I didn't know much. Thank you so much, Kliph, thank you. I didn't know that. I was working in the dark. I didn't understand all the American gag writers [when the show moved to New York] that wrote all the stuff. I wanted to go home. I didn't know what Ebbets Field was. I didn't know... it had a lot of New York Jewish expressions which I pronounced very poorly. That's why they laughed I guess.

Kliph Nesteroff: I appreciate your humility. In a newspaper clipping from around the same era you were interviewed and the quote from you is, "The average man on the street listens to my broadcasts and probably wonders why he is on the street and I am on the air."

Alan Young: (laughs) Oh, I was a fresh punk, wasn't I?  

Kliph Nesteroff: Before we get into the American version of your show, I was wondering if you remembered anything about the seventeen year old girl singer that was on your CBC show?

Alan Young: Oh, I do. Juliette! Oh, she was great. I was visiting my folks on a little hiatus that I had and I heard Juliette sing. I think she was on CJOR. She was just terrific, so I went over to see her and asked if she would like to be on a national network. She said, "Yes, I would." I called up the agency and I said, "I've got a girl singer." They said, "Okay." They would do anything I wanted. They were so nice. She flew out there and she was a hit right away. Is she still around?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know. I would have to look it up. She's not on television anymore, but around the time that you were doing Mister Ed, she was the biggest television star in Canada and she had the first Canadian television show in color.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Good for her, she was such a nice girl.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the Canadian Alan Young Show you also had a character named Miss Clysdale played by Louise Grant. Do you remember anything about her?

Alan Young: Oh, I sure do. Louise Grant, yes. She was fun. She was a lovely lady.

Kliph Nesteroff: And a fellow named Fletcher Markle?

Alan Young: Oh, sure. I auditioned him at CJOR. Gerry Wilmot was the head announcer. He was going to go away for a while on some holiday so they had a bunch of announcers and he said, "Would you audition them?" I said, "I don't know anything about announcers." He said, "Just pick somebody who has a nice voice and looks good." I picked out this young boy Fletcher Markle, he was quite young, and some other one I forget. The other one didn't amount to much, but Fletcher did.

Kliph Nesteroff: And then you worked with him years later in Hollywood didn't you?

Alan Young: Oh, yes. We kept in touch all the time. He was a good, good guy and his wife was that wonderful actress [Mercedes McCambridge]. Yes, boy, you bring back the past.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had this hit show, The Alan Young Show, CBC Toronto. Then at some point a fellow named Frank Cooper heard it and came to see it live. I had read that Frank Cooper was in New York and pressed the wrong button on his radio and suddenly was listening to The Alan Young Show on CBC and he was impressed.

Alan Young: That's true. He wrote me a letter and I have the letter. In fact, the girl who takes care of my business found the letter two or three days ago from Frank Cooper, General Amusement Company, New York, saying he heard my show and wondered if I cared to come to America. As I said, I wasn't getting paid much money, and I figured I'd get paid a bit more in America. Of course, unfortunately, you didn't get much publicity in Canada. The nicest thing that was said was, "Gee, you're good enough to be in America." But why aren't I good enough to stay in Canada? Anyway, I went down there and I did a show and I bombed. I don't know how he [signed me] after that, but he did - to replace Eddie Cantor for the summer. I stayed from then on.

Kliph Nesteroff: Frank Cooper, the story is that he was the first person to sign Dinah Shore and the first person to sign Frank Sinatra.

Alan Young: Oh yeah, those were his big clients. They had dropped him after [their fame] and signed with MCA, a big company. They actually stole them from Frank Cooper and he was looking for some kind of talent and he found me. I wasn't a replacement for Frank Sinatra, believe me.

Kliph Nesteroff: As World War Two began you started doing a lot of live appearances, stage shows, to help the war effort...

Alan Young: Yes, I didn't do many, but did I few and I joined the navy. Then I found out I would be in the navy, but I would be writing all the time putting together a navy show. I thought, "Well, I didn't join the navy to do this." So, I resigned my commission. You could do that. You couldn't resign your commission from anything else. I resigned my commission from the navy and volunteered for the army. I was rejected by the army. I had asthma as a child and they didn't want to take any chances, I guess.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sounds like a plot from The Alan Young Show; Alan's too weak to get accepted by the army.

Alan Young: (laughs) So, I went to America and I was in America for two months until I was drafted into the American army! They sent away for my records... and then they decided they weren't going to take any chances on me either. They rejected me. That was my war effort.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Alan Young Show then started on NBC in New York and you were replacing Eddie Cantor. How long were you in New York before the show moved to Hollywood?

Alan Young: Gee, I guess about two seasons.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your radio show had an orchestra leader named Peter Van Steeden.

Alan Young: Yes. Peter and I became very friendly. He was a Fred Allen orchestra leader too. He was awfully nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, let me ask you a little bit about that, because that is really interesting that Peter Van Steeden was on The Fred Allen Show. Kenny Delmar was your announcer before he became Fred Allen's announcer. His Senator Claghorn character that became so popular on The Fred Allen Show and spun off into its own motion picture started on your show. And then as well the old timer character Titus Moody on The Fred Allen Show also started on The Alan Young Show!

Alan Young: Yes. A man called Parker Fennelly played the old man. What happened was somebody in the advertising agency... the advertising agency was very right-wing. They didn't like Senator Claghorn being a Democrat from the South. That's the story I heard later. We were told to get rid of these two characters. I just couldn't believe it because we created them. I created one of them and Kenny Delmar created his own. So, Fred Allen called up Frank Cooper and said, "Is Alan going to use those two characters anymore?" He said, "No." He said, "Well, I'd like to get them." So he took them and called them Titus Moody and Senator Claghorn.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now the sponsor insisted you get rid of those two characters - The Senator because of the fictional characters' political affiliations... but what did they see wrong with Parker Fennelly's old timer character?

Alan Young: I have no idea. I think they all thought I was a babe in the woods and they knew a lot more than I did. That was that.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did Fred Allen know that you were no longer using...

Alan Young: Oh, it gets around.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find that very, very interesting. Listening to your show there are several things that, later on, resurface on other people's shows. So, you created the legendary characters associated with Allen's Alley on The Fred Allen Show - the old timer Titus Moody and the blowhard Senator Claghorn. Both legendary, wildly popular, and well-remembered today. Furthermore, you had Sherwood Schwartz and his brother Al Schwartz writing on your radio show. Jim Backus, for the first time, performing a wealthy snob type character...

Alan Young: That was my writers. Dave Schwartz [Ed. note: David R. Schwartz, a veteran comedy writer on Amos n' Andy, The Red Skelton Show and the scribe for the screenplay Robin and the Seven Hoods was of no relation to Alan Young's writers Sherwood and Al Schwartz] in New York. I said, "We need another character here. Why don't we get someone to play the opposite of [the Alan Young character]? I'm very poor and have a girlfriend. He has to be rich. I'm modest, so he has to be a boaster. All the qualities that were the opposite of my character. So they created Hubert Updike the Third. Well, first we cast Arnold Stang. That [character] wasn't Arnold at all. He was a real Brooklyn quiet guy. We used to perform previews before, so we did this preview with Arnold playing Herbert Updike the Third with all of these "rich" jokes and it bombed. I was panicking now. But I remembered that Jim Backus had come to me with a character that was a... I forget what he was...

Kliph Nesteroff: A fish peddler?

Alan Young: A fish peddler! That was it. Gosh, good for you. He was selling fish [in the wealthy snob voice], "I've got some very nice halibut." It just didn't go together. I said, "Would you like to do Hubert Updike the Third?" He did it on the show, on the air, with one rehearsal. He killed.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find that interesting too because we see that character resurface years later on Sherwood Schwartz's program Gilligan's Island - and on top of that you had an orchestra leader for a while named George Wyle - he went on to compose the famous theme song for Gilligan's Island - and you were originally up for the role of Gilligan - on Gilligan's Island!

Alan Young: Uh, yes. That's funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gilligan's Island is just The Alan Young Show taking place on a desert island!

Alan Young: Well, he wrote my Alan Young [radio] shows, Sherwood and his brother. But they didn't do a very good job of it. Frank Cooper let them go. Frank was the producer of the show. All in the family sort of.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember who Frank Cooper replaced the Schwartz brothers with?

Alan Young: Yes. Dave Schwartz and Norman Paul. They were pretty good. They did it for the rest of the run.

Kliph Nesteroff: Kenny Delmar left your program for The Fred Allen Show...

Alan Young: Yes, because he was doing the Southern Democrat. I am very apolitical, but the sponsor or the advertising agency was real Republican and they didn't like to hear him talking about the Democrats all the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting. Delmar was replaced with an announcer named Jimmy Wallington.

Alan Young: Jimmy was out here, yes. James was just an announcer, he didn't do any acting at all. He was just a nice man. He announced on all the big shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: One more name that I have down as an announcer for The Alan Young Show, perhaps only briefly, is the man who went on to play Boston Blackie on radio, Richard Kollmar.

Alan Young: Ohhhhh... that's funny. He was my first announcer. He wasn't an announcer really, he was a Broadway producer. Frank thought he really made a coup when he hired him as the announcer. And he blew it in the first line. It was sponsored by Bristol-Myers. He came out and said, "Bristol and Myers presents The Alan Young Show!" And that killed him - putting the "and" in there, he was dropped right then and there. Nice man, but he goofed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody else I did not realize was a regular on your show until I listened to several episodes in a row, and he's great chewing the scenery, is Hans Conreid playing Jonathan Mildew the Ham Actor.

Alan Young: Ah, Hans. Sweet Hans (laughs). Yes. He did all sorts of characters. I loved him. Yes, we got along well. He married a Canadian girl and he was so happy that I was from Canada because he had something to tell his wife. He was very popular with everybody. He was a real oddball. We'd be standing around and then suddenly Hans disappeared. He had a habit of just collapsing into a squatting position as he'd read his script over. It was a habit of his. He had fallen in love with Japanese habits when he was over in Japan. He was in the army broadcasting. He loved anything Japanese.

Kliph Nesteroff: Like yourself, he later went on to do a lot of voice acting for cartoons.

Alan Young: Oh, yes, yes. I met him later on when radio was dead. I thought, "Geez, where are those great radio actors? They must be starving." People like Hans Conreid and June Foray. So I was cast once on a voice over show and here was Hans and here was June Foray making a fortune! So, I didn't feel sorry for them after that!

Kliph Nesteroff: That is how I originally got into radio shows of that era. As a child I was a huge fan of cartoons. When they would play old radio shows late at night I would hear all the same voices that I would hear in the cartoons. So I would get very excited and that is how I kind of fell in love with radio of that era. Listening to Mel Blanc on Jack Benny or Bea Benadaret on Burns and Allen...

Alan Young: Oh, isn't that great?

Kliph Nesteroff: And one of those people that did a lot of radio and did a lot of cartoons was on your show and he was a very interesting fellow. I must ask you about him. The falsetto voiced Walter Tetley.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Walter played all young kids, but he was in his twenties, I think.

Kliph Nesteroff: He played a character on your show called Herman Johnston, the little brother of the girlfriend Betty.

Alan Young: Oh, yes, Betty's brother. I don't think he did many shows. Dear Walter.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember the studio audience reaction to Walter Tetley? I mean, here's a guy who looks like an adult, but possessed a child's voice.

Alan Young: No, I don't remember... I used to do an audience warm-up about ten minutes before the show and I may have introduced him. I don't know. I generally mentioned the cast and Jim Backus and I would do a little routine together.

Kliph Nesteroff: Geez, I wish there was a recording of your audience warm-up.

Alan Young: Ah, well, it was always the same jokes every week (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: On a 1946 episode of your radio show you spoofed The Maltese Falcon and you actually had as your special guest star Sydney Greenstreet.

Alan Young: Oh, yes, that was the time... between you and me those were the only shows I was really happy with - the thirteen shows I did when I first came out to California. Because the sponsor gave Frank Cooper an extra five thousand dollars a week to hire some guest stars and oh, we had him from The Maltese Falcon, Basil Rathbone, Rita Hayworth, Edward G. Robinson... a whole score of people. It was wonderful working with them, just wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: At that point you were still just a kid, really, and here you are working with all of these huge movie stars.

Alan Young: Oh, I was absolutely floored every week. I couldn't wait to see these people I had seen as a kid for years.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember anything about Sydney Greenstreet?

Alan Young: Um... he was fat. No, I don't. They were all dear people. I mean, they gave them five thousand dollars which was a lot even then. The one I remember most is Edward Everett Horton. He invited me to his house for tea when he had heard I was born in England. He just loved doing that. Maybe you know who else was on that one. Oh, we had Dame May Whitty who was in some kind of big movie. Jeanne Crane was on and I had just done a picture with her. That's all I can remember, frankly.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a Damon Runyon-esque character actor on your show for a couple seasons. Charlie Cantor - playing Zero.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Yeah, Charlie was on the....

Kliph Nesteroff: Duffy's Tavern.

Alan Young: The Duffy's Tavern show and he did a few shows for me when I lost an actor. A sweet little man.

Kliph Nesteroff: There were a lot of jokes in the scripts about his character on your show, Zero, was a drinker. He was always giving bottles of booze as gifts or there was a joke about how his house flooded but his valuables were all safe because they all had corks in them.

Alan Young: Oh, geez (laughs) Boy, you're bringing up things I had forgotten.

Kliph Nesteroff: But I've seen photos of Charlie Cantor and he has that amazing grizzled face. Was he a tough guy in real life? A Slapsie Maxie hard drinking mug?

Alan Young: He talked like it because that was his way of talking. But no, he was a gentle man. Most fellows that look like that and act like that are gentle and he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your show and Duffy's Tavern were both sponsored by Bristol-Myers, and as we are too often reminded throughout every episode - Bristol Myers, makers of Ipana Toothpaste, Sal Hepatica and Vitalis.

Alan Young: That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's one episode of your show that is a crossover show....

Alan Young: Where I played at Duffy's Tavern...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, where you go to Duffy's Tavern [on The Alan Young Show] and you get them to cater a dinner of some kind. Charlie Cantor is in that episode as a cast memeber of The Alan Young Show - and says, "I know of this place called Duffy's Tavern." It's kind of an in-joke. What was that like and was that an idea of the network...

Alan Young: Well, we were both sponsored by Bristol-Myers, so it was done as crossover due to the sponsor.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get to know Ed Gardner?

Alan Young: Yes, I did. I met him in Paris later when I went over there to do a movie. He was over there. There was a famous columnist that wrote for New York who was in Paris at the time working for the Paris version of the New York Herald-Tribune. He would ask anyone [of note] who was coming over there, to do a column for him. He had one by Ed Gardner and his column was "Paris is Different Now That I am Sober."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Alan Young: That I remember because I had to write one and I read his first to see what it was all about. It was the cutest column.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the time that Duffy's Tavern was coming to a close, Ed Gardner had moved his operation to Puerto Rico to avoid income tax and got in a lot of trouble for it...

Alan Young: Yes. Oh, yeah, the show bombed after that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Abe Burrows - one of the original writers on Duffy's Tavern?

Alan Young: Just met him, that's all. I wish I had known him. He was a great writer. Who else was writing there... the fellow later that wrote The Beverly Hillbillies...

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Henning?

Alan Young: Paul Henning. I think I met Paul on some show... I think it was as a small writer on Duffy's Tavern.

Kliph Nesteroff: I know he wrote for Bob Hope as well, for the Bob Hope Pepsodent Show.  Now you mentioned Arnold Stang and Arnold Stang does appear in a couple episodes of The Alan Young Show playing various jerky characters. There was one episode that truly, sincerely, was very, very funny. The premise was that your girlfriend Betty is going to dump you. "Sorry, Alan, that's it." You say, "That's it!?" She says, "Yes, I need a he-man. I need a real tough man. Meet my new boyfriend Ambrose." She introduces him and it's Arnold Stang. "Hiya toots!"

Alan Young: (laughs) That's funny. Everybody just came in, did the show, and went. Everybody did their character and we all liked each other, but we were all so busy that we didn't have much time, and we were right into the next script, so we never really got to know each other.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you did get to meet Jack Benny. And you encountered him for the first time in the NBC washroom.

Alan Young: (laughs) Yes. It was all the same - just the one washroom for everybody [at CBS Hollywood]. There I was washing my hands, and it was such a thrill when Red Skelton walked in. "Hiya, Jack!" and there I am washing my hands and I hear [Jack Benny and Red Skelton] talking about things. That was a real thrill. Going to the bathroom was a thrill (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Alan Young: Later on I actually met him because I was then doing television. I saw him in the control room and I thought, "Oh, boy. He's coming to watch me." Then I saw Lucille Ball and Desi in the audience during rehearsals. I became a little proud of myself, you know. Then I found out they were all coming in to see how awful live television was. How hard it was. They all talked to CBS and said, "We're not going to go live like Alan Young, we're going to put our shows on film." That was the only reason they were interested in me - to see how rough it was. It was terribly rough. We thought radio was hard, but oh boy, live TV.

Kliph Nesteroff: And this was around the time that you lived at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel...

Alan Young: Yes, that's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Across the street from The Brown Derby and apparently George Burns' offices were on the top floor of that hotel. I had heard that you would spend the occasional time in the writers' room there...

Alan Young: Yes. That's where I met Paul Henning. He had so many writers, I could not keep track of them all. It was close family with The Brown Derby across the street. Michael Eiman's, another restaurant was down the street, about a block away, and you just didn't have time to go home or anywhere for lunch, we just all ate at the same place. You'd see everybody at The Brown Derby; a family scene.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was this the first time you encountered George Burns and Gracie Allen?

Alan Young: Well, I met them. We weren't friends. I was just a young punk. When television came in I started to meet everyone else.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read an interview you did a few years ago where you mentioned that Gracie Allen was crippled by nerves...

Alan Young: Yes, well I was told this more than I knew it. They did a show in a different studio, but they did it in my studio for a while. But a stagehand told me, "I used to have to hold her backstage and as soon as her cue came, I would, kind of, push her out." She was nervous. She never liked performing. I hardly knew her. I knew George, but I was just introduced to her. She was very sweet, but just like a little waif.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on the Old Gold Comedy Theater hosted by silent film legend Harold Lloyd.

Alan Young: For goodness sake. Yes. Yes. He didn't do much. Was that radio?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Alan Young: Yeah. He didn't do much because he more knew film. They were using his name more than anything else. But he was a nice man. I remember I took my children to see the fireworks at the Coliseum and we were sitting enjoying it and suddenly a little note was brought down to me. "You have two lovely children, Alan. Harold Lloyd." I looked back and he was a few rows behind me. He met them and it was very sweet him.

Kliph Nesteroff: It is amazing the amount of people you encountered throughout your career...

Alan Young: Isn't it lovely? Yes....

Kliph Nesteroff: Just a young kid coming out of Vancouver...

Alan Young: (laughs) Yes. I was a novelty, really. I think that why I had... most of my fans were young girls. Here was this young Canadian, wide-eyed, and they kind of liked that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you appeared in the film Margie. I wanted to ask you if you encountered a certain actress in that film. In that movie was the first African-American who ever won an Academy Award - Hattie McDaniel.

Alan Young: Ohhhhhhh, yes Ah, she was a darling. She was very motherly, especially to me because when I came on the set I was wide-eyed, never been on a movie set before and the director was Henry King, one of the biggest directors in town. She just kind of befriended me and just talked to me about Hollywood. She was a dear. And what an actress. I think she was the first Black actress in pictures. Well, I don't know, but she was certainly the most famous.

Kliph Nesteroff: She was also the person with that famous quote, I guess around the time that she had her own sitcom and Amos n' Andy was about to be taken off the air. She had said after having been criticized for some of the stereotypical roles she was stuck playing, "I would rather play a maid on TV than have to be one in real life."

Alan Young: Oh, bless her heart. Didn't she do Beulah? Very sweet. Wonderful woman.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get the job replacing Garry Moore as Jimmy Durante's radio sidekick?

Alan Young: Jimmy was desperate.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Alan Young: I say that in all truth. I didn't last long on it. I got on there and he would say, "Youngy! You gotta hit me." When he had a radio show and had a joke, people would punch each other and do all sorts of things to each other just to get a laugh. I said, "Mr. Durante, I can't hit you." He said, "You gotta hit me! When you do a joke against me - give me a punch!" I just couldn't do it. Finally he said, "You know what the trouble is, Youngy..." He was very fond of me. He came to my house on my birthday. Surprise party and he played piano. Just a real lovely old man. But he said, "I've gotta lets ya go." He had Garry Moore who was kind of fresh and he wanted the same action from me, but I just couldn't do it, so he let me go. He got Don Ameche to replace me.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you feel about that?

Alan Young: Well, I knew he was right. I was just wrong for the show. Although I liked the work, I knew he was right. The first time I was ever fired. People used to hate doing guest spots because he broke up the piano.

Kliph Nesteroff: My God, I can only imagine Jimmy Durante coming over to my house and playing the piano for my birthday.

Alan Young: Thank goodness it was a little cheap stand-up piano. He wouldn't [break] anybody else's piano, but just the studio's piano. Anything for a laugh.

Kliph Nesteroff: You moved into television with The Alan Young Show. What was the atmosphere of that studio like? You hear all the stories about the fly-by-night operation of early TV. You get a chaotic sense...

Alan Young: Television was nothing. That's how I got the job. I was no longer in radio and I had gone out and broken in an act. Put an act together where I played the bagpipes and did jokes and some songs. My get-off was blowing the bagpipes. Liberace and I [toured] together. We played the Chicago Theater and several others, so I had an act. The act got a very nice review in Variety. So, out in Hollywood a man called Harry Ackerman, who was a manager and representative, he knew me and he wanted me to do a pilot. Chicago had most of the television and all we had out here was Ed Wynn. They called Frank Cooper again and said, "We want to do a pilot with Alan." I got my writers, Dave Schwartz and Leo Solomon, and I met Ed Wynn. 

He was so nice. He said, "Now you know you're going into their homes, Alan. You don't take anything into someone's home that you wouldn't want in your home. Don't do any dirty material, just do nice material." He was so sweet. What I did was I rewrote one of the radio shows I did in Canada; a two-Englishman sketch and the other sketch was about a man taking his first airplane ride; fish out of water kind of thing. And it was a smash, if I do say so myself. I was so thrilled. It reminded me of movies when the show is a hit and everyone comes backstage. Frank Cooper said, "Alan, you've got the hit, finally." It was a smash.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Ralph Levy like?

Alan Young: Very talented. He was the producer and he was also the director. He was the only one. He had been working out in New York on The Ed Sullivan Show as director and they brought him out west to do The Ed Wynn Show and he did my show too and every other show that came along.

Kliph Nesteroff: There were only so many people in Los Angeles that could do it at that point.

Alan Young: Yes. Nobody knew anything about television at that point.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Leo Solomon?

Alan Young: He came to write for me and he used to write for Ed Wynn. He was a good writer and he understood me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were these people assigned to you by the network?

Alan Young: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lud Gluskin did the music.

Alan Young: Yes, he played the music. A funny [thing] about him. Al Jolson was a guest, not on my show, but I was there. Lud Gluskin was known for writing all the music for CBS for years. He was conducting the orchestra, not my show, but some variety show. Anyways, Jolson was out there singing and Lud Gluskin was playing a different tempo or something. Jolson said, "Lud, could you play that tempo just [a bit slower]?" Lud was quite egotistical. He said, "Look, I direct the music on this show and I've got a million dollars in the bank that let's me do it." Jolson said, "Well, I've got three million dollars in the bank and I want to do it my way." That line just passed around Hollywood like a forest fire.

Kliph Nesteroff: And nobody would ever talk that way to Al Jolson....

Alan Young: Nooooo. Lud Gluskin thought he had 'em. Al Jolson wasn't doing too much by then. That's all I remember about Lud.

Kliph Nesteroff : I watched an episode of The Alan Young Show - the television show - and Franklin Pangborn was the guest.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. I enjoyed working with all of these people whom I had seen since I was a little kid. It was Mr. Pangborn to me. He was very grateful for the respect. Unfortunately, the sketch didn't go over very well, but he was a very... all of the guests that I had were very nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw another clip and I don't know if it was from your show or from his show, but it was a sketch with you and Steve Allen and you play two gentleman that meet each other on the street and you're both holding newspapers... I don't know if you remember this sketch...

Alan Young: Yes, that was his sketch. He was fun. During The Alan Young Show he had a radio show on the roof of CBS. I did my television show in the studios. He came and asked if I would be interviewed after the show. So I went up. You're kind of hot after you finish a show, you don't go to bed right away. So, he interviewed me and we had a ball exchanging jokes. I remember this one joke. He asked me about being in California and I said, "It's the only place in the world where you can open the window in the morning and hear the birds cough." From then on I was on his show every night. We met again later on. Now I'm out of work trying to get a television job. I got a call from MCA, the big agent. "Put together your good sketches and bring them over right away." So, I did that and I ran over and here was the big advertising [men] from Lincoln Motors. I ran the show for them and they flipped. They came, it was all over, "You've got a deal, baby." Mickey Rockford, my agent at that time said, "Alan, go home. Tell Ginny you've got a job. The show is sold." I came home. Imagine how I felt after being out of work for a while.

Two days later I got a call from Mickey Rockford. "I'm sorry, Alan, they were against you in New York." It seems when the agency out here was hiring me, the sponsor had seen Steve Allen's pilot [in New York] and hired him. So, I was out. Steve heard about it and he called me up. He said, "Alan, I'd like to do sketches with you on my show." So, I signed to do five sketches with him on his show. Steve was not an actor. He was a great performer. Did great comedy. I had the same thing happen with Johnny Carson. He loved my sketches, but they weren't actors. If they didn't get a laugh on the first line, they ad-libbed and that ruined the sketch completely. Steve did that and I knew he was dead in the water. This is not to knock Steve's talent. He was one of the most talented emcees and comedians and nicest men you'd ever want to see.

Kliph Nesteroff: So, that show that was offered to you and taken away - was that Steve Allen's Tonight Show?

Alan Young: I had put together several of my own sketches and did my own editing. It would have been a rehash of my old show.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was also a pilot in 1954 called That's Life starring you as a bumbling Mr. Fixit.

Alan Young: It's funny you should bring this up. I can't recall anything from it. I have a letter here somewhere from a man that says, "You did a pilot called That's Life. I'd like to brush it up and put it together [for a DVD]. Would you like to do it?" I said, "Well, okay, but I've got to see it first." He said, "Okay." So I'm going to see it in a week or two. Isn't that funny?

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever encounter Bill Thompson, the voice actor?

Alan Young: Yes, Bill did the first Scooge McDuck. He did it and he told me all about it. I knew him from Fibber McGee and Molly. He was very proud of being of Scottish descent and he knew my name was Angus and had been raised partly in Edinburgh before we sailed to Canada. He liked to talk to me and put on his lousy Scottish accent. For an American it wasn't bad, but we became very friendly. In fact I have in my living room a photograph of, her name was then Norma Jean Dougherty and her name later became Marilyn Monroe, and Bill Thompson and myself. We're all in kilts and I'm teaching her how to play the bagpipes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that from The Alan Young Show?

Alan Young: That was just a publicity shot. I called her up and asked her if she would pose for a publicity shot. We knew each other fairly well. She said, "Oh, sure." So, I found a little kilt for her and one for Bill and myself. It's a cute picture and it's in my living room.

Kliph Nesteroff: You clearly knew what you were doing! "We need a model. Let's phone this girl."

Alan Young: Yes (laughs). Then she was nobody.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Arthur Q. Bryan?

Alan Young: Oh, I want da wabbit. I only worked with him once. I don't know what I worked with him on. Maybe he was a guest on my show, I don't know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Could be. He sure did an awful lot of radio.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. He was well known, but I only worked with him once.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Alan Reed?

Alan Young: Yes, Alan. I didn't work with him... except... oh, this is an awful story. My friend Alan Dinehart directed situation comedies and cartoons. He worked for Disney and he did The Jetsons and all those shows. He called me one day and said, "Alan, I'm going to do this show, The Flintstones. I want you to do Barney." I said, "I'm sorry, Alan, I've just signed to do Mr. Ed, a television show." He said, "Well, you can do this, it's cartoons." I said, "Well, that wouldn't be nice as I've signed things with these people..." He said, "Well, you can do both." I said, "No, it wouldn't be honest." I found out later it would have been completely honest. Hanna-Barbera wanted me. I could be doing that to this day. Alan Reed, I remember him by his real name [Edward Bergman] when he was still in New York. He was perfect for that.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Henry Morgan, the satirist?

Alan Young: I think I met him just once at a party or something. He cut his own throat unfortunately. He did it at a bad time. He was emcee of a show in New York in front of a lot of people. He had to introduce Milton Berle. He made a crack about Milton Berle. He's walking off stage and Berle says, "Just a minute..." Berle didn't like remarks like that. He slayed him alive. Oh, Berle's old jokes, but he placed [just the right ones] at just the right time. It was written up in Variety about what Berle did to Morgan. From then on he wasn't held in much respect. A shame. You don't play around with stars.

Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned earlier about how a couple of your characters went over to The Fred Allen Show. Did you know Fred Allen?

Alan Young: I met him in the street. He was one of the gentlest men and one of the nicest men you would ever meet. I had heard about him. One of the New York bit actors had passed away and was on my show a couple of times. Frank Cooper knew him very well. He left two little kids behind. I wrote a letter to all the shows that he had worked on; Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen. Right away, a cheque came from Fred Allen for a couple hundred dollars. I don't think I got cheques from anybody else. I was walking along the street, and there was Fred Allen. He recognized me and, of course, I recognized him. He said, "Hello." I said, "I'm glad I bumped into you Mr. Allen. I wanted to thank you so much." I mentioned that he was the only one that sent a cheque. He said, "Oh, well, I knew Artie quite well..." and he began to talk to me. I didn't know that Fred was the kind of person who would never break away if you were talking to him. He would never say, "Excuse me, I've got to go" or anything. He wouldn't do that. Suddenly I realized we'd been talking [for a long time]. He wouldn't pull away. I said, "I know you're a very busy man, Mr. Allen. I just don't want to hold you." He said, "No, that's all right." I said, "No, I know you have something to do, so I just want to thank you very much for talking to me" and I had to push myself away from him. He was that kind of person. Everybody loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting. There was an episode of your show I was listening to just before I called you and it featured a great character actor that was in a lot of Jack Benny episodes. A guy named Frank Nelson.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Yes. His wife played on my radio show. I didn't know Frank that well. I met him when I was a guest on Benny's show. His wife was on my show and that's how I really met him. "Yeeeeh-yehesssssss??" (laughs) Yes, he was great. Stuffy [character was] the exact opposite of himself. He was very friendly and very humble. Great actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Bert Gordon the Mad Russian?

Alan Young: Yes, I encountered him on The Eddie Cantor Show when I was a guest. I was just amazed. I used to wonder [why he got laughs]. He used to come on and say, "How do you do!" and got a screaming laugh. I thought, "How did he get that laugh?" I found out. He had big ears and he could tuck the lobe inside his ear. When he said, "How do you do" he grunted and both of these ears flipped open. It was the funniest picture. The audience fell down. Of course, Eddie Cantor liked visual humor on his [radio] show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now I know Fred Allen did not like Eddie Cantor.

Alan Young: No, he did not. He was very jealous of his scripts that [Eddie] wrote himself. He was not a great Cantor fan.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another regular on The Eddie Cantor Show, one who has two very famous sons, Parkyarkarkus.

Alan Young: Oh, yes. Greek comedian. I didn't know him.

Kliph Nesteroff: His real name was Harry Einstein...

Alan Young: That's it, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he's the father of Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein.

Alan Young: I didn't know that. You're telling me stuff now. Thank you. Oh, that was a funny character. When I was on the Cantor show, he wasn't on there.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I understand you appeared in a TV show called Five Fingers that featured Peter Lorre. Do you remember working with Peter Lorre?

Alan Young: Yes, I do! In fact, that's one of my favorite stories. I've written a book called There's No Business Like Show Business... Was. That's one of the stories that are in that book. It was one of these quiet times in my career, which happens to everybody. I was doing guest spots on different shows. Some were good, some were awful. I was doing a guest spot on this one TV show and so was Peter Lorre. I had never met him. We started to talk. Right away I started telling him, "Mr. Lorre, I've been a fan of yours for years." He thanked me very much. We chatted a while. He said, "I've got a scene here - can you run it with me?" I said, "Oh, sure." So I held the book for him. He did the scene and he did it perfectly. A good actor. Really great actor. We were outside the Bel Air Hotel in the garden talking and he was called onto the set. He said, "Will you come in with me?" I said, "Sure," and I went in. It was a scene where he had to sit at this table, eat caviar, and deliver this speech. They said, "Action!" He started and then he made a mistake. "Okay, do it again. Take two!" Now this happened about four straight times. He flubbed. I couldn't believe it. Anyway, he finished the scene, it was very good. Then I saw him again and I said, "Peter, I must ask you, did I louse you up or something because you were perfect out here." He said, "No, it was just that it was very good caviar." He wanted to eat all the caviar and the only way he could finish it was to flub (laughs). What an actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had one last question for you, Alan. On your radio show The Alan Young Show, your character's girlfriend and her little brother David... how do you spell their last name? Is it Diitenfeather? Dippenpecker?

Alan Young: I hated that name. A typical New York comic's idea of a funny name. Betty Dittenpheffer.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've listened to forty episodes of that show. I could never figure out if it was pepper or feather or...

Alan Young: (laughs) I never could either. Spell it any way you want. Before you hang up, I want to say what a thrill that you're calling from my hometown. We lived not far from the water in West Vancouver on 22nd Street. Three blocks from the water. In those days, the beach houses was where the poor people stayed. My mother and dad had a little house on the ocean which I just loved. I just love Vancouver. Whenever I think of having some peace and quiet I am in Vancouver. I really am.

Alan has written two memoirs. You can order Mister Ed and Me and More can be ordered here. His other, There's No Business Like Show Business... Was, can be ordered here.


Yowp said...

Kliph, thanks for this one.
CJOR was in the basement of the Grosvenor Hotel, on Howe between Robson and Smithe. The ceiling of the station was really low and a tall guy would have to duck to get through the door at the bottom of the stairs (I didn't have that problem).
Dick Diespecker had a radio column in the Province in the late 40s to early 50s and just hated Alan's later radio show in the States, insisting he had been turned into "every other comedian", was the phrase I think he used.
Gerry Wilmot ended up in England during the War and opened a TV station in Bermuda.
Alan's thinking of Ivan Ackery at the Orpehum.
I believe Dal Richards still sees Juliette on a regular basis.

Tom Ruegger said...

What a fantastic interview with my of my TV favorites. I loved Alan in "Mr. Ed" and was always thrilled to see him in other appearances, like his role in "The Time Machine." Thanks for taking he time to look at Alan's great career.

Anonymous said...

Just amazing Kliph. I'd have to say this is my favourite thus far.

Being that I have been watching "Mr Ed" reruns every morning on "THIS" here in the states, getting to know all of this wonderful information is just amazing.

Thank you for the great education and also on a personal level, thank you for your choice of photo when you brought up Frank Nelson. The Jack Benny Christmas episode is a holiday tradition.

Booksteve said...

Best one yet, sir! Whilst all of your interviews were interesting this one really did seem like reminiscing with an old friend.

johnny baker said...

thank you for this page. I am a big fan of Alan Young and Mr. Ed. I love listning on serius. Loved the interview with Greg Bell. I wish i could meet you someday. You are still one of my favorite actors. We all Miss Connie Hines, she was a sweetheart. Thanks for the time and space to allow me to say hello. God bless you sir.

your friend,

Johnny Baker

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for this opportunity to give a shoutout and say thank you to Mr. young and i hope that he reads our comments. i am a baby boomer who is going through a nostalgia period right now. praise the lord for the older sitcoms. it means so much to be able to still see the older comedies. the quality of entertainment has gone down the drain, and i love watching mr. ed now as much as i did in the sixties. i remember how terribly sad i was as a child when that wonderful show went off the air. god bless you mr. young and all of those in show business that gave us quality, love and charm to watch, that will always stand the test of time. much love and appreciation, beth

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen "Mr. Ed" in over thirty years. My absolute favorite episode (and one of my all time favorite TV moments) was the one where Wilbur is all excited because he has been asked to be a guest on a local TV talk show. He goes to the studio, meets the host and producer, and is sent to the make-up department. At the last second the make-up artist gets called away and tells Wilbur to put the make-up on himself. Of course, Wilbur has no idea what he's doing, and when he comes out onto the set for the (live) talk show, his face is solid white like a mime, with dark lips and eyebrows. It's an absolutely hysterical sight gag. I'm cracking up as I write this, and I haven't seen it in three decades.

So imagine my joy when, at the head of this interview, Mr. Young describes his very first performance on a big stage, where he had put his own make-up on...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Wonderful Man.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Wonderful Man.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Wonderful Man.

Anonymous said...

Second time reading this excellent interview (more like a comfy conversation)... Came here after hearing of Mr. Young's passing. He truly was a Canadian and comedic treasure. I bet he was super pleased that not barely a question about Mr. Ed, which despite its trite situation and often fluffy writing, is a comfortable piece of reminiscence. Thanks for all you do, Kliph!
Dan in PoCo

George Vreeland Hill said...

This is not only a great interview, but a rare glimpse into Hollywood history.
Thank you.

George Vreeland Hill