Friday, February 18, 2011

An Interview with Bill Dana

Kliph Nesteroff: I just finished watching Jose Jimenez Discovers America. I had not seen it before.

Bill Dana: Oh, really? I wish I had a copy of that! How'd you get that?

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody uploaded it onto the internet. It looks like it was from a 16mm film print.

Bill Dana: We did that on film. It was so long ago. It was a wonderful experience; like a free vacation. A lot of it was done in places I always wanted to go and things I always wanted to see. The blessing of the fleet in Gloucester and those sort of things.

Kliph Nesteroff: I am intrigued by your early career. You started in a comedy team with legendary game show announcer Gene Wood.

Bill Dana: Yes. Gene and I are both born and brought up in Quincy, Massachusetts. We were sort of the high school cut-ups together. Gene discovered Emerson College. He was the leader and I followed in a couple of things. The first was Emerson where we did a lot of performing together. After graduation we went our different ways. I went out to California and actually gave up trying to get into show business. I went to work at Douglas Aircraft in the testing division. Meanwhile, Gene had become a page at NBC at 30 Rockefeller [Plaza] and was doing bits on Broadway Open House. Well, you know all this stuff, don't you?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm familiar, yes, but I like to hear you talk about it.

Bill Dana: Yes, well, he did Jerry Lester [who] had the first late night show. Gene was doing bits in his page uniform. He wrote to me and said, "You know that stuff that we were doing at Emerson College? They pay for that." So, I came onto the page staff [at NBC in New York] and it worked. The first show we did as a comedy team was Ed Herlihy's show. It ended up that a lot of the people in my career later on were part of that show. The producer was Billy Horbach. The director was Dwight Hemion and there was The Cy Coleman Trio. It was nice. It was a local show. New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you and Gene Wood take your act into nightclubs at all?

Bill Dana: Oh, sure. Yes, we played a lot of nightclubs. We played the chic clubs. Reuben Bleu and the Village Vanguard. We also did the Number One Fifth Avenue. In Chicago... let's see, Dana and Wood... we played... I guess it was Mister Kelly's in Chicago.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read that you and Gene Wood had shared a bill with George Gobel.

Bill Dana: Yes. Our very first appearance on network television was Bill Stern's Star Night at the Astor. Everything involved with that is gone... including the building. The Astor Hotel is no longer there. Bill Stern - do you know that name?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, the sportswriter.

Bill Dana: Yeah. He was also of Jewish-Hungarian ancestry and he always got a kick out of calling me Szathmary. We performed in our page uniforms and we were Szathmary and Wood at that time. Finally I took my mother's first name, Dina, and changed it to Dana because [Szathmary] was an unpronounceable name.

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about the atmosphere of something like Broadway Open House. Jerry Lester, Morey Amsterdam, Dagmar... were these people you would encounter on a regular basis?

Bill Dana: No, I didn't have anything to do with Broadway Open House, that was strictly Gene. When that was going on, I was in L.A. I came back and went on to the page staff, so my first stuff was, with Gene, The Ed Herlihy Show there. That show had Dwight Hemian, Bill Horbach - Bill is still on the planet, great guy. Gosh, he's wonderful. Great background. His father is Otto Horbach who wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. If you're in New York I can set you up for an interview with Billy. He lives in Connecticut. My connection with Canada is that I hired - sort of started the flow of all that talent coming out of Toronto. I hired Frank Peppiatt and... it was Nick Vanoff and I. We were the production team for the first time Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme had their own summer show. My first headwritership and Nick Vanoff's first producership. We take pride in having pulled all that talent that came down out of Canada.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read that you were a huge fan of Bob and Ray growing up.

Bill Dana: We had the first Bob and Ray day when we were at Emerson College. Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were heroes for those of us who enjoyed hip humor. We considered them sort of an inside gag. A lot of the stuff they did was way over the heads of the average person listening to them in that time frame. I never met either one of them, actually, but we were huge fans.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, you were a house sitter for Imogene Coca. How did you meet her?

Bill Dana: I met her in Bermuda. Gene Wood and I were in a revue called Stock in Trade. Juius Monk had a revue. It was most of the people who had worked for him at the Reuben Bleu. Horbach used to call him Chester Moses: Charlton Heston. Lady Macbeth was the woman that played the mother on that great gangster series The Sopranos. Nancy Marchant. Imogene Coca was among the people that came down to see that and she had also started at the Reuben Bleu with Julius Monk also. I got to meet her then. She befriended me in New York. She was out of town and she asked me to be apartment sitter for her at 307 Park West. She had the 20th and 21st Floors there; beautiful apartment. So, we became very close. She was really responsible for introducing - bringing the attention of people that were important to me when I was just barely getting started.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Reuben Bleu... it was through that venue that you eventually came to know and eventually write for Don Adams?

Bill Dana: Yes, it was under a different situation. Mace Neufeld and Sherwin Bash were my managers. Gene Wood and I were breaking up amicably and I wanted to write. Mace brought me to the Reuben Bleu to see this comedian he thought maybe I could write for - and that was Don. That story is really fascinating because I was apartment sitting in this fantastic, beautifully furnished apartment at 307 Park West. It was the Marjorie Morningstar building - that book. Don Adams came to see me there. We had never met before. I had this smoking jacket on and he couldn't understand why this multimillionaire would want to write for twenty dollars a week! My deal was ten percent of his salary. He was making two or three hundred dollars or something like that. That would have been 1952 or 53. Something like that. Early fifties.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shortly before that Don had been in a comedy team with Larry Storch's brother, Jay Lawrence.

Bill Dana: Yes, that was in Florida. I didn't know him during that period. They did impressions.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've heard a lot of stories about Don Adams. He became a very successful nightclub comedian, but my understanding is that he really didn't enjoy doing stand-up.

Bill Dana: Yes. Don - the only thing he enjoyed was going to the track. He didn't enjoy anything else. Let's see. He liked working with me [on The Bill Dana Show] as Byron Glick the hotel detective, because he didn't have any responsibility other than to be there. If he were around... did you ever interview him?

Kliph Nesteroff: I never got to, no.

Bill Dana: Well, he was very generous with his acknowledging me as the guy who got him organized and we wrote some wonderful stuff together. Every time that I have seen some of that stuff, it really was breakthrough material. We did it under circumstances where people would think we were crazy. The day before he did the baseball routine, all of this stuff became the legendary Don Adams routines, we wrote them like the day before. The defense attorney bit... I wrote the last line as he was being introduced by Steve Allen! "The defense rests. Might as well. Everyone else is." He had put everyone else to sleep during the routine. Steve was introducing him and I wrote the last line. A really audacious time, but that happens early in everybody's career, I think.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bob Newhart tells an anecdote in his book about trying to sell material to Don Adams. Have you ever heard this anecdote?

Bill Dana: You mean bringing him the material in Chicago...?

Kliph Nesteroff: And Don Adams turned him down and said, "It isn't funny, kid."

Bill Dana: Oh, yes, yes. I know that story very well. That really did happen and all things being equal, [Newhart] probably would have been satisfied having other people perform his stuff, but his [material] became such a hit that he had written for Don - it was amazing. Lovely man. I really like Bob.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is an album that Don Adams put out - Don Adams Live!? at the Sahara Hotel, the one with the blue cover where he has dynamite strapped to his back. Then there's another comedy LP on Verve that Jackie Mason put out called I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, but Nobody Knows It Yet. They both feature identical material. Jackie Mason claimed that Don Adams had stolen his material for that album.

Bill Dana: Yeah. I subsequently found out that a lot of Don's stuff... he kind of had a blindspot there. He did take a lot of material. Some of it from Woody Allen... which I hadn't realized until Woody pointed it out to me. Woody was part of the NBC comedy development team at the same time that Gene Wood and I were and I started writing stuff for Don.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you yourself enlisted in the NBC writers development program?

Bill Dana: No, we were part of the comedy teams that the [student] writers were [assigned to work with]. The guys that were assigned to us wrote, sort of, stock stuff. We never used any of it. We were both very prolific writers. I'm talking about Dana and Wood.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've always been intrigued by that NBC Writers Development Program. Not too much has been written or researched about it. It was run by Tad Danielewski, Woody Allen was placed on the Colgate Comedy Hour and Paul W. Keyes was part of that program as well.

Bill Dana: Yeah, Paul. Is Paul on the planet?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Bill Dana: He passed away. We had a running gag about him. He was on The Tonight Show for a while. Nicky Vanoff used to stick his head in and beckon to me, "Did he finish his novel yet?" He couldn't figure out what the hell Paul Keyes was doing. He came alive later on, I guess, because of his political connections when he was with George Schlatter. He was a nice man, but he was kind of an aberration in comedy. He didn't seem like a very funny guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, there aren't too many people in the comedy world that were close with Richard Nixon.

Bill Dana: (laughs) Yes, that's right. I was close to Nixon the hard way. I was on his enemies list! He destroyed my career, that prick.

Kliph Nesteroff: We'll get into that in a bit. I understand you worked on The Martha Raye Show.

Bill Dana: Yes. I met Norman Lear up in Peekskill. Imogene Coca had a place up there. Norman Lear and she had kind of a fling there with Hal March. Hal and I became buddies. I remember we were out in a rowboat together. He told me that he had been invited to be the host of a game show and I said, "Come on! You're a comedian." I tried to talk him out of it and, of course, that was The $64,000 Question.

Kliph Nesteroff: Didn't Hal March get blacklisted at one point?

Bill Dana: Not that I know of...

Kliph Nesteroff: I thought he got kicked off the panel of What's My Line because his name showed up in Red Channels...

Bill Dana: Hal March? I never heard... That horror story was going on when Gene and I were pages there in 1950-51. Red Channels. Jesus, that was terrible.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, you know, I'm thinking of Hal Block. So when you started working on The Martha Raye Show, I guess Nat Hiken had been replaced by Norman Lear?

Bill Dana: Yes, Simmons and Lear. Eddie Simmons and Norman Lear. Norman went off on his own. They had a friendly separation, but Norman had ideas that he wanted to develop. So did Eddie. Eddie was just a wonderful guy. He was also a Bostonian. Norman was from Hartford and Simmons and myself were from the Boston area.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Martha Raye like at the time? I know she had been going through some personal issues...

Bill Dana: She was lovely. I notice that Gloria Lockerman, the kid from New Jersey who came on the show was in the news the past few weeks. I was the guy assigned to Baltimore to pick her up, bring her up and Tallulah Bankhead was on that week. It was an interesting bunch of stuff happening. The fact that Tallulah Bankhead and Martha Raye kissed this little black girl... it caused a big stir in the South. I used to be in charge of the mail when I was writing the Steve Allen Tonight Show. I saw all of this hate stuff coming through. "Steve Allen keep your big Jew nose out of Southern politics!" He was as Irish as Paddy's pig. I loved Steve.

Kliph Nesteroff: You started writing for Steve Allen along wtih Herb Sargent and Don Hinckley...

Bill Dana: Herb Sargent and Stan Burns were the original... Steve wrote all his own stuff and then Herb and Stan became writers. I was the third writer. Stan and Herb actually hired me. My baptism of fire was as the only writer for about four or five weeks. Bill Horbach as producer turned the reigns over to Nicky Vanoff. He became producer and I became everything else for a period of five weeks during the transition [from] The Tonight Show to the prime time [Steve Allen] Show. It's amazing when I see these award shows and a whole platoon of writers goes up. To think that myself alone or even when we had a larger group it was only two writers per week. Amazing.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand that you were responsible for introducing Steve Allen to the work of Lenny Bruce.

Bill Dana: Yes. Well, not to the work of, but I was responsible for selling Steve on the fact that Lenny had material that was broadcastable. Just funny with no problem of putting him on live television. He was at a place ... on Lexington Avenue; a cellar of a place. He was just funny. He wasn't profane. But he had that curse of everyone thinking he was non-broadcastable. But I succeeded in convincing Steve and he, in turn, the network, and we brought him on and he killed. It was just wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: I imagine the lead-up to that booking, Steve's discussion with the network and what not, must have been quite involved.

Bill Dana: Yes. He just overruled... had the network got their desire, he would not have been on the air.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you responsible for giving Don Knotts his first big break?

Bill Dana: Yes. Yeah. That's an easy one. I was writing The Tonight Show and I was walking through Times Square and here comes Don. Don and I had done little bits when Hal March and Imogene Coca - when Coca had her own show for a little while. I hadn't seen Don [since then] and he looked sad. I said, "What's wrong?" He said, "Oh, I can't do anything. Nothing is going to come out of No Time For Sergeants and I'm going back to Morgantown and get a good job." I said, "What are you talking about? I'm writing The Tonight Show now and Steve would love you. Come on!" I physically took him and we were doing our rehearsals at Dance Players Studio. He went in and he did his nervous man routine and Steve loved him. That was it. He was on his way. He would always tell that story. I knew him from The Imogene Coca Show.  Perry Lafferty hired him and Coca hired me. We were just playing little bits, little character parts. The show didn't last very long. That's one of the times when I can kind of take a bow; standing in the way of Don leaving the business. I had luck with guys named Don.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw his television debut on Search For Tomorrow, a soap opera. Quite amusing to see him in a dramatic role. Is there also a story about you having discovered Jim Nabors?

Bill Dana: Yes. He was at a place called The Horn on Wilshire Boulevard. And Jackie Mason too. Have you interviewed Jackie?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Bill Dana:  He's a strange guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, doesn't seem like he'd be open to interviews right now. He's gone in an odd direction.

Bill Dana: What does he do now?

Kliph Nesteroff: He's got a right-wing radio show and he does YouTube rants about how the Democrats are Communists and they're ruining America.

Bill Dana: (groans) Yeah, he's a... I had a little falling out with him. I'm not quite sure why. He was always very expansive about how he was working in Slate Brothers and I came in and saw him and got Steve to depend on my judgement to put him on. That was his first entrance into television; network television. Subsequently... he's a hard guy to maintain a friendship with. I haven't talked to him in a while.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's a bit of an enigma. There's the famous story about the Ed Sullivan incident and all of that. Jackie has said for years that he was blacklisted after that; that he couldn't get any work on any major show in television. But having done research and having gone through all of this stuff - that's really not the case. He wasn't allowed on Ed Sullivan for ten months. He was back on after ten months and within his ten month absence he was doing The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show... so he was on all these other shows the whole time. But he always claims that Ed Sullivan ruined his career and that it never recovered, but that simply doesn't appear to be the case at all.

Bill Dana: No, I don't think so. I was close to... Ed was a lovely guy. That was a wonderful gig. I was living on the coast in LA. I'd come [to New York] on a Friday night and I'd go to the Delmonico for lunch in Ed Sullivan's apartment and we'd run down the material I brought in. The next day you'd do a dress rehearsal and then onto the air. At that time, the top [act] of the show was $7500. It was a wonderful gig.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that your first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was in September 1962 and that you appeared on the episode with Mickey Mantle. 

Bill Dana: Yes. I have a picture of Sullivan, Mickey and I. Yes. I loved Ed. He was a lovely guy. Also, Ray Bloch who was his bandleader all those years, and Bob Arthur who really was the bandleader, we all worked out of Ray Bloch Associates. Mace Neufeld and Sherwin Bash, that was NRB: Neufeld, Rosen and Bass. Mace became big in the movies. Sherwin retired sometime ago to Phoenix. Sherwin Bash is a lovely guy. He married Ray Bloch's daughter.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Bob Precht like?

Bill Dana: Bob was a lovely guy. He was in-law to Ed, but he was his own man. He earned the title of producer of The Ed Sullivan Show. He was very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: December 1962, you were on an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show with the old vaudeville team Smith and Dale.

Bill Dana: Oh, God. Yeah. I saw that... he had given them money to buy some new material. And they came on... with the same old shtick. He, as we used to say in the army, drilled them a new asshole. He just was really cruel. I had to turn away from it. It was not a nice thing to see. All in all, my relationship with Ed was just delicious. It was very nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also did an episode of Ed Sullivan that featured The Three Stooges...

Bill Dana: Larry Fine and I have the same birthday: October 5th. Nicky Vanoff and I, we found out that The Three Stooges were working in this dump in Pittsburgh and we went down there and we rescued them. We brought them up to New York City and started a new career for them. It really was a rescue. They working this dump there. They started doing some stuff...

Kliph Nesteroff: They started doing family friendly feature length films. Saturday matinee stuff. They enlisted Curly Joe DeRita.

Bill Dana: Yes, that's right. I didn't think he was very funny. I mean, he didn't fill the shoes. I never thought they were very much... Joe Besser and DeRita... compared to the original mix... Larry Fine was a sweet guy and had a nice family.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on another episode of The Ed Sullivan Show with Peg Leg Bates.

Bill Dana: Yeah, Peg Leg Bates. I think we had him on the primetime Steve Allen Show also. I didn't really know him. The black performer that I did get to know... I wrote my version of Alice in Wonderland and we had Sammy Davis originally... they couldn't afford Sammy Davis. They being Hanna-Barbera. I wrote the book for Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This? The music was by the tremendously successful...

Kliph Nesteroff: Charles Strauss was...

Bill Dana: Yes, Adams and Strauss. I worked with them. I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the book, and they wrote the music for my version of Alice in Wonderland.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a brief association with Hanna-Barbera - not just that 1966 special, but there was also a bizarre record that came out called The Flintstones and Jose Jimenez in The Time Machine.

Bill Dana: Yes. I never had anything to do with that. They just used the character.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's not your voice on the album?

Bill Dana: (silence) Well, if it said Jose, it would have had to have been my voice. Maybe I did do it. If I was on an album with them... then it would be my voice.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bill Dana: (laughs) I don't remember getting any residuals.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's another little oddity you were involved in - a cartoon for Paramount. A one-off Jose Jimenez...

Bill Dana: Yes. That was in New York, they did that.
Kliph Nesteroff: You and Howard Post...

Bill Dana: Howard Post was the animator in New York. That was the first time that Jose was animated...

Kliph Nesteroff: Bob McFadden did some of the voices in that cartoon...

Bill Dana: I didn't know him. I don't even know if I was ever paid.

Kliph Nesteroff: Between the Alice in Wonderland special, this Jose Jimenez cartoon for Paramount, the Flintstone crosssover LP... was there ever talk of turning the Jose Jimenez character into his own cartoon series?

Bill Dana: Not really. I got on The Danny Thomas Show as the elevator operator and then I got my own show, so Jose was well-known as a flesh and blood character.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about The Garry Moore Show. What was appearing on that program like?

Bill Dana: Well, it was a key. Doc Simon asked me at a meeting on the show, he was a staff writer then, if Jose had ever been an astronaut. That was a very influential performance on that show. That was the first time [we did] Jose the Astronaut and that of course became very big.

Kliph Nesteroff: And became a big album as well...

Bill Dana: I knew Danny and Doc Simon from when they were first getting started. The writing staff on that show was a whole different experience than being on The Steve Allen Show. On The Steve Allen Show we never ever claimed anything [for our own]. But they were a whole different mix of people.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually the astronaut bit became an album on Kapp Records. You had another record that was put out on Roulette Records although most of your stuff was on Kapp.

Bill Dana: Roulette. Morris Levy. They actually just did that without my permission. It was a bone of contention and it got a little heavy. I was having these voices call me saying it would be good for me to cooperate with them. It was like a scene from The Sopranos. Moe Levy, the Jewish guy on The Sopranos is [based on] Moe Levy!

Kliph Nesteroff: It was no secret that Roulette was run by gangsters. So then, where did that recording come from that they pressed?

Bill Dana: They just took it from airchecks of The Steve Allen Show. There's a bunch of negative stuff that I've just sort of erased. It doesn't serve any good. There's nothing - everybody knows who the gangsters were, so I don't have to place myself in jeopardy.

Kliph Nesteroff: What about Mickey and David Kapp at Kapp Records. What was working with them like?

Bill Dana: Very friendly. I didn't have much to do with David, but Mickey Kapp was my partner in that we worked directly together from editing the performance at the Hungry i and I still talk to Mickey every once in a while. He's part of my extended family.

Kliph Nesteroff: You went on to be the producer of The Spike Jones Show. This was during the period that Spike was trying to re-invent himself, right?

Bill Dana: Yes. He wanted to do the kind of stuff they were doing on The Steve Allen Show, the kind of hip, current stuff. Since I was headwriter [for Steve Allen I was brought in]. It was my opportunity to become - it was my first producership. He was a wonderful guy. I loved him. Everything about that show was a joy.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the reaction to his stepping away from his established persona? Even with his records he was starting to put out straight orchestra music by then...

Bill Dana: There were a lot of people that wanted the "Honk! Honk! Toot! Toot!" But he got a younger, hipper audience. So I don't think... there was enough of the old Spike Jones available to the old Spike Jones fans, so I never experienced any kind of resentment in the press or in the mail.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was his health at that point?

Bill Dana: Not good. I remember editing with him and looking at the respirator and the cigarettes on the same table. He never stopped smoking. It killed him. A lovely, lovely, brilliant man.

Kliph Nesteroff: You left that show when you became a regular on The Danny Thomas Show.

Bill Dana: No, with Danny... I wasn't really a regular on there. I performed a few times, but I couldn't have depended on The Danny Thomas Show for my livelihood. I guess about that time I was doing a lot of personal appearances and recording. Most of my income came from recording.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was an LP that was planned, but I don't think it ever got made. It was called The Incredible Pipes of Jose Jimenez. It was supposed to be an album of songs by Jose.

Bill Dana: I remember discussing doing a song, but I don't remember that title The Incredible Pipes (laughs). It didn't emanate from me, for sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was a blurb in an old Billboard magazine.

Bill Dana: I did a lot of singing Jose with a verse and patter in between.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also did a comedy album with Joey Forman.

Bill Dana:  Yes, I love Joey. He died so young. Yes, The Mashuganishi Yogi. We just had finished stuffing all the promos [for the album on A&M Records]. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss and Gil Frees and everybody, all the executives at A&M... it broke in Seattle and Philadelphia... we thought we had a monster hit on our hands. George Harrison and maybe Paul [McCartney] came back and after promoting the Maharishi they bombed him like he was a phony on the Carson show. Then the [comedy] album just stopped. You could hear the sound of brakes. It was a major dent in my pocketbook because we put a lot into that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow. The Beatles ruined the sales of that comedy record!

Bill Dana: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your brother Irving who I think a lot of people don't realize is your sibling simply because of the name change. He's well-known now for having done all the music for Get Smart and he worked a little bit on I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. How did he get involved in that because he doesn't have a lot other television credits.

Bill Dana: Well, he was a prime mover in American music. He was an arranger that started with Paul Whiteman with the Swinging Strings. The word jazz was just being invented. So he was part of the beginning of American popular music. Kind of a family problem has been not taking credit for stuff. For instance, I defeated Hitler single-handed and you never see anything about it. But Irving was extremely gifted. He started out, as a young man in Boston, he arranged for Emery Deutsch. My family was a fascinating family. Everyone did different stuff. My brother Al was the one in the family that was into his body. He was a very tough guy. A cowboy. He was in D-Day as a combat engineer. I was in the infantry in World War Two and at the very end of the war we got together in Europe. Al lived with me for a while. My brother Sidney was a violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony and my brother Arthur is in the philosophy department at Princeton. My sister Fanny was the head law librarian at USC.

Kliph Nesteroff: When Irving started composing for television, did that come through your connections?

Bill Dana: Yes. [Get Smart] was my show so, I guess, I brought him out from New York and introduced him to Sheldon [Leonard] and Danny [Thomas] and all the people. He did I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. He didn't require anything except an introduction because he was a brilliant musician. And all the musicians were delighted to work for him because they recognized his talent.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did he continue doing any television music after those two sitcoms?

Bill Dana: No. He retired to Malta. He had a nice life and plenty of money because he was BMI - he got caught up with the early ASCAP - BMI strike. You wouldn't remember because it happened in the thirties, but he got an opportunity to make a name for himself because he was such a good arranger. He would take public domain songs like I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and he'd arrange it five different ways. That gave him a good platform from which to work. He did a lot of wonderful stuff with the United Nations for music and was just generally extremely gifted. My whole family was talented. My mother was a milliner. Made hats her whole life and had her own shop in Quincey. My father was in real estate and he did nicely. We went through a very bad scene in the depression like everyone else.

Kliph Nesteroff: But by the early sixties, by the time Jose Jimenez took off, I understand you had a chandelier in your garage.

Bill Dana: (laughs) Yeah! I did that as a gag so people would see it and say, "Wow, can you imagine what the rest of the house is like?" The rest of the house was empty (laughs). I put that in there before we furnished the place.

Kliph Nesteroff: I also read that you had one of the first car phones.

Bill Dana: Yeah! I did. I forget why. I think Scott Carpenter ... I forget if he arranged for it. It was a big deal. He had to put the base of it in the trunk. It was very unwieldy. I had a Mercedes convertible, I think a two-eighty FC. A gorgeous car. My nephew still has it, actually.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the late sixties, you started to produce the new Milton Berle Show. What was that experience like? He had a reputation for being rough on writers.

Bill Dana: Yes. The thing was I was already established. I was performing at The Fairmont up in San Francisco and I got a call from Bill Horbach and Nick Vanoff. They said, "We want you to come down and produce The Milton Berle Show." I said, "That's funny. Why are you really calling?" They said, "No! We're going to do a show with Milton!" Before I could say anything they said, "And Milton's right here," which saved me from embarrassing myself. I loved Milton, but I knew what a monster he was in production. So he said, "Bill, you know me! You used to bring me messages when you were a page outside of 6B. We've got a seventeen show commitment. We'll do the seventeen shows and we're going to have fun!" I said, "Is this the Milton Berle?" Because I knew him in the monster days, having been so close to it and pages know everything [that is going on]. Anyway, I was delighted with the opportunity to work with Billy Horbach and Nick Vanoff. They'd let me hire my own team, so it was good. It was, despite everything, because Milton never really changed, it was a good experience. The facility was excellent; the Vine Street theater. But I remember Bette Davis coming up to me and saying, "You're such a charming, sweet man. How could you work with that monster?" When she said the word "monster" it spanned about thirty notes. He was hard to deal with. It was hard getting people to come back on the show. He never ever got any kind of discipline in terms of how to handle people. But I loved Uncle Milty because he was Uncle Milty - a bigger than life human being.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, of course, and another bigger than life human being that you appeared with a couple of times was Jackie Gleason.

Bill Dana: Yes, Jackie was lovely. I had the chance to see him later on and to ruminate a little bit about the show he did in Miami. He was in a movie with Richard Pryor. Richard was stoned all the time and wouldn't come out [of his trailer]. Here's Jackie, this giant, sitting there puffing on his cigarette on location in Louisiana, and he was (laughs) happy to see a friendly face. We reminisced about that show and what a great venue that was in Miami. He had been the king there, obviously. He was a great straight man and Jose was red hot at that time.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read you had done an episode of The Jackie Gleason Show that Gene Kelly was also on.

Bill Dana: Yes. He was a God to me. I just admired him so much. It was great. Was that a Gleason show or an episode of The Hollywood Palace?

Kliph Nesteroff: Both. You two appeared on both shows together.

Bill Dana: Ah, okay. Really a sweet, sweet man. God, he was good. On the flipside of that Ginger Rogers was a real... what's female for schmuck? She was one of the cheapest people I ever met in my life. I had written her a performance hunk on The Steve Allen Show and she was going to appear in Las Vegas and these other places and she asked me to help her. When it came time for payment she gave me Soap-On-A-Rope...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bill Dana: And not only that but... the soap was broken.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bill Dana: It was wrapped with... it was obviously given to her by somebody else. I don't mind if you use that by the way. Here was this goddess I admired so much and she turns out to be a... that was really a strange experience.

Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently her mother was a bit of a nightmare; a stage mother and a reactionary who was convinced her daughter was being duped by Hollywood communists.

Bill Dana: I can't think of any other performer that I would [badmouth] in an interview and not mind being quoted. I just couldn't figure out how anybody could do that. I thought it was a gag for about ten seconds. Then I realized I was hoist with my own petard there because I never settled on what the fee would be. But I imagined it would be more than Soap-On-A-Rope.

Kliph Nesteroff: What did you end up writing for her?

Bill Dana: Well, the thing I wrote for her on The Steve Allen Show... the premise was that sometimes people become celebrities, and don't necessarily have talent (laughs) ... with a backdrop of dancers that were singing and jumping all around and doing all the choreography. I had her singing with a big chorus "As you walk through the night, keep your head up high..." and then we'd get to the part, "Walk on! Walk on!" blasting "with hope in your heart..." and then the chorus cuts out and you hear this little squeaky voice saying "moooon." That's the only word that you heard her sing. She was prepping for some kind of Vegas [thing] and I just took it for granted [that I would get paid]. I thought someone had negotiated [a fee]. But my compensation was Soap-On-A-Rope. I kept the soap for a while (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: You must have encountered the comedy writer Harry Crane.

Bill Dana: Oh sure, I knew Harry real well. Harry was a showboat. He was much more a professional Harry Crane than he was a professional comedy writer. He was good, but he was a self promoter. A nice enough guy, but if I had to make a list of real great comedy writers... he was a good comedy writer, but he wasn't anywhere near the level of writing really great stuff. He was a funny guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get to know Nat Hiken at all?

Bill Dana: No, I never did. Always admired him though. I did a bit part on Sgt Bilko. My relationship there was I was in the 66th infantry division and the guy who was our special services guy was Phil Foster. That character was based on Phil Foster. He was exactly that character. Underrated. Foster was in television at the wrong time, but he was a lovely man and it was interesting being in the service with him and then meeting him later on. He helped out in the early days, he helped out Gene Wood and myself. Helped us get a couple of gigs.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I talked to comedy writer Chris Bearde a while back and he told me that Phil Foster was the one who vouched for him and helped get him American citizenship.

Bill Dana: No kidding? How is Chris doing?

Kliph Nesteroff: Very well. He's got a blog on the internet that he regularly updates.

Bill Dana: I admire his work. Going back to The Steve Allen Show - that's really where my heart is in terms of the professional development. That whole gang in New York. Andy Williams and Steve and Eydie. When Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme got their own show that was Nicky Vanoff's first producership and my first head writership. That's when I hired Frank Peppiat and Johnny Aylesworth came on down and that whole flood of Canadian talent came in.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Gabe Dell?

Bill Dana: Sure. Got to know Gabe real well. Gabe was kind of a haunted guy. I don't know what kind of devils he had working in the background from his early days; Dead End Kids and all that. But sure, he was part of it with Don Knotts and Louis Nye in New York City. Gabe was part of the stock company.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find him interesting because he had two totally separate phases of his career unlike the rest of those Bowery Boys.

Bill Dana: Gabe was a very lovely guy. Very intense. You always had a sense that he had devils working inside that nobody knew anything about, but he'd hit his mark and deliver his joke. It was a very dependable stock company, my God. The talent with Don Knotts and Louis Nye and Tom Poston and at the same level - Dayton Allen. Did you ever meet Dayton Allen?

Kliph Nesteroff: I never met him, but I always admired his work.

Bill Dana: Yeah. "Whyyyyyy not?" We started writing stuff for his character, but it soon became a reality that he had to do his own type of craziness. He was just a master of that nonsense stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read that Gene Wood and Tom Poston had teamed up at one point.

Bill Dana: Yes, Tom Poston had a local show. Right after Dana and Wood broke up, Gene got that job with Tom as a writer. When that folded Gene went with Captain Kangaroo. Gene was very influential with Captain Kangaroo early on.

Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting. You mentioned earlier that you had become an enemy of Richard Nixon.

Bill Dana: I hated everything he stood for, but I got on his enemies list and it destroyed me. It was terrible. I was on his IRS enemies list. They crucified me. I was sick in bed and they were crawling all over my house with tape measures, looking to see how much of the house I had written off for an office. He is a devil to me. I just despise the thought of Richard Nixon and anyone who had anything to do with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Had you said something in public that instigated their going after you?
Bill Dana: I was writing a [comic strip]. I was living in Hawaii and I had a cartoon called Ecolo/Jest. It got on the LA Times syndicate ... I did a lot of anti-Nixon stuff in cartoon form. He made sure I got whacked. It was a very, very unhappy, painful and extensive... I have no idea of the extent [to which they went after] me. His people.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was around this same time period that you chose to stop performing as Jose Jimenez and retire the character. In retrospect you have said that was a mistake. Before we dive into that, I am curious if there was a level of protest from the Hispanic community about the depiction that lead you to that decision...

Bill Dana: It was as much about my desire for my own identity. My biggest fans were in the Latino community and I was working with Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, Vikki Carr and Joe Kapp the football player. Anybody that was part of the [Civil Rights] movement knew that I was part of the movement. The word Chicano was invented and was a source of debate [at the time]. "Well what does that mean? Chicanery?" That sort of thing. I got the very first award [from] The National Hispanic Media Coalition; their first image Award. So, it was mainly a public relations problem that I wasn't more aggressive in [letting my activism be known]. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You made the announcement that you were retiring Jose Jimenez at a "Mexican-American Cultural Festival."

Bill Dana: Yes, it was at a sports arena. [The late sixties backlash] was kind of a shocking thing for not only me, but Ricardo Montalban... they had him pegged as a Latin lover [stereotype]. He was denigrated as much as I was. But people like Anthony Quinn and Vikki Carr loved Jose and identified it as a unique character and not as a"We don't need no stinkin' badges" kind of thing; a negative thing. But it was a period of revolution. I was ready to move on to other stuff too. As I said before, we have a thing in our family of not taking bows for stuff. I was finally recognized by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and I'm still on their advisory board.

Kliph Nesteroff: So who were your actual detractors?

Bill Dana: Part of it was a group... I don't remember their name. There was a lot of anti-Semitism mixed in with it. They were attacking all the powerful Jews including Lew Wasserman. They had me on that list [and it was upsetting that] the most famous Latino at that time was a Hungarian Jew (laughs). It didn't thrill those guys. Again, my biggest fans came from the [Hispanic community]. Jimmy Smits and Carlos Santana were huge fans and have written me.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've watched a couple episodes of The Bill Dana Show and you had actual Hispanic and Mexican-American guests that came on. There was one episode with a band...

Bill Dana: Yes. The Four Amigos. They were Puerto Rican. It was my intention to do more of that, but then we were canceled. The Four Amigos, I remember for a tragic reason. We filmed [that episode] the day that Kennedy was assassinated. I remember I was in line getting my license with Mary Tyler Moore who was on the same lot. Terrible day. That was the only show we did without an audience.

Kliph Nesteroff: On that note, did you ever get to know Vaughn Meader?

Bill Dana: I met him once, but I didn't know him really. I know he was kind of a disturbed guy. I don't know why that comes into my mind...

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, you're quite right. After the assassination he went from being the biggest star to not having an act anymore...

Bill Dana: Right, well, of course, yes. That was a terrible thing that happened to him professionally.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had mentioned that, in retrospect, retiring the Jose Jimenez character was the biggest mistake you ever made.

Bill Dana: Well, it was kind of bravura type of gesture. The period right when it was going on - I rationalized with myself that it was time to go on to other stuff. But it was in retrospect my [character] was a perfect example of a person that wanted to be assimilated into American culture, learn the language, always looked spiffy... not a bit of the racist stereotype about the unkempt Mexican...

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to kill him off?

Bill Dana: I don't know. I can't point to it. I mean, it was fairly soon after it all happened. I had a whole bunch of things to be remorseful about. Number one, I hadn't even considered I would be taking away [from people related to the Jose Jimenez entity] their income. The commercial aspect. I had deals with Verna's Ginger Ale and a couple of other companies. The people who arranged that were really upset with me. it was too precipitous.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read in an old newspaper that Jayne Meadows enlisted you to be "a comical guide for a pair of South American airplane tours" in 1962.

Bill Dana: I don't remember that at all, but we flew down to do a show in Havana [in 1958]. Maybe that's it. We were the last American show in Havana. As a matter of fact the other celebrity there other than Steve Allen was The Godfather, Meyer Lansky. Do you know that name? He's the Godfather. Meyer Lansky was the head of the Mob. He had the penthouse at The Havana Riviera Hotel which became The Havana Libre. The Steve Allen Show was there and I was their interpreter. I was the only one that spoke Spanish in the Steve Allen group and I heard the cab drivers tell about this guy Castro up in Oriente Province who was going to come in and kick out Batista. They were all scared. They wanted to know if I could help them get out of there because they were all Batista-tistas. The [cab drivers] were pro-Batista and they were all spies. Every cabdriver in Havana. Nobody would ever say anything anti-Batista in a cab in Havana that wanted to live.

Kliph Nesteroff: So maybe Meyer Lansky recorded you act and sold it to Morris Levy.

Bill Dana: (laughs) That's good. Never got to know him. He never came down to the pool. We did get stink bombed because on our opening night Steve had a joke. He wrote it. We didn't write it. "Welcome to Havana, the home of the pineapple and Meyer Lansky." He was really askin' for it. Then they had this terrible stink [bomb] in the theater and we couldn't go into it for a day. I remember Lou Costello was down there at that time. He'd broken up with Abbott. That show had Augie and Margo, a dance team and Jayne Meadows was down there and Ruthie Price was there as my guest.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was Lou Costello there doing a nightclub act?

Bill Dana: No, he was there because he was a guest on the show. A lovely guy. A very sweet man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shortly after that, when Castro took power, Jack Paar went down there as his guest and filmed some stuff. That caused a big stir.

Bill Dana: I didn't know that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dorothy Killgallen called him out in her column for his endorsement of Castro and that caused a big feud between them for a while.

Bill Dana: Oh, I wonder why that wasn't part of my consciousness. That's interesting. That's good to hear.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you to know Paar at all? You appeared on his show once.

Bill Dana: Yeah, I knew him. Never worked with him though. Or did I do the Paar show?

Kliph Nesteroff: 1965 during the height of Jose Jimenez you did a spot on the Paar show.

Bill Dana: Oh, okay. Yeah. He was in, I guess, Connecticut. He had a good reputation in terms of treating his writers well. I never got to know him [that well].

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul W. Keyes was a writer on Paar at the time. That's where he met Nixon.

Bill Dana: It's funny, I never had any animosity toward Paul for working with this guy that I really thought was the devil.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of what Paul did for Nixon at the time was not in the open. People knew that he contributed what was supposed to be some humor to his campaign, but there was much more than that. He was the one that first encouraged the White House to go after The Smothers Brothers, which is something that none of his contemporaries were aware of at the time. There's a memo from 1969 that was released a couple years ago when they declassified a bunch of stuff from the Nixon years that says as much.

Bill Dana: Oh, Jesus. That's terrible news. Yeah, well (sighs), anyone who had anything to do with that regime (groans). The stink rubs off on him.

Kliph Nesteroff: I suppose there's good reason why Paul didn't allow it to become common knowledge among his comedy writing contemporaries.

Bill Dana: Yeah. You know, I never could figure him out because George Schlatter was a dear friend. He's one of the nicest human beings in the world. Have you ever interviewed him?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I would like to. When I was talking with Chris Bearde he mentioned that after a couple of years at Laugh-In, there was the Paul Keyes camp and there was the George Schlatter camp and neither sides were speaking with each other. They sent memos through secretaries in order to communicate with each other. 

Bill Dana: I never knew that! That's strange because Schlatter was definitely in charge. I worked later on with George - we did a show called Speak Up, America, which was just traveling around. I had done the show Discover America with Jose Jimenez earlier and George asked me to come aboard and do some producing and writing. It was a great opportunity to travel with my wife. So that's the only time I worked with George. He certainly was nothing like the Nixon [mentality]. You've done a lot of... how old are you?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm twenty-nine.

Bill Dana: (silence) Wow. You're just a baby, yet you've done really great research. This is all back in the Middle Ages that we're talking about.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. I've been a big fan for a long time.

Bill Dana: Well, I enjoy it. I'm one of my favorite subjects.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've owned your comedy records for many, many years. There are a few where people in the audience are asking Jose Jimenez questions and you're coming back with these witty ad-libs... I've always adored those...

Bill Dana: Yes, well we did those at UCLA in the auditorium.

Kliph Nesteroff: The first album of yours that I ever owned was actually Pat Harrington as Guido Panzini and Bill Dana...

Bill Dana: Yes, "As Kookie as Ever" or something like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, that's it. Actually that one was on Roulette Records as well.

Bill Dana: Yes, that's another one that Moe grabbed.


Anonymous said...

Wow, just wow.

You continue to dazzle. I had no clue Bill Dana had ties to my other heroes like the Three Stooges and Spike Jones.

Another great read.

Thank you!

Jonathan F. King said...

Thanks so much for this! I knew, and briefly worked with, Bill in the mid-1970s, but lost touch long ago. He was the greatest, most generous of guys; I loved him, and owe him, a lot. Glad to see he's still got it!

Unknown said...

Fantastic series of interviews. I remember many of these greats from my youth, and I'm pleased to see they are still appreciated. So few of them are still around. Keep up the good work.

Lex Passaris said...

I had the pleasure of getting to know Bill when we worked together on "The Golden Girls" - what a great and wonderful guy.
Thanks for your terrific interview, Kliph.

Tom Ruegger said...

Another grand slam home run. Bill Dana is one of the funniest people and minds on the planet. Thanks so much for interviewing him! What a true comic legend he is!

Kevin K. said...

I always wondered if Don Adams' hotel dick on the Dana show was the basis for Maxwell Smart. When I watched them back then, it sure seemed to be.

Oh, another first-rate interview, by the way. The Beatles/Dana connection is mindboggling.

benson said...

Bill Dana is right. You do your homework. Bravo.

And thank you.

Anonymous said...

Bill Dana also wrote the finest episode of "All in the Family", with Sammy Davis Jr. as Archie's house guest. Mr. Dana should have won an Emmy for that but someone didn't put his name in nomination.

Unknown said...

Hal Block was fired from "What's My Line?" because his somewhat crude style did not go with the rest of the panel. It was Louis Untermeyer who got canned off the show because he appeared in Red Channels. He was replaced by Bennett Cerf.

Ed Golick said...

Great work, as usual, on your Bill Dana piece. A couple of minor corrections- Sullivan's bandleader was Ray Bloch, not Block. Also, the Ginger Ale that Dana had a deal with Vernor's, not Verna's. Dana did the TV spots as Jose Jiminez. They were very clever.

Ted Hering said...

Any clue who Spike Jones is talking to?

Ha! Anyone else notice the arrow in Spike's back?

The woman kissing Spike in the other picture is his sister-in-law, Betty (Greco) Sirpico.

Ted Hering said...

Anyone else notice the arrow in Spike Jones' back? Who is Spike talking with?

The woman kissing Spike in the other picture is his sister-in-law, Betty (Greco) Sirpico.

Michael Powers said...

Was only dimly aware that Bill Dana did as much behind the scenes as in front of a camera. Very entertaining interview.

Devlin Thompson said...

Another first-rate interview! Minor correction: while I've never encountered the commercials in question, I'm pretty sure that he would have been pitching VERNOR'S ginger ale, rather than "Verna's."

Dean Minderman said...

Kliph, great stuff again here in the Bill Dana interview, but I have a complaint/suggestion. Large amounts of text in white type on a black background are very hard to read, even with the larger-than-usual font size. It might be OK for a headline or a couple of lines of text, but these long interviews are tough going.

Any chance you'd consider switching to black type on a white background, or some other color scheme that's easier on the eyes when reading lots of text?

james vaughan said...

... yes please- switch to black type- or anything but white on black- I'm going blind!

Bob Bourne said...

I am looking into it. So far it appears to be so complicated as to be impossible. Blogger is junk software. You'll notice a lot of spacing glitches within these interviews as well, and they are not fixable.

Pelaphus said...

Two minor (yet major) corrections as regards THE NEW ALICE IN WONDERLAND or: WHAT'S A NICE KID LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? Either you misheard/mistranscribed or -- more likely -- Bill just inadvertently misspoke. He did indeed write the book (aka libretto, script) for the animated special, but he was not the lyricist; that was Lee Adams. And the composer's name is spelled Strouse. Adams and Strouse were a fairly hot Broadway team at the time, having created the score for BYE BYE BIRDIE (as well as ALL AMERICAN [which they wrote with Mel Brooks] and GOLDEN BOY); the year ALICE was Broadcast they were also on Broadway with IT'S A BITRD...IT'S A PLANE...IT'S SUPERMAN! They would go on to write APPLAUSE, and Strouse, sans Adams, would write the score for ANNIE (lyricist Martin Charnin).

You might also be intrigued to learn that Hanna-Barbera also released an audio adaptation of the ALICE special. It retained the complete score but, probably due to fees and royalties involved, lost all of its celebrity guest star voices -- except for Dana, who recreated his performance as the White Knight. In place of celebrities, HB tapped their "repertory company" of A+ voice over artists; thus Don Messick stood in for Howard Morris (The White Rabbit), Scatman Crothers for Sammy Davis Jr (the Cheshire Cat) and Henry Corden provided not only Fred Flintstone's singing voice (as he had in the special) but the speaking voice as well, in place of Alan Reed. (Corden also played Fred on the FLINTSTONES record that guest starred Dana). Janet Waldo (speaking) and Doris Drew (singing) reprised the title role of Alice, while Messick, Mel Blanc, Daws Butler and Allan Melvin likewise reprised (and in some cases added to) roles they played in the film. It's likely too that Dana didn't write the audio version of the script -- that was probably Charles Shows, who seems to have written (or at the very least supervised the writin of) all the HB records that featured stories starring their stable of characters.

There's a downloadable MP3 archive of the LP version here:

Anonymous said...

Still fighting on the losing side of the Cold War.

Anonymous said...

Still fighting on the losing side of the Cold War.

Anonymous said...

My uncle was Joe Smith of Smith & Dale fame and I recall that he was not a big fan of Ed Sullivan. Now I know why!

Unknown said...

What a great interview! Back in 1968 and 1969, I wirked as an executive secretary for Jack Kinney and Bernie Wolfe at Kinney-Wolfe Productions Animated Film. I was a singer but day gigs were my bread and butter. Bill Dana used to be in the office and would flirt with me. He was always funny but I was in my twenties and thinking only of music and taking care of my children. I knew who he was. but took those things in stride when it came to celebs and used to date a comedian when I was singing and living in Vegas. At any rate, what an interesting life he has led.