Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Interview with Bobby Ramsen - Part Two

 Kliph Nesteroff: So, we were talking about the Mob and the well-known connection between nightclub comedy during the middle twentieth century and "the boys" as you put it. There were some comedians that were not gangsters themselves, but were certainly darlings of that set and in many ways cut from the same cloth. A guy like B.S. Pully, for instance, with his intimidating stature would actually play gangsters in everything from Guys n' Dolls to Car 54, Where Are You - and in real life he possessed a similar rough-around-the-edges, underworld type demeanor.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes and he worked that way too in his stand-up. He did a stand-up act and he was one of the dirtiest comedians around. He was using four-letter words. Everyone uses four letter words in this era, but in those days to use a four-letter word? Kliph, I'm gonna tell you a true story. You're going to love this. Most every club that I ever worked when I first started in the business at the start of the nineteen fifties had a sign backstage. The sign said: "No hells and no damns." That's how squeaky clean the clubs were.

Mr. Podell never, ever fired anybody, but the only time he had a problem... if you go digging you're libel to come back with [the name of] somebody else. There is a book out there by his daughter and she mentions someone else. Jules Podell let Rich Little go. It was amicable. They both agreed that it would be best if he left. Rich Little is Canadian. He came down and he became very successful and a wonderful impressionist. One of his impressions was political and he started to do anti-Vietnam jokes as this particular person. Veterans took it upon themselves to start picketing The Copacabana because Rich Little, especially being Canadian, "What right has he got to tell us about our politics?" and so forth. They were asked to go away. They were across the street from the club. They wouldn't leave. They're walking back and forth with the signs, "Get rid of Rich Little" and "What right has he" and so on. They tried to get rid of [the picketers] and they can't. By law, they're allowed to quietly protest with signs, but Mr. Podell doesn't want it happening in front of his club.

You can't blame him. He used to go up the wall when people on the radio would say, "Heavy rains and a snowstorm expected." He said, "Well, why do they have to mention what the weather is going to be! It's going to keep people away from the club!" Anyway, he went to Rich Little and he said, "Rich. There's nothing I can do. I can't get rid of these people. I'd appreciate it if you'd just walk away from this." They came to a deal and he left. The only other person that he had a problem with, and this is even more important, George Carlin. George Carlin had a mind of his own and wasn't about to be told what to do in his act, did a joke about a whorehouse. Mr. Podell came to him and said, "Please don't use the expression whorehouse on my stage." And they had a to do and, as far as I know, he never let him go, but he didn't think to kindly of him after that. Carlin refused to take it out of his act. 

Kliph Nesteroff: A clash of titans.

Bobby Ramsen: Jules Podell... he talked with a very, low, gruff voice. He was short and squat. He was not involved with the boys, he worked for the boys - to run the kitchen of The Copacabana and eventually they used his name. "Jules Podell's Copacabana." He was the front man for the boys at The Copacabana, but he was not involved in any way except he helped run The Copacabana. The Copacabana according to what I heard was owned by Mr. Genovese. When Mr. Genovese "went away" for awhile and did a few years in jail, he turned it over to Frank Costello.

Mr. Costello eventually became the owner of The Copacabana, but Podell worked for these guys. He not only worked for these guys, there was a guy named Connie Immerman. He ran The Cotton Club, which was the boys. Started out as a speakeasy, ended up becoming a legitimate club when prohibition was repealed. Then he had another place called Connie's Inn. These were all Black [clubs] in Harlem. Very, very famous. All of the white people used to come down from midtown Manhattan and frequent The Cotton Club. These are the guys that ran it. Eddie Davis was a legitimate guy that ran a club, he was an entertainer, his partner was Leon Enken. Eddie said that when they first opened up, when prohibition was repealed, and they remained to run Leon and Eddie's... A guy came in one day. Put a gun on the table and said, "We'd like to talk to you and your partner." Eddie said, "We have absolutely no interest in any other partners. We're two guys running a club and we're not working for partners." 

He said he was never bothered again. It wasn't a question of, I mean, I'm sure strong arm tactics were used in certain respects, but that [story] was straight from Eddie Davis. He finally sold the building. He got four hundred thousand dollars back in the fifties. That was big money and it was quite a piece of property. Toots Shor

Kliph Nesteroff: It's fascinating history, all of that.

Bobby Ramsen: Jules Podell, like I say, talked with a very deep, gruff voice. He had a way about him and he ran a very, very tight club. That's what made it so important. The Copacabana, Kliph, you could go to The Copacabana in those days... the food was excellent. It had one of the best Chinese menus in New York. It was sensational Chinese food. The steaks were superb. You could go to The Copacabana for seven dollars and fifty cents, near the end in the sixties, it was not a cover charge. It was not a music charge. It was not an admission charge. It was a minimum. You had to spend seven-fifty. You could eat it or drink it. People would come there and see Jimmy Durante! Frank Sinatra! Rosemary Clooney! Louis Prima! The biggest stars in America. Big, big gigantic nightclub stars... seven dollars and fifty cents. And the food was sensational. He gave them such value and that's why he had a top... he would never pay anybody, including Sinatra, more than eight thousand dollars.

That was the very top amount he would pay anybody. If you didn't want to work for eight thousand dollars then don't play it. A lot of people played it because they were friendly with certain people that asked them to play it. He was very careful about everything that came out of the kitchen. Most of the time you would find him in a highchair, sitting at the entrance/exit of the kitchen, looking at the plates of food that were going out to the customers. He once threw somebody out of the club because they sent the steak back. He walked over to him and said, "Was there something wrong with the steak?" He said, "Yes. I didn't like the steak." He said, "I serve only the finest food. It's always done perfectly. I would appreciate it if you would leave and don't ever come here again." True story.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is a pretty good half hour documentary from 1962 called Lonely Boy. It traces the ascent of Paul Anka, and there's plenty of footage of him in The Copacabana and lots of film of Jules Podell and he is exactly as you have described.

Bobby Ramsen: That's interesting. Revealing, right?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes and it gives you a great glimpse into Jules Podell the person, the larger than life character.

Bobby Ramsen: Sure. I was up in their lounge one day. They used to have little cellophane packets with tiny little crackers inside, they called them oysterettes. They served a lot of clams and oysters and they'd have this little thing on the table that would hold a bunch of packets of oysterettes and a little jar with horseradish and sauce. Mr. Podell was up there before the club opened that night and everybody was straightening things up. About five o'clock in the afternoon. He noticed that a busboy, as he was taking care of his duties - fixing the chairs, setting the tables - picked up a package of oysterettes, opened it up and started to put them in his mouth. Mr. Podell walked over and said, "Put that down. Now get out of the club. Don't ever come back." So someone said to him, "Julie. Weren't you a little rough on the kid? It's only a package of oysterettes." Mr. Podell said, "It stawwts with oysterettes and it finishes up with steaks!" (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about BS Pully. Did you work with him or know him?

Bobby Ramsen: I met Pully a few times. He worked in the smaller clubs and usually a jazz place. His name was BS Pully and you know what the BS stands for. He had a partner named HS Gump. These two guys, they worked... I was talking about this with someone recently and they said, "It sounds like Andrew Dice Clay." Because Andrew Dice used the same...

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, now that you mention it of course. They both did x-rated nursery rhymes...

Bobby Ramsen: That's exactly where I'm going. That started with Pully. Pully's joke was, "Hickory, dickory, dock. The mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one... uhhhhhh..... hickory, dickory...mouse ran up the... fuck 'em! Let him stay there!" Now he said [fuck]. Like I said to you, [back then] no hells, no damns. You couldn't say S.O.B. I hear S.O.B. on the late night shows all the time now. Bastard is a word they throw around now. The only place where you could get away with that kind of language was on Broadway. The legitimate stage you could say anything because it was thee-yay-tah and it was acceptable. In a nightclub it just wasn't acceptable. So Pully had his own special crowd that would go to see him. Some people would go just once to say, "I don't believe what I'm hearing!" That was part of Lenny Bruce's entre into getting a name

Comedians would stand around in front of Lindy's and Hansen's Drugstore and they'd banter [dirty] jokes back and forth. But you would never think of repeating that joke at the nightclub you were working at that night. You just wouldn't tell these kinds of jokes to an audience or even like a Hitler joke. You couldn't tell a Hitler joke! But amongst each other you would. Like, "A guy comes up to an agent. A Broadway agent. He says, 'I got a great act. This guy is sensational. People are going to love this guy. You're making a mistake if you don't use him.' 'All right. You've sold him. What's his name?' 'His name is Adolf Hitler.' 'Adolf Hitler!? Are you crazy?' 'He says, all right. Don't get excited. So the guy made a mistake!" Those are the kinds of jokes you'd do in front of Hansen's and you'd all laugh. But a guy like Lenny Bruce came along and he had the guts to go out and do that kind of material on a nightclub floor. Obviously he gained an audience and a great deal of fame.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you think the reason that Lenny Bruce ended up getting in trouble then, was not necessarily the language he employed... as we just established BS Pully was already doing four-letter material and nobody ever bothered to arrest him... So do you not agree that Lenny Bruce's obscenity charges had little to do with obscenity and instead, everything to do with the subject matter - namely attacking the church? Attacking religion?

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, well, listen. The story that goes around. He started to step on too many toes. He was doing pope jokes. Now that's a very, very delicate subject. I think Carson is the only one, and now Letterman will do some pope jokes, and they get away with it. But with Lenny... people would stand around and they'd say, "There's so much wealth in the Catholic church. Look at all the poor Catholics having a problem just getting along. Why doesn't the church take some of that money to help the poor?" These are the kinds of things you would hear in private conversation. Lenny took that and he put it into his act. Once he did that he opened the door for criticism.

He had some big Irish-Catholic fans. Dorothy Kilgallen, an Irish-Catholic lady, never found any offense. She praised Lenny when she first saw him. She was a big fan of Lenny's and as far as I know, she never stopped being a big fan. She was loyal to him and so on and so forth. It finally got to a point where a combination of doing church jokes and the pope jokes... then he started to use the four letter words that we're talking about, Kliph, that nobody had the guts to do. 

If he said the same thing for five dollars and fifty cents on Broadway... and parenthetically, that fifty cents was the amusement tax. In other words, if you went to the theater you paid a dollar ten. You paid a dollar for the seat. The ten percent was an amusement tax. That amusement tax was put on all amusements; movie houses, the opera, wherever you went and there was entertainment. It was put on to defray the cost of the Spanish-American War in 1898 with the proviso of when the war is won, that tax will be taken off. It is now 2011 (laughs) and when you go to the theater and buy a ticket for a hundred and fifty dollars, they add ten percent so it's a hundred and sixty-five dollars... fifteen dollars is to help defray the cost of the Spanish-American War (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Unreal.

Bobby Ramsen: Yes, well, that's what it is. Once the tax goes on it never comes off.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a bit about Fat Jack E. Leonard. Did you know him...

Bobby Ramsen: I did know him. I knew him very well. One of the nicest, one of the sweetest, one of the kindest... a gentle man. A truly gentle man. A lovely guy. The kind of stuff that he did was nowhere near... a lot of insult comedians are downright mean. If they know something about you or they heard something about you, they'll say it right to your face on the stage. It's done with venom. Jack E. never, never worked that way. He would do jokes, like he would say to Perry Como, "Perry Como is here tonight. Hello, Perry, it's nice to see you here. You're wonderful and we're all fans of yours. Some day your singing voice is going to reach your throat and you're going to be an even bigger star."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bobby Ramsen: So, that was the kind of stuff that he would do. "It's nice to see you here tonight and I just want to tell you - I never liked you when I liked you!" When David Letterman puts his hand to the side of his body after a punchline, I'm sure he'd admit it if you asked him, [he's doing] Jack E. Leonard. Jack E. Leonard used to pat the side of his stomach. As a human being, just the sweetest guy in the world, married to a darling lady. He was out of Chicago, he came to New York and became a big hit. Of course, a big man like that doing a dance is always entertaining and he started out as a dancer so he was very light on his feet and he wore a Panama hat and he used to twirl the hat. He had a lot of funny, little ways about him and the sweetness came through even when he was insulting people.

Kliph Nesteroff: When Don Rickles first came on the scene, was their any sense that he was trying ride the coattails of Jack E. Leonard at all?

Bobby Ramsen: Well... when Don first appeared at The Copacabana, I was there. Jack E. came over and he told Don, "I want to introduce you." So they had a good relationship. Jack E. came out and said, "It's time for Rickles to come on. I'm here tonight because I want to make a citizen's arrest."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bobby Ramsen: So he kidded Rickles. Jack E. Leonard did not work the same way that Don works. Don works stronger than Jack E. Leonard. Jack E. Leonard was a powder puff compared to a rabbit punch. But there's no doubt about Rickles success. You never watch Don Rickles without coming away having two or three belly laughs. I mean, just funny, funny, stuff - especially when he's on the talk shows. He does something that no one else does. He does exactly the same thing every time he goes on. Exactly the same thing and for some reason it works for him. Whether he's picking out certain characteristics about Leno's chin or something about Letterman, "That's because you're in the house all the time - you never leave the house." If he knows some detail, there's no stopping him. He'll use it. But Don likes to say he's an original and that nobody ever did what he did before. It's simply not true. Jack E. Leonard was an insult comedian. One of the funniest insult comedians that ever came down the pike was Charlie McCarthy. Charlie McCarthy was one of the best. Bergen's Charlie McCarthy was one of the funniest insult comedians around. Get a hold of an old Charlie McCarthy - Edgar Bergen [episode] of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. There was a time where two big stars would come on every week - John Barrymore in his very late years bantering with Charlie McCarthy and W.C. Fields would banter. You'll hear, McCarthy was an insult comedian!

Kliph Nesteroff: So who would have been writing those quips?

Bobby Ramsen: They had a string of writers. When I told you the Mort Lachman story, being with somebody for twenty-five years - was par for the course. Jack Benny had the same writers, some of them for forty years! They grew up together in the radio business. There's a book out there, I can't think of the name. I wish I could. It's interviews with all of the old time writers. The guys that wrote the Fanny Brice Baby Snooks stuff, Fibber McGee and Molly, Perry Como, I can't think of the name.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have one book like that called The Laugh Crafters by Jordan S. Young and its about all the old time radio comedy writers...

Bobby Ramsen: I think that might be the book. That gives you the general idea of what it would have been like writing for them. Jerry Seelan was a writer for the Fanny Brice - Baby Snooks show. He told me over lunch one day at The Friar's Club, "I'm going to tell you something, Bobby, that will save you fifteen years. Find yourself a character. If you find yourself a character, that's a big step toward becoming well-known." It sounds simple, but very true and very good advice. Here's a story that I heard and I buy it. Jack Benny was one of the best stand-up monologists in the business in vaudeville. Jack Benny's first review [in Variety] when he was playing all the Hinterlands, starting out of Waukegan and in the process of going through all the steps of making it to the big time - The Palace Theater, which was the gold. This was Benny's first review in a New York venue. There was a stand-up monologist named Julius Tannen. The reviewer said of Benny in his first appearance at The Palace, "It appears that Mr. Benny has been watching Julius Tannen... but not close enough."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) ouch.

Bobby Ramsen: So that was his first review. Now, according to what I heard, Ed Sullivan had a little interview show on one of the stations. When I say little, I mean it was like a fifteen minute show. Jack Benny was his guest. He was such a big hit and radio was just beginning. It was around 1932-33. It peaked the interest of the radio people and the networks. So he walks away from that interview with glowing reports. They get in touch with him and they give him his own radio show. He comes on and does what he does. It, of course, was not the Jack Benny show that we would come to know because he was just beginning. This thing took years to build. But one of the building blocks of the Jack Benny story was that the Canadian Dry company sponsored Jack Benny's first program. During that first sponsorship during those early, early years, the Canada Dry company decided that if they could get their hands on the empty bottles, they could reuse the bottles and as a business move it was worth it to them. Now how do you do it? Somebody came up with the idea that you leave a deposit of two cents and when you're finished with the bottle, if you bring it back, we'll give you two cents. In the interim the writers started to give Benny lines like, "I'm so excited. Today is the day that I'm bringing back four bottles of Canada Dry and I'm going to get eight cents!" That was the beginning of Benny's cheap character.

Kliph Nesteroff: Fascinating.

Bobby Ramsen: It's fascinating. So that's what I'm saying as far as serendipity is concerned. How does somebody come up with "I get no respect." Well, Rodney came up with it and that line was used years ago. There's a whole scene where the expression "I get no respect" is used in a film called Bye, Bye, Birdie. Paul Lynde is lamenting that "I get no respect." His little boy comes down and says, "I respect you, daddy." Lynde, in that wonderful voice says, "Who wants the respect of a ten year old!" What I'm saying is that the line was used before and Rodney really made something out of it. I get such a kick out of it when they say on the Senate floor that "this bill has become the Rodney Dangerfield bill." His name has entered the American culture and that's exciting to me because I knew Rodney when he called himself Jack Roy. So, I go way back with Rodney.

Kliph Nesteroff: That whole story of him abandoning show business as Jack Roy to go sell aluminum siding only to come back triumphantly as Rodney Dangerfield is also a great story.

Bobby Ramsen: Make a little note. The next time we speak - get me to tell you the story of where Jack Roy came up with the name Rodney Dangerfield. It's a great story.


Kevin K. said...

Having read a book by one of Jack Benny's writers, the story to which Bobby refers might be this:
Jack (on his show) is talking to Mary about all the people he's invited to a party: Ronald Coleman, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart -- every big name in showbiz, it goes on forever. And Mary tells him one person has RSVP'd so far. "Who is it?" Jack asks excitedly. Mary replies (in her typical flat, cynical voice), "Rodney Dangerfield." It was such an absurd name -- especially coming after all those stars -- that it got a huge laugh. Now, I think the real Dangerfield denied he got his name from that show, but if not, it's a hell of a coincidence.

Michael Powers said...

Kevin K. is right, I've heard exactly the same story on some talk show but not from Rodney Dangerfield. There was a woman in Virginia I used to see years ago named Crystal Armentrout. Today there's a great guitarist named Crystal Armentrout just the right age to be my Crystal Armentrout's daughter. When I asked the guitarist about it, she claims there's no connection whatsoever despite both Crystal Armentrouts being from Virginia. Now THAT'S a coincidence!

Anonymous said...


This interview is amazing and I'm only on Part 2.

-John Cornejo

Unknown said...

"Brice-A-Roni, The Staten Island Treat!"