Monday, July 18, 2011

An Interview with Freddie Roman

Kliph Nesteroff: So you started as a mountain comic and then you left to sell shoes and later came back to showbiz?

Freddie Roman: Correct. I went to New York University and met a young lady there and we got married right out of school. There was no way I could make a living as a comedian. So I went into my dad's shoe store and worked with him and then opened my own. I then realized the day after I opened my own store - I hated it. After six years I sold it. I started selling life insurance to give me some semblance of an income and then on the weekends worked in the Mountains. I got very lucky and within two years I gave up everything else and I just worked as a comedian.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of your earliest gigs was at the Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen.

Freddie Roman: Correct. I was the social director there, which meant emceeing the shows at night and working with the guests all day long. You would take them on hikes, exercise with them and it was an all-day job.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was that resort like? Was it a low-rent Catskill resort? There seemed to be a hierarchy of resorts. You had the huge famous ones and then you had your middle-level resorts...

Freddie Roman: Right. This one was middle-level. They accommodated five hundred people and it was really one of the hot places up there. They had a great nightclub. The Concord and Grossingers... those were the two biggest. Then you had a whole group just under that. There were actually two hundred places that used entertainment up there in the summertime.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Freddie Roman: So the small ones, they had to take chances with inexperienced acts. That's how the young comics got their start.

Kliph Nesteroff: You pieced your act together using bits from Larry Best, Larry Alpert and Myron Cohen.

Freddie Roman: I did a lot of that early on, yes. That's the truth. Larry Best and Larry Alpert were two comedians whose prominence was the Catskill Mountains. Ninety percent of their income was up there and they were two fabulous, fabulous comedians. Myron Cohen, of course, received national prominence as a story teller comedian. I actually became his neighbor in a suburb of New York. For many years we would go out for dinner once a week. He was a wonderful man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the comics that were coming up at the same time as you? When a comedian starts out he will always bond with those that are starting at the same time.

Freddie Roman: Well, my friend Mal Z. Lawrence. He and I were the two hot guys at the same time in the Mountains and worked an awful lot. Sal Richards, an Italian comedian, a rarity in the Catskills, which was predominantly Jewish. He became a big hit up in the Catskills. Dick Capri. Dick was a big hit in the Mountains. And those were my contemporaries, really.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played a place called The Biltmore across from the Avon Lodge.

Freddie Roman: That was my very first job! I got forty dollars a week and I slept in the dressing room onstage. That was my room for the summer. It was horrible, but it was wonderful. I was eighteen years old. What did I know, you know? Avon Lodge - that was an interesting place. Sid Caesar started his career there. He was a saxophone player and ended up marrying the boss's daughter.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you moved onto some of the big Manhattan rooms. You eventually played the Copa, but it was sort of in it's last stages. A shadow of its former glory days.

Freddie Roman: It was. I played it several times. The first time I played it - it was in June and it was a prom show. It was all prom kids that came. I was there with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Freddie Roman: They were a very hot recording group. It was a little bit of a shock to me having played primarily Jewish audiences. Now I was playing for kids. I had to tailor my material, but it worked out fine. I then played it with Bobby Darin the year before he died. Then the Copa just sort of petered out after that.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Jules Podell like?

Freddie Roman: He was an absolute tyrant. I did a joke in my act opening night. Fella goes to the doctor. He says, "Doctor, I have a problem. I can't pee anymore." Doctor says, "How old are you?" "Ninety-four." The doctor says, "You've peed enough."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Freddie Roman: Innocuous, cute joke. After the show the maitre'd comes over to me. He says, "Mr. Podell wants to see you." I said, "Oh my God! He's going to offer me a lifetime contract I was such a big hit!" I walked over and he looked up at me and he said, "Nobody pees at the Copacabana! People are eating here! Take that joke out!" I turned around and walked away and that was the last words he ever said to me. It was a little frightening. He was an imposing figure.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever spend time in some of the familiar comedian hangouts in Manhattan like Lindy's or Hanson's...

Freddie Roman: I came along after Lindy's. Hanson's I went to a couple of times. I wasn't really part of that fold yet. Gene Baylos, a legendary Friar's comedian used to hang out at Hanson's. A lot of those guys. Larry Storch. But they were ahead of me and I always felt a little intimidated about going there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gene Baylos was, of course, a legendary figure...

Freddie Roman: Oh, very much so.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Gene Baylos?

Freddie Roman: My favorite all-time story. Three or four comics were standing in front of the Stage Deli on 7th Avenue. Across the street they were digging out the foundation of what was going to become The Americana Hotel. Gene Baylos ran over to them after they had dug forty foot holes. He ran over the foreman and he yelled, "I told you 43rd Street - not 53rd Street!!!" Every comic was screaming, you know, it was hilarious.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why do you think he never became more famous?

Freddie Roman: You know, there's no rhyme or reason. I can't really put a finger on it. But offstage, to the comedians, he was the funniest guy. He'd do shtick at your table and you walked away screaming. It just didn't transfer to the stage, but I don't understand why.

Kliph Nesteroff: Everyone I talk to says he was the funniest guy.

Freddie Roman: Without question.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jackie Miles...

Freddie Roman: I only knew him as a fan. I was always in awe of guys like that. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show and he was wonderful. I know he had a drinking problem.

It's funny you should say this. I did a show last summer. A young man came up to me and it was Jackie Miles' son. We had a nice chat about his dad. I really didn't know too much about him.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jackie Vernon?

Freddie Roman: Jackie Vernon I got to know. He also came to a sad ending. The last time I saw him was in Las Vegas. He was in a revue in a busted out hotel - a grade D Las Vegas hotel and he was struggling. Health wise he was not good. But he broke through. He was very funny and did a lot of television with that dry, droll delivery.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Kannon.

Freddie Roman: He was interesting. He was a little risque before its time. He built up a following and opened a nightclub in New York called The Rat Fink Room. It was a huge success for a couple years. I went to see him and he was a terrific monologist. He really was.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Rat Fink Room was upstairs from another club called The Roundtable...

Freddie Roman: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Which was bankrolled by Morris Levy from Roulette Records... who was a gangster.

Freddie Roman: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you recall that element?

Freddie Roman: Not really. I didn't know too much about that until Morris Levy died and it was all out in the open.

Kliph Nesteroff: BS Pully.

Freddie Roman: BS Pully was a burlesque kind of comic. Very low class until he got lucky and got that part in Guys n' Dolls, which changed his life. He had a partner. It was BS Pully and HS Gump. There was a little nightclub up in the Catskill Mountains - not attached to a hotel - separate - and they would spend the summer up there. I saw him do something horrendous one night. There was a young girl singer. Obviously one of her first jobs. He walked up behind her and put his arms around her and started grabbing her breasts while she was singing. He thought this was hilarious. The audience was laughing. The girl burst into tears and ran off the stage!

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Freddie Roman: Yeah, that was not nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: How common was that - to have a nightclub not attached to a hotel in the Catskills?

Freddie Roman: There were a couple up there like that. There was one called The Wonderbar. That's where BS Pully worked. Then there was the Club 52. That featured Belle Barth. Do you know who she is?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Freddie Roman: Yeah, she would spend the summer up there. Interestingly enough, they didn't draw from the hotel guests, these clubs. There were people that took cottages for the summer and they would go out to these kinds of clubs because the hotels wouldn't permit non-guests in.

Kliph Nesteroff: Huh. That's interesting. That's something you do not hear people talk about when they talk about the Catskills.

Freddie Roman: They don't, no.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jackie Wakefield?

Freddie Roman: Jackie Wakefield was a wonderful comic. A wonderful comic! He really was one of the top comedians to work in the Catskills. He went on from there to work as Engelbert Humperdinck's opening act for a while. Terrific and he passed away recently.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a comedy record by Jackie Wakefield recorded live at the Concord.

Freddie Roman: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Can you describe those venues for me? Those giant mammoth venues - The Concord, Grossingers...

Freddie Roman: At one time The Concord was the world's largest nightclub. It had thirty-five hundred seats. When they were full, it was the most amazing place to work. You heard laughs like you couldn't believe it. Now - can you picture this hotel jammed to the rafters and if they didn't like an act?

There were ten doors at the back of the nightclub. You would see doors start to open and people would leave. That was always the gag at The Concord. Yul Brynner is a perfect example. Major Broadway star. He was in The King and I. That show was dark on Sundays. Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the biggest weekend of the summer, The Concord booked Yul Brynner.

The Concord audiences were used to singers like Steve and Eydie and that kind of thing. Yul Brynner walked out wearing a black satin blouse opened to his waist. Black pants. Sat down yoga style on the stage with a balalaika in his hands and sang Russian folk songs. Well, by the fourth song people were bored to death and they started to leave! Phil Greenwall, the entertainment director said to me, "It was a nine door opening."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Oh, man. Now how about Grossingers? It was the other mighty resort.

Freddie Roman: Grossingers. That was smaller than The Concord, but still accommodated fifteen to eighteen hundred people. One of the great stories is that their PR guy was a guy named Milton Blackstone. He would invite celebrities up there for nothing to come up for the weekend. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor... when Eddie Cantor came up they had a young boy singer on the show, purposefully so that Eddie Cantor could see him. And he made him a star. His name was Eddie Fisher.

Eddie Fisher then married Debbie Reynolds at Grossingers and so that became a big social event. Grossingers was a great resort. Interestingly enough, the grandson of Jenny Grossinger is the CEO of the Mohegan Sun Indian Gaming Complex on the East Coast. So he stayed in the hotel industry.

Kliph Nesteroff: That concourse and that series of buildings that was Grossingers - still exists. It's completely abandoned!

Freddie Roman: Well, The Concord was bought by a developer named Louis Capelli and he tore down all of the buildings. He just now entered a deal with the Mohegan Sun to put a new building on the grounds. The golf course remains. It's a beautiful golf course. They're going to build a new resort up there and it's the first sign of life in the Catskills in twenty years.

Kliph Nesteroff: Grossingers is still there, but it's decaying and covered in mould.

Freddie Roman: The trouble with their buildings is they were not torn down and they're just rotting away.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's so weird to see it abandoned! It's such a huge resort!

Freddie Roman: Oh, yes. I took a ride up there with my wife one day just becaue I hadn't been around there in a while. It's just awful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Such a bizarre thing to see.

Freddie Roman: Yup. Interestingly enough the golf course there is still open.

Kliph Nesteroff: Want to ask you about some more comedians...

Freddie Roman: Sure, go ahead.

Kliph Nesteroff: Joe E. Ross.

Freddie Roman: Joe E. Ross was a comedian, but never successful at it. When he got the television show that changed his whole life and he became a character. And that character worked for him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Alan Gale.

Freddie Roman: A brilliant storyteller. Alan was the forerunner to Myron Cohen. Myron was a great story teller, but Alan Gale had a nightclub. It was called Alan Gale's Celebrity Club and he was just wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack E. Leonard.

Freddie Roman: Well, Fat Jack was a character. It was interesting. I would watch him on The Ed Sullivan Show. He didn't do much of anything. He sang a little, he danced a little and he told a couple of jokes. But the people loved him. He had that ingratiating personality.

Kliph Nesteroff: Joe Ancis.

Freddie Roman: Joe Ancis wasn't a comedian. Joe Ancis was the alter ego of Rodney Dangerfield. He hung out with Rodney. He helped Rodney establish that character with "I don't get no respect." He was an aluminum siding salesman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lee Tully.

Freddie Roman: Lee was a friend. He worked quite a bit in the Catskills and did very nicely.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter.

Freddie Roman: Jack is still alive, doing well, living in Beverly Hills. Jack Carter should have been the biggest star of all. That's how talented he was. In a nightclub, in a saloon, he was unreal. His energy was boundless! He sang. His jokes... Jack was a great performer. He had a series in early television. His own starring series. He had a wonderful career and to this day he's still working as an actor in sitcoms here and there.

Kliph Nesteroff: I am still amazed that he didn't become a bigger star. He was everywhere. He was so prolific. He was on every TV show and at every event.

Freddie Roman: No question about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: When we talk about comedians of that era, he seems to be the one that always slips through the cracks.

Freddie Roman: It's true. Of all those contemporaries, Buddy Hackett became a major star, Jan Murray had a wonderful career, but Jack somehow never got to that echelon.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Al Kelly?

Freddie Roman: Al was adorable. Al's claim to fame, of course, was his double talk. He would start talking and he would sound very normal and then he would slip into this gibberish - and you thought you were going deaf! He was funny and Ed Sullivan loved him. Terrific guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Buddy Hackett.

Freddie Roman: Buddy was to me, really, the funniest comedy mind of all time. Toward the end of his career got very X-rated. I once asked him why. He said, "Because there's no more challenges. I know I'm going to get laughs when I do my regular act, but I want to get the audience to hate me and then see how long it takes me to win them back." Which I thought was a little nuts! He was so funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Mason.

Freddie Roman: He's my least favorite person in the whole world. But that's personal. He's a wonderful comedian. Brilliant. Not my favorite human being... but that's beside the point. He's brilliant. His concept to do a show on Broadway was incredibly smart and because of his success I was able to do Catskills on Broadway; to raise the money to bring it to Broadway strictly on the basis that Mason was a big hit.

Kliph Nesteroff: Catskills on Broadway fell victim to some kind of profit-skimming scheme...

Freddie Roman: There was a box office scheme. Being one of the producers and an actor, I was onstage every night. I would get a report on how many tickets were sold. I could look out in the audience and see that there were more people there than they were telling us. So, I called my producing partner's attention to it and we impounded the ticket box two nights in a row. Sure enough, they claimed we had three hundred when we had five hundred - that kind of thing. So, it was a major scam, but it was all settled. They reimbursed us.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you say Jackie Mason was not one of your favorite people and that's something that a lot of comics have to say about Jackie.

Freddie Roman: He's a loner. He never likes... I can't explain it. I just can't.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was once asked about the Friar's Club and Jackie Mason said, "You never saw such hostility! Alan King with venom! Vicious hate! Freddie Roman - full of hate! They don't even try to hide it."

Freddie Roman: You know, that's so stupid. That's just so stupid. The Friar's Club is a such a wonderful, social... he never came once. He would come once in a... He didn't care for anything. It certainly wasn't jealousy, because he was much more successful than I was. Why he had that venom, I have no idea.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sounds like he burned a lot of bridges on his way up...

Freddie Roman: Oh, very much so.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another venue you performed at a few decades back. The Mill Run Theater in Chicago.

Freddie Roman: That was a suburban theater in the round where all the top acts played; Sammy Davis, Tom Jones. I worked it with Totie Fields. It was a great theater and they subsequently tore it down. I don't know, they probably built a Wal-Mart there now.

Kliph Nesteroff: Tell me about Totie.

Freddie Roman: Totie was great. She saw me one night at The Concord Hotel. She came backstage and said, "You were wonderful! When was the last time you worked Las Vegas?" I said, "I've never worked Las Vegas." She said, "My friend is the manager of Juliet Prowse and I know he's looking for a comedian to open for her in November." She proceeded to call him from my dressing room and forced him to book me! He said, "I've never heard of him." She said, "Don't worry. He'll be sensational. I just saw him at The Concord. He will be perfect." She got me that job, my first in Vegas, and it opened the door for my next fifteen years of working in Nevada. She was my love.

Kliph Nesteroff: You ended up working the Desert Inn.

Freddie Roman: Right. Desert Inn was my first Vegas job. Then I did Caesar's Palace for eleven years. Ten weeks a year for eleven years, opening for Steve and Eydie, Tom Jones and Cher. Yeah, it was a helluva run I had. Working in Las Vegas I would have to adjust my material. If I was in the Mountains my material was geared to a Jewish audience. So my material did have to change a lot.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a guy who is synonymous with the Friar's - Joey Adams.

Freddie Roman: Joey wrote a book called Here's to the Friar's. Joey was a working comedian for many, many years. He actually authored twenty-three books. His wife is the famous comedian Cindy Adams. His stand-up act... he always worked with stooges. One was a boxer named Tony Canzoneri. He would use him as a foil onstage. He had another partner named Mark Platt. He didn't work alone a lot. Then he became head of the union. The American Union of Variety Artists. He was an ambassador, I think, under JFK.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really? I didn't know that.

Freddie Roman: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did he hold the same title at The Friar's Club that you currently do?

Freddie Roman: No. No, he never was an officer. Prior to me, my office at the club was held by a ton of people over the years, but... I'm the dean, which is the President of the Friar's and then there is the Abbott, which is the chairman of the board. That's pretty much a name only type of job. Sinatra for twenty years, Alan King, who was more hands on, and now it's Jerry Lewis. Yeah, the club has been doing great.

Kliph Nesteroff: The position you have today... you've had it since...

Freddie Roman: This is my seventeenth year. Originally it was for two years and then they kept re-electing me. I said, "Who do I have to sleep with to get out of this job?" But I love it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was there some kind of controversy when you were initially running for the position? Members of the Friar's Club were objecting to your nomination. You were considered tainted because you had done a gig in Apartheid South Africa...

Freddie Roman: Uh, that did come up. But it didn't mean anything because while I worked in South Africa - I worked with Shirley Bassey, a black artist. At every performance one thousand seats were kept for one dollar, so that her black following could come see her. So they weren't segregated shows by any means. That ended that controversy and I was elected to my position at The Friar's.


Phil In Phoenix said...

Another great interview, Kliph!

The Mill Run Theatre was in the Chicago suburb of Niles. I grew up not too far from there and saw a few shows there(Gabe Kaplan/Manhattan Transfer, Freddie Prinze/Staple Singers, Steven Wright/Rich Hall/Larry 'Bud' Melman).

Great place; in-the-round with a revolving stage. I don't think there was more than 20 rows of seating. Wiki says it seated 1600, but felt more like maybe half that.

The lobby was lined with pictures or the big names that played there; Sinatra, Jackson Five, Sammy Davis, Jr., etc. Everyone played there.

The Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix(where I now live)is pretty much the same size and layout. It's still in operation.

I saw Myron Cohen perform in Vegas in the '70s when I was about 15 years old. He was opening for The Letterman. My sister liked sappy singing groups, I liked old comedians, and my parents were looking for a clean show to take us to. He was a very funny, very entertaining storyteller.

Thanks for being the historian you are, Kliph.

Louie said...

Since no one has a nice word to say about Jackie Mason, it would be great if you could interview him. He is universally disliked. I wonder why?

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting, as I read through these amazing interviews, the story lines that develop. You really get a feel for someone like Joe E. Ross when you hear the various stories about him. Or how beloved and admired Gene Baylos was--everybody sort of at a loss as to why he never broke through. Same with Jack Carter. This is just great stuff, Kliph. I'm hooked--I can't get any work done!

Jerry said...

I met Freddie when I worked with him on a cruise ship about five years ago. We disembarked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and were driven to Montego Bay airport. He's a geninely good guy and very supportive of other entertainers. Nice man.

Jerry said...

I met Freddie several years ago when we worked together on a ship. We disembarked in Ocho Rios and I enjoyed talking with him en route to Mobay. funny man and sweet guy.

Dan G. said...

Growing up on long island, going to the Catskills! Saw Freddie roman do his "shtik" That was a great time for that generation of comics. At the Concord, I saw all the best in the 60's......DG, now in south Florida seeing all of that generation of entertainers in the condo circut

Ira said...

My thanks too Kliph. Loved that you asked "what
was Totie Fields like." I loved her as a teen.


Ira said...

I add my thanks Kliph--for capturing part of my comedy driven youth. Loved that you asked: "What was Totie Fields like." I was fascinated/entertained by her as a teen.

Ira said...

My thanks too Kliph--genius to capture these folks. Loved that you asked him: 'What was Totie Fields like?"
I was fascinated/entertained by her as a teen.

John Briggs said...

lfThrilled to see Freddie Roman comment on so many of his contemporaries, from the well-known to those flying just under the radar. I caught Freddie as a teenager in the '80s and he was amazing. Always thought comics like Freddie, Mal Z. Lawrence, Dick Capri, etc., were underappreciated. I picked up a book recently (A Ph.D. in Comedy from the Great Comedians by Tommy Moore, who I think was a comic in the generation just after Freddie's group). In the book, Freddie talks about his respect for tradition -- traditional jokes, stories, etc., and how he refuses to let them die. Those Borscht Belt comics weren't just funny onstage, they were insightful and thoughtful offstage. The book offers a different take on Jackie Mason, and includes some great lessons from Alan King, Totie Fields, Myron Cohen, Joan Rivers, etc.

Anyway, thanks for the interview, and thank you, Freddie, for keeping those comedy traditions and memories alive.

sharon menashes said...

It is amazing to me that Mr. bigshot Roman can't remember the one person who gave him his chance to hone his comedy skills while he was still a shoe salesman.
And when that man got alzheimers and the only thing he wanted was to speak to Mr. Roman on the phone the big shot had no time for him. The other comedians from the old days that were mentioned in the interview all worked at Areles and they were all a hell of a lot nicer than
Freddie Roman turned out to be. Never was I so disappointed in a person as I am with him.
Sharon Goldstein Menashes

Unknown said...

Sensational interview.

Doug in SRQ said...

I saw Freddie at the Westbury Music Fair in 1986 with Dick Shawn, Jack Carter and Gene Baylos. One of the funniest nights ever. Had the pleasure of talking with Freddie on radio a few years ago when he was doing a show in Sarasota, FL. Good guy.