Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard something along the lines of you being a child stage hand for Red Skelton...

Dick Curtis: Well, I'll tell you what that was. We were a gypsy family. I had a hustling father and two brothers, a sister, my mother and I. My father was a real estate hustler. He would hustle in one town until they got wise to him and then he'd take us and we'd run to another town. I was a gypsy from the time I was born until about 1936. I was raised principally in Indianapolis, Indiana. That was one of the places we fled. We were living in Hollywood, California in 1935. We fled to Indianapolis and my mother finally had enough of this - and we stayed there. I was standing on the street corner shining shoes in 1936, selling papers and tap-dancing for pennies. Everybody was doing something in those days with a ukulele or a guitar or something to make money. I used to run errands for all the actors in town because we had four vaudeville houses at that time. One day in 1936 I was backstage at The Lyric Theater. I said, "Who needs something?"

I was eight years old at the time. This guy yelled, "Hey kid! Grab me a copy of Variety and a Coca Cola." "Right!" I ran down the street to The Harrison Hotel where my mom worked in the lobby selling cigars and newspapers. I grabbed the papers and she said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Running errands for actors!" "Who?" "Today it's for this tall guy with red hair. His name is Skelton." He was twenty-three and he was working at The Lyric Theater in Indianapolis. I got back to the theater. We went to his dressing room and he sat me down and told me jokes and stories. We had a wonderful time. I said, "Red, when I grow up I want to be just like you." He said, "Well, you've got to work hard to do that, pal." But we had something in common. He had been an orphan and I had spent time in an orphanage too. My mother was sick unto dying at one time and she put us all in an orphanage because there was no way to take care of us.

Red had been an orphan in Indiana. For the rest of his life we were friends. I have the last photo he sent me here with one of his old cigars and an old paintbrush that his wife sent me. That's the Red Skelton story, but over the years Red would stop in to see me. I'd be at a nightclub in Vancouver or Wichita or someplace and he'd be coming through town. He'd come up on stage and "critique" my act (laughs). I worked for him too at CBS. Red got so big that they couldn't pay him enough to keep him there. What they did was they said, "Okay, you own eight o'clock - Thursdays. That's yours." He could sell it to anyone he wanted for an hour. When I was on The Jonathan Winters Show - Red had a piece of that action and my cheques used to come out of Red Skelton's office.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are all kinds of stories about Red Skelton's battles with his writers.

Dick Curtis: Uh... yeah, but I don't know those stories. I wasn't in on that so much. Red was kind of a provocative guy. He liked naughty stories, but he never did any of that in his act. He did that privately. In those days when we worked nightclubs... I did the worst nightclubs in the world - and I didn't do dirty stuff. I worked a strip joint in Baltimore called Eddie Leonard's Spa.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mmm hmm (laughs).

Dick Curtis: It was nine til two in the morning, three strippers, a trio and me. That was the show. Eddie Leonard was an ex-boxer. He was a champ fighter and when he retired from the ring... the mob, of course, owned him. They gave him a nightclub and some slot machines around town as his retirement. I opened at Eddie Leonard's Spa in Baltimore on Christmas Eve.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) This was in 1952. Can you imagine who would go to a strip joint on Christmas Eve in 1952?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: But I was in a tuxedo. In those days we all wore tuxedos. I walked out to these three guys wearing overalls in the front row. I said, "Good evening, gentleman. My name is Dick Curtis..." "Get off you faggot!!!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I thought, "Hoo boy." So I brought on the first stripper. When she got through I went back up and said, "It's such a pleasure to be here at Eddie Leonard's Spa..." "Get off you (grumble)(grumble)!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I put the next stripper on and then Eddie Leonard walked up to me. He said, "Hey, kid. Don't you know nuttin' dirty?" I said, "No, I don't do that Eddie. People tell me I look like a choir boy." He said, "You better learn something dirty or you're on your way out of here." I went over to the bar and I said, "Does anyone know any dirty jokes?" This drunk is laying on the bar and he says, "(Hic) Here's one for you kid!" He tells me this vile joke. I go up on stage after the stripper is finished and a guy yells, "Hey you, get off the..." I said, "Hey! Hold it. First of all, I put six years in the Marine Core so you don't scare me... and I just learned a dirty joke." The guy says, "Oh? Okay." I told this dirty joke and the guy said, "That's it?" I said, "That's it." He said, "Get off you (grumble)(grumble)!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I got off the stage and Eddie Leonard came up to me. He said, "Hey, kid. Don't do those dirty jokes in here 'cause you look like a choir boy." He kept me for six weeks! I used to say, "Eddie, why do you keep me here?" He said, "Shut up. You got a tuxedo. You make my show look good." Lenny Bruce was working right across the street. We used to meet each morning and commiserate with each other in the delicatessen there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was this the period in which Lenny was still doing impressions?

Dick Curtis: Yes. He was working a place called The Five O'Clock Club in Baltimore. We all worked, as I say, in tuxedos. He used to do Jimmy Durante and all the [impressions] of actors that people expected. Then we'd all go in the coffee shop at two in the morning and compare notes. I knew Lenny Bruce from then - right up to when he died. He was a brilliant guy. A lot of people don't know - he learned what he did on stage from Joe Ancis.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Dick Curtis: You ever hear of Joe Ancis?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, there's not just a Lenny Bruce connection with Joe Ancis, but a Rodney Dangerfield connection too.

Dick Curtis: Right! Well, Rodney was okay, but they were all selling roofing and siding out of New York in those days. We'd all meet at the drugstore in New York. They'd all say, "Look, I gotta go. Gotta go out to Jersey - I'm selling siding."

Kliph Nesteroff: Right (laughs). Was the drugstore Hanson's?

Dick Curtis: Yeah, Hanson's! We all hung out there looking for work. Joe Ancis was startling he was so good, but he had no courage. He couldn't go onstage. He had stage fright so bad. He and Lenny roomed together. Lenny developed that style of his from sitting around with Joe Ancis. Joe talked about art and literature like a hoodlum (laughs). And he was wonderful! He entertained on the sidewalk in front of Hanson's and he was just terrific. 

Lenny was just starting to get hot and he was working a club on the Sunset Strip. Lenny was the house emcee and he was a sensation! The place was just packed for Lenny, but one of the bosses hated him because he'd make jokes about him. Lenny would say, "There's the boss! Hi boss! He balls his own dog, y'know." So, the guy hated him. The Mary Kaye Trio was booked in there and they watched Lenny and said to the boss, "We can't work with Lenny." He said, "Why? He's the hottest thing in town." They said, "Yeah.... but our comic..." Their comic was the drummer and he was so weak a comic that he would die following Lenny. So, they let Lenny off the week that The Mary Kaye Trio was in there - because they were going to do a record. 

It was one of the first on location recordings. They let Lenny go for a week. About the same time I was working in Anaheim at a nice little neighborhood club, but the audience was all bowlers from the bowling alley next door. That was the audience, but for some reason I was doing well there and the owner said, "Listen, I'm gonna raise you up to $175 a week." About that time a guy walked in and said, "How would you like to work Nevada?" I thought he meant Las Vegas. I said, "Where?" He said, "Hawthorne, Nevada. It pays four hundred a week." I said, "You got me." I went to the boss and said, "You've got to let me go for two weeks. This guy is gonna pay me..." He said, "I held you over!" I said, "I know, but I need the money!" He said, "Well, you better find me somebody good [to replace you]." So I drove into Los Angeles that night. I went to the coffee shop where we all used to hang out on the Sunset Strip. There was nobody in there except Lenny. 

I sat down with Lenny and said, "Who's around right now that's out of work?" He said, "Me." I said, "Ah, c'mon. I'm looking for somebody. I need somebody." He said, "I'm tellin' ya! I'm out of work!" And he told me the Mary Kaye story. I said, "Do I have a job for you. It's in Anaheim..." He said, "Anaheim!?" "It pays $175 a week." He said, "I'll take it!" So he replaced me while I went to Hawthorne, Nevada. When I came back the boss said, "Where did you find that guy?" I said, "He's a big star!" "Nuh uh. Not in my room he ain't." 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the coffee shop on Sunset? Was it Jerry's Deli?

Dick Curtis: Let me think. It was a deli run by a young Jewish couple. Everybody hung out there. I don't think it was Jerry's. This was up the street from the Crescendo on The Strip. They were enormously popular with show business people after hours. Then they opened a place down on Vine Street and it did well for a while, but then it kind of petered out.

Kliph Nesteroff: I love hearing about these hangouts. The delicatessens and the coffee shops and the automats. How about back in New York? I understand that Hanson's Drugstore had a back entrance that went upstairs to where all the agent's offices were...

Dick Curtis: It was in the Brill Building. We hung out there because [an agent] might have a job. I didn't hang out there as much as Lenny and those guys because I had no separate income and I had two babies at the time. I had to pay the rent wherever I went, so I would go into New York for a couple of days to try and get something and I would take the first job that lead to Baltimore or Washington or somewhere. We all worked out of Philadelphia in those days too. You ever hear about The Nook in Philadelphia?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Dick Curtis: The Nook was at 12th and Locust in Philadelphia. It was just a little coffee shop. It could not have seated, including the counter,  forty people. It was just a tiny little place, but it was a favorite of all the comics in town and everybody had their picture up around the walls - and you could go there and find out information; who was working, who had a job - that kind of a thing. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Dick Curtis: Philly in those days was real good because there were after-hours clubs. They couldn't legally sell booze from midnight Saturday until eight o'clock Monday morning or something like that. So everyone had an after-hours club with entertainment - including the Catholic Church! It was in the gymnasium of the Catholic Church and it was called The Holy Ghost.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: They booked a show and sold booze (laughs). I worked with Nat King Cole over there at the Erie Social Club. I worked there with Nat King Cole, Vaughn Monroe and God, everybody played there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Joey Bishop came out of Philadelphia.

Dick Curtis: Yes. By that time Joey had a modicum of success and he was playing better clubs. He was working the best clubs in Philadelphia and Baltimore at that time, but he was always in the coffee shop with us at night. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you met Jonathan Winters for the first time in 1951 in Columbus.

Dick Curtis: Yes, it was either Columbus or Dayton. I think it was Dayton. I was with Horace Heidt. Do you remember Horace Heidt?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Dick Curtis: He was a charming guy who formed a band in college and went on from there to be successful for the rest of his life. Every new thing that came along - that's what he did. Triple-tonguing trumpeteers - everything. I met Horace at that same theater where I met Red Skelton. Horace used to go out conducting an amateur show called The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Show. He'd go out and say, "Good evening, ladies and gentleman. This is Horace Heidt. I give the youth of America a chance to be stars!"

I was eight years old. I would run alongside him and say, "Mr. Heidt? I am eight years old and I sing songs and I tell jokes and I know how to..." He would say, "Get out of here, kid! Get out of here!" One night I followed him right to his hotel door and he said, "Does your mother know you're out at this hour?" I said, "Yeah, that's her over there." I pointed to my mother over at the cigar counter. He said, "Madame? Is this your son? Would you please tell him to stop bothering me? I am not going to put him in show business!" He went to the elevator and my mom said to me, "Are you trying to get me fired?" "But he gives youth an opportunity and that's me!" Every year he came back and I'd go up to him, "Now I'm nine years old! Now I'm ten years old, Mr. Heidt!" We moved back to California because my mom started working at an Army hospital there. I picked up the phone book and Horace was right there in the phone book - living in Van Nuys. He answered the phone. I said, "Mr. Heidt, my name is Dick Curtis and I'm a comedian and a singer. I would like to join your group." 

He said, "Oh, I'm sorry, son. I have just retired." I thought, "Ah, God! No luck at all!" I was working at the old Hollywood Canteen and USO and all that kind of stuff. One day my mother said, "You're in show business. Do you know somebody named Desi Arnaz?" I said, "Well, he's Cuban and he sings and he plays bongo drums and he's a big movie star." She said, "No, he's a sergeant in the Army and he works with me out at the hospital." I said, "This can't be the same guy." She said, "No, I'm telling you he's a sergeant in the Army and he wants to know if you'll help them do shows." I went out to the hospital and sitting next to my mother was Staff Sergeant Desi Arnaz. I walked up to him and he said, "Your mother tells me you know a lot of good jokes and you sing. You want to help us do shows for soldiers?" I said, "Sure!" I joined Desi's group. We started touring camps. That was my first introduction to Desi. Did I stray from the question you were asking?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, we mentioned that you encountered Jonathan Winters years before he was...

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. Time went by and I was back in show business in 1949. I was in China in the Marine Core until 1948. I had a Marine Core respite until the Korean War and I got called back for that, but when I got called back for the Marine Core and was about ready to get out - Horace Heidt was back in show business. He had a radio show and a television show and he was touring Army and Marine Core camps. He came down to Camp Pendleton and I got on the radio show. He liked me so much he said, "How would you like to do a television show with us down in San Diego?" I said, "Sure!" I had never done a television show. We did the television show and he said, "Son, you're very good. I'd like you to join my group." I said, "Well, I'm still in the Marine Core and I won't get out til September." 

He said, "Let me talk to your commanding officer. Everyone knows me." So, he walked right into the general's office in Camp Pendleton. Now, I don't know if you know Marine Core generals, but they're one step away from God. He walked over to his desk and said, "Hello, General. My name is Horace Heidt. Of course, you know me." He said, "Mr. Heidt... I'm conducting a war. It's called the Korean War. Maybe you've heard of it. You, son, get back to your outfit." I did an about-face and I was gone. Horace came out in the hallway and said, "I don't think he knows me." I said, "Horace, he doesn't care!" Horace said, "That's crazy!" I told him to go and say you need someone to represent the Marine Core in your show. They will send me immediately. That's exactly what happened and I joined Horace's group. 

We started playing all around the country. We were playing different towns and we pulled into either Dayton or Columbus. I used to go to the radio stations to do promotion for our shows. So I went to this little station in Dayton - WLWD Crosley Broadcasting. They said, "You know we have an ex-marine working here. He's kinda funny." They introduced me to this guy Jonathan Winters. He came out of an office and started going off like he always does. I was enthralled by him! I said, "I want to introduce you to Horace Heidt because you'd be good for his show!" I took him over, but Horace was in one of his moods

I said, "Horace, this is Jonathan Winters. He's really a very funny guy and I think you oughta use him!" Horace said, "Dick, every city we go to you bring me somebody you think is talented. It usually turns out to be wrong! I'm very busy! Stop bothering me!" He walked away. I said, "Jonathan, I'm sorry." He said, "No, it's fine. I'm really glad I saw that because I don't want to be here either." I never saw him again until I auditioned for The Jonathan Winters Show at CBS [in 1967]. He didn't remember me, but he liked what I did and that's how I got the gig.


Anonymous said...

Man, i want to know what working for Desi was like

Seisyll Riagán said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neal P said...

I love your interviews, but I have to tell you, it's Marine Corps, not Marine Core.

Anonymous said...

Those late 1960s CBS Johnathan Winters shows were very good. Dick Curtis was primarily a straight man/announcer on that program.

Mark said...

I have a contract for Red Skelton to appear at the Lyric Nov 20, 1936. I also do research on Hollywood Hoosiers. Would be great to contact Dick for more Red Skelton stories.

sydney curtis said...

that's my Dad.... and he has a thousand stories... all very entertaining and raw.... I heard them first hand from him from the time I was three years old... Living in Beverly Hills when it was truely a neighborhood of young actors, manager's and agent's... all hustleing at "NATE N NALS" ... XX SYDNEY CURTIS...

Unknown said...

I just met your Dad Sydney. Lovely stories and pictures- What a nice man. Respect. Tony. Earlestown UK.

Anonymous said...

Just met Mr. Curtis at The Baby Quail Inn in Sedona which he owns. It was fun meeting him and hearing his stories. Well worth it!!! Remembered him well from many appearances in 1960's television.

Anonymous said...

We met Mr. Curtis at the Baby Quail. Talking to him and listening to his stories was the highlight of our trip. A most interesting gentleman.