Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with washed up cowboy actor Hoot Gibson in the early fifties.

Dick Curtis: I worked with Preston Foster and Hoot Gibson at the restored Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. There was a guy named Doc Bailey who had a bunch of motels and I used to work in them. I was a big hit in his places. He wanted me to come to Vegas and open the new old Frontier. He bought the Frontier from the Mob and leased the new Frontier out to them for a great deal of money. He just played with the old Last Frontier. He brought in a show with people like Beatrice Kay, Hoot Gibson, Preston Foster, The Buffalo Bills and me. I was supposed to be the director, emcee, host, comedian. Doc was a terrible drunk. He gave me the script. He said, "Here. Take a look at the script and tell me what you think." It was the worst script I had ever seen in my life. It was full of dirty jokes and... he said, "Now, this is the show I want you to do with Beatrice Kay and Hoot Gibson and Preston Foster." 

We were sitting at a table over breakfast and I said, "Doc, did you even read this?" He said, "Well, yeah, I glanced through it." I said, "You sure this is what you want us to do?" He said, "Yeah! Why?" "It's the dirtiest piece of junk I have ever seen!" Two people next to us stood up and stormed out. I asked Doc, "Who were they?" He said, "They're the writers of the show!" I showed Doc a page and he looked at it. He said, "Oh, you can't say that on the stage here!" "That's what I'm telling you, Doc!" He said, "Well, you fix it." He walked out. We did the show, but we just did our [own] acts... in Gay 90s costume. Out in front, Doc Bailey had a sign built. It was immense. It read, "DOC BAILEY PRESENTS - HOOT GIBSON, PRESTON FOSTER, THE BUFFALO BILLS, BEATRICE KAY!" And then way down at the bottom it said, "dick curtis."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: After the first show Doc didn't talk to anybody. But he had a chow line in the room that was free and, God, it was wonderful. Everybody used to come from all over Vegas to eat at it because it was so good. One day I was in the chow line and so was Doc Bailey and we weren't talking, of course. He turned to me and said, "Hey! Do you know there's buffalo meat on this chow line?" I said, "Uh, no, I didn't, Doc." He said, "Goddamn rights you didn't 'cause it's not on the sign!" The next day the sign out front read, "DOC BAILEY PRESENTS - HOOT GIBSON, PRESTON FOSTER, THE BUFFALO BILLS, BEATRICE KAY AND BUFFALO MEAT!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: Hoot Gibson at that time - he was one of the funniest men I had ever known. He told stories that were absolutely wonderful. He started every story with the same line. He'd say, "We were running wild horses out of Wyoming in 1912..." And then he'd turn to me and say, "Did I tell you this one before?" Every story. There was nobody in the audience after opening night. Doc Bailey said, "Do the show anyway." So we did it to chairs! I used to walk out, "Good evening, chairs. My name is Dick Curtis." Hoot came in one night and said, "Hey, kid, I'll sit back here and be your audience." "Good evening, Hoot and chairs. My name is Dick Curtis, but you wouldn't know that because this week I'm working under the name Buffalo Meat." Well, Hoot fell out of his chair laughing. He says, "That's the funniest goddamn thing you ever said!" From then on he used to call me Old Buff (laughs). "Hey, Buff. Do you remember Tom Irvine?" He told me this story. Tom Irvine owned half of California. "We was running wild horses out of Wyoming in 1912. Tom Irvine gave me a call and said, 'Hoot, get over here! My cattle are frothing at the mouth.' So I went over there and by God they was. They was eating something off the ground thar that made 'em froth at the mouth. We started jerking that stuff out the ground thar and piled it up. When it dried we burned it. We came to find out we had burned up 'bout three million dollars worth of marijuana! Loco weed!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, you were also a guest on the popular Los Angeles television program of the nineteen fifties - The Spade Cooley Show.

Dick Curtis: Yes. Bobby Sargent was a comic of the time and a very good one. Spade Cooley had the hottest television show in town against Lawrence Welk. Lawrence hated that people were tuning in cowboy music instead of his music. This was around the time I was working the Crescendo club. Bobby Sargent was a friend of mine and he had become a writer on The Spade Cooley Show. He told Spade about me and they booked me on the show. I did a cowboy character called Leroy. It was one of the big things I've done all my life in film and television and it was a big part of my nightclub act. 

I did it on Spade's show and he said, "Okay, all right, you're going to be a writer on this show too." So Bobby Sargent and I used to write for Spade, but Spade was a very nervous guy. I mean, he was very, very nervous. We'd be sitting at the typewriter and he'd come in, "Look, look, look, guys, I need an opening joke! I need it right away!" He's staring at us waiting for it! Bobby Sargent says to him, "Spade. A watched pot - doesn't boil." Spade said, "Watched pot doesn't boil, a watched pot doesn't boil. Okay, that's funny! That'll do!" And he walked away (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) That show was live. He couldn't actually afford two writers so he kept Bobby Sargent and I left. That was my time with Spade.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it a shock to you when Spade Cooley murdered his wife?

Dick Curtis: Yes. It was a terrible story. He went up to Bakersfield and he was investing a lot of money in oil fields up there. His wife owned part of it. Spade was a terrible tyrant with his wife - and everybody, but his wife particularly. He just killed her... because she wouldn't sign over all the papers for the oil wells and for the money that he wanted. He sent his children in there to wake up their mother. He said, "Your mother is in there and she's pretending to be asleep." So the children found her.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Dick Curtis: Pretty bad.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention Bakersfield - I have an advertisement here for Dick Curtis performing at The Saddle and Sirloin.

Dick Curtis: Oh my God, you have that? That's great. Well, I got booked in The Saddle and Sirloin in 1952. It was a wonderful little room. It only seated about one hundred people and had a great trio and I was an immediate hit there. It became like my home room for a few years. I was back there at least twice a year. In those days we all wore tuxedos and it was very formal. It was owned by two brothers. Izzy Lions and his brothers from the Lions Tea Company in London. Usually they'd book a girl singer and me. She'd do eight songs and wiggle and I'd get up and do my act. I was doing a crazy act in those days - I did everything. The biggest part of my act was this character Leroy. So, one day I get booked into Bakersfield and I said, "Who is on the show with me?" They said, "Oh, well, you'll meet him when you go out there. It's some kid that plays guitar and sings." So I went over for rehearsal and here was this skinny young kid with a guitar. I said, "I'm Dick Curtis." He said, "I'm Jimmie Rodgers." 

I said, "What do you do, Jim?" He said, "Play guitar." He was in jeans and a t-shirt. He got up to rehearse and the boss said, "Where's his tuxedo?" Jimmy had been working in coffee houses up North and was singing kind of folk style. This place was not a folksingers kind of place. That night he just bombed terribly. The audience turned away from him and didn't listen. Well, I was listening. The boss said to me, "What do you think?" I said, "This kid sings like nobody I have ever heard! He's going to be a big star if he gets a break." He said, "But where's his tuxedo!?" We were having breakfast the next morning and I said, "Jimmy, do you have a tuxedo?" He said, "Oh, God, no!" 

I said, "The boss would like you to work in one. I'll get you one." So I bought him a tuxedo. The boss said, "Now straighten out his act!" Jimmy and I lived in a motel with my wife and two kids. We were on one side and he was on the other side and there was a kitchen in between. Jimmy got all his meals from us because he was dead broke. During that period of time we became fast friends and we are friends to this day. He lives over in Palm Desert now. When he left town I put ten dollars worth of gas in his car, gave him a tuxedo, and he went off and recorded Honeycomb. That's when he did it - right after that booking. The rest is history.

Kliph Nesteroff: The ad that I have for The Saddle and The Sirloin says you're playing with "Charming Song Stylist Joanie Wilson and the Jack Ordeen Trio. 101 Union Avenue."

Dick Curtis: Oh, God, that's great! I also used to work the Maison Jaussaud there. A beautiful place, but I was never as successful there as The Saddle and Sirloin. I worked a place in Tuscon called The Talk of the Town. It was owned by Jack Ensley who was a racetrack driver. And he was crazy. He used to tell the people that worked there, "I'm going home - don't forget to turn out the lights!" And they would forget to turn out the lights. So one night he's headed out the door and he says, "Listen! Never mind turning out the lights!" He pulled out a gun and he shot them out (laughs)! Jack Ensley's Talk of the Town. I worked it with a girl named Tracy Randall. I was billed as Dick Lane in those days, by the way. I was Dick Lane when I first got out of the Marine Core, but there were three or four Dick Lanes in show business, so I changed it to Dick Curtis when I went to Bakersfield for the first time in 1952.

Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned Talk of the Town, but you also appeared on Toast of the Town - The Ed Sullivan Show - once. Right?

Dick Curtis: Yes, I did. I went to a club in Houston. I worked all over Houston from the worst place in town in 1952 to the best place in town where I was a big hero, but that took about ten years. So I was booked into this place ten years later called The Tidelands.  It only seated about one hundred and fifty people and I always did well with a small audience. That was my thing - the intimacy. I go there and the bandleader was the same guy I worked with at the worst joint in town ten years earlier! He said, "Good to see you, man! We both made it!" On the bill with me was a little Italian girl who sang songs. 

She was a prodigy of Frankie Laine. The band was busy rehearsing and they had been rehearsing with her for two hours. I went up to him [to rehearse] and he said, "You're on the show too? We don't have anytime to rehearse you. We have to go home, get dressed and come back for the show." I said, "Fine. We'll fake it." Frankie Laine was appearing that night to introduce her. Frankie, at the time, was next to God in popularity. Nobody knew who I was at all. I put on my tuxedo and had a hard time getting in. They didn't believe me. I said, "I'm on the show!" They said, "Uh huh. Sure." I had to call the manager to come out and get me and bring me in. The show starts. They introduce Frankie Laine. Well, he almost took the roof off the place just saying hello. He introduces the girl and she sings twelve songs. As soon as she is finished, the bandleader is ready to introduce me. But then they start yelling, "Frankie Laine! Frankie Laine sing! Frankie Laine!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh no.

Dick Curtis: The bandleader keeps saying, "No, no, no. We can't!" Finally, the audience was so loud that Frankie Laine had to get up and he sang. Well, in those days when Frankie Laine sang one of his hit songs - the walls fell down! I am standing there thinking, "What the hell am I gonna do?" Frankie Laine gets off and people start putting their coats on to leave. The bandleader says, "Wait a minute, folks! Hold it! Hold it! Wait! Goddammit! We've got another act! Here's Dick Curtis."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) So, I went out and the audience looked at me like, "You've got to be kidding." I don't know what I said. I can't remember. But they all sat down. The opening bit was a song that was kind of funny. I went on and did... an hour and twenty minutes. I was afraid to quit. They were screaming [with laughter] and Frankie Laine was screaming! I finished the show and the audience came forward and lifted me up on their shoulders like I was a football hero! Frankie Laine was screaming at me, "I'm your new manager! I'm your new manager!" Frankie Laine and I were friends from that day until the day he died. He said, "Anybody that can follow me - I have got to know them real well." So that was that. Frankie Laine's brother was in the management business. He made a phonecall that night and booked me at Harrah's in Reno and on The Ed Sullivan Show

That's how I got on The Ed Sullivan Show... but unfortunately... I went to The Ed Sullivan Show and Ed said, "They tell me you do a funny cowboy character." Everybody liked this bit, but it did not work in New York. People that were raised in New York or Brooklyn they were dese, dem and dose guys - they had no concept of what this cowboy character was. I said to Ed Sullivan, "I don't think I should do it for your audience. I don't think it will work." He said, "Oh no, Frankie Laine said it's wonderful. Do it." They had two shows at Sullivan in those days. A full dress rehearsal for hardcore New Yorkers and then the show was done for tourists. My audience was that tourist audience, but I did the cowboy bit for the hardcore New Yorkers - and I got canceled.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh no.

Dick Curtis: The people just stared at me and had no idea why it was supposed to be funny. Same thing happened to me on Jack Paar when he first started. You couldn't explain what was funny about this character to these people. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were listed in the TV Guide, but you never actually appeared. Did you stick around to watch the show you weren't on?

Dick Curtis: No. I was so heartbroken over what happened. It was a great opportunity that set me back with some people. I flew out of New York the next morning and I opened at Eddie's in Kansas City and destroyed the audience. Could do no wrong. People in the audience said, "We watched you on Jack Paar last night [when you bombed]. What happened?" Same thing with Ed Sullivan. People tuned in to see me and I wasn't on! That was the Ed Sullivan story. I don't know if you know who the first Tonight Show host was...

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Dick Curtis: Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Steve Allen was the first host of The Tonight Show, but before that there was a program called Broadway Open House...

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester was the host of...

Dick Curtis: No. It's an unknown story. There was a guy popular in nightclubs named Creesh Hornsby. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah and he died before he hosted the first episode...

Dick Curtis: He died. Pat Weaver had come down to see him and booked him immediately to work on The Tonight Show as the host. He called the only writer and said, "I'm sending you Creesh Hornsby." "What does he do?" "You'll have to see him to believe it." Creesh did the craziest things you had ever seen... but he died! Pat Weaver called the writer and said, "We can't send 'em. He died. We'll send you another guy." "Who?" "He's a piano player and he writes songs. His name is Steve Allen." 

Kliph Nesteroff: What happened specifically with you and Jack Paar?

Dick Curtis: One of Jack Paar's writers had first written for television in Dallas. I was never as big anywhere in the world as I was at The King's Club in The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. I opened there in 1958 and on drums was Mickey Scrima, who used to be with Harry James and Frank Sinatra. I was so big in Texas. This writer who was from Texas was on the new Jack Paar show. They asked him, "Who do you know from around the country who is real good and we could introduce or discover?" He said, "There's a guy down in Dallas named Dick Curtis. He's huge." And I was. 

People would line up down the block to get into the club - because of this Texas character I did, that's really what it was. It was one of my biggest things. Jack Paar said, "Well, get him!" It's a long story but... I never got a rehearsal with the band and that was extremely important for me. I had drum effects for this thing I did and I didn't get a rehearsal. So, Jack Paar introduced me and I went out and did the act to New Yorkers that didn't understand. The music was terrible. And I just died for nine minutes. And I mean, die like you will never see anybody die on television in your life! Jack Paar wrote a letter to the agency the next day. "In the game of baseball - three strikes and you're out. Consider Dick Curtis - two strikes against you." I never met Jack again.  I died so terribly on his show.


Kevin K. said...

This guy is fascinating and hilarious -- and I've never even heard of him! Hope there's more.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Dick Curtis should have, in retrospect, picked a more memorable name for himself.

Anonymous said...

The armed forces branch is the Marine Corps, not "core". Interesting, because you spell it as it is pronounce, and B. Hussein Obama pronounces it as it is spelled. Maybe if the two of you get together, you can combine for one right or two wrongs.