Sunday, October 2, 2011

An Interview with Pete Barbutti - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that some of the people that booked you or came to your shows would look at your facial hair... and conclude that you were a Communist.

Pete Barbutti: Yes, for about fifteen years I got heat about that. "We'll book you, but you gotta shave. You gotta shave." Because of [beards being associated with] Castro, they were calling me Fidel. They'd say, "Why do you have that beard!?" I'd say, "Oh, you mean like the one Jesus had?" "NO! It's more like Castro!" Well, there will always be whackos out there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Pete Barbutti: I want to tell you one quick anecdote about working with Nat Cole.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Pete Barbutti: Since we were an integrated show, we were working all Northern cities. I was doing a routine, which was timely in those days. It was a conversation between Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and the Governor of Arkansas Orville Faubus. I could do a pretty good Bobby Kennedy and in the bit he's real articulate, using big words. Governor Faubus is this redneck guy. They're talking about how the Blacks are being treated and the Governor says, "Oh, we treat em all right. Talk to the sergeant." In Alabama there was this sergeant named Bull [Connor] and he was infamous because he's the one who sicked the dogs on Martin Luther King and the Peace Marchers.

In the bit Bobby Kennedy says, "Are you the one that's in charge?" "All except for Sergent Jones. He's the real man in charge of the entire police department." Bobby Kennedy says, "Let me talk to Sergeant Jones!" And Sergeant Jones is a police dog. I would get down on all fours and growl. The audience thought it was hilarious. Nat came to me and he said, "We've got another date. Louisville, Kentucky. You are not doing the Bobby Kennedy routine in Louisville." I said, "Yeah, okay. Obviously." Five guys in the band came to me. They would be in the [orchestra] pit. They said, "When we do Louisville, you're not going to do that bit are you?" "Naw." They said, "Good. Because [the angry mob] would have to come across us to get to you and we'd get killed down there." We get to Louisville and it was a split audience. The audience on one side was all black, the audience on the other side was all white. There was not one face out of place.

On the aisles there were about ten white cops, all obese, just like you would draw a redneck cop. So I went onstage and was doing my routine and was getting a fair response. So I said, "Ah, what the hell." I go into the [police dog] routine. The guys in the band... I mean, the guitar player in the band unplugged his guitar and put it in his case! The sax players all put the caps on the reeds - they know this is going to have to be a quick escape. So, I go through the whole routine and get to the punchline, which is the police dog. And they... are... silent.

Then one of these cops starts laughing. And then another cop starts laughing. Then another person and another person and this thing starts building, slowly, person by person, until the audience is finally screaming [with laughter] and applauding. Black and white people were reaching across the aisle and shaking hands! It was like this thing had gone on for two hundred years, but nobody ever mentioned it. It was such a release. I walked offstage and walked by Nat. He was sweating and all he said was, "Damn." That's all he ever said to me about it! Just "Damn."

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great. Eventually you played The Sahara...

Pete Barbutti: Yes, after working different hotels [in Las Vegas] The Sahara sort of became my home. The entertainment director [Stan Irwin] was a good guy and the hotel manager was a good guy. It became my hotel, which meant I worked so many weeks in Vegas, so many weeks at the Sahara in Reno, and the Sahara Tahoe.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you incorporated an old, stone faced bartender into your act.

Pete Barbutti: Yeah, at the Sahara. A guy named Ramsey who had been at the Sahara for thirty years when I got in there. He never smiled, never laughed at anything. He would walk by the stage twenty times during the show and it was impossible to ignore him. So I had all these routines where I would pick on Ramsey and Ramsey would never smile and it would get a huge laugh. Finally, Ramsey and I worked out routines where he would walk by and hand me something and it would look ad libbed. Working lounges... the phrase "lounge comic" became misinterpreted. If you were working a lounge in Indiana - you had the right to tell them, "I don't want anybody serving drinks while I'm on stage" or "I don't want anybody to leave the room while I'm on stage" or "Don't seat anybody while I'm on stage." But in a Vegas lounge, the guy getting up in the middle of your show may be the biggest spender in the hotel. He may be paying everybody's whole salary just that one night. So there is an unwritten rule there that if something happens you don't go on about it. You'd just build your act around that and I learned that from Frank Ross and Shecky Greene, who was the greatest who ever lived. You work with whatever.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet Shecky Greene?

Pete Barbutti: I worked Chicago with the Millionaires before I came out to Vegas. A lot of people would come in and say, "Man, you remind me of Shecky. You work just like Shecky." That's when I was really becoming a comic instead of a musician who did routines. People would come in and say, "You remind us of Shecky." Comics would come in and say to me, "You need to organize your routines! You need a beginning, a middle and an end!" Growing up in jazz I would say, "Can't you go freeform from here to there?" They'd say, "No, you can't do that." When I came to Vegas I went to see Shecky. He walked on stage and he had no routine at all. An hour and a half later I was laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath. He didn't have a beginning, he didn't have an ending, he was just the funniest guy in the world for ninety minutes. You'd go see him the next night and a good twenty minutes of it was new. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I like Shecky a lot, but I've never seen him live - which I guess is the only way to see him.

Pete Barbutti: Oh yeah. I'm sure you've heard some of the stories that happened here in town. Shecky was clinically depressed. Few people knew about it in those days. He'd come offstage and he'd be crying like a baby or shaking. He thought it was just the adrenaline - so he'd drink. When he'd drink, Shecky was one of those guys to which alcohol was not his friend. It became a mood altering drug for him. He would do these terrible things. He'd hit people. A dear friend of ours, he broke the bones in the back of her hand slamming her hand up against the cashier's cage one night. He drove his Cadillac into the fountains at Caesar's Palace.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Pete Barbutti: The valet guy came running up and said, "Mr. Greene, are you okay?" Shecky rolled down the electric window and he said, "Don't bother with the hot wax." The things he did, man...

Kliph Nesteroff: Another guy who was manic depressive and had volatile explosions and was a good friend of his... Buddy Hackett.

Pete Barbutti: Yeah, Buddy, I can honestly say this... and he was a good friend for many years... If Buddy Hackett wasn't Buddy Hackett, he would have been certifiable. I mean, the things that he did... I was working the Sahara lounge and Buddy came in with Clint Eastwood and a couple of big movie guys. They saw the show and then Buddy got up onstage at the end and said, "This is one of the next big comics" and he was just raving. Then I went into the showroom and sat with those guys. He was brilliant and introduced me in the audience and said, "This is the greatest guy!" Two nights later I walked backstage and Buddy called security and had me thrown out. He was almost schizoid. He was two people.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he loved guns.

Pete Barbutti: Yes. He carried a gun. He showed up for work one night at the Sahara and someone took his [parking] space. The pecking order, always, at the big hotels was that the first space was for the headliner in the main room. The second space was for the casino manager, then the hotel manager and then the opening act... and it went on down. Buddy came and somebody parked in his spot. If that happened to you or me we'd park wherever we could or we'd call and have it towed or put a note on his window. Not Buddy. Buddy pulled out his gun and shot out all the windows, the headlights, the tires - reloaded - and shot it up again... then went in and did his show like nothing happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Wow!

Pete Barbutti: Buddy was working the Catskills. He was in New York and Shecky joined him and they were hanging out and going to the Carnegie Delicatessen every night and telling stories. Henny Youngman was with them and Gene Baylos and all those New York guys. Buddy said, "I'm working Grossingers, Shecky. Come up with me." Shecky went up with him to hang out. Buddy went up on stage. If you've ever been to the Catskills, you know the audience is one hundred percent Jewish and one hundred percent old. Buddy is working on stage and he's getting the usual enormous laughs. In the middle of the show some old guy gets up and leaves. Two minutes later Buddy says, "Where did this guy go?" He's asking the guy's wife. She says, "I think he went to get some hot chocolate." The audience sort of giggled a little. He says to the maitre'd, "When he comes back - don't let him back in." 

Now the audience goes, "My God, that seems awfully rough. The guy just went to get some hot chocolate." Buddy starts a routine and then he stops. He says, "Wait. I want this woman out to. His wife. I want her thrown out." The maitre'd thinks he's kidding. So Buddy stands there with his arms crossed. They escort her out. So, Buddy starts working and the audience is completely against him. They hate him. Buddy stops and he says, "You know, sometimes you see a comedian do something - and you can't understand it. I grew up in Brooklyn and my best friend was Frankie Crocetti who lived across the street. We were inseparable. I used to go to Mass with him and Frankie used to come to Temple with me. We did everything together. One day Frankie was at my house. We were playing games and we were listening to the ballgame on the radio and Frankie said, 'Oh, Buddy, I have to go home. My mom made some hot chocolate.' He went out the front door and I heard tires screeching. I went out there and my buddy Frankie Crocetti was dead. And every time I hear somebody mention hot chocolate..." 

The audience applauded and he killed them the rest of the show. He walked off the stage and Shecky hugged him. He said, "Buddy, I'm sorry to hear about your pal." Buddy said, "I made all that shit up."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: Shecky said, "I wanted to hit him! I wanted to strike him, man!" Another time he was sitting in the dressing room with Jack Eglash who was the entertainment director of the hotel. Buddy hated Totie Fields. Nobody knows why, but Buddy Hackett hated Totie Fields. 

In fact, the crowning statement he made... Totie Fields died and then the day after, one of the popes died. Buddy said, "Gee, I'm glad the pope died right after. Now no one will remember when Totie died." Anyway, Jack was sitting there talking to him saying how Totie always did good business. Buddy was saying, "That fat Jew broad! I hate her!" He was going on and on. Her picture was on the wall above Jack's head. Buddy was looking at it and he reached under the couch, grabbed his gun, and shot the picture off the wall right over Jack's head.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.
Pete Barbutti: Buddy played a charity golf tournament in Lancaster, California. He came off the golf course and put his clubs in the trunk of his car. He was changing his shoes to go in the bar, put his keys down, and closed the trunk - then realized, "Ah, I locked my keys in the trunk!" He couldn't open the car from inside, so he went into the bar and ordered a drink. He said, "Where's the phone book?" He looked up locksmiths. He found one that said twenty-four hours. It was about seven o'clock in the evening. He called and said, "Can you come out?" The woman that answered said, "No, my husband is in bed. Call tomorrow." If that was you or me we'd just call the next locksmith. 

Buddy called back. He said, "Your ad says twenty-four hours. This is Buddy Hackett. If you don't come out I will sue you." So the guy came to open the trunk and Buddy gave him, whatever it was, fifty bucks or something. Now, this was years and years ago. Then one night I'm sitting with Buddy in the dressing room at the Sahara and talking. He picks up the phone. He says to the operator, "Get me Jackson 40956" or something like that. Somebody answers the phone and says, "Acme Lock Company" and he hangs up! A minute later I say to Buddy, "What was that?" He says, "What was what?" I said, "That phone call." He said, "What phone call? Oh, that?" Ever since that time he locked his keys in his car and that woman said his husband the locksmith couldn't come... he had been calling them for eleven years at two o'clock in the morning...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: (laughs) And hanging up! Three days a week!

Kliph Nesteroff: That's amazing.

Pete Barbutti: There are stories about Buddy and Shecky when they were were drinking together. They were both wild drunks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky had told me the story about when they both had the same gardener... and this elaborate thing ended with them wrestling in the desert...

Pete Barbutti: Did Shecky tell you that story? Well, Buddy pulled the gun on him in the restaurant. At the Villa D'Este. Shecky got bugged and said, "Put the gun away!" Buddy said, "No!" They got in a fight and Buddy said, "You fired the gardener? He has dental work he has to get done!" Something like that. Shecky said, "He didn't show up for four days!" They walked over to the Hilton and Shecky put down something like three hundred dollars and rolled a seven. So he had six hundred and said, "Let it ride." He rolled eleven and he had twelve hundred. He gave the dealers a couple hundred and he stuffed the rest in Buddy's pocket. 

He said, "Tell the guy to get his teeth fixed." They were coming back across the street. Shecky told me, "Buddy, called me a Waldo." I said, "What the hell is a Waldo?" He said, "I have no idea, but apparently it's something you should never call me when I'm drinking!" Shecky hit him and knocked him out, took his car keys and gun and buried them in the desert. Shecky left Buddy there. He was only half-conscious. Shecky went home and Buddy called him about two hours later. He was crying. He couldn't find his car keys or his gun. Shecky got in his car and went down there and the two of them are on their hands and knees in the desert behind the Villa D'Este trying to find his keys.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky had knocked him unconscious.

Pete Barbutti: Yes, yes. He tell you about the club on Long Island? A guy comes to Shecky in Las Vegas and says, "I'd like you to work my club on Long Island." Shecky said, "No way." "Why not? It's a great club!" Shecky said, "You don't understand. In Vegas I'm a big star. I pack the lounge in Vegas six nights a week. I work Reno, I work Tahoe because they know me. I work San Francisco at the new Fack's and I work the Crescendo in LA. Everywhere else... I don't do TV, I don't do movies, they don't know who I am." This guy said, "No, no! All these people are part of a big Jewish community! They all know you and they all love you! They always come to Vegas!" Finally, Shecky said okay. He went into New York a few days early and stayed at Fat Jack E. Leonard's apartment. You remember Jack E. Leonard?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, of course.

Pete Barbutti: They were very tight friends. Shecky got up every morning and he went to the track. He gambled and he drank. He got to that stage where he knew he was getting close to overdoing it, so he called the club owner and he said, "Look. Can I get in touch with the band leader?" "He's in my office right now." "Put him on. Listen, play me on with Happy Days Are Here Again. I only do one song. Rock-a-Bye Your Baby in B Flat. Just have the piano player follow me." "No problem, I'm the piano player." "No use in my coming into rehearsal because I've been drinking and sometimes I'm not a nice guy when I'm drunk." "No problem, Mr. Greene. Thank you very much." He goes out there the next day, they drive him out to Long Island, there's an apartment over the club, sleeps there, drinks nothing but coffee and has a nice breakfast. 

That evening he goes down to the club thirty minutes before the show, has a club soda, and a line of chorus girls come out... and they do Rock-a-Bye. Shecky is only going to do one song and they're doing the same song. So he goes, "BAH! Give me a scotch and soda!" He throws down two quick drinks. There was a girl singer just being discovered named Leslie Uggams. She comes out and does a Jolson medley - and does Rock-a-Bye! So Shecky... now he's whacked and he's mad. He walks on stage from stage right and the band is stage left. 

The band is on three tiers. They're all in white dinner jackets, white bowties and the bandleader is wearing tails and he's sitting at a white grand piano with his back to the stage. They play this little thing of music as Shecky takes to the stage. Shecky walks out and explains to the audience about Rock-a-Bye. How everyone else has done it and it's his only song. He walks across the stage... right over to the bandleader... hits him once and knocks him out cold!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: (laughs) The guy was wedged. He didn't hit the floor, he was wedged between the piano and the seat. Shecky told me, "He looked like a fucking penguin." The band panicked. They jumped up and grabbed their instruments, music stands tipped over and lights are flashing. The audience starts running out! "Cheque! Cheque!" And Shecky starts doing his act! Well, no one is even facing the stage. He jumped off the stage, walks out, there's people spilled out all into the street. He sees his name up on the marquee. There's a cab nearby. He says to the cabdriver, "Here's a hundred bucks. Pull up onto the sidewalk." He jumped onto the roof of the cab and tore his name down. Got in the cab and says, "Take off." He remembers being in a park somewhere... and he woke up in jail in Harlem!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: Shecky opened his eyes and he says the first thing that came to mind was, "I just lost a jump ball to the Globetrotters." Everyone standing around him is seven feet tall and Black. So he says, "I've got to make a phone call!" They said, "All right." They took him to the desk sergeant. Desk sergeant asks, "You gonna call your lawyer?" He said, "No, my lawyer is in Las Vegas. My manager is in Los Angeles." "You have a manager?" "Yes, I'm an entertainer." The desk sergeant looked at him and said, "You're no fucking entertainer! You're a rummy! We picked you up and you were all boozed out." "No, I swear to God. I'm going to call Jack Leonard." "Is that your lawyer?" "No, Jack Leonard is that guy who is always on Ed Sullivan." "You mean that big fat guy that does all those insults?" "Yeah." "You don't know him. I'll dial the number. What's the number?" So the desk sergeant calls the number. "Is this Jack Leonard?" "Yes, this is Jack Leonard. What can I do for ya?" "This is Sergeant Jackson at the 84th Precinct. We got a guy down here in jail... you ever hear of Shecky Greene?" "Shecky Greene is the greatest comedian that ever lived!" "Well, we've got him down here in lock-up. We found him drunk." Jack says, "That's not Shecky Greene" and hangs up!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: (laughs) Two days later he hasn't shown up and everyone at the club is wondering... Shecky is officially missing. They phone Jack E. Leonard's house. Jack says, "Wait a minute, something happened the other night." So, they went and got him at the jail. Shecky told me that about a month later he got a bill... from Bellevue [Psychiatric Hospital]. He said he was in Bellevue for three hours. He would actually black out when he was drinking.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Pete Barbutti: Yeah, he is the most brilliant, naturally funny human being that ever lived.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find him hysterical and I love his stories. He's currently mad at me, unfortunately.

Pete Barbutti: Well, Shecky is like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, well that's what Jack Carter said. I called Jack Carter and asked for advice. I said, "Shecky is mad at me. What do I do?" He said, "Ah, that's Shecky. Just forget it."

Pete Barbutti: Jack Carter is a legend in his own time, man. Jack is one of the most bizarre human beings. Jack doesn't have any friends in show business, y'know. He has been mean to everybody, vindictive to everybody. There's a great old show business joke. A clinical psychologist comes to Las Vegas to do a story on prostitution. He gets three prostitutes in his office, one at a time. He says to the first one, "Do you ever have sexual fantasies?" "Certainly I do." "But how can you? You do this like twenty times a day." "That's business, but I have my own fantasies. I want to make love to Gregory Peck. He's the symbol of gentility and masculinity mixed together. I want to slather him with honey and..." She goes on and on. Next girl comes in. Same story. "I want to have an affair with Anthony Quinn because he has the most animal magnetism. I want to hang him from the rafters..." and so on. Next girl comes in. Psychologist says, "How about you?" She says, "I want to have an affair with Jack Carter." The guy says, "Why Jack Carter?" "Well," she says, "I have always wanted to be in show business and everyone in show business is always saying 'Fuck Jack Carter!' 'Fuck Jack Carter!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: Jack is one of those guys that is so paranoid that he's never satisfied with anything. We did a big comedy convention here in town. I was doing a clinic on talk shows. How to hit your mark and how to go to the panel and how to this and that. They had a bunch of old timers come in - Norm Crosby talked a bit, George Carlin. And they asked Jack Carter. "I don't want to do that (grumble)(grumble)(grumble) They're not paying me anything, just giving me a room!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: He was raving about everything. I talked him into it. They said, "Jack is not going to do it." The director said, "To hell with him then. Let him sit in the dressing room." I went up there and I softened him and brought him down. The people started asking questions and the next thing you know you can't get Jack off because he's going on and doing routines and nobody can get a word in.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: We did a thing for the Danny Thomas St. Jude's here. There were some very good entertainers on the bill and they said Jack Carter will be on the bill. They asked me to emcee it. I said, "Sure, I'll do it." Jack Carter was on last. They said, "Jack has a bum leg." A hip replacement or a knee replacement or something. He was using a cane. They said, "Give him enough time to get to the stage." So, I alerted him that he was on next and I did an introduction long enough so that he could get to the center of the stage so it wouldn't look like he was crippled. I said, "The one and only Jack Carter!" He gets on and the first thing he says, "Goddamn Pete Barbutti, I thought he was never going to get off! That introduction was so goddamn long..."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Pete Barbutti: He's going on and on and I was doing the guy a favor!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) The old comedian and impressionist Dave Barry said shortly before he died, "Jack Carter is the Muhammad Ali of bullshit."

Pete Barbutti: (laughs) There you go!


Michael Powers said...

This one was really good!

mackdaddyg said...

I've enjoyed all of the interviews posted on your blog, but Pete's is a bonafide hoot. I definitely want to hear more about him, but I'm digging the stories he has about others in the biz.

What's up with Shecky being mad, anyway?

Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff...always loved Barbutti, but these stories are a riot...should do a book