Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Interview with Stan Irwin

Kliph Nesteroff: You come from a family of vaudevillians?

Stan Irwin: No, well, my uncle was. My uncle Paul Allen and his wife were one of the first husband - wife vaudeville teams. They were on radio - I forget the name of the program. Paul Allen was the vaudevillian. Edgar [Stan's father] was a major booking agent on Broadway. What was that main vaudeville theater that everyone wanted to play on Broadway?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Strand...

Stan Irwin: No...

Kliph Nesteroff: The Palace...

Stan Irwin: The Palace! He booked The Palace and then of course there was The Strand, The Capitol, Radio City and all of that. Edgar, he was on Broadway when he died and had a stroke on the street.

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a review of your stand-up act  from April 24, 1946. You were playing The Village Corners in New York City.

Stan Irwin: That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Here is the review:

Stan Irwin: Yes, that was the early time of my career. That opening and closing of my hand was, I'm sure, because of nerves. Now unfortunately all the accents [and dialects] and characters that I did, you can't do today. Not only that, but people have outgrown it. In other words, the Catskill Yiddish accent doesn't reach too many people today. It's not known. The new generations don't know of that accent.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you hanging out at some of the known comedian hangout spots in Manhattan? Places like Hanson's Drugstore or...

Stan Irwin: Yes! That's the one. Hanson's was like a club (laughs). Mr. Hanson himself was generous. He quite often gave you food and carried a bill, which he never collected on. There were always three or four comics around the table swapping jokes or having fun. It was the middle class Friar's Club.

Kliph Nesteroff: And there was a mutual hangout next door called The B-G Coffee Shop.

Stan Irwin: Yup, I didn't hang out there much because I'm not a coffee drinker. Hanson's was the main hangout.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of your contemporaries that were known for hanging out on the same corner. Gene Baylos.

Stan Irwin: Yes, Gene Baylos lived in the same neighborhood that I lived in; Washington Heights. Gene was very heavy into his nineties when he passed away - he was almost a hundred. Gene Baylos would take anything that was not secured. Salt and pepper shakers... albums... when I was producing The Tonight Show [in New York] he would come in and ask for all the albums we weren't using and do some shtick. Gene was very funny. Gene was a heavy loser in Vegas. He once jumped on the table and yelled, "I bet my life on the heartache!"

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a notable creature of the Hanson's Drugstore set - Joe Ancis. Did you know Joe?

Stan Irwin: He was mainly a writer of gags who sold much material to the guys that hung out at Hanson's. He wasn't a major performer. He was mainly a gag writer.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Jack Roy.

Stan Irwin: Jack Roy became Rodney Dangerfield and in those days Jack was very close to Joe. Jack would have a file of jokes in the trunk of his car and he would sell them for five dollars a piece.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that he rented his act out to you one summer when you were doing the Catskills.

Stan Irwin: That is true. Jack got married and went into building siding and air conditioning and I said, "Your act fits mine. I'll rent it from you for X amount of dollars per week and put it with mine. After the summer, I won't use it anymore and you can have it back. But since you're not using it..." There were certain aspects of his performance that matched my type of delivery.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was the style of Jack Roy drastically different from the Rodney Dangerfield we all became familiar with?

Stan Irwin: Well, he would never call attention to his mannerisms, eyes or his tie. Many years later I was the producer for the Bossier Hotel in Bossier City, Louisiana. I brought in Rodney who [had reached his popularity], and he said to me, "I just can't believe that the college kids love me the way they do."

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1948, you were playing Billy Gray's Band Box. You were on the bill with Joe E. Ross.

Stan Irwin: Joe E. Ross, yeah. Joe E. Ross was a former burlesque comic. Joe E. Ross, if you put him in a brand new tuxedo, shirt, shoes, tie, haircut - would still look sloppy. Joe E. Ross had a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful voice to match. The burlesque background, of course, gave him a certain timing that other comics didn't have.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was briefly in a comedy team with a guy named Dave Starr.

Stan Irwin: Yeah, I have no relationship with that as I only knew Joe E. as a single. Joe E. Ross was sitting at the bar at a place I was playing in Florida. He was talking to this girl. He said to me, "I gotta tell ya! She was strange! We went up to the room and suddenly she said, 'How old are you?' I said, 'I'm thirty-five!' Then her eyes became hot! And her hands became claws! And we made love! Ten minutes later she said, 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Yeah.' Then her eyes became hot! And her hands became claws! And we made love! Then ten minutes later! I said, 'Wait a minute! I'm not thirty-five! I'm thirty-eight!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) What was Billy Gray's Band Box like as a venue?

Stan Irwin: Billy Gray's Band Box was like all of the comedy clubs of today put together. Billy Gray was always the star of his show. He would have two comics, a boy singer and a girl singer on the bill. When he was on vacation he would have three comics on his show. Sol Gold was his partner and was the administrative end of that relationship with Billy as the top comic. My best [and most famous] ad-lib was against Billy Gray. When I came in, Billy Gray was not emceeing the show. One night he used a falsetto voice with a Jewish accent. I hear this voice in the crowd saying, as I'm veering off script, "Verk! Verk for the people!" This was Billy Gray. 

I'd never seen him. This was my first time on the West Coast. I began ad-libbing within what was a standard routine [in which Billy Gray would play a man heckling the comic]. "Vere's dee lady's vroom?" "If you go to the back of the room you can't miss it!" "I don't vant to miss it, I vant to make it!" Well, that was a standard routine, which I didn't know. Billy, who was quite short, slightly bald, came up to the stage and the first thing he does is rub my nose. He looks at the audience, "It's a boyyyyyyyy...." So, I'm ad-libbing with him again [going back and forth]. Finally he says, "Don't you know it's very danger-vess to be funnier than the boss?" This is my best ad-lib. I said, "It might be dangerous, but it's not difficult."

Kliph Nesteroff: Right. That became a famous line used by others later on. You performed with a man that most know as a TV writer, but who started out as a comic - Bernie West.

Stan Irwin:  Bernie West was playing in New York at the Cafe Society when I was at the Village Vanguard and we got to know each other. He and Mickey Ross became the writing team of television. He passed away a couple years ago and unfortunately had Alzheimer's. Once he and Mickey got together and started to do TV they didn't do anymore live performance.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played Jackie Heller's Carousel a bunch of times, which was the big supperclub in Pittsburgh.

Stan Irwin: Jackie, yeah. That was an excellent room for young comedians to grow up in. Jackie himself was an excellent entertainer, mostly a vocalist. He helped the comics.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm going to throw some names at you and maybe you can tell me a bit about each of these comedians - many who are forgotten today. Lenny Kent.

Stan Irwin: Lenny Kent was very New York. He and Jackie Miles were the big New York comedians. Lenny Kent never matched the success of Jackie Miles. Had he concentrated more on being Lenny Kent rather than worrying about Jackie Miles' success, he himself would have been much more successful. He ended up at Caesar's Palace as a social director.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the fame of Jackie Miles really tapered off in later years.

Stan Irwin: Jackie Miles was the epitome of a New York nightclub comedian, but he was a heavy drinker and he just passed away from that.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was a big drinking pal of Joe E. Lewis.

Stan Irwin: Yes, well, anybody that drank at that time was drinking buddies with him! They'd hang out at the place that Jackie Gleason hung out.

Kliph Nesteroff: Toots Shor's. How about BS Pully...

Stan Irwin: BS Pully had a little guy that he used as a foil named Gump. BS Pully was so far ahead that it's unusual he didn't spend more time in jail than in nightclubs. One very raucous thing he would do... he would come out with a cigar box at his crotch, approach a table, and in the box was his penis. He would open the box and say, "Hey lady, are you a smoker?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, God.

Stan Irwin: He was loved by Hollywood producers. They found him to be very humorous. Sort of a jester to their social community. After a while he didn't have to do too many stand-up gigs because they took care of him and then he just... disappeared.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1948 and February 1949 you were playing The Silver Frolics in Chicago.

Stan Irwin: Yes! That again was a good middle class comedy club. Good audience, small, compact, comfortable room. Chicago was a main ground for comics and had a lot of hotel shows. It was second only to New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you make your way to [the very early Las Vegas venue] Club Bingo and become the house comic there?

Stan Irwin: When I was playing at Billy Gray's Band Box, some vocal group got booked and said I should be playing the club in Las Vegas. I said, "Where is Las Vegas?" There is a Las Vegas, New Mexico and a Las Vegas, Nevada. At that time most mail that was addressed to Las Vegas ended up in New Mexico instead of Nevada! That's how [insignificant] Las Vegas, Nevada was. The vocal group brought in a guy named Herb MacDonald who caught my act and booked me into the Club Bingo. When I came into Club Bingo he left to join the El Rancho to be their entertainment director. I was booked at the Bingo for eleven days and I stayed eight months. I took over the room and became the entertainment director. In those days Las Vegas was mainly World War Two money people. They came and enjoyed themselves.

Kliph Nesteroff: Other than yourself and Joe E. Lewis - who would have been the mainstay comedians in Las Vegas during the late nineteen forties?

Stan Irwin: Danny Thomas. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. One that people don't remember named Harvey Stone.

Kliph Nesteroff: The nose job.

Stan Irwin: Yup. Unfortunately. Harvey was one of the comics who came out of Chicago. At that time the thought of becoming a motion picture personality was big in the mind of those who had any kind of success in comedy. Unlike Danny Thomas he had his nose done and very bad. 

He had his nose job corrected and that made it even worse. It put him in a state of depression where he considered suicide and barely got work as a stand-up comedian. He was very famous for his army routine. He could have been at the level of a Danny Thomas had he not... ruined his face. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So then you went on to work for the Sahara Hotel...

Stan Irwin: Well, the Club Bingo became the Sahara. In those years, after the war, in order to get steel you could only do so if you were enlarging an already existing building. The Bingo was the existing building that was enlarged into the Sahara, which of course usurped the Bingo. The Sands was LaRue's Restaurant. They enlarged it into The Sands... and of course you couldn't find LaRue's Restaurant anymore. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand Wally Cox was the first big television star to be booked into Las Vegas in the early fifties - and it was a huge bomb.

Stan Irwin: Okay. Wally Cox was booked into The Dunes and he was very big on television. Instead of coming in as the television character he came in as Wally Cox and he didn't mean anything to the audience. He didn't want to leave the gig because he wanted the money. 

Jack Melvin, a publicist in Vegas, knew I used to be a stand-up comedian before I became the Sahara entertainment director. He suggested I fill in for a few days. The headline said, "Assemblyman," because I was an Assemblyman in Nevada, "Assemblyman Replaces Comedian." I worked three nights and then they brought Wally Cox back in and he ran out his contract. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The first and last time Wally Cox ever did Vegas.

Stan Irwin: Yup.

Kliph Nesteroff: You ended up being responsible for some of the biggest and most famous bookings in the history of Las Vegas. Marlene Dietrich was one.

Stan Irwin: In those days Jack Entratter was the head man of The Sands Hotel. Not only as president, but also as entertainment director. For me to compete with Jack was ludicrous. I was a comedian and he had been the main man at The Copa. So, I had to create new personalities. Recognizing the competition, I suggested to my boss Milton Prell that we go to Florida and talk to a man named Bill Miller. He had had The Riviera in New Jersey, so I felt we could use him to try and equal Jack Entratter's contacts and ability. He brought in Marlene Dietrich the first time with what was known as The Peek-A-Boo Dress. It was a dress with skin-colored lining with rhinestones around the neck, across the breasts and over the crotch so that it looked as if she was nude. 

I had become assistant to Bill as an entertainment director and then Bill left us and I became entertainment director. Marlene felt she belonged at The Sands with the [big time] people that played The Sands. Not the Rat Pack, as that didn't exist yet. She went to The Sands. I noticed in between shows she was in our Sahara Hotel coffee shop. She said, "They don't treat me over there the way you treated me." I brought her back to the Sahara. She had done some singing in the past, but she had not been a nightclub performer. Bill Miller contacted her the first time and surrounded her with the proper people - light man, costume designers, producers and came in with a big production show. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Around this time you and Larry Sloan put together a television show called Fabulous Las Vegas.

Stan Irwin: Yes. At that time The Riviera was closed and we used that as our studio. I bought the title from Jack Cortez's magazine for ten dollars. We put on two or three major shows with all the stars and did it from The Riviera. We used the pool as a backdrop. At that time you couldn't shoot indoors because a lot of people didn't want their faces to be seen because they were with the Mob or they weren't with their spouses... so you couldn't shoot indoors in a regular casino! It was microwaved at that time and I think our third show was blown off the air. It was on CBS. There was a storm and that ended that. CBS made us an offer to do the show [on a regular basis] and we asked for eighty-thousand a show. They said that was ridiculous and that was that.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the first episode you had Abbott and Costello as guests.

Stan Irwin: I brought them into The Sahara. And they were not friends. In the earlier days Costello was the drinker and the gambler. Later on Abbott became the drinker and the gambler and couldn't remember his lines. It was a conflict within their own performance and presentation. They didn't mix and mingle other than when they were together on stage and Abbott's timing was off

Kliph Nesteroff: It has been said that you were the first person to put Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the lounge.

Stan Irwin: Well... that was Bill Miller again. They were performing at the El Rancho and not doing well. So, Bill approached Beldon Katleman and offered to take over their contract and put them in the Casbar Lounge, which I named. We bought Louis a tuxedo for the first time. Their success was eminent. Don Rickles was mine. I saw him at Slate Brothers [in Los Angeles] two or three times and brought him into Vegas. At that time we had an El Dorado theme in the lounge and everybody that worked there dressed western and the men grew beards. So, Don came in at that particular moment and did his act, but El Dorado ended that week and everyone changed and shaved and he couldn't recognize who he spoke to. Don's success was predictable.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the same note - Jack E. Leonard...

Stan Irwin: Jack E. Leonard said that Don Rickles stole his act. Jack E. truly believed that. He had a high ego and that affected his career to the negative. He thought he deserved more than he received, but he didn't work on his act that much. There were many times on the Carson show that Johnny felt he came unprepared and Johnny later stopped us from booking Jack E.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Jack Carter?

Stan Irwin: Carter was more concerned about other people than his own great ability. He affected his career with conflicts with [club] owners. He didn't acquire as large of a following [as some of his contemporaries] and he was his own worst enemy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Bill Miller a couple of times. What was he like?

Stan Irwin: Bill was very much a show business guy. A former tap dancer, owned nightclubs, booked the biggest of people, bought the Riviera in New Jersey. Anybody from Sinatra on down performed for Bill Miller. He was affable, a wonderful greeter, a wonderful host and well-liked by all performers.

Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Hackett was a Vegas mainstay and he played The Sahara with The Mills Brothers. What do you remember about Buddy?

Stan Irwin: My experiences with Buddy - we were both comics and knew each other from the mountains. Simplest contract I ever made was with Buddy Hackett. I said, "Buddy, I'd like to bring you into the Sahara." His agent was a Lincoln car dealer and I said, "Okay, I'll go talk to him." He said, "Nah, you can just talk to me."

Kliph Nesteroff: You brought Judy Garland to Las Vegas as well.

Stan Irwin: Judy Garland I brought in and I knew she wouldn't be able to do fifteen shows a week. So, during the cocktail hour - I booked her for two in the morning. One show. And you couldn't get in. Nothing else was going on at that time of night at that point. Only lounges. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That turned out to be was a revolutionary move.

Stan Irwin: Totally.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mae West played The Sahara several times during your reign.

Stan Irwin: Bill Miller booked her the first time and then I kept bringing her in after that. Mae West would take a limo from the high rise building to the stagedoor. I would invite artists to enjoy lounge shows like Shecky Greene or The Silver Slipper after their performance. I asked Mae if she would like to come with me after one of her shows, but she said, "If [the people of Vegas] wanna see Mae West - let 'em pay to get in."

Kliph Nesteroff: It was reported that Mary Kaye, Connie Francis, Teresa Brewer, Ann-Margaret and Judy Garland were all helped by you through hypnosis...

Stan Irwin: When I was at NYU I took a course in hypnosis and became a lay-hypnotist. In Vegas there was a thing we called Vegas Throat - the adverse combination of air conditioning and hot weather. I was able to take them all through hypnosis, "When you're on stage you'll perform as if nothing is bothering you..." et cetera. They went out and performed well. With Judy Garland she was booked in San Francisco at some theater in the round. I kept her on what we call post-hypnotic suggestion. She never failed to do a show as long as I was able to make contact with her. I never did it as a business and I never charged, but I helped people with pregnancies and teeth problems and anything that could service them. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You brought Vaughn Meader to Las Vegas.

Stan Irwin: Vaughn Meader I brought into The Sahara at the height of his album The First Family. Vaughn Meader always wanted to be a country singer and pianist. Unfortunately, after he did The First Family presentation, we had to roll out a piano and he would then sing and stuff like that, which took the whole evening down. Years later I tried to persuade him to come in and do anniversary shows of The First Family, which he didn't do. Vaughn was on drugs.

Kliph Nesteroff: You eventually became Pearl Bailey's manager and represented her for a couple of decades, right?

Stan Irwin: Yes, when I left the Sahara after Del Webb took over, Pearl was playing at The Flamingo. I went to see her and went backstage to congratulate her on her act... and left as her manager (laughs). Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey ended the segregation of Las Vegas. Lena at The Sands and Pearl at The Flamingo - and then it became general. "We won't perform unless this [racist structure is dismantled]."

Kliph Nesteroff: You eventually became producer of The Tonight Show.

Stan Irwin: I was in Los Angeles surveying the area for talent. The phone rang and it was Carson inviting me to produce The Tonight Show. I had been booking Carson in concerts. I came in and was producing and still booking his live appearances.  I made certain administrative changes. It was a short tenure as some said there was conflict between my being his concert manager and producer of the show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lastly, you did the voice of Lou Costello in Hanna-Barbera's Abbott and Costello cartoon - and Bud Abbott did the voice of Bud Abbott. How did that come to be and what do you remember about that?

Stan Irwin: A friend of mine brought the idea up and he was going to produce it. He knew that I could do [the voice of] Costello and brought me along. I would fly in from Vegas, drive and pick up Bud Abbott, go to the recording studio, and drive him back to his house and fly back to Vegas. Bud lisped a lot. A lot. We had to do a lot of retakes. He lived in a house that was smaller than his former bar. He was on a downward slope and the end was near. He needed the cartoon gig and they tolerated him because it was him even though it was retake after retake after retake.


George M said...

How interesting. I've known Stan Irwin almost forty years and didn't know some of this 1940's background experience of his. Stan has always been and still is such a caring , knowledgable and professional always there to help his friends. I love Stan Irwin.

George Michaud
Taken manager/agent//producer

Anonymous said...

Though Bud Abbott's life had a sad denouement, the fact that his voiceover work involved numerous pickup lines probably saved him the embarrassment of losing his comic timing.