Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Interview with Steve Rossi - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand that your first major show business gig was in a Mae West revue.

Steve Rossi: Yes, I did that in 1953. I had just turned twenty-one. I had been playing the lead in several operettas in university; Desert Song, Oklahoma... I got signed to the Civic Light Opera Company by Edwin Lester, who was the head of that in Los Angeles. Mae West saw me in Vagabond King at the Carthay Circle. She came backstage with her manager. They told me they wanted me to play a straight man and singing role in her new show Muscle Men. She had ten muscle men in the show and then she had Charlie O'Karn as director and choreographer of the show.

She didn't like his ideas, so she fired him and asked me to help her put the show together (laughs). Which I did. In fact, I wrote the opening song for her and it was a huge hit. It was called Everyone Knows It's a Man's World. I directed the number and we had ten guys on pedestals. You'd step on a pedal and it would turn them around. They were just wearing G-strings and they were all greased up behind a screen. Before she came down the staircase, this was at The Sahara Hotel, she'd walk down... there was no introduction, just her walking down in the spotlight. She walks down to the front to a little raised area in front of the orchestra.

Then all of a sudden all the lights turn on and you can see all these muscle men from the back and they looked naked behind the screen. They'd look naked. And this was 1953! Long before these different male dancers and groups. She comes down and it was pandemonium! Women crawling up on their chairs [to get a better look] and in those days women are dressed up in gowns and men in tuxedos. She walks down, "Now you see the outline of these guys. [singing] Everyone knows it's a man's world! That's how the world was designed! To show off the female anatomy! Which appeals to the masculine mind! Why should this sort of pleh-shah! Be exclusively for the men? I'm sure that you girls would like a display of the opposite sex now and then!" Now the screen opens and she's looking at each of the men. "Now, look at this one! Oh! And this one's mine. Eat your hearts our ladies!"

They're going nuts. They're all screaming in the audience. They step on a pedal, they're all flexed in positions. The night before she called me up and said, "I want you to come down and take a look at the marquee." So I went down. She said, "What do you notice?" I had my real name [on the marquee]: Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella. She just had "Mae West" which was seven letters and I had thirty-one. I took up the whole marquee. She says, "What do you notice about my name?" I said, "Well, it's hard to notice because you've only got seven letters and I have thirty-one." She said, "From now on your name is Steve Rossi." Later on she told me how she came up with that name. She had a manager at that time by the name of Bernie Ross. She added the "I" to make it Italian and she was dating an actor from B films and his name was Steve Cochrane.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you find her easy to work with? She had a reputation for being difficult and for firing people on a whim.

Steve Rossi: Yes, very much so. She was very easy to work with because she liked me. There was another song in the show that she was known for at the time. "Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts..." You know, talking about two gay guys. Then she did a couple of routines with me that were from Diamond Lil and Sextette, comedy duo things and that was the first time I ever played straight man. It was for Mae West.

Kliph Nesteroff: What a great way to start.

Steve Rossi: Yes, I remember in one scene I played a Spanish gigolo. We were doing a dance and I was singing in between, "May I kiss your hand, madame?" And I say, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" She says, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, baby." It was a very entertaining act. She had four or five curtain calls at the end and standing ovations. We did it for almost a year on the road.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you remain in contact with her over the years after that?

Steve Rossi: I did for a couple of years. She owned half of Van Nuys, California and she leased out the land to the people that ran the stores on what became Van Nuys Boulevard. She was a very smart businesswoman. I think when she died she had over three hundred million dollars. She gave most of it to the Catholic church of all things (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the time that you were doing the Mae West revue, you were on an episode of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, right?

Steve Rossi: Yes, I was a winner on Talent Scouts. I was hired to be on the show for a month out of San Diego. He did his show at that time from different locations, but that one was from The San Diego Zoo.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was this radio and TV?

Steve Rossi: Radio and TV, yeah. The early years of television. I was telling everyone I was going to be on the show for the whole week. So, now I'm on the TV show and they had a monitor there. I'm singing a song on the show called On the Street Where You Live, which was Vic Damone's big hit. I'm singing and I'm looking at myself in the monitor and there I am, a medium close-up. "The pavement always stayed beneath my feet before..." Now I look again at the monitor, and there's the face of a giraffe

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Steve Rossi: As I'm singing, they're showing pictures of giraffes, elephants, hippos. They didn't show me except in the opening shot! Here I was bragging to my friends I was going to be singing this song and everything. Everyone called me and said, "Well, we only saw a giraffe while you were singing." That was around, maybe, 1950.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your interpretation of Godfrey the man? Of course the notorious Julius LaRosa thing was years later...

Steve Rossi: Oh, yeah, it came years later. In fact, Julius did a show with me three years ago in Palm Springs. A show called Senior Class. His voice was still pretty good.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had no problems with Godfrey yourself...

Steve Rossi: Oh, not at all, not at all. He was very nice and very charming. Later on we found out that he didn't like Jews and all kinds of stuff. Quite a womanizer. He was going with Jeanette... somebody from the show. He fired Julius, really, not because of ego. But he heard that Julius was looking to make a date with her. She was a singer on the show. Jeanette Davis I think was her name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you had a couple of records one that was solo, one with Marty Allen and one that was with Slappy White on the Roulette Records label which was run by Morris Levy. I was speaking with Bill Dana of Jose Jimenez fame. He told me that Moe  Levy pressed a pair of Jose Jimenez comedy records without his participation or authorization. Roulette recorded his routines off of television and pressed them as records. They became best sellers and Bill Dana never saw a dime.

Steve Rossi: Yeah. In those days, if you made a deal with Roulette... I have to say, Morris was very nice to me. But he did a lot of shady dealings. I heard that from several artists, you either did it his way or the highway. He would pay me upfront to do the albums. A couple of comedy albums and a couple of singing albums. Later on I brought Trini Lopez back into prominence by being his manager and I got him on Roulette Records and it did very well in the Latin market. Morris really revived his career, but, you know, he didn't get a lot of royalties. A very small percentage. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Now there is another interesting record label, primarily a comedy record label, that Slappy White recorded for several times...

Steve Rossi: Laff Records?

Kliph Nesteroff: Laff Records, yes.

Steve Rossi: It was owned by a Jewish guy and he was a real hustler too. He wanted to do an album with us and he offered, like, three hundred dollars.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Steve Rossi: He was going to record us live at the Shrine Auditorium with Moms Mabley. We turned him down. I was already with Roulette Records and I told Morris. I said "Listen, why don't you give me enough money to record a live album with Moms Mabley at the Shrine Auditorium? We're not really worried about royalties so much as the exposure." He said, "I can give you fifteen thousand dollars, a straight recording thing, no royalties." I said, "Fine." It was the first black and white [comedy team] album. It was called I Found Me a White Man, You Find Yourself One. That was the title. It [has bits about] the first black pope, the first black president... 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you come to team up with Slappy White?

Steve Rossi: Well, Marty Allen's wife had died and he was in mourning for three or four years. [After we broke up] I decided if I was going to do another team, it would have to be completely different. I knew Slappy from years before and that's how it came about. We started doing it and we played the Johnny Carson show four or five times and we did the Sullivan show a couple times. In fact, we did the first black vice-president on there. We were doing stuff in the seventies on Sullivan that nobody would ever do. We were lucky he wasn't too sharp because he never picked up on it.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was the last time you did Sullivan was with Slappy...

Steve Rossi: Yes. And I also did it with Joe E. Ross.

Kliph Nesteroff: How long were you and Slappy together?

Steve Rossi: We were together almost three years. We were the last headliners at The Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel. We co-starred with Eddie Fisher a couple of times, including at Caesar's Palace and we headlined once at The Copacabana and another time with James Brown. James Brown opened the show and then brought us on and then he came back at the end. We had such an ovation when we went off... what happened was, we were supposed to do a half hour. The press was all there. We did, instead of thirty minutes, forty minutes. 

When we went over, the owner of the club, Jules Podell said, "Turn the microphone off!" Now we had no microphone and we were just shouting the act and getting huge laughs and this was with all the stars there and all the press. Then we did another five minutes and he said, "Turn out the lights!" Now we were working in a blackout and Slappy takes out his lighter and turns it on and says, "I know you can see the white guy in the dark, but I want you to see this guy." Such laughs you couldn't believe it. Incidentally, we got fired that night. We did a number called Bojangles in the blackout. There was enough light that you could see us, but the spotlight was off and the main stage lights. We did our version of Bojangles and when I [sang] that, Slappy, who was a helluva dancer, came out and did [his impression of] Bojangles with the hat and the spats and the cane. He did the number and Sammy Davis was there that night. After the show he came to our dressing room and he said, "Boy, that thing you did on Bojangles was phenomenal. I'd sure like to do that." Slappy said, "Yeah, go ahead and do it." That became his signature thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your relationship with Jules Podell like in general?

Steve Rossi: Well, there wasn't much of a relationship you could have with him. He was very abrupt and he hardly said anything to anybody. He'd either fire people or throw some guys out of the club. On the other hand he was very generous. He'd call us up to do a show for the convent or do a show for the priests and then he'd make donations on top of that. So behind that rather fierce facade, he was pretty nice. But everything with him was like he was mad with you. "Hello, Mr. Podell." "Hello, blehhhh, how are ya, grrrr!" You always got the feeling he was pissed off. Then again, most of the time he was... and he drank on top of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was listening to what is probably the weirdest Allen and Rossi record. It's really a strange album - a departure from the other Allen and Rossi records... Batman and Rubin.

Steve Rossi: That was the worst album that we ever did! It was written by the guy who [created] Batman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bob Kane. I was going to ask you if he actually had a hand in it. I see that he wrote the liner notes, but I assumed that his name was more of a selling point than...

Steve Rossi: Yeah, the reason we did it was because we figured, his name is on it, he wrote it, he produced it and we figured [it would be successful]. Batman and Rubin the Jewish Wonder... that was his idea.

Kliph Nesteroff: So how did this bizarre pairing come together in the first place?

Steve Rossi: Bob Kane was a fan of ours. He came to see us when we were at the Persian Room at The Plaza. He just approached us. "I've heard a couple of your albums etc." He produced it. We went into the studio and... I don't remember what label it was with. Maybe it was Roulette, but I'm not sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mercury.

Steve Rossi: Oh, Mercury, yes. That was when Quincy Jones was head of production. I didn't think that album was funny at all. Most people didn't. Our other stuff was all funny one-liners and topical gags.

Kliph Nesteroff: We were talking a bit about What's My Line last time and Dorothy Kilgallen. On one of those episodes, a guest panelist is Henry Morgan who was normally on I've Got a Secret.

Steve Rossi: Yeah. We also did I've Got a Secret... we did just about every conceivable show. I don't think anybody ever had as much TV exposure as Allen and Rossi in our prime. We had over eight hundred appearances on television between network and syndication, probably fifteen hundred radio interviews. You know we did The Hollywood Palace, The Perry Como Show, The Dean Martin Show...

Kliph Nesteroff: A bunch of Garry Moore shows....

Steve Rossi: Garry Moore and Carol Burnett and the game shows, Hollywood Squares, Password... we were in the era of the variety shows and the era of the game shows. We were the last of the headliners in the Catskill mountains and then we did a couple of films. We recorded and we did a summer special called Hello Dere...

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk a bit about that special. I read that Nestor Paiva was in that and Henry Corden... was that a pilot for a series that never was?

Steve Rossi: Yes, it was a pilot for a show that [was to air for] a season. The summer was always tougher to get ratings. It only aired that once. I don't know. It seemed like everything that we did that I didn't write... didn't make it. I knew what was funny for us. Then you get involved with CBS or NBC or movies and all of a sudden they think they know more than you do. And you're doing it thousands and thousands of times and you know what works. The proof of what I'm saying is that I wanted to use a lot of [the Allen and Rossi nightclub] material that we could have adapted in the first movie that we did, The Last of the Secret Agents, and they said no. Rodney Dangerfield went into Caddyshack and did his routines and stole the movie! He knew he was doing his funny stuff. That's what we wanted to do.

Martin and Lewis did bits out of their nightclub act in their movies. Those were the only real things that were funny in their movies, otherwise their movies weren't funny at all. I didn't think so anyhow. People told us that their nightclub act couldn't compare to Allen and Rossi. A lot of stuff that they did was out in the audience. Jerry running around, dropping the trays, playing a waiter... he was doing all the old burlesque bits in the audience and Dean would bring him back up and they'd do a dance number. But when they did their bits on [television] they were hardly getting any laughs [in comparison]. I remember watching The Colgate Comedy Hour and I was amazed. I mean, people laughed, but the material was very weak. But I always thought that Dean was fantastic and I thought that Jerry played well off of Dean. But without Dean Martin... it proved that Jerry was never a stand-up comedian. And yet, Dean was. Dean could do stand-up and Dean could sing and Dean had hit records. Dean's hit records are what made Martin and Lewis as big as they were.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you and Marty Allen were forced to perform material written for you by other people, such as in The Last of the Secret Agents, did that make it a miserable experience?

Steve Rossi: Well, I felt like if that was going to be the first movie for Allen and Rossi... and we were hot at the time. There was nobody on television as much as we were during that period. I felt that if we were going to do a movie, especially a spoof, let's do some stuff out of our act that adapts to it, you know? I was trying to get Norm Abbott who directed it, I said, "Norman, we can take a bit from this routine and stick it in perfect here, it would work perfect here and we know it's funny." You can't make a top musical comedy without knowing if it's funny. We got the top writers from The Carol Burnett Show and The Garry Moore Show [for the film], but they didn't know shit about writing a movie. We already knew what would work and they wouldn't even take our advice.  So, consequently the movie was [a bomb]. 

It was made for under a million dollars, although it grossed, over the years, thirty or forty million dollars. By rights we should have been kept under contract at Paramount, but a new regime came in. Bob Evans and Howard Koch left and that was the end of our deal. We made enough money [for them] that they should have signed us to a ten year contract, for crying out loud. If they had, if we had gotten a contract, I never would have allowed some other comedy writers to go in there and say, "This is what you have to do." We weren't in the driver's seat.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about two of the movies you appeared in with Slappy White. A pair of drive-in exploitation pics... The Man From O.R.G.Y. and The Real Gone Girls.

Steve Rossi: Yes, those were both spoofs also. The Man From O.R.G.Y.... I mean, they were stupid stories. There was some nudity in it. I didn't want to be naked in those movies. I didn't want anybody to know I was Jewish. There was some [implied] nudity in The Last of the Secret Agents - it was shown from the back. But they were just spoofs and it was a way to get some exposure and make some money... and that was as close as I ever got to doing porn (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: There is another project listed on IMDB that... well, maybe you can elaborate for me on what it is. It sounds to me like it's a mistake - erroneous information maybe. A short film or a special of some kind called Allen and Rossi Meet Frankenstein?

Steve Rossi: I don't know how that got around. We never did a movie called that. I know Abbott and Costello did.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, of course.

Steve Rossi: But we never did. How that got in there... it's just an erroneous thing that was slipped into our bio for some reason.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the atmosphere of something like The Garry Moore Show like? You and Marty Allen appeared at least ten different times.

Steve Rossi: Yes. Garry was very nice. For years he worked with Jimmy Durante as his straight man. Derwood Kerby was on the show as his straight man when Garry became the comic. Derwood was basically an announcer and in those days if you could do the lines in a comedy bit, they'd use you. He did alright. He had a decent personality. He had a look about him that identifiable. Later on I helped get Carol Burnett on the show. Joe Hamilton and Bob Banner were the producers of The Garry Moore Show. They were looking for a comedienne. I told them I had seen her in Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed. It was on Broadway and I said, "This gal is really funny. You oughta go take a look at her." 

The rest is history. We went on tour with her, the first time she went "Live in Concert." We co-starred and I fed her all the straight lines from the sketches from her show. She did the show again a year later with Nipsey Russell, but it didn't do anything at all. When she toured with Nipsey, he just came on and did the comedy poems and then she came out after. There was no continuity and nothing fresh about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Moms Mabley earlier... did you actually get to know her at all?

Steve Rossi: No. We just did that one show together at the Shrine Auditorium. That show that we did with Moms Mabley was a classic. The emcee of the show was Richard Pryor. He opened the show and brought on the last of the great black burlesque teams: Skillet and Leroy. They had another gal that worked with them in some sketches....

Kliph Nesteroff: Maybe LaWanda Page?

Steve Rossi: Yes, I think that was the gal. Pryor came out and killed the audience. He was absolutely shaking backstage and then he walked out like it was nothing and banged it out. Then he brought up Skillet and Leroy and then [Slappy White and I] did the next part. Then Moms did the second half of the show. We got huge laughs, Slappy and I, because it was the first time there was a black and white comedy team. I think I was the only white guy in the Shrine Auditorium that night. It was completely sold out.

Kliph Nesteroff: Skillet and Leroy, LaWanda Page and Richard Pryor were all also on Laff Records...

Steve Rossi: Yes, Laff Records, right. I believe Diana Ross was also at that show and then put Richard Pryor in that movie Mahogany. Redd Foxx recorded some [for Laff]. They made a fortune off of them because he never game them an honest shake.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read in a newspaper once that you had been in talks with Hanna Barbera at one point to get involved with a series with them.

Steve Rossi: Yes, I came up with a concept for a show, an animated series for Allen and Rossi called Hello Dere. They seemed to be interested at the time, but nothing ever came of it. We had two or three meetings, but they couldn't come up with an idea on how to approach it. We had already done [The Last of the Secret Agents]. The guy who wrote The Last of the Secret Agents [theme] was Lee Hazlewood. Lee Hazlewood had written These Boots Are Made For Walking. At the time Tommy Sands was divorcing Nancy Sinatra. I told Frank, "Why don't you record her? You have your own label." He said, "Yes, well, see if you can find a song for her." I gave her that song and she didn't like it at first. Later on she finally recorded it and, of course, it went to number one. The rest is history. 

In the early sixties Marty and I opened for Sinatra. I went to his dressing room. I said, "Frank. We're very nervous. Can you give us some advice?" He said, "Yeah, kid. First: do the best you can. Second: give 'em all you got. Third and most important: remember, they didn't come to see you in the first place."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Steve Rossi: Good old Frank. I remember another time we were the last headliners at The Sands. We were upset when they imploded The Sands... because we were onstage at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Steve Rossi: (silence)

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Steve Rossi: Did you get that one? We were upset they imploded The Sands because we were onstage at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. 

Steve Rossi: I took a photo of the marquee [before they knocked down The Sands] because they listed the names of all the stars alphabetically, so we were first. Another time, when we first opened at The Sands... the marquees always read, "The Sands presents..." The first time we got there the marquee read, "The Sands presents Allen and Rossi: America's Number One Comedy Team." Well, I took a picture of the marquee with a Polaroid camera. It was a windy day and I hadn't noticed that the "P" blew off of the sign. So it said, "The Sands resents Allen and Rossi."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Steve Rossi: These are all true stories. I am writing a book right now about my life and it's called Show Business Undercover. And then, you know, I managed Howard Stern for five years in New York. I managed Trini Lopez, I managed Allen and Rossi...

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of books, I wanted to ask you how did that odd novelty Allen and Rossi Meet The Great Society come to be?

Steve Rossi: Yes, that came out of the album. We did an album on Lyndon Johnson and I came up with the idea of cross promoting that with a book. Then when Nixon had his problems, I put out a comic book. It was about Nixon and it was called The Final Daze. We did all these different captions in that also.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on so many episodes of Hollywood Squares. I was wondering if you ever saw the comedy team of Peter Marshall and Tommy Noonan. A lot of people don't realize that long before he hosted The Hollywood Squares, Peter Marshall had been in that comedy team.

Steve Rossi: Yes, in the early years in Dallas, Texas they were working in a hotel there. They were very good. They were more typical than Allen and Rossi or Martin and Lewis were. Peter Marshall was a good straight man and he had a nice voice, even to this day. His sister was an actress.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of people started out in comedy teams that people don't realize. Bill Dana was in a comedy team with Gene Wood.

Steve Rossi: Dana and Wood, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Carlin was in a comedy team with Jack Burns, Lorne Michaels was in a comedy team with Hart Pomerantz in Canada.

Steve Rossi: Sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: Last time we spoke, we mentioned Dorothy Kilgallen and you mentioned that you were friends. How did you meet her?

Steve Rossi: I met her at The Copacabana. She had written a negative remark about me in her column. About a week later I went to The Copa to see Paul Anka and she was sitting at the front table with Danny Stradella. She was sitting there and Paul Anka introduced me. I said, "Ms. Kilgallen, Steve Rossi." She was kind of stunned, knowing that she had written something negative. I said, "I just wanted to thank you for mentioning me in your column. I learned when I was very young that as long as you spell my name right, it's okay with me." She started to laugh and we became the dearest of friends. The next week, Johnnie Ray was opening at The Copa. She said, "I like you. I'd like you to be my escort." I said, "I've met Johnnie a couple of times, we did some TV shows together." She said, "Oh, do you know him personally?" I said, "Yes." So we go to the show and it was one of those exciting nights in show business. This guy just tore the place apart. 

After the show we go backstage and she was just enthralled with him. She was married to a guy who she found out later was gay. His name was Dick Kollmar. He was a half-assed producer on Broadway and he had a lover in New Jersey that he was living with toward the end of their relationship. They were doing a show in New York called The Dorothy and Dick Show, which was on radio. They had two kids. She fell madly in love with Johnnie Ray. They had a wild, mad, love affair and Johnnie Ray never slept with anyone else in his life other than Dorothy Kilgallen. Ironic, because she found out Dick Kollmar was gay - and Johnnie Ray had been gay. 

They had arguments and he left to the Coast of California. I had a home out there as well as a penthouse in New York at the time. He started dating a gal that worked at a club he was at on the Sunset Strip called The Mocambo Club owned by Charlie Morrison. The girl was Marilyn Morrison. He started dating her and that created problems with Dorothy. On their honeymoon night, he ran out of the bedroom just as they were getting ready to go to bed together. He put on his clothes and ran out of the bedroom. The next morning he flew to New York to be with Kilgallen. He consummated his honeymoon night with Marilyn Morrison by sleeping with Dorothy Kilgallen. I mean, I've got some stories that are pretty revealing. If you ever get to Vegas, please give me a call and I would love to meet you.