Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You were a production singer at The Sands Hotel?

Jackie Curtiss: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Rossi also had been. Did you know him at the time?

Jackie Curtiss: No, I was before Steve. I was with Garr Nelson. That was way back. I had gone up to audition and they hired someone else, but he wasn't going to be able to start for another six weeks, so I got two weeks with Lena Horne and four weeks with Tallulah Bankhead. That was my little entrance to Vegas.

Kliph Nesteroff: You put out a couple of singles on a record label called Dynasty.

Jackie Curtiss: Dynasty, yes. Actually, one of them happened to be a million seller, but I never got a dime. When I went back to collect, the guys had taken off (laughs). It was called Ceceila Cha-Cha-Cha. The other side was a song I wrote with Rex Dennis. Have Love Will Travel and Home Again.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another one, a novelty, called Ballad of Puppy Breath.

Jackie Curtiss: There was a time when novelty records were everything. We were living in Los Angeles when my comedy partner was Bill Tracy. The Ballad of Puppy Breath... there was a guy, Claude something or other. He was an actor on the old Fred Allen show.... Mr. Wimple...

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Thompson.

Jackie Curtiss: Right! Bill Thompson. I used to be able to do his voice, so I did that in The Ballad of Puppy Breath. "(In Droopy voice) My name is Clyde B. Barlow. B for Barlow and two pees for the puppy." That was Bill Thompson's voice. So, I did a whole bunch of things and made some good money.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you connect with Dynasty Records? There was a man named Lee Palmer who apparently was running it...

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, I think he was more of a front man. It was a hood. I was looking for a label because I did the four sides myself and paid for them. It was a lot of money in those days. It cost $2200 to do four sides. I went to them and they were going to put it out because they didn't have to put up any money or do anything. They put it on their label and they went fast and furious. They had a girl named Gloria Henry and they did a song with her that made a lot of money. This whole thing only lasted a couple months. We went back to the office and all of a sudden - closed! No office. No nothing. They just disappeared. With the money.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on The Garry Moore Show...

Jackie Curtiss: No. Marc Antone and I did Sullivan and Jack Paar. With Bill Tracy I did Carson a few times...

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about the Jack Paar experience?

Jackie Curtiss: Jack Paar was our very first network show. That was how we finally got with William Morris. We were with a local agency - crooks - that we wanted to get away from. We auditioned and got the Jack Paar show in Los Angeles. That was when he had Pupi Campo as the bandleader. We did the show and at the time I had a mask. There was an act called The Goofers that did a funny thing with an ape mask. They were very popular. So, I got that ape mask and then under it I had another mask - a half mask. 

The top half of the face is masked and it looked like Mortimer Snerd. So I had that ape mask over top and as we walked out my partner says, "Oh, take that silly mask off!" And I pull it off and there's another mask and that got the big laugh. I guess we did four or five minutes, but we had all the agencies looking in. That's how we got with Berger, Ross and Steinman out of New York. Harry Steinman who was married to Fran Warren.

Kliph Nesteroff: You two played the Safari Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1959.

Jackie Curtiss: Safari? Yeah... we worked that with the DeCastro Sisters. It was called The KoKo Club, which Jerry Lewis bought for his father. It was the Jerry Lewis KoKo Club, but originally it was the Safari.

Kliph Nesteroff: And what was that venue like?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, that was great. Especially, with the DeCastros. That was quite an experience. One night the Mob came in and told The DeCastro Sisters, Marc Antone and myself that we were going to be their guests at some show. We wouldn't have to perform that night. They were presenting a young singer that they were "taking care of." His father was going to the penitentiary and in those days the Mob would take care of the family and get them a job. Well, this kid was going to be a singer so they had Buddy Brigman arrangements, Sy Devore clothing and this guy came out and... he was the worst singer - but he looked great!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Sol Tropp who was the owner of the nightclub was sitting there in a sweat. We were sitting at the table with him and the two top guys from the Mob. The whole room is papered. Everybody there were friends of the Mob. So the cheers this guy got were unbelievable. I mean, they cheered this guy who really couldn't sing. So poor Sol Tropp is sitting there. The show is over and Mr. Bent Nose looks over at Sol and says, "Whaddaya think?" So, Sol is sweating. He says, "Well, uh, y'see, um... let me put..." "That bad, huh? Well, tank ya for ya candor." I'll never forget that. "Tank ya for ya candor."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: The kid walked up to the table and said, "How'd I do, Mr. Bent Nose?" He says, "Tomorrow you're a fighter." And that was it. They made him a boxer!

Kliph Nesteroff: Naturally, one of the most fascinating things about the whole era of the supperclub is the whole Mob element...

Jackie Curtiss: I learned so much because I became a director later. Lighting. The DeCastro Sisters, their big hit at the time was Teach Me Tonight. They carried a bongo player with them, which I never understood until I saw them rehearse. The bongo player never stopped playing. In other words, when the song ended, whatever it was, he would continue with this beat so that there was never silence. Peggy DeCastro, the lead, would talk and introduce the next number and he'd do like a lil drum roll and they'd dive into the full eighteen piece orchestra set. 

They wore three beautiful white dresses. They'd do three numbers in these white dresses. Then the spotlight would hit with three spotlights with different colored gels, and then they did three numbers where their dresses looked red, then the next three numbers it looks like they're in green dresses - all with the same dress though - and it was spectacular.

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Marc Antone played The Shamrock Hilton...

Jackie Curtiss: The Shamrock Hilton in Houston, Texas. That was a really big one. We followed in Nelson Eddy. You learn by osmosis. When I was a shoeshine boy as a kid at the Adams Theater in Newark I got a deal where I could go backstage and shine the shoes of Louis Prima, Dick Haymes, all these people. Then I grew up and I worked with them and they became my friends. But it was during that period at the Adams that I saw comics. I saw everything. That's where I got this writing ability and learned by osmosis. So at the Shamrock Hilton we walk in and, in those days, whoever the following act was coming in - no matter who the star was - they would be told that the act following them would be in the audience. 

So we're sitting there and Nelson Eddy stops and says, "Ladies and gentleman, following tomorrow night are the two young lads that were such a sensation on The Ed Sullivan Show. Let's have a big hand for Marc Antone and Jackie Curtiss!" Well, what a flattering thing. Then we went backstage and met him and he was just a wonderful guy. I'll never forget this one moment in his act... He talked about people that ask for requests. He said, "I always get a request to do September Song because people know that I was in the show that introduced it. What a lot of people don't remember was that I never sang September Song. It was introduced by the great Walter Huston. The song was supposed to be sung by an old man in the show and I was too young to sing it. (silence) That problem has been taken care of." Well, that moment - wow - it just brought tears to your eyes the way he said it. The Hilton was a beautiful, big room. We were in there with a twenty-two piece big band. Great publicity. They did everything first class.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lake Tahoe. 1960. You were opening for Teresa Brewer...

Jackie Curtiss: Teresa Brewer! Harrah's Club. We actually worked with her a lot. We opened for her at the old Harrah's across the street and then they built a new one, which is still the same one now. There's another great story that has to do with Teresa Brewer and another comic... uh, Larry Storch's brother...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jay Lawrence.

Jackie Curtiss: Jay Lawrence. Jay Lawrence was the opening act for Teresa. Bill Harrah who was the owner was a Mormon. I worked for him for a year at the Aladdin and the Mormon Mafia. All of his clubs including Harrah's had little blue frames on the wall, backstage and in the hallways that said, "Blue material will not be tolerated." If you defied that - you could get fired - on the spot. They would tape your first show. 

Right in the center by the orchestra seats they had the sound booth. The guy was right there and he taped everything. If you said anything [objectionable] they had a tape of it and they told you what not to say. Which happened to me too. Jay Lawrence came in and did a joke the first night. "I bought a little sportscar and they're dangerous. I put my hand out to make a left hand turn and I ruptured a cuff." They told him, "Jay, Mr. Harrah doesn't want you to say ruptured. Please take that joke out." 

Jay said, "But it's such a good joke!" "Jay. Take the joke out." So he took the joke out for about three days. Now he wanted to outsmart them. And they taped every show. So this night he says, "You know I have a little sportscar. They're dangerous. I stuck my arm out to make a left hand turn and I hit a cop right in the knee! You should have heard this joke... before they made me clean it up." He still had about fifteen minutes to go in his act. When he finished... his bags were packed for him....

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow.

Jackie Curtiss: His cheque was in his hand. His cab was ready. As he looked out the back window, he could already see his replacement's name - Senor Wences - going up on the marquee.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, man.

Jackie Curtiss: But that was Bill Harrah. And I knew that, so when we opened for Teresa again at the new Harrah's across the street... I had a breakaway suit. I mentioned to you that in the act I sometimes dressed as a little boy? Well, I had a jacket and pants that when I walked out and did banter with my partner, he would say, "Now, I don't understand. You were supposed to come out here dressed as a little boy." "But I don't want to." "Do as you're told." So, I would walk offstage - and it would look real spectacular - because I was off and on that quick - the stagehand would just grab the front of my jacket and the front of my pants and pulled. 

The first night I did a joke where I said, "How's your food?" And the person in the audience would say, "Oh, great." And I said, "Well, don't go in the kitchen." Another joke that followed was, "I'm a boy with no navel. The ultimate in mother-rejection." They came back and said, "They don't want you to mention the kitchen - and they don't want you mentioning any parts of your body. Take out the navel joke." I said, "Fine." I went two nights - and then one night when they pulled the jacket off it hurt my arm. I was so used to doing it by rote that [it was difficult] when someone said to take something out. When I got offstage someone said, "Why did you do the navel joke?" I said, "I don't know. I hurt my arm and I forgot." I rolled up my sleeve and showed them my arm. "Okay." But we came so close to being fired. 

But boy, you talk about first class. They had gold plated name plates on your dressing room door: Antone and Curtiss. We had followed Rowan and Martin in. Most acts would come in the day before to see the closing acts and get a look and feel of how the stage was. Dick Martin was an old friend of mine. We were having a snack with them after the show and Dick tipped me off. He said, "Do you drink?" Marc said, "Of course." He said, "You just tell them what you drink. Now, another thing. Don't pay for anything in the coffee shops or for dinner. Sign everything." "Why?" "Because if they like you they'll pick up all of the cheques." 

When we went downstairs and the guy said, "Mr. Harrah would like to know what your preference is in drinking." "Jack Daniels." "Fine." Every night there was a new uncapped bottle in your dressing room. If you took one drink out of it, that was taken away and a new bottle was brought in. So, we signed for everything, checked out of the hotel and Harrah paid for every dime, all of our expenses. They were real first class. Those were great days. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Chi-Chi in Palm Springs?

Jackie Curtiss: Chi-Chi in Palm Springs is where I met Edgar Bergen. I told you I had that half-mask that looked like Mortimer Snerd? I had that mask on and did a couple lines as Mortimer Snerd. Didn't do any material, but just did it with that funny look. After the show Edgar Bergen sent word backstage that he had seen it and to come join him at his table. We went out and sat with him for about an hour. He said, "You know, that Mortimer mask is real good. Would you like some Mortimer material?" And he gave me about five minutes of Mortimer material that we did with the mask. From that point on we said, "We'd like to do a little tribute to Edgar Bergen. Here's Mortimer Snerd." 

Kliph Nesteroff: Bergen was there doing his nightclub act?

Jackie Curtiss: No, he was living there. He was living in Palm Springs. And The Chi Chi gave you a three bedroom house with a pool as your accommodations.

Kliph Nesteroff: You two played the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood.

Jackie Curtiss: Moulin Rouge, again, that was with the DeCastro Sisters the first time and then twice with Billy Daniels. That was another great place. It was originally Earl Carroll's. Then it became the Moulin Rouge and then The Aquarium.

Kliph Nesteroff: Also in Los Angeles - Billy Gray's Band Box.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, that was wonderful because Billy Gray was a master. We were there for about fifteen weeks. You ever see Billy Gray? Next time you see the movie Some Like It Hot - he was the agent that booked Tony Curtis and the big band. He had a little voice. He called me backstage. He said, "Jackie, you know that one little joke that you do there? That's not for you. You got more class than that. Take that one joke out." I said, "Sure, Billy, no problem." So I took it out. Next show - he did it in his act.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: I said, "You told me I had more class than that and..." He said, "Yes, Jackie. But I don't have any class."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: He was wonderful. I learned so much from him. He was a master. A master comedian. Of course, the great thing about the show was the way it was done. And it was done differently depending on the week. Trapeza. It was a take-off on the film Trapeze with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. He would do a show onstage with his actors and his comedians and it was this book show. After the book show, everyone would come out and do their own individual act. That's how the Band Box worked. It was fabulous.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I had heard he loved comedians and unlike all the other clubs, the Band Box always had more comedians than anywhere else.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, he had three different comedians every show. We were the comedy team and then he had a comedy contortionist and a comedy singer, y'know... that was the Band Box. It was comedy. The great thing was that every star in the world got to see you.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure. I heard that some of the regulars there over the years included Joe E. Ross...

Jackie Curtiss: Joe E. Ross, yes. He was a good guy. Buddy Hackett was there a lot. He was a pain in the ass.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) How so? I mean, I've heard that from others...

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, yeah, he was a prick. He really was. He was really an offensive comic and he treated people very badly - including his family. A bad guy. You won't hear me say that about too many people, but when it's there it's there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Even Buddy's best friends will say the same thing. One of the other guys most don't have anything good to say about is Jackie Mason.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, yes. Yeah, I knew Jackie when he was still a rabbi. He had just quit being a rabbi and did so well up in the mountains of New York. I ran the Playboy Club out here [in Hollywood] for twenty years. I would have him on all the time. The first time I said, "In our audience tonight is an old friend of mine from New York - Jackie Mason." Bingo - suddenly he's up onstage doing twenty minutes. After that - if I knew he was going to be there then I would invite him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You knew it would happen whether you invited him or not. How about The 500 Club in Atlantic City?

Jackie Curtiss: That was a different Jack Curtis.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really?

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, that was just a singer that was down there and spelled it with one S. I never met him. He was the singer that was there with Martin and Lewis when everything was happening. And then there was another Jackie Curtis with the whacko painter...

Kliph Nesteroff: Andy Warhol.

Jackie Curtiss: Andy Warhol. He had a Jackie Curtiss that was a gay guy. I would get that every once in a while. When Jackie Curtis died they thought that I died.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans?

Jackie Curtiss: Marc and I did a club date there, but I also worked there with Jack Fina as a band singer. As a band singer it was great, but as a club date it was just a club date. I was in and out.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1960 - you were playing the Holiday House in Pittsburgh.

Jackie Curtiss: Yup. That's where we met Smith and Dale. They came to see us and the amazing thing was - all the time they sat with Marc and I - they argued. I mean, just like their performances. They just never stopped. And we loved it!

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Dana told me that Smith and Dale had been on Ed Sullivan countless times and when they were really getting on in age, Ed brought on - he was sustaining them financially. He booked them and said, "Go out and buy some new material. You can't keep doing the same sketch every single time." So he gave them money to buy material. They spent the money on something else, came on the show and did the same old stuff.

Jackie Curtiss: (laughs) Yes, well The Sunshine Boys was their story, y'know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Jackie Vernon at all?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, very well. I knew Jackie when he was a robust, whacko comic like Shecky before he changed to become the quiet, little guy with the clicking of the slideshow.

Kliph Nesteroff: Tell me about his original act. That's very interesting.

Jackie Curtiss: He would just be bombastic. Some how he changed it up somewhere along the way. That happened with Rip Taylor too. Rip Taylor was The Crying Comic and then he completely switched to props. Rip was a great guy. You're bringing back wonderful memories of times I spent with these guys. The funniest guy that I had a longtime friendship with was Irwin Corey. I was the only one who could do an impression of him. He would come in the night before. I was working alone as JC Curtiss at the Kansas City Playboy Club. He was following me. 

This was Saturday night and he was going to be playing Monday. In the Playboy Clubs - at the back of the room there was always a VIP booth, which they kept open in case Hef came into town or the mayor or whoever. They always kept a booth open. If you were the following act that's where you'd end up. I was onstage and I spotted Irwin coming in at the back. He waved and he sat down in the booth. He knew that I could do [an impression of him], so I knew he would pick up on this. I knew if I said it the right way he'd know what I was doing. 

So I said, "Incidentally, ladies and gentleman, the Professor Irwin Corey is a wonderful act and he's opening here Monday night. How many people here have ever seen Irwin Corey?" Twenty or thirty people put up their hand. "Well, you can tell your neighbor how great he is. But I want to tell you before I leave - that I am the only comic in the business that does an authentic impression of the Professor Irwin Corey. Not only can I do a perfect impression of Irwin Corey - but as a former ventriloquist - I can throw my voice at the same time! I'll give you an example." 

In my act I said [in Irwin Corey voice], "The problem with the world is sex!" Then from the back Irwin shouted, "The problem with the world is sex!" They were startled. "Sex is not just great in the bedroom, but it's also worth fourteen points in scrabble." From the back Irwin yells, "But it's also worth fourteen points in scrabble!" Then I said [in Irwin Corey voice], "And Irwin Corey is not that great a comic!" And Irwin yells from the back, "You're full of shit!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: He was great. He was insane. Kliph, he was insane. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Ninety-seven years old. He's a guy I haven't talked to yet.

Jackie Curtiss: Boy, if you do - he's the best. We used to play practical jokes on him. We were having lunch one day in Chicago. I said, "Where you going after lunch?" "Gotta go up to the office and sign my contract." "Well, I'll see you later." I went right to a phone booth and called the front office, Tony Rizzo's office, pretended I was Irwin - doing that voice - and canceled the contract.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: He went over there and they said, "But you just canceled it! What are you talking about?" "THAT DIRTY SON OF A BITCH, CURTISS! I'M GONNA KILL HIM!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I want to go back to Jackie Vernon for a moment - and ask you about this early, high-energy act of his. Did he not go over well with his other act?

Jackie Curtiss: I really don't know. I met him when he was doing that, but I had found out about this mostly through Shecky. Shecky Greene told me that he used to do a hot act just like him. Shecky and I go way back. We were in the same office together. We were with [the same agent] when I was with Bill Tracy. Shecky was a little bit nuts too, as you know. We were in the same office and we just hung out together. He introduced me during one of the great lunches of my life. I had lunch with Shecky, our manager and Groucho Marx at Nate n' Al's.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah, wow.

Jackie Curtiss: It was a great moment for me. We were sitting in the booth when Groucho walked in. I saw him and I said, "Hey, that's Groucho Marx." Shecky said, "Don't you know Groucho?" I said, "No!" Shecky shouts to him to come over and have lunch with us. Groucho says, "Well, I'll have lunch, but you're gonna pick up the tab." He sat down and he had lunch with us. He didn't tell one joke, but he was hysterical. Everything out of his mouth was a humorous gem. Incredible. So forty-five minutes I just sat there with my jaw open, enjoying and laughing. When he sat down Shecky said, "Groucho, I want you to meet a very fine young comedian - Jackie Curtiss." 

We did the whole lunch and he said goodbye to them and then he said, "And to you, fine young comedian Jackie Curtiss - if your comedy is comparable to your lunchtime conversation - you'd be better off being a busboy." And walked away. Shecky said, "Boy... does he like you!" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "The fact that you didn't try to tell a joke in front of him - you showed respect for him - it means he really, really loves you." A month later I saw Shecky and he said, "Hey, I ran into Groucho. He said, 'Jackie Curtiss, the young comedian - how is he doing?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah, isn't that sweet.

Jackie Curtiss: Beautiful man.

Kliph Nesteroff: A guy named Jackie, a guy named Shecky and a guy named Groucho having lunch at Nate n' Al's... sounds like a scene out of Broadway Danny Rose.

Jackie Curtiss: (laughs) Yeah!