Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: Couple of weird - probably awful gigs you did in the 1950s... You performed for "1300 grocery store employees" in Lubbock, Texas and you performed at the Miss Wool Pageant...

Dick Curtis: (laughs) Yes, that was in a geodesic dome! They had a huge one next to the hotel in Porter, Texas - which smells like paint thinner. By then I was so big in Texas that they would book me into anything. They'd say, "Dick can't fail. Book him for it." At the same time my agent booked me into an industrial show that was rehearsing up in the Catskill mountains at Grossingers. It was a show for Chevrolet or Ford or something like that. You know what industrial shows are, don't you?

Kliph Nesteroff: They're sort of self-contained musicals about a particular product - done for the employees or people within the company, right?

Dick Curtis: They were like a Broadway show except they were about the product. They would hire guys like me because I could work in all phases of the show and then do my nightclub act later that night for the dealers and their wives. Also, I was a writer so I could fix things that didn't work. I got a lot of work that way. My God, I get a pension from Actors Equity because of it.

Anyway, we were rehearsing in the Catskills at Grossingers. I would rehearse all day then drive back to LaGuardia, get on a plane, fly to Dallas, charter a plane and fly to these dates that I had. Then I'd fly back. I was really worn out - rehearsing and flying and driving. I got down to Porter and they said it was the "Made of Cotton" Festival and this was the beauty contest. 

I said, "Who's on the show?" They said, "It's you, a girl singer and that game show host from New York that does Who Do You Trust. I think his name is Johnny Carson." I said, "You hired Johnny Carson to do this show? What do you need me for?" They said, "Well, we know you. We don't know him at all." Johnny got out of the car with Ed McMahon and I was sitting on a bench in front of the hotel. I said, "Hi, Johnny." He said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "You and I are doing the Made in Cotton show together." He said, "You're on the bill with me? Jesus, what does that tell you about what they think of my act!" We did the show and I flew back to the show at Grossingers. That night I did my nightclub act in the main dining room - and the audience was a convention of FBI men!

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow.

Dick Curtis: Now I'm so tired from flying and driving and rehearsing - I was falling asleep standing up. I went out and for some reason, this happens with a lot of performers, I did the show and I could have belched and people would have screamed and applauded. It was just one of those nights. I did about an hour and I was thinking, "Now I can go to sleep." I was walking down the hall and this girl ran up to me. She said, "You are absolutely sensational! Do you know who I am?" I said, "Yeah, you're pretty, perky Peggy King." Do you remember who that was?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, she was on The George Gobel Show...

Dick Curtis: Yup. She said, "You must replace Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie!" I said, "I must?" She said, "Oh, yes." We were both staying at Grossingers and there was a phone in the hallway there. She picked up the telephone and she said, "I'm going to call Gower Champion and his wife because you have got to replace Dick Van Dyke when he leaves the show." I said, "Don't mention my name." Because she was calling them at three o'clock in the morning. 

So she calls and says, "Hi, Gower! It's Peggy (pause) Well, that's a hell of an attitude! I'm calling to do you a favor! Yes, I know what time it is! I found you your replacement for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie! If you want to hear the name you better stay on the line. Dick Curtis. Yeah? Well, I never heard of him either, but I just saw him destroy an audience tonight!" 

She said, "Uh huh. Okay. Well, remember who told you when the time comes! Good night, darling." She hung up and said to me, "You have an audition tomorrow at 10am at the theater in New York." I said, "Okay... thanks... I think." I had never auditioned for a Broadway show in my life. Auditioning for a Broadway show is very special. You have got to cover the stage - you know what I mean? You have to show them that you can dance, you can sing, belt it out to the balcony - all of that. 

But I didn't know that! I went to the theater with my manager and there was a line-up at the stage door around the block because they were having an audition for all the teenage kids in the show. I walked up to the stage door in my blue suit and the first guy in the line goes, "Hey, hey, hey! Where you going?" I said, "Oh, I have an appointment." He goes, "Oh! Hey! This guy here's got an appointment! Listen, I got an appointment too, pal!" We went back onto the street because I didn't want to get killed. Should I get into the end of the line? A lady walks by carrying two shopping bags. An old woman. She goes, "What the hell is all this?" I said, "It's an audition for a Broadway show, ma'am and we all have to wait in line." She said, "Oh!" And she gets in line!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) I walked around to the box office and fortunately there was someone there and they let me in through the front. There was a guy on stage with the piano and I walked up on the stage. I looked out at the footlights and I couldn't really see. I shouted, "Anybody here?" Gower went, "Good morning." I didn't see him - he was sitting in the back. He said, "You're Dick Curtis? Ms. King seems to think you're quite talented." I said, "Well, she's a nice girl." He said, "Uh huh." I said, "Would you like to see me do something?" 

He said, "That would be nice." I thought, "I'm not starting off very well here." I did something from my act, but it didn't show me singing or dancing or anything. I finished and they said, "Very good. You'll hear from us. Thank you." I never heard from them again. Everyone who replaced Dick Van Dyke from that day on - and even Dick Van Dyke said it to me, "You should be doing this part because you're right for it." I would just say, "Oh, shut up."

Kliph Nesteroff: And one of your most legendary credits was on The Dick Van Dyke Show just a few years later.

Dick Curtis: Yes. That was an accident. I had just been fired by a television station in Dayton, Ohio. I took my three children and my wife and we moved to the West Coast. I said, "I've got to get out of this nightclub business and into television. I'm getting too old. I'm almost thirty-five!" We drove to California. I went to Los Angeles, rented a house in Beverly Hills, and went directly to Desilu. I thought, "Maybe I'll bump into Desi and he'll remember me." I made my way to the office of the guy who managed Andy Griffith - and everybody else. I sat down at his desk. 

He said, "What can I do for you?" I said, "I want you to manage me." He said, "I can't. I've got too many clients now." I said, "I know, but you must - because you're the best there is and I don't want anything less." I showed him a brochure from my television show in Dayton, Ohio and it was full of good pictures. He said, "Wait here." He went down the hall, came back and said, "Walk down to the third door." I went down to the third door and there was Carl Reiner sitting with the writers Persky and Denoff. They were looking at my brochure. I said, "Hi, I'm Dick Curtis." 

Carl said, "It's so fortuitous that you came here today - because we're looking for a guy just like you to do a new series called Good Morning, World. Would that interest you at all?" I said, "Oh, yes." They called me a few days later and asked, "Would you do The Dick Van Dyke Show for us? We'd like to see you in a part." I said, "Oh, sure." Who would turn it down? And that was Coast to Coast Big Mouth, which won Emmys for everybody.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's a great episode. You have a such a great part in it.

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: In that episode you play a game show host. And later you went on to host a couple of game shows in actual life. Had you ever hosted a game show before you played one on The Dick Van Dyke Show?

Dick Curtis: Not a game show host, but I had hosted a lost of television. I did a show called AM New York. I hosted television in Cleveland, New York, Boston and a lot of different places. I was hosting television shows that weren't very important.

Kliph Nesteroff: Carl Reiner hired you for that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but you never ended up doing Good Morning, World. Why not?

Dick Curtis: You know, I never knew. Goldie Hawn was in it and Ronnie Schell. We all knew each other because we were all looking for work at the same time. Regis Philbin was around too. We used to always say, "Poor Regis. He can't do anything."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: And he becomes a millionaire! I used to audition for a lot of the same things that Regis did.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the man whom you demanded be your manager must have been Dick Link.

Dick Curtis: Yes. Dick Link.

Kliph Nesteroff: You put out a comedy record and it's interesting because it was pressed by a label best known for releasing eccentric albums by black comedians during the nineteen seventies - Laff Records. Your album was Live at the Horn - Santa Monica on Laff.

Dick Curtis: Right. Well, the Horn. Rick Ricardi owned it and he had been a voice coach at 20th Century Fox for twenty years. He was a great opera singer himself. He retired form 20th Century Fox and he was a great chef - a gourmet chef. So he opened a place called The Horn in Santa Monica, near Wilshire. Opening night, everyone who was in show business was there. His meals were so wonderful and he'd get up and sing and then Jimmy Cagney would get up and sing and everybody else would get up and sing. From then on it was a celebrity place. But they found that they weren't making money selling food so it just became The Horn where people came and sang. By the time I got to The Horn it was probably 1962 or 1963. Larry Hovis was a good friend of mine. You familiar with Larry Hovis?

Kliph Nesteroff: Hogan's Heroes and all the rest...

Dick Curtis: Yes. Larry Hovis was a drummer in the Bill Gannon Trio. I thought Larry was one of the most talented people. I almost quit show business to become his manager because I thought he was so good. We became fast friends until the day he died. We were very close. He introduced me to Dick Link because he managed him too. That's how I found Dick Link. 

Larry Hovis introduced my to Rick Ricardi at The Horn. By then The Horn was a place where if you were a hit - you were almost ensured to get a television series - because everyone in show business went there to see the show. It was mostly singing and comedy was slowly introduced into the place. It was hard to find comics whose act fit that room because it only seated maybe one hundred people. That's for me. When it's like a living room I couldn't lose. I became a regular at The Horn and I worked it for the next ten years. 

I treated it like a gymnasium and I used it to keep my act in shape. One night while I was working at The Horn a guy came up to me and said, "I'd like to put out a record of your act." I said, "Okay. Who are you?" He said, "I own Laff Records." This guy had just moved over from selling jazz to comedy because Shelley Berman and all of them had become such a success. Comedy records were in. He recorded me at The Horn and some other places. I think it sold... seven copies. I bought five. My wife bought one. I never heard from them again.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember exactly who that gentleman was?

Dick Curtis: He owned Laff Records... but I can't remember his name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it Lou Drozen?

Dick Curtis: Yes! Lou Drozen, that's the guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Laff Records had an interesting run and I think you were one of the first people that they pressed. Then they went exclusively to black stand-up comics. They were the first to record Richard Pryor. Years later he sued them. They cashed in on his fame by releasing all the old outtakes.

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. The record business in those days was Mob controlled. It wasn't a fun business to be in.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Mob taped Bill Dana's act off television with a reel-to-reel and then turned it into a comedy record and made a lot of money off of it. He had nothing to do with it and got no money for it. His manager tried to do something about it - but they started getting threatening phone calls.

Dick Curtis: Right, crazy stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Vancouver nightclubs in the nineteen fifties. Do you have any stories about The Cave Supperclub or Isy's Supperclub? Those were the two big ones.

Dick Curtis: Yes. I got booked in 1956 and it was the week of The Grey Cup - between the Montreal Alouettes and the Edmonton Eskimos. There was a headline in the newspaper that said, "Eskimo Fan Greeted With Punch In Nose." I worked for an agent named Joe Rollo who was a hard-talking New Yorker. I said, "Joe, I need you to change my contracts." He said, "To what?" I said, "Put that I'm to be called 'comedian.'" He said, "You're the emcee." I said, "I know. I don't want to be billed as 'emcee,' I want people to know that I'm a comedian."

I went up to Vancouver and it was cold as hell and I went in for rehearsal. There was a wonderful five piece jazz band at The Cave at that time. They were wonderful. The show that Isy Walters booked... he was sitting down in front of the stage. He has got a pencil and a stopwatch. He's timing everybody's act and assigning them their time. The show consisted of Japanese Can Can dancers... about ten of them.

They sang, they danced, they did acrobatics. Their manager was a guy who looked like a sumo wrestler... and behaved like one! Isy was timing these Japanese Can Can dancers and cutting and slashing pieces of their act. Their manager was very upset about that - because they were stars to him. But the real star of the show was Yogi Yorgesson. Yogi became one of my best friends in life before he died. Yogi was one of the most wonderful, humble guys you would ever meet. He was a big star and he was the star of the show. He's sitting there and we shake hands. 

I said, "Hi, I'm Dick Curtis." He's says, "Hi, I'm Yogi Yogesson the Swedish Hindu Mystic." (laughs) That's what he called himself. Isy was making notes and I said, "I'm Dick Curtis. The comedian." He said, "Oh, yes, the emcee. You do six minutes and then you do..." I said, "Yes, I know how to emcee, Isy, but that's not what I do. I have an act..." He said, "Well, you do six minutes." I said, "Isy. I am ready to go to the airport right now if I don't get twenty minutes for my act." Yogi was sitting there and said, "Isy, it's all right. I'll just take a couple things out." Isy said, "No! You're the star! Dick, I'll give you sixteen minutes." 

I said, "No, I'll do twenty minutes and I'm going to emcee the show. Without that I am going to split and get on a plane." I didn't even have the money to take a plane - I was bluffing. Opening night came and the Japanese Can Can dancers were a sensation! You couldn't have asked for a better opening act. I did twenty minutes of jokes and introduced Yogi. After the first night Isy conceded, "That's a good show. Stick with it. It works." 

We all stayed in a hotel in downtown Vancouver and we all hung out in the coffee shop. In the coffee shop was a jukebox and the little girls [from the Can Can act] would sit in the booth and they'd put nickels in the jukebox. The big song at the time was Shake, Rattle and Roll. The girls were singing, "Sake, lallal and loll! Sake, lallal and loll!" Suddenly, I got an idea. We got the band together at The Cave - I said, "When they're singing [the traditional Japanese song] - right in the middle you guys go [fanfare] and they'll jump into 'Sake, lallal and loll!" Oh, it was so cute you wouldn't believe it. That night they destroyed with that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Dick Curtis: The day we were rehearsing that number, a guy came up on the stage out of the audience. He was in jeans and a t-shirt and he looked like a kid. He was a midget. It said on his shirt, "Davy - Midget Wrestling Champ of Canada."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: He said, "Are you the comic?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Good. Cause I break up shows." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, I come in and break up shows. It's real funny the way I do it." I said, "You break up a show here and I'll break your nose." He said, "No, no, I'll see you tonight." Two nights later I'm doing my act after sake, lallal and loll has destroyed them. I look down the aisle and here comes "I break up shows" running toward the stage. He runs up the steps and I just straight armed him. 

He flipped backward. Isy was sitting at the table timing everybody and he starts laughing like hell. I brought on one of the Japanese dancers or something and I went down to the front row and sat with Isy and this midget runs up and says, "Hey, I helped you, didn't I!?" I said, "Yeah, you son of a bitch." The guy with him took a swing at me and a fight started like you wouldn't believe. It turned into a riot. 

Isy and I ended up under the table. They tried to tear my tuxedo and the waiters tried to stop it. Fights were breaking out all over. I went to the dressing room to take care of my tuxedo, which was torn. Yogi asked, "What are you gonna do?" I said, "I'm gonna go out there and introduce you." He said, "Do me a favor. Don't." I said, "Yogi, I can't leave it like that. I have to go out and talk to this audience." 

So I walked out onstage and there was dead silence. I got to the microphone and I said, "Ladies and gentleman during World War Two I was in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. I worked alongside a lot of Canadian kids. They were good men then. And they're good men now..." I did a whole thing to calm them down. I don't remember what I said. Then a guy from the back shouted. "You're right! It's Isy Walters who is wrong! That little guy should be kicked out!" And then the whole riot started up again! 

Isy was sitting in the front row holding his head. It's the end of the night and I head out the door and a real tough looking guy walks up to me and says, "You're in real trouble." I said, "Really? Who are you?" He said, "My name is Phillipone."

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah ha.

Dick Curtis: He said, "You're going to be glad I'm here because they're waiting for you out front." In those days I had a busted up nose because I had been a fighter. The Phillipone's [1950s Mob family that ran Vancouver nightclubs] liked me because I looked that way. He said, "I'll walk out with you. It'll be okay." So we walk out the front door of The Cave - and here is a line of guys waiting to beat me up. They saw The Phillipones and the crowd disolved. They left. The Phillipones took me up to their club and we were best of friends from then on.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Penthouse.

Dick Curtis: The Penthouse, yes. Oh my God, they were like old time Chicago mobsters. And tough. Oh my God, were they tough.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, one of them died like an old time Chicago mobster. He was assassinated while standing in front of his club smoking a cigar.

Dick Curtis: Yeah, they shot him, yeah. The day after this brawl at The Cave the headline in the Vancouver Sun said "Eskimo Fan Greeted With Punch In Nose." There was a whole story about what happened. The next day I walked into Isy's office and he was sitting at his desk with that newspaper in front of him. He was on the phone. 

He put it down and I said, "Isy! I was in the wrong. I'm sorry. I'll get on the first plane out of here." He said, "I know you're wrong and you know you're wrong, but that goddamn phone won't stop ringing and everyone is saying that if I fire you they're gonna boycott my club! So you can't leave!"

So from then on people were shouting, "Don't start any fights until we've seen the whole show!" And the Phillipone's were there every night and we went to their club afterward. When Isy Walter's opened his own club, Isy's, I called him and said, "Good luck with your new club." He said, "Yeah, if you're booked in here - no fights. Okay?" Oh, I've got a million stories.


mackdaddyg said...

Some great stories here. Thanks for posting.

Booksteve said...

My favorite parts of all of these are where the interviewee mentions someone they're convinced you'd never have heard of and you're immediately able to fill in the details. "YES!! That's him!! How the HELL could you have known that!!????" You does yer homework, sir! You get an A+!

Anonymous said...

That's not Peggy King in the picture with George Gobel - that's Mitzi Gaynor!

Ethan said...

Dick is such a GREAT guy. A WONDERFUL entertainer, and I have been proud to call him "My Mentor" in this crazy industry for over 40 years! Thank's Dick, and keep 'em laughing! -Ethan Tudor W.