Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Interview with Marilyn Michaels

Kliph Nesteroff: I was listening to your recording of Tell Tommy I Miss Him.

Marilyn Michaels: Oh, God. I was seventeen years old. Hugo and Luigi were among the biggest producers of pop music in the industry and they were looking for a girl singer to do a follow-up song to Ray Peterson's Tell Laura I Love Her. Somebody brought me in. I sat down at the piano. I performed. I played. And I got the recording contract. That's how that happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that when it came out in England there was some kind of controversy and the lyrics had to be re-done.

Marilyn Michaels: Yeah, I don't really remember why. When you've done a lot of stuff you forget the details. We did do a special lyric for England, that's true.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did The Ed Sullivan Show several times, but long before that - your uncle had been on the show.

Marilyn Michaels: My uncle was a great cantor. Probably the greatest. His name was Moishe Oysher. I started out with my uncle. When I was fourteen years old I recorded a Hanukkah album with him. He is documented in everything as being the greatest cantor. He was also an actor in Yiddish art films in the thirties. There are several documentaries that feature him. One is narrated by Orson Welles. It's called Raisins and Almonds.

Kliph Nesteroff: I did listen to one track he did with The Barry Sisters.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes. He did lots with them, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. He starred in these Yiddish movies and he was a movie star. It was an amazing career and a story unto itself. My mother was Fraydele Oysher and an actress in the Yiddish theater.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you started in nightclubs - was it the natural outgrowth of having recorded a couple songs for RCA?

Marilyn Michaels: I started in the Catskills and I sang at some places in the cities. One of the agents immediately saw that he could make some money from me. He started to book me in the Catskill Mountains. I got fifty dollars a show - three shows a weekend - in 1961. It wasn't too shabby. One thing led to another and I was called to fill in. I must have auditioned for GAC or MCA. One of the big agencies. They called me to fill in for somebody on The Ed Sullivan Show and at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. That was really the beginning of my career. I also auditioned for George Schlatter.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Marilyn Michaels: They were doing a thing called New Faces. This was way before Laugh-In. George Schlatter was the producer of this thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did it ever air?

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it did. He took me into his back room... I thought, "Oh no. He's going to make a pass at me." But he actually showed me how to invert my one eye so I could do Barbara Streisand.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh really? George is a good guy.

Marilyn Michaels: He is one of the all-time greats. One of the all time great television producers.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure. I'm friendly with George. He tracked me down last June...

[details deleted]

Marilyn Michaels: Oh, no kidding! Oh my God, Kliph. What a compliment. Wow. That's so great. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Anyway, October 1963 - you were playing the Town and Country with Jackie Mason.

Marilyn Michaels: That was my first nightclub gig. In fact, the first time I did an act without my mom was with Jackie Mason and it was in the Catskills. I had good luck with him. It was a thrilling time. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There are a lot of different stories about what it's like to work with Mason.

Marilyn Michaels: Well, he was very popular with the ladies. He was quite the ladies man. I even had a little crush on him myself. I'm not going to talk about it here, but there was some very funny, racy stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: November 1963 - you and Rip Taylor played Carl Hoppl's in Baldwin, Long Island.

Marilyn Michaels: How the hell do you know this? It was one of the first jobs that I ever did - and the first job that I ever got fired from. I played it the day after President Kennedy got shot. It should have been canceled, but it was the stupidity of "the show must go on." I was very young and I went. Everyone was very drunk. Of course, they fired me. There was no way to control that audience the day after Kennedy was assassinated. They were unruly and... just forget it. It was impossible. They were throwing spitballs. The country had to mourn. I can't believe that you know this. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did Rip Taylor bother to perform?

Marilyn Michaels: I don't remember Rip being on the show. All I remember is that horrible experience of having to sing and the horror of that whole feeling of having to perform that night.

Kliph Nesteroff: You signed with Warner Brothers in 1964.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it all evolved. First it was RCA and I don't even remember how they signed me. I must have been doing some television already. These things mushroom, which is what happens with a career. You get a little hot and they sign you to a recording contract. I was also signed to ABC Paramount around the time I won the part in Funny Girl playing Fanny Brice. I remember recording that album while rehearsing. It's something you only do when you're twenty-two, darling.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1964 you were playing Harold's Club in Reno. What was...

Marilyn Michaels: My God. How old are you? How do you know this? You've got to move to New York. What are you doing in Canada? What are you doing there? Wow. Okay. Keep asking. Go on.

Kliph Nesteroff: What...

Marilyn Michaels: How does a young guy like you know me? Tell me that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, several people have asked me to interview you...

Marilyn Michaels: What!? Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: My fanbase. Your fanbase.

Marilyn Michaels: Okay, okay, go on.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Guy Marks. He's kinda forgotten, but was known for being a great impressionist.

Marilyn Michaels: My God, what a genius. The man was a genius. I remember seeing him on The Perry Como Show. When I worked with him - I was closing the show and he was opening for me. I was in his thrall. I think he thought that I was coming on to him. He did the greatest Humphrey Bogart that anybody had ever done. He was one of the great unsung talents of the business.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that he abandoned his career at some point. He became a kind of recluse and wandered off into the desert...

Marilyn Michaels: God. Oh, no. Comics are so fucked up.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marilyn Michaels: You can quote me on that. It's so true. It makes me sad. We were working at this place and nobody knew me. Nobody came. On the weekend it would be packed and then in the middle of the week - nobody was there again. One night they said, "Bob Hope is coming." It was a Tuesday night and there were more people on the show than in the audience. It was a Tuesday night and there was only one table. Bob Hope was sitting there. I'll never forget that.

Kliph Nesteroff: From there you had a nice run in Las Vegas with Phil Silvers and Leo DeLyon.

Marilyn Michaels: Leo and I were very good friends. I was very young and he thought I was a baby. I mean, I was. Leo would write letters to my mother. He was a doll. He was just the best and very funny. There were no days off for that engagement. I remember that. It just went on and on. Nobody was monitoring or taking care of the performers.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were recruited for Funny Girl - how much of their decision to use you was influenced by the fact you did an impression of Barbara Streisand in your act?

Marilyn Michaels: I don't think it hurt. I don't think it hurt. Although I look completely different. I'm shorter, my nose is thick - and I ended up doing more of a Fanny Brice impression than Barbara Streisand.

Kliph Nesteroff: Had you been a fan of Fanny Brice before being cast in the role?

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, completely. She was a brilliant comedienne. She was basically a Jewish dialect comedienne. Everything she did - she did it in a Jewish dialect. Being a dialectician, it was natural for me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm most familiar with you from your appearances on The Hollywood Palace. You did it several times, but do you recall anything about your first...

Marilyn Michaels: Louis Armstrong was on the initial show. I remember because he autographed his album for me. All my family was so thrilled because I was working with the great Louis Armstrong.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you did an episode of Hullabaloo... 

Marilyn Michaels: That was the first time I met Sammy [Davis Jr]. We did the show Hullabaloo together and Joey Heatherton was on it. She was the hot kitten at that time. It was a thrill working with him. Every time it was like being shot to the moon, but the producer took me aside afterward and asked me not to embrace or kiss Sammy at the end of our number. He said we would lose the South. I was appalled!

Kliph Nesteroff: You also did an episode of The Name of the Game with Sammy.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes. He played a rockstar. It was another great experience. I was in the middle of my first divorce and I had to run from Vegas to Mexico and back to shoot the Name of the Game. It was always an incredible high to work with him. When I did Funny Girl in 1965 he took the time to do publicity photos with me before I went on tour. I worked with him on The Flip Wilson Show and did sketches with them both. I adored Sammy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were only twenty-two when you did the Copa in July 1965. What do you remember about doing the Copa?

Marilyn Michaels: Another great experience. I had already done Carson and everyone sent flowers opening night. Everyone was coming in. It was Cinderella time, but you had to do three shows on the weekend. Only the young 'uns can do that sort of hard work. Four goombahs surrounded me as I approached the stage for each show - protection, y'know. They made you feel important and it felt great.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also performed at the Sherman House in Chicago around that time?

Marilyn Michaels: Gosh, I don't remember. I think maybe that was with Gordon MacRae. He liked big tits... somebody told me that.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you played The Latin Quarter, which wasn't really a comic's room.

Marilyn Michaels: The girls in their pasties! The famous Latin Quarter show girls wore these little cone shaped things with tassles and sequins on them to cover their nipples. It was funny and also a little cheesy. The sound system at the Latin Quarter was an old time piece of shit. I hated it.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the mammoth Catskill resort - The Concord.

Marilyn Michaels: Yes, it was like you "made it" if you headlined The Concord. Big place. At the time they had these "knockers" to applaud with. They didn't use their hands, they used these wooden sticks with wooden balls at the end of them. If they really liked you then they used their hands.


greg6363 said...

Kliph, I trust this is part I of the Michaels interview. I'll be interested to hear about her experiences on "The Kopy Kats".

Anonymous said...

After a long career in graphic art, I always get a kick out of seeing the "crop marks" around the celebrity photos, but whoever cropped Sammy Davis Jr. out of the photo with Marilyn must have had some issues with her holding his hand. Angriest crop marks I've ever seen.

Kevin K. said...

That proto-photoshopped picture with Sammy says it all.

Keith Scott said...

Thanks for posting this Kliph - she's always been a major favorite of mine. (Greg6363, I'm sure there's more of this interview.)

David Hughes said...

I loved reading this interview. An astute interviewer and a fascinating subject. Just spectacular! Thank you both for this.

David Hughes said...

I loved this interview. Thanks to the astute interviewer and the fascinating subject, it was a sheer joy to read. Thank you both for providing such joy.

David Hughes said...

I loved this interview. Thanks to the astute interviewer and the fascinating subject, it was a sheer joy to read. Thank you both for providing such joy.

David Hughes said...

I loved this interview. Thanks to the astute interviewer and the fascinating subject, it was a sheer joy to read. Thank you both for providing such joy.

Michael Powers said...

Very good. She did a couple of audio podcast interviews fairly recently, one with Gottfried maybe a couple of years ago, and the other one about a month ago on Mark Malkoff's Carson Podcast.

SunRise said...

I don't know what all the fuss was about with Ms. Michaels and Mr. Davis holding hands. Just a nice Jewish couple. What is the harm?