Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Interview with Connie Sawyer - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on the bill with Lord Buckley at a place called Club Cairo in Washington, October 1946.

Connie Sawyer: I wonder if it was a Chinese restaurant. I played everything in Washington. We would go there sometimes to break in a show in the old days. I started in San Francisco when I was seventeen. Straight out of high school. There was a radio station called KFRC. They think things like American Idol are new today, but we did those amateur shows years ago. I entered into this contest for the KFRC Variety Show and I won - and I got a contract. It was Al Pearce and his gang.

They did this show at KFRC and I was lucky. I always had a mentor and there was always someone to help me. There was a lady named Bea Benaderet who became a very famous actress. She said to me, "You should do an act because you are cute and funny." We found a kid and we put an act together and I started playing vaudeville and nightclubs around the East Bay area. I went to a nightclub in Los Angeles... it was on Fairfax...

Kliph Nesteroff: The Band Box?

Kliph Nesteroff: Billy Gray.

Connie Sawyer: Yes and didn't he have a son that became famous? Joel Grey?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I think Joel Grey was the son of Mickey Katz.

Connie Sawyer: Ah, yeah. That's it. Why do I get that all mixed up?

Kliph Nesteroff: When you did The Al Pearce Show in San Francisco - was Morey Amsterdam part of it?

Connie Sawyer: Yes, well, he would come in as a guest when he was married to Thelma something...

Kliph Nesteroff: Mabel Todd.

Connie Sawyer: Mabel Todd. God, you're better than me. They would come in as guests and that was the first time I ever met Morey Amsterdam. Later on in New York I did a show of his that did not last. Anyway, I was doing vaudeville in San Francisco and Oakland and Los Angeles. I played the Club Moderne in San Francisco and they had an emcee. A gay boy. He was marvelous. I had two girlfriends and they wanted to go to New York. I worked my way across the country. When I got to Pittsburgh and played a club, Gil Lamb was the comic and the emcee. He was an eccentric dancer. He said that I was the second coming of Fanny Brice. He said, "Your act is so corny, but you've got some talent there. I'm going to see if I can get William Morris to help you."

They sent somebody. They brought me into New York and they helped me find an act. Again I had another mentor. They said, "Before we place you in New York, we'll send you to the Mountains for the weekend." Who do you think the headliners were? Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis. He drank quite a bit and I don't know how he ever worked. But he did and he was funny. He said, "You're going to open the show." I said, "I can't open the show! I'm not a dog act." I was going on nineteen. Well, I opened the show and they hated me. Talk about flop sweat. I did something very unprofessional. I wasn't getting any laughs and I said to the audience, "Why are you so mean to me! I'm Jewish!" I ran offstage. Can you imagine doing that? I thought, "Well, I've got to go home. I better go home." I was crying.

Sophie Tucker came into my dressing room after the show. She said, "Listen, kid. There's no excuse for what you did. But you've got something - and I'm going to help you." They helped me. She was with William Morris and they found a guy and I got an act together. I sent for my mother and she traveled with me for a little bit until I got everything together. Then my father said, "Send mama home. That's enough already." I started working around New York in all the East Side supperclubs. There was the Reuben Bleu, the Blue Angel and I did a revue at The Versailles with Leonard Sillman as the producer. Sure. Paul Lynde was the man comic, I was the girl comedienne, there was a dance team, y'know. They had a whole revue.

Kliph Nesteroff: Come As You Are.

Connie Sawyer: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Cafe Society in New York. March 1947. Run by a guy named Barney Josefson.

Connie Saywer: Yes! Cafe Society. There was one uptown and one downtown. I worked both. The blacklist was going on then and Barney had a brother who was a communist lawyer. Barney was a very sweet man and I had a crush on him. He used to say to me, "Would you go down here and do some kind of a number. They're having some sort of meeting." I would say, "Sure." All the kids that came to the meeting were people like Phil Leeds, Betty Garrett and Lee Grant. They'd ask you to sign a paper and I said, "I don't sign anything." My father used to tell me growing up! "Don't sign. You can get into trouble." I never signed. I should have been blacklisted. But I never was. I was lucky because I didn't sign. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you were doing a bit titled You Too Can Be Beautiful about a Saks Fifth Avenue model.

Connie Sawyer: Yes. Bud Bernsen was a comedy writer. He sorta became like my manager. I would give him ten percent of my salary and he would keep feeding me new things. I liked him. He was a very nice man. Yeah, I became a headliner. There weren't very many comediennes in those days. There was Jean Carroll and she was like Bob Hope. She did stand-up jokes, jokes, jokes, jokes. Mine were more in sketch format. A beginning, a middle and an end. I worked all over and I worked in band shows. I was with Stan Kenton. I forget who the band was when I played the Capitol.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think you played it with Lionel Hampton. I have you down as sharing the bill at the Capitol with comedians Joey Adams and Al Kelly along with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra.

Connie Sawyer: That's it.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you connect with Bud Bernsen.

Connie Sawyer: He was in the Brill Building. He was like a song plugger, but more of a writer. That was also the time that I first met Betty Garrett and we became friends all these years. She just died last year. She was ninety-two.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. I met her once with Esther Williams.

Connie Sawyer: Oh, you did? All the time I was doing an act in New York I was also studying with Uta Hagen. I wanted to be a character actress. During the summer I would play Tamiment where Your Show of Shows started. I loved it. They did sketches and things and it was wonderful training. There was another place in the mountains called Green Mansions where they did everything; revues, plays, ballet - everything. At Tamiment... I think I was with Joey Faye. Yes. Green Mansions I was with my favorite - Jack Gilford. I was at Green Mansions for two summers. 

This was all taking place long before the fifties. I remember at Tamiment we had a girl singer, Barbara Cook, a skinny little blonde whom I roomed with. She was eighteen and had a full voice. Lee Grant, an actress, was there. I remember when the summer was over, Barbara went and auditioned and got a musical. Lee went and auditioned and got Detective Story. And I went right back to saloons (laughs). I never seemed to get what I wanted, so I'd take a job. I got into the Actor's Studio because Jo Van Fleet was with me at Green Mansions. No one would room with her because she was like a prima donna - but what an actress! 

I had a little chihuahua that was part of a dog act and kinda trained. Ernest Glucksman said, "You'll have to room with Jo Van Fleet." I said, "I don't care." She got to be friends with me. She hated dogs, but she finally wound up loving the little chihuahua. I got into the Actor's Studio with her help and Danny Mann. Daniel Mann was a director, but he had also been a performer and they brought me up there. That's where I met Arthur Laurents. He wrote Time of the Cuckoo. He was a great director and he wrote Gypsy. Shirley Booth was doing Time of the Cuckoo and I became her understudy. At the same time I continued to do my act at The Blue Angel. I played The Blue Angel two or three or four times. They would always bring me back and I worked with many headliners.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you recall about the Morey Amsterdam production you mentioned. It was called Hilarities.

Connie Sawyer: It was a flop. It didn't last very long. I don't know why it was a flop. It was a vaudeville show. It wasn't a play or a musical. The critics panned it. They didn't pan me. I remember. They said I was a very funny, pretty and cute comedienne. As an understudy I was allowed to take other work and learn my craft better. I worked in three shows with Shirley. She would say to her friends, "Let's go to the Blue Angel and see my understudy."

One night somebody knocked on the dressing room door and it was Katharine Hepburn - and I was always in there with Shirley, y'know. I never called her Shirley. It was always Ms. Booth. I said, "Ms. Booth! Katharine Hepburn!" She came in and said, "Shirley, you were wonderful in the show! How come you won't do the movie? They keep asking me to do the movie. I'm here to tell you I don't want to do the movie unless I hear it from your mouth." She said, "I just don't want to do it. I worked too many years to have the [live] audience love me." Two weeks later Hepburn came back and said, "Are you sure you don't want to do the show?" 

And Shirley said, "Do it, Katie. I don't want to do the film." She turned it down and Katharine did it and it was called Summertime. They changed the name. They went to Venice to shoot it. There was a scene in the movie where she is taking photos and she backs up and she falls into a canal. She didn't want a stunt lady - which was a big mistake. I guess they didn't know. The water was contaminated. She had trouble with her eye after that - all those years. True story.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Tamiment Resort, as you mentioned, was where the collective that became Your Show of Shows first came together - Max Liebman, Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner...

Connie Sawyer: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the same time - 1948 - you did a TV show with Phil Silvers.

Connie Sawyer: I sure did! I loved Phil Silvers! Yes, I played all those shows with the comics. I was their lady. Carol Burnett later, later, later started like that. But there were not many comediennes in my era of the late thirties and forties. They didn't buy girl comics in those days. Then the War broke out and that helped me. I was on USO and toured the hospitals. I went to Trindad and Panama and we were supposed to go to Europe. We wound up back in Washington. Something happened and they brought our plane in. They don't tell you. Secrets, y'know. But they did me a favor. That's when they started buying me with the band shows. But, yeah, Phil Silvers.

Kliph Nesteroff: The television program was called The Phil Silvers Arrow Show.

Connie Sawyer: Yes, Arrow Shirts. I played in the sketches. One day I said to him, "I think I'm gettin' a crush on you." He said, "I like tall, skinny shiksa girls! Not little Jewish ladies!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Connie Sawyer: (laughs) I never forgot that. I laughed. You know I saw Phil many, many years later when he was sick. We were both Academy members. He was sitting in the back. He had been divorced and then married one of those gorgeous, tall shiksa girls. He wasn't well. I went and sat with him. 

He said, "I don't think I'm long for this world. I'm not feelin' real well, Connie." Two weeks later he passed on. But yes, I worked on that Phil Silvers show. And I worked with Bert Lahr. Bert Lahr, what a funny man. Wonderful man and very high strung. Nervous. Funny. I read the book that his son wrote and it was true. He was always very nervous. He never knew that he was good. How strange.

Kliph Nesteroff: Everyone thinks of Bert Lahr as a great burlesque comic, but he really crossed over when he did Waiting for Godot.

Connie Sawyer: Oh, he was wonderful! I went to see him in Waiting for Godot! I went backstage to say hello. I said, "I loved watching you! Wonderful! What the hell is this play about?" He said, "Don't ask me!" Years later I did an analysis on the play. A couple of women did it at Theater West and it was just as good with a pair of women as it was with men.

Kliph Nesteroff: What did you and Bert Lahr do together?

Connie Sawyer: We did a television show together with sketches. They would hire me for these things. I did the Colgate Comedy Hour with Eddie Cantor. I was at the Blue Angel and I was with William Morris. They told Eddie, "Go see our client." He said, "I'll go watch her. I don't like auditions, so I'm glad she's working somewhere." He was tough. I remember we did a blind man sketch. We meet on a blind date and neither of us can see very well. It was in very bad taste, but a very famous comedy writer wrote the sketch. They shot the Colgate Hour in both Los Angeles and New York. We shot my sketch with him in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Phil Silvers Arrow Show - you were joined by a company that included Jack Gilford and Jerry Hausner.

Connie Sawyer: Yes, I remember Jerry. He did a lot of voice overs and I'd see him in Los Angeles when we both came out here. I went to dinner at his house.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have you down as having played a gig at the Blue Angel with Wally Cox.

Connie Sawyer: Oh, yeah, Wally. He was friends with Marlon Brando. Yeah and I had a crush on Marlon Brando. Who didn't? I was at Actor's Studio with him. What a wonderful actor. He and Wally were great pals.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played a gig in Portland at the Clover Club with the old film actor Roscoe Ates.

Connie Sawyer: Yeah, the guy who stuttered! Oh my God! I forgot all about that. Yes, I did. He was the headliner. Oh for goodness sakes.

Kliph Nesteroff: That seems like a weird gig. June 1949.

Connie Sawyer: Why I was sent there I do not remember. Perhaps the package belonged to the William Morris agency. I know I played Las Vegas in a William Morris package with the Marx Brothers. Chico gambled. Ugh. He'd lose everything. You couldn't get Harpo to put a nickel in the slot. The El Rancho. 

There were only a few nightclubs in Vegas then. It was still just desert. The Ritz Brothers were across the street. Down the street was another club that had the woman who wore the gloves - Hildegarde. That was in 1948, I think. Then they brought me to Los Angeles. You know where The Comedy Store is now? Well, it used to be Ciro's. I remember when I did Ciro's, this young girl used to come in. She was too young and she was gorgeous. She was sixteen and wasn't supposed to be there, but she'd come in. She was so beautiful. Her name was Elizabeth Taylor.


Anonymous said...

Aaaghhh! Another extremely brief passing mention of Harpo and Chico! As a Marx brothers fanatic, I find it frustrating.

Lahr in "Waiting For Godot"... I remember reading that Buster Keaton was originally offered the part. Keaton could barely read, so he always had his wife look at all scripts. She said it didn't make any sense to her, and told him to turn it down. After it became such a huge success, Keaton bitched about that one for years. He blamed her for the bad advice.

Phil Silvers... I recently saw him in the lost footage of "Tales Of Manhattan" where he appears as a crooked tailor with W.C. Fields. 1945. Their scene was cut from the final film, and didn't turn up until a few years ago. Silvers actually has hair in the scene.

Unknown said...

Connie Sawyer will soon be appearing in the indie short, ENTANGLEMENT, starring Anthony Lawrence, Renee Victor and J.P. Pitoc. Check out the Indiegogo campaign: