Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview with Jerry Coe

Jerry Coe: I don't know that I could be of any help to you.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you did have your own act - years ago...

Jerry Coe: Years ago I was in a team. I tell you, it was such a brief interlude.

Kliph Nesteroff: If we could schedule a time for an interview...

Jerry Coe: I don't think it's something we should pursue at this point and time. I appreciate your interest. I'm sure you've got enough material already based on who you've already talked to. Did you find Shecky down in Florida or California?

Kliph Nesteroff: He's back living in California.

Jerry Coe: I'm from the era of Shecky Greene and Sammy Shore. Shecky's wife... her father was Vido Musso. You may or may not remember him as a top jazz artist. He was with Stan Kenton and was one of the head arrangers. We were Chicago kids. I worked as a team for four or five years and then did a single. We were the very tail-end of vaudeville. We did play a couple of vaudeville houses. Anyway, I wish you the best of luck and...

Kliph Nesteroff: Chicago was a bit of a hotbed. Shecky Greene, Sammy Shore, Jack E. Leonard, Danny Thomas, George Gobel...

Jerry Coe: Yes. Joey Bishop, of course, got his legs there at a club. They adopted him and he went directly from the Vine Gardens in to the Chez Paree in Chicago and onto The Copa in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: Which was unheard of, right?

Jerry Coe: Yes. A big jump. He was a very talented guy. I read a little bio of his a few months ago from the Vine Gardens. A long, narrow, little room with mirrors. He used to play the mirrors off the audience and do a very funny bit.

Kliph Nesteroff: And what was your comedy team...

Jerry Coe: We went from comedy to tragedy, basically. The stuff that we did... it was unfortunate timing for us to become a team. At the time Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were coming into their own, so it had its trials and tribulations, but we were a good opening act. We traveled with Sophie Tucker and Vic Damone.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was your partner?

Jerry Coe: A fellow by the name of Dick Lynn. Yes, I think he stayed with it after I retired.

Kliph Nesteroff: I regularly speak with a man of that era - Jack Carter.

Jerry Coe: Oh, well, that should be a wealth of material if you're talking clubs and vaudeville.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I keep discovering new layers of his career. He started in 1941 and he's still acting. He has a recurring role on a new TV show now.

Jerry Coe: And you've hit up Norm Crosby? Pat Cooper?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Jerry Coe: I'm sorry you never got to meet Mickey Freeman. He was wonderful. His claim to fame was as Zimmerman on the Bilko show.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm trying to track down Mickey Deems.

Jerry Coe: There was quite a crew around. Herkie Styles.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, the drummer turned comic.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, who was the other drummer turned comic that just passed away? He used to do the...

Kliph Nesteroff: Charlie Callas.

Jerry Coe: Charlie Callas. Very funny man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I was scheduled to interview him and then he passed away the week of the interview and we never got the chance. Same thing happened to me with Hal Kanter.

Jerry Coe: Are you domicile in New York?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, Canada.

Jerry Coe: (laughs) Canada - and you were talking to Bobby Ramsen?

Kliph Nesteroff: Bobby is great. He had a very slight career, but he seems to have absorbed every story in the history of show business.

Jerry Coe: One of the things I learned early on because of the timing and our exposure to these upholstered sewers was that talent was not necessarily the criteria for success. In working bills with Sophie Tucker and Billy Daniels and Vic Damone - there were shows where you had different acts who were in varying stages of success - or lack thereof. It reached the point where it was like the story of Willy Loman. It was too late for them to channel into a different area. Early on I felt that I was pretty squared, I had a wonderful exposure and I had a wonderful education, but I would have to channel into another direction once I decided to take route and settle down. Which is exactly what I did. I married a gal from Boston and went from comedy into the securities business in 1955 and that was a forty year gig. I had five years of working professionally as a comedian and then just as an appreciator of acts - which is one of the reasons I joined the Friars Club. But I just left it because one of the reasons I had joined - does not exist anymore. The Hennys are gone. The Alan Kings are gone. You have Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone, but c'mon. That's not what I joined the club for (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Jerry, just as we've been speaking here, I have found something. Wednesday, September 14, 1949 - The Vine Gardens in Chicago. Jerry Coe and Dick Lynn with Dolly Kaye, Susan King and the Mel Cole Orchestra.

Jerry Coe: Oh, well, where in the hell did you dig this up?

Kliph Nesteroff: I just have it right here in front of me.

Jerry Coe: But where? How do you access this?

Kliph Nesteroff: I just know how and that's all I have to say.

Jerry Coe: Goddammit (laughs). I got a chill just listening to it.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another Jerry Coe on the circuit before you and his name keeps coming up. He was a tap-dancing accordion player.

Jerry Coe: Oh, that's funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: "Jerry Coe and Dick Lynn are a couple of youngsters fresh from Chicago's borscht circuit who need more experience for niteries. Lads have ingratiating personalities and obvious ability, but routines are rehashes of current comedics rather than their own stuff. Satires on radio programs provide yocks and showcase their imitative vocal efforts. Stuff needs pruning."

Jerry Coe: That was our first nightclub date. That was the first night. Irv Kupcinet, the columnist, was a great booster and encouraged us a great deal. Then we wound up doing material that we wrote and some that we bought. Paul Gilbert. Do you remember that name?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Jerry Coe: Oh, he was a great comedian and entertainer. Multifaceted. As a matter of fact he wound up doing a movie with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. His daughter is an actress. Melissa Gilbert. He sold us a piece of material. Something I haven't thought about in a hundred years - there was a writer out of New York. His name was Sid Shaw. He came to Chicago the second time we played the Vine Gardens. He observed our material and came up with a bit he thought would be terrific for us. It was called I Hated the Book, I Knew I'd Hate the Movie. It was a take-off on best-sellers that were made into movies.

We did a scene from Going My Way, which encompassed a lot of opportunity for us to do shtick. The Lost Weekend. The gimmick in this bit was that they finally ran out of best-sellers in Hollywood so now they were making movies out of technical books. So we did a scene from a tennis guide for beginners. The Type Writer Manual starring Marsha Hunt, Gregory Peck and Evelyn Keyes. Hunt. Peck. Keyes. It got a lot of intellectual nods, but not a lot of laughs. I tell you this because Kupcinet, whenever there was a benefit to be done, he would make a call to every act in the city and they would do whatever they could for free between their normal shows.

We were called and brought our piano player to this hotel. We preceded to do this bit of material I Hate the Book. In the middle of this self-contained piece of shit, everyone's head went to the left and there was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They had just come in from the Chez Paree and they're waiting to go on after us. We were standing there with flop sweat. We finally got off to a mediocre response. Jerry went up to the mic. He said, "A year ago nobody knew us. Now I just say, 'Nyeah!' and everyone falls on the floor. When we came in tonight there were two young fellas that are just starting out and I think they do a terrific job." We came out, polished their shoes, kissed them and walked off.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great.

Jerry Coe: Now, in New York we had just got through playing a big club with Sophie Tucker. We meet this comic who is doing a game show - George DeWitt.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Jerry Coe: DeWitt says, "I've heard of you guys. I've really got a bone to pick with you. You stole my material." I said, "We stole your material!?" He says, "Yeah, I Hated the Book, I Knew I'd Hate the Movie." I said, "Did you buy this material from Sid Shaw?" He says, "Yeah!" I said, "So did we."

Kliph Nesteroff: You guys were signed by Shecky Greene's manager - Al Borde.

Jerry Coe: Yes, that's a funny story too. We were signed by Al Borde and then there was a gal I was seeing at that time who wanted us to go with Freddy Williamson and Joe Glaser. Glaser had Sugar Ray Robinson, Louis Armstrong and Bob Hope. Through some shenanigans with AGVA at the time, they canceled the Borde contract because we had both been underage when we signed it, so we went with Fred C. Williamson and Joe Glaser.

Kliph Nesteroff: What were some venues that you would have played in Chicago other than the Vine Gardens?

Jerry Coe: Basically it was the Vine Gardens. The rest of them - we had a tremendous following of people that went to what was comparable to the Borscht Belt in Wisconsin. Oakton Manor. We had a big following of people from Toronto, Chicago and places in Wisconsin and what have you. The only club we played was the Vine Gardens. The rest were all [one-nighter] club dates. We went on the road and came east. We were ready to go to Vegas when I got called into the navy. When I wound up doing a single, they were looking for someone to do a single in a show called Meet Your Navy.

Going through boot camp, they kept me there and put me in special services. We did a show and it was a big deal for me. Did it for two years. I was living at home, commuting to Great Lakes, Illinois and I did a show a month using recruit talent coming through the base. I combined it with professional acts I brought in from Chicago. I had Cugat, Vaughn Monroe, The Step Brothers, anyone that was coming thourgh

Kliph Nesteroff: What kind of club dates in Florida?

Jerry Coe: The hotels. The Sherry Frontenac and the Sans Souci. Wherever there was a night open.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was a hot area back then.

Jerry Coe: Oh, yes. The neighborhood now that is all walkers and senior citizens was really a hopping place. A lot of things going on. As a matter of fact, Jack Carter was playing a club there and he was rapid fire. I think Rickles was there at the time. And Gene Baylos. People used to say I looked like a young Gene Baylos. I didn't know what to say about that. I don't think Gene Baylos ever looked young.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Sophie Tucker like to work with? I hear she could be very tough...

Jerry Coe: She was very, very, very difficult. We played the Town Casino in Buffalo, New York, which had a stage larger than most of the clubs we had ever been in. We got big responses. The first two weeks we were there we did it with Vic Damone. They held us over with Tucker because we were doing so well. Harry Altman was the owner of the club. My partner Dick Lynn was a heavyset visual comic and he did a take-off on Sophie Tucker.

Altman came and said, "Look, we love you guys and you're staying over - but cut the Tucker bit. I don't want problems with this bitch because if she doesn't like it then I'm gonna hear about it." I said, "It's not done in a mean-spirited way. There's nothing she could take offense!" He said, "Please do me a favor and cut the fucking thing. Just take your money and do your act." I came to the club the day Ted Shapiro, her accompanist and gin partner, was rehearsing the band. I went up to him and said, "Hello, Mr. Shapiro. My name is Jerry Coe, I'm the comic on the bill." I told him about the number and he said, "You do Tucker?"

I said, "My partner does and I think it would really work with us both being on the same show." He said, "Listen, keep the number in, but come to the club early and come to the dressing room before the first show. Early." So we arrived early and went up to her dressing room. There was a mirror and it was covered with a giant pair of pink bloomers. That's the first thing you see as you (laughs) walk into this room. This humongous pair of bloomers. She's sitting there at her dressing room table. She doesn't even turn around to look at us. She just sits there at the mirror and says, "I understand you boys do me. Well... do me good." And that was it. We brought her orchids every night for her entrance. Until one night. A Saturday night. Altman wanted a big turnover so he cut five minutes from our act. No one told her. She was a perfectionist in terms of getting on at the right time.

She was at an age where you don't move that fast. We assumed - and assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups - that she was told. And she wasn't. We finished and went off. As we walked backstage we learned words we had never heard before. It was absolutely horrendous. The anger she had. But we went on to travel with her to the Elmwood Hotel in Windsor, Ontario. It was a good experience.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the Oakton Manor and that is where Shecky Greene and Sammy Shore were when they did a two-man act together. Did you ever see the comedy team of Greene and Shore?

Jerry Coe: Sammy Shore was working with Shecky. Yes. They were very funny boys, needless to say. They did a thing called Nature Boy. Shecky loved to sing it. Sammy would come out in a fright wig and a leopard skin outfit with lettuce and a stalk of celery and do visual shtick. I don't recall their material. I would have stolen it if I did.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think what you just described actually was their only material.

Jerry Coe: It would be very difficult for Shecky, with his ego and his talent, to be any part of a team. You know, when he's on, he's on. Shecky had more real and imagined ailments than one could shake a stick at. He would either have a polyp or this or that. And when he went through the drinking thing...

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of legendary stories, yes. Do you remember a guy that was in Miami Beach around that time named Bert Stone?

Jerry Coe: Oh, sure, yes. Bert Stone - I think he also worked in a team. Stone and Shine.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eddie Shine.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, Eddie Shine was a hoofer. Bert Stone was a story teller and a very funny guy. I don't remember him from Florida, but from Chicago.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a comedian named Allan Drake?

Jerry Coe: Yes, I remember meeting Allan Drake. Everybody used to finish their last show and head over to The Croyden Hotel restaurant. Joey Bishop was usually there telling war stories and I remember Allan Drake from that period.

Kliph Nesteroff: The reason I ask is because there is a crazy story about his wife being murdered by the Mob.

Jerry Coe: Jesus.

Kliph Nesteroff: Allan was doing a show in Washington, DC the night his wife was out at The Copa with a mobster and they were the victims of a hit that evening.

Jerry Coe: Next to Joe E. Lewis getting his throat cut, I haven't heard such a crazy story. Joe E. Lewis was a singer when he first started out. He was knocking off his engagement at the club he was playing and The Boys wanted him to come over and play the club that they had. I don't remember the names or what have you. But he didn't come and they decided to do a number on him. They cut his throat. He lost his vocal chords for a period of time. It segued into comedy - and drinking. I'm sure there is a more accurate version of this. It was written up and done in the movie they did of his life, but yeah. He was left for dead for a while.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jeez, I guess I really need to read The Joker Is Wild.

Jerry Coe: Yeah, that was bizarre.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned The Step Brothers. A great act.

Jerry Coe: Oh, a great opening act. Yes. They had just come off doing a movie with Bob Hope and I booked them to come up to Great Lakes, Illinois to do a one-nighter. They were just tremendous. I have a vivid recollection of walking into the dressing room. All I could smell was wintergreen massage stuff that they were putting on their legs so they wouldn't tighten up!

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great.

Jerry Coe: You're a very astute guy in terms of digging all of this up. I didn't even know these facts existed. I have no problem speaking to you. You're a very collegial type of guy and very warm and easy to talk to. As I'm talking to you I'm thinking, "I'm going on and on with this guy and I had nothing to say!"


Mark Murphy said...

Not only a great interview (with someone I'd never even heard of!) but a great example of how to get great material out of an interviewee who thinks he has nothing to say.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff as always--and very valuable.

Phil In Phoenix said...

Kliph, this is truly an amazing interview...your subject is about to shut you down, yet you find a way to keep him talking AND get good stuff out of him!

And having grown up in Chicago, I am always fascinated by the thriving nightlife scene that went on there in another era.

Very interesting and very entertaining. Thank you Kliph and Jerry!

Bobby Wall said...

Kliph, you're like Columbo: "Uh, just one more thing Miss..." You also stun these people with things from their past that they thought no one ever knew! Just great, Kliph! If anyone can get information out of people, it's you. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if you could find out where Hoffa is buried!!

Patrick said...

I have NEVER seen a better interview save! The man was just about to hang up, and you got a full conversation out of him. Bravo!!

tommy moore said...

The mark of a great interviewer, homework, presistence, likeabilty. Bravo. Tommy Moore

HD Nite said...

Not sure if you're still looking for Mickey Deems, but I was at a garage sale at his home in North Hollywood a few weeks ago. His nephew was running it, saying that Mickey was inside, still asleep. A cabinet drawer had a few rolls of film labeled "Mickey Deems" and this lead to a conversation. Hope this helps. Love your interviews!

Gallant said...

This is Dan L- The eldest son of DICK LYNN -

I loved your article and shared it with our family. Dad has told us many of these stories and many more as he went on to headline at many clubs throughout the country. He met my mom while performing at the Playboy Club in New Orleans and settled into the Miami Beach where he performed with MANY Headlines like Sammy Davis, Johnny Mathis and even performed with Jerry Lewis in the movie Bell Boy.
He also went on to be an actor on the Jackie Gleason’s show as his stand in for Jackie in the Honeymooners when it was shot in Miami Beach and became very close friend to Art Carney.
He also had many bit parts in TV Shows like The Dom DeLuise Show, local Miami Beach live Holiday shows and Flipper.

If you want more information about Dick Lynn, we would be happy to help. Just let us know and THANK YOU for sharing this interview.

Gallant said...

here are some more Classic Shots and Playbills of Dad ( Dick Lynn ) Richard Levin and his partner Jerry Cee. Also a few with Louie Armstrong, Johnny Mathis, The Great One Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Jerry Lewis, Etc...