Sunday, April 1, 2012

An Interview with Larry Wilde

Larry Wilde: My first ever booking in Canada was at The Cave Supperclub in Vancouver around 1952. I was on the bill with a vocal act called The Continentals. Years later I appeared there with Sonny and Cher for two weeks. I also did a spot on a television show that was broadcast from The Cave Supperclub.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's start with the earliest thing I have on you. Your appearance at the Miami Beach Kitty Davis Room.

Larry Wilde: Right. That was a period when I was working my way through the University of Miami after I got out of the Marine Corps. I wrote and directed shows and developed a Jolson pantomime. I would put the record on and mouth the words. When I got to Miami it helped me work my way through school. I would appear at the various hotels doing my Jolson bit and I added a Jimmy Durante and a couple other records. One night, after the first year, the phonograph I used broke down - so I started to tell jokes. 

I then dropped all the records and became a stand-up comedian. The Siegel Hotel, the Kitty Davis... I was the only one working my way through college as a comedian. As a result the University of Miami newspaper started calling me "The Campus Comic." I got that reputation and I was appearing in college plays. The reviewer from the Miami Herald came to one of the shows. I only had the second lead. On the University of Miami campus, every hour on the hour, they rang chimes. Well, one night it so happened... there was a line in the show where a guy said, "Harold, are you going to tell me what you did with Harriet the other day?" At that moment the chimes rang. I said, "I'm going to tell you exactly what you want to hear - as soon as the chimes stop." The place went bananas. I got hell from the director. "You stepped out of character! Don't ever do that again!" 

Well, the reviewers mentioned that and said I had talent et cetera. Slowly but surely Kitty Davis learned about me from write-ups I received in the local papers. I went there. I saw that she was having an amateur night for the guests staying there. I introduced myself. She said, "Look. When does school end? How would you like to come in here for the summer and be a social director?" 

I thought, "Ugh, Jesus. That is not..." She said, "This is what I'd like you to do. I'd like you to put on a dance one night, an amateur night the next and so on." On Saturday night I would do an act. So, that's how I got the job with her and it turned out to be very successful. Then I joined the American Guild of Variety Artists, AGVA, and the president of the local chapter took a liking to me. Every winter they had a lot of fundraisers where the biggest stars did a guest appearance. They would have it at the racetrack or in a big theater. 

He convinced the AGVA members down there that in case one of the big stars was late or didn't show up - they should have a standby. They'd have five local acts and pay them fifty dollars each to standby. I was one of the acts. So now I had access to seeing Jimmy Durante and Danny Thomas and Milton Berle and anybody who came to town. Beside that, they had the best corned beef and the best pastrami sandwiches. It was fantastic and I was able to take enough home to eat for a week. 

That was basically my training - to watch these great stars and pick up a couple extra bucks. At the end of the four years I decided to travel around the country to get as much experience as I could before I went to New York to try and make it. My first stop was New Orleans. I got to the hotel there and the president of AGVA phoned me. He said, "Larry, how quickly can you get back here? Martha Raye wants you to open the show for her." I got back in the car and drove right back to Miami. That was my first good booking so to speak. She didn't pay me very much money, but then again I wasn't very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of other names you were on standby for?

Larry Wilde: I remember one show that had Sophie Tucker, Georgie Jessel, George Burns and Jackie Miles. There were dozens of people coming down to Miami Beach to perform and some major clubs. There would be one of these AGVA events every month during the winter. I would standby, but I never got on. I don't know what the hell I would have done in front of two thousand people if I did. But it paid me fifty bucks and all the pastrami I could take with me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Martha Raye must have enlisted you to play the Five O'Clock Club.

Larry Wilde: Right, exactly! That's it! How did you know that?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm just assuming, but it would have been April 1953.

Larry Wilde: Whoa, are you incredible (laughs). Oh my God.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky Greene says that the Five O'Clock Club could be real wild. Perhaps based on the fact it was open so late.

Larry Wilde: Mmm hmm. To be honest with you, I don't think I did very well. The thing that was great about the club, and I didn't realize it at the time, it was intimate. I don't think they seated more than a hundred people. And they were jammed right to the end of the stage, which you come to realize, when you're doing comedy and you know what you're doing, that's a great audience to play to. 

At that particular time I told a lot of tourist jokes and Jewish jokes - that sort of thing. I don't think I was really very good, but Martha was just so sweet. If I didn't do very well, she would put her arm around me, "Don't worry about it!" I have no idea what I got paid, but it wasn't an awful lot.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Jackie Miles. Nobody remembers Jackie Miles, but he used to be really big.

Larry Wilde: He was. I never met him, but I did watch him perform on a number of occasions. I liked his style. He was very low-key and he did some marvelous material.

I introduced myself to every maitre'd at every major club. Whenever Berle or Jackie Miles or Jan Murray opened I would go by the club and the maitre'd would sneak me in and sit me down in the back. They all knew I couldn't afford it. I had a chance to watch all of these people and it was tremendous. Jackie Miles - the kinds of things he did - were not the kinds of things I did. I went into one of the clubs, I forget who was playing, but he said, "What's your name kid?" I said, "Larry Wildman." He said, "Wildman? That's no good for show business. Why don't you shorten it? Larry Wild - and put an 'e' on the end. People will think you're a relative of Oscar Wilde." That's how I changed my name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why do you think Jackie Miles is forgotten, but his contemporaries are remembered?

Larry Wilde: Well, I think Jan Murray had a broader audience in that he played major clubs as well as an emcee on television and acting in movies. Jackie Miles smoked a cigarette all through his act. He smoked it and when he finished he would knock off the ashes and put the butt in his pocket. Gene Baylos used to do the same thing. That's all I can tell you about Jackie Miles. I loved his work, he was very entertaining and he died at an early age.

Kliph Nesteroff: Miami Beach had a club called The Beachcomber. What was it like as a venue?

Larry Wilde: Well, The Beachcomber and The Clover Club were intimate clubs. You're forcing me to remember fifty years ago, which isn't easy. They were basically intimate clubs like The Five O'Clock Club. They'd seat about one hundred and fifty people intimately. The Beachcomber - I saw a great show there. Sophie Tucker, Tony Martin and Joe E. Lewis. Those three were on the same bill.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's huge. What do you remember about Jack Goldman's Clover Club.

Larry Wilde: It was over in Miami rather than Miami Beach, I believe. I saw Jan Murray there and I fell in love with Jan Murray. He used to appear at the Olympia Theater. He was very clever. He had a lot of original material. I learned a lot about microphone technique, mugging and all of those things from him.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Vagabonds? They had their own club.

Larry Wilde: Yes. They were terrific. They were mostly at the Clover Club.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually opened their own Vagabond Club. It included a lounge called The Arthur Godfrey Room.

Larry Wilde: I worked with Arthur Godfrey at one of those outdoor things where people present their horses and their cows. What do you call them?

Kliph Nesteroff: Like a county fair?

Larry Wilde: Yes, exactly, right. Three nights. He came out on a horse. Walked out and had a microphone around his neck. He'd say, "How much is two and two?" He would tap the horse's ribs and the horse would count it out, y'know, and the place would go wild.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was July 19, 1964. The Harrington Fair in Delaware.

Larry Wilde: Wait a minute. How did you get this information? That's incredible. Absolutely incredible. Do you have this kind of information on the other guys you've talk to?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sometimes. I find it remarkable that it didn't matter what city you were in back then - throughout all of North America - there wasn't just one nightclub in each town - but two or three or four or five...

Larry Wilde: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: With all of these comedians and all these singers and acrobats and whatever - all doing shows. It's remarkable.

Larry Wilde: Every city had what they called the home guard. If you went to Philadelphia, for instance, there were two or three comedians that worked all the local dates. If a comedian was booked at one of the bigger clubs and they bombed the home guard comedian filled in for a bit. They never left town. They were the kind of guys that did a good job, but they either didn't want to leave because of their family. Or they didn't want to travel. Or maybe they just weren't at a level of excellence where they could even get any work outside of town.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who would be an example of that? Someone like Jackie Heller in Pittsburgh?

Larry Wilde: Yes, exactly. Exactly. A nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you a member of the Friars Club?

Larry Wilde: Yes. My first experience with the Friars... I went to the men's room and a fellow was standing next to me. It was Milton Berle. I had to back away when he took his thing out. Holy mackerel. Berle is one of the sixteen people I interviewed for my book. We became good friends. I saw and spent more time with Berle than most of the other comedians. Jack Benny was second. I spent a lot of time with Maurice Chevalier. Berle was a real nice guy, but I never liked his style. I never liked the kind of things that he did to get laughs. Offstage he was a gentle, loving, kind man.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you say you didn't like his style - you mean that machine gun style of delivery...

Larry Wilde: Yes, you know, all the jokes and the same jokes. He never created anything. The writers did everything for him, but even when he went back into a club like The Copa City. The Copa City always had the biggest shows in Miami Beach. The maitre'd, again, liked me and he let me come in. I would go there and see The Ritz Brothers, Danny Thomas, et cetera. So, Berle opens at Copa City and I went to the show and I was in the lobby. 

Standing there was the baseball player Jackie Robinson. I grew up in Jersey City. When I was growing up, you had the Jersey City Giants and the Montreal Royales. Jackie Robinson played for the Royales. Opening day I went to Roosevelt Stadium and that was the day Robinson made his debut. He hit a single, a double, a triple, a home run and stole two bases. I fell in love with the guy. Now, I walk out of the Berle show and here's Jackie Robinson standing there. 

Off to one side was Berle's mother. I went over to Jackie. "Mr. Robinson. I was at Roosevelt Stadium" and I told him the story. He got a big kick out of it. I went from Robinson over to Milton's mother. "Hello, Ms. Berle." "Hello, sonny. What do you do?" "I'm just getting a started as a comedian." "Ah, good. Well, I'm glad you're watching Milton! You could learn a lot from Milton! He is the primary comedian in the history of show business!" Years later when I interviewed Milton in his home I told him the story. He said, "That's my mother!"

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1954 you were playing the Metropole Tavern in Windsor, Canada with Dolores Hawkins. The Harmonica Dons, The Dancing Debs, Al Hager and Toby Smith's Band...

Larry Wilde: Listen. How did you find out all these things?

Kliph Nesteroff: I looked it up.

Larry Wilde: Yeah, but when you say you looked... I mean, Windsor is Canada... so what would you do? Go through the Canadian papers and search for the name Larry Wilde and see what comes up?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Larry Wilde: Okay. Got it. Fine. You were talking about the Metropole. There was a big band, a line of girls and a singer. I was the comedian. Opening night - I bombed. Right into the ground. I felt so bad. I had just come up from New York. The bandleader who was in charge of the show brought us all into his room and he said, "Okay, look everybody. Opening night. It was tough. I want you to tell me what was wrong."

One of the dancing girls said, "Listen, the music was so fast we couldn't keep up with you! You've got to slow down the thing!" The singer Dolores Hawkins says, "I told you guys! The tempo shoulda yadda yadda!" It went on like this. Then the dance team complained and complained. This went on and on. He says, "Larry, how about you?" I said, "Uh, everything was perfect!" I couldn't compete. Why complain when everyone else had? I knew they couldn't improve my delivery or timing. I used to do a little song and dance routine.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the 1950s you did an episode of the US Steel Hour.

Larry Wilde: Yes, that was my very first television job. I did that with Jackie Cooper. I mentioned that I had a soft shoe dance that I did at the end of my act. The US Steel Hour booked me with Cooper and we did a little song and dance routine. We were both wearing straw hats. He was very angry with me because they gave us the steps - and I learned them and he kept making mistakes. That was my first television show. 1958. I had a woman in New York I met at a benefit. She was just getting started as an agent. She said, "I know a few people. Maybe I could get a job for you, Larry." 

She introduced me to the wife of Peter Jennings. She also got me a lot of work. Peter Jennings the news guy from ABC. I worked another club in Canada. A golf place. I have it in my scrapbook somewhere, but it was the hometown of Peter Jennings. Peter used to come in and have a few drinks and we became great friends. He had a great sense of humor and he invited me out to his house.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Gatineau Club.

Larry Wilde: Yes! The Gatineau Country Club. You're incredible (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: And you performed there a lot.

Larry Wilde: Yes and the owner's name was Joe Saks or something like that. He liked me. Every once in a while I got an owner that liked me. There was one in upstate New York. It was a wonderful place in Buffalo. Harry Altman, the owner, gave me a testimonial letter that I put in Variety and so forth. This song and dance number that I did at the end of my act was, "Does your mother know you're out Cecilia?" 

That song. I was on the bill with Brook Benton. After opening night there was a knock on my dressing room door. A guy said, "Hello, Larry. I'm Brook's manager. You did a good job. You know that song you do?" "Yeah." "I wrote it." "You wrote it?" "Yes and I wanna tell you, I've never heard it done better than the way you do it." Is that a thrill? These thoughts come back to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: The venue in Buffalo... The Town Casino.

Larry Wilde: Ah! I'm gonna drop this phone! I can't believe you. Look. I've had to do nearly two thousand interviews over the years and... you're the best. Absolutely. I'm terrified you're going to tell me who I used to be married to and why it didn't work out.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Larry Wilde: One of the things that helped make my book The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy successful... the publisher sent me on a two-week tour around the country. My publisher knew that I had graduated from the University of Miami so he booked me on an all-night radio show with a guy named Larry King. They booked me on that show from twelve to one. We started to chat and he asked me questions and then he says we're going to take some calls from around the country. It was supposed to end at one. He said, "Larry Wilde, can you stay another hour?" 

Anyway, he kept me on the air until five in the morning asking questions about my book. One of the joys of doing that book... I had trouble getting to a lot of them. Johnny Carson was the most difficult. I finally got to him after three years of trying. Each comedian recognized that I came to them with questions other than the typical. Johnny Carson didn't want to do the interview. A friend of mine intervened. I made the appointment and went to his office. After the third question he put his feet on the desk and picked up the phone and said, "Mary Anne. No calls." I stayed with him for the next two hours. We were talking about comedy. He recognized that I had done my homework and wasn't going to ask him bullshit.

Kliph Nesteroff: June 1961 you were at the Twin Coaches in Pittsburgh.

Larry Wilde: Yes. A lot of people laugh at me, but Pittsburgh is my favorite city. I played the Holiday House and every club in that town. I worked with Rosemary Clooney and she was wonderful. I am a lover of vegetables and I'd bring my salad bowl and fix us a meal inbetween. While I was with her at the Twin Coaches I was told there were some people in the crowd that wanted to see me. It was the University of Miami football team - five of the players. All guys that were in my class. They were there for a recruiting trip, saw my name in the paper and came to the show. Do you have me down as having appeared in San Francisco with Chico and Harpo Marx?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Larry Wilde: Chico and Harpo Marx  - 1953. We became friendly between shows. We talked a lot. Chico liked to gamble. He said, "Larry, there's a football game on Sunday. The 49ers. You think we could get tickets?" I said, "I don't know." So I called the agent. He said, "Whatever you need." Unbeknownst to Chico and Harpo, the first All-American football player from the University of Miami was playing for the 49ers. I went to the game with Chico and Harpo and we were having a lot of fun. 

After the game we went down to the locker and knocked on the door. I asked the manager to tell Don Harrington to come say hello. He said, "Don Harrington! There's a Larry Wilde here to see you!" He came running out in his underwear. "Larry Wilde! What are you doing here?" I said, "I heard you were here, so I brought Chico and Harpo Marx." He said, "What!?" We brought them into the dressing room and the team went bananas (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: What were they like to do a show with?

Larry Wilde: True professionals. Harpo, believe me, talked. Harpo was perhaps the most loved of the boys. Chico was an outgoing fellow who loved women - even though he was married. Real nice guy. I tried to get Groucho for my book, but his manager.... what was that radio show?

Kliph Nesteroff: You Bet Your Life.

Larry Wilde: Yeah, You Bet Your Life. The producer of that show was also the producer of The Art Linkletter Show. Art had had me on several times. I told him that I wanted to interview Groucho. He gave me his home phone number. I called him up. "Yes. Who is it?" "My name is Larry Wilde, Mr. Marx. I'm doing a book on the great comedians and I would love to interview you..." "Anything you want to know about comedy is in my book. Buy it." And he hung up. That was the end of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1962 you were playing the Village Barn in New York...

Larry Wilde: Ah, okay. The Village Barn was a barn with hay all around. By that time I was good enough to get booked for three weeks. It was a three week job. And it was for tourists. The tourists came there. Some nights you had three people, some nights thirty and I never felt that I ever did very good there. The audience was very tough for me. But it was a place for me to perform. Two or three years later I got to play Number One 5th Avenue. Do you know anything about that place?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Larry Wilde: Number One was a hip club like the Blue Angel and the Bon Soir. I got that job and did very, very well there.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1963 you were playing the Fiesta Room in the Lawrence Hotel in Eerie.

Larry Wilde: Yes, I probably played more Pennsylvania dates than any other state. Pittsburgh was my favorite and I did every club there - including the American Legion (laughs). It seems like I was very fortunate there. I had a good rapport with the audience and everything else. Canadian audiences, also, have been the best for me in my career. I played everywhere from Vancouver to Montreal. Many of them were in the last fifteen years since I've been doing motivational talks. I've never failed to have a wonderful responsive audience in Canada.

Kliph Nesteroff: As a comic based out of Miami and New York back in the day - how would you get booked into a place like the Cave Supperclub in Canada?

Larry Wilde: When I graduated from the University of Miami I wanted to travel around the country and pick up whatever work I could to get for experience. I left Miami and the first job I had was in Dallas. I drove around town and made the rounds of the local agents. In Dallas I got a weekend job at a big fundraiser with Dennis Day and some Hollywood stars. I was master of ceremonies. From there I went to Oklahoma City and picked up a job. Slowly, but surely up to Denver. From Denver I went to Spokane, Washington. In Spokane I was so good that they fired me after the first show! Fired my ass right out of there. 

Well, I went to the agent in town and he booked me in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, which was close by. I was there three nights - and every night I went right into the toilet. I was now close to the West Coast. I got the Vancouver telephone directory and there was an agent there. I called. "Hi there. I'm a comedian and I'm headed west from New York." He said, "Wait a minute. When can you be here?" "Well, when do you need me?" "Two days from now I've got The Continentals opening at the Cave Supperclub. Can you make it?" I said, "Okay, I'll be there." 

The whole drive up there I couldn't stop thinking, "My God, what if they find out I've been fired in Spokane and canceled in Couer D'Alene!" I have that insecurity even to this day. I arrived at the Cave Supperclub and even though I wasn't that experienced or even that terrific - I got by. Has anybody else you've talked to been this honest?


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. I feel like he would have had more to say about Harpo and Chico... I would have loved to hear if he remembered any of the stuff Harpo said.

Interesting how he started out doing pantomime to records. Alot of those comics started with that. Imagine some young guy walking out on a comedy stage today and pantomiming to a record? I'm not sure how it would go over, unless it was something really bizarre.

What strikes me about Wilde, and the other comics, and the confidence they have. They bomb again and again, but they just keep going. Wilde gives so many anecdotes about tough audiences, bombing, etc., but then he drives to the next town and starts all over again.

I'm also fascinated by the forgotten names. Why are they forgotten, and others are remembered? My guess is the forgotten ones didn't do as much tv, so their performances are lost to us, and also they died young. The ones we remember are the ones we can see archived on youtube, or who got a supporting role on some tv show, or who lived long enough to wear leisure suits and beatle haircuts and get yuks on 1970s summer variety shows.

Patrick Reddy said...

Another masterpiece. When someone in the game as deep as Wilde respects your knowledge you are doing something right. Keep up the amazing work, PLEASE!

Diana said...

Very interesting! Thanks :)

mackdaddyg said...

Good interview. When did this guy's book come out?

Anonymous said...

I thought his name was familiar and then I realized I had read his book! It was published circa 1966. Excellent book!!!

Michael Powers said...

I LOVED Larry Wilde's book "The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy." Must've read it a thousand times back when I was in junior high school. Ironically, though, I don't remember seeing Wilde on television very often. His book was an absolute knockout.

Bob Campus said...

i met Larry in NYC in the early 60's. I was a budding manager of comics, so I was on the scene. Larry was always a mensch, very warm and pleasant. He travelled with some of the knockout female b'way stars then, and after greeting me warmly, he would introduce his lovely companion. Though we spent only a minute or two schmoozing, he was no snob, and he parted ways leaving the warmest of feelings. I wish him much health and in these years.