Friday, April 13, 2012

An Interview with Monica Lewis - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: Several people have suggested I speak with you. One was Vincent - who I met sitting at the bar at Musso and Frank.

Monica Lewis: Vincent and my son, Rocky Lang, have been best friends since they were babies. His father did art direction or something at Disney. I had just married Jennings Lang when we moved here from New York. We were told these were very charming people. They called and we got together. She had a little boy and I had a baby and they glommed onto each other. It has lasted all these years.

Kliph Nesteroff: That doesn't happen very often.

Monica Lewis: Yes, isn't that weird? I love Musso and Frank.

Kliph Nesteroff: The greatest.

Monica Lewis: It's special.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on a radio program that was broadcast for hours at a time - The Gloom Dodgers.

Monica Lewis: That was a live show - early in the morning. "Good morning! It's six-thirty and it's sunny out there!" You know, whatever. It was just one of those happy, get-up things that they had in those days. These days I wake up, hit the coffee pot, turn on CNN and hear about disaster. But in those days they had all of these radio shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Gloom Dodgers was hosted by Morey Amsterdam.

Monica Lewis: Yes. I think I may have made twenty-five dollars. I started on another station, WMCA, for five dollars every Saturday. Word got out and WHM called me. It was a fun show. Soon after that I got a gig on WNEW to do a midnight show called the Milkman's Matinee.

So, I woke New York City up and then I kept them awake. "When the whole world should be sleeping - our melody comes a creeping - it's the Milkman's Matinee!" I would say to the disc jockey [in a sing song voice], "Okay, Art Ford! Take it away!" He'd say, "Thank you, Monica Lewis and good morning everyone!"

Kliph Nesteroff: You knew a lot of the top comedians...

Monica Lewis: Steve Allen was a good friend of mine. I think Eydie took a few lessons from my mother. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.  Of course, I knew them well. And I knew Jack Carter...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, he mentioned in passing that you two had an affair.

Monica Lewis: (sarcastically) Oh, well wasn't that sweet of him.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Monica Lewis: How old is he, for Christ's sake?

Kliph Nesteroff: He's eighty-eight, but I usually tell people he's ninety-eight.

Monica Lewis: Does he look ninety-eight?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Monica Lewis: (laughs) That's so funny. He was very funny and I think I met him through my brother Marlo Lewis. I knew all of the comics in those days. They all used to congregate in a deli called Lindy's in New York. I was the baby at all times. I didn't drink. I would have orange juice or tea, but I picked up the funny timing and how to handle a heckler. Jack Carter. Red Buttons. Fat Jack Leonard.

It was a very fun time. I don't know. I keep looking for people that are real funny on television today, but there seems to be a similarity in shtick. No one quite shines. The guy who is real marvelous is Neil Patrick Harris. He's a throw back to the old days. He can sing, he can dance, he can act - he can do everything. Real show business. He's an amazing talent.

Kliph Nesteroff: The comedian who held court at the center front table at Lindy's was Milton Berle.

Monica Lewis: Oh, of course. I knew Milton forever. I knew him when we were just kids. He was older than me. Everybody was. Now I'm older than anybody (laughs). I have outlived all of my doctors and may soon be outliving my money. No one expected me to live this long, but it's fine!

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first get your job as a singer in the Benny Goodman group?

Monica Lewis: That was through Leonard Feather. He called me when I was still on this five dollar show. He became a famous jazz critic. He said, "At three-thirty this afternoon they're having a cattle call and you should go. Peggy Lee eloped with Dave Barbour. Benny needs someone to sing tonight." They were on a remote. In the old days they'd hit you electronically and beam you from one side of the country to the other. Very often you would have to do repeats three hours later, which is what we did on the Chesterfield show because they didn't have the cable going all the way.

So you'd work at 7:15, go for coffee, come back and do it at 10:15 for the West Coast. Benny Goodman was straight out at the Astor Roof and he was the King of Swing. He was the biggest guy in the music business. I walked in there and brought my music. A piece of music. There were three hundred kids and I thought, "Oh my God." He'd call you up and if he didn't like it after about eight bars he'd say, "Thank you very much." If he liked you enough he would let you go longer. I was terrified. He let me sing my whole song and he said, "Okay, kid. Come back tonight at 7:30." I went home and I didn't know what I was to wear.

We assembled an outfit between me, my sister and my mother. I went back that night with my entire family. Benny fell in love with my father. Benny Goodman was a very serious musician and my dad was a virtuoso composer, pianist and conductor. So I was the girl singer. He said, "We're national tonight and you're going to sing this song." It was a song that Benny's brother-in-law published. It was a God awful song called Mexico Joe. We went into the powder room or something. Benny took his clarinet and played it for me and handed me the worksheet and I sang along with him.

He said, "Okay! We'll be on the air in fifteen minutes." Unbelievable. He was going on tour and these were his last two weeks in New York. He asked if I could go on the tour. My folks said they didn't think I was ready to go out by myself and they said no. At the time I was insanely furious with my parents. I thought it would be great - but it was just as well. I very quickly by luck, accident, fate - got the Chesterfield show, which was a national show. A really big show and I became a soloist. I was never a band singer after those two weeks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever tell Peggy Lee that story?

Monica Lewis: Maybe. Much later she came to my opening at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. She came in with a bottle of champagne and a portable oxygen. She had advanced bronchitis or emphysema. Something really bad. She brought me the champagne and we sat and chatted. I probably told her that story. She was long divorced from Dave Barbour by then.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the Astor Roof like?

Monica Lewis: It was a beautiful hotel with a big roof garden and a covered area. They had all the big bands. It was the place to go.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of classy venues back then. You spent some time at The Stork Club.

Monica Lewis: Oh, I sang at The Stork Club. I worked at The Stork Club forever. That was early on. I sang with a Spanish band that played a lot of samba music and I had to play the claves. They kept my mic pretty low because The Stork Club never wanted anything that would interfere with the celebrity of the guests. You sang and you were miked, but it was kept down. They didn't want anything to upstage their steak tartare. "Oh my God, here comes Tallulah Bankhead. Oh my God, there's Mary Martin." You know, all the Broadway people. We're talking about the forties.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Sherman Billingsley like?

Monica Lewis: A bit unsavory as far as I was concerned. He was nice enough to me, but he was also...  I was allowed two orange juice per night and the band was limited to two drinks. He made a pass at me. I was very disturbed about that. I was really young. My dad used to pick me up after work and take me home (laughs). I'd take off the gown and with all the hair flowing, put my hair up in pigtails, put on my flat shoes and go home with daddy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sherman Billingsley was the unlikeliest person to run that place. I understand he and Toots Shor despised each other.

Monica Lewis: Toots Shor was a sweet man and of the old school. He was very rotund and hearty. He loved the writers and the press agents and people like that. Sherman tried to be classy and couldn't quite make it. He just wasn't classy. He thought he was. He was a very close pal of Walter Winchell, who was of course very important. They kept that place filled with real dignitaries, stars and society people. The beautiful people.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another popular nightspot was The Copa. February 1945 you were negotiating with Monte Proser for a spot at The Copa.

Monica Lewis: I don't think it was 1945. I think it was later. 1949 or something like that. I worked there with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and had a very long run. That was their debut to stardom. They were fantastic. They had gone through two or three singers that did not last. Then I came in and I stayed with them for the duration of the run.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between you and the singers that couldn't cut it?

Monica Lewis: Well, I'm not sure. The first one was Vivian Blaine who was a big star in Guys n' Dolls on Broadway. She's a nice person, but she seemed to have either gotten nerves or... she said she couldn't do it anymore.

Kliph Nesteroff: The famous story is that she was supposed to headline and Martin and Lewis were to open for her.

Monica Lewis: That's probably right. That's right. They just zoomed. Then I think another Broadway singer, Lisa Kirk, just didn't gel. Martin and Lewis were now so big - whatever their feelings were - they felt she wasn't what they wanted. They were now deciding what they wanted.

I knew Dean before and I knew Jerry when he lip synched records. I knew Dean from WMCA and he had always been like a big brother. My God, people were around the block at The Copa. They were just amazing. We did three shows tonight. A dinner show at eight, a show at midnight and a show at two-fifteen.

Kliph Nesteroff: Describe the difference between the crowd at the dinner show and the one that showed up for the late night performance.

Monica Lewis: Well, eight pm would be family. People would bring their children and it was just people who loved to laugh and interested in the insane rise of these two guys. The midnight show would mainly be people who had been to the theater. The show broke at eleven and they came and had a late supper or drinks. A crowd that was very attached to theater and to show business. At two-fifteen you got night owls and a couple drunks, but you still had to do a show. We truncated the late one sometimes. We didn't do quite as long. The guys loved to do it. As long as you're up until two-fifteen, you might as well do a good show - because there is an audience, regardless of what they were.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was in charge during your stint?  Monte Proser? Jules Podell?

Monica Lewis: Well, they were, but Jack Entratter was the bouncer turned entrepreneur and he was responsible. Then he moved to Vegas and was a big man there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Frank Costello was the true owner of the Copa...

Monica Lewis: Well, the Mob owned all of them. We never saw those people or at least I never did. But they clearly had a hold on all the big venues that were nightclubs.

Kliph Nesteroff: You became a big success at the Blue Angel.

Monica Lewis: That was a very chic place. Charming and beautiful. It was small compared to a place like the Copa, but really lovely. I had a trio. Ellis Larkin. Ella Fitzgerald's favorite pianist. It was very intimate and just beautiful. I was there, the first time, ten weeks and the next time six. By then I was getting other bookings. It was lovely. Sinatra would come in every night for a while. "You're doin' good, kid." It was a very nice experience.

Kliph Nesteroff: August 1946, you played the Clover Club in Miami Beach.

Monica Lewis: I have no memory of that. I mean, I'm sure I did. I don't remember anything about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Can you describe Miami Beach at that time? It was the predecessor to Las Vegas...

Monica Lewis: It was. They had so many hotels and people that went to shows. It was always a very good job, that's what I would call it. The hotels would give you a nice suite and there were real perks about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: October 22, 1946 you appeared on The Bob Hope Show.

Monica Lewis: I had a recording out of Put the Blame on Mame, which Rita Hayworth did in the movie Gilda. She never sang it. I think Anita Ellis sang for her. I never dubbed for anyone. I was asked a million times, but I said no. I received a telegram from Bob Hope. In those days we got telegrams.

I got a telegram from Bob saying he was going to be doing a radio show in New York and would like very much to have me on as his guest. I was excited. I met Desi Arnaz, who was the bandleader. It was a real kick. I was in awe of Bob and he made me feel very comfortable. He asked me to come and sit with the scriptwriters and watch the rehearsals and had me there the whole week preparing. It was very lovely and a great opportunity for me. He was such a big star and I was the only singer on the show. Real great. It propelled me to greater things. Each thing was another step up the ladder.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1947 you played the Hotel Sherman in Chicago.

Monica Lewis: I played so many places in Chicago and I was born there. We moved to New York when I was eleven. I played the Chez Paree. The Chez Paree was like the Copa. It was the most important club of all and all the biggest stars played it. They had a wonderful orchestra, wonderful food and a wonderful line of girls that danced. They'd have beautiful showgirls in the back and the ones who could really dance would be up front. Then an opening act and the star. They'd have a comic as an opening act and a singer or a dance act. It was always a big show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your first encounter with Ed Sullivan was at the Harvest Moon Ball. Was this at Loew's State or was it Madison Square Garden?

Monica Lewis: It was Loew's State. In those days you had a movie and a show in the big theaters. A cartoon, a newsreel, the movie and then a live show. That was the way that it was done. The big theaters, the ones on Broadway, they did these shows. The Roxy, Radio Music City Hall, the Captiol, the Paramount - those theaters. Sullivan contacted me and that was it. I got wonderful reviews and everybody loved it. He had Jerry Mahoney and the dummy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Winchell.

Monica Lewis: Paul Winchell (laughs). I mean Paul Winchell and the dummy! I had a niece that was about three at the time. There was a pause in the music and I had a number called Never Love a Magician, in which I had a magician showing me some cute tricks. There was a pause in the song and we hear this little voice in the balcony, "That's Monica!" The way the acoustics were - everyone heard it. We took her backstage afterward to see the dummy and she broke out in tears. She thought it was a real person and here it was lying in a box. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Was the Harvest Moon Ball done the same way as any show at Loew's State - with multiple shows throughout the day and evening?

Monica Lewis: Yes. I didn't really tailor my shows differently. Sometimes you would do five shows. If it was a holiday you worked harder. Sometimes they'd have a midnight show or an eleven am show. I would say the norm was at least three on a Wednesday or a Thursday. On weekends you did more. Holidays you did the most.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the more storied of those presentation houses was The Paramount, with its elevated, moving stage.

Monica Lewis: Yes, I did The Paramount a couple of times. I followed Burt Lancaster. He had done his trapeze show before he became the Burt Lancaster. They did a good show there and that is where Frank [Sinatra] broke through. They always had packed shows. I remember the elevator being broken one day. It was a big, big, very important venue. They had morning shows there, but not every day.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter tells me that if you were booked at the Capitol then you also played the Loew's State. They were owned and booked by the same entity.

Monica Lewis: I never heard that. I don't remember the Capitol in New York. I played the Capitol in Chicago. I don't remember any deal like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with my favorite bandleader - Raymond Scott.

Monica Lewis: He was a very good musician. A very good musician. I think he married Dorothy Collins and she was a good singer. Of the big bands - the guy who is unsung to a certain extent is Tommy Dorsey. Not only did he play such a great trombone, but he had the arranging mind. He had an enormous amount of musical knowledge. And Artie Shaw was very sharp.

Kliph Nesteroff: June 1949 you played Bill Miller's Riviera.

Monica Lewis: Yes, in New Jersey. It was a huge place and it also had gambling. A lot of these places around the country had gambling in the back - and I'm not sure that it was always legal. The Riviera had a legal thing on the other side... well, I think it was legal.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, it was considered the crown jewel in the nightclub holdings of Vito Genovese and his Mob outfit.

Monica Lewis: Well, like I say (laughs) all of them were! None of the theaters, though. The theaters were not run by the Mob, but the clubs were. And that's why they were so beautiful! They spent a fortune on decorators and real dressing rooms for the artists.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Oriental Theater in Chicago.

Monica Lewis: The Oriental and The Chicago Theaters in Chicago were very much the same kind of deal. I played both and they were great. They were jobs, honey. They were elegant jobs and they were highly touted with lots of publicity. It helped to sell your records and all of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Between 1946 and 1953 you worked non-stop. You were on the road the whole time. Records one after another.

Monica Lewis: I enjoyed it. I figured out that it was what I did best. I had other dreams that maybe I would be a writer or in design, but I realized the thing I did best was singing and performing. I was doing very well. And then I got the job as the voice of Chiquita Banana and that went on for fourteen years. Paid my rent forever.


Barry Mitchell said...

Love all your work and anxiously await each new interview. Possible typo: I don't think there was a New York radio station WHM. I'm guessing you meant WHN.

Dean Lamanna said...

Wonderful interview! Monica Lewis published a photo-packed, well-reviewed memoir last year titled HOLLYWOOD THROUGH MY EYES. It's available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. ( You can also follow Monica on Facebook and at

Philip Mershon said...

Oh this was terrific! I devoured the book and this is touch on aspects not even covered there. Bring on Part Two!