Monday, April 9, 2012

An Interview with Sol Weinstein

Sol Weinstein: I wrote for Jackie Kannon for years. My first television show was for Jerry Lester. I wrote for Joe E. Lewis for many, many years; A non-drinker with a boozer was an interesting symbiosis. Finally, I worked for Allan Drake. So if just by osmosis that makes me a member of the mafia, then perhaps I am. The whole thing was accidental. I had no idea who was dirty and who wasn't. I knew about Mo Levy. He had a sinister cast to him whenever he was mentioned. I knew about the connections... but I just wrote their jokes.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first connect with Jerry Lester and what was the show?

Sol Weinstein: The show was called The Jerry Lester Show. It was in 1961. I spent quite a long while as a newspaperman in Trenton, New Jersey for The Trentonian, a morning tabloid. I was writing jokes on the side. I was sending one-liners to comics. Every now and then I would find one who liked my style. I began to make more money than I was making working for The Trentonian. So I took a shot and got into the business full time. 

No guarantees of anything. It was strictly speculation. It worked out, ultimately. In 1961 I got my first television gig. I worked with a guy named Ron Friedman, a very clever guy, who I still have a connection with. And a young comic actor by the name of Ron Axe. A few years ago he took his life. He was a depressive and a very clever, young kid. He had a dark cloud over him, a depressive, and he ultimately offed himself. 

In 1961 there was Sol and the two Ronnies and we worked for a guy by the name of Jerry Lester. A real old time, old time. His whole approach was old time. Perhaps he hired three young writers to spice up his act. At any rate, we worked for Jerry and the show only lasted a few weeks. I don't know about his connections at all. I don't know if Jerry Lester was a Mob connected person or not. Many comics were. They did so to get gigs. 

I don't know what the pressures were, but some of them were connected. Allan Drake I know married a woman who was a Miss New Jersey and I think in a Miss America contest. She ended up being murdered. Her name was Janice. Allan Drake's real name was Allan Margulies. She and a guy by the name of Little Augie were shot down in some lonely area in either New York State or New Jersey. 

It was a Mob hit. Leaving Allan with a son named Michael who later became a musician. I met Allan Drake because I had met a lady in New York by the name of Laura Lane, who was a very good singer, became a friend of mine. She was working on the bill with Allan Drake, ergo I met him. After a while I was writing occasional jokes for him. 

Joe E. Lewis I met when I was working for The Trentonian. I used to send Joe E. Lewis reams of drunk jokes knowing nothing whatsoever about it because I didn't drink. I was sending all these jokes away and one day a cheque came for five hundred dollars and my wife went wacky. She had never seen so much money. That ultimately lead to me leaving The Trentonian. 

I ended up working for Joe E. Lewis from about 1956 to about 1970, the year he died. Obviously I knew about his Mob connections from the story of his life. Did you ever read the book The Joker is Wild by Art Cohn? Then you know the story about having his throat cut. It's a famous story - about his having been rescued by a Catholic priest who had some knowledge of dealing with throat injuries.

He still had a sense of humor about it. He sounded like a frog, but he could tell jokes like a winner. He became Joe E. Lewis. He changed his name. I worked for him and one of the last great pieces of material that he did before he died was a parody I wrote of My Way, which was Sinatra's big hit. 

I knew about Joe and the fact that he hung out with Frank. Frank was a good friend and very often bankrolled him when Joe was low economically. They ran with people like that. Sinatra, of course, was a Mob worshiper. He worshiped power and he liked to make the world shake. He liked to give commands. He wanted to be top dog. Just by being next to them he became a Mob worshiper and some people probably thought that he was a mobster. It was a romantic fantasy for him.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were around Allan Drake did he ever talk about what happened to his wife? Did he ever mention it to you?

Sol Weinstein: Yes. He did mention it. Little Augie he knew... I don't know if he had ever suspected that his beautiful beauty-contest wife was having an affair with Little Augie or questioned what she was doing with him so late at night. They were lured and shot down by the Mob, but occasionally he had a feeling of awe when it came to speaking of him. 

Mobsters are very awesome to a lot of people. Here they are, they exist in a world of their own, they don't have to follow rules and they do what they want - and do terrible things. Some people get off on that. I wrote for Allan for quite a few years. I lost track of him. I did understand at one point he was selling cocaine toward the end of his career. 

By then I had cut my relationship with him. A lot of things that he did were scary, immoral things. I was glad that I did cut my ties. Jackie Kannon I met when I was looking for clients. I remember driving all the way out to Brooklyn to a place called Ben Maksik's Town and Country Club. That's another club that may have had some stink of Mob to it. 

Ben Maksik whoever he was... I don't know if he was a mobster or just dealing with mobsters, but a lot of club owners did have ties to mobsters. I don't know if it was to borrow money or to keep their club running or whatever. That's where I met Jackie Kannon. Jackie Kannon would work a place called The Rat Fink Room... was that owned by Mo Levy?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. His club The Roundtable was on the ground floor and then upstairs was The Rat Fink Room where Jackie Kannon held court.

Sol Weinstein: Well, I remember going there many, many times because I wrote very profusely for Jackie Kannon. By then I was strictly in the business. I wrote profusely for everybody I was ever connected with because that's just the way I was. I was a torrent of one-liners in those days.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Kannon has a rep for being daring, almost in a Lenny Bruce kinda way. He talked about race and had a penchant for pushing the envelope.

Sol Weinstein: I wrote a lot of it. I wrote some of that for him. He was out to challenge the audience and make them oooh. Jackie Kannon was a minusha boychick, I think from Windsor, Canada. He worked around Detroit. He had married a great, big, blonde by the name of Lynn, who was working in an act with him. He was short, handsome, feisty. She was tall. 

She found out he was a good mealticket. He eventually made good money. He was also an entrepreneur. In that respect he screwed me. He put out a book called Poems for the John, much of which I wrote. He gave me bupkis for it. Beans. So I didn't work for him after that for a long time. I later came back to him when I had a partner, Howard Albrecht, who was my partner in show business for close to twenty years. 

We wrote a lot of shows for a lot of people, for Bob Hope and the Dean Martin Roasts and so on and so forth. Jackie Kannon was much more than just a stand-up comic and a pretty good singer. He was an entrepreneur and he knew how to make money. He tied up with a guy by the name of Alex Roman who was responsible for Poems for the John. 

It was smutty, it was caca-doody jokes, and the title should tell you everything. Jokes about sex, about spice, about farts, about everything. Jackie Kannon died very suddenly in the seventies. A sudden heart attack and it was all over for him. He made a lot of money and he didn't last too long.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the club The Roundtable like? Belle Barth was house comic there for a while.

Sol Weinstein: Belle Barth became more famous by working down in Florida. Working for a Yiddish flavor crowd. Belle Barth was like your baba if your baba happened to be a potty mouth.

Kliph Nesteroff: Can you describe the Rat Fink Room for me a bit?

Sol Weinstein: Small, dimly lit, always had a good little trio. Had a good piano player by the name of Norm Geller. He sang a lot of songs and played straight. He sang a lot of song parodies that came out of my head. It was a popular joint for a while. I don't know why it stopped. The book business became so remunerative that he didn't need to work clubs all the time and then one day he died.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that you also spent time hanging out in Birdland - another Mo Levy joint.

Sol Weinstein: Well, I'm a be-bopper. Old be-boppers never die, they just shooby-doo away. I don't know what that means. I'm a pretty straight individual, but some of the people I worked for had some shadiness in their behavior, in their operations and in their past. But that's life. You can't choose your clients, you can only hope they don't screw you in the process.

Kliph Nesteroff: In September 1958, Jackie Kannon got in a vicious feud with Lou Holtz.

Sol Weinstein: I never knew that. I had no idea he was feuding with anybody.

Kliph Nesteroff: He also had a feud with Jerry Lewis. Jerry had done something called "the egg bit" on The Milton Berle Show.

Sol Weinstein: The egg bit. Well, comics do lift from one another. Jackie Kannon, at one time, was angry at a comic by the name of Corbett Monica. He accused him of lifting from him. Corbett was sort of a paisan version of Jackie, dark and diminutive, and not above lifting. Jackie didn't like him. He said, "You do that and I'll start taking your things," and I think that stopped it. But I don't know that for a fact. That's what Jackie told me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you, yourself, encounter much of Morris Levy?

Sol Weinstein: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie also put out a number of comedy LPs.

Sol Weinstein: I think there was one I had some hand in. I wrote the liner notes for one of them. "They come in to hate him," was the opening line - because he liked to bait the audience. He liked to upset them. At the end of the night he had worked so hard, he used every piece of shtick he had, he commanded, and by the end of the night the audience was so responsive to him. Lotta sweat. 

He also did an album in a prison. He was always looking for ways to shock. Odd things. Eye-catching things. That's the way he worked. A lot of people didn't like him. They didn't like his toughness. So he went in there with an "I'll show you" attitude. "I'll do everything. I'll bomb you with shtick until I make you like me." But as far as I'm concerned, I did write a lot for Joe E. Lewis, quite a bit for Allan Drake and a lot for Jackie Kannon. 


A Moose said...

I've actually heard of Sol Weinstein and have his autograph around someplace. I knew of him from his Agent Oy Oy 7 and vague recollections of his being on the radio in Philadelphia, I'd presume it was during this time working for the Trentonian.

Unknown said...

Weinstein is one of the funniest writers in the world! Nice to know he's still with us. Not only his Israel Bond Oy-Oy-Seven books, but the brilliant "Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Sex (But I'll Tell You Anyway)," which parodied Dr. David Reuben's bestseller and is an absolute laugh riot!

eljayem said...

I was a stringer on The Trentonian and tried to keep up with Sol. No chance. Next time we met, he was flogging one of his books and I was the editor of a trade journal for the mass market publishing industry. Poor PR lady didn't know we knew each other and found herself in the middle of a baseless argument.
Glad to know he's still doing his thing; gives hope to others.

Unknown said...

Sol Weinstein was perhaps the single most influential person during my early writing career. He met with me several times after Norman Lear gave me my first break and taught me the structure of half-hour comedy in less than the time it takes to watch one. I attended his son's Bar Mitzvah and, believe it or not, his son David (who now lives in New Zealand) is even funnier than his dad. You need a strong sense of humor to live in New Zealand! God bless you, Sol. You are one of a kind. Which may not be such a bad thing!

-- Steven Kunes

Anonymous said...

I knew Norm Geller when he worked the Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach.

Is he still alive, and if so, where is he living ?

Unknown said...

I also knew Norm Geller in Miami Beach. We were room mates for a while. I wonder if he is still around.