Monday, April 23, 2012

An Interview with William O. Harbach - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You were around for the feud between Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen.

William Harbach: Yeah, it was great publicity for both teams. Steve did it tongue in cheek, basically.

Kliph Nesteroff: Will Jordan told me there was a routine they wanted to do on The Steve Allen Show - maybe it was the network that said no. You were going to do a cold open Sunday night - with Will Jordan acting as Ed Sullivan - acting as if it were The Ed Sullivan Show - and doing it exact without any buffoonery - not letting on that it was anything other than the real deal.

William Harbach: (laughs) No, we would have done that, for Christ's sake! Oh God, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you produced The Hollywood Palace it was on Saturday nights, but it was similar to Sullivan in terms of format.

William Harbach: We made it much more glamorous.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did Ed Sullivan have his feathers rankled by The Hollywood Palace being what it was?

William Harbach: Yes, I think he did. There's no doubt that it bothered him. Nick Vanoff was my partner and he was a sensational guy. When we were doing The Tonight Show and were really hot, one thing that bothered the hell out of Pat Weaver was that Ed Sullivan owned eight o'clock Sunday nights and nothing could get near him. They had one sponsor - Lincoln. We had spot sponsors with whoever wanted to buy a minute. 

Ed Sullivan had an across-the-country column where he would announce who would be featured on his show. So you had a double thing and everybody wanted to be on it. This was the show that everyone was watching on Sunday nights. Finally NBC said let's put this goddamn... let's put Steve Allen up against Ed Sullivan. Let's do it. I was doing five live shows a week and now a new hour on Sunday.  

I said, "I can't do five shows and then a weekend show unless I get some help." They said, "Go get an associate." This little guy came in named Nick Vanoff. He was so hungry for it. I hired him and we became fast friends for the rest of our lives. I asked him to take over the Tonight Show while I worked all week long on this big Sunday show. He knew the routine of the Tonight Show. We became partners.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was there some hesitation on Steve Allen's part to do that Sunday night show?

William Harbach: Steve couldn't care less. He'd do anything. He started making some heavy money. Consider it. I think he was getting three or four thousand a week, which today would be fifty thousand a week or something. He didn't balk at anything. NBC came to Steve and said, "We want you to get new singers. We're going real big on the show." Steve said, "Oh? Well, I'll take Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee." They said, "Well, they're not available." 

He said, "Okay, well then I'm going to take Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme - because they're fine as they are." He demanded it. He wouldn't do the show unless they kept Steve and Eydie. He was a gutsy guy and I loved him. There was also a cute looking girl named Pat Kirby. Every once in a while I would turn the whole show into one theme. Richard Rodgers all night long! I told the network that we needed to alternate singers on the weeknights. So they said, "Go ahead and find one." 

I was getting a haircut at the Plaza Hotel. We were doing auditions to find kids like Steve and Eydie.  Son of a gun, I'm walking down from the Plaza Hotel to NBC and Andy Williams walks off a bus. I said, "Andy!" He was just doing gigs around town, whatever he could get. I said, "Hey Andy, what are you doing for the next two hours? Come with me. I want you to do an audition down at NBC." He came down, did the audition and Steve and Skitch said, "Oh my God!" I got him on the show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Allen left the Tonight Show altogether to do The Steve Allen Show full time. What do you recall about the program that replaced the Tonight Show briefly - Tonight After Dark?

William Harbach: Well, I was out of that picture and had nothing to do with it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a long, healthy run as the producer of The Hollywood Palace on ABC Saturday nights. It was the replacement for the notorious two-hour Jerry Lewis bomb - his failed talk show.

William Harbach: They called Nick Vanoff and I and asked if we would go out there [to Los Angeles]. Jerry Lewis was just tearing their ratings to pieces. Jerry Lewis had to keep doing three more months of live shows to finish the commercial commitments. They fired him and had to pay him off for two million dollars. They said to me that I had to take over. Jerry was trying to do a sort of Steve Allen type of show, you know, trying to make it sort of relaxed like Steve did. It didn't work. We went out there for about six weeks and stayed seven years. We stayed for seven years.

Kliph Nesteroff: When Jerry Lewis first got that show he spent millions of dollars revamping that theater.

William Harbach: Oh, Jesus! There was a plaque of his profile in bronze in the cement! There were seats taken out of the orchestra and they put couches in!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

William Harbach: A group of couches instead of seats! Oh my God, the money. His dressing room was brass fittings all over and mirrors... it was beautiful! And they laid this big bomb.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen that first episode. Everything that could go wrong...

William Harbach: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: It was a two-hour debacle with microphone feedback and missed cues...

William Harbach: Oh, God... I'll tell you one thing, Kliph. When they asked us to do our show [The Hollywood Palace] we wanted it to have a different host every episode. I had worked with Steve and Nick Vanoff had done The Perry Como Show. We wanted to have real producing control and we wanted a different host each time for this giant vaudeville show. ABC said no. They said, "People like to have the same man in their living room every week." We said, "Then get yourself another producer. We want to do it this way or not at all." And they were desperate so they said, "Oh, Jesus. Okay. We think you're wrong, but go ahead." We had every goddamn giant on the show. Bing Crosby. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Hosting. Edward G. Robinson. Dean Martin. The world!

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I own several episodes and that's how I know your name...

William Harbach: It was a very glamorous thing and it was a ball for them. It was like playing with a Rolls Royce.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about one of the most notorious episodes - and one of the earliest ones. The episode hosted by Dean Martin - which the Rolling Stones were on.

William Harbach: Yes! Oh, I'll tell you the story on that...

Kliph Nesteroff: Please.

William Harbach: One of the guys that Nick and I wanted on the show because he belonged on the show was Dean Martin. He didn't want to do it. We asked him several times. He always said no. Finally I said to Nick, "What if we ask him twenty minutes before the taping?" All he has to do is go to the dressing room, put on his dinner jacket and look at the cue cards to see if he wants anything changed. He'll just do the show and go right back to the golf course. No rehearsal, just bang

We asked him and he said, "Yeah, I'll do that if I don't have to do any goddamn rehearsal." The show was the one we're talking about - but there's another story that must go ahead of this. During our scene with ABC they thought we were too old. "Not enough youth!" My father and I hated rock and roll. I still do. They said, "We've got to get more for the kids. You've got to get some rock and roll and stuff like that." Our booker said, "There's a new group in London called The Rolling Stones and they're going to be as hot as any of 'em. They're not known, but here's your chance." 

I said, "I'll give them three minutes of airtime just to get ABC off our back." Okay, so that sets the scene. This means that Dean Martin has never seen or heard of them, not in a rehearsal or anything. It's right in the middle of the show. Dean introduces them. "The Rolling Stones? Well, I've been rolled and I've been stoned, but here they are..." something like that. 

They came on and did the dumbest rock shit, "I don't want you to make my bed! I don't want you to cook my bread! I want to make loooov to you, loooov to you!" Three minutes of that shit. I have a picture of it here. 

The look on Dean's face as they walk off stage and what he does with his eyes brought the house down. He was applauding as they walk off and what he does with his eyes was a riot. The Rolling Stones made a trillion dollars. Those jerks. God almighty.


Anonymous said...

When I was younger, I was appalled by Dean's reaction. Watching it as an adult, I agree with him.

Anonymous said...

The Hollywood Palace was the last time the wonderful Margaret Dumont appeared onstage (with Groucho)... she died not long after that appearance.

Groucho always claimed she didn't "get" the jokes, but this was untrue; she was a shrewd actress, who knew how to support a comedian without upstaging him. She appeared with W.C. Fields, as well as the Marx brothers, and she was a great character actress.

Trivial Tony said...

Kliph, let's be honest here. Who had the last laugh? Ask anyone under 30 who Dean Martin is. Ask anyone under 60 what Hollywood Palace was. But the Rolling Stones are still rolling after 50 years. I loved Dean, but this was a bigger pie in his face than the Stones.

Trivial Tony said...

We have to be honest here. I loved Dean, but does anyone under 30 remember him? Hollywood Palace was a great show but does anyone under 60 remember it? The Stones outlasted their critics and their music still resonates after 50 years.

Anonymous said...

trivialtony, I have to disagree. Dean Martin is a million times cooler than the Stones will ever be.

Albert Goldman, in his Elvis book, described perfectly how ridiculous Mick Jagger looked once when the Stones were compelled to follow James Brown's act onstage. Jagger's jive London School of Economics imitation funk looked really weak after the genuine article.

Michael Powers said...

Christ, I'd love to see that!

Lance said...


I would sure love to see you cover in full the Jerry Lewis show debacle--you know, in the way only you could do it!


Anonymous said...

He did write about it a few years back:

Lance said...

I happened upon that a few moments after posting my comment. It was excellent.

Thanks Kliph!


Anonymous said...

By the way, thanks to YouTube lots of people under 30 know who Dean Martin was. You'd be surprised at the number of people who say they were born too late.

Anonymous said...

It's silly to take sides over which was the more stellar showbiz icon in 1964. That moment with Dean Martin and the Stones from Hollywood Palace provides an accurate snapshot of what happened when the British Invasion went a long way to quickly dismantle what we now refer to as "The Great American Songbook" by just showing up and doing their thing. But things ironically come full circle. Witness Paul McCartney's latest CD, "Kisses on the Bottom" which is filled with his take on "The Great American Songbook."

Michelle Russell said...

Great interviews with Bill Harbach and on television history! Thank you. I hope there will be more.

Nora said...

I worked for Bill Harbach on a few of his shows and you have captured what a brilliant and hilarious Man he is with your wonderful interviews! Did he let go with any of his infamous harbachisms? Is there any way I can post your interviews with Bill on my Facebook page?