Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part Three

Jackie Curtiss: BS Pully, boy, he was tough. I had a buddy who worked with him a lot. He was truly a tough guy. He was a gangster. He did a lot of strange things. I don't know if you ever heard about his penis-in-the-cigar-box bit? Pully was really something. He said in that voice of his, "You're a very funny guy and if you're not a star, you should be. If you become a star remember I told you first."

Kliph Nesteroff: Another eccentric of those times was Lord Buckley.

Jackie Curtiss: Buckley I knew very well. Do you know how he died? He died of malnutrition. Lord Buckley in the end... he was a quiet guy offstage. Very brilliant onstage. When he started losing everything he started selling his furniture. He ended up in an empty house without food. It was just a tragic death. But you've heard his bit The Naz? He was so over the top and, to me, much like Tallulah. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first meet him?

Jackie Curtiss: He came into the Band Box. He sent a note. I didn't really know who he was. I had heard his records. He was that quiet kind of guy and I became very close to him. When he was with people he was so over the top. But when he was one on one... you know, his act was so bombastic. He was a brilliant man. I always referred to him as the first and only jazz comic. He was very big on marijuana. That was his choice of relaxation.

Kliph Nesteroff: How bout Jan Murray...

Jackie Curtiss: Jan Murray was a mainstay guy. I met him with Berle. I knew Berle, but Jan was also kind of a hanger on. Good guy, but to me he got less funny after he got his nose fixed. I'm serious. He had character before - and then afterward he wanted to be handsome. Same thing happened with a great guy named Gil Lamb. If you ever want to see him watch the picture The Fleet's In with Dorothy Lamour and Bill Holden and Eddie Bracken. You'll see Gil Lamb do his basic act in that. He was very, very funny, but he had a nose job and wanted to be a legit actor and everything fell apart. I will tell you a very funny thing. A little bit of that happened to my good buddy Dick Curtis. He had his nose fixed. When he had his bent nose - I don't know what it was. There was more of a charm.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's what everyone says about Harvey Stone as well. That he was a great comedian and then got a nose job and his career fell apart!

Jackie Curtiss: Dick did well, but he wasn't the comic that he was when he got his nose fixed. Dick and I are very, very close. We both had big War years. You should get The Fleet's In. It's a great movie. One of the best Paramount movies. Betty Hutton is teamed up with Eddie Bracken. Gil Lamb is the tall and lanky one who swallows his harmonica. Jimmy Dorsey presents Lorraine and Rognan, who were a great dance act. Betty Hutton sings "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry." You should revisit it. 

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of these films I saw a long time ago and did not realize that certain people in them were nightclub comics.

Jackie Curtiss: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Like Stalag 17. The first time I saw that I didn't know who Jay Lawrence was and certainly didn't know he was Larry Storch's brother.

Jackie Curtiss: I had seen Gil Lamb at the Adams Theater when I was a kid. When I saw him in the movie I knew his act.

Kliph Nesteroff: How bout Joey Bishop...

Jackie Curtiss: Joey was another good buddy of mine. He was the last of the Rat Pack. I did Joey's show when Regis Philbin was his sidekick. I gave Regis his first singing job at the Playboy Club. Joey was great. Joey was a good buddy. He always hung out when I had the Playboy Club. He always came by and talked. He had a wonderful, quiet sense of humor offstage beyond his regular persona. I remember once he came in limping and I said, "What's the matter?" He said, "I hurt my back." I asked, "How'd that happen?" He said, "I fell off my wallet."

Kliph Nesteroff: I talked to a couple people that were close with him. One was Don Sherman...

Jackie Curtiss: Don! Don is an old buddy of mine too. He made it big in Australia. He was a local guy when I had a club here called the Trolly Ho. Funny guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: He died in May. Another that knew Joey Bishop well was Lou Alexander.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, God. "Alexander the Grape." Lou used to be my agent when I was working the Landmark in Vegas. He was the agent for part of that. Lou was a good old comic that had been around all the time and he was very close with Jeremy Vernon who is now Jeremy Crispin. Have you talked to him at all?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I don't even know who he is.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, he's very close with Lou. Lou was also very close to Stanley Dean. Lou would do things where he would tell a joke and then do a look. That actually became his downfall because it got to the point where people would moan. He was going to do a comedy album called Alexander the Grape because he was sour. He's just a real whacko guy. I love him, but he's a real whacko. I haven't talked to him in fifteen or twenty years. I remember once he and I and Jeremy were somewhere... we were in Vegas. 

Someone was going to put a hundred thousand dollars behind Lou. He saw him, he was going to manage him and evidentally the guy turned out to be a phony and the whole thing fell through. Lou was in complete depression because he lost a hundred thousand dollars - that he never had. That's Lou.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he had been in a comedy team with Howard Storm.

Jackie Curtiss: Right. Howard Storm went on to be a big television director. Jeremy Vernon worked all the Playboy clubs and did all of the television shows. Good lookin' guy. He looked like a poor man's Cary Grant. A nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Some more names I'll throw at you. Pat Cooper.

Jackie Curtiss: Pat Cooper and his wife Pat Cooper. They had a kid named Pat Cooper. Pat was all right, but he had problems with himself and could be kind of annoying. He aggravated a lot of people. It's hard to pin down exactly what the problem was, but he was very funny onstage.

Kliph Nesteroff: He certainly seems capable of burning some bridges.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, I think so.

Kliph Nesteroff: Myron Cohen.

Jackie Curtiss: I first met Myron when I was singing with Jack Fina at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas. He was the act that we backed. Then when I did the Sullivan shows I reminisced with him. He told me once to take something out of my act because, "My boy, you've got more class." He was a true gentleman. Quiet. Reserved.

Kliph Nesteroff: My understanding is that Myron Cohen became famous out of spite. Walter Winchell didn't like Cohen's act and often wrote in his column that it was distasteful. Ed Sullivan hated Walter Winchell, so when Sullivan got his TV show - he would book Myron Cohen as often as possible in order to spite Winchell.

Jackie Curtiss: That is probably true. I hadn't heard that story. He was beloved. He really was.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Joe E. Lewis.

Jackie Curtiss: Joe E. Lewis I wrote for. One of the jokes I wrote for him is now a bumper sticker, a greeting card and it is all around the world. I only got one hundred and fifty bucks. The line was, "A friend in need is a pest." You've probably seen or heard that somewhere. I wrote that for him in the nineteen fifties. He was a real great guy, but very sick. He was always sick. I told you about Arturo? 

The maitre'd for Dean Martin? Whenever Dean Martin came to Las Vegas he stayed with Arturo. One of the great stories that Arturo told was that in the middle of the night he heard this hacking noise. He got up and he went in and there was Joe E. leaning over a sink in the bathroom dry heaving. Arturo said, "Joe E! Do you always do that?" Joe E. looked up and he said, "Doesn't everybody?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the other comics that you wrote for?

Jackie Curtiss: I wrote for a lot of comics, but not to get paid. Joe E. paid me, but some guys I'd just give something. I wrote a lot of stuff for Redd Foxx because he was my buddy. Redd would call me twice a week and run jokes by me to see if I thought he should put them in his act. He trusted me. 

One joke that I wrote for him that he used all the time... you know when he does the bit about the Southern cop? He puts his foot on the running board, saying, 'Hold on there, Trigger.' 'I think he said Trigger.' He wanted something to put after that. I thought about it and I said, "How bout, 'Officer, give me a break.' Officer says, 'Okay. Beat this bullet to the corner." He loved that. He gave me a lot of stuff too.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't think there is any comedian in the history of comedy that recorded as many albums as Redd Foxx.

Jackie Curtiss: That's right - and before he was famous.

Kliph Nesteroff: And even though Sanford and Son is not the most genuine conveyance of Redd Foxx - the one thing that I love and appreciate about it - is how many Black nightclub comics show up on that program...

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, he had everyone on. I ran the Playboy Club out here while Redd was doing Sanford and Son. He came in two or three times a week so he could keep sharp. I will tell you - Bill Tracy and I were in Ziegfeld Follies of 1965 in Vegas at the Thunderbird. Redd had a two o'clock in the afternoon show - XXX. So out front it said, "XXX Redd FoXX." It was the dirtiest show that he could do. That's what they wanted and that's what he was getting paid for. 

I would stand in the back and watch everyday and then we'd go have lunch. One show I will never forget. He walked onstage... he always started the same way. "My name is Redd Foxx. R.e.d.d. F.o.x.x." He got that far and a guy sitting ringside said, "Let's see how dirty you can be, you motherfucker!" Everyone heard him. Redd just stopped and looked at the guy and said, "Okay." Redd did fifty minutes of the cleanest, funniest material I have ever heard in my life. Not one profanity and he did politics, religion, marriage, boyscouts, every topic and it was hysterical. Standing ovation. He walked back out after the applause and looked right at the guy's face and said, "That dirty enough for you, motherfucker!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: By the time he had his crossover success he was such a veteran. He had done thousands of shows...

Jackie Curtiss: Redd Foxx was the only veteran that became a veteran. He was a veteran before he was anything. He was the sweetest man. The only problem was he became such a cokehead and the IRS knocked him out. They took the necklace right off his neck. He cried. Took it off of him physically. I miss him a lot. He would call me up and we would laugh. He told me this joke... he said, "Jackie! They found out absolutely positively for sure that Adam was a white man! You ever try and take ribs away from a black guy?" A beautiful man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sanford and Son features a lot of old obscure nightclub comics that never made it. It seems like Redd Foxx was a real loyal guy.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, very. He helped Slappy White because Slappy White was doing nothing. I think he teamed up with Steve Rossi too - another bad guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Slappy or Steve?

Jackie Curtiss: Rossi. Just ego. He was in the Mitchell Boy Choir with Bill Tracy when they did Going My Way and The Bishop's Wife. Rossi was a singer as a kid before he teamed up with Marty Allen and he was just never a good guy. I knew that because of Bill. Bill grew up with him since they were kids.

Kliph Nesteroff: I interviewed Steve Rossi last year... he was nice enough, but you can tell that...

Jackie Curtiss: You can tell that he's phony baloney. He was being nice for you. I would give him less than that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in a couple comedy teams. Maybe you have a take on this. Between Martin and Lewis and The Smothers Brothers there was no comedy team more successful, no comedy team bigger than Allen and Rossi. I don't understand why. They were on every show and... they're awful.

Jackie Curtiss: They were popular because Marty Allen was a politician. He knew everybody. He got jobs when they couldn't get jobs. He was actually a lot funnier when he was with Mitch DeWood, but Mitch DeWood was not your typical straight man. He wasn't handsome.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the main difference between Allen and Rossi as opposed to Allen and DeWood - if you could pinpoint...

Jackie Curtiss: With DeWood it was more double comedy than comic and straightman. I originally had some trouble with Marc Antone about a year into our comedy team. I had to sit him down and read him the riot act because what happens is... it's called Straight Man's Disease. You give them a laugh and they go nuts. Once Marc got the taste of getting a laugh... I mean, it was all right afterwards... but you can't overstep the bounds. Because they get such an ego. 

What happened was... I wrote a new bit. I said, "Here. Learn this." All of a sudden in the middle of this thing he says, "You know, Jackie. I don't think this is very funny." I just grabbed it out of his hand and tore it up and did the Rip Taylor confetti thing. I said, "That's the last time. From now on - I give you anything - you just learn it. I'm a benevolent dictator from now on." Six months later he came to me and he said, "You know something, you were right. I was out of line." You can't go to a comic who writes something and say, "I don't think this is funny!" That is just... even if it isn't funny!

Kliph Nesteroff: When I spoke with Marty Allen it seemed like he did not want to talk about Mitch DeWood.

Jackie Curtiss: They had a terrible falling out. I don't know exactly what it was... but it was something to do with family. It might have been his sister. I wrote a show about twenty-five years ago in which I had Marty on with Dave Madden and Dave Barry. It was a thing called Startime Showcase. I had them present comics. Marty and I go way back. Marty is a nice guy and I like him. Marty did not like a lot of people and didn't get along with a lot of people. I liked him. I'm not sure whether he liked me or not.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's interesting to talk to because he goes way back...

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, sure, he goes further back than me as far as comedy is concerned.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was in a comedy team with a guy named Tiny Wolf back in Pittsburgh...

Jackie Curtiss: Before DeWood.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before DeWood. Marty was fine with talking about Tiny Wolf and he was fine with talking about Steve Rossi, but when we got to Mitch DeWood... and they spent almost a decade together...

Jackie Curtiss: When I had him on Startime Showcase we were all sitting around having coffee. Dave Barry said, "Marty, were you teamed up with some guy named Mitch something?" Marty said, "Nope. Don't remember that."

Kliph Nesteroff: That's what he said to me! On two occasions - it was so strange!

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah and I was in the thick of it in those days when they were a team.


Howard Hughes said...

I find it odd that Marty Allen would Hold a grudge so strong, and that he would go so far as to deny the existence of his long time partner. It's a shame.

Michael Powers said...

That's so horrible about Lord Buckley starving to death in his house like a victim of the Ukraine Famine. He's one of the very best ever. I can perfectly understand his pride, though; paradoxically, you reach a certain point, accumulate enough strength and maturity, and you're ready to die an agonizing death rather than reach out for help. It's so easy to imagine Buckley, harassed by the authorities and deprived of that idiotic "nightclub card" entitling him to work, just quietly starving to death....

mackdaddyg said...

Good interview, but I must respectfully disagree on one point. I've got two of the Rossi/Allen lps, and they're pretty funny. Not groundbreaking, but pretty funny nonetheless.

Kevin K. said...

Funny how both Jack Carter and Marty Allen hold these grudges that go back 50 or 60 years. Give it up, you're almost a century old!

And Kliph, you're right. I grew up watching the Sullivan show and I could never stomach Allen & Rossi (or Wayne & Schuster, for that matter).

Anonymous said...

I grew up watching the Sullivan show in the '60s. All of the variety shows, and talk shows, and there were very few comedians who could make me laugh. Most of them were brash and fast talking with alot of attitude, alot of showbiz raz-matazz. Johnny Carson seemed vastly overrated, just a dull-eyed, smug guy unsuccessfully trying to conceal an unattractive arrogance.

I found Jonathan Winters truly funny. George Carlin was really creative. Mel Brooks was hilarious on talk shows. Milt Kamen was a riot. But the vast majority of the comics just came across as extroverted loudmouths, with a touch of hostility. Like Jack Carter at a Dean Martin roast.

The same is true now. Most comedians just aren't... funny. They make up for it with confidence and bravado, but there's nothing behind all the noise. There's only a few who can stand up there and be truly funny.

Tom Ruegger said...

If we're recalling the best comedy moments on Sullivan way back when... I recall laughing at the comics who made my dad laugh: Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Vernon ("I used to be a dull guy"), Nichols and May, George Carlin, Burns and Schreiber ("Ya know what I mean?") and, of course, Jonathan Winters, who played other shows but I don't recall Winters on Sullivan. Never got much of a laugh out of Allen and Rossi or Stiller and Meara, who seemed to be on a lot.