Monday, August 20, 2012

An Interview with Ben Starr - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote a spec script for the popular radio program The First Nighter. That's how you broke into showbiz?

Ben Starr: Mr. First Nighter. It was the dramatic half-hour radio show at that time. The original star was Don Ameche. The producer's name was Joe Ainley. I sat down and wrote one and sent it off. The producer wrote me a letter saying, "I almost bought it. Write another one." It was about my mother. My mother fancied herself a fortune teller. She laid out cards. I didn't believe any of it, but I wrote a half-hour comedy called Mama Knows Best. At that time on The First Nighter they considered something a comedy if it got three laughs. You know?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: I didn't know. So, I wrote this funny show about this woman who tells fortunes. It aired and the next day I got a call from a guy. He said, "Hello, my name is Danny Hollywood." So I hung up. I figure no one is named Danny Hollywood. I figured one of my friends was calling because he heard my radio show. The phone rings again and he says, "This is Danny Hollywood." I said, "Come on, nobody is named Danny Hollywood." He says, "I'm Danny Hollywood. I'm an agent and I was home with the flu listening to First Nighter and I loved it. I think we oughta do an audition."

In radio days, what we now call a pilot was known as an audition. Before I know it, Joe Ainley, the producer of First Nighter was going to produce a half-hour show for me as an audition. We talked about casting. I had heard a guy on CBS Radio one night. I didn't know who he was, but he used to have a record show called Breaking All Records. Every night he literally broke a record. You'd hear him break the record and I thought, "This guy is pretty interesting." So I called him and told him, "I'm going to be doing this half-hour audition and I think you should be the lead guy."

He said, "I'm not an actor." I said, "I've heard you enough. I think you could do this." He said, "Okay, okay." His name was Steve Allen! So we did the radio show and it was sent out to the networks. There was an opening on one of the networks  - I don't remember if it was NBC - there was one opening and the decision came down between my show and another show that starred Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Would you believe they chose him? So, anyway, that was the beginning. Had I known how they selected those half hours for The First Nighter - there is no way I would have written one. After I got to know Joe Ainley he told me how they selected the half hours that went on the air. They found scripts like mine... first of all... they got five hundred submissions a month... that alone would have stopped me. Then they selected those they were interested in by going to a factory in Chicago. The sponsor was an Italian balm. A lady's product. They would select about ten factory workers who would listen to a rendition of the selected half-hours.

They would hire Chicago radio actors to stand up and [read the scripts] and the factory workers would select one or two shows they considered the best! I mean, do you hear all this? Anyway, I wrote another and they bought that one. I just started sending more in and I got an agent. I met an interesting guy named Charlie Isaacs. He was the head writer and a nice, decent, funny guy. He befriended me and hired me as the junior writer on a new show starring Al Jolson. Wow! It was Al Jolson and a regular on the show named Oscar Levant.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, sure.

Ben Starr: One of the supreme pains in the ass. I mean, he is up there by himself. Oscar had a reputation for being funny. And he was funny. But he had an ego. He was the first guy... I think Oscar invented caffeine. We were doing the radio show live to the east and then later a live show to the west. Oscar would come in and his hands would be shaking. He'd say, "I can't play today. Look at this." He was having twenty-six cups of coffee a day! Jolie didn't like him. He really didn't. We would rehearse the Jolson show at NBC and do these two shows.

We became the first show to get involved with tape. Tape started to come in. It was made by a company called Ampex. For the first time, instead of doing a live show for the east and the west, we did a show for the east and taped it. As a result... the whole process was new to us... we would end up sometimes with an extra minute and we would have to cut it. The way it worked was - we would do the live show and tape it. Then we would go to an office. Jolson would be there, a script girl, Charlie Isaacs, another writer named Manny Manheim, myself and Oscar Levant.

The producer would say, "Hey, guys. We have to cut from here to there and when we make that cut we need a joke in between. So let's come up with a joke." Oscar pitches a joke. Jolie says, "Nooo. Noo, noo, noo, noo." Then I would pitch a joke and Jolie would say, "Let's do the kid's joke." Levant says, "My joke was funnier than his!" Here's a guy that was getting five grand a week - the famous Oscar Levant. Jolie hated him.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's interesting that you say Oscar Levant was the major pain in the ass because that is the very reputation that Al Jolson had.

Ben Starr: Well, actually... Jolie was a doll. As far as the show was concerned. Jolie had his own problems. He was a little on the cheap side. Charlie, Manny Manheim and I would write a script and we would go out to Jolie's house in the Valley. He had a beautiful house with the young nurse he had married. Jolie would greet us and he would usher us in. When we entered the foyer of the house there was a round table with a bowl of chocolate candies. Jolie had a problem.

He knew that writers are always ready to eat. He knew he should offer us the candy, but he could never bring himself to say it. He'd make a wave toward the candy with his hand and say, "[mumble] [mumble]." We knew we were supposed to say, "No thanks." We'd show him the script, we'd talk about it and as we were leaving his young wife would see us and say, "Jolie, maybe the boys would like to stay for lunch." You're always 'the boys' if you're writers. Manny Manheim was like sixty years old. Charlie was fifty and I was in my twenties. "Maybe the boys would like to stay for lunch." And Jolie would say, "[mumble] [mumble]."

But I was so enthralled to be working with Al Jolson! This is a legend, Jesus! He and I got along. That show was dropped after a couple years and Charlie Isaacs became head writer of the Martin and Lewis radio show. He brought me along and that was a hoot, Jesus. Working for Martin and Lewis, you know? Dean was one of the funniest guys you could ever meet and I really liked him. Jerry was so funny he could make you cry. There was a deli we all used to go to in Beverly Hills. You'd buy deli and take it home. I was there one night with my wife and Jerry walks in.

They had a dish on top of the counter with a string of sausages tied together. Jerry would grab the string of sausages and put it up to his ears, "Come in, Alameda! Come in!" Jerry could break me up. I got married in Chicago as we were doing a one month stay in Chicago with the radio show. My bride to be came in from Los Angeles. Jerry Lewis paid for the wedding. He had newspaper guys come. He was very generous. Very generous.

Kliph Nesteroff: So, where was The Martin and Lewis Show being broadcast from primarily?

Ben Starr: Originally from Los Angeles and this was a special one-month trip to Chicago to boost the show. We got a lot of attention while we were there. So, I worked for them. That was the last year of radio for Martin and Lewis and TV was just coming in. I got into live television. I was working for some local television show and I got an offer to come to New York and work for Jack Carter.

Carter had his own one-hour show on Saturday nights, NBC. It was on from eight to nine and Sid Caesar was on from nine to ten-thirty. Sid is now a good friend of mine. I wrote two movies for Sid Caesar. A group of us still meet for lunch at a delicatessen. In this group we have Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Gary Owens, Arthur Hiller, myself... over the years we had Louis Nye and Seaman Jacobs who passed away. Hal Kanter. Just recently word got out about my group. They have just done a two-hour documentary on us and I must say it's very, very interesting! They just showed it at the Writer's Guild a couple days ago. Hal Kanter's daughter produced it and she's trying to set it up for release.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would like to see it. I was upset to hear Hal Kanter passed away because I had been in contact with his daughter and talked with her a couple times. I was about to line up an interview with him - but then he got sick and it never happened.

Ben Starr: Ah, really? Ah, Hal was brilliant. In this documentary, Jesus, Hal is featured and I gotta tell ya - his daughter, Donna, has enough of Hal in it so [he shines through]. Hal Kanter was the guy that warmed up the audience at the Oscars for over thirty years. This guy was a wit. He was good.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of comedy writers we're fans of without realizing it. People like Hal Kanter - I enjoyed their body of work  without realizing much of the stuff I'd been watching was written by the same people.

Ben Starr: At one point I wrote forty-two Mister Ed shows. It was just a hoot. It was just fun. A guy named Lou Derman and I wrote it. I was under contract there when I got a telegram from Frank Loesser. Frank Loesser had somehow read a play I had written. It was a far-out funny play and he contacted me. He wanted to do a musical with me. I cherish that relationship. He was such a genius, Jesus. I get a telegram from him. The entire telegram said, "What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?" So I called him in New York.

I said, "What's up?" He wanted me to come east and live there to do a show called How to Succeed in Business. What a chance! I had to turn him down because I had this contract with Mister Ed. One time he called me because he was in trouble with a musical - Pleasures and Palaces. They were trying it out in Detroit before coming to New York. He said, "How much would you need to come here for a few days?" "Thousand dollars." He said fine and flew me in. Nobody was supposed to know I was there and nobody did know except Frank. I saw the musical and that night I saw Frank and his manager.

I said, "Frank, you're an elephant and I'm an ant but... your story is all wrong in this musical. It focuses on the wrong people." Based on who they had starring - it mislead the audience - so they didn't quite know who was the star. The writers were not supposed to know I was there. I flew home the next day. The next day Frank called me. He had a two million dollar advance.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Ben Starr: That's enough to get you going very nicely in New York and outlive any bad review. And it's Frank Loesser. This is the kinda classy guy he was. He knew it wasn't right so he was going to give the money back to the people - and he closed Pleasures and Palaces.

After that we were in touch and he would send me properties. One time he brought me to New York to see musicals. He was determined to do a musical with me, but he should have done it with that original material of mine that he read. It was called Small Packages. It was a funny play about prejudice down South. Frank had mixed feelings, but he should have done it. I wanted to write plays and I got one on Broadway called The Family Way.

Kliph Nesteroff: Going back to your radio work for a moment... you wrote and directed a thirty minute radio show for Mel Torme called Harmony Hopkins.

Ben Starr: Yes, I did! Jesus! They contacted me to do an audition, a pilot, for Mel Torme. And I did. I produced it. We had an audience and good laughs. They tried to sell it to get a series going. This was in radio. It just didn't happen. What a voice this guy had. A big talent.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a few of the other writers that contributed to The Martin and Lewis Show? One of my favorites - Jack Douglas.

Ben Starr: Oh, when I was on Martin and Lewis - he wasn't on it. But when I wrote for Jack Paar - Jack Douglas was there. This was a talent, one of a kind. I mean, that book of his - My Brother Was an Only Child. Douglas was really funny. He was offbeat. You know? He was never there - he was elsewhere - always.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you working for Jack Paar in television or radio?

Ben Starr: This was radio. Jack Paar called me and I met him at the Brown Derby. He was interviewing me because I had been recommended. He had been off radio for a while and now he had his own show. So he interviewed me before the show was on the air. He said, "Someone recommended a writer named Schwartz to me. Do you know who that is?" I said, "Well, Sherwood Schwartz?" He said, "No, no." I said, "Al Schwartz?" He said, "No, no." I said, "Well, there must be a whole new Schwartz."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: And that's when he hired me. I remember a joke I wrote for him that he liked. This was the first show with this new radio show and he had Jack Benny as his guest. Jack Benny kinda discovered Paar in a way. Jack Benny said, "Where have you been? You've been off radio for a while." Paar says, "Well, I went to the beach. I've been hanging out at the beach." Benny says, "You were gone two years!" The line I had written for Paar was, "Well, I tan slowly." That clinched it for me. You never know about that stuff though. Paar was an interesting guy and when TV finally came in he was a superstar. But sensitive, as you know, Jesus. Walking off and all of that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Was he displaying that temperament at that point? During his radio years?

Ben Starr: Ah, not really - but the signs were there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Like what?

Ben Starr: Well, his personality - if you're in a room with someone long enough... if you're stuck in a room with Oscar Levant it only takes four seconds to know he's crazy. Levant did have a reputation for saying witty things. After the Jolson show Levant had a local show here in Los Angeles on Channel Five. A truly local show.

His wife June Havoc was on it too. It was a talk show and they'd have a guest. Levant said something so funny one time. "You know, I have a question," he said. "If a man and a woman have an argument and as a result are no longer talking to each other... if the wife sneezes... does he have to say gesundheit?" 

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen Oscar Levant on game show panels - which seems like such a weird place for him to be. It's always fun to watch because he is so out of place - and such a cynical guy.

Ben Starr: Oh yeah, he's cynical and petty! His forte was music. They always had him on that quiz show...

Kliph Nesteroff: Information Please.

Ben Starr: Yeah, and at one point they would play music and all the guests had to guess what it was. I have gotta say, all you had to do was play three notes and - boom - Levant was right there. He knew. So, he was absolutely knowledgeable and he was witty at times.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the comedy writer Manny Manheim. What was he like?

Ben Starr: Manny Manheim was really one of the lucky guys. He was a nice guy, but he was a fake. Manny Manheim was a writer/politician. Somehow he managed to meet a lot of people. He really was not a funny writer and he was not a good writer. But he was a politico. They hired Manny to be Jolson's headwriter.

Well... Manny can't write! So they hired Charlie and then Charlie brought me in. Charlie and I really wrote the show and we would go to Manny's house because he had the big house. He had the supplies. Paper and whatever the hell you needed. The entire season I was there I never heard Manny pitch a line, but he managed to get into the position as a politico. I never had that kind of experience before. In all my years a head writer was a writer.

You had to deliver and you had to know what you were doing. But Manny would befriend the advertising people. That was his forte. Because he was so in with the advertising people, they kept him on. He was on their side. It was a strange thing, but Charlie didn't seem to mind. Charlie was the sweetest guy, the nicest guy. But that was Manny. I don't know what the hell he ever wrote!


mackdaddyg said...

Interesting interview. Unusual to hear somebody say something nice about Jerry Lewis.

Thanks for posting. If you find out the name of that documentary, please pass it along. Sounds intriguing.

Anonymous said...

Please give us a heads up if that documentary even becomes available !!


Mark Murphy said...

As a kid growing up in the '60s, I saw Ben Starr's name on credits quite a few times. I had no idea he was still around.

Leave it to you to find him!

Again, wonderful stuff, and I look forward to the next part or (I hope) parts.

(One thing: I'm sure Oscar Levant's wife's name was June, but I don't think she was June Havoc.)

Bobby Wall said...

In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (née Doris Gilmartin; June 6, 1911 – November 13, 1996), one of the Gale Sisters. Oscar and June Levant were married for 33 years, until his death in 1972; they had three children, Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.

Carol Starr Schneider said...

Great interview with my dad. Can't wait to read Part II. Thanks so much! This is a great gift!

Michael Powers said...

This fellow Starr is quite entertaining. I await other installments with keen interest.

George N said...

It's great to read about Ben Starr's work on so many of the programs I watched and LAUGHED at. What a talented gentleman.
The stories of Oscar Levant brought back memories of seeing him on Jack Paar's program and reading his books, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar when I was a kid.
Let's hear more from Mr. Starr!