Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Interview with Peter Marshall - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: Most people know you solely as the host of Hollywood Squares and have no idea that you performed comedy in nightclubs long before that - for approximately fifteen years. One of your first gigs as a comedy team with Tommy Noonan was at Bill Gray's Band Box.

Peter Marshall: Yes, that was our second gig. Our very first was at a place called the Zambo Anga down on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles. Polly Bergen caught us and she told Max Gold who owned Billy Gray's Band Box with Billy Gray. We went in for one night and we were a hit. It was really a very Jewish club and here we are, these two goyim, and they loved us. We stayed there for a long time and that was the beginning.

We got together on a lark and we never expected anything to come of it. Tommy Noonan was my brother in-law's brother. He was John Ireland's brother. John Ireland was then married to my sister. We got together. I owed a dental bill of sixty-seven dollars and Tommy had just been dropped from RKO. We were talking and put this silly act together and bang - it worked.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the Band Box like and what was Billy Gray like?

Peter Marshall: Billy Gray was one of the funniest men I ever worked with. If you ever see the movie Some Like it Hot - he played the agent. He was very, very funny and he owned this little club that seated, I don't know, one hundred and thirty people, I guess. It was a tiny little bar, but they had a good clientele and they spent money. I worked with Leo Diamond, a famous harmonica player and Robert Maxwell, a harpist who wrote Ebb Tide and Shangri La. The show was very heavy and there was Tommy and myself, Frank Fontaine, Billy Gray and a girl singer. The shows would last for hours! It was a great place to start.

Kliph Nesteroff: Two names that always appear in tandem with Billy Gray are Ben Lessy and Patti Moore.

Peter Marshall: That was my favorite act. Ben Lessy was, along with Billy Gray, the funniest man I ever saw. Nobody remembers Ben Lessy. He was a cute little comic. He'd come out with a pocket full of stuff they use for packing, that [styrofoam] white stuff. He'd take those things out of his pocket, flip them into the air and try and catch them. It's hard for me to explain. He was like a mime or like a Ben Blue type. Benny Lessy and Patti Moore were wonderful. It's sad that we don't have film of that, although Lessy did do some films.

Kliph Nesteroff: I did see one sequence from their act... I can't remember where. Patti Moore is dancing and doing all the talking and Ben Lessy was sitting at the piano and playing it with one finger.

Peter Marshall: That's it, you got it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Their name - and also Ben Blue - these names come up a lot in association with Billy Gray. They were part of the same circle.

Peter Marshall: Yes, Billy Gray's and then there was Charley Foy's. We used to work it a lot. Charley Foy's was a very popular nightclub. When I came out to Los Angeles in 1943 it was out on Coldwater Canyon and Ventura. Then they moved up to Sherman Oaks, just west of Sepulveda. I worked with Ben Blue a lot.

We'd go in for three months a year to break in material. There would be four acts. Carl Ravazza was one. Not many people remember him. He used to open his act from the back of the room. He was very handsome. He'd sing from the back of the room and make his way to the stage. I would do sketches there with Ben Blue.

All the waiters at Charley Foy's were old vaudeville comics like Cully Richards and Sammy Wolfe. The bartender - what the heck was his name? He used to star at Jack White's club in New York. He's the guy who invented "And away we go!"

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Gleason?

Peter Marshall: No, Gleason stole that. He stole it from this guy. Frankie Hyers! That's the guy. "Away we go" was his thing and then Gleason took it. But he was the bartender at Charley Foy's.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really?

Peter Marshall: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: The club in New York you're talking about is the Club 18.

Peter Marshall: Yes, the Club 18. Jack White's Club 18. This guy wound up as the bartender at Charley Foy's. Charley Foy was one of the Seven Little Foy's. His father was the famed Eddie Foy. He was the emcee and he would come out and he would tap dance. All the old vaudevillians used to hang out there. Gene Sheldon and people like that.

You know who else used to hang there? The guy that always stuttered. Joe Frisco. He wasn't working, he just hung out there. He always called me Bob. He could never remember my name. I'd say, "My name is not Bob!" I'd drive him home. He lived in a little hotel. He said, "K-k-k-k-k-kid, you don't look like a Pete. You look like a Bob." He was a big gambler and drinker.

There's the story about him being at the track with Crosby. He goes up to him, "Hey, Bing, can I borrow a hundred dollars?" Crosby gives him a hundred dollars. Frisco has a big day at the track and he wins thousands of dollars. He's sitting there with all his friends. He walks over to Crosby and hands him a hundred dollars and says, "Hey kid, sing me Melancholy Baby."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Peter Marshall: (laughs) Joe Frisco was a very famous vaudevillian as were most at Charley Foy's. All the waiters were old vaudevillians and the bartender was a vaudevillian. I mean, it was just filled with all these wonderful, colorful vaudevillians that I remembered from when I was a kid! I mean, what a way for a guy to grow up.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ben Blue also had his own club for a brief spell somewhere in Los Angeles.

Peter Marshall: Yes, I think he might have taken over the old Slapsy Maxie's. I'm not quite sure. He would come in for a couple of months and play Charley Foy's and then Carl Ravazza and then Noonan and Marshall. There were favorites. Of course, we were on the road all the time, so this was a chance to stay home and break in new material.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Cully Richards and Frankie Hyers. Did you ever frequent the Club 18 in New York? It sounds like such a fascinating place. It was an insult club. A nightclub where everyone onstage is an insult comic. That sounds so interesting.

Peter Marshall: No, I was too young. I was too young for Club 18. I remember hearing one story. Greta Garbo was in the club. She went to the ladies room. After she returned to her table Gleason somehow got the john seat. He came onstage to auction off the toilet seat. "Greta Garbo just sat here!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Peter Marshall: (laughs) Yes, it was a great club as I understand.

Kliph Nesteroff: And this is interesting about Frankie Hyers and the catchphrase "Away we go!"

Peter Marshall: Yeah, and they all worked the Club 18. I can remember Cully Richards' byline. It was "Cully Richards - Just a Clever Guy." I just loved that - and he was. He was a clever guy. That whole era - nobody talks about it anymore. And nobody has ever written about it. It was a great time in New York and especially in Los Angeles. They all came out to L.A. early to get into film because vaudeville was over. They came out here for radio.

Kliph Nesteroff: Some Like it Hot, as you mention, had Billy Gray in it. Another comedian in that film that people don't remember - also a regular at the Band Box - is Dave Barry.

Peter Marshall: Yeah, Dave. I worked with Dave many times and he was wonderful. I worked Billy Gray's with Dave Barry and a lot of club dates. In those days you did a lot of club dates. If you were out of work you could just head to Chicago and you'd find three or four club dates to do a day.

That was the corporate headquarters before Vegas and before there were jets. So, all the corporate meetings were in Chicago and you would do all their club dates. I can remember performing at the Chicago Theater as part of Marshall and Farrell and you weren't allowed to do club dates. At the Chicago Theater we were doing four or five shows a day. So we changed our names to Matthews and Richards so we could go squeeze in some club dates.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Peter Marshall: (laughs) And we got caught! I must say they laughed and thought it was clever, but told us, "Don't do that anymore."

Kliph Nesteroff: Chicago Theater, May 1954 - you were playing there with the Four Knights.

Peter Marshall: Yes. You've got that down? Wow! Yes, that's when we did the club dates. That was with Marshall and Farrell, though. We did around four or five shows a day, but in those days you weren't doing an hour and half. You were on stage for about twenty minutes and then they'd have a dancer and a seal act, you know.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm interested in the difference between each show in terms of the audience. Jack Carter told me that the first show of the day in these theaters - the audience was full of derelicts that had spent the night on the street and showed up to sleep in this warm theater during the first show of the day.

Peter Marshall: Oh, yes. That's right. We headlined the Palace, actually, with Marshall and Farrell, back when they were putting on five shows a day. The first show was at ten o'clock in the morning, but it wasn't derelicts at the Palace. The audience would be old vaudevillians. They would come in and see you and critique it. Later I did La Cage at the Palace in 1986. I was the last star ever to take a bow at the old Palace before they tore it up, refurbished it and built a thing above it. Anyway, Marshall and Farrell played the RKO Palace and all the old vaudevillians like Smith and Dale would come in.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was August 1956. Marshall and Farrell at the Palace with The Three Tapateers, Ross Wyse and June Adams and the Kal Kirby Orchestra.

Peter Marshall: (laughs) Oh my God.

Kliph Nesteroff: The show was booked by a guy named Danny Friendly.

Peter Marshall: Yeah, Danny Friendly. Good old Danny Friendly. Oh, Jesus. He was a booker and an agent. He might be related to [Fred] Friendly the news guy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: November 1950. Noonan and Marshall played La Martinique. That must have been a big deal for you guys.

Peter Marshall: It was a big deal. Abby Greshler, who handled Martin and Lewis, got if for us. They left him and so he handled us for about an hour and a half. We went in for two weeks and we stayed for sixteen weeks. The reviews were so-so, but we were a big hit. [Newspaperman] Lee Mortimer did a big thing on us and there was a lot of publicity. We were two really cute looking boys and I think I was twenty-three years old and Tommy was twenty-five. For a comic he was a cute looking guy. He was tall and I was very tall. Six-four and six-two - and they called him the short guy! Jane Harvey was our first opening act. Believe it or not, after she left they brought in Frances Faye and then the great Mistinguett. Do you know who Mistinguett is?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Peter Marshall: Mistinguett was the biggest star France ever had. Forget Maurice Chevalier, forget Edith Piaf, forget all that. If you go to art galleries you'll see posters of Mistinguett. She was in her seventies and I had no idea who she was, I was just a kid. As I reflect on it, I would have loved to have got a picture with Mistinguett. She was our opening act! She was very famous for her legs and a very famous theater performer in France. Peggy Fears, who was a society woman, and gay, and Patsy Kelly, who was gay - all the gay actresses came in to see her.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, interesting.

Peter Marshall: Yes. It was a time when "gay" was - you didn't talk about it. Except in show business we didn't care. We didn't give a shit what you were.

Kliph Nesteroff: Despite launching the career of Danny Thomas, I am under the impression that La Martinique was a very difficult room for comedians.

Peter Marshall: We did wonderfully. We were a big hit there. We really were. They had a big orchestra. Jackie Miles worked it and he was a big hit. In fact, Dick Haymes, my brother in-law at the time, opened for Jackie Miles there and it was his first big break. If you go back and look up the La Martinique that would have been around 1946 or 1947. Maybe even earlier than that. There were two great clubs for that kind of thing. There was The Copa - and it wasn't Entratter's Copa. The guy who opened the Copa was like my surrogate father and his name was Monte Proser.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Peter Marshall: I worked for Monte all my life and he was a wonderful man. No, I don't think La Martinique was bad for comics.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Abby Greshler. When Martin and Lewis dumped him he was scrambling to sign up the next big thing in comedy teams. He signed Noonan and Marshall, but he also signed up Gene Baylos who was trying to do a two-man act at the time with a guy named Johnny Johnston.

Peter Marshall: Johnny Johnston was a big star on Broadway. He starred on Broadway in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He was married to Kathryn Grayson and he did a lot of movies at Metro and he was wonderful. He was very handsome and he played great guitar. Very talented guy, but he had an attitude. Johnny's problem was his attitude, but I really liked him very much and he was a terrific performer. Last time I saw him was when I was doing La Cage in Miami and he came backstage to see me.

I hadn't seen him in years and he was really a talented guy. He teamed with Gene Baylos and I'll tell you who put that act together. It was a guy by the name of Lenny Green. He is still alive. He's ninety-five, still alive and one of my closest friends. He put together that act but... the wives got in the way.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Peter Marshall: "My husband needs first billing!" "My husband deserves more money!" It was their wives that helped kill the act.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) That's hysterical.

Peter Marshall: Yes, well, it's true. They were fine, but it was the wives. Last time I saw Gene Baylos, it was also when I was doing La Cage Aux Folles and he came backstage to see me. I hadn't seen Gene in years. He said, "You know something? You were wonderful!" I said, "Thank you, Gene." He said, "For years I thought you were lousy."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Peter Marshall: He hated Noonan and Marshall - because it was a white bread act. It really was. We were Middle America. We were a white bread act and he hated that (laughs).


Booksteve said...

Much fun as always. My dad always used to tell me he had known Stuttering Joe Frisco. Apparently both used to hang out at Newport, Kentucky's gambling joints at one point.

Kevin K. said...

Marshall has a point about the wives getting in the way. According to Ole Olsen, he and Chic Johnson remained a team for as long as they did because they never socialized and kept the wives apart from each other.

mackdaddyg said...

Interesting stuff. I never would have guessed Peter Marshall had that kind of background. Good choice for an interview.

Anonymous said...

I know it's been done to death, but you should try to get Jerry Lewis.

He's so old and grumpy at this point that maybe you'd flesh out some new info.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Anyone wondering what the team of Noonan and Marshall was like should see "The Rookie," a 1959 military comedy. White bread they certainly were. George O'Hanlon, the voice of George Jetson, co-wrote and directed "The Rookie."

A Moose said...

Thanks alot for this Kliph. As most people all I knew of Peter Marshall is from "Hollywood Squares". I knew he was a performer, but was curious about the his history in show business.

Leave it to you to be able to do that very thing.

Reading the interview, wonder if he was trying to get something else across. Hmm.

Bobby Wall said...

Yes, Kliph, PLEASE get Jerry Lewis. My god, he's an encyclopedia of information. Don't forget, his parents were in vaudeville (Danny and Rae Lewis). I don't think there's anyone alive who knows more about that era and who knows more people and has more stories. You could literally do a whole book with Jerry. One only hopes that he would be amenable and open up freely.

Mark Murphy said...

I had been looking forward to this interview, and as always, you didn't disappoint.

During the run of "Hollywood Squares," I think I got to the point where one of my main reasons for watching it was to marvel at Mr. Marshall's skills as a straight man -- how he set up the stars yet managed to stay in charge, even cutting off someone like Buddy Hackett when he had to because of time or some other reason. The "master" of the Hollywood Squares, indeed.

Regarding Ben Lessy: I think he was a regular, or at least a semiregular, during the early years of "Make Room for Daddy" -- perhaps the episodes where Jean Hagen played the wife.

And by the way, congrats on the Grove Press deal.

Anonymous said...

Real name was Ralph Pierre LaCock. Wonder why he changed it?

BruceB said...

I saw Peter Marshall in the national tour of Neil Simon's "Rumours" back in the late 80s. He was amazing. His character had a huge, hilarious monologue near the end, wrapping up all the details unexplained until then. He had the audience in the palm of his hand and earned a round of applause as it ended. Very impressive as a comic for someone I'd known only as a straight man until then.

Benovite said...

I wish I could take a brooding black and white photo of myself with facial hair. (T_T)