Monday, September 17, 2012

An Interview with Stanley Dean - Part One

Stanley Dean: None of the agents wanted to book me without seeing me work. I said, "Well, I can't get a job unless you book me." They said, "Well, you'll have to figure that out for yourself." I called a friend in Boston who apparently knew an agent. I went to Boston and when I got to the club - I forget the name - but it was actually a Nissen hut with a roof made from aluminum. There was nobody in the audience, just two people sitting at the bar. The bar was in the middle of the room about sixty feet away from the stage. There was no band or anything. I was the only one on the show. When I took to the stage it began to rain very heavily. Rain hitting a tin Nissen hut? It's unbelievable. You can't hear anything! After the first show the boss told me he wasn't too happy with me. I said, "Well, what the hell do you want? There's nobody here!" He said, "Well, you should have an act for when there's nobody in the place!"

I said, "Oh, really? Well, I guess I'll have to work on that!" I went back to Boston to see the agent that had booked me. I told him the story about how it was an impossible place to work. He said, "He gave you a bad review." I said, "Well, that boss doesn't know anything! He doesn't even know how to run a club! It's beside the point. Get me a job!" He said, "I can't. I won't be able to after the review I got from this guy. Forget it." So, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know a single person in Boston and I was next to broke. I'm walking up the street. All of a sudden from out of nowhere someone yells, "Stanley!" I turn around and there are three guys a half block away. They came running toward me. They were an acrobatic group I knew from Montreal. They did great acrobatics and one of them was a cripple. They used to do this act where they would miss landing all of their tricks... because the cripple couldn't make it.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Stanley Dean: Then at the last minute he'd make it and it'd bring the house down and everybody would go nuts. I told them the story about how I came down to Boston and about the gig and about how I couldn't get any work. They said, "Well, don't worry about it. Come down to Blinstrub's." You've heard of Blinstrub's?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, a huge supperclub.

Stanley Dean: Right. Johnnie Ray was on the bill with them and a fourteen piece orchestra. They said, "Come on down tonight. There will be a table for you and you can eat and drink as much as you want - it's on us." So I went. I sat there and it was a terrific show. At the end of the show, these three guys, these brothers, came on for a second time and closed the show. They did two spots. They used to do that kind of thing in vaudeville. They never let the star close the show.

So they did their thing where the cripple can't make it and then finally does and it brings down the house. They take a bow and they say, "We have a friend of ours in the audience who is a very, very funny guy. Why don't we bring him up to say a few words?" I'm sitting there wondering who the hell they're talking about - and it turns out it's me! I went up, did ten minutes, and they wouldn't let me off.

There was a guy sitting near my table and he was writing. It turns out he was one of the most respected reviewers in showbiz. He worked for a paper in New York, but he had returned to his home town. I went back to my hotel and at ten in the morning my phone rings. It was the agent that didn't want to book me. He said, "Stanley Dean? Where have you been?" I said, "What do you mean? I've been sleeping."

He says, "I mean where were you last night?" I said, "Oh, I bumped into a few friends of mine and they invited me to the Johnnie Ray show at Blinstrub's." He asks, "And what happened?" I said, "Nothing much. I did a few minutes." He said, "Go to a newsstand and buy the Globe and look in the theatrical section. If you like what you read - buy a bunch and bring them to me." I didn't know what he was getting at, but then I wondered... did I get a write-up? Is that possible?

I bought the paper and the first part of the column was about Johnnie Ray, but the last three quarters was about "A young comedian who came out of nowhere. He was called up from the audience and was the biggest hit of the night." After that review they couldn't give me enough work! It started my career!

Kliph Nesteroff: What year was that?

Stanley Dean: My God, what year? It could not have been any later than 1952.

Kliph Nesteroff: The earliest listings I could find were 1957 - The Chaudiere in Ottawa, September 1957 - The Crescendo in Houston, October 1957 - The Bellevue Casino near Montreal.

Stanley Dean: Those were within the first year of doing a team. First I did a solo act for a few years. When I came to New York an agent saw me. He said, "I'd like to team you up with somebody." I said, "No, I don't want to team up with anyone." He said, "Well, I won't be able to manage you if you're alone." He was managing Dick Shawn at the time. He said, "I manage Dick Shawn and I promised I wouldn't handle any other single. But if you get a team - we can do it."

I said, "Okay, if you can team me with someone and it works out... I'll try it for a little while and see where we go with it." So he found somebody whom I wish I had never met! It turned out that we did sensational for the first two or three years. But then he turned out to be one of the most voracious gamblers on the face of the earth. He was nasty. He didn't care what he did. One day I got a call that he was in jail. The cops had stopped him, searched his car and found a sawed-off shotgun in his golf bag.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Wow.

Stanley Dean: I went and bailed him out. I said, "What were you doing with a sawed-off shotgun in your golf bag?" He said, "Well, I was thinking of holding up a bank." I said, "Okay, makes sense."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Stanley Dean: Show business isn't working out for you? Maybe knock-off a bank or two. I said to my manager, "Something is definitely wrong." After that we had nothing but problems. I said to my manager, "I can't handle this." And we did pretty good. We had done Ed Sullivan, we were making good money and everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: This was Harvey Norman who had the shotgun?

Stanley Dean: Yeah. Harvey Norman. Boy, was he a beauty. As it turned out, he finished out the rest of his life robbing people, holding people up and doing all sorts of stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Stanley Dean: Yeah, isn't that something? He was a singer and he had been a nice kid. He was five years younger than me. I don't know. That's how that worked out.

Kliph Nesteroff: Incredible. What do you remember about some of these early gigs? The Bellevue Casino with Norman and Dean, Senor Cortez, Jack Williams and the Bel-Air Orchestra.

Stanley Dean: (laughs) It was a big club and there was nothing special about it. The shows were pretty good, but it wasn't the kind of club I enjoyed working. It was vast. Half the people that came only spoke French. It wasn't easy to work those jobs, but there was nothing special about any of them. The most special thing was doing the Sullivan show, which he did a half dozen times.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Americana in Miami Beach... Miami Beach was such an utter hotbed of show business in those days...

Stanley Dean: It was. That was a nice club for us and we worked there with a girl by the name of Sally Blair. She was a good looking woman... who liked women. She was a pretty good singer and a good performer. The reviews came in saying that we should have been the headliners. The guy who wrote it wasn't too crazy about her. So the boss did exactly that. He turned it around and made us close the show. 

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1958 - The Diamond Beach in Wildwood, New Jersey with Peggy King, Lou Monte, Hubert Castle and Daisey Mae and her Hepcats.

Stanley Dean: Ah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Peggy King. She was cute and a terrific singer. The drummer... who was the famous drummer... not Gene Krupa, but the other guy...

Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Rich?

Stanley Dean: Buddy Rich, that's it. He was there. A few months after that gig I was walking down the street in New York and I saw him on the other side so I crossed. I said, "Hey, Buddy! How are ya! Remember me?" He said, "Yes!" So he crossed the street.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were in New York in those days - were you spending time in the comedian hangouts like Hanson's Drugstore?

Stanley Dean: Definitely. Everybody did. You couldn't stay away from it. This is where you met everyone you were in the business with and it was always fun. It was fun to see people like Gene Baylos. He was a fun guy to hang out with and a silly son-of-a-gun.

There were a good number of others that hung out there. Joey Bishop would be hanging around. Shecky Greene. All the comics. They'd stand there and joke and laugh. It was always great hanging out with these guys. You could learn a lot hanging around there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Curtiss says you were responsible for getting Rodney Dangerfield - that is to say Jack Roy - back in show business.

Stanley Dean: Jack Roy (laughs). Yes. Jack Roy... let me tell you. When I first came to New York, a friend of mine who was a singer told me, "If you want to get some good comedy material written... I know a guy that lives out in Long Island and he is a terrific writer." I said, "What's his name?" He said, "Jack Roy." I said, "You got his phone number? Let's call him." We called him and we went out to see him. We drove out there and I asked him if he would write for me. And he said no.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Stanley Dean: I said, "Well, then why the hell did you make us come all the way out here!?" Rodney didn't want to write anything for me. He said, "I only write for myself." But years had gone by and he had barely performed anywhere. He was in the business for a year or something, but he couldn't make enough money. They don't pay you a helluva lot when you first get into this business.

He couldn't make any money and he had a wife and kids so he had to do something. I went out there with him one day when he was still doing roofs and whatever. He was taking orders, walking around buildings measuring and taking notes and all that kind of stuff. So I was there with him. Here's something interesting.

The comedian who gave you my name? Jackie Curtiss? When I first met Jackie Curtiss it was in Texas. They were following us, Norman and Dean, into a club. The next time I saw him was two or three years later in New York City. He was walking up Broadway, "Hey, Jackie Curtiss! Hey! Whoa! Hey!" We were having fun, you know? So, we spent some time together and then I never saw him again. My son in California met the daughter of Don Knotts.

She was talking about "this comedian Jackie Curtiss." He said, "My father was a comedian named Stanley Dean." She didn't recall the name, but she called Jackie Curtiss and he said, "Ah, Stanley Dean, sure, I know Stanley." So we reconnected. We hadn't talked in forty years. We talked no more than thirty seconds when he said to me, "You know, I made a star out of Rodney Dangerfield." Well, I nearly exploded!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Stanley Dean: I said, "What! You made a star out of Rodney Dangerfield? You wanna know something! You could have told that to anyone and everyone in the entire world and they would have believed you. I am the only guy who knows that you are a liar!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Stanley Dean: He said, "Why do you say that?" I said, "Because I am the one that gave him his career! I'm the one who put him on the map!" He said, "Huh. No kidding. How? How?" He got all excited (laughs). I said, "Jackie Curtiss, I'm the last person in the world you should have said that to. I'm the only one in the world who could have called you on it."

Kliph Nesteroff: So, then what's the story?

Stanley Dean: Okay. So I told you I visited Jack Roy and he said he wouldn't write for me. Ten years go by. I'm in the Stage Delicatessen and there are a bunch of other stars sitting in there. In comes Jack Roy. I recognized him. Ten years had gone by. He was walking around. He was looking to connect with the show folk.

You could see he was wandering. He didn't know how to approach anyone. He was not a very nice character. He was not an easy person to like. In fact, you couldn't like him at all. He never gave you anything to like. He was a very, very difficult kind of guy. When I finished eating and walked out of the restaurant he was standing there.

He said, "Hey, I want to talk to you. Do you know an agent that will get me a club date?" I said, "You mean a one-night job you're looking for?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, go see the agents. Go talk to them. I can't go to them and say here's a guy looking for a job. You need to do it on your own." He says, "I went to all of them!" I said, "Well, what happened?" He said, "They wouldn't do anything for me." It was the way he approached people. He wasn't likable in the least.

I said, "Look. Okay. I might try and get you a job but... you gotta let me know what you do. I've never seen you perform." He said, "Okay. Can I come to your house?" I said, "Yeah, give me a call and come over." The following day he calls and he comes over. He starts doing his material for me and I'm listening to it thinking, "Boy, this is funny stuff."

He came back the next day and did another fifteen minutes. Every day - at least five days a week - for a month - he was at my house. He kept asking, "Can you give someone a call? Get me a club date?" I said to him, "I've heard your material and you do not want to start with a club date. Because you'll do well and then you'll end up with another club date. And another club date. They're only one-nighters and you're only going to be doing, at the most, two a week. You'll get nowhere. You won't be making much. That's not what you want.

You're doing very funny stuff. Stuff no one has heard before. It isn't copied from anyone." He wrote first-person, self-depricating... the best type of stand-up comedy there is. I said, after three months, "I can't be spending this much time with you. I've got my own problems. Here's what I'm gonna do. You pick up the other phone. Put your hand over the mouthpiece and listen in. I'm gonna call Nat Kalcheim at the William Morris office." I called him.

I said, "I have a guy who is a tremendous comedy talent. I think your office would do well to come and see him. I would like to arrange a meeting for you to meet him." He said, "Okay. How about two o'clock on Wednesday?" "Fine." That's what we did. I went there with Rodney and I said, "When we walk into the office - I want you to walk over to him, shake his hand and say, 'Pleasure to meet you,' and walk to the back of the office. I'll sit with him at his desk. Say hello and nothing else. Nothing else." Because this guy, Jack Roy, could destroy himself in a hurry.

You know? So, that's what happened. Nat Kalcheim said to me, "Where can we see him work?" I said, "A place in the Village." I was gonna get him a place where everybody used to work - Dick Cavett, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers - so I took him down there. It was run by a woman. A little club that seated twenty-five people at the most. I walked in there with Rodney. I said, "Sit down." I went up to her and I said, "You see that guy sitting over there? He is a very - funny - comedian. Would you let him do a few minutes? If you see him work you'll want him for a few weeks."

She said, "Stanley. He does not look like a comedian." I said, "You can't go by his looks! Take my word for it. You won't be sorry." "Okay. Five minutes. That's all." I went over to him. "Here's what you're going to do. You're gonna go up. Do five minutes. And get the hell off. That is all. Okay? That's it." He does... and they went nuts. When you saw him in this tiny little room - he looked like a giant. If you're a good performer in a small area - it's always better than a vast area. You have a better connection - you with them and they with you. It's always better. She loved him. She said to me, "I want him here for a couple weeks. I only pay forty dollars."

He said, "Don't worry, I'll drink it." He went to work there and the room suited him to a tee. He was an animal. To see him up close - it had a great effect and the jokes were sensational. Next week on a Wednesday I brought people from the Morris office down. Nat Kalcheim and six guys came down. They watched him and they turned to me and said, "He is very funny... but what do we do with him?" I said, "What do you mean what to do with him!? Take him to Ed Sullivan and have him perform during the Sunday run-through!"

When you did the Sullivan show they had a run-through on Sunday afternoon that started around ten in the morning. When I first did it I said, "Jesus, how many people are going to be on this show?" But as it turned out, what they would do is... they have half a dozen performers that were already booked [for the live show at night], but they also had several performers that were not booked. They would do the show in the afternoon so they could have a look at them. So I said, "If you put him on Sullivan - if he's a big hit in the afternoon... no one is taking any chances.

If he isn't a hit, he doesn't do the show. But if he is a hit... I tell you... he will be, I can sense it, I can see it, I can feel it. He is going to be a successful comedian and there is no telling to what extent. His material... without question... he is one of the top ten comedians I have ever heard. Material, jokes, delivery, freshness." As far as the person goes... well, there wasn't much to talk about. But as a performer! You could sense it.

I can understand to an extent why I had trouble with these agents. They're not sure of anything. Few days later Kalcheim called me. He said, "This coming Sunday... have Rodney be there at nine o'clock in the morning." I called Rodney to come over. I'm waiting for him and waiting for him. I was waiting forever. I go downstairs and there's a car double parked, running, and he's sitting in the driver's seat - asleep! I wake him up, "Jesus Christ, I've been waiting for you! Go park the car!"

I told him. "This coming Sunday - you're going to The Ed Sullivan Theater. You're gonna be nice. You're gonna say hello. They're gonna put you on in the afternoon. It's no guarantee you're gonna do the show at night - but I have a feeling you'll get on." That's exactly what happened. He did it. He was a hit. And he went on to do it many, many times. And everything started to happen for Rodney Dangerfield. Before that nobody even wanted to talk to him. He never could have done it alone.


Keith Scott said...

Excellent narrative about Rodney Dangerfield being his own worst enemy - definitely has the ring of authenticity. Looking forward to reading more from this man. Tanks for posting!

Patrick said...

Great as always!

Sid Montrose said...


Dean is a fascinating guy, and has almost NO profile on Google (as opposed to most of your interviews). If he was this close to Rodney, maybe he has something to add on Joe Ancis?

Also, your interview on WTF is great.

Unknown said...

My father, Stanley Dean, passed away today in upstate New York, aged 85. He will be missed. He told many stories of Rodney Dangerfied and Joe Ancis.

BlueSkies said...

Stanley Dean...what an amazing man he had to be! To have continued to help Rodney find his way to stardom. Such a wonderful story. I could read his memories all day long! Just wonderful. RIP Mr . Stanley Dean.

westsidestory68 said...

I was your dad's neighbor on the upper West Side! Wew worked together for two years on a very tight stand up act (up on the roof, remember the roof?) I was his Best Man when he married Pam. You were there as well.

- Russell Aaronson

westsidestory68 said...

I was your dad's neighbor on West 68th Street ... and Best Man at his wedding to Pam. You were there as well.

Russell Aaronson

Unknown said...

Without doubt, one of the absolute geniuses of comedy. Best standup comic who ever lived. Thank God he got that chance on Ed Sullivan. He set a new standard in comedy that hasn't been matched. AND he wrote his own material!!!! Incredible. He will live on in his recorded work, forever! We miss him and always will.