Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part Four

Dick Curtis: Joe Masse owned a club in Boston. He was a Mob guy. A low-level joint. I worked it with a Sepia Revue as they called it. An all-Black company of people singing and dancing. I was the emcee. He was a local outfit guy. I also worked Boston with Guy Lombardo. We worked a place called the Monticello in Framingham, Massachusetts. We did a tour together and played several places. We played the Twin Coaches in Pittsburgh.

Kliph Nesteroff: I also have you down as playing with him in November 1962 at the Americana...

Dick Curtis: Ah, that's terrific! Yes, we opened that hotel. I was a big hit with Guy's show. He really liked what I did. We were playing all through Pennsylvania and through New York and New Jersey. Then he called me while I was doing a television show in Canada. He said, "We're going to open The Americana Hotel in New York. We want you to come do the show with us." I was doing a television show in Toronto at CFTO, but we taped several weeks ahead so I was free to leave. 

We went to New York to open the theater. It was called The Royal Box - the room at the Americana. It was very small, but it was just right for dancing to Guy's music. We got there and at rehearsal Guy said, "Here's what I want you to do." And he started lining up the bits that he liked in my act. I said, "Guy, I appreciate that you like my act, but we're in New York and I don't think what you've selected will work." I knew what would work and he was very offended. He said, "I have many friends coming to see this show tonight and I have told them all about you! I've told them what you do! I want you to do this list of things!" Like it was royal command. So I did it. 

The first show of the night I died the death of nine salesmen! The material he liked did not work in New York. I always had to adjust my presentation for New York. The next show I went to the band and said, "Go back to the arrangement we were doing in Pittsburgh." Guy Lombardo never talked to me again.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Dick Curtis: He quit talking to me. It was his fault, but he wouldn't admit it. I'm so sorry to say that. He never talked to me again.

Kliph Nesteroff: The review said your act didn't go over well in such a large room.

Dick Curtis: (laughs) Well, it wasn't a large room! It was very small and it was called The Royal Box. It was a perfect room to work if you knew what you were doing, but because Guy insisted I do what he wanted. Oh my God, I got killed by the newspapers.

Kliph Nesteroff: The television show you were doing in Canada was called Network?

Dick Curtis: Network, right. That was a show that was a product of a show we were doing in Australia. I used to fly over there and do two or three shows. I was doing a show called Revue '61 and Revue '62.

Kliph Nesteroff: Digby Wolfe.

Dick Curtis: Digby Wolfe, yes. And Chris Bearde was one of the writers. Chris and I became absolute bosom buddies and we wrote well together. Stan Harris was producer and went on to produce a lot of good things and a wonderful guy. We all went to Toronto to do Network

Chris and I wrote and appeared in it. Everybody that came through Toronto did the show. It was a variety show and a lot of fun. When it ended I left Canada. I also did a game show up there called Bet Your Bottom Dollar. When I left Canada, Chris Bearde and I stayed in touch. I was on the West Coast working in a nightclub in Santa Monica called The Horn. It was a wonderful place. 

I worked there with Larry Hovis, who was a dear friend of mine. I met him when he was a drummer in a trio down in Houston many, many years ago. He insisted I come out to California because there were so many things going on. I went and did everything I could. Larry had broken that ice for me. He was doing Hogan's Heroes by then. I was in the West Coast version of The Mad Show and I was doing commercials and I was running up to Vegas and doing my act. 

Larry said, "Digby Wolfe is in town. He has become the headwriter..." "Headwriter? Digby can't write. He isn't a writer." He said, "I know that and you know that, but he's been named headwriter of Laugh-In." I said, "What's that?" He said, "New television show that's about to start. Wanna work with me?" So Larry Hovis and I became writers on the Laugh-In pilot. We all worked in different offices. Digby asked me, "Where's Chris Bearde?" "Toronto." "Get hold of him and tell him to come down here." So, I called him, "You got a job down here if you wanna come write for this new show." He said, "I can't get out of Canada! I can't get a Visa." 

He was a Brit who had been shipped to Australia during the War. He grew up in Australia and then went to Canada. He had a lot of mixed background and they wouldn't give him whatever he needed to go to the States. I said, "Let me make some phone calls." I had been doing some shows for Birch Bayh. He was an Indiana senator running for president. I had done several shows for him because I'm a Hoosier. I called Birch Bayh and asked, "Is there anyway you can help my friend get in the country so he can get a job down here?" He said, "I'll take care of it." 

He called the right people and got Chris down here to start writing Laugh-In. We were writing the pilot and I didn't like the way the show was shaping up. You had to be some kinda crazy character to be on it. So, while I was writing for it I continued to audition elsewhere. I auditioned for The Jonathan Winters Show and got the job. I called Larry and told him.

Laugh-In was not on the air yet, whereas The Jonathan Winters Show was right now. Laugh-In got on and the rest is history. Rowan and Martin and I were friends. Alan Sues was a friend at the time. He and I had done a pilot for Universal called Off We Go. It was a sitcom about the US Airforce in World War Two. Alan and I played the two leads - fighter pilots. Also starred Dick Foran.

Kliph Nesteroff: I love Dick Foran movies.

Dick Curtis: I've been trying to find a copy of it. I never saw it. People forget that Dick Foran was a good singer and did Broadway, but his career went downhill after a while. He was a Broadway style singer. He was in Petrified Forest with Bogart. Bogart was brought from New York to do the film on the insistence of Dick Foran. That made a star out of Bogart.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why did Digby Wolfe get headwriter credit if he wasn't writing anything?

Dick Curtis: Well, George Schlatter was a great friend of Digby's. I don't know how they got together. I wasn't around when that happened. I'm sure Digby threw in some ideas. He wasn't a writer.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read somewhere that Rowan and Martin resented Digby Wolfe's presence because he wasn't a writer.

Dick Curtis: Yes, well they were right and for whatever reason Schlatter wanted him there. He had such regard for him. I don't know why. I mean, Digby was a polite, handsome guy in a tuxedo and a good compere. He and I worked together in sketches in Australia and they were fun, but he didn't write them. When he showed up as headwriter I thought, "Boy, how did that happen?" And everybody agreed. But Digby was a nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention you weren't happy with the way the Laugh-In pilot was shaping up.

Dick Curtis: Yes. There was very little cohesion. We worked in teams and in offices by ourselves and I lost the camaraderie that I needed to write a show. We were supposed to write for characters that didn't exist yet, so it was a difficult chore. But I got a wonderful job on The Jonathan Winters Show for two years. That was wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was a big break for you.

Dick Curtis: It was. It lead to a lot of other things, but just the work itself was worthwhile. We used to have two major stars each and every week.

Kliph Nesteroff: For some reason it's a show that has never been re-released despite the star power. I've only really seen one clip. The guest star is Art Carney. Carney and Winters improvising with different hats and wigs.

Dick Curtis: I'll send you some stuff from it. It's a wonderful show. One of the reasons it hasn't been seen since then is because Johnny owns a piece of it and I don't think he is interested in doing much with it. Someday somebody will because there is absolute gold in there. Duke Wayne was on the show. Every major star came and did something on the show. We had a forty-eight share - until Laugh-In knocked us out.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ella Fitzgerald was one of your guests...

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. And I have a picture that Ella gave me. Ella didn't see very well. Her eyesight was bad. I was leaving the studio after we did the show and I noticed a lady sitting in the bleachers by herself. I look closely and it was Ella Fitzgerald. I said, "Ella, are you all right?" She said, "Oh, yes, I'm just waiting for my ride... but I think maybe they forgot." I said, "Ella, I'd be glad to give you a ride home." She said, "Oh, will you? Oh, thank you!" 

We had a wonderful conversation during the ride and she invited me in and we sat and talked about every person she ever worked with in show business. She had pictures all over her house and a wonderful portrait of her with Nat King Cole. She gave me a picture and wrote in the corner. She said, "I hope you can read this, honey, because I can't. I can't see too well." I've still got the picture. She was wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where did she live?

Dick Curtis: She lived in Beverly Hills, but I forget the street. I was also living in Beverly Hills at the time. I would have taken her to Tokyo, though, if that's what she wanted.

Kliph Nesteroff: Milton Berle and Arnold Stang guested on The Jonathan Winters Show.

Dick Curtis: Arnold was enormously funny. He had that funny voice and funny personality and he did Man with a Golden Arm. He became a stooge for Milton Berle and I think that was the most demeaning part of his career. When Berle disappeared Stang was still looking for a niche and he couldn't find it. Which is too bad because he was a wonderfully talented guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: He did the voice of Top Cat for Hanna-Barbera.

Dick Curtis: Have we talked about what I did for Hanna-Barbera? I was the voice of Motor Mouse. It was a whole series. I just got a cheque from Warner Brothers for that, so I guess it's still running some place. I did it with Marty Ingels. He was the voice of the cat and he was great in it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have heard that Marty is fullbore crazy...

Dick Curtis: (pauses) No. I think Marty was a pretty humble guy as I recall. Marty can come on pretty strong, but I have always known him to be a pleasant guy and we worked well together. I haven't seen Marty since then.

Kliph Nesteroff: June 1953 you played the El Cortez in Las Vegas.

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes! That was my second Vegas appearance. I had appeared in Vegas with Horace Heidt in 1951. I was about to get out of the Marine Corps when I won one of his talent shows. Went to Vegas and we worked in a ballpark on an outdoor stage and it was freezing cold that night. We all went onstage in our overcoats except for the girls who were in skimpy costumes. But! We stayed in a brand new hotel... called The Flamingo. 

I walked out the front door one day and I said, "Why in the world would they build a big, beautiful hotel like this in the middle of nowhere?" Today you can't even find The Flamingo. I came back two years later to play with the Cooper Sisters at the El Cortez. That was a good job and it opened some doors for me. The Cooper Sisters were from Portland, Oregon. I don't know if they're still living, but they were a well-known duo at the time. I went back to Vegas many times and played Old Last Frontier, The New Frontier and I worked another with Kay Starr.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the El Cortez like back then?

Dick Curtis: Well, it had a tiny room called The Pirate's Den and they had waitresses in pirate costumes. I doubt if it even seated one hundred and fifty people. All the action was out in the casino, of course. It was a very small hotel downtown. I guess it still is. The room had a band and I think people could dance on the stage. We were the show. It was small and fun. Anybody who was anybody... in a lower income bracket... appeared there (laughs). We used to ride horses at four o'clock in the morning across the desert from the strip and cook steaks over an open fire. That's what Vegas was like in those days. Everybody went to the El Rancho for the free breakfast. 

All the actors would show up (laughs). Jimmy Durante was working at the El Cortez at that time and I worked with him a couple times too. He was a prince. He was fun to be with and he was kind to everyone. He was a sweet guy and he was fun to watch. He could just show up and people laughed and had a good time. He started as a piano playing singer in New York speakeasys. You had to be loud and boisterous and full of energy. It took a lot to be a performer in those days.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played a long stretch in Los Angeles at the Bar of Music.

Dick Curtis: I think the Bar of Music was on Beverly Blvd, if I remember correctly. It was a class A cafe. They had a dance floor separate from the dining room and the show. The show they put on behind a bar. It was an elegant looking bar with curtains, maroon colored drapes and a stage. There was a trio and Carlos Noble was one of the piano players in the show and he did an act with another pianist. 

They played twin piano concert style things. Everybody worked the place - if they could. It was a class place to work and do your act. It was one of the first classy places that I played. I came out of New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Baltimore and all of those towns. I had been working joints. Terrible places where it's a lot of labor. The Bar of Music was tremendously impressive to me and I worked it with Fifi D'Orsay one time.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a partial review from that gig. "It wasn't altogether Fifi's night. A comic on the bill named Dick Curtis, not unlike Milton Berle in appearance and style, with sharper material he will command attention from the networks. His cowboy bit and a tableau of a girl getting ready for a party date need but souped up material to win cuff notes from the tv scouts. His friendly stance and personable manner have an endearing quality that will get him farther than the smart alec attitude of the try-hards who fight the auditors for laughs when their punchlines fall flat. Carlos Noble is the key pounder vocalist and Ruba Malina's keeps the stage alive with leg shakers."

Dick Curtis: Carols Nobel went on to work with us out of The Horn as well. He was wonderful and he taught piano and singing to people. He was a fixture at the Horn for many years. The Bar of Music, last time I played it with Fifi D'Orsay... she was a big movie star at one time with Maurice Chevalier. My God, she was the best friend of William Randolph Hearst's mistress. When I worked with Fifi - she had stories. She would tell me old Hollywood stories and I'm tellin' ya, I would have paid admission to listen to her! 

She was such a good lady. Then the guy who owned the place was the chef. He hired me to come in and be the house emcee. It was a good showcase and I would have a steady job, so I thought, "This will be great!" The first day I showed up for work there was a sign on the door: Closed by Sherrif's Department.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) He couldn't pay his bills. I had just had a blow-up of my picture placed in their lobby - and now I couldn't get it out (laughs). Oh, dear.

Kliph Nesteroff: August 1956 you were playing Top's in San Diego with Roberta Lynn and the Bill Green Orchestra.

Dick Curtis: Oh God, yes. I worked it a couple of time. Top's was the place to work in San Diego. It had a great band, a wonderful dining room with a nice dance floor. It wasn't too big. It was just the right size for doing a dinner show. There were three different rooms. There was a big room for the show in the dining room, a cocktail lounge and a drive-in at the other end. It was an innovative place for its time because it serviced three separate kinds of clientele. It was busy all the time. 

I bumped into Desi Arnaz down there. He was a friend of the guys who owned the place. Top's was a real good place to work and I did it a couple times. Noonan and Marshall used to work there a lot. I was in the Marine Corps when they were playing there. I would hitchhike down to Top's because I was trying to write material for them. In uniform I would walk back through the kitchen and read this material to them. They never bought anything from me, but they were very friendly.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about The Starlight Club in Minneapolis with dancer Mickey Calisle, 1954.

Dick Curtis: I will send you a story I wrote about that place. The Starlight Club was at the corner of 5th and Hennepin. It was the spot in Minneapolis at one time. It was owned by a guy named Jimmy Hay, who had been a football player and a singer and was a popular guy in town. I went in there for two weeks and he held me over for eleven weeks! I opened in September when the weather was okay, but he held me over until it was too cold for anybody to step outside without a fur coat... and I didn't have a coat with me at all! 

Somebody stole my overcoat as I recall. I was a big hit in the room. It was two rooms. It had a bar and booze in the front and there was a guy who sang named Jimmy Maseechie. He loved Nat King Cole so he did all Nat King Cole songs. The back room was where they did the show with the band. I was there for eleven weeks and my wife was pregnant at the time. I would phone her every week. She was living in Chicago and I had to send money home.

Kliph Nesteroff: October 1955, you played The Crescendo - well-known Los Angeles nightclub.

Dick Curtis: Yes. I was booked as the emcee for Gogi Grant. Gogi was a big star then with a couple hit records. I was the comic - host - emcee and everybody was there to see Gogi. Nobody knew me at all. The guy at the piano introduced me and everybody went, "Who? What?" I came to the stage and I grabbed the microphone - and the microphone fell apart. They were playing my music and I was holding four or five parts of this microphone in my hand. For the next ten minutes I had to adlib while I tried to put the microphone back together. 

By the time I got it back together nobody wanted to hear anything I did. So I figure, okay, I'm going to give her a real good intro. So I did this real big build up and it was a real good and I said, "Here she is - to sing for you in a recently repaired microphone - Gogi Green!" The audience went, "What?" But they cheered anyway because she came out... and I slunk out of the place. Years later I whenever I bumped into her I would always say, "Why, it's Gogi Green!" And she would always laugh at that. Yeah, that was some night (laughs). But the Crescendo is the place where Lenny Bruce really took off. I was there a couple times and did all right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was Gene Norman running it at the time?

Dick Curtis: Yes! Gene was a radio announcer, but he didn't own it by himself. He had a partner that was a jazz drummer and a good money guy. He owned a place called Strip City down on South Vermont some place. He loved Lenny Bruce and he hired him to work Strip City. Then he bought the Crescendo with Gene Norman and insisted on putting Lenny in as the star. That was the beginning of Lenny's great meteoric rise. Lenny had been working the worst joints up til then because what he did was so shocking to people. 

Only real inside people cared. Then he had drug problems, of course, and would do bizarre things. He was working at a strip joint in the San Fernando Valley. The job of a strip emcee, which we all had to do at one time or another, each hour the band had to take an intermission. The emcee comic - that was his spot. Can you imagine being funny in that ten minutes? So, Lenny one night (laughs) comes out... he has to introduce a stripper... he walks out of the dressing room nude! 

Lenny, when he spoke it was professorilly. With great elegance and big words and great dignity... and he's standing there with no clothes. "Ladies and gentleman I'd like to introduce our next dancer - Miss Sandra Canaldro... let her follow me!" And he walked off. I asked Lenny, "Why'd you do that?" He said, "Well, I've been following naked girls onstage all my life! For once I want them to have to follow me!" That was the kind of thing Lenny was doing in those days.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever encounter a comic named Jackie Kannon? He wasn't as subversive as Lenny Bruce, but he often worked in a hip manner and very blue around the same time.

Dick Curtis: Yes. Jackie Kannon was a comic that I did know, but I don't have any memories. He was around, but I was not tight with him. With Lenny Bruce - I was. One night he got fired from Gene Norman's Crescendo. I was working a bowling alley and I gave him the job there. I told you this one? He was at The Crescendo at that time. When we were working bad joints in Washington and Baltimore there was also this after hours club for entertainers. 

Can you imagine an after hours club just for entertainers? Just for strippers and dirty comics! Don Rickles was the host emcee in this place just outside of Philadelphia. He was working so blue! Just terrible. But the guy who took over his career, a Mob guy, straightened him out. He said, "You gotta stop doing that stuff because you're good enough with out it." Don was a brilliant guy. Absolutely comedically brilliant. When he was working heavy and blue that was the style of those joints at the time. I didn't work like that because I didn't know anything like that. I wouldn't have been able to get away with it anyway because I had kind of a choir boy appearance (laughs), so I couldn't get away with that kind of material - and didn't want to do it anyway. 

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1957 you played Muhelebach's at the Terrace Grill in Kansas City.

Dick Curtis: Muhelebach's. It was a huge downtown hotel and they had a room in the basement called The Rainbow something. Big dance floor, big dining room and big bands. I worked it with Phil Ford and Mimi Hines. It was a class job. It set me up for other big things. Robert Wagner was a kid at the time. He was in town doing some kind of a cowboy film. He was in the audience one night while I was working and sitting in front of him was a drunken oil man heckling me. I was trying to steer him away - because this guy was a favorite customer that gave big tips - so none of the waiters were going to tell him to be quiet. 

Wagner was sitting behind him having dinner and he yells, "Shut up!" I thought, "Uh oh." I figured I gotta close and get someone else up. I closed my act and brought Phil and Mimi on. I saw Wagner and the oil man heading out of the room together, both with napkins still under their chins. I ran over there. I said, "Bob, just forget about it!" He said, "He ruined your act!" I said, "It doesn't matter. What matters is that nobody is going to help you - they're going to be on his side because of who he is. They'll work you over. Just forget about it." He said, "Well, it's terrible! He shouldn't have done that!" I said, "Thank you, I really appreciate it." It was an interesting evening (laughs). But the club that was really worth working at in Kansas City was Eddys'.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played it a few times. August 1961, you played Eddys' with Jane Evers and an emcee named Billy Williams. You did a bit about an Oklahoma disc jockey taking a request for a French song. You did a "stop smoking vignette."

Dick Curtis: Yes. Billy Williams was the bandleader. Eddys' was an outfit joint. That was the Kansas City outfit. And you know what I mean when I say "outfit." That's what we called 'em around Chicago. George Eddy was the boss. They were all brothers and there were four or five of them. They were all little guys. When I first met them you would bend over to shake hands - but these were the toughest guys in Kansas. 

One night we're onstage and a guy comes in the front door with a gun. He sticks the gun in the chest of the maitre'd and he says, "Open the cash register. Give me all the money." The maitre'd was more frightened of his boss than he was of the guy with the gun! He raises his hand and he says, "Mr. Eddy? Gentleman to see you, sir." This crazy guy with the gun shouts, "What are you doing! Give me all the money!" Sam Eddy was astonished. He looks at the guy and goes, "You are trying to rob me!?"

He goes, "Wait, let me find my gun." He's digging through the drawers! "Where is my gun? Where is my gun?" The maitre'd is standing there with his hands up. The robber is still screaming, "Put your hands up! Put your hands up!" Sam finds the gun and the robber fires two shots - both go through Sam's coat and they miss him completely! Sam shoots him - and the guy falls over backwards - dead. Sam looks at the maitre'd and says, "Now get him out of here!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Wow!

Dick Curtis: And this is during the show! They were really some guys those guys! When I first worked there and I didn't really know them, I said, "Oh, the Eddy brothers are so delightful, ladies and gentleman. They're so polite." And I bent over and mimed as if I were shaking hands with midgets. "Oh, hello, Sam. Hello, George." The whole audience looked over toward their table. Sam fell off his chair laughing - so that meant it was okay for everyone else to laugh. It was a swell place to work, though. It really was. It was a nightclub audience that really came to enjoy themselves.

Kliph Nesteroff: Kansas City is not the kind of place one would think of as having a Mob presence.

Dick Curtis: Every major city had a group. Sometimes they were offshoots from Chicago. Sometimes others. But they ran everything! They would own a restaurant. They would own the laundry that supplied the tablecloths. Any way there was to make money, that's the way it was. That's the way it was in every major city - and even in minor towns. Witchita! I worked for outfit guys over there. Until Kefauver ran for president - he wanted to close up everything and he tried. 

The Outfit figured, "Oh, let's stop fighting this. Let's take our money to Vegas." And they did. For a long time Vegas was all Outfit - and it was running smoothly! They did a good job (laughs). Anyway, they built the bottom floor of what everything is there now, I guess.

Kliph Nesteroff: The general consensus is that Howard Hughes was the one who changed all of that. Once he came in everything shifted.

Dick Curtis: Yes, it did - because he showed corporations that they could make money. The Mob guys were under a lot of pressure - and a lot of problems with the hierarchy. They just kind of faded from view.