Friday, August 17, 2012

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Eight

Kliph Nesteroff: Everyone seems to have a story about Jackie Mason.

Will Jordan: Yes, well, Ron Clark wrote the opening for his Broadway show. Jackie didn't want to pay him. Jackie would make a lot of money. The man had five Broadway shows all sold out. The man made a lot of money aside from one-nighters. He flopped in movies. He did one movie and I forget the guy, but he wanted to do some kind of new technique. The movie was called The Stoolie. It was different and weird... still quite interesting, but Jackie was not successful in films and he wasn't successful on television. Even though I don't like him, he should have been successful. When he would play a room he would do Sullivan and get screams. He was doing a take-off of my take-off, so it was two generations removed. His exaggerations were based on my previous conception.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a comedy record, a single, of Ed Sullivan singing Bye Bye Love.

Will Jordan: When I played nightclubs - when I would do an impression of Sabu - the next day everyone would be talking like Sabu. There was something phonetically contagious about that sound. So I wanted to make a record imitating Sabu and we got this guy who was the son of the songwriter [Gus Kahn] that Danny Thomas played in the movie with Doris Day.

That guy's son was a writer and he wanted to help us out so he wrote a take-off on Sabu called Fly, Carpet, Fly. In the middle of it I would do the monologue I did in clubs. When they put it together they said, "That's not enough. We need to do a B-side. So, let's just do Sullivan." We did and I wasn't too crazy about it. The mistake on that record was I didn't say, "This is Will Jordan." I just said, "Ed Sullivan."

When the record came out the few people that wanted to buy it would ask for Ed Sullivan's record. People would come in asking for the Ed Sullivan record and they would give them this LP he made once, "Ed Sullivan's Tribute to Oscar and Hammerstein." The second problem was when the record came out Ed Sullivan said, "You can't release this."

I went to Ed Sullivan and asked him why. He said, "Because of all those lewd things you made me say in your song." I said, "The song? It's a real song. It's Bye Bye Love!" He thought, "There goes my baby, she's got someone new..." He thought that was bad taste! Ed Sullivan was not the brightest person. Sometimes he was intelligent and very articulate, which would always surprise you. But that's why Capitol wouldn't do it. I got the people connected with Steve Allen to buy it and that was a label called Hanover Records. By 1960 or so Bye Bye Love was no longer ripe for satire, but we put it out and it still did something.

I had bad luck with my album Ill Will. I think that's because the best sequences were cut out. I have the outtakes. I'm not too unhappy with everything, but still to this day... I did a commercial for Mountain Dew where I did Sabu... something went wrong with the rear projection. That never aired. They said the rear projection wobbled and it distracted. This was a big company. How could they have produced a commercial with wobbly rear projection? Talk about bad luck.

All these years later I still feel like there's a shot for me there. Why? Because phonetics that are funny will always be funny. They quote Jonathan Winters in these shows and he'll make these funny sounds. They're phonetics. You're copying peculiar speech patterns. Here I am, I am an old man, and I still think there's a shot. I think it could catch on.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was wrong with your comedy record Ill Will?

Will Jordan: Well, it was cut too much and it came out at the wrong time. It had a lot of things in it that I didn't like. Even so, the critics loved it and Hefner loved it. Hefner wrote the liner notes. Can you imagine? His good friend was Lenny Bruce, but I was the only person he ever wrote liner notes for. We sent him the album and kept waiting for the liner notes. A guy from Jubilee said, "Send him a gift!" I said, "A man worth a billion dollars?" He said, "That's the way people are." So I sent him a dining robe and he said, "Thank you, Will, I'll get laid a thousand times in this." The liner notes are absolutely marvelous.

He compliments me, "Before Mort and Lenny there was Will Jordan." God, it's just... you won't doubt that Hefner could write if you read it... but despite all that - it did not sell. I became friendly with Hefner again when Chuck McCann introduced me. I said, "Chuck, I knew Hef long before I knew you! We were dating the same girl at the Palmer House back in 1954." He's always been nice ever since. We went to the mansion several times and Robert Blake was there. That girl that was Blake's wife was my girlfriend years before. She was a groupie. She became very sick and was stealing money from all kinds of people. I had dumped her, but she kept calling me all the time.

She heard I was going to be in Los Angeles and we went to this place called Chadney's, which was sort of a jazz room. The trumpet player was Jack Sheldon. We went in there and she said, "Is that Robert Blake sitting over there? Move over!" And she ran to him. So I wonder if I'm not partly responsible because... I feel guilty about it. Later on she would call me and say, "He's going to kill me! He's going to kill me!" I said, "Well, then, get out of there." But I thought he was quite a good actor.

The people that knew him... Frankie Ray... another guy you really should talk to... Frankie was very close to Lenny Bruce and Lenny's mother and to Shecky Greene. Kind of a poor, starving guy now, but very bright. He was a mimic too and he's the only guy I've ever heard do George Raft. He's still alive. Frankie Ray, boy, could he tell you things about Lenny Bruce! He was there. Lenny Bruce was living in California and I only saw him briefly in LA. These other people were really living with him, you know.

Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce's mother and a guy named Brutus Peck...  that was his stage name... very ugly, but a tough wrestler type. He had one eye and one leg. His real name was Fergus. He was very friendly with Mel Brooks. The story goes that Mel supported this guy his whole life by sending him cheques. So did Steve Lawrence - sending this poor guy money all the time. At one time we all loved him. He was an ugly guy with a tough voice. Mel gave him one brief walk-on in The Producers.

For some reason he made a pass at Lenny Bruce's mother and they were living together. He was considerably younger and they said, "Why don't you marry her? Sally is very nice." He came up with a great line. He said, "I would never marry her!" "Why not?" "And have Lenny Bruce call me daddy!?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: He was also a very strange guy, always afraid of dying. He had a crucifix and the Jewish star together on the wall. And he said, "I'm not taking any chances." Still, Mel Brooks loved him and in fact that is why Mel Brooks called me when Brutus died. That's sort of when I started to talk to Mel again. I went to LA when he was shooting Silent Movie. I had met Dom DeLuise, who is a little gay too, y'know. We worked out at the same gym and a very nice guy. When I met him he was thin and very vain.

I went to the set of Silent Movie. Marty Feldman and that crazy eye. He came over and God, was he nice to me. "Are you the guy who did Sullivan?" I said, "You're from London. How the hell would you know or care who I am?" Somehow or other he knew who I was. Of course, Bernadette Peters - I knew her slightly. We took tap dancing together. Larry Storch and Steve Lawrence had studied with this guy and we were all complete klutzes.

Also studying there was Tom Poston and he got to be good as a dancer! Bernadette was dating Joel Grey whose father was Mickey Katz. He told me that in the Spike Jones record with sound effects, "In some secluded rendezvous [sound effects]," he said that those sounds were made by three or four different people and that one was Mickey Katz. Years later when Spike Jones got the TV show, many of those people were gone. So they had to fake those sounds, which is not hard on records, but on a live show it's very hard to do.

Kliph Nesteroff: Cocktails for Two has Mel Blanc doing the hiccups, right?

Will Jordan: That I don't know. Mel Blanc may have, but he was another thief. [Foghorn Leghorn was] a blatant steal from a very nice man named Kenny Delmar. Mel Blanc was very successful, he didn't need to do that. Kenny Delmar was a very talented man. The March of Time shorts were, what? Fifteen minutes? They used this wonderful guy that I wish I met named Westbrook Van Voorhis. An extraordinary voice. The story I heard about him was that he couldn't do all of them, so for a few March of Time shorts they were Kenny Delmar.

When they made Citizen Kane, Orson Welles wanted Westbrook Van Voorhis to do their satire of March of Time, which of course was about Kane. One of the guys who was in the Mercury Theater said, "Orson, I can do that voice." And he did it and it was quite good for a guy who wasn't primarily a mimic. But the radio guys were so used to changing voices and doing bits all the time and they were really some of the greatest mimics of all time. But what a wonderful voice, Westbrook Van Voorhis.

There was a Will Jordan show here in New York on Channel 11. The height of amateurism. But on it I would meet these different people and they'd tell me they were doing this or that. They got a hold of old Westrbook. He was much older, but still performing. We listened to the outtakes and everything else. What an extraordinary voice. Boy, that's something that has disappeared. Who's the kid that's playing Spiderman? Just these repulsive voices. God, they're awful. When you hear a voice like Westbrook or Orson Welles you realize what the human voice can do.

Kliph Nesteroff: What year was The Will Jordan Show and what channel was that?

Will Jordan: It was around the time I first did the Sullivan thing. I didn't get paid for it. It was around 1953. My first guest was Steve Allen. The show was so bad. It was preempted by a ballgame. Steve Allen hung around the studio for two hours to do the show free. That shows you how friendly I was with him. Then when he got on the air and all these people are becoming stars... where am I? Doesn't mean I was as talented as those people, but I certainly belonged in that group because I was Steve's friend and he liked all of that stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did your Sullivan impression on one of his shows before you did it on Sullivan itself, right?

Will Jordan: No. No, I did it on several shows, but... March 1953, I did it on the Sullivan show, but I didn't really extend it. I don't remember it that well and there is no copy of that show. Between March 1954 and June 1954 it had developed. It had to be good and it had to be better because of the success I developed at [the nightclub] La Vien Rose.

Kliph Nesteroff: Columnist Hy Gardner and then someone named Joe Moore had recommended Sullivan use you...

Will Jordan: Joe Moore is really the guy. Everyone I know has taken credit. Joe Moore is the one that told Sullivan originally. Moore saw me on a very small, local show with a very lovely man named Harry Hershfield, a great cartoonist and comedian on Can You Top This. A very nice man. He had me on his show, which was like The Joe Franklin Show. A very small time thing, but nice. Joe Moore was a skater or something originally and he told Sullivan.

Sullivan booked me and it was nothing. Paid me very little. Then Hy Gardner tells him about it and Sullivan said, "Yes, we had Will on the show and he was great." Still, he booked me again because Hy Gardner mentioned it and that gave Hy Gardner the chance to say he discovered me. About three hundred people discovered me! It was all just a series of accidents and everything. So, the second time I went on, "He's fresh from the Cocoanut Grove..." Doing the Sullivan show at this point was good, but not anywhere near what you thought I might feel - because I had done it before.

I had been on TV twenty times before and I had had my own show. So doing the Sullivan show was just another show - I knew it was important, but I had no idea it could be that important. I still say the thing that made it was John Ray putting the camera on Sullivan laughing. That is what made it. After that, of course, it happened. My salary quadrupled over night. Success was good, bad, good, bad. I made many mistakes and I didn't follow things up. I had a very good manager - Jack Rollins.

He handled Belafonte. Belafonte wasn't the nicest nor the most honest man. This is part rumor - part true. The story goes that Belafonte started as an imitator of Billy Eckstine. It makes a lot of sense. He was from Harlem. There aren't too many Black men that you can mention that were as attractive as Belafonte or Billy Eckstine. Not too many.

The fact that he copied Billy Eckstine made sense. Now, Rollins was kind of a real Jewish-Russian Pinko type. Nothing wrong with that. He went to clubs like the Village Vanguard. They weren't exactly communistic, but they were the kind of clubs where you might find Professor Corey. I'm not political enough to know what the hell a communist is even, but I do know it was a different environment. Those people were not the same. There were even one or two hotels in the Catskills where they didn't play the regular Catskill comedians. He booked me in one of them. I did a different act. I did John Garfield - not the regular jokes. What Rollins did was - he said [to Belafonte], "You have to meet more educated people."

He took Belafonte to see Josh White, who was a Black folk singer and that supposedly made him change. After that Belafonte said, "We Blacks have to go our own way." And he started to change. Rollins had very powerful connections in the theater. He would get the big Broadway theaters to let him use their stage during the day. When I was at the American Academy in 1944 and '45 we did our plays in Broadway theaters during the day. You had access to a Broadway theater in the afternoon. So he would take Belafonte and they would just rehearse all day long.

Belafonte went to the New School... where Tony Curtis was... they were all studying in similar schools at the time. I was more traditional. I saw that Spencer Tracy, Warren William, William Powell all went to the Amercan Academy so that is where I went. But you know, the New School... Erwin Piscator, I wasn't into that, but maybe I should have been because those guys made out pretty good. Belafonte began to change and the act got better. He was a very talented man. The interesting thing is he had never been to the West Indies. The guy who wrote all of his songs had never been to the West Indies either. Those [songs] were all written by Harlem guys. Just like Jolson was always singing about the South and he had never really been in the South.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a bit about Hanson's Drugstore.

Will Jordan: Ah, yes, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was the primary Manhattan hangout spot for struggling comedians in the late forties and early fifties. Can you describe the atmosphere for me a bit? I understand it had two entrances - a front entrance into the pharmacy and then a back entrance that went up to where the agent's offices were...

Will Jordan: Boy, you got it good. That's true. Very, very true. The guy who ran it, Hanson, I thought was German. Turns out he was Danish. He was so Danish that when [Victor] Borge came to town he let Borge get behind the cash register. He had this expression, "All yuh comedians, kvit hangin round!" Because we'd clutter up the store and no one ever bought anything. Gene Baylos used to love to kid him. Baylos would say, "This is a theatrical drugstore! Hans is back there putting make-up on the roast beef!"

Jerry Lewis would hang out there. There was a tiny little loft. Very tiny. Jan Murray said that Jerry had... Jerry was a big swinger. The story is that Jerry had far more women than Dean ever had. He was still in his teens. He wasn't married... he wasn't even successful yet. He would get girls up in that loft and he'd make it right in Hanson's! Right as it was full of comedians talking and doing bits and everything. It was a good environment. Sometimes I had to get away from it. Today I would do anything to get back to it. Now you can't find anybody, anywhere, to hang around and talk with. That's probably why I'm talking so much with you. All that gang is gone. There's nobody left anymore. Hanson's.

The building was 1650 Broadway and in that building, among other things, you had the famous Charlie Rapp. The major bookers of the Catskills. The stories of their cutthroat dealings and the way they would screw acts were legendary, but still you wanted to get it because it was work.

When I spoke to some of the comedians in Chicago, it was a similar environment there. There was a place called the Barclay Hotel and the Cornerhouse. The Cornerhouse would have been the Chicago equivalent of Hanson's. Still there was a difference and the New York guys were not the same. Shecky Greene was funny and fast - and yet - as funny and fast and Jewish and New York as he was - he was not a New York guy. He managed to work perfectly in that environment, but there was still a slight difference in rhythm.

The one-nighter performers that became very famous were people like Edgar Bergen, Hildegarde, Liberace, George Gobel... they will tell you that there were many in that group that were perhaps more talented; One-nighter performers that were able to get out of one-nighters and go on to films and other forms. I had a feeling when I was in school that the talented people were not getting the breaks. I was seventeen when I said it and I feel it more now than ever.

My friend Adam Keefe never got anywhere and he was better than anybody around. They did a tribute to him at the Improv in LA when he was dying. I got up and did the bits he didn't remember. I felt so good. Here I am making a hit for him and I'm doing his material - and giving him the credit. Poor Adam was a terrible chain smoker. He was on network TV hardly at all.

Kliph Nesteroff: He did a great Karloff and a great Lugosi and exploited those...

Will Jordan: Yes, I'm surprised... how did... how do you know that?

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw him perform on The Hollywood Palace...

Will Jordan: Get out of here. I didn't know that.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was one of those guys that was always around and never got a break. You mention Gene Baylos and he too never got a break.

Will Jordan: Baylos was creative and did jokes, but he was also famous for the phonetics. Jerry Lewis would steal a little sentence that was not funny, but it was funny the way it was done. Baylos was famous for saying, "I'm not a well boy. These are terrible pains." Now, that's not funny, but it is funny. That's not a joke, but that rhythm, "I'm not well. I'm not a well boy. These are terrible pains." Jerry Lewis stole that. Baylos would go on and it made no sense.

"The wedding is a week from Tuesday. Solomon, Zelda, Morgan, but it's not definite." People would scream at that! Another guy that did a similar kind of rhythm was the cousin of Gary Morton - and that's Sid Gould.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Will Jordan: He had another strange rhythm. Another funny guy. He would say, "Are you a bird, sir? Are you a bird?" He would do this game - initials of movie stars. You would holler, "C.C." He would say, "Charlie Chaplin." Of course, he would have to do it funny, so someone would say, "RFD!" He would say, "Ranklin Feleanor Doosevelt!" Gary Morton, when he married Lucy, tried to get Sid Gould some good jobs. Sid was very funny, but it was all non-sequitur. On Make Me Laugh the original version, they would have him sit next to Basil Rathbone and, of course, Basil wouldn't laugh.

Rathbone was far too controlled with theater training to laugh. The camera came in close and here's Rathbone's magnificent profile. Sid Gould looks at his nose and says, "Don't point!" Now he has Tony Bennett and Tony Bennett would laugh at anything. He says to Tony Bennett, "Didn't you used to sing with Roy Smeck?" Of course, Tony fell out of the chair. Tony was very laid back. Have you ever talked with Tony Bennett?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, never.

Will Jordan: He would never say anything bad about anybody. I like him. He is a nice man. Sol Tepper [the agent of Will Jordan and Tony Bennett] was like an ugly, Jewish Wallace Beery. He had certain contacts and everything. His girl broke up with him and she moved in with Robert Q. Lewis, which is amazing. Aside from the fact that Robert Q. Lewis was gay - what could be further from big Sol Tepper than Robert Q. Lewis? Her name was Penny Morgan and actually a very nice girl. Whatever talent I had didn't mean a thing. I got on the [Arthur] Godfrey show because of her. They rejected me for the Godfrey show, they didn't think I was good enough. I try to be grateful to the people that were good to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the other comics hanging out at Hanson's? There must have been a lot of comedians that didn't make it. That was kind of the low level hangout spot as opposed to the Stage or the Carnegie Delicatessen. Hanson's wasn't where the Henny Youngmans hung out.

Will Jordan: Yeah, yeah. There was a comedian named Mickey Shaughnessy. An enormous nightclub star. You never saw any of that in films, no hint of his greatness. He was a master. He was what they called a better Jackie Gleason. He was Jackie Gleason in nightclubs plus more. None of that came across in films.

Kliph Nesteroff: He never got those roles. He always played a straight police officer in movies.

Will Jordan: His acting was not bad, but as a stand-up comedian he was a giant! As an actor he was another little Irish character guy. A poor man's Pat O'Brien or something, but in a nightclub he was a giant. He also had the habit of stealing, which was bad. He got his break opening for Lena Horne at the Copacabana. He was so popular in Philadelphia. They knew he was playing at the Copacabana so he arranged to be picked up in a limousine and taken from Philadelphia to New York (laughs) and driven back. That's how popular he was.

His only mistake was he did Phil Foster's act. I'm always amazed at the stealing. The people that do the stealing are the ones who need to least. He didn't need to and he was ruined by the critics. His performance was great and he really should have done better. He wanted to be an actor and in his act he would do this great Irish monologue, the black and tan and all of that stuff, which was fine. It was a big relief from the comedy and everything like that. He was very physical.

He had a way of whistling, that loud whistle for a cab, "Union!" He was very, very strong. Other Philadelphia comedians were not that popular in Philly. Joey Bishop wasn't that popular there. Neither was Joey Forman or even Guy Marks. They became popular later. But Shaughnessy was a giant in Philadelphia. People stood in line in the rain to see him. Can you imagine nobody thought to record or film any of these things? There are many nightclub acts that were recorded on LP, but most of them are not. Most of the better ones you don't have recordings of. Some you have snippets, but you don't get the feeling of them. Paul Gilbert, a giant, married about ten times, was a giant in nightclubs.

He finally gets on TV and does nothing. Gets in a movie with Tony Curtis - where he was the straight man for Curtis. In real life he would have run circles around Tony Curtis as a comedian. Many of these people were not permitted to show their greatness.

On the lower level, you had the comedians that did the amateur nights with me and Lenny Bruce and the others. They never got past that stage. They still worked and they could break it up on a benefit or something like that. There was one guy named Bobby Shields. Poor guy with one eye and everybody loved him. His closest thing to fame was one of these little strip films. You must have heard about these strip[club] films that Lenny Bruce made? There's one of those with Bobby Shields doing crazy impressions and stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, there's one of those films with the comedy team of Dave Starr and Joe E. Ross called Teaserama.

Will Jordan: I've got it, yes. Joe E. Ross was not that good in clubs. He was not any better than the others - not that he wasn't good on TV. He was. It's Nat Hiken's genius to have spotted that because there was no indication. Nat Hiken made him a thing.

He was so stupid. Not that he wasn't talented, but near the end - for no sensible reason - he was taking only fifty dollars a night. I mean, how could he be getting less than me? He was a much bigger star than I was. Chuck McCann tells the bittersweet story... you know the one?

Kliph Nesteroff: I've heard seventeen different versions of it, yes, but go ahead.

Will Jordan: Chuck says he was there. And Chuck has got that cheque on his wall.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow. Well, then that's verification of his version.

Will Jordan: Well, I don't know. Chuck... I once got an e-mail from Johnny Minor telling me some awful things about Chuck. Because I like them both very much I couldn't take sides. I often wonder if what he said about Chuck might have been true.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, that Joe E. Ross story... I wrote an article about Joe E. Ross a few months back...

Will Jordan: Can I ask who you heard the story from?

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, I have a list of people. Steve Rossi, Bobby Ramsen, Freddie Roman, everybody has told me that story. Some people say it was two hundred dollars, some say it was fifty dollars, some say it was Chuck McCann collecting the money, some say it was his wife, some say it was a prostitute...

Will Jordan: Well, he did not get the money he should have that is for certain.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now how about Dave Starr?

Will Jordan: I didn't know the real, honest-to-God, burlesque comedians that well. There were some that hung around Hanson's. I don't know if you know these names. There was one guy named Murray "The Natural" Davis. There was another guy named Al Nesor - that was Rosen backwards. He was kind of a small time comedian with a strange claim to fame. He played in Lil Abner. He looked just like Joe Btfsplk, the guy who it rained on all the time. He was a real traditional, Jewish, Bronx comedian. Real nice little guy.

He was just one of the many. There was a guy who used to say, "I'm with you." Stan something. Can't think of his name. Dick Cavett said he was gay and I really found that hard to believe. I don't know. I really don't know. What I dislike about Dick Cavett is that he never marketed or re-introduced those marvelous interviews. The interview I was most interested in was with [theatrical producer] Jed Harris. Jed Harris was known as the worst monster in the world. Laurence Olivier said he couldn't think of an image to play Richard III and then he said, "Jed Harris!"

Jed Harris was a great womanizer. He had sex with everybody in the world. He was a real evil, nasty guy, but a great, great producer. The Front Page and many great things. Jed Harris was great. People don't relate to anything other than their own lifetime. They don't realize the world didn't start in 1960 or 1980. It started long before that. They're forgetting that the Broadway theater of the 1920s was the greatest art! Not movies, not vaudeville, not nightclubs. The Broadway theater was the center of all the great theatrical art in America.

Jed Harris was talking and Cavett says, "Who was the greatest comedian?" Cavett wanted to hear Groucho. He wanted to hear him say WC Fields. But Jed Harris didn't say that because that was not the truth. The greatest comedian was Ed Wynn. But because Ed Wynn never made a film that was any good, Ed Wynn was never a big hit on TV or radio - in Cavett's mind Ed Wynn doesn't exist.

What exists for Cavett was Ed Wynn as a straight dramatic actor. He was good. Now this was the good part. [Cavett says] "Ed Wynn became a great actor. I saw him in Anne Frank. I saw him in The Great Man." Jed Harris turns beat red. Jed Harris screams, "He was a comedian! How dare you call him an actor!" That is what's missing in the world today. Those perceptions. Because we weren't there.