Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Interview with Van Harris

Kliph Nesteroff: September 1946 through January 1947 you were performing at the Shangri La in Astoria, New York with Bobby Kaye and his Orchestra.

Van Harris: That was a comedy band. When I performed there they had a regular amateur hour. The prize if you won was a one week engagement at the club - and the guy who lost when I was there was Tony Bennett.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, interesting.

Van Harris: And he called himself Joe Barry. He had that same snooky voice and apparently people didn't want to give him a break, so he didn't win. The guy that won, I still remember, was Danny Cavallero, a good-looking, slim Italian with a pencil moustache. 

He won first prize, but the owner of the club wasn't too happy because he didn't draw. I followed Tony Bennett's career. He did become a star soon after that. Our bass player you might have known. A ventriloquist. His brother was a song writer.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, the ventriloquist you performed with was Eddie Garson...

Van Harris: Eddie Garson, that's it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wait... was his brother Mort Garson?

Van Harris: Yes, he was Eddie Garson's brother.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really? I didn't know that.

Van Harris: We bumped into Eddie after the band broke up and he moved to Florida. I've always lived in the New York area. I'm doing a show soon in Florida at one of these retirement condos and its actually a very nice place. The stagehands at this place are the guys who used to be the stagehands on The Ed Sullivan Show! So you can imagine how nice their stage looks.

Anyway, the Shangri La was a nightclub in Astoria and that's how Tony Bennett got to us. Tony was born and raised in Astoria. Tony's brother Johnny lived in Astoria and Tony's father said that Johnny was the better singer. Johnny hung out at a place on Long Island, a very beautiful nightclub right on the water run by Bernie Mann. Bernie was a first-class trumpet player. Very good. In fact, when the big bands used to come to presentation houses like the Paramount and the Strand, if they were short a trumpet player, Bernie would come and fill in. People used to come to the club by boat. It was called The Riviera - in Port Washington. Johnny used to sing at the bar mitzvahs.

After the Shangri La, the bass player said to me, "Guess what! Joe Barry is gonna be on the Bob Hope television show!" I said, "Gee whiz, to go from a flop at our club to the Bob Hope television show?" They were searching high and low for an orchestra - and they hired the guy that was Bob Hope's wife's nephew.

The actual attraction was an Italian connection. Tony was handled by The Boys. The Boys did very well for him. Bob Hope's wife got him the job. The Riviera was a lovely club on Long Island, but it did not have the stature of Bill Miller's Riviera - which had been Ben Marden's Riviera.

That place was a top place right on the Palisades when you went over the Washington Bridge, on the Jersey side, there was that Riviera. It was wonderful - and then it closed - just closed capriciously - and that was the end of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1949 you were playing the Kitty Davis club in Miami Beach.

Van Harris: Wow! How did you... wow. I was very young. I got married on a three-day pass out of Fort Dix, New Jersey, Christmas 1945. I got Kitty Davis through a guy who later became an actor on Broadway. He had something to do with the firm. His grandfather was a famous agent and through that agency I got that club.

I was very green at that club and it was amazing that I got it. That was a feather in my cap. Florida is a different kind of place now compared to what it was then. Some of the big hotels like The Fountainebleau were interesting. Sammy Davis gave the owner a watch.

He found out his Yiddish name and had it engraved, bought it at the store in the hotel and gave it to him. I worked The Fountainebleau, but it was a club date. Just a single show. The Jewish people were already buying condos there and it became like the Catskills. Do you know much about the Catskills? I worked the Concord a lot. I worked it more than any other comedian. And Grossingers, I loved.

There was a resort in Connecticut run by a wonderful individual. When the acts worked there you never went home without some freshly baked pies. Those places have died out. I used to do some of the shows at the Friars Club. Joe E. Lewis was always there and he had this dwarf that used to hang out with him... do you know who I mean?

Kliph Nesteroff: No. Not HS Gump...

Van Harris: No, no, HS Gump was (laughs) Did you know BS Pully? HS Gump was BS Pully's stooge. I shared a stooge with him named One Ball Barney. He was wonderful. He was great. Oh, he was so funny. It was great to have Barney in your company, but of course I knew all about HS Gump. When Pully was doing Guys n' Dolls I was working across the street at the Belle Tavern. It was the only French nightclub in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you mention Joe E. Lewis was working with a dwarf...

Van Harris: Yes, the dwarf was a funny little guy. I have photos of him somewhere. He was good. What's his name used to rap him around pretty good too... Milton Berle... Milton Berle would give this dwarf a rap in the head once in a while.

He was not as short as Billy Barty... I worked with Billy Barty. These guys were talents, but they were not in our variety field. I worked with a guy who was the son of a sea captain, handsome as could be, and as short as Billy Barty. Stormy Berg! Name mean anything to you?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Van Harris: He did one of the top television commercials in those days for some food. He was with his father on a ship when there was a rickets epidemic. Stormy got rickets and he never grew. He came from a good family and a normal family. His sister was a beautiful Scandinavian girl. Gorgeous. A singer.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the comedian Jackie Miles?

Van Harris: Oh, sure Jackie Miles. I loved Jackie Miles. I followed him into a club in the Bronx that he was a regular at. Jackie used to work the Roxy a lot, one of the presentation houses. He had a guy who worked the same jobs he did... Lenny something.

Kliph Nesteroff:  Lenny Kent.

Van Harris: Lenny Kent. Say, you're good! You're a son of a gun! You're a walking encyclopedia. Good for you. Jackie Miles and Lenny Kent were the typical showbiz bums. They had the eyes for the chicks. Wherever they could make out they would and they lived for that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you frequent Morey Amsterdam's Playgoers Club?

Van Harris: No. I used to listen to Morey on WHN in New York. I did his show in New York called The Caravan of Stars. It was a radio show on Sunday afternoons. Then they moved over to WEBD, which was a Jewish station. It became a Universal American station. The guy who ran it was very bright and a great concert pianist.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have written down that you were on WMGM's American Jewish Caravan of Stars.

Van Harris: That was it. Shalom Rubenstein was his name. Every comic in show business, especially the guys that worked the Catskills, they all worked for him. He was very bright. People like Gene Baylos. I loved this guy, Baylos. He was older than all of us. When I finished doing The Ed Sullivan Show I was walking down the street with my mother and father. We were walking past Carnegie Hall to the subway. Who should stagger up to me but a drunk.

People were complimenting me. I had done the show with The Three Stooges, Stiller and Meara and Sergio Franchi. What a wonderful show. People were complimenting me and this drunk walks up and says, "My name is McGinty and I once licked Jack Dempsey, y'hear?" I said, "Very good, Mr. McGinty." He grabs my hand and won't let me go. My family has walked a block ahead of me. He's pumping my hand and giving me his history. In my act I did a lot of facial expressions. Now, who should walk by - and he's looking at me doing all my facial expressions - Gene Baylos!

"Hey, Van!" The drunk won't let me go. I said, "Gene! You're just in time! I want you to meet my friend, Mr. McGinty!" He grabbed Gene's hand, wouldn't let go and I ran to catch up to my family. I looked back and I could see Baylos angry at me cause I stuck him with this drunk (laughs).

You know, I worked with Billy Daniels, but I never really talked to him because his manager was a son of a bitch. I saw him later working in Atlantic City and I confessed. I said, "You know, Billy, I never talked to you because I thought you were a bad guy." He said, "Why did you think that?" I said, "Your manager. He scared everyone away from you." He said, "I know, I know. I'm glad you told me that." I found out, subsequently, he was that way with everybody.

Then there was a guy - in fact his brother was my club date manager - Morty Gunty. Morty was a good boy. He died very young and I was the one who had to deliver the news to his family. He had a great future. His manager was Red Buttons' manager. Nat [Dunn] was very unhappy that Buttons left him, so Nat decided he was going to make a star out of Morty and he got him some very good dates. And then he up and died just like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Billy Daniels. Billy Daniels always played The Copacabana. You played the Copa in 1969. What do you remember about the Copa and its notorious frontman Jules Podell?

Van Harris: Well, Podell was not a very... he was a real taciturn guy. Better than the Copa was the Royal Box in the Americana. I worked that with Rosemary Clooney. It was a few blocks from the Copa. That was a better place. At the Copa some of The Boys used to come in... and I mean the Boys. I was there with Leslie Uggams. I toured with Leslie.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Royal Box was a better place because it wasn't connected to The Boys?

Van Harris: That's right. It wasn't connected. It was owned by a very good Jewish family that owned a lot of real estate. One of them still owns the Giants. You saw him walkin' on air after they won the Super Bowl. You know the name, it's a famous name.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Tisch Family.

Van Harris: They treated me like gold. They gave me a suite up there. I only lived in Jersey, so I didn't sleep over, you know. I gave the suite to a friend of mine who was a cameraman on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of comedians preferred nightclubs run by The Boys. They felt that clubs controlled by the Mob ran smoother.

Van Harris: They were run very well. Very well, but outside of The Copa - what the hell was there? They were dying, these clubs. The Royal Box was fairly new. Lovely place. I was treated very well there and I loved it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you uncomfortable in Mob clubs?

Van Harris: Well, no. I worked for Al Capone's cousin in Pennsylvania. He was very nice. Then one day we had a falling out. He wanted me to do something and I didn't want to do it - but I didn't get fired. It wasn't a falling out of any great weight, but when I returned to New York - the agent was an Italian named Tom Torre. He said, "What the hell you starting up with Capone's cousin!" Capone was dead already, of course. I said, "Ah, what's he bugging me?"

They were not the most sophisticated guys. They'd yell, "Hey emcee! Don't he look like Charlie Fusari!" Stuff like that. The agent says to me, "What the hell you starting up with Capone's cousin for? Don't you know we Dagos gotta stick together!?" But nobody hurt me, nobody hit me, nobody was unkind to me or my family.

Kliph Nesteroff: You ever work with comedian Buddy Lester?

Van Harris: Oh, Buddy Lester was great. Buddy Lester was wonderful and so was Jerry Lester. Jerry Lester was so funny. I would never miss Jerry Lester in the theaters. He worked the Paramount, the Strand, the Roxy. He was great! Jerry Lester, the last time I saw him, the guy who wrote Sing, Sing, Sing was emceeing the show. "And now I have a surprise for you ladies and gentleman, a big surprise. Here is the star of our show... Jerry Lester... and the Ink Spots!"

Jerry came down in a worn, white dinner jacket with big blotches of ink all over it (laughs). I never forgot that. It was wonderful. Then he would pick up a trumpet and blow a sour note and do a commercial. He'd look up with that funny grin of his and say, "Gee, dad, it's a Wurlitzer!" Oh, I loved Jerry Lester - and Buddy Lester was just as good. They took turns working these theaters.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the very few female comedians to regularly work the Catskills was Belle Barth.

Van Harris: Yes, occasionally... in my younger days I heckled Belle Barth. She put me down pretty good. That was fine. That was fun. Who else?

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a forgotten comedian named Billy Vine...

Van Harris: Billy Vine's son is still around. His son was the electrician at The Concord. Billy is dead. Billy Vine was a good comedian, but I never got much chance to see him.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Harvey Stone?

Van Harris: Harvey Stone was great! Harvey Stone was wonderful. He was working on cruise ships and he died at sea. First of all, every comic in the business, myself excluded, took material. Harvey Stone was World War Two's top comedian. Everybody that came out of the army stole his act. They were all doing Harvey Stone's act. There was one agent... his name will remain anonymous... who had a performer that stole Harvey Stone's entire act.

The comic's name was Sands... but not Billy Sands. He had the guy change his name to Harvey Sands! And when people would call up saying, "We want whatshisname... that guy... that GI comic... Harvey... uh... Harvey...uh..." This agent would say, "Oh, yes, you mean Harvey Sands!" And they would say, "Yeah, yeah, that's the guy." And he would get this guy all the work that was meant for Harvey Stone.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Van Harris: That's show business. That happens. He died at sea after a very bad divorce. They called his wife - what should they do. And she said, "Throw him in the ocean." So he was buried at sea.

Kliph Nesteroff: How bout Joe E. Ross...

Van Harris: Joe E. Ross I loved. He was a very funny guy. Like a lot of guys in the business he loved the ladies. He took a trip to do some club dates in Florida while he was doing Car 54. He and a couple of the guys... well, Joe E. had a hooker in the car with him. When he got down there... he had a soft heart, Joe E, and he invited the hooker to sleep with him (laughs). Then his wife walked in on them! "Who's that woman!?" He said, "Oh, uh, she's the maid! She's the maid!" He whispered to her, "Hey, quick - make the bed!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Van Harris: (laughs) These are the things that happened in our business.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you spend time at some of the hangout spots like Hanson's Drugstore?

Van Harris: Oh, sure, I loved it. Everybody would sit in Hanson's Drugstore and whenever someone made it, like Lenny Bruce, he became the envy of everyone in the business. He became a star with his nebulous reputation and you'd hear the comics in Hanson's Drugstore grumbling, "How do you like that son of a bitch? He made it and I didn't! With his dirt! His filthy jokes!"

As far as I'm concerned, Buddy Hackett was a lot more off-color than Lenny Bruce. Buddy was his progenitor. Buddy Hackett was the guy. Buddy wasn't nice to everybody. Not at all. At the same time Buddy was fun. He was never unkind to me.

Another guy I loved - Rodney Dangerfield. He had a different name. Jack Roy. He was in the kurvehsha business. That means prostitute. He was a Tin Man. After World War Two a lot of guys became... they would sell home repairs to people. These guys would all wear the ruptured duck on their lapel and people would see that they were veterans.

He'd say, "I just served in the Army and now I'm making a living thanks to the United States government - I can get you repairs for your home. If your roof leaks or if you need new windows... I can get these things for you a lot cheaper." This is what they would do. They would sell these things to the mothers of veterans and it was a scam! It was a big scam! I forget what they called these guys. They called them Tin Men and there was another name for it.

Rodney Dangerfield had a store in Englewood, New Jersey and he would send guys out on capers like that. They'd show up with the ruptured duck on their lapel and they would sell repairs to unfortunates, mothers of veterans, widows and older people. But he was a very funny guy! Rodney was a very, very funny guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember the differences between his act as Jack Roy and what he later became?

Van Harris: Well, he became funnier with his new act. He was a funny guy. His act was great. When he did the act as Rodney Dangerfield he was very funny. Man, was he funny as hell. I would take him sometimes to the Mountains. I'd give him a lift and after I did my show he would do a late show. I took him to a place called the Homowack. "Van, I'm going to do the late show. Forgive me for what I'm going to do."

So, he's onstage. You hear? And he had his pants off. With his pants down he was doing his act onstage - and the people were screaming - he was that funny. When I worked my first show in the Catskills, the singer and I had a summer romance. She was a very selfish girl and a very pretty girl. She had many romances and fell in love with an Italian prizefighter who was married - and he committed suicide over her. She was a rather selfish but lovely girl. Years later, believe it or not, she married Rodney Dangerfield.

Her name was Joyce Indig. She was from the Bronx and I was from Brooklyn, so a romance like that couldn't last. To commute to the Bronx from Brooklyn? Anyway, her family loved me and my wife Shirley. Herman Wouk wrote in Marjorie Morningstar, "All Jewish girls are named Shirley." Anyway, Rodney married this girl and it was a very bad marriage. One day I walked into the Improv after they had been married quite a while.

He walked in with her and, I swear, she must have been forty years old - but she looked sixty. It was a terrible marriage. Her family said they hated him. They hated him. He loved his chicks, he loved his affairs, he loved his dirty language, but he was funny. His jokes were very good. Very good. "My parents hated me. For bath toys they would give me a toaster and a radio." Those were the kinds of jokes he did and he was wonderful. But he would always pounce on me.

He knew my wife Shirley because she had been a social director at one of the Catskill hotels there. Whenever he'd see me, even in the presence of my wife, he would say, "You ever climb on my wife? You ever climb on my wife?" "Come on, Rodney, stop the shit." You know? But that was Rodney. That's what he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: Fascinating.