Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Interview with Leo DeLyon - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: January 2, 1953 you were doing your comedy shtick at The Beverly Hills Country Club in Newport, Kentucky. That was a serious Mob joint.

Leo DeLyon: Oh, yes. Right. First of all, I loved that engagement because it was a great club. Years later it burnt down and I knew some of the musicians that perished. Oh, that was wild. It was a father and son who ran it and years later they got whacked. But they were nice to me.

They used to have a bowling alley that was attached to part of it and I used to bowl between shows. The place itself I just loved. I was not really aware of the Mob situation, although I heard about it. As the sergeant said in Hogan's Heroes, "I don't know nuh-ting!" I really didn't know anything about what was going on there.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about some of the Los Angeles hotbeds of comedy. In the late forties the big comedy shows were at the nightclub Slapsy Maxie's. In the fifties it was Billy Gray's Band Box. They had a lot of crossover - not just in terms of talent - but also the people that ran them.

Leo DeLyon: I never played Slapsy Maxie's, but I certainly heard lots about it. Ah, God, Billy Gray's was a great spot. One night we were paying tribute to Totie Fields and a lot of us got up and did stuff. Ah, man. You talk about a hot room! That was a small room, but that is what made it. You'd just wiggle a pinkie and you'd be getting screams, y'know. It was great.

Kliph Nesteroff: It sounds like a place where show people went to be entertained by other show people.

Leo DeLyon: Well, not necessarily. It did happen, yes, but it had plenty of... it was known as a fun room. And Billy Gray himself - he was hysterical. He was the front for the whole place, the host and emcee. They had other acts, but Billy Gray was a riot. He was just beautiful, just great and it was fun to work. I saw acts like Noonan and Marshall. They were great there. It was a great club. I'm sorry I can't fatten these places out for you more. I know what you're lookin' for, but I can only tell you what I went through.

Kliph Nesteroff: No, of course, that's fine.

Leo DeLyon: I think I did clarify one thing for you. I forget how you worded it, but you said you were surprised that someone my age didn't play the same kind of rooms the other guys played. There were certain clubs where if they had two shows a night - I would do okay, but not great. If they had three shows a night I would do great the first show, okay on the second and die on the third. Yeah (groans). Three strikes you're out.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Leo DeLyon: When I worked Vegas I always did sensationally well. It was two fresh audiences, the greatest sound, the greatest band... everything was a hundred percent. Vegas was really special. Great.

Kliph Nesteroff: You became known for playing Vegas with Phil Silvers. You two had an act. When did you first meet Phil Silvers and how did you connect with him?

Leo DeLyon: He saw me for the first time with the Josephine Baker show. I found out later he just fell out of his chair. He loved me. I still hadn't met him. My wife and I had Christmas at the Palmer House. I had Christmas night off. We got a babysitter and went to see Phil Silvers in Top Banana at the theater in Chicago. He was so incredible I went out of my mind.

The next day - I had my little portable typewriter with me and I typed a screaming, maniacal fan letter, raving about how great he was in that show. Four days later I get a letter at the Palmer House. Three pages, written in longhand, from Phil Silvers. He opened with, "Your enthusiasm leaped right out of the envelope." He wrote me this lovely letter. That was 1952. We didn't meet until ten years later. I was booked as an actor on his television show, which was being filmed in Los Angeles and by that time I was living there.

He came in for the first reading at the table with the cast. They said, "This is Leo." Phil was at the other end of the table and he stands up, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Let me introduce him!" He turns around and without even saying hello to me or anything - this was ten years later - he says, "See this guy here?" And he starts raving about me! He says, "We're honored to have him join us." I almost wanted to crawl under the table I was so embarrassed (laughs). Now, we're rehearsing on set. It comes lunchtime. There was a piano on the set because there was a wedding scene.

We come back from lunch and it was a little early, so I sat at the piano and started noodling around. Phil Silvers comes walking in. He yells to somebody, "Get me my clarinet!" They bring his clarinet. He sits down next to me, "Stardust!" He starts doing Stardust very lightly, quietly. They say, "Okay, Phil. We've got to get started." He says, "No! No, no, no! We're having fun!" We did another couple of minutes. From then on he said, "You're having lunch with me." After that we started spending more and more time playing around. And now we're throwing lines at each other.

That was just about the time that Sammy Cahn and Harry Crane were putting together a Vegas act for Phil. They didn't know quite how to package it. Phil said, "I'll give you one idea I'd like." I wasn't around for this. I found out about it many, many months later. At that meeting he presented the idea to them, "I had a lot of fun fooling around with Leo DeLyon. He has a wild musical mind and a good comedy mind. I'd like to have him be my musical director."

They said, "Phil, you mean just to do a bit?" He said, "No. I mean to be my musical director! And I'll act like I'm stuck with a crazy guy." That's how it happened. Finally I got called in to some of the meetings. Both Harry Crane and Sammy Cahn knew my work. They had seen me a number of times so they drew from my act. They melded me in to certain numbers and it just grew and grew. We broke the act in at a hotel in Houston. A very famous room, but I can't remember the name.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Cork Club.

Leo DeLyon: That's it! That had to be 1963. It was in a very famous hotel, The Cork Club, and it went very well. After that we went into the Sahara in Las Vegas and there it scored a bullseye. I was with him for about four years.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Sahara was being booked at that time by a guy whom you must have encountered in New York in the late forties...

Leo DeLyon: Stan Irwin?

Kliph Nesteroff: Stan Irwin.

Leo DeLyon: Sure, I knew Stan very well. He did a very cute comedy act himself. The people from the Sahara fell in love with him because he used to be the emcee at the Club Bingo. Buddy Baer, the actor/fighter was about 6'7. A giant of a man and a lovely guy. He would pick Stan Irwin up. Stan Irwin was about 5'6. Buddy Baer would pick Stan Irwin up and they would do this thing where Buddy pretended as if he were doing a ventriloquist act (laughs).

It was so cute and funny! They would do bits. One of the head agents fell in love with Stan and they made him the talent booker at the Sahara. He first booked me there as a single with Kay Starr and The Four Step Brothers. I'm happy to say I really scored big on that. Next time I came it was with Phil Silvers a number of years later.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned comedy writer Harry Crane. What was Harry Crane like? He was beloved by all the old comics. He had a reputation for being a wild guy.

Leo DeLyon: Well, he was far from a wild guy when I knew him. He was very withdrawn and quiet. He was a writer primarily, but he could be wildly hysterical - but not to perform. He wouldn't perform if you pointed three guns at him. He wrote most of Dean Martin's stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dean Martin loved him, Jackie Gleason loved him and Bob Hope loved him.

Leo DeLyon: Everybody loved him! He was such a very warm, caring person. Now, I did a quickie guest thing on The Dean Martin Show in 1970. I couldn't get near that show on a bet. Harry Crane was the head writer and I was very friendly with one of the other writers, Norm Liebman. He became one of the important writers for Johnny Carson later on, but I knew Norm from the Catskills when he was a teenager. The Dean Martin Show - he'd be sitting on the piano doing a thing with Ken Lane and somebody would come in through the door.

There'd always be some weird guest comedian that would come in through the door and visit Dean. So they created a character for me, Vladmir, and I would take piano lessons from Ken Lane.  I've done a number of TV shots, but TV was not good for me. I couldn't work well with only three or four minutes. I could score, but not like I could if I had ten minutes where I could build this kind of mania, this kind of weirdness, and it needed that momentum.

But they gave me the perfect thing and that ended up being, without question, the best single guest shot I ever did. I got mail on that and two repeat shots. They gave me good lines to open with and the gimmick was simple. I told them I could not rehearse it. "Dean can't know what I am going to do - the bit will only work if he is surprised." Dean knew who I was because he'd seen me in different clubs and stuff, but I had never met him.

They told him to sing a certain song, but after one line - stop. One line and then stop. And Leo will do something. Then sing the next line. And then Leo will do something else. I accompanied him at the piano because that was my whole bit. I come in to take piano lessons from Ken Lane and Ken says, "I'll let you practice for a bit" and leaves. They guaranteed Dean that I would not embarrass him. Consequently, when I came out with the first interruption - ah, the look on his face!

He fell over laughing. I really broke him up and that is what they were hoping for. When they went to commercial I walked toward the wings, off to the dressing room, and he got up and ran after me, "That was funny! Funny!" I thought he was just being nice, but my friend Norm Liebman came running and he said, "Boy, Dean loved it! He never says that kind of stuff!"

Kliph Nesteroff: You once toured the world with Johnnie Ray and Peg Leg Bates.

Leo DeLyon: Yes, well, not the world but we toured the Orient and Australia. We did the Philippines. We did a date in Manilla and we got to meet the then President Magsaysay. We did that and Jakarta and Singapore. We were in Singapore during Passover. It was an open air theater, sat about six thousand people, and the temperature was a hundred five. The band was all Maylay and Chinese musicians, but the piano player was blonde and blue eyed. We had a break in the afternoon. I was sitting with some of the people in the cast and this piano player comes up and he says out of left field, "Mr. DeLyon?"

He had an English accent. "Are you Jewish?" I'm in Singapore for heaven's sake. I said, "Yes, I am." He says, "You know this is Passover." Only he didn't say Passover, he said Pesach! I said, "Oh, yes." He said, "Do you have any mozzahs?" It was like a Twilight Zone episode! The year was 1956. I said, "No, I don't." He said, "I'd be happy to give you some." I said, "I appreciate it, but - uh - I'm not into it right now." Now, jumping ahead to 1959. I was in Johannesberg, South Africa working at a nightclub... they pronounced it SY-roes, but we pronounced it Ciro's.

On Saturday nights at this place you'd think you were at Grossingers in the Catskills because the audience was sixty to seventy percent Jewish. Johannesburg had a very large Jewish population. I was amazed. This was 1959 before the shit hit the fan. The booker had seen me at the Palladium in 1957 and said, "I must have you come to South Africa!" They were hounding me for some time to come and I said, "Who the hell wants to go to Johannesburg?" Finally he gave me an incredible offer I couldn't refuse.

I went down there. I never spoke about that Passover night in Singapore on stage before. Never. For some reason this night in South Africa I did. I was on a roll and feeling the audience and doing all sorts of wild things, so that night I talked about it. I finished the performance and I went to my dressing room. There's a knock at my door. There's a guy standing there, nicely dressed, with a blonde crewcut. I almost fainted. He didn't look anything like the guy I remembered, but I knew it was the guy from Singapore. The same piano player! He was a hotshot, important broadcasting pianist in Johannesburg now. I said to him, "You know I had no idea you were in the audience." He got such a kick out of my talking about the incident.

Kliph Nesteroff: How bizarre.

Leo DeLyon: It really was. He was in the audience for this one show. Isn't that an incredible coincidence? Getting back to Johnnie Ray and Peg Leg Bates. I went to a bathhouse with Peg Leg Bates in Tokyo. All of us had to leave our shoes outside the room. So there are all these pairs of shoes lined up... the poor peasant was going wacky looking...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Leo DeLyon: Looking for the other shoe because Peg Leg (laughs) literally had a peg leg. He used to dance on it and he was incredible.

We did Manila - where we did our show in a bullfight arena - in sand - the whole place was a circle, y'know. I asked some security guys backstage, "Where is there a district in Manila that everyone knows is the worst neighborhood with crime, prostitution and that kind of stuff?" They told me, "A place called Koli Koli." I bounced it off a couple other people, "What's Koli Koli?" "Oh, that's a terrible place." Now, I'm doing the show and the audience was just tremendous. They were laughing and carrying on and I worked full out.

Right in the front was President Magsaysay and his entire family. I say to the audience, "I was so nervous tonight - because I really wanted to do well. I heard there was somebody out there tonight..." Everyone assumes I'm about to talk about the President. "I want to do well tonight because if I do well tonight... as I understand... there is a talent scout out there tonight... and he might get me a gig in Koli Koli." Oh, you never heard a laugh like this in your life! It was great.

We met the President at the palace and took pictures with him. He loved our show. The mayor of Manila was supposed to greet us when we arrived at the airport. Referring to Johnnie Ray he said, "I wouldn't greet that fag for a million dollars." This was the mayor of Manila! He had these dark glasses on. A real murky kind of guy. Johnnie Ray never knew about this. For us, the rest of the cast, we were thrilled with the wonderful greeting we got from the President. Johnnie Ray just tore the place up. Do you remember Johnnie Ray?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, he was very dynamic.

Leo DeLyon: Did you ever see him perform other than on TV?

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, no, no, I'm not old enough to have seen any of these guys.

Leo DeLyon: You see, I saw him when he first, first exploded with the song Cry and all that stuff. I said, "Who the hell would dig this crap?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Leo DeLyon: Until I saw him at the Town Casino in Buffalo, which was a giant, giant supperclub. A twelve hundred seater. That's a pretty big supperclub for a place like Buffalo. It was a number one place and everybody and there mother had played there. All the big names. I was there, but I wasn't working with him then. I had never seen him before, but I had heard him all over the radio. Then when I saw the audience in the club - they were standing and screaming and crying! He arose to such an emotional pitch - like Billy Graham or something (laughs). He really did.

At the end he made a speech to the audience and he has his hands open in front of him with the palms facing up. He says, "I love you." And the crowd, "Oh, Johnnie!" I mean, ah, Christ. I got to know him and he was one of the most beautiful guys to work with. He was just a prince. There was something about him. I don't know what you know about Liberace, but he too was an amazingly warm, wonderful person. I met him quite a few times because a friend of mine used to work with him and in Vegas I would see him. Although, Johnnie Ray wasn't as "out" as Liberace was.

I once saw Liberace in a show at the Chicago Theater, an afternoon show in the middle of the week, and that's a tough audience. Truck drivers and stuff and I said, "Oh, man, they're going to eat this guy alive." And, instead, he had them eating right out of his hand. I thought he was going to have a rough time on our tour in Japan. Tokyo audiences - we did our show there in a sumo hall! At the sumo hall the band was great. We traveled with five of our own people that we picked up in Australia; a drummer, rhythm, first trumpet and sax. If you score big, usually applause lasts until you get off the stage - and you come back and take another bow.

I would finish by doing a stunt with my voice. I'd end on a high note, and get a big response. In Tokyo I finish, get a tremendous hand, get three quarters of the distance from my mark to the wing - and the applause stopped. You ever seen the volume levels on a radio control or something? Can you even dream of applause ending like that? Usually it subsides like a decrescendo. I'll never forget. In Tokyo it just suddenly stops.

I did well there, but they made a big mistake a few years later when they booked me into a nightclub. Stars and Stripes wrote me up. They saw me struggling in this Japanese nightclub. I was doing things that to any American observer would have had them rolling on the floor. There were all these businessmen trying to make out with these B-girls that would make them buy champagne that was three-quarters water. It was a beautiful club with an eighteen piece band.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a write-up here for that engagement. May 28, 1963 "Comic DeLeyon's Three Nights in Tokyo Copa or How Do You Amuse and Orgy."

Leo DeLyon: That's right! That's the thing from Variety, I think. That one - yeah. That might have been the same guy that wrote for Stars and Stripes, but there he wrote a whole different thing and quoted me fully.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's no byline on the piece, but the first paragraph says, "It seemed like three years, but it was really three nights when comic Leo DeLyon played this city's Copa last week. He regretfully proved what almost everybody knew. That a talking comedian, especially one talking in a foreign language, should not attempt to play a Japanese nightclub."

Leo DeLyon: I was using lines like, "Do you ever get the feeling like you're entertaining an agent? But it's not an agent? It's a locomotive coming down the track right at you?" I was trying to remember the name of that club, thanks for reminding me. The Tokyo Copa.

Kliph Nesteroff: It says it went so poorly that you canceled your next gig you at the Tokyo Latin Quarter. Just prior to this gig you played the Walker Hill Resort outside Seoul.

Leo DeLyon: God! They tried to build a Las Vegas there with gambling, good shows... they brought in Louis Armstrong, this one and that one. I did fairly well there, surprisingly. That's the thing about these experiences when you get off the beaten path. I didn't totally bomb at the Copa in Tokyo. The thing that saved my ass were the musical things I did, the instrumental imitation and my humming and whistling thing. That was my attention getter. I can hum and whistle fugues in two-part harmony. 

I asked the booker after the Tokyo Copa - I did have that next gig and I said, "Please, please cancel me. My nerves can only handle so much." He still wanted me to do it. It was really rough. After that I worked at the US naval base in Yokohama. They all knew that Copa club so when I was telling them the problems I had there they were wetting the floor! They were screaming! I only did one quarter of my act because what I had to tell them was funnier. I can't get over how you've managed to dig into all of these things chronologically.

Kliph Nesteroff: December 1954 you performed at the National Showman's Association Gala at the Hotel Astor. Also on the show were Charlie Applewhite, Will Mahoney, Alan Carney and Tim Herbert. Those are all kinda forgotten names.

Leo DeLyon: Yeah, well, Tim Herbert I knew very well. Charlie Applewhite, definitely. Does it say anything about Jackie Gleason? Because I did a show at the Astor with Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan and the band was Duke Ellington. My first bit was always me standing out front and I'd come on as a bad impressionist.

I would do Vaughn Monroe and just throw it away. Then I would say, "So many people do that. I want to sing in my own voice." And then I would sing Summertime in the most glorious soprano you ever heard. It would get two reactions: surprise, a big laugh and applause. Almost every time. And during Summertime I would play sound effects off the lyrics. "Fish are jumping - boi-oy-oy-oy-yoing!" You know. That used to get howls and then I'd continue singing. I got in trouble, not from the Gershwin estate, but from Chappelle Music, who represented the Gershwin library.

The first time I did that was at a giant party for Paul Whiteman and Whiteman fell off his chair. I said to the Chappelle people, "Please! Paul Whiteman was hysterical for it." It was never the actual Gershwin people, but many people were trying to close this scene and raised objection. Gershwin himself had the most wonderful sense of humor and would have been on the ground. So, the Astor Hotel. I would go to the front of the stage and do a bit and now they're wheeling out this grand piano - and the legs - collapsed. Can you picture the legs of a big grand piano collapsing on the stage during the show? I went, "Whoa, Jesus!" I said, "I don't think I can follow that!" But that must have been a different night at the Astor than the one you mentioned. Will Mahoney was very famous, but I didn't know him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Alan Carney was in a comedy team with another fella and in some low-budget movies.

Leo DeLyon: Don't remember it too well.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did I ask you last time about playing The Apollo with The Drifters?

Leo DeLyon: Oh! No, you didn't. I played it three times. I was there with Nat Cole, I was there with Eartha Kitt and I was there with The Drifters. As a matter of fact I was the first white comic to play the Apollo. I am telling you it was the kick of the month. I loved the Apollo. I used to go out there and do a thing on Old Man River, which some people told me, "You better not do that."

I said, "Listen. I've always done it. When I toured with the Josephine Baker show she got tremendous Black audiences - and I got screams with this. I won't change it." And I was right. It was with Nat Cole that I was first booked there. He was with GAC, which was my agency. Nat Cole and his manager asked me to be on that bill. Fortunately, the owner of the theater had seen me with Josephine Baker and he remembered me very well.

He felt that since I had been with Baker that a lot of the audience would remember me - and he was right. It was a very successful engagement, three weeks at the Apollo. Some agents would get tense about these bookings. I would say, "Come on." Second time I was there for one week with Eartha Kitt. The third was with The Drifters and the Illinois Jacquet Band.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did this make news? The first white comic at the Apollo...

Leo DeLyon: No. No, not that I know of. And I think Pat Henning was the second. He played it next with Josephine Baker. He joined after I turned down the second tour with Baker. By then I had my first child and I didn't want to do anymore of those extended tours. Jesus, Kliph, I could understand if I were Bob Hope or something, but you're asking me about all these little minutiae things?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, one final topic and I'll stop torturing you...

Leo DeLyon: You're not torturing me, you are amazing me. Many things have stayed in my unconscious or subconscious and you're kicking up things... wow... I still can't believe you hit me with the Olympia Theater in Miami. That was out of my memory chart completely.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a bit on the Jack Benny Program.

Leo DeLyon: Yes it was me and Arte Johnson playing stagehands. Jack Benny was the most gorgeous, warm, loving human being. My path crossed with him a number of times. He was getting ready to come into the Palladium in London and I had just finished playing the Palladium. I was about to go to Scotland to play the Empire chain of theaters. I had to see Lew Grade for something at the Grade Agency in England. The secretary said to please wait in the so and so room. I go into this other room and see a man sitting there. He turns around and it's Jack Benny! 

I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I must have walked into the wrong room." He says, "No, no, no. Are you waiting to see Mr. Grade? This is the right room." He knew who I was and we ended up having a twenty-five minute chat and he was wonderful. That was 1950. About twelve years later I was booked to be an actor on his show and during rehearsal he came down the aisle where we did it in Television City at CBS. I hadn't seen him in twelve years and he's pointing his finger. 

He says, "London! London! The Grade Agency! Leo DeLyon!" I nearly fell out of my chair. I mean, how many zillions of people had he seen in between and how many zillions of places had he been since? He remembered me and it was incredible. After that he invited me to have lunch with him and Don Wilson and I felt like a little kid. Everytime I was booked on a show with him we always had lunch.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm all out of queries. Thanks so much, Leo.

Leo DeLyon: May I be so bold as to ask how old you are?

Kliph Nesteroff: Thirty-one.

Leo DeLyon: Oh my God! Well, I am very impressed that you have taken on a subject that is not, you know, like taking on the history of the Iroquois Indian or something like that. At your age - that's something!