Monday, February 11, 2013

An Interview with Howard Storm - Part One

Howard Storm: My father replaced Bert Gordon, the Mad Russian, in vaudeville. He was fourteen years old. In those days in the Lower East Side, the sons would quit school at fourteen and work to help the family. It was very common. Almost every guy around my father's age remembers leaving school at the age of fourteen. My father was called to the principal's office. The principal actually said to him, "You're too dumb to be anything but an actor." He told him, "I'm setting an audition up for you." It was with a big time producer who produced a big-time vaudeville act called School Days with the Crazy Kids.

The original company was Eddie Cantor, Bert Gordon, Fanny Brice, Walter Winchell and George Jessel. That company was two or three years older than my father, about seventeen, I guess. They were doing the Crazy Kids and they sent out a road company of younger kids. My father was one of those that got a part. He did the Bert Gordon role, which in those days they called "the Jew comic." It wasn't improper. Nobody found it offensive.

They had the Irish comic, the Dutch comic, the Jew comic, y'know. They just referred to it that way and my father did the Bert Gordon part on the road. He did it for a year and a half. He came home with two hundred dollars saved, which in those days was a fortune. We're talking about 1912. He says he remembers sitting in the bathroom in the hall of the building he lived in. The tenement toilets were communal and located in the hallway.

He said he was sitting in there counting his money, figuring out how much he was going to give his parents. He decided he would split it. He would give them a hundred dollars. He went back into the apartment and my grandfather was seated at the table having lunch. My father put a hundred dollars down on the table. My grandfather swiped it off the table and knocked it onto the floor. He said, "No one makes that kind of money except gangsters!" My father was raised with Lepke Buchalter, one of the guys that ran Murder Incorporated.

He was around Lansky and all those guys. They were around the same age, so he was raised with them. My grandfather knew they were already in the racket at fifteen years old, holding up pushcart peddlers for "protection." He thought that's where this hundred dollars came from. So he wouldn't take the money. 

When vaudeville died, my father went into burlesque. He found a friend. It was a young man who showed up in the Catskill Mountains when my dad was a social director. This guy was in college at the time and loved show business. He asked my father if he could be in the shows. So my father put him in the shows and had him build sets and things. This guy became a lawyer and ended up being the head lawyer for BMI. He contacted my father and explained to him what he was doing. He said, "We'd like to hire you to go around to all the hotels in the Catskills, since you know a lot of people there, and sign them up for licensing."

He signed up the entire Catskills. Then they asked him if he would do it for nightclubs in New York. And he did that. Because he knew most of the wiseguys, he was able to get into most of the clubs and talk to them without getting thrown out. Then they brought him on board with a regular salary and a pension. He went all over the country and acted as a troubleshooter when someone couldn't get it done.

Kliph Nesteroff: What name did your father perform under?

Howard Storm: That's another strange thing. I don't know why he did this. In vaudeville he called himself Jack Stanley and Jack Stanton. The original name from Russia was Slovoda. I don't know why he didn't keep Stanton or Stanley, but he eventually chose the name Sobel. Jack Sobel.

In burlesque he worked a theater in the Bowery called the People's Theater with a juvenile who sang, "A pretty girl! Is like a mem-oh-reee!" While the stripteaser danced. They would also work in sketches. The young man was named Robert Alda, who was the father of Alan Alda. Robert Alda wound up in Hollywood and he did some movies like the life story of George Gershwin. I would walk to the theater on matinee day and sit in the box and watch the show. I would go backstage and my father and I would walk home together for dinner. I have a copy of me and my father on The Merv Griffin Show in 1966.

He had been retired for about five years. He had never been on television, but the pro that he was, he did it in stride. It was a great shot. The whole piece with my introducing him, Merv talking and doing an old burlesque sketch with my father... it ran about eighteen minutes, which is amazing that any show would allow you that much time. You're usually given a six minute spot.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you entered show business, you started in a comedy team with Lou Alexander. Both of your fathers were burlesque comedians?

Howard Storm: My father and Lou's father knew each other. Lou's father was a nightclub comic who worked the strip joints. We were financially strapped at the time. Things were terrible. My father had his kidney removed. In those days when they did surgery they cut and it was like a ten inch scar, like a quarter moon, on your back. Today they don't do that. Anyway, my father lived til the age of ninety-one. But we were in real bad shape and I was fourteen.

We went to Florida and my father contacted JoJo, who was Lou's dad. Lou's father was working in a club called the Fifteenth Bowery. It was one of those real low-class joints. They had an air hose by the entrance and when a woman walked in they would blow her skirt up. All the performers had to wait tables. There was a big wash basin on the stage. When the performers performed, the people would throw money in the wash basin and they'd split the money at the end of the night.

We lived above it. My parents had a room with a little table and chairs and a hot plate. My mother would cook on the hot plate. Lou and I were going to Edison High School in Miami. A lot of people think of Florida and Miami as just lovely and all, but it is the Deep South. We took the bus to the last stop - and that was Edison High School. Then the bus would turn around and go back to the city.

Lou and I, because we were New York Jews, were constantly harassed and had fights. Lou was fifteen and I was fourteen and a half. That's when we decided to do an act. The first job my father got us was in the Catskill Mountains and we were paid twenty dollars each. We performed with an old burlesque comic, an old timer, named Matt Dennison and his partner, a straight man, George... George... I'll think of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Tuttle.

Howard Storm. Yes. How did you know that?

Kliph Nesteroff: I looked it up.

Howard Storm: You're amazing. Yes, it was George Tuttle. We worked the summer there. My father was offered a job in Boston at a club called the French Village. He didn't want to do it. He talked the guy into letting me and Lou do it. He told him about "this great comedy team." We didn't even have an act! So my father helped us put together a bunch of burlesque sketches.

We went in for one week and stayed for eight. The owner was a guy named Lou Baker. Then the agent came and booked us into a club called the Shamrock Village in Charlestown, which was the Irish section. A very tough, Irish, Boston neighborhood. We did extremely well. The agent came and offered us a guarantee of a year's work there. Lou didn't want to stay because it was too cold. He wouldn't do it. So we went back to Miami.

We didn't have a job for months. Finally we got a job in Key West, Florida. It was the third nightclub we worked. And then we wound up at the Paddock Club. We stayed there for months. I'm sure Lou told you that comics like Joey Bishop and Jan Murray would come watch us. We did a show at two in the morning. We did three shows a night. They would come after they worked to see these two kids doing burlesque sketches. We were probably nineteen then.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the Paddock Club was, presumably, owned by the Mob...

Howard Storm: Yes, of course. A Jewish Mob guy, but he was very nice to us and we never had a problem.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that all these comedians used to come and watch you two...

Howard Storm: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of those comedians who was one of your favorites and possibly a bit of an influence on your own act was Jackie Miles.

Howard Storm: Yes. How do you know that? I was entranced with him. He worked like no other comic. He was very low key. He spoke very softly. He had great material. He was really a good comic. If the audience got noisy, he would get quieter. Instead of trying to out shout them he would get softer and softer until they would say, "Quiet! I can't hear him!" A real good comic.

A little dark haired guy with a pock marked face. Kind of like a nebbish. I was very impressed with this guy because I never saw anybody else work like that. All the other comics were very bombastic, y'know. They were punching away and this guy would just quietly do his thing. In my day, as a kid, we would go to the movies every Saturday. You'd pay ten cents and what it consisted of was a cartoon, Pathe News, and two films. One was an A film and one was a B. It wasn't like today where you come at the beginning and sit through the promos.

In those days you walked into a theater whenever you wanted. You could walk in during the middle of a movie and you would stay through the whole thing until it got back to the part you walked in on and then you'd leave. But there were always arguments among the kids saying, "We came in during this part." "No we didn't!" "Yeah we did. Remember the guy with the moustache getting shot?" And that argument would go on and on. So, Jackie Miles did a routine about that, which to me was so hip. He did a piece where a guy asked him to hold a seat.

So he's holding the seat and a guy comes in and wants to sit down. "I'm sorry, but there's somebody sitting here." "Well, I don't see anybody sitting there!" "No, no, you don't understand. I'm holding it for this guy." "Well, where is the guy?" And the guy who wants the seat would spit on him, and Jackie Miles would flinch so you knew the guy had spit and he'd wipe his eyebrow and say, "You shouldn't have done that." 

It was this little nebbish being pushed around. He did a routine about Gene Autry, always riding his horse and singing. He did a whole piece about that, "I'm a rollin, I'm a riding, I'm headed to the ol ranch." He did a funny bit about that and he was just a very innovative comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know him personally?

Howard Storm: No. I might have met him for a brief moment in the Catskill Mountains, but no, I didn't know him. But I was very impressed by him.

Kliph Nesteroff: He also hung around with a comedian nobody remembers named Lenny Kent.

Howard Storm: Oh, I remember Lenny Kent. He and Lenny did an act together originally and then they split up. Lenny was also a good comic. Lenny Kent's signature piece was if someone came in the middle of the show - he would stop - and do a run down of all the things the guy missed.

And it was very funny. "I introduced a dancer and then she did a little dance." He does the dance. "Then I came out and told a joke. I was very funny." Does the joke again, quickly. "Then there was a singer." He'd sing and he'd just go through this whole thing, a recall of what you missed. Lenny Kent wound up at Caesar's Palace as a greeter. The Mob gave him a job.