Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part Five

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1951 - you played the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans with Carla Alberghetti...

Dick Curtis: The Monteleone Hotel is right on Bourbon Street. It was an old style hotel. The dining room was separate from the main lobby and everybody showed up in tuxedos, ladies in full dress wearing gloves, the waiters were all in tails. It was real formal. Carla Alberghetti was Anna Maria Alberghetti's sister. They were wonderful opera singers. Carla was not as big a star as her sister but she was pretty big.

We worked there with a wonderful orchestra. I think that was the only show I did there. What's the name of the guy who prosecuted the wealthy guy in the JFK assassination? He was district attorney in New Orleans. Jim Garrison. The guy they were prosecuting was a very wealthy guy in New Orleans and he was gay. A guy named Clay Shaw.

He had orgies at his house and that kind of thing. I'm working with Carla Alberghetti and she says to me, "Dick, will you escort me to a cocktail party they're having for me tomorrow?" I said, "Carla, I don't smoke and I don't drink and I hate cocktail parties because that's all anybody does." She said, "Well, if you don't escort me I can't go." I said, "Okay, all right. I'll take you." I took her to the party and while we were there I noticed this big, tall, white-haired guy who was trying to get friendly with me.

I turned to Carla and whispered, "Will you stand here in between... this guy wants to dance and I don't wanna!" She said, "That's the host!" About that moment someone said, "Taking a picture!" I looked up and they snapped a photo. A couple days later Carla gave me those photos they snapped at the party and I stuck them in my file. I forgot about them until I saw the movie JFK with Kevin Costner. When Jack Kennedy was killed I was as devastated as anybody else. When I saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on television I was doubly shocked - because I knew Jack Ruby!

I was booked into a club in Witchita about that time and there was no business because everybody was so upset about Jack Kennedy. I was getting ready to leave, but I was staying at a hotel for a couple of days and I wrote a check to Marina Oswald and to JD Tippit's widow. He was the police officer who was supposed to have been killed by Oswald.

I wrote a check for both of them because I figured they were the two unhappiest women in America. I sent them to a buddy of mine at the Dallas Morning News and he said, "A lot of people felt the same way because these two women wound up with a fortune in donated money!" So now I had two canceled checks. I've kept them all these years. One day I was working at the King's Club in Dallas. I was getting ready to go there for lunch because they had a great luncheon that was popular all over town. The maitre'd called me, "Dick, are you coming down?"

I said, "Yes." He said, "Good. Because there are a couple of FBI men down here that would like to talk to you." I said, "Oh." I went down to the King's Club and these two guys showed their identification. We sat down and chatted. One of them said, "Okay, Mr. Curtis. Why is your name and phone number in Jack Ruby's telephone book?"

I said, "Isn't everybody?" He said, "A lot of people. But why are you?" I said, "Well, Jack was kind of a nuisance, but he ran the strip club across from the hotel here. He always wanted people that were appearing here to come to his club, the Carousel.

A couple times I did go over to his club because there were people working at his club that I knew. And that's why my phone number is in Jack Ruby's phone book." They said, "Now, another question. Do you think Jack Ruby was part of a conspiracy to murder the president?"

I said, "When it first happened I thought, 'Oh, Jack. Now he thinks everybody is going to be his friend because he shot the assassin of JFK." They said, "What about now?" I said, "Now - I think he might have been a pawn." I read a lot of books about it and it pointed in that direction. And that was it. But I put all of that together in a frame. The assassination headline with my canceled checks and the photo I told you about.

Clay Shaw had a non de plume, Clay Bertram, but that's the story. I didn't think about it for years and years until I saw that Oliver Stone movie. I thought, "My God, that's him!"

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1959 you played The Cloister.

Dick Curtis: It was in Chicago in the basement of the Maryland Hotel and Irwin Corey was in there too. I followed him in. The Cloister was an Outfit joint. Of course it was. All the places were. Lenny Bruce worked it. I did okay there, but not as well as I might have. People were getting used to comics that used stronger language than I did. I was doing a down home kind of an act at that time. It was okay, but it didn't have the look of some of the acts that were becoming popular. The guy who owned The Cloister became the manager of The Playboy in New York and I worked there for him also. I did okay.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another place you played in Chicago was The Living Room - opening for Mel Torme.

Dick Curtis: The Living Room was the name of the nightclub in The Tradewinds. It was a place opened by the guys that used to own the leading club in Chicago - the Chez Paree. They had to move out of the Chez Paree because they didn't own the building or something. The owners wanted to turn it into a garage, so they closed the Chez. The guys that ran it opened The Living Room. They would show up every night to watch the show and sit in the back.

Mel was getting a divorce at the time from his wife Candy. There was no phone in the place except for a payphone around the corner from where we worked on the stage. Every night I'd be onstage and I could hear Mel yelling at his wife on the phone! There'd be lulls in my act and then all of a sudden you'd hear, "Oh yeah!? Well, up yours too!" He was so mad at her. I'd say, "Mel, wait until the dancing music starts up, would you?" We opened there on a Monday night, Holy week, during a blizzard.

There was nobody in the audience except for my agent and two people he brought with him to see my act. They sat right down in the front. Mel kept saying, "I'm not working. I'm not doing a show to chairs." The maitre'd said, "I'll tell you when to start the show, Dick, and then you start the show." These were tough guys. Outfit guys. The door opens and a bunch of guys walk in with no ties, wearing these raincoats covered in snow and they all go into the back. The maitre'd runs in and he says, "Dick, start the show! Start the show now!" I said, "What? Okay."

So, I start the show with Mel giving me a dismissive wave like he's not going to do it. I get to a part of my act that was very physical in which I do a Texan visiting Rome being chauffeured by an Italian tour guide. It was very physical. When I started doing the Italian I hear, from the back of the room, "HA. HA. HA. HA. HA." I thought, "Oh, geez, a heckler." And I keep hearing it every time I go into the Italian character. Again, "HA. HA. HA. HA. HA." I get through with my act and I put Mel on.

By then there were more people in the audience and Mel did the show. Before the second show one of these tough looking guys walks up to me and says, "Big Ralph wants to know when you gonna do the wop again." I said, "What?" "Big Ralph sez when you gonna do the wop again?" I said, "Oh, the Italian. Oh, I only do it once a night because it's too physical." He said, "Do it again. Big Ralph wants to see it." And he walked away. I walked over to the hatcheck girl who was sitting there filing her nails. I asked her, "Who's Big Ralph?" She said, "Who wants to know?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: I said, "Well, this guy came over and he said, 'Big Ralph, said do the wop." She says to me, "Do the wop!" Every night from then on,  just before the show, this tough guy would walk down and just give me the signal like, "Now." It endeared me to this Mob guy, whoever he was, because I did this Italian tour guide. It finally became a very successful engagement.

Kliph Nesteroff: August 1961 - The Gondola Room with Dick Haymes and Fran Jeffries.

Dick Curtis: Oh, God. Working with Dick Haymes at the Gondola. Another Outfit joint! The Philadelphia Outfit. I was doing very well there. It was summer and it was very hot and muggy. My manager called me from New York. He said, "Get on the train and come on up here because I want you to audition for a Broadway show. Bob Fosse is directing Hail the Conquering Hero." I got on the train and went up to audition and Huntz Hall was auditioning the same day!

He was auditioning for one of the roles too. There were four parts. Bob Fosse's first directorial effort. We all auditioned, read some lines. Fosse says to me, "You're very good. Would you come read for the principals?" I said, "Yes, sure." I didn't even know what that meant. The principals were the money people. He gave me the address and he said he'd meet me there. I went over there and waited for the elevator in this old building.

I get on the elevator and Burgess Meredith got on the elevator with me! He was wearing a cape with an Irish walking hat and stick! I was so intimidated by being in the elevator with him... we were the only two in there... I couldn't talk. He just nodded at me and we both got off on the same floor. He went one way and I walked out and was staring at a wall covered with Barrymores and every big name in show business. I can't tell you intimidating that was.

I look down the hall and Bob Fosse is shouting, "Dick, down here! This way!" He hands me the script and I look at this room of people sitting all over the place. "Ladies and gentleman this is the fella I told you about. Dick Curtis. He is quite good. Dick, start at page one." So I lifted the script and I was shaking so hard I couldn't read the words! When it became obvious I was shaking, I slammed the script against my chest and that got a laugh. I put my hands out and they were still shaking so I took it and shoved it right up against my face. I said, "Bob, I can't read the type on this - it's written too close to the page." Then I said, "Uh, Bob... can I talk to you?"

We went out in the hall. He said, "What's the matter?" I said, "Bob, I'm in the wrong place." I walked to the elevator. I said, "I can't do this." He said, "Dick, where are you going?" I walked to the elevator and I said, "I'm not meant for this, but thank you." And the elevator doors closed. I got back on the train and went back to Atlantic City. Dick Haymes saw me come in the door and he said, "Hey, where you been?" I said, "Oh, just out."

I went onstage that night and did one of the best shows of my life. Even the top bosses came to me afterward and said, "My God, you're on fire tonight!" I had just blown what might have been a whole other career, but I was just too scared to do it or I felt out of place or I felt I wasn't up to the job. I'm sure a lot of people in our business have experienced the exact same thing.