Monday, March 18, 2013

An Interview with Jackie Curtiss - Part Five

Kliph Nesteroff: We've talked about your time in the comedy team Antone and Curtiss, but we haven't talked much about your other comedy team Curtiss and Tracy.

Jackie Curtiss: After Bill Tracy and I split up he joined The Modernaires. By the time he got there it only had people that had worked once or twice with the original group. The girl with them was Paula Kelly Jr. and she was the legitimate link because of her mother. She owned the name. Her father was the originator of the Modernaires. Just like there were about fifteen or sixteen Ink Spots. Everytime someone left they would form their own group and it was like an amoeba. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Same thing with the Drifters.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, there was an awful lot of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Although one of the original Ink Spots died fairly recently. He was over a hundred years old.

Jackie Curtiss: Well, they were all pretty old to begin with! I saw them as a kid in New York. I was maybe twelve or thirteen and they were adults then and weren't exactly starting out. I listen to a show here, I don't know if you've ever heard of this guy, Chuck Cecil. He started a show in 1955, and it's still going, called The Swinging Years

He has all these interviews with the great record people and he plays music from 1935 to 1955. It's a marvelous show. He has interviews with just about every star and he is a real authority. He's really a great guy and he's eighty-nine now. He has so much information about the records and who's on them. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I recently found an ad for the Trolly Ho.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, you mean my Trolly Ho?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. 

Jackie Curtiss: Wow! That's really wild! That was quite a thing. That whole Trolly Ho thing. When I split up with Marc Antone, I was writing and very busy in town with recording. Bill Tracy, who I had met years before, asked, "Wanna team up with me?" I had just about had it with comedy teams and I didn't want to travel. 

He said, "There's this little place, the Trolly Ho. There might be something there and you can stay in town." He conned me into it and, my God, within three months it was the top place in town. Every star came in and I would get them to get up on stage. Then we moved down to La Cienega and it became a big deal. I discovered so many people. I had a singer friend. I brought her in and she just exploded. She was one of the bookends when I was writing The Ray Anthony Show. This was Vikki Carr. She, of course, became a superstar. I had her for six months at the Trolly Ho.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ray Anthony seems like a strange guy.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh (laughs). You nailed that. Did you talk to him?

Kliph Nesteroff: Never. That's just an observation. He and Hugh Hefner are close...

Jackie Curtiss: Very close.

Kliph Nesteroff: I always see these photos of a decrepit Ray Anthony and his ridiculous toupe with these young girls...

Jackie Curtiss: Right. Well, when I wrote the show... I wrote twenty-six episodes for KTTV, I think. In the twenty-six weeks I really got to know him. First of all, he is very short and he wore Adler Elevator Shoes, which made him look like he was walking downhill. He also had a toupe. It wasn't a really great one and I used to stare at the netting when I was talking to him. He would say, "What are you looking at?" I'd say, "Oh, it looks like you're sweating or something." Used to drive him crazy. He used to wear a robe with nothing under it. When the doorbell rang and it was a girl, he would accidentally let it unfold.

And he was just a cooze hound. Just was nuts with girls and everything. When we did the show... when the first review came out... it was a good show and he really was a good trumpet man, but evidently somebody didn't like him and the review came out. It said he had all these talented people and talented writers... it's too bad he can't have someone write talent for him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ouch.

Jackie Curtiss: It was in the Hollywood Reporter and we bought them all up, so he never saw it. Because if he did? "How come there haven't been any reviews?" "Uh, I dunno, Ray." But his history - he goes way back. He got fired from Glenn Miller. He was always egotistical. There's a clip in Sun Valley Serenade where the Glenn Miller Orchestra is playing Chattanooga Choo Choo. In the back, as they're getting ready to play, to gain attention, Ray picks up one of the mutes and throws it in the air to catch it. He was always doing something to draw attention to himself on camera. He finally got fired. But a really good trumpet player... but also a real wacko. 

Kliph Nesteroff: A big ego.

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, unbelievable.

Kliph Nesteroff: But like I say, I've never met him, I've never talked to him... I'm just picking up that vibe. 

Jackie Curtiss: Can I tell you? You're lucky.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jackie Curtiss: Unless there's something you really want to get from him - he would just drive you bugs. I mean, that whole thing with Hef is incredible. Hef is the same way. I knew Hef, my God, I worked for him for eleven years and I opened most of his Playboy Clubs. Ray is quite a character.

Kliph Nesteroff: Anyway, I don't know how we got on the topic of Ray Anthony...

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, I was just thinking that. Oh, I mentioned Vikki Carr was with Ray Anthony.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Trolly Ho blurb says, "Jim Duffin and Jerry Calavao's swinging suburban playroom continues their policy of spotlighting new singers with the regular Jackie Curtiss - Bill Tracy comedy act." So, was that before you guys took it over?

Jackie Curtiss: Well, we never took it over, but it just got so big with us that we fronted it. What you're reading there was about the old Trolly Ho at Beverly Drive and Pico. After about four months it got so big and it was such a tiny place that they went and bought a place on La Cienega. 

We went in there and were there for some time. We had a piece of it instead of getting a salary. We caught the one guy, Jerry, going out the back with half a rack of cow. We knew that they were cheating us and we got into a fight. He said, "Yeah, well, who needs you! We got this big place now." We left and they were closed in three weeks. Empty. But I met so many people there and became friends. 

I'll never forget the night that Harpo Marx was in the audience. His son, Bill Marx, brought him in. I had befriended Bill. It was such a shock because he came back after the show. I opened the door and I wasn't expecting it. He said, "You guys are so great." I just realized I heard Harpo Marx speak - and it knocked me out. And then we became friendly. But a lot of stars came in and we became friends. One of my buddies through the years was Johnny Weissmuller. 

He would let go with the Tarzan yell before he walked in the door and everyone knew he was coming in! I used to do a thing in my act with both Marc Antone and Bill Tracy. It was a Cheetah impression where I would jump from the floor into his arms. When Johnny saw that he loved it. He said, "Can I do that with you?" So, I would get him up when he came in and would actually do Cheetah with Tarzan! So, it was quite a thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Weissmuller doing at that point? Was he just living off of his...

Jackie Curtiss: He was kind of semi-retired. He had been doing some Jungle Jim stuff and...

Kliph Nesteroff: Did he get into real estate?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, yes. He was into all of that. In Hollywood he was such an icon. Everywhere he went he was so loved. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the other Jackies... all the comedians were named Jackie. Do you remember anything about Jackie Miles?

Jackie Curtiss: Jackie Miles was a very funny guy. He did a routine, a running gag, "I saw every movie Gene Autry did." He would talk and say something that didn't go over and then pause and say, "Yeah. But I saw every movie Gene Autry ever made." And if they laughed he'd say, "You see? You're laughing. But it doesn't compare to the fact that I saw every movie that Gene Autry ever made."

A guy would drop a dish. He'd say, "Sure, disturb my show. Drop a dish. Doesn't matter. Cause I saw every movie that Gene Autry ever made."

Kliph Nesteroff: What a weird...

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, but it worked!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a sad sack comic friend of Jackie Miles. Lenny Kent.

Jackie Curtiss: Lenny Kent. Yeahhhh... good old Lenny Kent. He was another wacko. Oh, he was big in the Playboy clubs when I was there. I walked into the Chicago Playboy Club and Lenny was there. When I first went into Playboy, the bunnies didn't get paid. They just got tips. But nobody knew they didn't get paid. I devised a thing in my act for the bunnies. 

"Incidentally, folks, the bunnies don't get paid. They only get paid in what you leave in tips. Be kind. But one thing. Watch out for Bunny Heidi. Boy, you better tip her because if you have any relatives left in Germany..." So, I did that and the bunnies loved that. I did that because it helped them. So, I walk in one night and here's Lenny Kent doing my Bunny Heidi routine. He walks off and I said, "Lenny..." And he goes, "Oh! Yeah! I know, yeah, you do that, but..." I said, "Lenny, I do that to help the girls. You should have asked." He said, "Oh, okay. I'm asking you now." I said, "What are you asking me?" He says, "Let me have it. You're clever. You can write something else." That was his attitude.

Kliph Nesteroff: Both Lenny Kent and Jackie Miles were quite popular at one point and then both of their careers nose dived.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes. They wore out their welcome. They were both pretty cheap, y'know. You have to be, even if you don't want to be, flamboyant. You have got to pick up the check now and then. That was their thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jack Carter.

Jackie Curtiss: Marc Antone and I were doing The Ed Sullivan Show and Jack Carter was on as well. I don't know if you know how the Sullivan show worked. There were two shows in the same day.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right there was the dress rehearsal and then the live broadcast...

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, but do you know why he had that rehearsal? You see, we rehearsed and blocked it and all of that, but he had an actual show with a full audience. How that audience reacted to each act would determine where that act ended up on the show at night. That's why people would complain that Sullivan didn't know what he was doing because he had comics following comics. When a comic did real well and another comic didn't do real well [at rehearsal], he would take the comic that didn't do well and put him immediately after the comic who did

He felt that the goodness would overflow. Anyway, we had just done our afternoon show and we were taking a walk. Jack Carter said, "Let's go for a walk over to the Avenue of the Americas. There's a souvenir shop I want to see." We're walking down the street and this little old lady is pushing a shopping cart. She spots Jack Carter and she says, "Bert Parks! Bert Parks! There she is - Missssss Amerrrrr-icaaaaa! Bert Parks, I love you!" Jack says, "I'm not Bert Parks." She says, "Oh, come on! I know you're Bert Parks. You're famous!" He says, "I'm not Bert Parks! I'm Jack Carter!" She says, "Jack Carter!? I hate Jack Carter!" And she hit him with her shopping bag and walked away!

I did around four or five Sullivan shots with him. It just so happened that we were on the same shows. He was a good guy. When I opened my club down here in Los Angeles he was the first one to come over and say, "If you need any help, I'm here for you. I'll bring people in." Good guy. One thing about Jack - he thought very well of himself (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Now how about Lenny Bruce...

Jackie Curtiss: I used to babysit for Lenny Bruce.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really?

Jackie Curtiss: Yeah, in San Francisco. I had a club. I hired Lenny when nobody else would. I was with him just before he died. The last couple of years, Lenny was in search of the truth and the truth killed him. He was a great guy. To show you how wild his mind was - I would finish my last show and then we would meet at the Thunderbird Hotel on Sunset Blvd at a little coffee shop. We'd meet for breakfast. 

At that time he was writing - law things - for court. People don't realize that Lenny didn't get high to get high. Lenny was in a lot of pain. He was addicted to prescription drugs and everything. Most of the time he was high he was still lucid. He may have been high, but he knew what he was doing. We were talking and I had just heard a joke. I tell it to Lenny. 

"This priest is in the hospital for an appendicitis and two nurses are sitting downstairs and someone leaves a baby on the doorstep. They hear it crying and take it in. One of the nurses says, 'Oh my God, now we're going to have to write up all these papers and everything - we're going to be here all night.' The other nurse says, 'Wait a minute. Let's take the baby upstairs and put it in the bed with that priest that's in ward such and such. We'll tell him he had an immaculate conception.' So they take the baby up there and he believes them. The priest raises the boy and when he reaches the age of twenty-one the priest tells him. 'Son, I have something to tell you. All these years you have thought I am your father. I am not your father. I am your mother. The bishop is your father." So, I told this joke to Lenny and he says, "Ah, man. That's the answer! That's the answer to Catholicism! Suppose Mary just had an emergency appendectomy! Joe never screwed her so a Roman soldier lays this bastard kid on her. That could be the answer!" That's how Lenny's mind worked.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you were babysitting for the child that he and Honey...

Jackie Curtiss: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: This was during their dispute?

Jackie Curtiss: No, what happened was - they were separated. They were friends. They were together. They were separated. They were together. They were separated. She would have a club date, Lenny would have a club date and I'd say, "I'll take care of the baby." That happened a few times in San Francisco.

Kliph Nesteroff: There's a story that when Honey was trying to get full custody, Lenny kidnapped the baby and drove it to Shecky Greene's house where Shecky stashed the child.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes, right. Well, we all have Lenny stories. Lenny's mother was great too.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sally.

Jackie Curtiss: Sally Marr. Her biggest compliment to me was one-night after a Playboy Club show she walked up to me and said, "You know something, Jackie? You're not very funny, but you've got the greatest memory. You remember every joke in the world." That was her little way.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jack E. Leonard?

Jackie Curtiss: Oh, a very good buddy of mine. He introduced Bill Tracy and I on an episode of The Merv Griffin Show. Bill Tracy and I were at the Playboy in Chicago and Jack was at the Camellia Room at the Drake Hotel. He came in and Jack had his pianist, a Filipino piano player. They always pretended he was Japanese so that Jack E. could do Japanese jokes. He came in to see us at the Drake Hotel. 

Like most comics, the first time we'd see a room was during rehearsal. Jack E. Leonard never rehearsed. When he arrived he couldn't go through the front so they'd send him through the kitchen. He had never been in the Camellia Room and this place is fifty years old. He walks out onstage and it is like walking into a tomb. We were sitting ringside and he walks out and says, "Oh my God. Was this room ever new?" I used that line later on whenever I walked into a room like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester.

Jackie Curtiss: Jerry I met two or three times, but I was only close with his brother Buddy Lester. We hung out a lot. Buddy died a couple years ago. We were together here in town every week with a big band for about a year. Buddy was (sighs) Jerry Lester lite. Jerry was the one who was really the funny guy. Buddy was the younger brother who wanted to be Jerry. That doesn't mean Buddy wasn't funny. He was a very funny guy, but he always walked in his brother's shadow.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester's stardom collapsed pretty hard.

Jackie Curtiss: Yes. Same thing. Jerry was very big with the first Tonight Show, Broadway Open House. Jerry was working in Oakland at the Orpheum. Across the street was the Paramount. They had stage shows in movie houses in those days. The Andrews Sisters were working at the Paramount. As a gag, for an opening, when they said, "Ladies and gentleman, here's Jerry Lester!" 

He ran down the aisle, over the pit, up onstage and said, "I'm sorry I'm so late. I was across the street. I went over to see The Andrews Sisters. You know, Patti, Maxine and AHHHHH!" Because Laverne was so ugly. He'd mug this horrible, ugly face.