Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An Interview with Dick Gautier - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I mostly know you as a television actor, but you did stand-up all through the 1950s. You were one of the first comedians to play the hungry i...

Dick Gautier: Yes, well, that was my warm-up. I had just gotten out of the navy in San Francisco. I hung around the hungry i in North Beach because it was very cool. Mort Sahl was there. I said, "God, maybe I'll give it a shot." I met Larry Tucker...

Kliph Nesteroff: Larry Tucker who later became Paul Mazursky's writing partner...

Dick Gautier: That's right. At that time Larry Tucker was Mort Sahl's writer. They came up from L.A. and then Mort took off and left Larry behind. Larry became the maitre'd at the hungry i. He liked my performance and I liked him, he was a good guy. He started writing for me. People expected the Mort kind of thing, but I don't do what Mort does. Anyway, I was successful. I was there for about a year.

Kliph Nesteroff: People talk about Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters at the hungry i, but they weren't there until three or four years after you.

Dick Gautier: Absolutely true. There were people coming up at the Purple Onion across the way like the Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller. A lot of us were coming up at the same time and shared the same kind of background, struggling with offbeat comedy and not the usual fare.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mort Sahl was the first comedian to play the hungry i.

Dick Gautier: Yes, he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you the second? 

Dick Gautier: I believe I was the second. I say that, but someone else could argue. I've always understood that I was the second. Stan Wilson was the guy who was working there, a Black folk singer. He was very good. Everyone told Enrico Banducci, the owner of the Hungry i, "Don't bring in a comic. It's not a comic's room. It's terrible for comics." He said, "Screw you, I'm going to put on this guy Mort Sahl." In the beginning he did not do too well, as I recall. But people finally understood where he was coming from and what he was doing and then, of course, he became a sensational draw. A smash.

Kliph Nesteroff: In what capacity were you hanging out before you decided to go up?

Dick Gautier: I was a sailor who had just gotten discharged. I did a lot of comedy and singing in the navy, but I was looking at what I was going to do in my life. I felt comfortable there and said to Enrico, "Let me audition." I got that job and that was really it. When Mort left for New York, I moved in. My material couldn't touch Mort's, of course, but Larry Tucker and I tried to do different stuff. I did mostly satirical things. I do an awful lot of different voices and dialects. I would do a whole Ingmar Bergman movie with a guy playing chess with death. It was good. It wasn't Copa stuff. It wasn't Jan Murray - not that Jan Murray wasn't great - but it wasn't that kind of comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were playing the hungry i around 1955-1956 it wasn't really well known. But by 1959 when you were playing it with the Kingston Trio it was famous. What was the difference by 1959?

Dick Gautier: I got more respect. In 1956 when I said, "I'm at the hungry i," they went, "uh huh." Later when I said, 'I'm at the hungry i," they went, "Whoa!" That was the difference - the awareness factor. Mort mentioned it and suddenly there was gravitas attributed to the hungry i.

Kliph Nesteroff: A a lot of people recorded comedy records at the hungry i. You never did.

Dick Gautier: I never did. I couldn't do it because I'm much too visual. I was basically an actor, which I didn't know. I would take on the persona of different characters and do the way they walk. It wouldn't work on an album. I did The Horace Heidt Show when I was in the navy. He had a big talent show on the radio and he put on a [lip synch] record act. I'm not kidding - a record act! I sat there and said, "What a schmuck!" At home they heard Spike Jones and a lot of people laughing. I mean, it was ridiculous. Thinking about that I said, "Nah, I can't do a comedy record." I would have to write a special album, so I didn't get into that race. I left it for people who were more verbal like a Bob Newhart.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned you weren't a Jan Murray style comic... you were familiar with Mort Sahl... were you conscious at that time there was a new style in comedy emerging?

Dick Gautier: No, I just knew what I liked. I knew what made me laugh. I wonder if I had seen Jonathan Winters... I don't know if I had seen him or not. I don't remember. But I know I just did what I thought was funny. I did not think this was a new kind of comedy. It just happens. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you and Mort friends?

Dick Gautier: No, not really. I hung out with him with Larry, but when he went to New York he was gone and I took over. We were never close friends, no.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did Larry Tucker ever do an act with you?

Dick Gautier: We never did that. I did an act when I was sixteen with a guy named Mark Marcus who was the saxophone player in a band that I sang with. That was teenage stuff. We did a show on Channel 5 called TeleTeen Reporter. I called it Toiletry Reporter. A guy named Al Bertram, a producer in LA, started that show. We were on television when we were sixteen years old - pretty amazing actually.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did stand-up in New York at a place well-known in comedy circles... Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and others used it as a testing ground - a place called The Duplex.

Dick Gautier: That's right. In fact, the first night Woody ever performed was when I was at the Duplex. The manager came up to me and said, "Dick, would you mind giving up your second show tonight to a writer? He's going to be trying out some stand-up material." I said, "I don't mind." And that was Woody Allen. When I actually met Woody it was many years later. I was up for a part in Annie Hall. Someone said you never know with Woody - he might like you, he might hate you, he might give you two minutes or a half hour. He's unpredictable.

I went in and said, "You know we have a good, mutual friend." Woody asked, "Who's that?" I said, "Irvin Arthur." He said, "Irvin Arthur, my old agent in New York?" I said, "Yes, he was my agent in New York too when I was doing stand-up." We had a nice chat and all that. I got back home and my agent said, "He wants you to do the movie." But the problem was there was no guarantee of billing or money or anything, so I passed. One person I used to go see perform at the Duplex was Marc London, who used to write for Laugh-In. He and Pat McCormick teamed up together.  Pat McCormick worked clubs for a while and he was one of the funniest men I ever met in my life.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a surreal sense of humor.

Dick Gautier: I guess you could call it that. One day we were talking about the worst jobs we ever had. I said, "Okay, Pat, what was the worst job you ever had?" He said, "I was a butt rouger in a baboon mortuary." I don't know if you would call that surreal. Nuts - is what it is. He was a graduate of Yale and really brilliant. Yeah, he was incredible. I loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Duplex was small and intimate...

Dick Gautier: Very small. Everyone was trying to do the hungry i and be a hip little room where everyone would go. I worked the Brown Bear Cafe, the Number One Fifth Avenue, the Blue Angel. A lot of little dinky places like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1956 - you played the Blue Angel with Joey Carter, Laurie Powell, Bart Howard, Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Lyons.

Dick Gautier: That was great. I loved it. Everyone called it "the coffin" because it was long, narrow and lined in velvet. But the people came and they were very intelligent. We never got out-of-towners because they didn't know from this shit. The Blue Angel was very good to me. In fact, it's how I got Bye Bye Birdie. Margaret Whiting was headlining and I was going to open for her - which I did. During the run Gower Champion, the director, and Charles Strouse, who wrote the music, came to see Margaret Whiting. They saw me and evidently made a note that they wanted to see me again. 

I got a call from my agent, "They want to see you when you get back in town." They asked me to read for this thing. I was a little put off because I didn't like rock and roll. Not at that point. I said, "I don't think it's for me. I like Jerome Kern and George Gershwin." They said, "Will you at least come in and audition?" I went in and they said, "Would you sing an Elvis song?" I said, "I don't know any Elvis songs." So they just played some blues and I ad-libbed and I guess they liked it. Couple months later they called. I said to Charlie, "It's not for me. I feel very inhibited and very intimidated by this whole Elvis thing because it's not me." He said, "It's a satire." Then I went, "Ohhhhh." When he said that, then I got it. Suddenly it was okay. I got the part, got a Tony nomination, and my career was in a whole different place. I didn't work nightclubs anymore.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Interview with Theodore J. Flicker

Kliph Nesteroff: You were an early member of the Compass Theater - the precursor to the Second City. I wanted to talk to you about that and also your improvisational offshoot - a collective not too many people know about called The Premise.

Ted Flicker: The best book about the Compass Theater - with the most honest details - is The Compass by Janet Coleman.

Kliph Nesteroff: The book Mike Nichols was none too happy about.

Ted Flicker: Yeah, he wasn't happy about it. Mike Nichols is an absolute brilliant stylist, but his real skill is in seducing people. He can make you believe in two minutes that you are brothers. We had an unfortunate event take place when I was doing the Compass Theater in St. Louis.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Compass had a second version in St. Louis... but was originally in Chicago...

Ted Flicker: Yes and I was trying to raise money to bring the Compass Theater to New York. Mike Nichols and Elaine May were back in St. Louis.

Elaine May called and said if I didn't fire Mike she was going to quit because Mike was trying to take the theater away from me. So I called him up and fired him. When they were stars on Broadway he kept a picture of me in his dressing room on a dart board. Years later he was on a plane with Elaine and Buck Henry was with him...

Mike started in on me again and Buck said, "Enough is enough. Elaine - tell him what happened." And she did. He of course burst into tears because Elaine betrayed him. I was making The President's Analyst at Paramount when he was making The Graduate. He came into my office and told me what happened on the plane. But that book - of course he wasn't happy with it because it tells the truth.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you entered the Compass - was it already in full swing?

Ted Flicker: Yes and it was in terrible shape. I got a call from Severn Darden who was there from the start. Severn and I had been friends since we were freshmen in college. I found the oldest standing legit theater in New York on 34th and 3rd and wanted to buy it. I wanted to open a people's theater. I began raising money. I wish I still had the letters between me and William Saroyan. He wanted me to open with a play of his called Fat Man in a Famine.

I had letters where he explained why it was a better play than MacBeth. Anyway, I failed. I went to the unions - IATSE - and met with the councils. I said, "Look, I don't want to lower anybody's salary. If this is going to work it is only going to work if I can hire the people with no further betting." They laughed me out of the room and that was the end of it. I then got a call from Severn who said he was doing an improvisational thing in Chicago - might I be interested? Mike Nichols and I joined the Compass at the same time.

I got a promise of thirty-four thousand backing to bring the Compass to New York, but it just didn't work out. This guy Fred Landesman from St. Louis showed up saying he had a bar called The Crystal Palace and asked if we would like to do it there. Walter Beakel was directing the Compass and he said to me, "Yeah, you want me to go down to St. Louis cause you're going to go to New York!" I said, "No, we'll rotate companies - St. Louis and New York." He refused. So I said, "Fine. I'll go down to St. Louis." I cast it differently than it was cast in Chicago. Elaine May and I were in the rooming house Fred Landesman owned in St. Louis. We would meet every morning for breakfast and figure out rules for public improvisation. Every afternoon we would test those rules and apply them in the show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you basing those rules on the Viola Spolin school of improvisation?

Ted Flicker: No, but of course we all knew her and her teachings. Elaine and I were inventing them from our own experience. When you improvise in a classroom, your only obligation is to yourself and exploration of yourself. But when you improvise in public you are obligated to entertain them. Prior to my joining the Compass, they had tried a style called Scenario. They would write an outline of a story and then improvise to the outline. They chose to do The Execution of Private Slovak. Five hours. They had maybe a quarter of the theater filled by the first act - by the end of the first act there was nobody there.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about the Landesmans... they were responsible for the bohemia that existed in St. Louis, which seems totally incongruous. Fred Landesman, Jay Landesman and Fran Landesman. The Crystal Palace in St. Louis is a lost cog in the history of comedy, but everyone from Lenny Bruce to Fred Willard to Allen Ginsberg came through there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I don't think anyone would believe you if you told them St. Louis had been a hub of progressive politics, the arts...

Ted Flicker: Yes, and of beatnik activity. Fred Landesman was a genius. His paintings were fascinating. He had a Romanesque house in St. Louis. There were all these private streets with mansions on them. Fred had this mansion and he put us up on the top floor. I had one bedroom, Elaine May had the other and then there was the kitchen. Below was a kind of guest house for the rest of the cast. Fred was incredibly charming - a snake - very capable in terms of business and he collected crystal. He had barrels of Czechoslovakian crystal with which he built chandeliers. That was just a thing he did. He ran a successful business and I loved him. And I trusted him. Big mistake. The Compass was such a success in the original Crystal Palace. It was just a bar. Based on that hit, I suggested we start a monthly repertory theater in St. Louis. Fred and I raised the money. We were partners.

He found a building up in Gaslight Square. But Fred was weird - something was not quite right. One day I said to our secretary, "You  know, I've never seen the incorporation documents. I would love to see my name on a grown up thing like a corporation." Well, I looked and my name wasn't on it. I went to him, "Hey, Fred. What happened? We're partners!" He said, "Actually... we're not. You work for me..." He wanted to take over, choosing which plays we would do. My last play of the year was going to be a Beckett. He said, "You can't do the Beckett play." I said, "That's what I do! I choose the plays!" He said, "Well, if you insist, I am going to close the theater and turn it into a nightclub." Well, I knew that Fran Landesman would sell her babies to write lyrics for a musical and I knew that Fran happened to be Fred Landesman's mistress even though she was Jay Landesman's wife.

I went to Fran and said, "Too bad, Fran, I was going to ask you to write the lyrics to this musical I'm doing - The Nervous Set - but Fred is going to close the theater." Well, she went to Fred and threw herself on the floor - and he didn't close the theater. Jay had written a book called Nerves. It was about the Beats in New York. I said I would turn it into a cool jazz musical. The music was brilliant, the lyrics were brilliant, but my writing stunk. Anyhow, we opened with The Nervous Set and I gave a case of scotch to the stringer who wrote a rave review in Variety because I knew he was a drunk.

From that rave review I started getting inquiries from all kinds of Broadway producers. I had to do it fast because Fred didn't want it to happen. One producer insisted on an immediate decision - Robert Lantz. Robbie was one of the top agents in New York City, elegant, sophisticated. This was going to be his first ever production. I wish I would have gone with a more seasoned producer. But I said yes and when Fred came back he couldn't do anything about it. We transferred to New York. I was not ready to do a Broadway play. I couldn't take criticism. It flopped. Not taking criticism also ruined my career in Hollywood. No matter what criticism I got I would say, "Go fuck yourself." You can only say that to a studio head a couple of times until you are persona non grata.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Nervous Set was a Beat Generation musical... there was a cast album...

Ted Flicker: Yes, there are some good songs on there. Night People, All the Sad Young Men...

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the songs became a standard...

Ted Flicker: Yes, Spring Can Hang You Up the Most became a jazz standard.

Kliph Nesteroff: Back to St. Louis and the Crystal Palace - at what point did it turn into a nightclub? Did you stay there?

Ted Flicker: No, when Fred took the theater away from me I went back to New York to make a career.

Kliph Nesteroff: Alan Arkin, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were in the St. Louis Compass...

Ted Flicker: Not when I was there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were the Compass Players when you ran it?

Ted Flicker: Del Close I brought out. Elaine May came later. She was sitting on the floor in her bedroom. I came in to talk and she said, "Where does a girl get laid around here?" I thought, "Oh no, not me." I mean, she was a very strong, fascinating, brilliant woman but I would just as soon stick my dick in a garbage disposal. I said, "Del! You can have Del!" And the next day Del was skipping around. It almost ruined his life carrying her bags. I taught Del to improvise.

He became the improvisational guru for all the kids in Saturday Night Live. Del was a wacko guy and I loved him. I mean, he was seriously strange. He taught me to fire eat, which we did in one improvisation. He really had a career when he became a teacher, but his life was essentially a failure. He wasn't happy. He was an underground figure. When he died, in his will, he left his head to the Goodman Theater. Except the truth was they wouldn't accept his head for some hygiene reason or law or something. So they found a legal skull and said it was Del.

Kliph Nesteroff: At the Compass you worked with Shelley Berman.

Ted Flicker: Shelley was a swine. I didn't bring Shelley from Chicago to St. Louis. He was a greedy, selfish performer. Severn would come onstage and hold his hands out like he had something in them and say, "Look at my rabbit." Shelley would do the cardinal sin of improvisation. He made the audience his ally in making a fool of Severn because there was no rabbit. I saw him do that and said, "When it's my company, he ain't going to be with it." He was a mean man. I didn't like Shelley. But he was talented and he was funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's a common kvetch about those who later became successful as solos. You hear the same complaint about Joan Rivers and David Steinberg when they were at the Second City - that they weren't team players.

Ted Flicker: Yeah. Shelley had a good, rich career - until it failed. I couldn't work with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Some blame the splintering of the Chicago Compass on Shelley Berman.

Ted Flicker: I wouldn't doubt it. I wasn't there at that time. I had opened The Premise. So I wasn't there for all the beginnings of the Second City, but I knew everybody there. We just had a different philosophy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You founded the Premise in Autumn of 1960.

Ted Flicker: Yes, it was with Tom Aldredge and for forty years he worked in everything I did. When he died he was the grand old man of Broadway. If he was in a play that got rapped by the critics they would say, "except for Tom Aldredge who was great." He was an actor incapable of an artistic lie. He played the father on Boardwalk Empire . 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the premise of The Premise? It was very political.

Ted Flicker: I decided I would interview any actor who wanted to see me. It took three months. I saw a thousand people. I gave everyone one minute and I called back half. I gave everyone a set piece and then taught them how to do an improv scene. Joan Darling came in with an actor. I explained roughly how they could go about it. I said, "It's a jungle." He said, "Look! Here come the warrior ants!" The first thing Joan did was look at her watch. I said, "They're on a schedule, right?" She said, "Yes!" I hired her right there. 

Kliph Nesteroff: George Segal was hired as one of the main actors. His fist gig. He and Buck Henry did many scenes together.

Ted Flicker: He was the younger brother of two guys I went to Bard College with. A close family friend. His oldest brother called and told me George was doing a play at Princeton. I went and I thought he had talent, although he was awfully young. He needed to be seasoned, but could do it. He and Buck Henry turned out to be a perfect team. George was always Buck's stooge at the Premise and it worked.

I knew Buck was talented but initially I didn't have any room for him in New York. I had a second company that played that summer in Westport, Connecticut. I had Zev Putterman direct it, Peter Bonerz was in it, and I put Buck Henry in it. In New York one day I came in and there was a single spotlight focused on a box on the stage. On it was a fortune cookie. I went over, opened it, and the fortune said, "Help! I'm trapped in the Westport company." I immediately brought Buck to New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also opened a Premise offshoot in Washington DC at the Shoreham Hotel.

Ted Flicker: Oh boy, that was a hoot. That was incredible. Originally I had the walls decorated with the flags of all those Balkan countries that no longer existed. Opening night we had all of Washington there including vice president Johnson. Somehow, Washington loved us. I think we played for six months. Only the communist representatives had the grace to walk out when we made fun of them. Hubert Humphrey sat next to Johnson and at the end of each scene he would explain to Johnson why it was funny. That was quite a night. It was quite a whole period.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Premise started to get hot in New York. At the same time there was a lot of heat in New York about the cabaret card system - a terribly corrupt thing that ruined a lot of performers.

Ted Flicker: The Premise leased the toughest dyke bar in the Village. They used to station eight cops there every Saturday night. I knew if I was going to be doing business down there, I better get a local Village lawyer. He gave me a mimeographed sheet of who got paid off and how much. I thought, "I'm opening a theater of political satire... and I need to pay people off?" The first guy who came in was the health inspector. He said, "Let's take a look at the kitchen." I took thirty-five dollars - which was on the sheet - and kept it in my sweating palm. I said, "It's so nice of you to come early to make sure everything in the kitchen is all right..." He looked at me and said, "Son. Don't worry about it. Just hand me the thirty-five dollars."

Well, I did. And then I went crazy wondering how I could have done that. The next guy in was the police sergeant. We're in front of the theater and he said, "Let's go take a look at the kitchen." That was the code. I said, "Sergeant, I'm not paying you off. I'm not paying anyone off." I was hip enough to understand I was in serious trouble. That Saturday I came to the Premise and the street was full of fire trucks. The place is full of firemen inspecting everything. They said, "It's a fire trap. You're closed." Well, fortunately Art D'Lugoff had his club across the street and we started doing our show there. We played to full houses. A reporter wrote a column in the Herald Tribune.

I told him what was going on and he wrote a column the next day about the whole payoff thing. He then wrote another column a week later. And then another a week after that. All about the corruption. They said, "Hey, get him to lay off and you'll be okay." So I did and I thought I was okay. There was a place down the street, an Italian restaurant. A guy named Peter Mungroni owned it. He'd say, "C'mon, why don't you give them the money? Why are you making trouble?" One night I'm having dinner in there with a lawyer and Pete comes over as usual, but he was absolutely shaking. He took me outside and said, "I represent a bunch of nightclubs in Westchester County, all of them run by the mafia. You know who that lawyer you're sitting with is? When I have a beef with the local capo, they send me to that lawyer to straighten it out." I said, "Whoa, fuck."

Who knew? So I'm having drinks with him and I tell him about my troubles with the city and everything else. The city was going to have a hearing in ten days to close me down. Next day I was in my office and in comes this fat guy in an old fashioned undershirt. He says, "I'm the super of number 10. My people are going to say no unless you give me five thousand dollars." I said, "I don't have that kind of money. Wait. I'll be right back." So I ran down to Pete. I said, "There's a guy in there trying to shake me down for five grand." He said, "Wait here." He came back, "Okay, nobody is in your office now. Don't worry about it." Nobody gave me any more trouble.

Kliph Nesteroff: Art D'Lugoff's venue across the street - was that the Village Gate?

Ted Flicker: Yeah. Art was a good guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the other characters in the Village at the time... One of the people that inspired the tone of the Second City - and presumably the Premise - was Lenny Bruce.

Ted Flicker: Well, Lenny hung out at the Premise. He said to us, "I can't believe what I'm seeing. You do it with love." He was there a lot. I didn't know until later that our lobby was his drug drop.  But yes, he influenced all of us.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the greatest victims of the cabaret card system was Lord Buckley.

Ted Flicker: Yes, it was that same fight. The payoff fight. The police issued cabaret licenses and I finally got a smart lawyer that figured it out. If we put down that what we were doing was "an exhibition of mental agility" we could get the same license that Madison Square Garden had, an exhibition hall license. He did it. I asked this lawyer, "Why are you helping us?" He said, "I have a 13 year old son. I don't want him to grow up in a city with no culture. We need to help people like you." I was so impressed. Many months later we were a success and I picked up the paper and that lawyer had been indicted on a corruption charge!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Sandy Baron? He was a nightclub comedian you used occasionally.

Ted Flicker: Sandy was funny. He was a little vulgar. He lacked character. It was not fun to be around Sandy, but he was talented.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the problem with Sandy Baron?

Ted Flicker: I don't even remember. That was a long, long time ago. It was an unhappy feeling.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the most interesting things you did at that time was The Living Premise - with Godfrey Cambridge, Al Freeman Jr and Diana Sands. Calvin Ander and Joanne LacComp were supporting players. Racially themed sketch comedy. An all-Black cast with white supporting actors.

Ted Flicker: Joanne LaComp was the perfect Anita Ofay, the white girl who only goes out with Black guys. Calvin was the quintessential, uptight bourgeois. Godfrey Cambridge was brilliant. Diana Sands never gave a public performance that was as good as her rehearsals. The public performances were terrific, but she was terrified of the Ruby Dee effect. Ruby Dee got reviews that an actress waits an entire lifetime for. Had she been white the phone would have rung off the hook. But it never rang once and it almost killed her. Diana was afraid of that. She finally got what she longed for. She was the leading lady at the Lincoln Center and got to play all the great roles. Then at 39 she got cancer and died.

Kliph Nesteroff: Godfrey Cambridge also died young.

Ted Flicker: Godfrey and I were pals. He came to California when I was making pictures and called me. I invited him out to our beach house. My wife and I had recently married. She had never met a Black person socially. She was nervous as hell about how she was going to entertain a Black person! 

Godfrey came and they loved each other. Then we get a call while we were having dinner from the sheriff telling us of a tsunami warning. We started preparing things in case we had to flee. Godfrey weighed three hundred pounds. I said, "Come on Godfrey." And he couldn't get out of this chair. He was stuck! We started to laugh and we finally got him out of the fucking chair but from thereon he loved her and she loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You kind of started his career...

Ted Flicker: Well, I would never say I discovered him. He was an actor, he worked here and there. At the Premise he got to show what he could really do and his career started to happen. Because I did the integrated Premise - the first integrated theater in New York - they opened a Black theater. The New York Times refused my first ad. I wanted an ad: The Premise - in Spades. They turned it down. So then it was The Premise - In Living Color. And they turned that down.

Kliph Nesteroff: Reviews called The Living Premise biting and incendiary. Variety talked about how uncomfortable it made the audience.

Ted Flicker: I was so pleased!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Billy Gray's Band Box: New Article at WFMU

There is a brand new article up at WFMU called Hollywood's First Comedy Club. It chronicles the ascendance and demise of Billy Gray's Band Box, how it sprung from Slapsy Maxie's and gave early gigs to Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Dick Van Dyke and many more. It's a revised piece cut from my book Drunks, Thieves and Scoundrels: Comedians in America. Grove Atlantic releases the book this time next year. Get updates here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Interview with Orson Bean - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm going to rattle off a list of different people you worked with and you just tell me whatever comes to mind. You played the Blue Angel with Tom Lehrer.

Orson Bean: Yes, Tom Lehrer was still teaching at Harvard. He played it just for a week and it was packed with Harvard kids. He did Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and all that stuff. I saw him once in a while over the years.

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1954 - you played the Blue Angel with Andy Griffith.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I didn't get to know Andy much. I never found his stuff all that funny. It was more folksy than funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's weird that he even did nightclubs.

Orson Bean: Yes, he didn't do it a lot. A Face in the Crowd - that was his metier.

Kliph Nesteroff: Seems that you could get away with that in a New York cabaret whereas if you put that sort of act in Las Vegas it wouldn't go over. There were a lot of comediennes in that cabaret scene like Connie Sawyer and Imogene Coca and Kaye Ballard, who never played the huge rooms.

Orson Bean: That's absolutely right. They would do fine in a small room, were just moderately funny, and the audience considered itself in and hip. They wanted to like you. But I played Vegas and boy, was it a painful experience. It was all heavy hitters from Texas and they didn't know what the fuck I was about. It was a very Jim Crow town. Completely. I used to grab a cab after my last show to where the Black dishwashers and maids lived and go to a little blues club. I was maybe one of two white faces in there. I didn't have a good experience working Vegas.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Thunderbird.

Orson Bean: Yes, I played the Thunderbird with a woman named Sunny Gale who had a one hit wonder. In those days the Strip was a hotel and maybe an eighth of a mile of tumbleweed. It wasn't wall to wall clubs like now. Everything was free. At five o'clock in the morning a guy came out in the lobby of the The Thunderbird with a big stainless steel cart and a slab of roast beef and he would cut a thick slab and hand it to you free.

Kliph Nesteroff: Earlier you mentioned Max Gordon of Blue Angel fame. I need you to help me distinguish between the Blue Angel Max Gordon and the Max Gordon of Broadway. As I gather, there were two different Max Gordons in New York at that time that were showbiz impresarios...

Orson Bean: Max Gordon of Broadway produced big Broadway shows like The Solid Gold Cadillac. The other Max Gordon owned the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. The last time I saw the Blue Angel Max Gordon it was the fiftieth anniversary. I emceed and Irwin Corey went on. Irwin Corey would famously never get off. Max Gordon's wife came to me, "Can you get him off? Max is tired." All these famous people were waiting to go on. I waited until Irwin got a big laugh and I ran out, grabbed the mic, "Irwin Corey, ladies and gentleman! Let's hear it!" Confused, he bowed. I introduced the next act.  He yelled, "Wait, I wasn't through!" But it was too late.

Kliph Nesteroff: I interviewed him a few months back. He's 99 years old. [Corey has since turned 100]

Orson Bean: Is he 99! Is he still saying however? He actually came up to me - and he meant this - he said, "You stole my word!" I had said however, not as a joke, but in the course of whatever I was talking about and he accused me of stealing his word.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are a couple guys like that. Irwin Corey and Will Jordan say everyone stole everything from them, no matter how slight. Irwin Corey says Woody Allen stole material from him and that Mort Sahl stole "The future lies ahead." Will Jordan says Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks stole his act. They have convinced themselves of this.

Orson Bean: Will Jordan used to go to a place called The Gag Writers. It was kind of a club where you could try out material. A lot of people did Ed Sullivan impersonations, but Will did the very first. Will Jordan came up to Jackie Mason and said, "That Ed Sullivan impression you do is great. Where did you get the idea for that?" Jackie said, "Years ago there was a place called the Gag Writers Club and there was this fat, Jewish kid with glasses..." Will Jordan said, "I'm that fat kid with glasses!"

Kliph Nesteroff: I've talked with Will Jordan at length. He will talk...

Orson Bean: Endlessly.

Kliph Nesteroff: But he's fun to listen to. I want to ask you about the New York cabaret card system. You were part of a group that organized against it. Can you talk about that a bit? In the 1950s if you were a comedian with a criminal record you weren't allowed on a New York stage - or something like that. Very strange, draconian kind of thing.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I never understood it too much. This literati group mixed with the cabaret people. It was some of the New York Review of Books types. I can't think of their names, but my wife's sister is married to a guy who was the top editor at Random House. He hung out with all these New York reviewers and they got involved because of Lord Buckley.

I met Lord Buckley when I was just a kid in Boston. There was a place called Dave Schwartz's, which was the Lindy's of Boston. After we had done our acts we would hang out there. Buckley was working in town. He said, "Come with me!" And a group of us followed him. We would have followed him anywhere. He would get up on the running boards of cars and deliver a lecture to whoever would listen. He wouldn't sign the police card thing or couldn't get one... and that got a lot of publicity.

Kliph Nesteroff: This issue, the police card - the cabaret card - it broke Buckley and lead to his eventual demise the same way Lenny Bruce was plagued by legal problems.

Orson Bean: Lenny couldn't help himself. Lenny did routines about people learning to gamble by playing bingo in the Catholic church. The Irish cops would come in and arrest him for something tepid. He insisted on fighting his own cases and he became obsessed with it. You're not apt to be funny when you're obsessed with justice.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you friends?

Orson Bean: I considered him a friend. I don't think he considered me a friend. I idolized him. I thought he was just brilliant. I'd give him books to read. I gave him Lady Chatterley's Lover. He never bothered to read it. I gave him a book called Star Wormwood by a guy named Curtis Bok, a Harvard professor. It was about a kid who accidentally kills someone and then eats him. It was an anti-death penalty book and he found that fascinating. I think he was already using heroin, although I didn't know it. I went to see him shortly after JFK's assassination. He did two concerts. One at eight and one at eleven. I went to the eleven.

I was in a show called Subways Are For Sleeping. I asked Phyllis Newman, who was married to Adolph Green, to come along. They had never heard Lenny Bruce. Apparently at the 8 o'clock show he did assassination jokes that got screams. At eleven, ooh, the audience froze. I think maybe he was tired and didn't do it as wholeheartedly. That outrageous stuff sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did many panel shows and game shows. You did Pantomime Quiz in the 1950s with Milt Kamen.

Orson Bean: Yes, Milt Kamen was my best friend for a long time. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Milt Kamen is a forgotten stand-up, but he was beloved by comedians.

Orson Bean: He had worked in orchestras and before that he worked as a zepplin pusher. He worked in the garment district when he was young. A zepplin was a rack of clothes that you pushed along the sidewalks at high speeds. He worked for a guy named Bushman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Milt Kamen was Sid Caesar's stand-in on television and I've been told he would invent shtick during rehearsal that Sid would then do on air.

Orson Bean: Milt had to learn everything in the show and those were the days of live TV. They did it from a theater up on 58th and Broadway. In the old days Broadway existed all the way up to Central Park. At the final dress rehearsal it would be packed with an audience and it was Milt performing as the director shouted the blocking instructions. Milt got to do the entire Sid Caesar show in front of an audience of several hundred people every week.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another old school guy on Pantomime Quiz was Peter Donald.

Orson Bean: Peter Donald had been the emcee of Can You Top This with Senator Ford and Joe Laurie Jr on radio. I listened to it because it was fairly hip. I never thought Peter Donald was that funny, but he was still great. Audrey Meadows worked on it and he loved her. I got to know her and Art Carney so I used to go and watch them shoot The Honeymooners. They shot it with Electronicam, which was an invention of Desi Arnaz.

That's why to this day those two shows still exist. Gleason leased the thing from Desilu to shoot The Honeymooners. Gleason would come in not knowing a fucking line - drunk as a skunk - and he was brilliant! A genius! They had to learn all of his lines. To this day you can hear Audrey Meadows go, "Next I suppose you're going to tell me you've invited the boss to dinner." "I've invited the boss to dinner." Leading him in.

Gleason was wonderful. I wound up working with him several times. I used to come around when he was doing his big variety show from Studio 50, which is now called The Ed Sullivan Theater. He would sit there before the show and all the comics would come in. A few times I'd come by and he'd say, "Let the kid in - he's good." He'd tell these wonderful stories and the comics would howl. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Nobody could do a take quite as good as Jackie Gleason. He could make more out of nothing...

Orson Bean: Oh, yes, out of nothing. I loved his Reggie Van Gleason. Wonderful character.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an ill-fated version of Make Me Laugh hosted by Robert Q. Lewis.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I never found Robert Q. Lewis funny. I also did a Studio One with Robert Q. Lewis. But Robert Q. was one of these guys... there were a certain amount of guys who had a niche... and nobody knew why exactly. There's the story about the guy who falls off a building, hits an awning as he's coming down, slides off the awning as a hay truck is driving by and lands right in the hay. Someone says, "God, you have got to be the luckiest guy in the world!" The guys says, "No. Robert Q. Lewis."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) All the goyish, boyish hosts... Garry Moore, Robert Q. Lewis, Hal March, George DeWitt, Durward Kirby...

Orson Bean: Garry Moore's stage manager on I've Got a Secet was Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Allan Sherman.

Orson Bean: Yeah, he was the stage manager for Goodson Todman. He used to do routines at parties.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw an episode that apparently resulted in Allan Sherman's firing. Garry Moore was away and Henry Morgan was the guest host...

Orson Bean: (laughs) I'm already laughing and I don't even know what the story is!

Kliph Nesteroff: Henry wasn't the greatest of hosts but it was one of these rare episodes where they had three guests and they all guessed the secret on the first try so suddenly they had half a show to fill and no more guests and Henry is the host...

Orson Bean: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: You can see Allan Sherman's hands gesturing and then whispering from offstage and then shouting about what he should do. 

Orson Bean: When Fred Allen lost his radio show NBC was still paying him so they had him go on What's My Line or things like that and he hated it. He didn't want to be a panelist. I remember Bennett Cerf saying to him, "You only have two more minutes, Fred." And he said, "It's more than I need."

Kliph Nesteroff: The chemistry of What's My Line, I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth was great. They hold up better than almost any other television programming of that era, but most of the quiz shows were forgettable. You were on one called Says Who, which Henry Morgan hosted. One episode the guests were Joey Adams, Dagmar, Jim Backus and yourself.

Orson Bean: Oh, God. Dagmar was the foil for the very first late night show before the Tonight Show Broadway Open House. But why am I telling this to you? What was the comic's name?

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester.

Orson Bean: Jerry Lester. Jerry was funny. Dagmar with the big tits was married to this little shrimp of a guy. A comic. Dagmar was like a celebrity for a while. I don't even remember what Says Who was. There were so many of them. Keep Talking and Says Who...

Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently Jerry Lester did not get along with his brother Buddy Lester, who was also a comedian.

Orson Bean: Absolutely. Buddy Lester was a mean drunk. I never worked the Mountains, but I worked one little joint called Chester's. It was filled with old, Jewish Communists near Grossingers and the Concord. One of the old guys came up to me. "Your act is very socially relevant." That was my review.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Tonight Show host Jack Paar? You were on the episode in which he quit on-air and walked off the show.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I was. He surpised everyone. Hugh Downs was the sidekick and took over. Paar said he was never coming back. I kind of expected that I would replace Paar because I was a regular substitute. I stuck up for Paar. I had heard there was a suit who was really pissed off at me for badmouthing NBC, so I was taken out of the running. Oddly enough, Paar did not appreciate my sticking up for him. Paar wanted people to be beholden to him. When he came back he invited all of his friends to sit in the studio audience and I wasn't invited. I couldn't understand it. Then years later I realized he didn't like that I stuck up for him. It's an odd sort of thing. It was the part of Paar I never understood exactly.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shelley Berman told me that Paar never talked to him again for the opposite reason - because he did not stick up for him.

Orson Bean: Paar was a very odd guy. He was very complicated and strange and moody. He liked me as a substitute host because I didn't threaten him. Johnny Carson always booked subsitute hosts who were good, but not so good that they would threaten him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Paar - when you look back on it - he wasn't even on television that long. His Tonight Show was 1957 to 1962. Compared to today that's nothing. Someone like Stephen Colbert has been on television twice as long. Conan O'Brien four times as long. David Letterman seven times as long.

Orson Bean: Yes, when he retired he really retired and Johnny Carson did the same thing. I must say I loved Johnny but I never socialized with him. We had a great relationship around the studio. "You got a joke for me, Orson?" In the make-up room, that kind of thing. When he retired that was it. Never came back and did a special or anything. Paar essentially did the same. He retired to Maine and bought a local TV station and ran that.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did your comedy LP - Orson Bean Live at the hungry i - come to be? It was on Fantasy Records, the same label as Lenny Bruce.

Orson Bean: Yes, it was. The guy who managed the club was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was no longer in the business so he ran the hungry i and said, "Let me record you." He just edited the thing together and made an album out of it. Lenny and I both shared the fact that Fantasy never paid us a penny. He sued, but nothing came of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Its cover really encapsulates the era - with you in front of that famous brick wall.

Orson Bean: And the original record is a translucent red.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of that era when people were being labeled as "sick comedians?"

Orson Bean: It was Leave it to Beaver. There were certain things about the 1950s. If you fell asleep in New York on a hot night in Central Park you just slept there. There was no street crime to speak of. There was a drugstore every other block where you could buy a rubber or something. I would go to 52nd Street to the jazz joints and they were going to three or four in the morning. The subway was a nickel. That aspect of it was nice. Then there was the other side. If you touched Pearl Bailey's arm on television the show would cut away. And people were called "sick comedians" if they were just a little irreverent. I, of course, enjoyed the era because I was having great success all of a sudden.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a Broadway show with Godfrey Cambridge.

Orson Bean: Yes, Godfrey played my butler in Herman Wouk's play Nature's Way. We opened in Wilmington, Delaware. We all stayed in the same hotel except for Godfrey who had to stay in a cheap hotel by the bus station.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Phil Silvers.

Orson Bean: I did a Sgt Bilko, but I never got to know him. He was a deeply unhappy man. My first ex-wife and I were on Bilko together. Maurice Gosfield played a character named Doberman and he was really a moron. He was popular with viewers, but on set they would make fun of him to his face.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Buddy Hackett?

Orson Bean: Buddy I saw right to the end. When he would see me he would say, "An Irishman, an englishman and a Jew...:" He wouldn't say hello, he would launch right into a joke. I loved Buddy. Very sweet. He kind of waxed philosophical with me. He found me intellectual. He would tell me a joke and then he would start talking to me about deeper things, which I don't think he mentioned to his other friends. He had this great big stone elephant in his yard that the neighbors were horrified by.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dick Shawn.

Orson Bean: I never liked him and I never found him funny. I was also jealous of him because he got parts I wanted to do. I don't know. I never warmed up to Dick Shawn. I found him arrogant. I remember one time I rode in an elevator with Henry Fonda. I was a young comic. He kind of gave me hard eyes and brushed me off and for years I told people what a prick he was. Then I got to spend a week with him and he was wonderful. I had the most wonderful week with him! And I had bad mouthed him after being in an elevator with him. I thought, "What the fuck was I thinking?" I formed an opinion that had nothing to do with anything. So I don't know...

Kliph Nesteroff: Red Skelton.

Orson Bean: Red Skelton I loved. He was an angel. When I was a young comic he was so generous with me. He walked in on a live show I was doing at the Blue Angel and got a big laugh. He threw his arm around me and he was sweet as sugar. Of course I had adored him in The Fuller Bush Man and all the movies. Liberace was another. People would do that. They would walk into your show and people would laugh and applaud. That's what Bob Hope used to do with Carson.