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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

An Interview with Maynard Sloate - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You were running jam sessions around Los Angeles in the late 1940s, booking jazz musicians at clubs like the Red Feather, the Susie Q and the Melody Room... the Melody Room was where a comedian named Ray Bourbon often performed.

Maynard Sloate: There were two Melody Rooms. The jam sessions I did were not at that Melody Room. Bobby Adler and a man named Harry Rubin owned the Melody Room on the Sunset Strip where Ray Bourbon performed. The other Melody Room was somewhere like Slauson and Van Ness and that's where I did the jam sessions.

Kliph Nesteroff: August 1949, you joined with a guy named Al Dale and formed a booking company, representing Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet and Ella Fitzgerald...

Maynard Sloate: And a lot more. We represented three New York agencies on the West Coast. Those agencies had all the jazz people. We had Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, The Ravens... It lasted a year.

Kliph Nesteroff: That seems like a big deal. How did you come to open Strip City? Going from booking huge jazz acts to running a strip club seems like a step down.

Maynard Sloate: I was playing drums. The last band I played with was Eddie Oliver, a society band. We played the Mocambo and the Del Mar Beach Club. As an agent the last thing I did was book the Melody Room. The guy who owned it had owned the Susy Q. He wanted to open a burlesque joint, so I booked all of his strippers. It looked to me like those clubs were doing a lot of business. I borrowed five thousand dollars from my father. Bill Robinson and Joe Abrahams owned a club called the Oasis. I got them to be my partners. I opened a club called Strip City. We found this club that had closed and been auctioned off. It was on the corner of Western and Pico.

Kliph Nesteroff: It opened in 1950?

Maynard Sloate: 1950.

Kliph Nesteroff: Strip City is famous for its Lenny Bruce association. Before Lenny Bruce did any other comedians play it?

Maynard Sloate: Yes, there were always comedians. None of the others were famous. None of them became stars. They were all working the strip joints.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the others?

Maynard Sloate: Well, we opened with comics named Jerry Moore and Dick Kimble. A guy who had a little success was Joey Carter. Then there was a comic at that time named Slick Slavin. Slick Slavin later became Trustin Howard, a writer. I think the most successful guy who came out of Strip City other than Lenny was the drummer. His name was Bill Richmond and he wrote all the movies with Jerry Lewis. He was our drummer at Strip City. Lord Buckley played it. And Slim Galliard. And Redd Foxx. When I got out of there I went into the Crescendo. Strip City was around for ten years.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Lord Buckley?

Maynard Sloate: Not a great deal. His original act was a vaudeville act where he worked with people out of the audience. He put them onstage, four or five people, and worked them like ventriloquist dummies. At Strip City he was doing the hip version of fairy tales and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and those things. He worked both Strip City and Jazz City. He was pretty nuts (laughs), but no problems. He was all right.

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about the early Redd Foxx?

Maynard Sloate: Redd Foxx never changed. He was not fun to be with. I don't know what to say. He became very successful, of course. I don't know. He was a dirty comic. He had no taste whatsoever. When he was dirty, it was obscene. He would do subjects that were just disgusting. When I talked to him about it he said, "Man, that's my integrity."

Kliph Nesteroff: This was at Strip City? He was not known for playing white rooms at that time.

Maynard Sloate: It was not a white room at that time. The final thing I did before I left Strip City was turn it into all Negro burlesque. "Negro" being the word of the day. So it was all Negro burlesque and Redd was the comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first meet Lenny Bruce?

Maynard Sloate: An agent - name of Lou Dorn - took me to a place in Downey, California. A nightclub called the Cup and Saucer. It's very famous. I'm making it famous. Anyway, the Cup and Saucer in Downey. Lenny had just come to town and Lou Dorn was booking him. Lou Dorn booked all kinds of people in the strip joints. He had the Colony Club in Gardenia, which was the biggest of them. He was probably the most successful of the agents booking strip clubs.

Lenny Bruce was playing the Cup and Saucer. All of the comics who were working in the Los Angeles area were doing pretty much the same act. At that time the army routine was probably the number one piece of material used by most comics. Lenny, having just come from New York, had different material. He was doing a straight, clean act with some impressions and it was different from what the local comics were doing, so I hired him. He played Strip City for seventy-five dollars a week, six nights a week.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was onstage for a significant amount of time each night.

Maynard Sloate: Yeah. At that time we were using two comics. One would do an hour and then the next would do an hour. But the strippers were doing the time. The comedian did fifteen minutes and they would introduce the strippers and do a little time before each stripper to give the band a break. And then the next comic would take over.

Kliph Nesteroff: They say Strip City is where Lenny Bruce came into his own.

Maynard Sloate: Well, Lenny was not doing what he became famous for, but it was probably his most creative period. Both at Strip City and when he worked for me at the Crescendo. That was when he was writing. Buddy Hackett got him a job writing for Leonard Goldstein at Universal. He was working on a Buddy Hackett movie, writing as they were filming. Rewriting, actually. That was when he was doing all of his real creative work from Strip City to the Crescendo to Anne's 440 in San Francisco. Unbelievable and brilliant. At the Crescendo we put a phone in for him and he would call people on the phone and it would come through the sound system. He would have conversations with babysitters, a maitre'd, whatever. He would just wing it and did some very funny things.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1951 - the vice squad busted Strip City. 

Maynard Sloate: Strip joints were a problem to the police department. The problem was that they used to come in to drink and pick up girls. One night there was a party of people in there and at 11:30, the coordinated time, a guy stood up and said, "You're under arrest." He grabbed the stripper. I said, "What are you doing and why are you arresting people?"He said, "I was shocked and embarrassed. We're arresting you for running a lewd and indecent show. I'm taking a stripper, a comic and an owner." So off we went. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the official charge?

Maynard Sloate: Conducting a lewd and indecent show. Scared the living hell out of me. I was a virgin, what did I know? And there was nothing going on. They were going to bust us at 11:30 no matter what was happening.

Kliph Nesteroff: So what happened?

Maynard Sloate: We paid off everyone in town including a catholic priest. Eventually it went to court and I was scared to death of going to jail. We got seventy-five dollar fines. They changed the plea so our lawyer told us to plead guilty to misdemeanors - disturbing the peace.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that a typical thing in Los Angeles at the time?

Maynard Sloate: Yes. The corruption was unbelievable between the police and the State Board of Equalization. It was all corrupt.

Kliph Nesteroff: How would you know who to payoff in such a situation?

Maynard Sloate: We entrusted a "morals attorney." Two or three years later, when we knew every policeman in town, we found out we had plead guilty to conducting a lewd and indecent show not disturbing the peace. So I called the lawyer and he said, "No! I did not!" I said, "Go find out." He plead us guilty to the wrong charge, apparently, and that held until my partner's brother-in-law became one of the most famous attorneys. He put himself through law school cashiering on weekends at Strip City. He became very famous as a first amendment attorney. Years later he said, "What ever happened to that charge?" I said, "I plead guilty to a lewd and indecent show. I think it means I'm a sex offender!" He said, "I'll take care of that." He got it dismissed.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention it was Lenny Bruce's most creative period. What about his drug habit - did it exist at that time?

Maynard Sloate: It didn't exist at Strip City. I remember him telling me that he would never do drugs because the thought of doing one night in jail was enough to scare the hell out of him. Then he became a first class junkie at the Crescendo.

Kliph Nesteroff: You entered into a partnership with Gene Norman's Crescendo in 1957. What lead to your involvement with the Crescendo? It developed into the most important club for stand-up comics in all of Hollywood.

Maynard Sloate: Yeah, and Gene had no sense of humor! He'd say to me, "Is he funny?" But he was a great guy, I liked Gene. Gene Norman had a partner named Chuck Landis. Chuck Landis wanted out. I owned Strip City and Jazz City. I was getting out of Jazz City because our lease was up. We didn't care to stay there any longer even though we were doing very well.

Gene Norman called me and said, "Chuck wants to buy me out. We've set a price and one of us has to buy the other out. The price is ridiculous because it's so cheap, but he doesn't think I can handle the club without him. If you'll come in with me, you can own half of the Crescendo." I was getting out of Jazz City and would have preferred to get out of Strip City. I said, "I'll have to bring my partner with me." So I bought the Crescendo and I sold Jazz City and Strip City.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you were involved with another club called the Avant Garde.

Maynard Sloate: After I sold the Crescendo I opened the Avant Garde.

Kliph Nesteroff: The opening show was Chico Hamilton with comedian Herkie Styles.

Maynard Sloate: Somebody mentioned Herkie Styles the other day at lunch. I haven't thought of Herkie in a hundred years. I knew him, but I knew nothing about him. I was at the Crescendo for about a year, maybe.

Kliph Nesteroff: Long enough to bring in Lenny Bruce.

Maynard Sloate: Yes. I gave him a contract for six months as an opening act for all of the headliners. The only time we couldn't use him was when the Mary Kaye Trio was headlining. Their manager, Billy Burton, didn't want a comic because he said, "We have a comic in our act." 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the general reaction to Lenny from the Crescendo audience?

Maynard Sloate: Gene kept him after I left. He'd give him some dates and finally he couldn't have him anymore. It just became impossible and became unfunny. He was no longer doing comedy, he was doing law.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you around for the notorious night that Lenny Bruce was fired at the Slate Brothers club?

Maynard Sloate: I was involved. Don Rickles had come to town. Don Rickles was playing Zardi's. A guy by the name of Jack Varden owned it and was a friend of mine. So I went in to see this comic he had brought in from Florida - Don Rickles. He was my sense of humor and he killed me. I was bringing people into Zardi's to see Don Rickles. Lenny Bruce called to tell me he was opening at Slate Brothers on the Friday. That was payday for Don Rickles at Zardi's and we went out for breakfast at the Gaiety Deli on the Sunset Strip after he got off work.

So this night was his pay night, but they weren't doing any business and couldn't pay him. He didn't pay Don Rickles. We had breakfast and I had made arrangements to go see Lenny and said to Don, "Do you want to come with us to see Lenny Bruce?" He said, "Sure." Well, as you know Lenny opened and closed in one night and the first call I got in the morning was from Lenny who tells me the story about walking off the stage and telling the audience to go fuck themselves.

So Lenny was gone and he called to tell me what happened. I said, "So I guess I won't be seeing you tonight." We had planned to go see his show and bring Don Rickles. So, of course, who did they get to replace Lenny? The guy who didn't get paid the night before. That was the beginning of Don's whole career.