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!


Anonymous said...

Very true about the Ruby Dee effect. And very sad.

It continues to this day; some talented ladies of color who write, direct, act for years and years.... and there is nothing in wikipedia about them. No attention paid to them whatsoever. Angela Gibbs, who was brilliant as Ms. Tudi in "Black Jesus" for example. Then some little blonde girl comes along, gets a small part in some crap comedy, and suddenly: a star!

Anonymous said...

Regarding Elaine May "...but I would just as soon stick my dick in a garbage disposal."


greg6363 said...

So glad you were able to interview Mr. Flicker before his death this past September.

bruce said...

I hope you covered the Flicker & Buck Henry film "The Troublemaker" in more of the interview. This was about corrupt officials who need to be paid off to start a club in the Village. Godfrey Cambridge is hilarious as a Fire Inspector with a thick Irish brogue. My parents took my brother and me (9,11) to see this in the summer of 1964, when it came out. I haven't seen it since, but I still remember Godfrey Cambridge!

Anonymous said...

All I can say is: there had better be more of this.

fromnabulax said...

I was ten when shooting of The President's Analyst was happening. My aunt was production secretary for Flicker on those days. For a crisp five dollar bill my aunt hired me to come down to the office and sit licking all the payroll and other envelopes that needed mailing.
Why, if it hadn't been for me, those guys would never have gotten paid.
Looking forward to the rest of this. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Nothing about "The President's Analyst"????!!!!

authorgary said...

Great interview. Historic! Maybe that improv background explains how he conjured Coburn's best ever performance in THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST, the only film that showcased his whole range.