Sunday, August 10, 2014

An Interview with Frankie Ray - Part One

Frankie Ray: Hold on. Let me lower this Hedy Lamarr movie. I'm giving it up for you. White Cargo.

Kliph Nesteroff: I love that movie.

Frankie Ray: Yeah, she liked me toward the end. Her lawyer lived in the same building as me. She wanted me to bring nuts for her monkey. I thought, "How do you like this? When I was thirteen I saw her in Casbah with Charles Boyer and now here I am all these years later, hanging up the phone saying, "Sorry, I can't bring you nuts today." 

Kliph Nesteroff: She must have utilized that lawyer. Didn't she run into a lot of legal issues...

Frankie Ray: Yes, she was shoplifting. She was on a health kick. I don't think she ever ate meat.

Kliph Nesteroff: Her and Gloria Swanson were the two golden age beauties on a health kick...

Frankie Ray: Yes, right. There used to be a place here called Schwab's Drugstore and I used to go there in the mornings for coffee. Next to it was a health store. This elderly woman said to me, "You're not going to eat that are you?" I mumbled, "Oh, fuck." I said, "Maybe. Why?" She gave me a whole lecture and everything.

We kept talking about different things and she looked familiar. I went back to that health store and she was in there. We talked about all kinds of things. After about a week the guy in the store says, "You missing your friend?" It was Greta Garbo (laughs). I was so mad at myself! You know, she was very smart. Every time she got a check she bought property in Beverly Hills. She was a millionaire, one of very few that did good that way. But fuck them! You're supposed to talk about me!

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, well, the two guys that you are closely associated with are Shecky Greene and Lenny Bruce.

Frankie Ray: Yes, right.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet Shecky?

Frankie Ray: My agent called and said, "I can book you in New Orleans. Don't worry about material. You'll be talking to the tourists when they come in." I got a hundred and fifty dollars, maybe less, but I didn't have to live out of hotels. I got a beautiful apartment. The club was called the Latin Quarter. Eventually, the place had a murder - with knock-out drops. I was arrested. They used to rob the customers. Knock 'em out with drops and rob them. They were using my dressing room because I never used it.

I'd get dressed at my apartment and walk over. I got out of there and went to work at the Casino Royal on Bourbon Street. I stayed there for a long time. One day this guy says, "I'm supposed to look you up." It was Shecky. He was going into a meal-a-minute place following Sammy Shore. It was outside the French Quarter. I said, "Hey, Shecky, how you doing?" He said, "Well, I'm a little nervous Sammy Shore is going to do my act." They did a double and they broke up. There was a writer named Sherry Cloth. Shecky broke up with his partner and I had broke up with mine and Sherry Cloth said, "Why don't you two team up together?"

Shecky looked like he had come from Louis Prima's yard sale. He had argyle socks, a red jacket and yellow pants. I said, "Shecky. Forget about it." He said, "Yeah? Well, then what do I do now?" I never liked Sammy Shore. Not for any specific reason, but he was just... kind of sneaky. So, I said, "Well, let me hustle some people to get you [established] here." That's when our friendship started. We got an apartment together.

He opened that night and I called a few madames from the whorehouse. I said, "This guy Shecky is funny. I know you take the girls out on Sunday. Go to the nightclub across from the Roosevelt Hotel." Soon he got very popular there. Very big. Then he and I opened up a club called The Wit's End. Shecky Greene and Frankie Ray's Wit's End. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How long did the Wit's End last?

Frankie Ray: Oh, the Wit's End lasted about three years and then I finally needed to leave New Orleans. I bought it from this beautiful woman and then I destroyed it. Everyone thinks they're gonna be Rick from Casablanca when they get a nightclub. I didn't know shit about anything. Shecky said, "I'm going to do the NBC Comedy Hour and they want me to bring a writer. Forget the club. Why don't you come with me?" By that time there was another comedian named Al Bernie at the Roosevelt. He said, "You should get together with Lenny Bruce." Lenny was in Los Angeles and Shecky wanted to bring me out there anyway.

When I got out there I went to this club called Duffy's. That's where this owner let Lenny do anything he wanted. The owner was a Mafia guy from Chicago and he bought the nightclub for his daughter. She married an actor and he wanted a club. He said, "Lenny, do whatever you want up there." People would complain, "That guy Lenny Bruce, I'm gonna report him! I'm a Jewish man and he's making fun of Eddie Cantor!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Frankie Ray: "He said that Eddie Cantor used to molest Bobby Breen!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Frankie Ray: [In mobster's voice], "Hey! If Lenny says Eddie Cantor's a fruit, he's a fruit! Now get the fuck out of here!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Frankie Ray: He had that kind of clout, Lenny. Nightclub owners kept him because they felt he was talented, although he was nobody at that time. So, I did this show for Shecky. He moved to Hollywood because I stayed there and I got him on Combat. But there was something wrong with Shecky. In those days you did not know insanity when you saw it. Then Lenny and I took a job at Mickey Cohen's nightclub, the Near and Far.

It was a strip joint. Lenny was in this strip joint and every night we would get together and go to Canter's delicatessen. He'd say, "You know, Frank, we work all week and we're off Sunday. I've got a friend who has a house in Malibu. He's out of town. You and I can go swimming in the ocean the next day." Well, we get in the car and we go out there and I say, "What's the matter?" He says, "I don't know... I forgot the address... I know it's right around here somewhere... I'll find it... it's just that all these houses look the same." So, here we are. I said, "How are we getting in if there's nobody home?" He said, "The key is under the doormat." So, we get there and he looks under the doormat.

There's no key. So, he breaks the window. I said, "This don't seem right. Then again, he's fucking nuts anyway." So, we go to bed. Twin beds. About two hours after we've been asleep I hear, "Hello! You wanna wake up?" I open my eyes and there's a man, a woman and a daughter. I said, "Lenny! Your friend is home." The guy says, "He's not a friend of mine. I don't know him and I don't know you." He was always doing shit like that. Lenny, it was such a pleasure to be with him and everything... until he got on that needle. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Sherri Cloth, I know he wrote for Jack Carter. Did you and Shecky Greene physically do an act together at one point?

Frankie Ray: No, but we used to kibbitz on stage at the Wit's End. But you can't work with guys like that. Not with Shecky. He's crazy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Albert Goldman described the Wit's End as "The kind of place that opens at two in the morning and does its business with pimps, whores, gangsters, strippers and actors."

Frankie Ray: Right. I was going to sue Goldman because he said, "Frankie Ray has been out of work so long he doesn't know what kind of occupation he has." I was going to maybe grab twenty-five grand. You know? I don't know why that guy said that and maybe a lot of people out here believe that I don't have any talent or, you know, that type of thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Going back to that television show with Shecky Greene you mentioned. The Comedy Hour.

Frankie Ray: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't The Colgate Comedy Hour that most are familiar with - but a different incarnation that came shortly thereafter, also on NBC, just called The Comedy Hour...

Frankie Ray: It was a thing where they were breaking in a lot of new comedians like Jonathan Winters.

Kliph Nesteroff: The line-up for the episode that you worked on with Shecky - Sid Melton, Billy Curtis, Pat Sheehan, Pat Moran, Chuckie Bradley...

Frankie Ray: Doesn't mention Jonathan Winters or Pat Harrington? 

Kliph Nesteroff: Hy Averback was the announcer.

Frankie Ray: I thought I was going to get very lucky. I pitched a thing to the writers. They said, "Frank, tell us about New Orleans." And I told them about the murder case. All the strippers and the whores and everyone was involved in this case about the knock out drops. The writers said, "My God, you were the emcee? We could go down there and the emcee can be played by Gene Kelly!" I almost fainted. He was a heavyweight writer, this guy. But he got sick. And that was the end of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you start? Early on you were performing at Billy Rose's nightclub with this guy Don Nardo...

Frankie Ray: Ray & Nardo. When I was fourteen I went to see a show at the Oriental Theater. I always liked the mimics. This guy came out and managed to look like everybody he did. He explained, "If you do Lionel Barrymore... he has arthritis." And he did all the gestures. He said, "If you do all those things, you'll fall right into the voice." I thought, "That must be easy." Next thing you know I've got the guys on the corner screaming. I'm doing Clark Gable, I'm doing James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson.

But then to put an act together? I didn't know what the fuck. So, one day we sneaked into a USO show. A beautiful show is going on and this guy is doing impersonations. This one guy from my neighborhood says, "Ah, he's full of shit. You're better than he is." I said, "Would you stop? We're lucky to be in here." He says, "Oh, yeah? Hey! HEY! We got the real guy here who knows how to be a mimic!" They said, "Well, bring him up here!" I think on that same show was Mario Lanza.

So, I'm scared to go up there. Not that it meant anything, hell, I was more popular than Lanza on the corner. So I go up there and I do the things and the audience falls apart. When you're young you don't have any idea that you should be scared because it don't mean a fucking thing to you. Had I been trained I would have been scared to death. As I'm walking out an old man says, "Can I see you a minute? I like your act. I'd like to book you on a show. Here's my card. Call me." I said, "What the hell is this? There's two names on it." He said, "Yeah, my partner starved to death in the office about a year ago."

He booked me on a thing called Camp Time for seventy-five dollars a week, a glamor girl revue and I was the emcee. I didn't even know what the fucking word emcee meant (laughs). I had no money for a wardrobe. I went to my grandfather. He gave me a jacket. We opened in Richmond, Virginia. I went there on the Greyhound bus. Before I walk out a stagehand grabs me. He says, "Listen. You wanna really wake this audience up? Go out there and say, 'We're gonna bring the first girl up faster than Grant took Richmond." I didn't even know what the fuck that meant!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Frankie Ray: I said it and the the audience lunged at the stage! They said, "Go back where you belong, you goddamned Yankee!" I said, "Whoa, listen! You want to hit someone, go find the guy that gave me the joke. He's backstage!" He ran out of the theater! Then when I got off that show I went to see about an agent. He booked me into a burlesque theater, The Rialto. I played the burlesque circuit from Buffalo through St. Louis.

When I got back he called me, "Frank, would you like to do the USO?" I said, "Yeah, I guess so." He said, "It's a hundred a week and you travel with a five people unit. You'll be the emcee." Then something else clicked in my mind. I was afraid to do impersonations that other mimics were doing, so I used to make up my own. Before you know it, I'm doing guys like John Garfield and George Raft and people like that.

Nobody did George Raft. There was a mimic named Bruce Howard. He took my George Raft and he got into the Palace on Broadway when it reopened. The big write-up said, "The Guy who did George Raft." But I didn't care about that shit. Anyway, the USO... I got booked into a big nightclub in Vancouver. 

Frankie Ray: I opened in Vancouver, went to Seattle, got to San Francisco and there was an act called The Radio Aces. The owner of the act used to hire guys and they'd do one or two impressions. A guy named Don Nardo was on there. He said, "They're going to get rid of one of the guys. Why don't you come with us?" Me, like a schmuck, I'm starting to do good as a single with the money and everything. I went with them and took less money. We took another guy and we traveled a while and this other guy was a pain in the ass and we got rid of him. It was Nardo and me and we played all over. We played Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe and did six Sullivan shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: You said Al Bernie suggested you hook up with Lenny Bruce...

Frankie Ray: I had met Lenny before. Al Bernie was a mimic before a lot of people were. He did impressions of Jack Benny and all that stuff. I think we became friendly in New York at Lindy's or something. He said, "You know, you remind me of Lenny Bruce."

Nardo and I were booked into the Mountains. In the morning I was having breakfast with some of the acts and I saw this lady walk by. It was Sally, Lenny's mother. She goes, "I know you! You were at Loew's State theater and you did The Arthur Godfrey Show. I did it too. I was a talent scout and brought my son on. My son is at the Strand Theater with the Shep Fields Orchestra. Go say hello to him." 

So, I go back and see Lenny and he's very cordial and nice. "Yeah, man, I went to Loew's State the other night and saw you guys. Yeah, I dig you, man." I didn't see him again for maybe eight years until Al Bernie was talking about him. He says, "Frank, he wrote a line for me and people can't stop laughing: 'I just read in the paper that on average one out of every three people is crazy.' Then I point to the audience. 'One, two, wacko! One, two, wacko!" He wrote Al a lot of other things. So I run to Duffy's to see Lenny... he's not there! He's in Hawaii. All of a sudden I hear a voice, "Frankie!" It's Sally, his mother.

I said, "Where's Lenny?" She said, "Fuck Lenny, you come and see me. I'm funnier." I was with a girl that worked as a stripper and she said, "Hey, I just got back from working with Lenny Bruce and I told him about you. He says he's going to look you up."

I had been working at the Near and Far for a couple of weeks. The door opened at the Near and Far, but he didn't come in. The door shut. I said to this girl, "Maybe he didn't come in because he doesn't want to sit through the act. He's way out in left field now and here I am - I'm still doing Edward G. Robinson." But he gave me a call, "Hey Frank, it's Lenny." We became friends after that. And probably the best friend he ever had.