Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Interview with Art Metrano - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1960 - you did an episode of the CBS Television Workshop. A teleplay called the Brick and the Rose.

Art Metrano: Lewis John Carlino. I was studying with John Cassavetes and Burt Lane when word came around to read for this new CBS show. I went over there and there were a lot of young actors. One was Richard Bright who did a lot of Scorsese films. We remained friends until he got hit by a bus in Manhattan. There was another actor who later became head of MGM. It was a very exciting time for me because I was young and there were all these actors trying to get ahead. It was my first real acting role with some money. I was doing theater at the Cassavetes school.

Joe Bologna was working at an advertising company as a director and he hired myself, Rudy De Luca and Ron Carey. He took us to Canada where we did a bunch of commercials and became a close knit family. That continued until I went to visit Rudy in Los Angeles to see if I could make a go of California. I stayed with Rudy for about a month. After a month I was invited to meet with Cassavetes who was then working at Universal. We hung out together. He got this movie called Rosemary's Baby back in New York. I found a little house in Laurel Canyon and stayed for a while.

This agent told me, "There's a show called Lohman and Barkley at the NBC studio. They're looking for writer-performers." It was really the precursor to Saturday Night Live. I told Rudy De Luca about this. I said, "Why don't we both go over there and see if we can get jobs as writer-performers?" We got the job. At that time there was Craig T. Nelson and John Amos and Barry Levinson. We were on that program for a number of weeks and that's when I created the dunt-duh-dah-dah Amazing Metrano comedy magic act.

We were all getting pretty loaded and improvising. I got up and started doing this dunt-duh-dah-dah, dunt-duh-dah-dah. I took a napkin anddid this thing. I got a chair and pretended to unscrew a lightbulb and stick my finger in there. The next day Rudy said, "Man, that's really funny. We oughta develop that and show it to the guys at Lohman and Barkley." After working on it for about a week I brought it to the producers. I went on TV with it that night. That show only played in California. From San Diego up to San Francisco. It came on right after the Sunday night news.

As things go viral on the internet today, this thing went viral all over California. Everyone seemed to be doing this dunt-duh-dah-dah. That's when I got a call from the Della Reese - Sandy Baron show. Then I got a call from Carson and went to New York. I was about to go on with this routine and just before I did - the stage manager said, "When you finish just take a bow and get off - we're running late. Do your act and get off." So I went out there and did this dunt-duh-dah-dah and the audience went wild. Unbeknownst to me, Johnny Carson who sits on a chair with wheels on the bottom, laughed so hard he fell off the chair. I didn't see him do this, but my manager at the time was Wally Amos of Famous Amos chocolate cookie fame. It was before he made it as a cookie maven. He told me what happened.

And of course when my three of four minutes ended, I took my bow and there was Johnny waving me to his desk. I went, "Holy shit, I'm going to sit next to Johnny!" It was a great moment. He really liked my act. He was an amateur magician and loved magic of all kinds. So we talked about that and then he brought me back several times. He really loved it and became a big fan of mine. He propelled me and many others into having employment - not even a career - just employment. All of a sudden I was doing all these shows. It was just amazing. All my acting experience with Cassavetes and Burt Lane paid off. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Sandy Baron?

Art Metrano: Sandy Baron. I remember a lot about that guy. I thought he was extremely talented. He ended up living in my guest house in later years when things were not going well for him. He became very sick at the end of his life and it was just awful. Sandy was a very talented guy, very manic. He did a lot of records and I didn't realize the kind of money he made from them. The royalties he got even after he died... I know because he owed me so much money and I knew I wasn't going to get it. Then all of a sudden I got a legal letter from his aunt. "There's money for you. He wrote a handwritten note before he died mentioning the people he owed." Sure enough, they paid it off. Slowly, but surely I got it all. His performance as Lenny Bruce in the stage show he did - I thought it was just phenomenal. He was really talented and I just loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of the Della show, which Sandy Baron cohosted, in August 1969. Rodney Dangerfield was on the same episode.

Art Metrano: Good, old crazy Rodney Dangerfield. Me, Rodney, Joe Bologna and Rudy De Luca and Ron Carey... we were in a car in Manhattan. Rodney was looking to leave his wife and was trying to find an apartment. And they were trying to find me a stage name because I was doing an act with another guy. We were trying to come up with a name for the team. Rudy would see a sign and go, "Art Supplies! There we go! That's a good name! Art Supplies!"

Rodney had tremendous hate for this wife of his. He couldn't stop talking about it and jokes were flying out of his mouth. I knew him when his name was Jack Roy. Yes, we were all on that show. Della was great. Later I went on to do a series and replaced Ernie Borgnine in another show with Della Reese. It was based on a famous play about a sea captain. It wasn't a very well written show. Ernie Borgnine dropped out. At that phase in my career I didn't refuse anything.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you know Jack Roy, the future Rodney Dangerfield?

Art Metrano: There were J.J. Barry, Ron Carey, Me, Joe Bologna, Marty Friedberg - a bunch of us were at a comedy class with a guy named George Q. Lewis. He had no talent at all, but he was the teacher. He knew nothing about comedy but we all went there and we all got to perform our act. Ron Carey did a weightlifter routine that was just hysterical. Jack Roy was performing in Queens. There was a nightclub on Queens Boulevard and we used to go see every comic we didn't know. And there was Jack Roy. He wasn't very good, but he knew how to tell jokes. We always thought he was like a young Henny Youngman. "My wife is such a bad cook, the dogs beg for Alka-Seltzer."

They were all well written, well-defined jokes. That's how I knew Rodney and then he started hanging out with us. It was like a fraternity of actors and comics. We'd sit around this cafe - what was it called - on Broadway right on the corner...

Kliph Nesteroff: Hanson's.

Art Metrano: That's it. It was the who's who of people not quite famous. We'd go up to the Catskills to try get any kind of gig. It was all for one reason - to catch all these great comedy acts like Shecky Greene and Red Buttons. We saw Martin & Lewis at Brown's Hotel. A steady flow.

Jackie Miles, Jackie Winston, Mal Z. Lawrence. These guys never really made it, but always worked the Mountains and always worked club dates. Mal Z. Lawrence keeps doing the same act, but it's hysterical. These guys were real professional club comics and they worked everywhere like Ben Maksik's Town and Country in Brooklyn. The place where I met Don Rickles was in Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. He was managed by Joe Scandore. I remained friends with Don. He talked about me on a show that John Landis recently directed. In the middle of talking about something he broke into duh-duh-dah-dah. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Joe Scandore?

Art Metrano: I was told right off the bat, "Don't fuck around with Joe Scandore." That he was pretty well connected. He had this nightclub called the Elegante. I performed at the Elegante on Ocean Parkway and was hoping he would take me on, but I was never good enough. He was just considered a guy who was well connected. In those days, connected... you knew what that meant. In the sixties Vegas was run by the Mob and in some ways it was run much better than it is today because it was more open.

I knew this guy who could go to the teller with a nod from one of the guys and take out ten thousand. In those days everybody got comped. If they thought you were going to gamble, you got comped. And it was much more open. Joe was part of that. Now it's run by the Mormons. It's very different from those days. That's what I remember about Joe Scandore. He was very kind to me, but people also said, "Don't do anything wrong."

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention you played the Elegante a couple times - when did you start doing nightclubs?

Art Metrano: There was a boy singer who was also hanging out at Hanson's in those days named Danny Winchell. He was here and there, the Mountains, different club dates, bar mitzvahs. I guess he saw me do something at Joe Q. Lewis's so he invited me to do a team. We worked up some routines. He would sing and I would do some shtick. Before you knew it, we started getting jobs in various places.

We got to this place and we were quite hungry. We sat down and I ordered something. I figured it'd be on the house and so did Danny. The bartender gave us a bill. I said, "No, you don't understand, we're the opening act tonight." He said, "It doesn't matter you have to pay." He said, "Talk to the boss." This guy came over, "You got a problem here?" I said, "We're the opening act and we just had a sandwich and a coke. We figured we didn't have to pay for that. We drove up here, we paid gas money and we have to pay for our room - now you're charging us for the food?" He looked me straight in the eye and he said, "You know - some jobs you have to save up for."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Art Metrano: I'll never forget that for as long as I live. "Some jobs you have to save up for." We did an act, some was funny and some not so funny. We got to do the Playboy Circuit. We played Detroit first and then we drove to St. Louis. I also got to do Playboy After Dark with the Amazing Metrano act. Sammy Davis Jr. was on one night and I remember doing another with Lenny Bruce. I don't remember too much about Lenny, but once I was at his house - right before Doheny - Sunset Plaza Drive. I got invited and it was the first time I saw anybody roll a joint with one hand. I said, "Now that is pretty cool." Later on I became extremely fond of Sally Marr, his mother. His mother really loved me. She was a pal.

Kliph Nesteroff: Playboy After Dark - you were on with Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderly and Grand Funk Railroad.

Art Metrano: Jesus Christ, that's right. To be in the midst of some of the greatest musicians - God almighty, you brought back that memory. I forgot all about that one.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of the Dean Martin Comedy Hour - which I guess was its summer show. Do you remember anything about that?

Art Metrano: I remember everything about it and I did more than one. Hanging out with Dean - I was in awe of him. No one thought he would make it on his own and I really felt that he surpassed Jerry Lewis. His acting in movies and how he could be the star of a show and do comedy and singing without Jerry... he had his persona down perfectly. He had one of the great voices of all time. Because of that show, I started to date his daughter Deanna. We went out quite a bit. She could not wait to tie my bowtie. She said, "I do this for my father."

Kliph Nesteroff: One episode of The Dean Martin Comedy Hour - featured you and Albert Brooks.

Art Metrano: Oh, sure. Albert was a very talented guy. Albert and Steve Martin, bless their hearts... I was the forerunner of that kind of comedy with my Amazing Metrano comedy magic act. And then I did The Great Belinos with Rudy De Luca, which was copied by The Sonny and Cher Show. They called it the Flying Goldens and it was a definite comedy rip-off. But I was the forerunner of doing all those non-sequitor comedy bits. People just loved it and laughed. Steve Martin and Albert Brooks followed me doing similar types of comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever talk to either of them about that?

Art Metrano: (silence) No. I never did. No. They went on to such great fame, God bless them. They kept writing and performing and stayed with the comedy. I moved into drama doing serious shows. I did stuff with Robert Blake on Baretta, I did a show with Jessica Walters called Amy Prentiss...

Kliph Nesteroff: You did at least one episode of Laugh-In...

Art Metrano: George Schlatter was off-the-wall. He didn't care what you did, he just wanted you to be as crazy as you could. I did more than one. I did two or three. He loved the duh-duh-dah-dah routine. He was a very funny guy, a creative guy. Laugh-In was ahead of its time. Nobody had done anything as crazy as that. It was very successful.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were a regular on The Tim Conway Hour.

Art Metrano: Yes, that all came about from Lohman and Barkley, which I was doing at NBC with all those guys. Craig T. Nelson and Barry Levinson were writing partners. Conway was hunting for writers and performers. I said, "I've been working with these guys at Lohman and Barkley and they are absolutely so talented. You should look at some of the pieces they have done." I guess they did because Rudy and all these guys got hired as well. The Tim Conway Comedy Hour. The way it originally opened was - me coming out in a tuxedo doing dah-duh-duh-duh. Sitting behind the bandstand, I was the only member in the band, while Sally Strothers was the only girl dancer - because the show couldn't afford more. That was the idea. And that was the opening of the show.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the early inception of Sammy Shore's Comedy Store. Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson and Craig T. Nelson were there. Did you also spend time there?

Art Metrano: Oh, of course I did. I was very friendly with Sammy and Mitzi and everybody else. Rudy was very involved with Sammy Shore because he was writing routines for him with Joe [Bologna]. Sammy got a job opening for Elvis in Vegas and Rudy started writing routines for Sammy. The Comedy Store was the place to go in Los Angeles. There was no Improv, no Catch a Rising Star, no Laugh Factory. This was the place. It had two rooms, one small and one large room, which I did a number of shows in. The small room was where you saw the best of the best from Robin Williams to David Letterman. My God, there was a slew of people. I saw some funny shit there.


Tom said...

Wow I never knew that he went all the way back to the 60s and 70s and hung out with all those legends. I only knew him from the Police Academy movies. Ya don't hear much about him at all these days. Hope he is well.

Caprice said...

"Family Guy" did a tribute to his magic act, with a bit about Jesus entertaining his followers:

The gag is that Stewie goes back in time, and discovers that His "miracles" were overrated.

mackdaddyg said...

Another guy that I've never heard of before, with a lot of great stories to tell. Gonna go to YouTube to see if I can find some examples of his material.

Another great interview. Thanks for sharing.

Bill O said...

He's been on crutches for years. Fell off a ladder and received a similar spinal injury as Christoper Reeve. The Tim Conway variety Show was a sly deconstruction of the format, with a host that could neither sing, dance, nor tell jokes in the normal way. It did its Xmas show in Oct, cuz "We'll never make it to Dec".

KING OF JAZZ said...

I noticed him in THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) as a lounge act, doing that magic routine.

IAmMelancholic said...

He is now 81. Still fine and dandy, if confined to a wheelchair.

IAmMelancholic said...

He's 81, still fine and dandy, though a tetraplegic.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if you've ever interviewed Rudy De Luca or Craig T. Nelson? As in Part One of the fine interview with Art Metrano, their names seem to turn up in some of the other interviews here. Thanks for all the hard work you've put into this blog!