Monday, May 18, 2015

An Interview Slick Slavin - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you play Strip City much? That was the strip joint at Pico and Western where Lenny Bruce came into his own.

Slick Slavin: Yes, I think I was there for a year. They used different emcees. Maynard Sloate ran it and was very important in my life. I met Maynard during a one nighter - a club date. We used to call them club dates. It was called the Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles. He played good drums. Later on he became an agent. And so I ran into him again and he began to get me nightclubs. He booked me in Littleton, Colorado during the racing season, a place called the Wallhurst Saddle Club. That was big money. He eventually put me in the Crescendo.

He did another thing that was very important for me. I left stand-up and became a writer. I wrote This Is Your Life for Ralph Edwards. I became very good friends with Johnny Mercer and his family. Johnny had the big Phil Silvers musical - Top Banana. It played Broadway for about three years and made Phil Silvers a big star. But after Silvers - they tried it with Milton Berle - and they could not sell the damn thing. I was a partner of John [Mercer] Jr. and I saw the script in his drawer. He explained that he and his dad weren't able to do anything with it. I said, "Can I try?" They gave me their blessing to see what I could do. When I was in Vegas, Maynard was the entertainment director at the Tropicana and then at the Union Plaza where he played ex-Broadway shows.

I mentioned I had Top Banana. He said he would be very interested in it if I could get the Johnny Mercer songs. We did it for a few months and the write-ups were very good. Someone called me from HBO. He said, "We'd be interested in Top Banana if you could modernize it." I said, "Let me see what I can do." I put in twenty-six Johnny Mercer songs and wrote a whole new script, changed it completely, and called it Top Banana. We did a two-hour movie special called Top Banana with Jack Carter, Guy Marks and Edie Adams.

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1961 - you did a record called Hey, Mr. Kruschev that radio stations refused to play.

Slick Slavin: Yes, they were very uptight. We did an impersonation of John F. Kennedy. They were very uptight. They took it as a putdown of Kennedy, but it wasn't. It was, "Hey, Mr. Kruschev, we want to rock n' roll in peace." That was it. Everybody was uptight about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1957 - you played the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. Jack Ruby's Carousel was nearby.

Slick Slavin: There was another place there too called Abe's Colony Club. At the Adolphus I did very well. They really loved me. When I was in New York I did an audition for the guy who handled the Ames Brothers. He had a showcase place on Sunday nights. I think it was called the Embassy Room. I went to the Embassy and it was class. I don't remember if it was Park Avenue or what, but it was class. I go in and I kill 'em! I'm telling you the truth. There was nothing that could follow me in those days. I would do impressions of Henry Fonda and John Garfield.

In those days, no one did Garfield, but I did and I'd kill 'em. I got a review that called me another Larry Storch. That was a big write-up. Sam Branson from William Morris was in the audience and the next morning they signed me. I played the top places in the East. I played hotels; the Mayfair in Boston, the Queen Elizabeth in Montreal and all that. New York, however, I just didn't feel it. I eventually decided to go back to Chicago... I think that was a big mistake. I just didn't like New York, I didn't feel it... but I would have been a major star.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you were hired as the headwriter of Joey Bishop's late night talk show.

Slick Slavin: Yeah, up to that point I had never met him. I heard there was going to be a TV show with Joey Bishop. He used to do an act with two other guys called the Bishop Brothers. Mel Bishop was one of the brothers and he ended up being Joey's valet. He told me that the producer was going to be at the William Morris office in Beverly Hills. "Maybe you oughta try meet him." I had just written a record called the Disc Jockey Meeting. It was a funny record that was put out by Reprise, which was Frank Sinatra's company.

So I called this guy Paul Orr. He was producing Jack Paar in New York and he was going to come out here and to do the same thing for Joey. I call Paul Orr and he answers the phone, more courteous than anyone in Hollywood.

I told him Mel Bishop suggested I call him and that I was a writer - which I wasn't, even though I wrote the Disc Jockey Meeting. He gave me an appointment. He said, "Look, we've only got five spots for writers. But if you wish, you can send some material and I'll show it to Joey." I wasn't working at the time because all the nightclubs were gone. They'd all become coffeehouses. I had nothing else to do.

So I wrote some monologues and sent them to Joey. I didn't expect anything. One day I got a call from Paul Orr. He said, "Joey would like to meet you." He started rating the gags, "This is good. This is no good. This is okay. This is brilliant." He says, "Give me a gag about this. Give me a gag about that." My nightclub background saved me. I did. He looks at me for a long time and says, "Go down the hall. See Elliot and have him draw up a contract for you."

I changed my name to Trustin Howard. One day his manager and lawyer Ed Hookstratten asked the writers, "How long are you guys going to let Trustin carry you?" On the first pick up after thirteen weeks Mel Bishop said, "Trustin, I think they're going to let you go. It's between you and a guy named Jim Critchfield." He used to write for Bullwinkle, but he really never came up with any gags. Paul Orr loved Jim Critchfield. So there was really a big argument, but Joey took my side and I got a telegram telling me I was picked up. I was with The Joey Bishop Show for a full three years. I became headwriter.

Kliph Nesteroff: Regis Philbin was Joey's sidekick on the show, but who else was on staff? Pat McCormick was one of the writers?

Slick Slavin: Pat McCormick came in later and that was another battle. I had never given Joey any static, but one day he called me in the office and said, "I'm going to change the format." I said, "You can't change the format. We've just been picked up for a fourth year and people are used to what we do." He was getting antsy and tired of the same routine. I said, "What about Regis?" He said, "I'm moving him to just do announcing and Pat McCormick is going to be my second in command." I said, "If you do that we'll be off the air in three months." He got real mad at me. He said, "Fuck you, Trustin. I'm signed for another two years!" I pleaded with everyone. I pleaded with Eddie and the ABC guys. I said, "People get used to a certain type of format. If you change it - they can't take it." On the next pick-up it said my services would no longer be required. But forty-two days later he was off the air.

Kliph Nesteroff: They bought out his contract?

Slick Slavin: Yes, I think they paid him a million dollars. He ended up all right, but a hundred people were out of work!

Slick Slavin: Yes, he was one of the first five. Don was a writer-producer. One day Don came in the office and said to us. "Guess what! I got a gig in Vegas for two weeks!" He was thrilled. We said, "What do you do?" He said,"I'm a comic!" I told the guys, "If he goes to Vegas, he won't be with us for the next pick-up." Joey would dump his mother. Anyway, Don did Vegas and at the next pick-up he was gone.

Kliph Nesteroff: In general, how was Joey Bishop to work for?

Slick Slavin: Tough. Very, very tough. Regis and I used to hide when he was around. I never tried to be friends with him. For the last year of the show I wrote by myself. He hated every writer. Hated them. We were the first ones to give Jesse Jackson a national forum. He told the A&P stores in Chicago they had twenty-four hours [until a boycott was implemented] and scared everyone to death. But a lot of people wanted him to be a regular. It was really touch and go because there were a lot of political people around at that time. I hated that because I was an entertainer and I just wanted our show to be an entertaining hit. By far the best guest we had was Don Rickles. We loved him and every time he came on the ratings went up. And because he did so well, they gave him his own show. He got The Don Rickles Show, but he made the great mistake of hiring Pat McCormick and he was off the air in six weeks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why was it a mistake to hire Pat McCormick?

Slick Slavin: He wasn't funny. Pat was six foot seven, the tallest white guy in the country, and never a team player. He always wanted to be the star of the show. His desire to upstage the star instead of just writing for them is what killed it. Pat McCormick killed The Don Rickles Show and he suckered Joey. I knew it was deadwood city.

Kliph Nesteroff: Totie Fields was on The Joey Bishop Show several times. She and Don Rickles had the same manager - Joe Scandore.

Slick Slavin: Yes, I met Joe Scandore. A nice man. I think Don was very loyal to those people. He stayed with Scandore all the way through. Totie I remember very well. My joke was that she was "a calender girl - Miss February and Miss March." We had everybody on. We caught Johnny Carson [in the ratings] everywhere but New York. We tried to get Joey to do the show in New York for a week, but he just wouldn't do it. I don't know if he was afraid or what the hell.

Kliph Nesteroff: His reluctance to go to New York was probably just deference to Johnny Carson. Johnny was still broadcasting from New York. Despite competing, there was still a friendliness between the two. 

Slick Slavin: Yes, because Joey later substituted for Johnny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Maynard Sloate mentioned a bunch of obscure comedians that were around Strip City same time as you... Gerry Moore... Dick Kimball...

Slick Slavin: He loved Dick Kimball. Dick Kimball was killed in an accident. It really affected Maynard because he really wanted to manage Dick. Dick was a good guy. Very slow paced, but clever. Very clever. I don't remember having the same fervor for Dick as Maynard, but he was good. Maynard saw something. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Strip City was a dive, but a happening dive...

Slick Slavin: All the celebrities came in. I remember one night Fredric March coming in (laughs) while I was doing my impersonations. I figured, I got to do Fredric March. So on the spur I did him from a movie where his palms were sweating. I pulled out my handkerchief and I wiped my hands like Frederic March. The first night he was there with his father and called me over. A couple weeks later he came in with his wife, "I felt she had to see you." Another guy that came in was Michael Wilding, an English actor married to Liz Taylor. The English loved strip joints. To them, that's real entertainment. Another guy came in that every comic hated. A fellow by the name of Marlon Brando. Cause when he came in, he disrupted everybody. Not courteous. I can tell you that - every comedian hated that man.

Kliph Nesteroff: This was at Strip City.

Slick Slavin: Yeah, well, he not only came to Strip City, but he made the rounds. We had to face him wherever he was at. He was crazy, he was nuts.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played a place called the Toddle House in Los Angeles...

Slick Slavin: Yes, one of the first places I played. I loved it. I played it repeatedly and that's where Errol Garner introduced his song Misty. It was a great place. A guy by the name of Johnny Toscano, a wonderful man, operated it right by MGM. That goes back to another situation. I was still fascinated by Hollywood celebrities and I was working the Toddle House with a guy by the name of Jack Mitchum, Robert Mitchum's brother. His big number was Guadalajara. He's not bad, but like so many he wants to be a singer. He gets by. One night we're getting ready to do our show. There weren't too many people. It was a weeknight. 

The door opens and in walk Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Keenan Wynn, Gloria DeHaven and Robert Mitchum. Think of that! You're working a joint and in walks MGM! They came in to hear Robert Mitchum's brother. I was the emcee and the comic and I closed the show. Jack did his act and I figured they'd all get up and head for the door, but they didn't. They stayed for my act and everybody was great. Keenan Wynn - a little spooky. But the others - Gene Kelly, a dynamite man. Frank Sinatra said to me, "I love that French song you do." A song called Stranger in Paris. I would sing it and do a little patter as a French detective like a Maurice Chevalier. It was a great night spot for Culver City. 

I got booked at the Tahoe-Biltmore Hotel. That was really top of the line in Lake Tahoe. The northside had a few spots like Cal-Neva, but the southside did not. I came out and the first person I saw was Frank Sinatra sitting ringside. I figured he didn't remember me, but after the show he came up and said, "I still love that French song you do. We're having a little party at Jim Stack's place." Jim Stack was like the honorary mayor of Tahoe. He was Robert Stack's brother. He had a year round home there and I became buddies with Frank. He loved comics. He wanted me to join him, but I figured I just could not make it with that crowd. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Maynard Sloate said that Los Angeles nightclubs and the State Equalization Board was very corrupt in those days. I was wondering if you ever encountered the little mobster of Los Angeles, Mickey Cohen.

Slick Slavin: Yes. We walked out one night from a place called Cherry's. Mickey was always between King's Restaurant and Cherry's. The joint was closing and we were all walking out single file and that's when they shot Mickey. He took the bullet, but we were all in the line of fire. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Wait...

Slick Slavin: Mickey Cohen was a rounder. They didn't roust him that much as far as I remember. He was in his own space and that was it, but there were pretty good hoodlums around at that time.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about an oddball comedy act from Billy Gray's Band Box - Ben Lessy and Patti Moore.

Slick Slavin: Ben Lessy was a very funny guy - and weird. It was a weird, weird act. Patti Moore would say, "Dance for mama!"And Lessy would twirl like a five year old. There was a regular singer that played Billy Gray's named Larry Stevens. Whenever Dennis Day took a day off, Larry Stevens would come and be the singer on The Jack Benny Program. Larry was a wonderful guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the nightclub Charley Foy's...

Slick Slavin: Yeah, Charlie Foy's, Larry Potter's... those were the places in the valley.

Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Marshall told me Charlie Foy's was a hangout for old comedians like Cully Richards and Joe Frisco.

Slick Slavin: Yes, Joe Frisco was at Charlie Foy's quite a bit. When I was working San Francisco I worked a big opera house with a guy whose face was famous - Tom Dugan.  Joe Frisco came in to see him with Arthur Treacher. Tom Dugan, Joe Frisco and Arthur Treacher. What a trifecta. All I did was listen. It was really marvelous to be around those guys.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of Lord Buckley?

Slick Slavin: He was very, very big in Chicago walkathons. It was sort of like Dancing with the Stars where someone is eliminated and everyone feels sorry for them. The walkathons were really the only entertainment in the mid-1930s. It was cheap. Lord Buckley had two big, great dane dogs, he came on strong and he had a good following around Chicago walkathons. He was considered real hip and cool and a notch above those of us who just spoke showbiz.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Slate Brothers club...

Slick Slavin: Don Rickles was the one that really dominated that place. That's where he made it. He started that insult thing and he just caught on. The Slate Brothers wasn't a class place, it was just a room. Not big time. It didn't even have that nightclub feel, but with Rickles it didn't matter. I knew Rickles through Shecky Greene, but not well.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Crescendo in 1960. You did its upstairs room - the Interlude. Mort Sahl was the act downstairs.

Slick Slavin: The Interlude I played a couple of times. Gene Norman ran it and he seemed to like me. He gave me a lot of courtesy. I put together an act called Slick Slavin and the Mob. We were really on our way. I played a mobster in a dixieland band. I still have the reviews, it was unbelievable. I would say it was one of the best acts. I say that from afar. It was just dynamite. Spike Jones loved it. He came in almost every night. "Elliot Ness, you're a fink!" That kind of stuff. A year later some guy phoned Gene Norman and claimed it was his act. He threatened Gene Norman. Amid our success this guy scared the hell out of Gene Norman and he said,"I can't take a chance."

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you know who he was?

Slick Slavin: Yes, but I don't want to mention names. He killed the best act in the world on a lie. The guy had some mafia background.

Kliph Nesteroff: This guy was a stand-up comic?

Slick Slavin: He was... well... no... how... (silence). How do you know that?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm asking.

Slick Slavin: I don't want to go into it.


mackdaddyg said...

Another good interview. It amazes me how, all these years later, some of these folks are still hesitant to discuss certain details about the shadier side of the biz.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

If only he went into it!

Anonymous said...

I'd give my left nut to see Rickles and James Mason on the Bishop show.