Monday, June 29, 2015

An Interview with Jeremy Vernon - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: One of your first gigs was at the Number One Fifth Avenue.

Jeremy Vernon: Yes, that goes back to 1955. I won a talent contest there, won a week's engagement, and that got me an agent. I went from that to working weekend clubs in places like Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey and so on. Eventually I got to do full week engagements, all out of town and by the 1960s I was doing television. The first thing I did was Celebrity Talent Scouts. Irving Mansfield was the producer. His wife was Jackie... Jackie...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jacqueline Susann.

Jeremy Vernon: It was the strangest audition. Irving had me sitting at his desk. The phone was ringing and there were a lot of interruptions. He said, "Go on, go on." He booked me. While I was auditioning, in came Jackie Susann. I said, "Oh, are you an actress?" She said, "A little bit, but now I'm writing." She told me she was writing a book about her dog called Every Night, Josephine. It's about a poodle." I thought, "Oh. Cute." And the next year she had Valley of the Dolls (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff: Celebrity Talent Scouts was a show in which a celebrity would come on and pretend they had discovered you.

Jeremy Vernon: Right. Exactly.

Kliph Nesteroff: So who was the celebrity pretending they discovered you?

Jeremy Vernon: Alan Young who had Mister Ed. They told me to go to his dressing room to introduce myself. So I did. I said, "Hello! I'm your discovery." He said, "Well, it's a pleasure discovering you." He was a nice guy and you're exactly right, that's how that worked. The following year they had a bigger budget show. Rudy Vallee was the emcee of the new show. It was called On Broadway Tonight.

Kliph Nesteroff: What name were you performing under when you were doing those early club dates?

Jeremy Vernon: Originally I was performing as Jerry Vernon. People started getting me mixed up with Jackie Vernon, so I started using Jeremy Vernon. In the 1980s I started using my birth name, which was Krispien.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that Eydie Gorme caught your act at the Number One Fifth Avenue and helped your career...

Jeremy Vernon: No, what happened was the agent Irvin Arthur saw me there. He later became the booker for the Playboy Club and a manager of Joan Rivers and Woody Allen. He booked me at a club on Long Island called the Paraglide. Apparently they called it that because they had a sliding, retractable roof, but I never saw that. I was booked me as an opening act for Eydie Gorme. Steve Lawrence was in the audience and came backstage.

I was doing mostly impressions at the time. He was doing a character called John L.C. Savoni, which was a Frank Fontaine type of guy that talks like a moron. He started doing that and he said, "We could do a double!" He was very friendly and that was my connection with Eydie Gorme. I don't think she was in the audience at the Number One Fifth Avenue.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Paar booked you for a couple guest shots on his show after seeing you perform at the Bon Soir.

Jeremy Vernon: It was very strange. Management Three came to see me. It was Bernie Brillstein and two other guys, a different one came each night. The last to come in was Martin Kummer. He's the guy who signed me. He said, "I'm going to ask you something and no matter what you answer, you've still got the Paar show. We'd like to manage you." I said, "Sure." But the William Morris office came in the same night and I signed with them instead - and I still got the Paar show.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the experience of doing Jack Paar like?

Jeremy Vernon: It was great and it was not great. I was on the show with Jonathan Winters who had the closing spot. When they actually broadcast it, they re-edited it so that I had the closing spot. That is the star spot. I was flabbergasted. They gave me a date to come back as soon as my spot was over, before the show had even ended. They wanted to have me on again.  I thought I would be on in another three weeks, but they said, "Come back Thursday. You're not going to be on that show, but we're going to tape you with that show. If you do well then we'll attach your segment to a future program."

So I came down and by now I'm very cocky. I did something I had never tried before about a British airline. For the stewardess I used a Hitchcock voice. I was probably the first guy to do a Hitchcock impression and I did it very well. This was 1964. Jack Paar had a thirteen year old daughter, Randi, who was a chubby little gal. They showed a fifteen minute film of her interviewing teenage fans of The Beatles. You couldn't understand their accents. The audience was totally turned off by this inaudible film and I had to follow it. Between that and the fact I was doing something untested - it didn't work. It didn't work at all and it was never used. I got paid, but that was the end of me on Paar.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Jack Paar like?

Jeremy Vernon: Jack Paar was very supportive on the first show that I did. The lighting people wanted me under a spotlight. Paar said, "No, that's too funereal." I remember that word. He said, "No, give him full stage light. He's a comic, not a dramatic singer." Something like that. He was supportive. Then the second show I didn't do well. I passed him in the hall and he said, "Very good, very good," but I knew he didn't mean it. It was hollow. 

A similar thing happened to me with The Dean Martin Show. I called William Morris and said, "I'm in New York for the week. Can you get me a Tonight Show?" They said, "No, it's booked too far in advance." So I phoned the producer of the Tonight Show, Stan Irwin. He knew my work from Vegas. He said, "Well, would you like to be on this Thursday?" Bob Newhart was the guest host, which is probably why they were able to get me on. It was the best television spot I ever did. Everything I did was gold. I'm not bragging - it just was.

They told me, "When you finish your act, take your bow and go behind the curtain. Don't come back out." I did as I was told. I finished and the applause did not stop. I was behind the curtain and they just wouldn't stop applauding. Bob Newhart said, "This is exciting!" And I regretted not coming back out. Anyway, the next day I got a call from Howard West at William Morris. Much later he became the producer of Seinfeld

He said, "I'm calling because I think I can get you The Dean Martin Show." I said, "Why do you think that?" He says, "Because Dean saw you on the Tonight Show last night and he asked for you." I said, "Dean called and asked for me - and you think that you can get me on the show?" (laughs) One of the producers of The Dean Martin Show had been the headwriter for Jack Paar. He had helped me with some lines when I did that show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Keyes?

Jeremy Vernon: Paul Keyes, exactly. Boy, you know your stuff. Paul Keyes said, "Now, remember. This is not a New York audience. This is California." I said, "Well, the New York audience is mostly tourists anyway." He said, "Yes, but they're Eastern tourists." They wanted me to do the act before the show for no audience. There were three people scattered around this stadium seating in Burbank. I said, "I can't really do my act for no audience." He said, "No, no, you're funny. Go ahead and do it." So I did it.

Greg Garrison, the producer, was known as the king of cut and paste. Again, what they were doing, was taping me for a later date. Greg Garrison comes running down yelling, "You can't say that!" He misunderstood, misquoted me and all this stuff. He said, "You can't say Jew York!" I said, "I never said Jew York! I said New York!" He said, "Well, don't do it!" So they cut me up. Now guess what I had to follow? A sketch featuring Dean Martin, Jonathan Winters and Donald O'Connor. They did a wild sketch, everyone ad-libbing and it got pretty racy for 1967. I came out and, again, it was not very good. Believe it or not, that segment I did wound up on a collection called The Best of the Dean Martin Show. They sweetened the laughs... because there weren't any. So today it looks pretty good (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Shortly before that you became a regular on the Playboy Club circuit.

Jeremy Vernon: Yes, I did. The first one I did was in Chicago and they put me in a little room they called the Library. It was like a waiting room for people who couldn't get a seat in the Penthouse or the Playroom. George Carlin was in the Penthouse and Jackie Vernon was in the Playroom. George Carlin wasn't famous yet, but he was known on the circuit. And it was rough. It was rough.

A guy called Shelley Kasten was the booker for the Playboy Club. He said, "We're going to send you to Miami. You'll do two weeks and then you'll do Jamaica." They started booking me on the circuit and I played most of their clubs. I went back to Chicago three or four times in the winter. I'll never forget - I worked there when Lenny Bruce was at the Gate of Horn, the week he got arrested. This time I was playing the better room at the Playboy Club and doing well. George Carlin was there again.

I met Lenny in the hotel. We all stayed at 20 East Delaware. But Lenny was arrested at the Gate of Horn for obscenity or some trumped at charge and George Carlin was in the room during the bust. He screamed, "Don't take him! Take me! Take me!" The next night in the hotel Lenny was telling me about it. He said, "Crazy George was in the room saying, Take me! Take me!" George Carlin was very quiet. I remember we left the hotel together to walk to the club. It was a freezing night and he didn't talk.

I was trying to strike up a conversation with him. Maybe he had something on his mind, but I took it personally. I'm sensitive and I held a resentment about this for many years. A couple years before he passed he came to a show I was doing with Yarmy's Army and he was so nice. He said, "Oh, it's so nice to see you again, I really enjoyed your stuff," and so on. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I have you down for another Playboy Club date with Jackie Gayle.

Jeremy Vernon: I don't remember that. I do remember being there with Flip Wilson. Flip Wilson was a very friendly guy and he was doing very well there. He was doing some offbeat stuff. He often told stock stories, but he told them in a very comical way. He told me one day that he was reading this book about comedy where it said that four percent of comedy is costume and three percent is personality and ten percent is... on and on. I said, "How can you possibly dissect comedy? How can you analyze and break it down into percentages and numbers?" Well, a year later he got The Flip Wilson Show. You wanna know something? I immediately went out and bought that book (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff: You did The Mike Douglas Show several times...

Jeremy Vernon: I did it in 1965 in Cleveland. That was weird. Before I did my act they wanted me to do this half-assed sketch where they introduce me as a scientist and then I go offstage and there's a huge explosion and I was to walk back on with my clothes all disheveled and ashes all over and then do my act. Well, that was death (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1966, you did the Aladdin in Las Vegas with Jackie Mason. 

Jeremy Vernon: Right. Jackie was his own show. We opened April 1st at midnight. That was the actual opening of the very hotel. Mason saw me in the casino and said, "Oh, are you working here? I'm gonna hang out with you because you know where all the broads are!" He would birddog for me. He would stop a woman. "Miss, are you busy? Are you lookin' for work? I know a person here, Jeremy Vernon, a very fine comedian!" I wound up with all these girls (laughs). 
Kliph Nesteroff: You got along well with Jackie Mason?

Jeremy Vernon: Yeah, I did. He was very good. Sometimes he'd pick up a tab and we'd have coffee. I was with him a few times. He did some strange things. One time he said, "Do you think there's something sick about a person that's thirty-seven years old and never been married?" He meant me. I said, "Jackie, you're older than me and you've never been married." He answered, "Just because I have a cancer doesn't mean I can't recognize a cancer in you."

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of people had problems with him. He was one of the polarizing comics.

Jeremy Vernon: Nobody liked him... Is that what you're trying to say?

Kliph Nesteroff: There were certain guys - Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett...

Jeremy Vernon: That's right. Well, Jackie Mason opened a place in front of the Improv on Melrose. I used to go into the Improv a lot. He opened a place called Jackie Mason Feed Your Face. It was supposed to be a restaurant or a deli or whatever. I'd go in and I'd see Jackie Mason at the bar in the Improv sometimes. He'd say, "I'll see you later - and remind me to tell you what I think of you!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jeremy Vernon: Some days he would say to me, "I don't understand it! How do you make a living!?" I guess he was trying to be funny, but I think he was serious. When he opened his restaurant I went in to congratulate him and wish him well. He was sitting with two women. He said, "These two women are so and so. They produce television shows. This man is Jeremy Vernon. He has been trying to make it for thirty years - and he still is not making it!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jeremy Vernon: So that wasn't very pleasant. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Tell me about playing the Copacabana with Peggy Lee.

Jeremy Vernon: Everyone knew my agent Lee Solomon. He had a brother who called himself Stan Lomon. He cut off the Sol from Solomon and just went with Lomon. He used this orange make-up, like mantan, and he'd go around trying to sign acts, saying, "You know, my brother is Lee Solomon!" The implication was "I can do things for you." But he wasn't a doer of anything. Opening night at the Copa - they warned me - look out for [Copa manager] Jules Podell. "Don't talk to him unless he says something to you first. Stay away from him because he's crazy."

He'd bang on the table with his big sapphire ring if he didn't like something. The maitre'd and the captain and everyone would run to his table to find out what was wrong. So I did the dinner show opening night and you don't get big laughs because people are eating and they're waiting for Peggy Lee. I hear the banging of the ring. They come over to me. "Mr. Podell wants to see you." I went over. "Yes, Mr. Podell?" He said, "I want you to know I'm picking up your option."

So now I felt pretty good! For the second show everybody came in. All the show people. There's Jerry Vale! There's Frank Sinatra! There's Jack E. Leonard! Bing, bang, boom, everybody is there. I come out and I was on a roll. I saw Lee Solomon in the audience and I said, "Oh, look! There's Stan Lomon's brother!" The place fell apart laughing! It was probably the most thrilling night of my life. 


Mr. Nixon said...

Frank Fontaine WAS John L.C. Sivoney, who was also Crazy Guggenheim. It was the same character with a different name. I think he did Sivoney on the Jack Benny show.

Anonymous said...

True, Fontaine was contracted to Benny for a year in 1950, and did Sivoney on radio. I think Jeremy Vernon was referring to Steve Lawrence who was doing the imitation of Crazy Guggenheim backstage. Keith Scott

Destiny said...

Interesting to read this interview about Jeremy. Knew him in Vegas and then L.A. Handsome. Sardonic looks...