Saturday, July 18, 2015

An Interview with Dick Curtis - Part Six

Dick Curtis: Did we talk about the Bluegrass Room of the Brown Hotel in Louisville? That was owned by the big family in Louisville. They were all horse people, but The Outfit [Mafia] was down there too, of course. The club in the Brown Hotel - everybody played it. The agent's name was Peanuts Lurch. All the wiseguys in town referred to him as Peanuts because that's the kind of money he bet at the races (laughs). Small money. I was a big hit there, but I never played the club again.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Calumet City, Illinois?

Dick Curtis: Yeah, I never worked it, but I do remember it. I worked another gambling place near there in Springfield. There were two brothers that owned the club and, of course, it had Outfit connections. This was a private club on a golf course. The bosses were a couple of wiseguys. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You knew Jack Ruby in Dallas and that was when he ran a nightclub called The Carousel. However, years before that Jack Ruby was running another Texas nightclub...

Dick Curtis: I didn't meet Jack Ruby until I was a big hit at the King's Club. At that time the King's Club was the top private club in town to work. It was in the Adolphus Hotel. I was in the newspapers all the time because Tony Zoppi used to write a column called Dallas After Dark and was very generous. 

Jack Ruby wanted to know everybody in show business. He wanted to be close to everybody. He was a very lonely guy, it seemed to me. He was always chasing me, "Hey, give me your number. Give me your address." That kind of thing. So I gave him my number and address for his phone book. When I saw him shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television I thought, "Oh my God. Poor Jack. He thinks that everyone is going to think he's a hero and now everyone will be his friend and come to his club." That's the first thing I thought.

I was back in Dallas a few months after the assassination. It was a great place for lunch, the King's Club. All the big people in town used to go there. I got a call from the maitre'd, "Dick, are you coming down for lunch?" I said, "Yeah, I am." He said, "Good cause there's a couple FBI men here that would like to talk to you." They showed me their credentials and we sat down. They asked, "Why is your name in Jack Ruby's telephone book?"

I said, "Well, isn't everybody? Jack seemed to be a lonely guy. He was trying to make friends with everybody in show business and would always invite you to his club for free drinks. I went a couple of times because I had friend working his show for him. That's why." They said thank you and left.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played Texas a lot.

Dick Curtis: Yes. In 1952 or 1953 I got booked into a strip joint in downtown Houston called Mayton's Melody Inn. It was an old store. They put in a bar and a little stage for strippers and painted the windows of the store black. Out front there was a little blackboard with your name written in chalk if you were on the show (laughs). The show was three strippers and me. I also a worked a place there called the Cork Club and it was owned by the oil man who owned the Shamrock Hotel there.

Kliph Nesteroff: McCarthy.

Dick Curtis: Glen McCarthy, of course. Glen was an old wildcatter. A very, very tough old guy. He had been a roughneck in the oil fields, got lucky, found oil and became a multimillionaire. And he blew it all because he was a terrible drunk! Have you seen the picture Giant? That was his story. He was the poor guy who got rich. I got booked in there with Phil Ford and Mimi Hines. Opening night the place was empty. There was maybe a half dozen people in the audience.

The leader of the band was the same guy from the strip club. He said, "We finally made it." I did the act, but it was like a dry rehearsal. There was nobody there. Afterward the manager came backstage and he said, "You're through as of Friday!" The next night was absolutely jam packed. Sitting at the front table was Glen McCarthy. He owned the club - and he was sitting with this girlfriend who was wearing dark sunglasses right at the ringside table. I did a show that busted the walls open. I'm back in the dressing room and this manager came running back and he was frightened to death.

He says, "Oh, Dick! Would you please stay? I know I fired you, but Mr. McCarthy wants me to book you again for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving. He wants you held over for two more weeks so his friends can come see you. Can you do it?" I said, "I don't know. My agent has another job for me." This guy was ready to faint. He couldn't go back to Glen McCarthy and say, "I fired him." I became a regular at the club. I worked a lot for Glen McCarthy. He became an awful drunk and lost so much money and fell into disrepute with everybody.

Kliph Nesteroff: I mentioned Jack Ruby's Carousel. There was an unrelated club called the Carousel, much larger, in Pittsburgh.

Dick Curtis: I played a club in Pittsburgh called the Twin Coaches and it was one of the best known clubs on the East Coast. It was two trains put together. The facade looked like a big train and inside they extended it with a big dance floor. I worked there with Guy Lombardo. I also worked out in Monroeville, Pennsylvania at the Holiday House with Carmen Cavallaro. I worked at the old airport - on the top floor of the airport they had a club called the Horizon Room. The audience was people who missed their flights.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Curtis: (laughs) Very tough room! In those days all the propellors... you heard them warming up down below. You had to do your act through the noise. Those were my experiences in Pittsburgh.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Philadelphia? Did you ever play the Latin Casino?

Dick Curtis: Well, that was the nice club in town. I was playing Philadelphia in 1952 and I was working all the after hours clubs. In those days they still had the "blue laws" in Philadelphia. You couldn't sell booze after midnight. All the after hours clubs were private clubs. I worked one with the King Cole Trio. They would book a guy like me to tell a few jokes and introduce the acts.

There was one there called the Boulevard and it was very popular. The town was full on the weekends with us guys from New York who'd managed to book themselves. We all hung out at a little coffee shop in downtown Philadelphia called The Nook, near 12th and Locust. All around the top of the coffee shop were photos of the guys in show business at that time. We'd all hang out there trying to find work for the next week, get an angle on something.

Kliph Nesteroff: The big club there was Palumbo's.

Dick Curtis: Yes. Palumbo's was very big. I didn't work it. I ever tell you about George Carlin? He used to work in a team, Burns & Carlin, and they were really a good act. I met them in Dayton, Ohio. They were working a club when I was working for WLW Channel Five.

Kliph Nesteroff: He idolized Lenny Bruce.

Dick Curtis: A lot of people did. Lenny was doing something that nobody had ever done before. And if you did it at that time you would be accused of just trying to be another Lenny Bruce! There was no room for two Lenny Bruces in the business, although a lot tried - but they were just dirty and weren't clever about it. Remember Sammy Shore?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Dick Curtis: I knew him from Chicago. One day I was working the Horn in Santa Monica. Sam came up to me. He said, "Listen. I'm opening a club here at the old Ciro's. We're going to call it the Comedy Store. Come see it." I went over and after I'd seen three comics I said, "I gotta go." We walked into the lobby and he said, "What do you think?" I said, "Well, it's all wrong. It's one dirty comic following another dirty comic following another dirty comic following another dirty comic. You can't do it. There's not enough variety to hold people's attention. You need to have variety, not a bunch of comics in a row." Well, that shows what I know! I felt that way then and I feel that way now.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the predecessors to the comedy clubs - as far as having more than one comedian on the bill - was Billy Gray's Band Box.

Dick Curtis: Billy Gray's was a whole other world. It was like a living room it was so small. When we wanted to go there to see somebody we would stand by the bar. The place was jam packed every show. Billy was the star of the evening. Nobody could follow Billy. He was old fashioned and he was very Yiddish in delivery and references. He was not a dirty comic. He might use a scatalogical term, but that was not the sole purpose. He was a funny little guy with a bald head. I saw Dick Van Dyke there with his partner when they were doing a record act. Miming records. I worked it maybe three times - just auditioning. I did okay, but not good enough to be booked in steadily.

Kliph Nesteroff: When I said it was a predecessor to the comedy clubs, I don't mean in terms of scatilogical humor. I meant in terms of the sheer number of comedians on each show. Comedy was the focal point.

Dick Curtis: Yes, because of Billy. Whoever he booked in - whatever hot comic - Billy could still close the show. He was a funny, wonderful little guy. Because Billy was the boss and he owned the place he leaned toward comedy. They did a parody of My Fair Lady called My Fairfax Lady. It was wonderful. They booked singing groups in there but only to break it up. Billy knew he couldn't book comic, comic, comic, comic. It wouldn't work.

Kliph Nesteroff: Someone he always booked - and did an act with - was Ben Lessy and Patti Moore.

Dick Curtis: Yes, Ben Lessy. He would do silent comedy and he was so funny, but he would just go on for a couple minutes and do a little comedy relief. Then he would bring in a heavyweight and he would belt like a son of a gun, then a vocal group would follow because they would absorb all the after laughs. You know what I mean? They would entertain, but they didn't try to follow that. So there was a lot more variety at Billy Gray's, although the emphasis was on comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find it an interesting place. It was a proto-comedy club.

Dick Curtis: The guy who did do it was Sammy Shore. Sammy didn't have the best taste in the business. I thought.

Kliph Nesteroff: You know who the house comic was at Billy Gray's in its final six months before it closed for good?

Dick Curtis: Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sammy Shore.

Dick Curtis: Yes. Because he was trying to work steadily... for very little money (laughs). Sam used to follow me into a lot of jobs. I would be open about it. I'd say to club owners, "Do you actually like what Sammy does?" They'd shrug, "He tells jokes." Out in the Valley was Charlie Foy's. Eddie Foy's son Charlie opened the club and the whole family was in there at one time working in the show. All the Foy's. They were running it like Billy Gray's but it was the Foys singing and dancing and telling jokes. Charlie Foy played his father in the movie and it was a wonderful picture.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played Washington, DC.

Dick Curtis: Yes. The Coral Room and The Lotus Club. I only worked it a couple of weeks because I just did okay. I never went back for some reason. I kept getting into better clubs and moving along and getting into other things so - some of the clubs... even if I did well I didn't go back.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about New Jersey?

Dick Curtis: I worked a Playboy Club there. I told you about the Alibi Room? It was a road house. that was an entertainer's after hours club. All the guys that were comics in strip joints would frequent that place. As I recall it was on the highway going into Washington. Don Rickles was the emcee there. He signed with a guy named Joe Scandore.

Joe Scandore was an Outfit guy. He tried to sign me but I didn't want to be involved that way. It wasn't because he was Outfit... we were all working for Outfit guys anyway... He'd book you into a place that was a real nice job, but I didn't think he had what I needed to develop properly. This was 1953. There were a bunch of little road houses on the way to Washington at that time. I used to work them on the weekends out of Philadelphia. I didn't get a lot of money. When everything else failed I could sing (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: What about some of the places in Baltimore?

Dick Curtis: There were two really good places in Baltimore, but I wasn't good enough to work them. Joey Bishop was in one of them when I first met him. We all hung out at a place called the Mayfair Coffee Shop in the Mayfair Hotel. Lenny Bruce was working across the street and a couple other guys. We'd all hang around this coffee shop until four in the morning, telling stories and telling lies.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Ohio? Lot of little clubs all around then.

Dick Curtis: Yes. There was Sutmiller's in Dayton. That was a family owned and it was there for years and years. It was the only club to work if you were getting decent money. And then I did a television show in Dayton for Crosley Broadcasting. That lasted a couple of years. I went directly from there to the West Coast around 1953-54 and concentrated all my efforts on television. But I would always bounce away to do a club to pay my rent. Sutmiller's in Dayton was a very big club.

I worked a club in Cincinnati on a bar. They had a bar with a stage and a trio behind it, up above. That was the style of a lot of places. I didn't work any good clubs in Cincinnati other than the Playboy Club. In Columbus I produced PM Magazine for Westinghouse. I tried to write and direct and produce and one of them was that. I did a television show in Cleveland. Mike Douglas moved to Philadelphia because NBC and Westinghouse traded stations for some legal reason. Mike left Cleveland and went to Philadelphia.

NBC took over the studio and they hired me to come and do a morning show for a short while called The Dick Curtis Show. I used all the sets from The Mike Douglas Show. I have stills from that, but they didn't make any kinescopes. I don't think it would have been worthwhile (laughs). But I had good people on like Phil Ford and Mimi Hines and... Marilyn Maye. Do you know who Marilyn Maye is?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Dick Curtis: She was probably one of the best singers who ever happened. She was singing with her husband Sam Tucker, a fine piano player. Sam was a great musician and a terrible drunk. It ruined their marriage. There was a club around Cleveland where Danny Thomas was a big star. He went from there to Chicago. He was in Cleveland first. And Detroit.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you play Detroit much?

Dick Curtis: I was born there. In 1939 I used to run errands for people out of the top of the Fisher Building. It had the biggest radio station in Detroit, had a strong signal that went clear up to Alaska. I used to run errands for everybody and they would let me do lines on radio shows. Then I worked the Cass Theater before they tore it down and I worked the Roostertail.

Across the river in Windsor I worked the Kilarney Castle and a little place called White's Pub. It was a Greek restaurant. On one side they had a restaurant and another door went to a bar called the Elbow Room. There was a little tiny stage behind the bar. I was in Chicago a lot. I was at the Hollywood Club there at Belmont and River Road. We did the show regardless if there was anybody there. The boss was an old hood named Altuso. He'd say, "Start the show!" I'd say, "There's nobody here!" He'd say, "Somebody might come in!" And he was right. If you opened the door and nothing was happening you'd get back in your car and go someplace else. So we did a show for chairs a lot of times. When things got a little better I worked the Cloister in the Marilyn Hotel, The Tradewinds, Mister Kelly's, The Playboy Club and so many places in Chicago. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Chez Paree?

Dick Curtis: I always wanted to work the Chez Paree and I was either never available or the job was never available at the right time. I never played it. Another place I played there was Mangram's Chateau. It was out in the suburbs. It was a big, local banquet house. I did a lot of industrial shows around Chicago too.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a comedian that played the Hollywood Club called Manny Oper.

Dick Curtis: Don't remember him, but there was a very nice band there and one of the guys wrote the first arrangement I ever paid for.

I had the idea that comedy... The Outfit used to call guys that stood up and told jokes - straight up jokes - bam, bam, bam - they called him a stand up guy. That's where the stand-up thing came from. A stand-up fighter is a guy that is a puncher. He keeps walking forward punching all the way. That's what they called a stand-up fighter. A stand-up guy was a guy who was tough and you could depend on. The Outfit managed fighters and then they'd manage clubs that booked comics, so the term found its way into the lexicon of nightclubs. A guy who just stood there and punched jokes - joke, joke, joke - he was a stand-up comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: Interesting.

Dick Curtis: But I didn't do that. I would do songs that related to a big joke and I would finish the joke singing. I wanted to dance and sing and be comedic as well. I would find a song like Put On a Happy Face and open with, "Gray skies are going to clear up! Put on a happy face! Da da da clouds - cheer up! Put on a Happy Face! I'm trying to do that folks because a bad thing just happened..." and go into the material. I'd go into four or five jokes and then get to the last punchline and then I would sing out. The comments from other guys in the business were, "Oh, he ain't a comic - he sings off." (laughs) They took pride in the fact they finished with a laugh - which is good! That's a fine style, but I didn't think that was all there was to nightclub entertaining.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about some obscure comedians that were around at that time. A comedian named Hank Henry...

Dick Curtis: Oh, yes. I knew Hank Henry. You must have him down as playing Vegas?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, The Last Frontier.

Dick Curtis: Hank played the Last Frontier and the Outfit liked him and kept him for a long time. He worked for them and he worked well for them. Hank was not that good. I remember seeing him and thinking, "Well, it works. But I don't like it." I worked with Hank. He found his niche in Vegas at the Silver Slipper.

Kliph Nesteroff: The ads say Hank Henry... the Funniest Man in the World.

Dick Curtis: (laughs) Well, that's a bit of a brag... Hank could emcee the shows and he was a good guy. If an act didn't show up he could do their time. That's what you had to be able to do to really hold on to a job in Vegas. If the guys who owned the hotels liked you, you were in like a burglar.

Kliph Nesteroff: Can I ask you about some real obscure comedians from that era?

Dick Curtis: Sure, of course.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Winston.

Dick Curtis: Another guy that was just a shadow I passed in the night.

Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Lewis - in a comedy team with Don Phillips.

Dick Curtis: Lewis and Philips? Yeah, I don't know much about them.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't think anybody knew much about them.

Dick Curtis: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: Lenny Laden and Eddie Rose.

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mike Caldwell.

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Falbo.

Dick Curtis: Knew of him, but didn't know him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Monet and Collins.

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Hal Heeney.

Dick Curtis: Nope.

Kliph Nesteroff: Herbie Leon.

Dick Nesteroff: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Fisher and White.

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bobby Pinkus.

Dick Curtis: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eppy Pearson.

Dick Curtis: Nope.

Kliph Nesteroff: These are all real obscure guys.

Dick Curtis: That's okay - I'm one of them (laughs)!


KING OF JAZZ said...

Great stuff. Great exit line!

Jeff 68 said...

Mike Caldwell was a comedy magician.

Booksteve said...

Wondering if the small club he mentioned in Cincinnati might have been the Living Room? The Dee Felice Trio were in residence there for years. They were a favorite of James Brown and played on some of his records. Later on, in the late sixties, they were the house band on Nick Clooney's TV show. Dee Felice later opened and ran a cajun restaurant locally that has long outlasted his death.

Or maybe that wasn't them Dick meant.

Anonymous said...

Buddy Lewis, at least before he was part of a team, was a well-known comic impressionist who could do excellent facial and bodily lookalikes...Jolson, Durante...he can be seen doing part of his act in a nice little B-crime movie starring Brian Keith, CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (1957). His character is a nightclub entertainer who does mimicry and is named Kerry Jordan(!). Actually Will Jordan told me that Lewis even wrote a book about how to do impressions. I'll have to check the details of that next time I speak with him. Keith Scott

Ted Hering said...

Bobby Pinkus was also known as Peter James. He was with Spike Jones off and on from 1952 until Spike's death in 1964.

Another member of the Gentelmaniacs was Mousie Garner, who also toured with the Spike Jones band, from 1955 to around 1958.