Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Interview with Chuck McCann

Chuck McCann: My father was the arranger at the Roxy Theater, so I grew up sitting in the orchestra pit. All the various comics came through there from Smith and Dale to you name it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your dad played with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Chuck McCann: Right. The Roxy Theater was a presentation house and everybody played it from Abbott and Costello to Jack Benny. I got to know everybody because they'd be there for two or three weeks.

I was backstage and Lou Costello took me for an ice cream soda at Hanson's. I started going to Hanson's Drugstore and hung around all the comedians. I grew up there with all the comics. That's where I met Will Jordan. Later I met people like Peter Marshall out here in California. He was a member of our Sons of the Desert [Laurel and Hardy fan club] and part of our Yarmy's Army, which is a group of comedians that get together out here. Most of our members are dead now.

Kliph Nesteroff: Orson Bean was a founding member of that Laurel and Hardy fan club...

Chuck McCann: I've never seen him at one meeting. But that's okay. He's in there. He used to come into Hanson's. Originally I wanted to do Laurel and Hardy with Orson. I asked him, but he was becoming Orson Bean. So I did it with Dick Van Dyke instead. We did it on The Garry Moore Show

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention Lou Costello taking you out for an ice cream soda at Hanson's. That's remarkable. What year...

Chuck McCann: God, I don't know. It goes way back. It would have been in the late 1940s. I went over there as a kid and then I started to hangout there as a professional during high school. I'd stop in to see my father and then I'd wander across the street. Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, everyone would hang out at Hanson's.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter Rodney Dangerfield when he was still known as Jack Roy?

Chuck McCann: Sure. Yeah, of course. Jackie Roy was writing at the time and had his siding and shingle business. He hung out with all of us, but he would come in to Hanson's as a writer. He would write for comics. We all had agents and there were tons of them in 1650 Broadway. Upstairs were all the Mountain agents including whatshisname, the big one.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Rapp Agency.

Chuck McCann: Yeah, Rapp. My agent was in the Palace building near a bunch of other variety agents. We would walk back and forth between the Brill Building and 1650. The agents were all nestled up the avenue to 57th Street. Later when television came in they were all by the RCA Building. We'd all constantly be bumping into each other as we headed to our central focal point, which was Hanson's. Also the B-G coffee shop, which was right next door in the 1650 building. Right next to that building was the Wintergarden, one of the most famous theaters for variety and musicals. That's where Jolson sang. The Roxy was across the street in the Taft Building. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the core guys in your circle?

Chuck McCann: Will Jordan. Jack DeLeon. Howard Storm. Red Buttons was one of the main comics around there. He wanted to team up with me at one point. He thought we worked well together. We did a movie together and we were two jerks and it kinda worked. Let's see, who else? Joe E. Ross was my buddy. 

He was an old burlesque comic. Nat Hiken first put him on The Phil Silvers Show - y'know, Sgt. Bilko - and then Car 54, Where Are You. The Bilko show was originally shot over at WNEW on the sixth or seventh floor. It was a big studio up there. It was at one time an opera house, but it became WNEW. They had a pretty good size studio up there and that's where they did the Bilko show.

I was over at WPIX doing my show before I moved over to WNEW. I shot Wonderama up there with Sandy Becker. It was two different lives for me. I was building my career and I came up through puppetry and children's shows, but I was also doing nightclubs. I was out at the Valley Stream Park Inn and Steven's Steakhouse and a lot of other places with everyone else who was working the clubs through the hub of 1650 Broadway.

We'd go there, get our work and go off on the weekend. Mostly all weekend work. If you opened the Daily News or the Daily Mirror in the 1950s, you'd see page after page of nightclubs and you'd see all the comics that worked there. That'd be an interesting piece for you. Have you ever looked at those?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, I've looked through lots of...

Chuck McCann: Oh, okay, I forgot I'm talking into an echo chamber. You're hearing a lot of your own stuff. That was where we all worked during the weekend... and the Mountains. For my first gigs I wound up taking on a partner. The first club date we worked was with a new group from Canada. They were the ones that did that, "Oh, a little darlin, bup, bup, bup..."

Kliph Nesteroff: The Diamonds.

Chuck McCann: The Diamonds. Then they took off and became very, very big. And whatshisname who used to hang out in the bathroom and slept in their tub. Oh, Jesus. He's huge. He became very big. I went to the Paramount to see him... he used to bug the hell out of me at the B-G. He used to always ask me to do Gregory Peck for him. Oh, what's his name? He wrote the theme song to the Tonight Show...

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Anka.

Chuck McCann: Paul Anka. Paul was friendly with The Diamonds and became a big star. He used to come into Hanson's and the B-G all the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were starting out, what name were you performing under?

Chuck McCann: I used various names. I used the name Jack Frost. I came onstage and people shouted, "Jack Frost - get lost!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Chuck McCann: So I dropped that (laughs). But I used a bunch of various names - and we all did. Every comic in the world was named Jackie something. Jackie Gleason, Jackie Kahane, Jackie Vernon... you were up to your ears in Jackies. I used Jackie McCann at one point. That didn't work either. 

I would work on Long Island and in Queens. There was a place called the Ideal Spot. That was a tough room. Then out in Long Island there was the El Mambo Club where they kept me for six weeks. I think the Boys ran it or something, I don't know. I wanted to go because I had another gig, but they asked me to please stay. I felt I better stay.

Kliph Nesteroff: Because they were Mob guys.

Chuck McCann: Don't say that! Let me put it this way... I didn't know if they were or not. I had a lot friends that may have been. Everybody did. All the guys that ran the clubs were generally in that... it was the liquor business and what have you, y'know. Let's put it this way - they were "influential." But everybody in the business knew that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Joe E. Ross. Do you know anything about a guy whom Joe E. teamed up with briefly named Dave Starr?

Chuck McCann: Yeah, Davey Starr, sure. They were burlesque comics. I did not know him well, but I knew him. I knew him mostly through Joe E. They did an act together. He showed me this photo of him working in burlesque with this girl. She's with feathers and pearls and everything next to him and, I swear to God, he had this hard-on that was so obvious. It was a publicity picture!

Joe E. was a character. I mean he really was a character and Nat Hiken saw that in him. He was not a dramatic actor or any kind of actor in any shape or form. He was just a burlesque comic, but in a way we're all storytellers. That's the basis. I'm a storyteller and whether it's funny or dramatic, you're a writer as you speak.

You're singing a song - you're telling a story. Comedy is the same way. You're a story teller and it's how you tell it. Joe E. was able to tell a good story and his attitude was funny. That's what Nat Hiken saw and developed a character around. That was Joe E. Ross. He made it funny because he told a great story.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mel Brooks was in New York back then. Did you meet him during the Hanson's Drugstore years?

Chuck McCann: Yes, Mel was writing the Sid Caesar show and we met one day in the drugstore. He was getting paper and pads. I was writing my act and he was writing a play called All-American, which was not successful, but he was a good guy and I loved him. He recognized funny people and talent. He had a great eye for that. Mel himself was a brilliant performer. He was a writer then. 

Mel Brooks is as good a writer as he is a performer as he is a producer as he is a director. He's his own storyteller. So, that's what he was doing at the time I met him, writing this show All-American. The Producers became a part of history. It did not take-off right away. It sat on the shelf for a while. Finally, I believe, it was Peter Sellers who saw it by accident. The film he was supposed to see in a screening room didn't show up. Sellers was shooting something and used to bring his cast and crew in to watch British films. They had like a film society going. So his film didn't show up and rather than waste the evening the owner of the screening room said, "Well, we got this Mel Brooks film." And they ran The Producers for Peter Sellers and he took out a full-page ad in the Times the next day saying, "You must see this movie." 

Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Sellers gave Mel Brooks a big break in that sense. I've heard you gave the comedian and impressionist Frank Gorshin a big break.

Chuck McCann: Yes, absolutely. It's a funny story because after I helped him The Steve Allen Show booked him and kicked me off so they could fit him in! That wasn't really a problem for me because the show moved to California and I didn't. Neither did Tom Poston and I was working with him a lot. Steve Allen and I remained very close. And I'm glad he didn't take me along because otherwise I would not have gotten movies like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I started doing a lot of movies.

Anyway, the Gorshin thing happened at a rehearsal. Tom Poston and I were doing Laurel and Hardy. We were asked to stay after the rehearsal because they were auditioning comedians and they felt it would help if there was a bit of an audience. Bill Harbach, the producer of the show, asked us all to stick around. I saw the piano had a bunch of hats on it. I was in the hall and there was this guy standing there. 

I tried to make him as comfortable as possible. I said, "What do you do?" He said, "I do impressions." I asked him to do a couple and he did. I said, "Jesus! That's wonderful!" They were really remarkable. He did Richard Widmark and Kirk Douglas. I said, "Oh, they're going to love this." So I sit down with our little audience. Steve was sitting next to me. Steve is the nicest guy in the world, but if someone is embarrassing themselves it is hard for him to take. It's hard for anyone to take. Gorshin comes out and sits down at the piano and starts playing rock and roll. He sings this awful song. He's half way through and everyone is cringing. Steve looked at Bill and Bill got the message. He gets up, "Well, thank you very much. That's terrific. Uh, we'll give you a call and let you know."

So Frank stands up and... it was embarrassing. I yelled out, "Wait, Bill! What's the porkpie hat for?" Gorshin says, "For my impressions." I said, "You do impressions? Can we see some of the impressions, Steve?" Steve glared at me. Everyone glared at me. But I knew I was safe because he was marvelous. He turned around, put on the porkpie hat and became Richard Widmark. It was perfect. He assumed the spirit and being of Richard Widmark. He did the voice spot on and everybody's mouth dropped. Then he did Kirk Douglas and so forth and so on.

Three weeks later he was on the show and I was off the show (laughs). No good turn ever goes unpunished. But I was very happy to do it. Tom Poston booked a Broadway show after that and I never again went on the show, but we had been scheduled to do a whole bunch of Laurel and Hardy together and perhaps do a movie together - but it didn't happen. Gorshin never remembered the incident. In his mind he thought he had done well, but I saved his ass. He didn't realize it. To him it was a natural segue when I said, "What's the pork pie hat for?" He didn't know he was going to be asked to leave.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have down that your earliest Steve Allen appearance was January 1959 with Patrice Munsel, The King Sisters and Roy Hamilton.

Chuck McCann: It could have been. I remember one of my early episodes was with William Bendix. Henry Fonda was on another. I was just doing sketches and stuff. I was just a young comic. I did a football sketch with William Bendix. But we're talking however many years ago. I'm seventy-eight. Not quite as old as Irwin Corey but... 

Irwin and I did several movies together. I remember my dad telling me this. He was working the Versailles at the time. He was in a show with Fay Dewitt, a wonderful comedienne. 

She did a lot of singing and comedy and was quite talented. She was part of the East Side set with the Number One Fifth Avenue and the Blue Angel. Fay became an agent and is locatable. You could probably get some Irwin stories off of her.

He would come into the Mayflower, which was a donut shop people went to on their break from the Versailles. My father was doing the orchestra at the Versailles after the Roxy closed. Irwin would carry on. He told a story about falling into a sewer with an umbrella and not being able to get out. He did crazy routines and wonderful stuff. My dad told me he went to the London Palladium and Val Parnell was orchestra leader. Irwin talked to the orchestra with his back to the audience. The audience thought this was terribly rude. So they started shouting, "Next act, please!" Irwin had to leave. The audience turned on him. That's a story my father told me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your father's name?

Chuck McCann: Valentine J. McCann. Val McCann.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your manager at the time was a guy named Manny Greenfield.

Chuck McCann: Manny Greenfield brought Tom Jones into the country and had his nose done. I gave Tom Jones my microphone in Bermuda at the Forty Thieves Club. He first worked there. He didn't have a good mic, so he borrowed one from me and I never saw it again. We all invested in that nightclub. It was right across the street from where the boats docked. We all bought property there in an area called Prosperous Caves. Supposedly the land on top of the caves is mentioned by Shakespeare in The Tempest

What we didn't know was - the people that sold us the property had blasted trees out. They dumped the dynamite in this underground lake down there. Mel Torme and I were dropping rocks in that lake, watching them sink to the bottom... not knowing that at the bottom were piles of this volatile dynamite. The owner of the nightclub told me about the dynamite. He said, "God, in heaven, you're throwing boulders down there!?" Anyway, Tom Jones was terrific. When Manny passed away that was the end of my career in a way. My star career. They were grooming me. His brother took over. His brother had been the secretary and he just metamorphosed. He became Manny! It was amazing. His name was Lloyd. They had Margaret Whiting. They had The Goofers.

Kliph Nesteroff: Woody Woodbury.

Chuck McCann: Yes, that's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know why I didn't know this until recently, but you were on the original Vaughn Meader LP - the best-selling comedy record The First Family.

Chuck McCann: I put the money up for it, practically.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really?

Chuck McCann: Yeah. Earle Doud was my writing partner. Earle and I wrote Far Out Space Nuts later. We were the best of friends. He lived across the street from my apartment on 69th Street. Even before that I knew him. Earle was a character. A fantastic character. He was very funny and wrote great stuff. He had good ideas and I had good ideas, so we collaborated on a lot of things. I wasn't a partner on The First Family, but I put the money up for his initial pilot to get it cooking. Then he went to [Cadence Records president] Archie Bleyer with it. It was Bob Booker and whatshisname.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Foster.

Chuck McCann: Foster, yeah. We found Vaughn Meader downtown in a place. He was a kind of a country hick from Maine, just another barrel house piano player, but his voice was very New England. It was right on the money. He barely imitated Kennedy because he was that voice. There was no impression there. Earle said, "I want to do this idea on the President." I thought, "Yeah, but what's funny about the President?" Earle had a great sense of storytelling and he started to put this thing together and then I immediately thought "hit." We went down and met Vaughn.

The rest of the cast we auditioned. We made a little demo at Y&R Studios on 57th. I think the Casa Madrid was in that building. We were about to do the show and everyone was over in the bar because the President was about to make an announcement. Right before we recorded, the president made an announcement on television. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis speech... and then we went into the studio to record The First Family album. I mean, you talk about a joke killer. The audience came to our studio and they laughed out of nervousness. It became twice as funny to them. I don't know what it was, but it was so funny that night.

I did the warm-up and I played Pierre Salinger and a couple of other characters. I ended up doing another album called Sing Along with Jack, which Pat McCormick wrote. It was a satirical take-off on JFK and Mitch Miller. Anyway, we did The First Family. Archie Bleyer was in the control room. He was livid after we finished. He said, "We can never release this! There's too much laughter! They're laughing over the lines! We're going to have to do it again." So the next week they did it again and it bombed. Ka-boom. I mean into the shit house.

So they released the original right away. That happened by accident. Somebody played it in New York, one of the disc jockeys got an advance copy. It was an acetate copy that Earle laid on him. It was William B. Williams or somebody like that. They played it and the people stormed the record stores to order it. They couldn't print the covers fast enough. They could press the vinyl like crazy, but the covers they didn't have ready. People would buy the disc in a paper jacket and then were entitled to come back and get the cover later on. And they sold millions and millions. It was the fastest selling album in history.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where did the live audience come from?

Chuck McCann: A lot of them were friends and people at agencies they'd call. Generally, it was people in the business. It wasn't a big crowd. Maybe a hundred people. Maybe seventy-five. There wasn't that much room in that place. After the album started to go, everybody jumped into the fray. Now he went off on a concert tour. He was going to do a sequel. He was about to do this sequel album, went out to promote it, and then got the news that Kenendy was shot. That was it.