Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Opening Act: Part One

Many performers have experienced the thrill of Opening For The Headliner. In my long career, I opened for comics (Jerry) Stiller & (Anne) Meara, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Vernon, Godfrey Cambridge, Jackie Mason, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce. In the 1960's, many successful night club formats presented a singer as opening act, followed by a headliner comic. The most prestigious venues were The Blue Angel and The Village Vanguard in New York; Mr. Kelly's in Chicago; the hungry i in San Francisco. Herewith I present a few memories of my interaction(s) with some of these diverse personalities.

Since I worked with so many comics, I'll spread these memories out over several entries. Here are three for a start:

STILLER & MEARA: Intense, focused, charming people, with oddly no discernable humor backstage. They were always very busy running over their routine before taking the stage. They were "New Stars" in the 1960's when I opened for them, but they were enjoying significant national television exposure with frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, and with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson in the enormously valuable Late Show network slot. Jerry and Anne are the parents of Ben Stiller. Jerry Stiller made his mark as Mr. Costanza on the Jerry Seinfeld Show, and more recently as Ballstein in Zoolander.


PHYLLIS DILLER: Phyllis was riding high in the 50's and 60's, guesting on tv shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, as well as numerous Late Show appearances with Jack Paar and later with Johnny Carson. You could hardly turn on the tv and NOT see her. An outrageously camp figure, she wore gloves and flamboyuant, over-the-top costumes, she had skinny legs and wore fashionable little boots. She frequently embellished her dress with ostrich feathers. She sported a fabulous wig and carried an over-sized cigarette holder. She laughed raucously at her own jokes, often made at the expense of her husband "Fang".

We shared a dressing room at The Blue Angel in New York when I opened for her. One night she sported a heavy cast on her leg, rehab gear after a nasty fall. As she made her way to the stage for her first entrance of the night, she cheerfully bellowed "I look like Chester* in drag"! Phyllis also told me she had made "A Life Plan" which set specific career and personal goals she expected to achieve. I think she succeeded with each one.

*TV character Chester Goode who walked with a decided limp, was played by Dennis Weaver. He was a featured player in the "Gunsmoke" western series starring James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon.


BILL COSBY: My first appearance at the hungry i in San Francisco occurred in the early 1960's when I opened for one John Gary who was enjoying a wave of popularity. His was a very sweet tenor voice, perfect for lyrics such as "Come to me, bend to me ... " The house was filled with his fans: ladies of a certain age who reacted with genteel enthusiasm (smiles, swoons, sighs) whenever Mr. Gary sang his drippingly sentimental melodies. I was nervous because I'd been receiving a lot of positive press in New York, and I knew that the renowned critic Ralph Gleason reviewed most if not all the jazz acts for The San Francisco Chronicle. Mainly, I knew of his deep appreciation for Carmen McRae and felt justifiably apprehensive about how I'd measure up.

Ralph Gleason's review panned the tenor and raved for me. Filled with glee and delight, I bought 25 copies of The SF Chronicle and telephoned several really good friends in New York, reading the review out loud. John Gary fussed and fumed that night, shouting he wanted .. NO. He would demand a retraction. I tried to stay out of his way.

Enrico Banducci, hungry i proprietor/founder extended my engagement so that I could open for Bill Cosby the following week. The audience demographic changed instantly and my sets were received warmly, thanks to Mr. Gleason's review. Also, Cosby was riding a very huge crest of popularity with his comedy albums, one of which featured the hilarious fantasy of a contemporary Noah receiving a directive from the Lord to build an ark. The bit is still available on Cosby compilation recordings of the 1960's.

Bill was very sweet to me and insisted I leave my downtown hotel and move to a houseboat in Sausalito, one of six watery homes available for rental. I'd never lived in such a structure, and on the morning of my first day in it, I became slightly nauseated as the "house" rocked and rolled in the turbulent waters of the Bay. I heard heavy footsteps on the deck and saw my landlord braving the wind and the waves as he worked to shore up the piling to which the house was tethered. He told me later that if he hadn't fortified my moorings, I'd have awakened to find me and my boat slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge, headed for Oahu.

Coming Next: Opening for Lenny Bruce!


jpf_37 said...

I've really been enjoying your blog since you began it, especially this new segment, "The Opening Act." How nice to read the reminiscences of someone who shares the knowledge of the same time period I've lived through. Please keep this up.
You and I shared a mutual friend, the late jazz DJ Bob Bassett. He and I were friends and co-workers for many years. I know he'd want me to say hello, since he can't do it himself now.

Sloane said...

Thanks for your encouraging words! Yes, Bob Bassett was a good pal, as were other radio notables in those days: Jim Mendes, Carl Henry, Sherm Strickhouser and Charlie Jefferds. Learned a great deal about the music I love from them all.

Ted O'Reilly said...

Carol, did you ever hear Ms. Diller ever play piano or harpsichord? I understand she was/is a more than credible...

Jo said...

I happened on your blog while trying to research Mr. Kelly's and The Happy Medium Night Clubs in the Chicago of old. Enjoyed your site very much. Any chance you or someone out there could direct me to a place to get some definative information about these clubs? Have not done so well to date just mentions on performers sites. My father was a huge fan of Carmen Mc Crea and I grew up listening to her, so that was a fun memory. I grew up on State Street during the 50's and 60's, my Dad had a tavern there. Thanks for the memory jog & all the best to you.

Brittania said...

You write very well.