Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Opening Act

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 (see June 18, 19, 2007 for Opening for Lenny Bruce, Parts One and Two).

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. Here are a few mini-stories about my interaction(s) with some of these diverse personalities.

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Stiller & Meara: Intense, focused, charming people who were always very seriously 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 frequent national television exposure appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, and continuing with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson in the enormously successful Late Show network slot. Unfortunately, I did not establish any sort of acquaintanceship with them, but very much enjoyed their intelligent, screamingly funny act.

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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 flamboyant, over-the-top costumes, had stick-skinny legs and wore fashionable little ankle boots daintily sprinkled with rhinestones. 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 that night, she cheerfully bellowed "I look like Chester in drag"!* Phyllis also told me she had carefully crafted "A Life Plan" which set specific career and personal goals she anticipated with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

P.S. Phyllis was a jazz fan, and proved it by patronizing Bradley's, the famous bistro in Greenwich Village,whenever she was in NYC and heard that Jimmy Rowles was playing there. She also expected to be invited to "sit in", so she always brought along her little C-Melody sax. Jimmy cheerfully obliged the lady.

*The name of tv character Chester Goode, played by Dennis Weaver. He was a regular character on "Gunsmoke", a popular 1950's tv western series starring James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon and walked with a pronounced limp.

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Jackie Mason: His act frequently targets hapless people in front-row-seats who have no choice but to laugh at zingers Jackie flings their way. Jackie's night-club material was exactly that which catapulted his huge one-man successes on Broadway.

I opened for Jackie (and subsequently for other comics during the 1960's) at the famed Chicago nightclub called Mr. Kelly's. Jackie's act never failed to make me laugh vigorously, even if I heard the same lines over and over again. Jackie understood that one person's laughter can often stimulate a similar response in the audience. So, on some evenings, I was his "plant". Jackie thanked me by taking me to one of Chicago's most popular delis for lunch several times during that two-week engagement. He was always greeted warmly by the staff. "Jackie! How're you doin'?" "Thank God I'm working", was his standard dead-pan reply.


Jackie Mason's career was unexpectedly derailed in 1964 after a furious Ed Sullivan blackballed him after Mason allegedly gave the finger when the show tried to cut him off prematurely. The truth of the matter is, the show ran long because of a speech by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, and someone backstage used gestures to try to get Mason to finish quickly. Mason told the audience "getting a lot of fingers tonight" and started making random gestures himself. Nothing obscene, but Sullivan didn't see it that way.

My husband and I went to see "The World According To Me" on Broadway in 1986 and chatted with Jackie in his basement dressing-room after the show. We reminisced about the Chicago gig and lied about how gracefully we'd both aged. I don't share much if any of Jackie's political point of view, but if you wish to explore his opinions, visit this site.

More "Opening For ... " coming soon to this location.

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