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Monday, April 26, 2010

Must They Also Be Nice People?

The recent Danny Kaye conversation has me pondering an issue that's come up time and again in my mind. Do we love our favorite comedians more for being nice guys offscreen? Or better put, will we laugh less for finding out they're not? I admit it colors my perception, having spent far more hours reading about the lives of clowns than watching their movies. It's not that I expect them to be off-set Father Christmas' buying ice cream cones for every fan they meet. Buster Keaton, for instance, was never like that and I wouldn't have wanted him to be. It's just disillusioning to know that a happy face on screen is a sour one away from it (like Danny Kaye's, by most accounts). We set a higher standard for comedians' behavior in private life. They're a little like B western stars in that respect. I've read Hoppy had his bad days, and Rocky Lane could be downright truculent. But since cowboys and clowns appeal to the youth in all of us, it's vital they respond kindly when we meet, even if it's vicariously through fans of long ago. It pleases me that Oliver Hardy took time to sit a child on his knee and Stooges Moe and Larry invited fans to visit. I've belatedly gravitated to those latter boys partly for learning they were warm and friendly in retirement. There are sites devoted to correspondence between Moe Howard and admirers, including photos where they met. Larry liked receiving guests at the Motion Picture Country Home in spite of diminished health and seems always to have had time for autographs. The roll of honor among comedians is indeed one I'm constantly updating, and yes, it matters how they would have treated me had we crossed paths.

First off, there's the difference between "on" friendly and normal friendly. The "on" setting was one a Red Skelton maintained. He was said to do twenty minutes just for encountering fans at a hardware store. Would that have been fun or just alarming? Red also made hash of his writers. So did Jackie Gleason. One scribe remembered Bob Hope tossing paychecks from the top of a spiral staircase just to watch minions scramble for them. Not much to admire in that. But we're talking less about how they abused employees than how they'd treat us. I sometimes imagine myself going back and meeting clown idols, so to that extent they're still an ongoing presence. Would Lou Costello wave me off at a time travel'ed Jersey premiere of 1952's Jack and the Beanstalk? Like everyone who's read about them, I have conflicting emotions about Bud and Lou. Especially Lou. He was probably nicest to little kids. Costello's This Is Your Life reveals a lot. It's probably his most humanizing moment before a camera. The same program did as much for Laurel and Hardy, although their kind offices were never in doubt. Yes, Babe was more aloof, but we attribute that to a private nature. Stan was perhaps champion swell guy of the lot, the sort who answered every fan letter and maintained an open door policy at his Oceana Apartment of final residence. I've known admirers who dropped in there and/or spoke to Laurel on the phone. On each reported occasion, he was graciousness personified. Is it any wonder this is the comedian I'd most like to have known?

They say Buster Keaton was easily distracted, especially by a television he liked to play loud (to compensate for hearing loss). Keaton would sign or answer questions, but seemed bound to ponderings of his own. Small talk didn't interest him. Adept hands at Bridge claimed most of Buster's spare hours during later years. Otherwise, he'd be near as silent as his screen alter ego. What then, of those whose private persona contrasted most sharply with images we enjoyed on the screen? There's Jerry Lewis for extreme example here. How many youngsters came away heartbroken from disillusioning introduction to him? I've met several among wounded on Jerry's battlefields. He's one I'd be loathe to meet, or maybe afraid is the better word. Being not so ardent a fan helps in this instance. Groucho Marx is another I don't regret having missed. Some fans say it was an honor being insulted and dismissed by him. I confess to finding this a dubious one, but who's to say what distinction memory would accord to having once been rudely brushed off by Groucho? His brothers are a mixed group as potential acquaintance. Harpo was a recognized sweetheart (or pussycat, as Jerry might call him), while Chico remains a largely unknowable presence beyond gambling toward crisis at a thousand card tables.

They say Jack Benny was wonderful. A soul of generosity to fans, cast, crew ... everybody. Don't any of you correct me here with stories of Jack behaving unkind, for I'd want him to stay pristine. He's like Stan Laurel for being an icon minus even toes of clay. Some comedians were so rich as to be forever removed from the hoi polloi of fan intercourse. How many autograph hounds got to Charlie Chaplin after wealth and worldwide success swallowed him up? I once considered writing CC at that Swiss chateau, but figured one of a hundred servants would intercept my mail. Maybe Charlie sat around waiting for letters that never came, wondering if we'd forgotten him. Harold Lloyd had his palace closer to home. He strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-whatever with a glad hand for admirers, especially ones wearing Shriner hats. College students found Lloyd delightful when he brought silent backlog to campus auditoriums. Private life Harold seems to me to have fulfilled all the ambitions of his screen character. My own college years didn't miss HL's campus visits by very many, even if his did take place states away from where I attended. To go back (much) further, what would meeting Roscoe Arbuckle have been like? That seems to me like an encounter with Lincoln or Mark Twain. Still, I think Roscoe would have been good company. Navigating his vanished era might be something else. I'd be busier noticing stiff collars, straw boaters, and elegant modes of transport (his Pierce-Arrow!), taken aback no doubt by how people lived so rustic then. There'd be stopover to visit Mabel Normand, who'd be receptive enough based on what books say, but would I spend greater energy trying to warn she and Roscoe against calamities to come? What puts most of these personalities within realms of fanaticized access (excepting Mabel and Roscoe of course) is the fact of their lifetimes overlapping my own. Face-to-face encounters were at least conceivable, even if none came to fruition. The fact is I never met or exchanged mail with any of them. Perhaps some of you did. If so, I'd like hearing about it. No such thing as too many anecdotes about comedians we all enjoy.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I sent Groucho a birthday card for his 83rd (which, thanks to years of misinformation, I'd thought was his 78th). In return I received an autographed photo. The salutation ("To Mike, With my best wishes. Sincerely,") had clearly been written by someone else, but I was convinced the "Groucho" was legit.

Years later, I discovered my hunch was correct, the "someone else" being college student Steve Stoliar, courtesy of the latter's essential read, "Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House." Talk about living the dream... imagine WORKING for one of your idols in his own home! (The book also has an anecdote of the author, as a young boy, on a flight with both Skelton and Andy Griffith. "Sheriff Andy" turned out to be less agreeabe than ol' Red.)

10:42 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great subject and, as usual, perceptive observations. It's true! Many of us take to heart the nasty stuff about our film clowns in a much more personal way than ordinary gossip about garden variety movie stars. How many of us old time movie geeks are so objective as to remain unfazed when folks trot out some story about an over-sized ego attached to a beloved funnyman (or woman)? Every time the subject of old time comedians crops up in front of my father-in-law, he will coolly remind me of an unpleasant encounter with one of my faves, Eddie Cantor, "a demanding little man." Yet Cantor is a great example of the sort of comic who, for at least a period of time, say, the depression years, seemed to have a transcendent connection with his audience (was there ever an entertainer more in touch with what a dollar meant to the average Joe?) I think a lot has to with the democratic, small d, attitude we expect from clowns; we want these guys to be truth tellers, and as such, we are looking for them to show the same face to everyone. And, hopefully, a humble and compassionate one at that. Its thrilling to know Stan Laurel revealed the same courtesy to the pipe fitter writing fan letters in Virginia as to Jerry Lewis or Dick Van Dyke stopping by his apartment. He may have been the gold standard as to such conduct among aging comics, but its nice to think many of the great ones could muster up similar class on their good days.

1:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson writes in on the personalities behind comedy's mask:

Maybe the secret is to have a public persona that's not impossible to live up to. Kaye, Costello and Lewis were consistently cast as lovable innocents, but all three sweated to achieve that whimsy.

Stan played an innocent, and like them he was a very shrewd and hardworking comedian offscreen. I think the secret there was that he really loved comedy, and he seemed to attract fellow comedy-lovers who recognized and valued him as the creator rather than as the character. They didn't expect him to wear the derby and mangle sayings. In fact, they loved it when he revealed the mechanics of laughter. Jerry Lewis -- himself one of the fans who sought out Stan -- seems to have craved a similar offscreen rep. Hence the constant reminders that he was the genius behind the idiot as opposed to the idiot.

Jack Benny's comedy persona was actually a little negative -- vain, cheap, and (by design) constantly upstaged by funnier stuff around him -- so he didn't have a lot to live up to. It may have been surprising that he was a nice guy who enjoyed everything and laughed at anything. I remember someone describing how Benny went on about how good the water was at a restaurant, and realizing he wasn't trying to be funny. Benny laughed when the silliness was pointed out. Then he added, seriously, that it really WAS good water.

Guys like Moe Howard and Don Rickles instantly surprise fans by not hitting them. When they turn out to be gracious, it's a bonus.

A last note on Skelton: On the commentary for Magnificent Men in the Flying Machines, the director notes that Skelton kept a continuous monologue going when they were filming his prologue bits (even when trussed up with wires and such). The director and crew seemed to enjoy him breaking up the monotony -- there was evidently a lot of tech time involved. One wonders how long they'd last if Skelton were there for the entire shoot.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Encountered in my young life two of the classic comedians that you mention.

Red a gift shop in the middle of nowhere, Hawaii. I was 9. I asked for his autograph and he chose to act as if he did not hear me. Fair enough. But he went down a notch in my fan book.

Four years later, met Bob hope in a different store. He posed for a photo for me, then the flash didn't go off, and I ran off, bought a new flash bulb, came back, and he posed all over again. Plus he gave me an autograph.

Hail Bob favorite celeb encounter!

Tom Ruegger

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Groucho Marx was gracious enough to reply to a letter I wrote him when I was 14. I treasure that note.

I had a friend who visited Moe Howard and Larry Fine in their latter years; he couldn't say enough nice things about them. Larry, in particular, was very welcoming and funny.

And there are others... I once talked to an old-timer who drove a cab in New York in the mid-1930s. One of his fares -- at the time, still strictly a stage actor -- was Bob Hope. Not only was Hope insulting and condescending, he was a lousy tipper, too. "I've never liked him since," he added. Beware the little guy with a long memory!

8:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Michael Shimp shares memories of star encounters via e-mail:


I read Greenbriar weekly, and you're doing a great job. In your latest column, you asked for anecdotes about comedians we may have met. I wanted to share my memory of Sir David Niven (not really a comedian, but he certainly had enough comic roles.) While in the military during the seventies I was traveling under military orders and was on an overbooked flight. The airline sent me out later, in first class. While coach was shoulder to shoulder, first class was relatively sparse. There was an old man sitting in the aisle across from me. It wasn't until he smiled at me and remarked that he didn't see many corporals in first class that I realized who he was. He asked me many questions about life in the American Army, and I responded honestly. He was genuinely interested and I have never forgotten the experience. I've learned since then that he had many military experiences he could have shared, but his focus was on my life in the Army, as well as the airline food.

I was also more than acquainted with August Swenson, who appeared as a munshkin in The Wizard of Oz as well as a cowboy in The Terror Of Tiny Town. August passed away last year after residing in Pflugerville, Texas (near Austin) for many years. He was a likable and personable man, always willing to tell stories about the movies he appeared in. He loved Judy Garland and put down many of the stories told about the little people's behavior on the set.

Keep up the good work.

8:11 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

In 1978, when I met Andy Griffith, it was more like trying to talk with "Lonesome" Rhodes than with Andy Griffith. If "Tennessee" Ernie Ford hadn't all but forced him to sign an autograph for me, I wouldn't have received it.

And we were the only three people in the vicinity.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous KING OF JAZZ said...

Great article.

When I was sixteen I was daunted by the presence of the potentially raucous Zero Mostel, but when I asked for his autograph he couldn't have been sweeter.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Two stories -- neither, alas, first-hand, so for what they're worth:

1. My dad used to talk about two Marine Corps buddies of his on leave in Los Angeles during WWII. A mutual friend took them to a party at Jack Benny's house. Jack couldn't have been nicer, but his wife Mary Livingstone was another matter -- who are these guys? who brought them? get them out but don't make a scene. This at a time when men in uniform were welcome almost anywhere. My dad's buddies left discreetly, and I suspect the mutual friend was never invited back.

2. Comic Jackie Vernon once told the story of writing every week to his childhood idol, Charlie Chaplin, a practice that went on, he said, for years without his ever getting an answer. Then in the 1960s, in London, Vernon saw Chaplin at a restaurant in London, where the old boy was filming The Countess from Hong Kong. Vernon approached him tentatively: "Mr. Chaplin, I've always been a fan of yours, my name is Jackie Vernon." Chaplin looked suddenly thoughtful. "Vernon...Vernon...Tell me, why did you stop writing?"

4:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great story about Jackie Vernon and Chaplin, Jim. Thanks.

Bolo, I too have heard about how moody Andy can be. I knew a girl in college whose parents grew up in his home town, and she had some stories to tell...

Kevin K, I'm really glad to hear from someone who had a positive fan exchange with Groucho, and Tom, that's a neat remembrance of meeting Bob Hope.

Truth-tellers, Dave K. I like that insight ...

Michael, I'm glad you mentioned "Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House," one of my favorite inside-Hollywood books.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


These stories about comedians such as Bob Hope just confirm that these guys were human and a fan's good or bad lifetime memory of meeting one of them could depend simply upon how his day was going or what mood he was in at the time of the meeting.

I never got to meet any of the people you covered this time, but did receive a nice signed photo from Moe Howard after writing to him in 1973. And I have heard numerous accounts from friends and family of how highly he regarded his (and The Stooges') fans.

By the way, that Three Stooges still you have there is a posed shot on the set of their 1944 Columbia short CRASH GOES THE HASH. (Hey, somebody might have been wondering!)

5:13 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sent some terrific anecdotes about our comedian friends which I am breaking down into individual comments. These are fantastic and I thank Craig very much for sharing them:


I can tell you that my uncle Bob was a commercial pilot for PSA (which stood for Pacific Southwest Airlines, I believe), which was once the short-hop carrier of choice on the West coast. And, he told me that Jerry Lewis was the worst....THE worst....passenger experience he could remember. I'd heard Lewis could be overbearing and rude, but here was a testimonial from my own uncle. I know that Lewis turned on a biographer so badly that the poor bastard was obviously still in shock as he finished up the book. I have a copy of it someplace. He (or the publisher) used a telling photo of Lewis on the jacket with one side of his face made up in a traditional clown makeup, staring straight at the spectator with a very serious expression; it had originally been taken for an issue of 'Parade' magazine, a supplement included in many Sunday papers across the country. You listen to Lewis's bumptious comments on the alternate audio track of those DVD reissues that appeared a few years back of his 'classics' made at Paramount in the late '50s and early '60s, and it's a mixed bag. Certainly he'd lost none of his own high self-regard, and amusingly, his pal Steve Lawrence, the gifted singer, is right in there seconding every motion Lewis makes for his own immortality. The important thing to mention in his defense, apart from what I myself believe is his very real talent as an actor and a filmmaker, is how often he praises some of his past colleagues to the skies, not only the actors, but his cinematographer, etc. He worked with Walter Scharf on more than one film, a fine and underrated Hollywood musician and composer. He worked with one of the most extrovert, wackjob makeup artists I've EVER met, Jack Stone. There is also that biography he wrote a couple years ago, a memoir about Dean Martin, that should be in every library of people who love 'show biz'. It's fascinating, frank, unsparing of himself, and ultimately a love letter to Dino, someone who, like a guy's first love, he never got over. I think Lewis, like other Jewish characters (Groucho, Danny Kaye, as you say...) is such a mixed bag that he's baffling.

As for Stan Laurel, I will never forget receiving a hand-out copy of the one-sheet "school newspaper" that was published by my junior high school in Inglewood, and seeing an article by one of the student journalists about meeting Stan Laurel! I was...awestruck. I was amazed and impressed that this guy had somehow figured out where (Santa Monica, apparently!) and how to track down Laurel---THE Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. I can still remember something the brief article quoted Stan as saying: "Have you every tried throwing a few eggs into an electric fan? Try it sometime! It's SMASHING!" I also seem to recall the boy had taken Laurel's picture, which was (badly) reproduced with the article by the imperfect school printing press. Much later in my own life I had the great good fortune to meet and work with Dick Van Dyke, a comedian---and fine actor--- you can definitely add to your list in the 'Super Good Guy' category, if my word is good for it. Dick told me he used to go to Stan's apartment as often as he could. He became very good friends with him, and it was a mutual admiration society, even though Van Dyke worshipped Laurel....and, famously, could do a pretty damned good imitation of him, when he was young!

5:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon continues:

I saw on some grim website that chronicles 'final resting places' the grave of Oliver Hardy, which is...or was....poignantly simple: a small plate on the ground, in a very simple-looking neighborhood cemetery somewhere in North Hollywood. I've heard that it's since been marked by a more impressive plaque bought and paid for by "Sons of the Desert", the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. Stan fared better. I believe he's interred in the beautiful Forest Lawn property there by Griffith Park and---across the L.A. river---Warner Bros. Studios. His grave has a more handsome marker, something running along a short marble wall as I recall.

Before I go, I remember...ironically enough!...a great story Dick Van Dyke told me about Danny Kaye! He guested on Kaye's '60s variety hour on CBS. He said he was given a part in a skit where he played (let's say) a prosecutor in a courtroom, and Kaye was the defendant. Apparently his part or his performance garnered way more laughs from the assembled cast and crew during the rehearsal than Kaye did. the time they went to tape it, Van Dyke was surprised to be informed that a little change had been made: he was now to play the defendant, and KAYE would perform the prosecutor! Van Dyke told this with a bemused chuckle, no rancor...but it was a telling anecdote!

I also would like to wedge in the observation that your portrait of smiling Harold Lloyd includes the terrific rubber glove on his right hand that I'm told Paramount's Wally Westmore arranged to have made for him, to disguise his missing digits from that famous movie bomb that accidentally went off in that same hand. I've worked in Lloyd's mansion, which has been rented out to film companies as a set, and even worn by time, this is an incredible house and property. Jaw-dropping. I remember staring intently at the most exquisite inlaid-wood designs in the entry area, a level of quality you could most likely not buy for any price today. You could write an entire piece just about Lloyd's amazing house! Not to mention his hobby of taking 3-D photos, several of which were cleverly published in a book by his daughter some years back, so that they can be viewed in 3-D using a special technique.

My personal feeling toward comedians both neurotic, insecure, defensive, nasty, or generous and humane is that it is their art that we must be grateful for. All these men you cited qualify, in my opinion, to earn our lasting respect for the laughs they generated and the humanity, in all its complexity, that instilled their characterizations.

5:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon tells a wonderful Jack Benny story here ...


I had the privilege of briefly exchanging letters with the talented and versatile musician Ken Darby, who had created vocal arrangements for movies going back to the 1930s, and in the later 1940s formed a friendship and alliance with Alfred Newman at 20th Century Fox that continued to the end of Newman's life, even after Newman left Fox to freelance after 1959. Darby remained devoted to his brilliant friend and colleague Al Newman, and he arranged to have a special library named after and in memory of Alfred set up at USC. However, the school required a certain sum of money be contributed to help underwrite it, and so Ken established a fund. An item was run in the LA Times about it, and I responded to it, being a huge fan of both Darby and Newman, which is how I got acquainted with the former. As far as Jack Benny is concerned, he was one of the earliest contributors to the fund, having supplied quite a large sum, according to Ken. Ken told me that contrary to Benny's contrived persona as the cheapest guy in Hollywood, he was actually quite generous, and as proof, Ken told me he'd said to him that if the fund finally looked as if it might still come up short of the figure USC required, he----Benny----would personally make up the difference. So, there you go. My pal Dick Smith, the genius makeup artist, began "The Sunshine Boys" when the cast consisted of Walter Matthau, who Dick had been hired to age appropriately, and Jack Benny. Benny was there for the first makeup test, if I'm not mistaken. However, as we all know, he died before the production started. His lifelong friend George Burns was approached to step into the part, and he was happy to do so. This, as you know, is the film which restarted Burns' film career, and new audiences discovered a man capable of making them laugh just as long and hard as any of the newer comics.

When I worked at Universal for several months in 1977, I remember that there was a stage (and it's still there) very near the front of the studio as it sits on Lankershim Blvd., which had been used to tape his television shows in the 1960s; and the well-known painting of him (I never knew who did it, but it was great...not a caricature, but a relaxed 'impression' of him in broad strokes) which was repeatedly reproduced in TV ads and print ads to publicize the show, was reproduced in a circle---painted----above the door to the stage, in his memory. It saddens me when on rare occasion I work there today, to see that it is no longer there----not the stage, but the painting.


PS I HAVE heard that as much as people loved Jack Benny, they disliked or even hated Mary Livingstone, his wife! Have you heard that? I don't want to speak so emphatically ill of the dead, especially if it isn't true!

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The late Kay Linaker (Kate Phillips), told me that she loved working with Benny (Buck Benny Rides Again, Man About Town), but she didn't like Mary. Kate said that Mary was always belittling him.

4:20 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

My favorite Jack Benny story concerns one of his writers. Jack was meeting with his sponsor (contract renewal time); afterwards the writer asked Jack if he got a good deal. Jack replied, "I don't know if I got a good deal or not; I just know we'll be working together for another seven years." The writer later commented this was the kind of guarantee "you could walk into a bank and get a mortgage on."

5:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a wonderful Benny story, William. Thanks!

You know, I'm beginning to think Mary Livingstone was not a nice person. Haven't I read that Jack maintained a pretty open marriage for himself? I seem to remember Ann Sheridan's name being mentioned ...

8:57 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

My favorite Jack Benny story was told by one of his writers, George Balzer. During a read through with Balzer and three other writers, Jack came to a joke he didn't like and said, "Fellas, on page six, I want a new joke."

Nobody says anything.

"Something a little stronger."


"I want something that kind of buttons up that whole page and pays it off."


"I gotta have something better than what we've got there."

Balzer says, "Jack, we'll get you a new joke."

Benny says, "Oh, you agree with me, huh?"

Balzer: "No, but it's possible that the four of us could be wrong."

With that, Benny fell out of his chair screaming with laughter. When he finally recovered, he got up and said, "I wouldn't change that joke now for a million dollars!"

"And he didn't," said Balzer.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Having grown-up during the time and place I did, being surrounded by nothing but show people in my formative years and going to school with so many who were the offspring of people in the biz, most of these names you've brought-up resonate.

I've already related previously my first-hand experience with Stan Laurel, who was exactly as you described, "The soul of graciousness". Indeed. I only regret I was too young at the time to really "talk shop" with the man, as others, like Van Dyke, did.

I've related my fathers' first-hand experience with W.C. Fields, who apparently was actaully (surprisingly?) extremely gracious -- if you treated him with respect.

Groucho I'd see all the time walking around Beverly Hills. Yeah. My mother told me a story where Groucho did his famous "walk" around her when family-friend Harry Ruby intoduced them one night at a Bev Hills spot called "Linny's". Mom said she didn't like him at all. (She adored Stan Laurel, however).

My mother was invited to join Mae Wests' party one night at a Directors' Guild dinner at The Hilton. "I have a little boy at home whose ten-years old and crazy about you" she told her. "That's nothin' honey, he's just got good taste!" she answered.

Moe invited me,as a child, to join his table one night at a restaurant called "La Scala" -- could not have been nicer.

I already mentioned a school-friend who met Lou Costello one afternoon poolside at The Riviera Hotel in Vegas, and used my friend as his "Bud Abbott straightman". Someone else I knew much later on, had been one of the little kids in their last film, "Dance With Me Henry". Said Lou was a darling, sweet man -- Abbott seemed "phony". His words,I wasn't present at the time.

Jerry Lewis I had a childhood encounter with at a hotel where we were both staying in San Diego. Not mean at all, but "on" doing schick" which coming from an adult I found a little grotesque.

Harold Lloyd I used to see coming from his house when we were living up the hill from him on Benedict Canyon. Seemed nice.

I have known several people who worked with Danny Kaye (including a close friend who was one of the dancers on his CBS series). "I didn't mind the way the way he treated us" (The backup dancers), he once told me, "But the way he treated Harvey Korman (his second-banana, this was before Carol) was really embarrassing!" He had also been a backup dancer on Jerry Lewis' short-lived variety show. The stories he told were predictable. Monster. Frankenstein incarnate.

Most clowns and comedians you must realize are unhappy, and often angry people to begin with. Many who struggled in vaudeville were left embittered and suspicious, even after success came.

Never saw Jack, damn it! One day, I'm getting into the car outside some medical buildings in Beverly Hills. As I got in the car my mother says, "Well, you just missed Jack Benny!" "Damn", I said, "How'd he look?" "He walked out of this medical building smiling and strode-up the street eating a Hershey bar."

That's a nice image.

Best always,

3:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I do believe you've surpassed yourself here. What amazing stories!

Michael, that's a Benny anecdote that was new to me. Thanks for sending it.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I wish I could've met Jack Benny. The closest I got was when I saw him getting into a limo following George Burns' one-man show at Lincoln Center in NYC in the early '70s. (I saw the show with my mother, by the way. As good as George was, I was thrilled when Jack introduced him.)

Stories about Jack Benny's alleged open-marriage (and, yes, involving Ann Sheridan) have circulated for years. I once read about how he and Marilyn Monroe visited a nude beach together. That makes for quite a picture...

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

Great, great stories. I'll just toss in, I suspect if my time machine ever allows me to encounter W.C. Fields, he may well beat me over the head with his cane ("Begone, you tarfuffel of the future!") but I would not trade that experience for a kiss on the lips from Paulette Goddard.

Next, I'll just toss out that my mother worked at the Sheridan Hotel in downtown Akron, OH, when I was a kid, and that's where the celebrities stayed when in town for the All-American Soap Box Derby. She'd come home with a wealth of stories, and until her dying day she hated Mel Torme for mistreating people but loved Dick Clark and Michael Landon for being so nice. She loved Rosemary Clooney, and knew about ol' Rock Hudson's taste in partners way before most of the general public did. *L*

12:54 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Dear Laughing Gravy,

I did have the honor meeting Rosemary Clooney, once. A great gracious lady. Most of the great ones really are, you know. They know who they are and what they're about and why they got into the business in the first place, so they're quite secure and have nothing to "prove" to anyone.

Sorry to hear about her experience with Torme. I'd heard he could be difficult. The one time I met Mel he could not have been more gracious, we talked about my grandfather. (Mel had recorded "Who Cares What People Say?", a song M.K. had written for Ann Sheridan in "Nora Prentiss", and he had nothing but nice things to say about him.)

Hudson, I too remember hearing about at the dinner table, as a child, at the time he "married" his secretary. I think Dad was at Universal at that time. Everyone laughed about it, but not at all in a "put-down" or "superior way" at all. It was apparently just an "open secret" in Hollywood, everyone knew about many of these people, and yes, I well-remember hearing much gossip as a wide-eyed child, but it was not considered as "scandalous" as people now think. You were just expected to be discreet and keep your mouth shut, that's all.

A very close friend of my Dads' -- a director named Henry Kesler -- had worked as Andy Stones' A.D. on Fields' last film, "Sensations of 1945 -- and told me that one afternoon he drove Fields home after the days' shooting. Bill invited him up for a drink, and according to Hank, he was the soul of graciousness. (Probably alot of fun, too!)

And thanks again for the kind words, John!


12:28 AM  
Blogger Lou Comunale said...

Like you I contemplated asking Charlie Chaplin for his autograph while he lived in Vevey. So I ended up sending him a photo I wanted him to sign and he did. Signed it "Hello! Charlie Chaplin"

1:27 AM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

Through my old time radio fandom involvement, I have met a number of folks who worked with Jack Benny and every one of them speaks highly of him but less so of Mary.

Jack and Mary reportedly had separate bedrooms for years. I spoke recently with an author doing an upcoming book on Ann Sheridan about Benny's supposed involvement with her. I was told all of the rumors about Benny and Sheridan would be addressed in the book.

The only one of these folks I ever met, btw, was Bob Hope who, by that time, was largely deaf and had noticeable hearing aids so I chalked his aloofness up to that and was content with my autographed copy of his then-new book.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Kent Bernhardt said...

I can honestly say that Bob Hope was one of the most gracious performers I've met in my lifetime. He performed in Salisbury in 1989 for a hospital fundraiser. I was fortunate enough to be selected to introduce him, and as a result, got to spend about twenty minutes in the green room with him before the show. He possessed a sincere curiosity about the area, and chatted at length with my wife about her various pets, sharing information about his as well.

On the other hand, an encounter with Andy Griffith in 1978 left no doubt in my mind that Griffith and Andy Taylor are two completely different people. Distant and removed (I chalked it up to fatigue at the time), he charmed the crowd during a live show, but failed to impress anyone who met him at an earlier press conference. (I still have a tape of that conference.)

Tennessee Ernie Ford, on the other hand, couldn't have been nicer.

7:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great to have you commenting, Kent. This is great stuff ...

Readers should check out Kent's nostalgia site at:

It's all about growing up in a small North Carolina town, and filled with humor and heart.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Cladrite Radio said...

I too wrote to Groucho (I sent a card on the occasion of what would be his last birthday), and I received an autographed photo in return, well inside of a week.

It remains my most cherished possession. I think there's an undeniable warmth between Groucho's sarcastic exterior, and I would have given anything to meet him, even if it meant coming in for some razzing.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice indeed I’ll probably download it. Thanks

11:01 PM  
Blogger Susan King said...

At a Jimmy Stewart charity event I was 3 feet away from Mr. Stewart He smiled at me, he was walking with Robert Wagner who gave the meanest looks to anyone who glanced in his direction.

3:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sorry to hear that about Robert Wagner. Have you read the books he did about old Hollywood, with Scott Eyman? They are really terrific.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Susan King said...

no but I will look for that book. The funniest thing was Wagner did a promo for the charity event and he was all smiles after the cameras were off back to the unfriendly expression.

5:44 PM  

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