If you are a record collector or if you've frequented a thrift store, the name Woody Woodbury should sound familiar. If not, this picture on the left may jog the memory. Woodbury's records are among the most common comedy LPs available in thrift stores, flea markets and junk shops. Most record stores will have at least one of his albums in their comedy section, moderately priced and collecting dust. Joining Vaughn Meader's million-seller JFK take-off, The First Family, and the raunchy nightclub recordings of Rusty Warren, Woody Woodbury is the most common of the thrift store comedians. Woody and Rusty were, respectively, king and queen of what is called the 'Adults Only' comedy genre.1 Although neither Rusty or Woody became part of the revolutionary "New Comedians" movement that started with Mort Sahl and climaxed with Nichols and May, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, the two were still extraordinary phenoms in the world of vinyl. Both sold records well into the millions but neither had their sales boosted by the privilege afforded most other popular comics: television exposure. To listen to a Woody Woodbury record today is primarily an exercise in patience. The jokes are the same stale bits re-used often by the era's nightclub comics on record labels like FAX, After Hours, Surprise, Jubilee, Laff and countless others. No material on a Woody Woodbury album would make a person blush today, nor does the disclaimer on most of his LPs "Not Suitable for Radio Play" seem particularly apt anymore. However, there was a time when Woody Woodbury, Rusty Warren and any number of lesser known comedians released on a handful of obscure labels struggled and fought for fame simply through word of mouth. In the case of Woody, the overwhelming popularity of these "banned" albums had disc jockeys trying to figure out how to get around the prudish restrictions of playing the records on the air.
As Woody Woodbury recalls, "[Radio stations] refused to play some of them in their entirety. What they did was take what they deemed the purest stories, but you could play them in their entirety today during high mass. They were innuendo. They were called risque. But today... they're child's play." Woody belonged to a small Florida based record label with a wonderful name. StereOddities had Woody as its star and a small handful of others who, to put it crudely, were nobodies. Bill Barner, Billy Carty and Nino Nanni, the three other comedians released by the outfit are actually quite uncommon in thrift stores. The few other releases that the label put out were mostly of ragtime music by Eubie Blake.
Woody Woodbury, forgotten by almost everyone today, walked through showbiz history like some kind of Forrest Gump character. He met everybody and knew anybody that made a mark in show business history from nineteen fifty through seventy. He was one of the first comedians ever pressed onto vinyl and the first to star in a Beach Party knock-off film. When Jack Paar abandoned The Tonight Show in 1962, the hosting gig was up for grabs, primarily between two candidates. One was named Johnny Carson the other, acording to Woody, was Woody Woodbury.
At the time, Johnny Carson was the host of a popular game show on ABC titled Who Do You Trust? Woodbury was arguably the more qualified for the Tonight Show seat as he had already guest hosted The Tonight Show dating back to the Steve Allen era. "I used to sub for Steve Allen. I would take over the show but at that time Steve was doing the show from Los Angeles ... a lot of people don't realize that. Joe Wolson was my agent with the William Morris office and he'd call in a panic. He'd say 'Jesus! You gotta get out to L.A.' I was in Fort Lauderdale because by that time I was part owner of the hotel [that I performed at]. He said, 'You gotta come out here 'cause we have a problem with Steve Allen!' I never did find out what the problems were. Steve was out vacationing in Hawaii or some darn place." Despite the fact that radio stations had to avoid playing most of his
albums, Woody's popularity still meant dollar signs in the eyes of
television advertisers. As long as it was made clear what type of
comedy he was and was not allowed to perform on television, he was
given the green light from censors to appear. Ironically, although
Woody's best selling records became huge without the help of TV
exposure, as he appeared on the boob tube more and more often, his
record sales actually decreased. Regardless, in the end Carson was granted The Tonight Show and in a strange twist of fate, Woody was named the new host of the game show Who Do You Trust?
The beach picture Woody starred in was an early example of product placement. Paramount's For Those Who Think Young (1964) took its title directly from the current Pepsi slogan of the day. According to Woody, the reason came down to who was funding the picture. "That's where the money came from for the movie ... Pepsi Cola. Rosalind Russell, who was married to one of the head guys at Pepsi ... she was in on the deal." The film is a typical teenage drive-in picture of the era with an impressive cast. Woody Woodbury stars as a stand-up comedian named Woody Woodbury. He performs nightly at a hot teenage hangout called The Surf's Up that is frequented by a bevy of familiar characters including Bob Denver (doing another take on his famous Maynard G. Krebs beatnik), Tina Louise, James Darren, Ellen Burstyn, Paul Lynde, Nancy Sinatra and another Rat Pack offspring - Dean Martin's daughter, Claudia. The movie also features the mostly overlooked surf music of GNP Crescendo Records artists The Challengers. It was directed by a man who, like Woody, enjoyed a fascinating career that deserves more thorough examination. Leslie H. Martinson was no stranger to pumping out crap in both the film and television worlds. His list of credits include The Atomic Kid (1954), Hot Rod Girl (1956), Hot Rod Rumble (1957), Batman (1966), and his swan song, the 1985 sitcom about a family with a robot for a daughter, Small Wonder. For Those Who Think Young has yet to be released on DVD or VHS and Woody muses that this may be due to the always-powerful wishes of old blue eyes. "It belongs to the Sinatra family. It was Nancy's first movie. She didn't have that big of a part, but that was due to her dad. At that point Nancy was going with a singer named Tommy Sands. Frank did not care for Tommy Sands." Whether this is a strong enough reason for the film to remain buried seems unlikely, so hope for drive-in movie, surf music, and Adults Only comedy record fans remains. In recent history, Turner Classic Movies has aired the film, usually as part of some kind of beach movie marathon.
As the sixties wore on, the appeal of 'Adults Only' comedy records started to wane, thanks to a relaxing of previously uptight social morals. People no longer had to wait for a sophisticated cocktail party to hear Rusty Warren say words like "knockers" or Woodbury using a risque phrase like "whoopee." Not when you could now go to the movie theatre downtown and see Vanessa Redgrave's ten feet high bush starring in Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966). The time seemed ripe for Woody's career to move on. In 1967, Ralph "This Is Your Life" Edwards enlisted Woody for a new talk show. The Woody Woodbury show was a nightly syndicated talk show similar in format to the crowning jewel of talk shows that Woody missed manning the helm of by a thread. Almost no remaining record of the show exists, a real shame since The Woody Woodbury Show is known to have featured some of the greatest garage rock bands of the era, many for whom enjoyed their only television appearance with Woodbury. But tragically as Woody explains, "Ralph used the same tape over and over. He never saved an episode. He just taped over last night's show with this night's show and on and on. Not one was preserved. Erased instantly. They've never been able to uncover any if they still exist.2 I can remember him saying 'These are fun shows but there's no point in saving them.' People call me all the time. Hollywood called me the other day ... they're making a film about Harry Nilsson and looking for footage." Eventually, Woody had a falling out with producer Ralph Edwards and left the show. This left Edwards scrambling for a replacement. "The first person they replaced me with was Allen Ludden ... Betty White's husband. He lasted about two weeks. And then, of all people, Ralph Edwards brings in Donald O'Connor. A great guy but ... he was wooden. Like a statue. He didn't last very long at all. And then what happened was Merv Griffin was on CBS trying to compete against Carson and just getting murdered. So his management talked to Ralph Edwards and [The Woody Woodbury Show] became The Merv Griffin Show."
Woodbury's career slowed somewhat after his tenure as a talk show host but he was more than fine with that. He returned to Florida where he acted in the odd movie, mostly low budget Italian comedies that were filmed around Fort Lauderdale for tax purposes. His role in Jerry Lewis' filmed-in-Florida comeback picture, Hardly Working (1980) ended up on the cutting room floor. He still performs stand-up, called upon by droves of screaming fans at country clubs, senior's homes and lodges. Now you know!
1The 'Adults Only' genre is also often refered to as 'Party Records.'
2Three and a half years after this piece first appeared, a four minute clip of his program surfaced on YouTube.