"You dirty Jew sunofabitch, you're sicker than Lenny Bruce." - Ed Sullivan yelling at Shecky Greene
The odd dichotomy of Shecky Greene is that, for anyone under the age of fifty, his name is associated with an out-moded style of comedy. To use the moniker Shecky is almost an insult, a parody. The name Shecky has been brandished by characters in plays, satires and short stories. The appellation is used to indicate that this is a comedian to please grandpa, something for the pastrami sandwich nostalgist, a treat for those who believe Henny Youngman was an intellectual and Mort Sahl was a traitorous, communist bum. The reality is something much different.
The truth is that if Shecky Greene were emerging today he would be considered the leading voice in what is vaguely defined as alternative comedy. Greene was experimental beyond belief, possessing a kinetic and forceful dynamism that spilled off the stage into his every day life. Comedy's great non-conformist, the very hotels that employed him often had him arrested - only to cover his bail a day later. When other comics finished their final performance they rushed to where Shecky was playing to soak in his brilliant madness. "One of the greatest I ever saw in a nightclub!" screams contemporary Pat Cooper. "I saw him at The Riviera five, six, seven times. I saw him climb the curtain and do twenty minutes from on top of the curtain! He destroyed an audience." Cooper's take is not just an opinion - it is the consensus.
Shecky Greene was not your grandpa's comedian, but with little modern memory of what Shecky Greene's act consisted of, the symbolic nature of his name has been distorted. His contemporaries remember his irreverence. They say he was the most unforgettable comedy performer they ever saw. Ask them what he said on stage - nobody has a clue. He was and always would be a creature of the nightclub; flying off on wild tangents and pulling remarkable stunts, climbing walls and fighting owners. He invented a hysterical, free-form approach to comedy that the confines of a five minute television spot could not handle. Shecky was praised by comedy legend Jack Benny, idolized by comedic subversive Lenny Bruce and lauded by the genre-expanding revolutionary Ernie Kovacs. His reckless abandon on stage fueled a comedic genius, but that same reckless abandon lead to incredible feats of off stage chicanery and fatalistic tumult. One example occurred on a drunken summer evening as Greene and his best friend/nemesis Buddy Hackett viciously fought into the Nevada night, wrestling each other to the desert ground. Hackett, brandishing a firearm, threatened to blow Greene's head off, but Shecky won the struggle. Greene, with his foot pressed triumphantly on the throat of the defeated Hackett promised, "If you get up, Buddy - I'm going to kill you."
The name Shecky can vacillate from noun to verb to adjective. The opinion of every comedian during that gilded age of show business, whether they were Republican Bob Hope or hipster Lenny Bruce, is that Shecky Greene was the the wildest of them all. The craziest of them all. Most importantly - the funniest of them all.
The address is 20th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Out front are a series of colorful signs promising girls galore and a nightclub comedian few have ever heard of. It's 3:45 in the morning and inside the building it is crammed with people. A haze of smoke creates a series of constantly moving shadows. Body odour dances awkwardly with an obnoxious smattering of shouts, laughs and breaking glass while Rafael and His Rumberos take a breather. This is the Five O'Clock Club, recently taken over by the manic-depressive comedienne Martha Raye. Martha's mood has been aggravated of late. Her fifth marriage is falling apart and the mounting legal bills she owes her lawyer have created dark circles beneath her eyes. A pending lawsuit against a customer that slugged her smack dab in the kisser has been the talk of the town. Her mood changes rapidly, affected by a high dose of sleeping pills she has been consuming for several nights. A few weeks from now she will swallow an entire bottle in an attempt to wash away the pain. Tonight, however, most of the pill popping is done by the Five O'Clock patrons and there are a lot of them. A lot of pills. A lot of patrons. Beyond the clouds of cigar smoke is another unique smell and young Shecky Greene can't make heads or tails of it. The barstools feature a gallery of prostitutes through which Shecky must elbow his way in order to flag the bartender. Shecky orders a straight whiskey. He is overcharged. He confronts the bartender and the bartender says if he doesn't like it he can blow. Shecky merely grumbles and shells out for the over priced booze. He's upset because it takes a large chunk out of his Clover Club wage; a gig up the street he did a few hours ago. Sammy Shore had warned him about the Biscayne Clover Club. "Don't fuck with that place, Shecky," Shore had told him before leaving Chicago. "Goldman's a crook and a shyster." "They all are," dismissed Shecky. But it's true he almost didn't get paid at all. One of Jack Goldman's boys growled that he wasn't satisfied with Greene's performance. The giant galoot had shouted at him after the show. "We explicitly asked for some James Cagney! These are paying customers! They expect the comedian to do James Cagney!" Greene was livid. "You want Cagney? Get Jay Lawrence." Shecky grabbed the fifty dollar bill from the goon's paw and stormed away, muttering a quiet Cagney impression as a postscript, "You dirty rat." Annoyed at the whole evening, Shecky arches an eyebrow at one of the hookers leaning on the bar at the Five O'Clock Club and slams the booze down his throat. He grimaces as the stench of the club and the corrosive power of his drink hit at the same time. "Socks," he thinks to himself. "This place smells like socks!" Fumbling through this crowd of drunks and pill heads, Greene hazily recognizes the washed up face of forgotten film star Lyle Talbot. Talbot is out of control and dousing a woman's mink stole with Coca Cola. This chick has been whooping it up all night and the rumor around the bar is that she was earlier bounced from Place Pigalle for an exhibitionary act performed on Errol Flynn. Shecky is struggling, clawing through an oblique wall of claustrophobia and just about out the door when he brushes against an intoxicated Jackie Miles. "Did Joe E. Lewis just come in here? Where'd he go? You see that son of a bitch? Where is he?" Shecky doesn't acknowledge Miles. Instead, he pulls his hat brim down, moves briskly forward, his heart is racing and he's not sure why. There's an uneasiness coarsing through his veins and a wave of sadness has appeared out of nowhere. Shecky just needs to get the hell out.
In 1953 Miami Beach was the show business mecca. Las Vegas was still building whereas Miami was built. "I went down there," recalls Shecky Greene, "and Martha Raye was a big star, supposedly. This guy named the club after her. Martha Raye's Five O'Clock Club was successful for a while. I went in and I really didn't know what was happening ... strange people hanging out at the bar ... all of a sudden I smell this stuff. They were all hitting on amyl nitrate. The whole club. People would come in, legitimate people would all come in, they would sit, and the place would smell like stockings. You know? Stink of stockings. Errol Flynn came in. He was high on amyl nitrate." It was the kind of place where comedians, no matter how bad their act bombed, could always find a stripper to lay. The kind of place where rim-shots were born and backstage babies conceived. Hoodlums like Chic Eder made the scene. "I'd scored the master keys to more than forty of the largest [Miami] hotels and was into burgling - strictly cash, jewels and furs," recalls the heroin trafficker. "I'd delivered a mink stole to a stripper in a club and went over to a table to see if I could interest comic B.S. Pully in a few nice stones I'd recently 'acquired.' Seated at the table were H.S. Gump, the dwarf comic who sometimes worked with Pully ... their initials stood for Bullshit and Horseshit ... sounds so corny today. Pully once pissed on Gump right onstage." Certainly it was a wild and woolly time, and it gave consistent post-War work to every comedian in America. It didn't even matter if they were funny. They just had to be desperate enough to throw themselves into demeaning situations. Most were.
Comedian Bobby Ramsen was one. He worked non-stop in Miami Beach and the Catskill Mountains. He was an active member of the Friar's Club and a joke hustler, killing time between gigs by loitering around the thick concentration of Times Square showbiz hangouts; places like Lindy's and The Stage or Carnegie Delicatessens where you could find Henny Youngman, Phil Foster or Milton Berle acting angry, obnoxious, hilarious. A few blocks down you'd find the amateurs and fallen professionals talking shop in Hanson's Drugstore, until the joint's owner, a man named Hans Hanson, would shoo them away. Once bounced from Hanson's the comics would try for endless refills at the B&G Coffee Shop, "Home of the Bottomless Cup," where there was "a roundtable for all the name comics." Gag writer Chris Bearde would try and score a dollar from his heroes. "I would come down to New York and hang with Phil Foster at the Stage Delicatessen ... Milt Kamen and Woody Allen and Jackie Mason and Jack E. Leonard ... Whoever was there, they'd say, 'Have you got any jokes?' So I used to sell them jokes." It was a golden age of comedy, not for the quality of material produced so much as for the incredible amount of jobs available for any comic that was half decent... or half awful. Bobby Ramsen was never short of work. "I jumped at the chance to be playing Miami and an important hotel. Every year they put up a new hotel. In 1945 when World War Two was over, America had a party and the party lasted until 1955. All the guys came home, we had won the War, people were working, money was no object, people were going out every night. Every town in America - Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, New York, Boston - every other door in every small town in America was a nightclub. Comics were working. Marimba players opening the show! Dance teams! Contortionists! Everybody had a job in show business." Including Shecky Greene. But most of his gigs were in the joints a poet might call "a toilet."
The Terrace Club was Milwaukee's toilet. The Midwest dive was run by a "Greek with an accent that had the same strippers that had worked for the last fifteen - twenty years," says Shecky. "They didn't strip! They didn't take anything off. They'd walk out and say, 'Hi Charlie! How's your wife? Sam? The children okay?' And then one grind - one bump and that was it." Despite all the work, the era was marked by struggle. For most the struggle was in constructing an act. It was typical for comedians to buy an entire preconceived performance. Comics needed more than just fresh material from the young, desperate kids hanging around the lunch counter. They needed a solid twenty minutes. In Miami the transactions took place at an all-night diner called Wolfies. Oddly enough, the comedians that needed the fresh material, Miami schleppers like Gene Baylos and Don Rickles (whose early act consisted of dramatic monologues) couldn't even afford to buy it. IOUs were written on the back of napkins, along with promises of getting the gagwriter stoned after the show or set up with "a real swinging chick." Shecky never bought a gag. His struggle wasn't in constructing an act. His struggle was in staying alive. His motivation waned. Naturally he liked to get paid, but anxiety often crippled him. "I never really wanted this business," he says. "But I never knew what business I wanted." Explains Sammy Shore, "He's always putting down show business. 'Ah, I hate this fuckin' business!' He was doing that when he was twenty-one years old!" But Greene says his aversion was due to the state of his mental health. "I had all kinds of problems with being bipolar... which they didn't point out until later. I see these people like Joan Rivers. She [drives] herself to get on and do this. That drive: 'I just gotta gotta do it.' I never had that shit. I just went and had my little nervous breakdowns with my depression."
Sammy Shore is more famous today for having married the eventual matriarch of The Comedy Store, Mitzi, and fathering the eventual patriarch of bad comedy films, Pauly. But during one summer in the early fifties, he was half of the short-lived comedy team Greene and Shore. "We both started at the same time at the Oakton Manor Resort in Pewaukee, Wisconsin [near] Chicago and Milwaukee," recalls Sammy. "I started out there as the comedian. I was twenty-one years old. My mom and dad took me to the Greyhound bus and it was so exciting for me. My first show business job. It was an enormous place. Beautiful. I went there and started as a social director for twenty dollars a week. All I kept hearing from the [tourists] from Chicago was, 'Do you know Shecky Greene?' I said, 'No.' 'Oh, he's hysterical! He's great!' That's all I kept hearing. Shecky was getting up at some bistro on the North Side practically every week and would do twenty minutes and really get the people crazy. He was getting quite a reputation in the North Side of Chicago. So one day the Greyhound bus pulls up. I was [organizing] a baseball game [for the resort guests]. I see the Greyhound bus pull up and I knew that was going to be Shecky Greene. I see a young guy get off the bus, stocky build with a suitcase, and of all people he walks up to me. He says, 'Where's Sid Shinderman?' I said, 'Over there.' He says, 'I'm Shecky Greene.' I thought, 'Oh, shit. My job is gone. That's it.' They called me over the loudspeaker. 'Sammy Shore, please come to Sid Shinderman's office.' I went there and Shecky was smugly sitting in a chair. The boss said, 'Hey, here's the new comedian, Sammy.' Sid Shinderman was a real kibitzer going, 'Bup, bup, bup bup bup. You two are teaming up. I'm making you a comedy team.' And that was it."
"I was in college at the time," says Shecky. "Sammy wanted to be the comic. It was just a cockamamie thing for the summer. I would sing Nature Boy. 'There was a boy...' Except with that Jewish audience I would sing, 'There was a goy...' That kind of shit." Neither were in love with their juvenile material and there was tension between them. "Shecky used to fight with the bandleader and with this and that and there was always a problem. He always had an attitude of screw him! Whatever it was. Finally a wealthy lady came and saw us. Thought we were going to be another Dean [Martin] and Jerry [Lewis], put a lot of money in us, got us pictures and got us a job in New York at the Red Cellar ... We went out there and we did our Oakton Manor crap. 'We're the boys from Oakton Manor and we've come to say...' All this real corny shit." Greene remembers, "Sammy Shore would dress up in a diaper and come out with vegetables and he was the nature boy. There was no act." Shore reflects on just how lousy they were. "We bombed. We closed out the first night. After that Shecky and I broke up." Shecky remembers ending their partnership when "I got infectious mononucleosis and he wouldn't come into the room to give me a glass of water. That was the end of it. The bellboy came and gave me the water. So I teamed up with him."
THE NAT KING COLE INCIDENT
Anxiety is often the driving energy behind a great performance. Paradoxically, it can also be what stops one from getting on stage. After a few years of playing the strip joints in Milwaukee, Miami, New Orleans and Chicago, Greene had grown comfortable with the uncomfortable. Switching from seedy strip joints to the big league, he found himself disgusted with the pretensions of big time show business and the ingratiating insincerity that most performers adopted. Shecky had learned to love the lounge. Abandoning them for high-stakes supperclubs made him sick. "The lounge was perfect for me. Every night was a different show. Every night was improv. And same thing when I worked little clubs. When I finally got [booked] into main rooms, you more or less had to have an act and that wasn't who I was. I wasn't an A-B-C-D comic. 'Hello, ladies and gentleman' and then the next line.' I once worked the Latin Quarter in New York. After about three days I quit the job. At that time to [play] The Latin Quarter was really something [but it] was strictly a tourist joint ... that was an A-B-C-D type of an audience. I said, 'This is not for me." Booked into the lush, Mob controlled Copacabana in 1952, he sabotaged the big city booking by antagonizing the moody club boss Jules Podell. "I was on exactly thirty seconds," remembers Greene. "He cut the microphone and the band started to play." Jules Podell was a former bouncer whose loyalty was awarded by his mafia overlords. They named him the head of what was considered Manhattan's premiere supperclub. Unfortunately for the performers, if the moody Podell didn't dig your act he would let you know. Shecky Greene discovered this when he was booked as Nat King Cole's opening act. "When Podell didn't like something, he pounded the table with his ring," explains Shecky. "He would say, 'Get him off!' I kept hearing his ring. [They] turned the lights out [during my act]. I refused to leave." Jules Podell instructed Nat King Cole to start his act - even though Shecky was not leaving the stage. "Nat King Cole was coming down [the aisle] in the dark and he was singing, 'The breeeeeeezzzeee and I, were say-ying with uh sigh...' and I was still on stage. I wouldn't let him come on the stage. I said, 'Did you see what the fuck he did to me!? This man?' Then he started over again, 'The breeeeeeezzzeee and I, were say-ying with uh sigh... that yooooooo...' I said, 'Did you see what he did to me!?' Everytime he started I kept on saying that. His manager came down. Carlos. The man was about six-four, three hundred pounds. Picked me up, literally picked me up, and took me away." With that Nat King Cole finally took to the stage, not acknowledging the awkward display. "He finally finished The breeeeeeezzzeee and I," says Shecky. "There was a helluva breeze that night."
The story does not surprise fellow nightclub comic Jack Carter. "Podell was very sensitive. Howard Keel worked the club and was bombing terribly. No business. Three weeks of death. He sat down at Podell's booth one time and he said, 'Mr. Podell? Before I close I certainly would like to say hello to ya.' Podell said to him, 'Mr. Keel can you take some constructive criticism?' He said, 'Sure.' Podell said, 'Go fuck yourself." Carter notes that "Shecky's whole act is picking on the boss. Especially in Vegas he'd work the hotel over, the boss over, that was his strength - especially when he was bombed, when he was drinking ... He's got to be somewhere where he hates the owner, hates the hotel, so that he's got something to go on. Shecky works on anger. Of course, drinking used to help him get crazy, you know." New Orleans was where Shecky came into his own, developing what was then a novel concept: performing comedy in a lounge. He honed his chops in Louisianna, thanks to a nod from Sammy Shore. "I became a real big hit in New Orleans at The Prevue Lounge," says Shore. "I was working with Al Hirt. People were coming from all over to see me. I was a big hit and I was there for three straight months. The owner said, 'Sammy, you've been here for a long time. Do you know anybody that could come and replace you for a couple of weeks?' Like a schmuck I said Shecky Greene! He went into the lounge there and I never came back."
After his New Orleans triumph, Shecky moved on to the bustling new city of Las Vegas. It was here that he would experience his greatest success - and most torrential strife. Many notable Las Vegas performers were heavy drinkers. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin based an entire lifestyle on happy-go-lucky boozing. Joe E. Lewis, the house comic at El Rancho Vegas, was known for wanton alcoholism. Buddy Hackett was another. Joining the motley bunch was Shecky Greene. Arriving for the first time in 1954, Shecky became a larger than life figure in the desert, copious amounts of booze in his belly. Vegas comic Pete Barbutti says the combination was "mood-altering ... it would not just make him drunk or mean. It would turn him into a different individual." This is when Shecky became what Barbutti calls "the animal."
Shecky brought comedy to the Vegas lounge, which up to that point was unheard of. The lounge was for relaxing before a big show or between gambling losses. It was a place you went early in the evening to hear the sultry and relaxing sounds of Julie London or to enjoy a nightcap accompanied by the raucous yelps of Louis Prima and Keeley Smith. Comedy was never placed in the lounge as it was supposed to be a sanctuary where one could unwind. Comedy was too obnoxious an art form for such close proximity. Shecky Greene changed all that. "I got into Vegas in 1954," explains Shecky. "The Riviera was just opening. They signed me. When I said, 'Where's my job?' They said, 'We don't have room for you.' I said, 'Put me in the lounge.' They said, 'No, we've never had a comic in the lounge." The Tropicana had barely opened when it fell into receivership. It was in the process of reinventing itself when they lured Shecky Greene with the promise of a fiancial stake in the venue's revamping. Joe Delaney explains, "J.K. Hossels who was putting up the money ... didn't want to break up the beautiful bar to put up a stage there. As Shecky walked out of the meeting, he turned and said to Mr. Hossels, 'JK - what if we put just a plain board over the bar?" Shecky would perform standing on a wide plywood plank for a remarkable period of time. "With this arrangement, Shecky kept the hotel open for nineteen weeks, by himself, without a main room show. He actually saved the hotel [financially] and stayed there for five years."
Shecky then returned to The Riviera. In 1956 Elvis Presley appeared there - as an opening act for headliner Shecky Greene. According to most accounts, it was an unequivocal disaster. "Elvis Presley was not prepared to go into a nightclub," recalls Greene. "They put a seventy-five foot cut-out of him in front of the hotel. The audience that went to places like this didn't really know Elvis Presley. The kids did. Well, he bombed with that audience." The Riviera was run by a man named Ed Torres who Greene hated. Author Mike Weatherford wrote, "Greene was a must-see, with a reputation for dousing himself with whiskey or doing whatever else it took to bleed a laugh out of his audience. But these were the years when the research and development for his material began to overwhelm the act itself." Greene's drinking would often spiral to such extremes that the hotel that employed him would phone the police and have him removed. "One day the cops came in and were taking me out. I was drunk," says Shecky. "They shackled me up." Newspapers reported that "Greene was arrested when hotel officials claimed that the comedian became offensive in the lounge and began picking on and insulting other guests." The following day The Riviera removed his name from their marquee "for the first, but not the last, time." On the day of the boss's birthday, management wheeled out a giant birthday cake with the Ed Torres name etched in sugar icing. Shecky "took it upon himself to smash the cake into his own face." He was fired. Two weeks later: rehired.
Shecky Greene's shenanigans were tolerated because he was indispensable. He brought down the house and raked in big numbers for the venue. He became a master of every room he played. But off stage he would suffer, suffer, suffer unbearable psychic pain. Penetrating, nagging pangs of anguish, insecurity, depression and anxiety. Don Sherman, a stand-up comic that made a living writing for Joey Bishop, was privy to the struggles that almost kept Greene from going onstage each night. "Only in show business can a man could look that unhibited and that unafraid [yet be] experiencing the fear of going out onstage. He had to take [anxiety] drugs for years to cure himself of that. The last thing he looked was frightened to that audience. I mean, he attacked them at The Riviera." Sammy Shore says, "He'd throw up before he'd walk out. Some nights he was so nervous he would throw up backstage. But once he got out there on the stage he was great." Greene consulted a psychiatrist for his ills. "I was really in bad shape. I had two sessions and then he said, 'Can I watch you work?' He came to Vegas and he fell in love with me. He said, 'I can't believe it! Why aren't you the individual that you are onstage, offstage?' I said, 'Because I have control of the people when I'm on that stage. I'm not that guy." Shecky could kill an audience, but he could not kill the depression. For Shecky it was "something you can't fight. Like a wave comes over you and you go, "Uh oh, here it comes."
Bipolar behavior and drunken debauchery colored many a Shecky Greene story. Fellow comedians, some just as fucked up, were dragged into the chaotic world. "Buddy Hackett," Greene recalls, "went looking for me one night. Buddy Hackett found me in a bar and Buddy Hackett came in with just a nightshirt. A portfolio under his arm. Buddy Hackett had a gun in the portfolio." It wasn't unnatural for Hackett, a foul-mouthed, pudgy faced comic, to be packing heat. Jack Carter remembers that Hackett was "a very angry man. He carried a gun. He was violent. He shot up a car in Vegas that parked in his spot. The Mafia wanted to kill him and I don't know who protected him." On the night in question Shecky was drunk and bleary-eyed when Hackett started needling him. "You wanna know why I wanna talk to you?" asked Hackett. "You fired Fred Thompson." Thompson was an elderly African-American gardener that had been employed by both men. "Every time he'd garden the lawn he would cut in to the wire fence and it would curl up," explains Shecky. "So I finally said to him 'I've replaced twelve wire fences. Fred, I can't have you anymore.' So I fired him. Buddy Hackett came in and he said, 'Let me tell you something. That man needs new teeth.' I said, 'Well, fuckin' go buy him some new teeth!' He said, 'No, you should buy him some new teeth because you fired him.' I said to Buddy, 'You got any money?' He had some money in the portfolio. We went across the street to The Landmark [Hotel] and started gambling. And drinking." Shecky Greene ran a lucky streak at the crap table, but was too bagged to notice. Each time Greene won a toss, Buddy cashed the chips and stuffed the dough in his portfolio, eventually accumulating enough money to pay for Thompson's new teeth. It should have ended there, but with these two volatile figures, one characterized as viciously angry and the other as merely insane, their acrimony drifted into the Las Vegas streets. "So now we're walking across the street," says Greene. "As I'm walking, he stands in the middle of the street and he [refers to me as] Mr. Magoo's dumb nephew ... Buddy Hackett says, 'You know something? You're a Waldo!' I said, 'What?' He's in the middle of the fuckin' street! I said, 'I'm a what?" He said, 'Not only that. I'm gonna tell you something. You're a double Waldo!' So now I walk back and I said, 'I'm a fuckin' double Waldo!?' He's got the gun. I punch him in the fucking stomach! As I'm walking away he comes and jumps on my back. I flip him over my back. I put my foot on his throat. I said, 'If you get up, Buddy - I'm going to kill you.' I reach down, I take the gun and his car keys and I throw them into the desert. "Now don't get up."
Shecky and Buddy, despite their assorted fist fights and incessant animosity, shared a long history and a complicated friendship. Phil Berger wrote about the evenings on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles when Shecky was a regular at Billy Gray's Band Box. "The favorite there, Buddy Hackett, would come in and sabotage [Shecky's] routines with misplaced laughs." Greene's mother was in the audience for one of those shows. She was convinced that "the little fat guy" was Greene's biggest fan because he was always at the back of the room cackling loudly. "No, mom," explained Shecky after the show. "He's ruining me by intentionally laughing in the wrong place!" Today Greene laments, "I miss Buddy Hackett. But he did some terrible fucking things ... there's a word in Jewish culture called dybbuk. He was like the devil. You never knew what was going to happen with Buddy."
Greene was king of the lounge and master of the nightclub. Talk show host Steve Allen blamed himself for the fact that Greene never became a television star. "His career might have taken an early and important leap if it had not been for a terrible mistake I once made. In the late 1950s, when I was doing a prime-time comedy series on Sunday nights for NBC, I happened to see a comedian perform one evening on another show. He wasn't very good. A few days later Henry Frankel, our talent booker said, 'There's a new comic named Shecky Greene. Want to book him?' 'Oh,' I said, 'I think that's the fellow I saw the other night. He really wasn't good at all.' The other comic, as it happens, had one of those Lenny Jackie-type names and was, of course, not Shecky Greene. But because of this one dumb error Shecky did not get on my show, which at the time was an important showcase for new comedians. Show business is full of such sad little stories." Allen overstates his program's importance. His Sunday night show was in direct competition with the biggest variety program on television.
THE ED SULLIVAN INCIDENT
October 28, 1958. Ed Sullivan, nursing a bottle of milk, is pacing backstage at the CBS Studio at 54th and Broadway. His migraine has subsided, but he has a serious cramp in his stomach. The run-through this afternoon went fine. He and his producer Bob Precht have instructed singer Janet Blair to cut out two of her scheduled three songs. "There won't be time for all of them," Precht explains in a hushed tone. Blair is stunned. They promised earlier that they'd be cutting an elephant act to ensure there'd be time for all three of her ballads. Her impulse is to tell them off, but knowing how important an appearance on the program can be, she says "That's fine" and walks to her dressing room crying. The second half of tonight's episode is going to be hosted by MGM's swimming star Esther Williams. Sullivan has made this arrangement so he can rush to Mount Sinai Hospital, as the pain in his stomach has become unbearable. British ventriloquist Terry Hall will open the show. His son is backstage, haranguing Bob Hammond and his "trick birds." Johnny Mathis is in a dressing room drinking tea and lemon. There is a makeshift sign taped to his door insisting he not be disturbed until it is time to go on. Shecky Greene is watching a monitor stage left. It shows jerky, disorientated motion as a camera operator zooms in and out, seemingly at random, while carpenters adjust a pair of set pieces. Ray Bloch and his orchestra are noisily shuffling into the venue having just had dinner at Danny's Hideaway. Band members joke about how they all had to pay while Bloch always gets to eat there for free. At least it seems like a joke - only some laugh. Shecky is nervous and has a flask in his coat pocket. He sips with moderation. He has no need to get drunk - yet. This is his second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the past five weeks. Last time he went over quite well, having been sandwiched between a Spanish ballet troupe and an awkward rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game sung by Yogi Berra and his fellow New York Yankees. Sullivan introduced their bit as "Take Me out to the Ball Grame" and Mickey Mantle noticably winced. Tonight, Shecky is going to use some tried and true bits from his nightclub act, knowing full well that he might be asked to cut his spot from six minutes to four. His bit about the coal miners has been playing well at The Riviera Hotel and he has it rehearsed to perfection. No sweat, he keeps telling himself, no sweat, no sweat, no sweat. CBS will broadcast tonight's show, as always, live at eight o'clock - one hour from now. Shecky moves backstage. He will be the last act in the first half of the show. He paces the gamey smelling halls, remnants from the elephant act that was cut at rehearsal. In less than an hour he will be seen by millions of people.
Eight o'clock and right on cue Ray Bloch starts up the theme song. Sullivan efficiently masks his pain as he walks to center stage. His clumsy demeanor is no different from any other week. He announces who some of the acts will be and that Esther Williams will be taking over in the second half. Terry Hall, as scheduled, bantered with his dummy just as he has done a thousand times before. Sullivan returns to the stage after Hall's finale and throws to a commercial for "the new Cheverolet." At the exact same moment CBC Radio in Canada is broadcasting a live news bulletin. BBC in England and NBC in the United States have also picked up the story. The Springhill Mine in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia has imploded, trapping one hundred and seventy-four men inside. CBS is seemingly immune to the breaking news, continuing with the cheery Toast of the Town as a juggling act, the Martin Brothers, throw bowling pins at each other with alarming speed. Shecky Greene is next. Greene has been pacing the cold cement halls for twenty minutes with the occasional nip from his flask, oblivious to the trained birds, the ventriloquist, the singers humming scales. Vicious nerves. Ed Sullivan, grimacing, introduces "a bright young comedian, a fine youngster. Let's hear it for Shecky! Greene!" Through the curtain. Shecky gives Ray Bloch a wave, clasps his hands and launches into his material.
"What I did was I took the microphone apart," recalls Shecky. "I used to do a routine where I took the microphone apart and every piece of the microphone I would do something with. I turned the microphone stand upside down and pretended I was talking to miners buried beneath tons and tons of coal. I said, 'You weren't hurt. It was soft coal.' That type of thing. But at the same time that I was doing that there was a mine disaster in Nova Scotia - this was a live show at that time. As I walked off the stage Sullivan says, 'You dirty son of a bitch! You lost me Canada! You fucking lost me Canada! You dirty bastard! You just lost me Canada!' I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Turns out I was doing that routine just as these guys had been buried under tons and tons of coal ... I sent my entire salary to Nova Scotia." Jack Carter remembers the often explosive Ed Sullivan temper. "The exposure you got from being on Sullivan was unbeatable," he says. "But Sullivan was vicious ... when you got into the dressing room after your run-through, he called you in. 'What kind of fucking shit is that?! You do that shit on my fucking show? You asshole. Fuck you with that shit. How dare you come in here with that cock-sucking shit? Balls! That's bullshit. You're doing that fucking shit? Now take that out. You can't do that." Years later Sullivan still held a grudge - but he could not remember why. "What happened was, I was working with Sinatra at The Fountainebleau [in Miami Beach]," says Shecky. "He and his wife were there in the afternoon. Now we all get in the same elevator. I didn't want to bother with him, you know what I mean? They walked away, and he said to his wife as they were leaving, 'Sylvia, why do we hate Shecky Greene?' She had to remind him. As the elevator doors are closing she says, "The mine disaster."
As a stand-up comedian, television did little to elevate him. He had many appearances performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show and others, but his act was never truly able to translate. Phil Berger sums it up eloquently. "The twenty-one inch screen reduced him in more ways than one. The line on him was - Shecky needs fifteen minutes just to say hello. TV pinched his act. Greene was best when he bounced from a joke to a pratfall to mimicry or song, building moment by moment a comic valentine. In a club, it played. On TV, it never got the time to, leaving Shecky to look like a sweaty hulk." Much like the modern comedian Norm MacDonald, who soars to profound heights when sitting on the panel of a late night talk show, Greene's television spots worked best when seated next to Johnny Carson. The host of The Tonight Show encouraged the unrehearsed whimsy of the "sweaty hulk" and he became a regular guest. On one memorable episode, robust Shecky Greene and scrawny Sammy Davis Jr. swap suit coats, with the mammoth comedian struggling to contain himself in a tiny jacket bursting at the seams. Sammy disappears when, draped on his small frame, Shecky's coat turns into a blanket. Despite many the entertaining appearance, Greene says he was never truly comfortable with mutual boozer Johnny Carson. "Johnny, as much as I liked him and everything, was very stiff. You had to always worry, 'Is Johnny going to laugh at this?' Looking back on it... who gives a shit?"
Shecky also received the occasional acting role, but something always seemed to stymie these gigs. Years later, the drinking, the anxiety, the depression, the self-sabotage would all be explained with a simple diagnosis: bipolar disorder. But at the time it seemed merely to be the end result of an irrational man. His drinking pal Dick Van Dyke got him a part on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it quickly fell apart. "Dick and I were good friends. I was going to do [the show], so I went to rehearsal the first day," says Greene. "I was married to a woman - I can't even explain it. I was a drunk. I was sitting at the dinner table and she hit me over my head and gave me a concussion. I had to go to the hospital ... and I had to cancel the show."
Greg Garrison produced The Dean Martin Show, a program that Shecky performed on several times, doing stand-up and occasionally playing in sketches. Garrison saw potential in Greene as a sketch performer and brought Shecky in for a series of meetings. Garrison planned "a television show based on the 1930s, but [wanted to] present it as though TV existed then." Garrison gave Shecky his pitch, "The songs, styles, celebrities, fads and foibles of that decade ... The Goldiggers!" The program's musical director Lee Hale says, "Greg's first choice to star in the show was Shecky Greene. There were many meetings, always behind closed doors, in which Greg used all his persuasive powers to convince Shecky the summer show would make him a star." But Shecky was startled by the pitch, explaining that he was certain he already was a star. "Shecky hemmed and hawed," says Hale. "He [said he] wouldn't be comfortable in sketch material ... but Greg asked him so often he finally relented." He relented, until anxiety usurped it all. Prior to the first rehearsal Shecky went back to Garrison. "I'm sorry. I can't do it. If you want the truth, I'm scared to death." Garrison remembers that the burly comedian "stood there quivering, totally submitting to his inner fears." Then, says Hale, Garrison shouted to his secretary, "Get Paul Lynde on the phone!"
Shecky's only successful foray into television was the ABC war drama Combat. To this day Combat is one of the few things the broader public remembers about Shecky Greene. This is rather remarkable as Shecky stormed off the set after only eight episodes. "We had one scene [and it] was very hot sitting in the truck," says Shecky. "The director kept saying, 'Vic [Morrow], do you want to do that over again?' Finally I said, 'Fuck this! Do it over again?' and I walked off." As he left the lot, he let the producer know he was leaving for good. "Please don't go," pleaded the producer. "You'll get your own show eventually!" Shecky shouted, "I don't want it!" Scorching California heat or not, it was anxiety that caused the breaking point. "I wanted to hide! I didn't want to be with all the bullshit. Big star bullshit never meant anything to me." Nothing, that is, except for torturous, anxiety ridden pressure - and crippling, unbearable fear.
THE FRANK SINATRA INCIDENT
Greene drank with Buddy Hackett and Greene drank with Dick Van Dyke. The comedic chemistry with those chums overboiled from time to time, but neither could compare to the self-destructive relationship he had with that suavest icon of alcohol: Francis Albert Sinatra. "He loved me and we hated hated each other," says Shecky. "I just respected him. I didn't love him. I far from loved him. But I fuckin' respected him for what he was. I mean, truthfully, myself, I was insane." In 1968 Frank Sinatra was in Miami Beach filming the private eye picture Tony Rome. Shecky was cast in the film as a thug and during the many months they were around each other, Sinatra hounded Shecky to join his entourage. "He used to say, 'Don't you want to be with me?' I said, 'No, I don't want to be with you.' So he says, 'You're gonna get it!' Through the whole time that I worked with him he used to say, 'You're gonna get it!' I used to say, 'Frank, what am I gonna get? Are you gonna give it to me? What is this thing?' I was very bad in those days. As bad as he was - I was just as bad with the drinking." Greene may go down in history as the only one to flagrantly ball out the self-proclaimed Chairman of the Board right to his very face. "I never wanted to be with him ... He said to me one day, 'Without a doubt, you're the sickest fucking human being I've ever met.' He's telling me. So I took him by the head and put him in front of the mirror. I said, 'There's one sicker.' He didn't say a fuckin' word..."
Such confrontation with the hot-headed crooner could only come back to haunt him. Shecky remembers the Miami night that would eventually become his most famous joke. "We're going to the Stream Bar on 79th Street ... Sinatra ... he's walking down Collins Avenue and we're following in cars. It looks like the New York Marathon. I said, 'Someone put a number on his back!' He was walking right down the middle of the street. We followed him back to the hotel and all hell broke loose. I don't even wanna go through what went on, but he was going to cancel the movie, he was going to cancel this ... I come in drunk out of my mind. It's about three o'clock in the morning. In the hotel five guys jump on me. The one guy ... comes from a very noted family in Chicago. One of the top guys in Chicago ... he always went to hit people with blackjacks. So he kept on hitting me on the top of the head and the blood kept pouring down."
The story hit the newspapers. No culprit was mentioned. No suspect inferred. It didn't matter. Shecky went on stage a few months later in Las Vegas, the welts on his skull still evident. He delivered what became his most memorable line. "Frank Sinatra saved my life once. He said, "Okay, boys. That's enough."
Mac McSwane, a man that worked at Miami's Fountainebleau Hotel as a bellhop remembers those days. "For a long while Shecky Greene was living high on the hog here - drinking, partying, lots of girls. He once got so drunk he pushed a piano out the window from the fifteenth floor. When it hit the ground, boy did it make a lot of noise." Shecky denies this out of hand. "Well, if you could show me any human being that could push a piano off the fifteenth floor at The Fountainebleau... I could understand the second floor but..." Shecky stories are like something from the opening sequence of Broadway Danny Rose. Comedians love to swap tales. Jack Carter remembers, "I used to have a favorite haunt in Vegas and I'd go there all the time and Shecky would never go there because he didn't like the owner. But he came to my party that night ... and it was a place where you could get pizza and food, y'know. And he ordered a pizza from outside. They came and delivered a pizza to him to this restaurant. He hated the owner so he had a pizza delivered from outside!" Another time says Carter, "Shecky came to my wedding. He came in a sweater and shorts and he had a wedding cake. He saw comedian Corbett Monica there, a comic he hated. He threw the cake at him and left!"
One comic that Greene did not hate was his close friend Lenny Bruce. They knew each other well and two bigger troublemakers the comedy world has never seen. They were close enough that Lenny assigned Shecky with the task of swiping his newborn from his wife Honey when they were amid a heated custody battle. But Shecky also had a calming effect on the Godfather of "sick comedy." Greene would accompany Bruce to assorted functions, whether it was a court trial for obscenity or the police station during a narcotics bust. He saw a side of Lenny Bruce that his adoring minions did not. One evening Shecky was leaning against the wall of a Chicago club filled with teenagers celebrating their Catholic High prom night. Lenny Bruce was onstage entertaining them - or trying to. "He was a little bit nuts that day. And he said to these kids, 'Yeah. What do I talk about to prom kids? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's see. Let's talk about clap." Did ten minutes on clap. And a kid stood up and I swear this is a true story. I was there. And the kid says, 'Mr. Bruce we came here to be entertained. We don't want to hear about that.' And Lenny went, "Koo koo koo koo. That's great. Hey, man, that's really, really ... that's really wild. How old are you?' The kid says, 'Seventeen.' Lenny says, 'That's really wild. That's magnificent that you would stand up and you'd say that to me. That's great.' And he didn't talk about clap. He talked about something else. And what it was to go to a prom. And it was the goddamndest cleanest show I ever saw him do. He had these kids spellbound." When Bruce started to think he was a comedy messiah, it was Shecky who would take him down a peg. "Lenny was a poor soul. We were kindred spirits. I didn't see Lenny as everybody else saw Lenny. They all saw him as a genius. I saw Lenny as a fucked-up human being. I saw someone destroying himself, and I know, because I was drinking at the time and I saw what was happening to me and I couldn't control it. You see someone else who's losing control, you know he's killing himself. So what kind of genius is that if he gets on a stage and he gets a few laughs? That's not genius. I saw all that, and the people kissing his ass. I used to say to him, "Lenny, you're not fooling anybody."
The most notorious of all Shecky Greene stories involves the lavish, ornate fountain that gushes in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. "I was completely drunk," says Shecky. "I had just finished work. I was completely insane. I forget what time it was in the morning. They gave me my car. They always gave me my car when I was drunk because they loved to see what was going to happen. I mean, that couldn't possibly happen today. You couldn't drive down The Strip like that, but I was driving about one hundred miles an hour. I hit a post. The post broke in two, went across my car, I lost control, swerved across the street, hit two signs and went into the fountains... but you want to know something? In those days we had a different situation in Vegas. Everybody was close. They would just talk to the sheriff's office and that was the end of that. I never even got a ticket."
When the grand old era of Las Vegas started to erode, so did the career of Shecky Greene. And he was fine with that. As he has said many times, he never wanted the business. Regardless, he had a natural ability for it - far beyond that of mortal men. Today in his twilight years Shecky enjoys his local Palm Springs bagel shop so much, he's trying to buy it. He enjoys chatting on the phone with his comedy brethren Jack Carter. He picks up a sentimental Vegas gig once a year and enjoys a leisurely pace with his two dogs and his wife Roxanne. Recent stumbling blocks include an enormous financial hit he took in the Bernie Madoff scandal, but Shecky remains much the same figure he always was - only much happier. Now when he takes to the stage it is never under the influence of alcohol, but the influence of his all-important Prozac prescription.
January 9, 2010. The parking lot at The South Point Hotel is full tonight. A marquee out front reads "Las Vegas Legend: Shecky Greene." The lobby is decorated with a series of gaudy looking banners advertising future performers. Songwriter Paul Williams, Three Dog Night and a Frank Sinatra impersonator will all be here soon. A younger Shecky Greene might have dismissed this place as "strictly a tourist joint." Tonight, Shecky is backstage eating pretzels and holding a bottle of water. He is chatting with Regis Philbin who drove up from Los Angeles earlier in the day. "I remember the night you were on Joey's talk show," Philbin says. "No, no, no, no." Shecky waves his hand at Regis. "I was never on Joey Bishop's talk show." Philbin laughs. "Yes, you were! I was there!" Shecky chuckles. "Yeah? Well, I wasn't!" A security guard pops his head into the green room. Regis, attempting to be clever, refers to it as the Shecky green room. The guard says, "Mr. Greene? John Stamos is here to see you." Shecky says, "I don't know who that is." Regis laughs. "Tell him not now. Not now. I need to get ready." At the other side of the South Point tonight, a completely different crowd is filing in to watch something advertised as "full contact jousting." It's all part of the new Vegas motif. Shecky's show tonight is for those that want a taste of the old Vegas. Ushers are helping an odd combination of tourists, senior citizens and one-time performers to their seats. Sammy Shore is there with his wife and so is Rich Little, who has brought along actor Jon Voight. Unmistakable even in old age is Marty Allen, one-time member of the old comedy team Allen and Rossi. He mutters his forgotten catchphrase "Hello Dere" at every person that walks past. Tonight the crowd is a who's who of who is that? The orchestra starts a loud, brassy overture. The house lights dim and Norm Crosby can be seen loitering at the very back exit, laughing hysterically at someone who is just outside the door. The casino's resident announcer holds a cordless microphone offstage and announces, "Ladies and gentleman! The South Point Hotel is honored to present - a Las Vegas legend - please welcome - Shecky Greene!" The audience explodes. A few rise to their feet and many wish they could, but their old bones simply won't allow it. At the back of the theater, while everyone is distracted, the man that was making Norm Crosby laugh is wheeled in. His name is Jerry Lewis.
Shecky takes to the stage with an exasperated look, an olive colored shirt tucked into grey khaki pants. "Hi everybody. What a pleasure to be in a place that Indians don't run." The seniors, many who take weekend bus rides to so-called Indian casinos, laugh. "I worked an Indian casino called Foxwood." Some of the audience applauds. "You know it?" says Shecky incredulously. He does a take, looks at his orchestra and says, "I made up the place and they know it!" Big laugh. He's off and rolling. Shecky tells jokes new and old for sixty-seven minutes. At age eighty-four, none of them are delivered from on top of the curtain. After an amusing spiel about anti-depressants, Shecky pauses. The laughter dies down. The show is almost over. "I understand Jerry Lewis is in the crowd tonight." He looks down to a hotel employee standing by the corner fire exit. "Is that true?" The employee nods. Shecky intimates that he has been blacklisted from the Jerry Lewis Telethon. He explains that Jerry Lewis has an insurmountable ego. He suggests that Jerry Lewis needs psychological help. Then as the laughter, much of it nervous, dies down - the veteran comedian says, "Let me tell you something, Jerry. I have two words for you." He pauses. And then, with a crowd of one thousand people on alert, he states, "Fuck. You." Tomorrow it will hit the pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The report will say, "Audience members seated near the back of the room were seen looking toward the exit, where Lewis and his group were spotted walking out. Greene told the crowd 'good night' and walked off the stage." Sammy Shore explains that even to this day, at the age of eighty-five, Shecky Greene can be heard shouting his mantra: "Fuck show business!"
Chris Bearde, Interview with author, September 2010
Jack Carter, Interview with author, March 2011
Jack Carter, Interview with author, April 2011
Pat Cooper, Interview with author, January 2011
Shecky Greene, Interview with author, February 2011
Shecky Greene, Interview with author, May 2011
Bobby Ramsen, Interview with author, February 2011
Steve Rossi, Interview with author, January 2011
Don Sherman, Interview with author, February 2011
Sammy Shore, Interview with author, May 2011
Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman (Penguin, 1974)
The Last Laugh by Phil Berger (William and Morrow Company, 1975)
Funny People by Steve Allen (Madison Books, 1984)
The Box: An Oral History of Television by Jeff Kisseloff (Viking, 1995)
Backstage at The Dean Martin Show by Lee Hale (Taylor Publishing, 2000)
Cult Vegas by Mike Weatherford (Huntington Press, 2001)
Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan by James Maguire (Billboard Books, 2007)
Miami Beach Memories: A Nostalgic Chronicle of Days Gone By Joann Biondi (Insiders Guide, 2007)
Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan's America by Gerald Nachman (University of California Press, 2009)
Vegas Review Journal, January 2010