SCHLEP or SCHLEPP also SHLEP
vb schleps, shlepping, schlepped
to drag or lug (oneself or an object) with difficulty
n 1. a stupid or clumsy person
2. an arduous journey or procedure
[ Yiddish, from German schleppen ]
OUT OF WORK AND ON THE CORNER
The Horn & Hardart automat. Here we find pretty boy Steve Rossi standing alone in a tuxedo, having a piece of pie for dinner. Rossi is just another young singer loitering in Manhattan during the humid summer of 1951. Rhubarb splatters on just another shirt collar of just another no-name nothing. He believes he is the next Dean Martin. Hoping for work, desperate for stardom, he is just another ambitious shlub that considers a lone gig once every three weeks, fourteen drunks in the audience, the epitome of real live show business. Schlepping aimlessly through Midtown Manhattan, there are countless others with identical dreams, duplicate fears and corresponding cramps. To themselves they are stars in waiting. To the rest of Manhattan they are nameless, obnoxious drugstore patrons. To Hans Hanson they are customers with outrageous, unpaid tabs. To Willy the soda jerk they're worse than shlubs. "They're bums! And perverts! They never tip!" Hanson's Drugstore. A twenty-four hour hangout for dead-tired showgirls rewarding themselves with end-of-the night cherry smashes - spiked with a flask from their garter. A place where Brill Building songwriters sit in the morning struggling to concoct a rhyme for baby. Maybe today they'll discover a line other than "I don't mean maybe." A short jaunt from Hanson's is 52nd. They call it The Street. Yeah, that's the place to score with a stripper or score your dope - maybe catch a set by Sonny Stitt or Art Tatum while you wait. A line from a Raymond Chandler pulp springs to mind: "It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in."
Midtown Manhattan. The highest concentration of showbiz havens and hangouts in the whole entire world. The Chorus Girls. The Drunk Newsmen. The Jazz Hepsters. The Mob. They converge with the force of a fly against a windshield. This is where American popular culture is born. Its influence permeates the nation. Walk the streets and weave through the hustlers, the gangsters, the bookies, the rummies... and somewhere among that crowd - you'll walk past a nondescript artistic genius or twelve, indiscernible from the dregs, biding time until they transform the American landscape. And high-above the loud, syncopated beat of Midtown you can hear... The Comedians. The pathetic, desperate-to-be-loved comedians. There are those, like Lenny Bruce, who spend their time looking for pussy. There are others, like Buddy Hackett and Jack Roy, who merely want to get high. And then there are a few, like Joe Ancis, who would rather slip into the shadows and hide altogether. Whatever their preference - one thing bonds them. All of them, every last one of them, every two-bit schlepper hanging around Hanson's Drugstore possess what comic Lou Gostel calls... the hunger.
"We were working two days a week," Gostel says of those days. "If we got [a gig on] Friday or Saturday it was a big deal. We'd get fifty dollars for the two days. I hung around Hanson's from 1952 through 1953. It was enough to pay our rent, enough to pay our phone, enough to pay our food. Fifty dollars a weekend - we lived on it. And enough to hang around Hanson's all day long." Hanson's, where comedians not famous enough to sit at the coveted center-front table at Lindy's could always idle. Instead of Lindy's famous cheesecake they settled for Hanson's not-so-famous grilled cheese. You could gauge a given comic's success based on how often he would shout at Hans to put that nickel grilled cheese "on my tab." Stan Irwin was a dialect comedian in the late forties. "Hanson's was like a club," he says. "Mr. Hanson himself was generous. He quite often gave you food and carried a bill, which he never collected on. There were always comics around. It was the poor man's Friars Club."
By the time rush hour hit, the comics were no longer sitting in Hanson's. Owner Hans Hanson inevitably became less charitable as the day wore on. Jerry Lewis often ruined it for everyone, spraying a liter of Bromo for the sake of a sight-gag. Tired of the tummlers wasting his seltzer Hans shouts, "Enough! Beat it!" Jerry screams back at the hostile owner, "Put it on my tab you Dutch shitheel!" And now, out front, the comics act as if they prefer standing outside on the corner anyway. Yeah, the corner out front. That's where it was at. You could see who was coming and going. Agents that could help you! Girls you could lay!
Could. Could. Could. Never would.
Don Sherman was a habituė. "Hanson's at 51st and 7th where all the acts would meet. It was the oldest show business building in New York - 1650 Broadway. All the offices above it, I think it was fourteen stories, were agents." Albert Goldman explains. "Young comics and mimics or impressionists had their hiring hall at Hanson's. All the Catskill agents were in 1650 Broadway; a rear door connected you to that lobby; so you could go up in the elevator, be rejected, and drop back down again, without ever once seeing daylight." A student from the Academy of Dramatic Arts named Don Rickles was around Hanson's "where the other trench coats hung out. I listened to guys trying out lousy material. Me, I didn't even have material." Hanson's was just one of many such hangout spots for comedians. There was a defined pecking order among them. Lindy's was for the name comics; the stars. Milton Berle and Jack E. Leonard and Jack Carter. "Hanson's was for the nothing comics! The third-raters!" says Carter. "It was always Lindy's for me. I would never step foot in Hanson's! Never!" Occasionally a Hanson's shlub like Jerry Lewis was launched into the Lindy's echelon. "Jerry Lewis, a graduate returning in triumph to his alma mater, would burst through the door to tummul in the back booths," says Goldman. "Legend had it that Jerry once balled a chick in the tiny space between the phones and the entrance to 1650 Broadway."
Lou Gostel was pounding the pavement trying to find a gig. His father JoJo was known for his baggy pants shtick at basement boozecans like The Swing Club. Born into the relentless Midtown pace, Lou remembers the comedy hangouts best of all. Hanson's. B-G Coffee Shop. Kellogg's Cafeteria. The Carnegie Deli. The Stage Deli. Get booted from one for loitering too long - move on to the next. "Nobody hung out at the Stage Delicatessen during the day," says Lou. "Hanson's was the daytime. It was always the day. I don't remember any of us ever going to Hanson's Drugstore at night. It was always the Stage Delicatessen [at night]. The Stage had the greatest Jewish food in the world. We all hung out at the Stage after our jobs." Comic Bobby Ramsen recalls, "The Stage Delicatessen was more famous than the Carnegie. The owner was Max Asnas. A very likable guy with a great sense of humor. We had a lot of fun there. It was a big hangout. Jack Rollins, the most important manager in show business, wanted to do a television series about Eddie the night manager. It was constantly being mentioned on the late night [television] shows. Jack Paar mentioned the Stage and it would get so much publicity from famous people. When you walked into the Stage Delicatessen at ten or eleven o'clock at night - you could feel it."
Celebrities haunted the corned beef atmosphere to be sure, but there were just as many wannabes and con artists. "There was one guy that used to come in," says Gostel. "Jackie something. He would come in and he'd have make-up on and he would sit down with us. We'd ask, 'Oh, where did you work tonight?' He'd say, 'Oh, uh... Grossingers.' I'd say, 'Oh, that's funny. I worked Grossingers tonight.' He would put make-up on to look like he had a gig! He didn't want to look like he was out of work! Every time he walked in wearing a tuxedo we would say to each other, 'I wonder where he didn't work tonight."
The Stage gave birth to a delicatessen gimmick that exists to this day. "Their menu was full of [items named] The Milton Berle," says Ramsen. "The Henny Youngman. The Jack Paar. Y'know, different sandwiches named after these people." If only Hanson's Drugstore had picked up on the contrivance. Their menu of grilled cheese could have had variations named The Bum. The Drunk. The Fraud. Rodney Dangerfield got a kick from the swindlers frequenting Hanson's. To him it was "where every kind of performer hung out during the day - actors, actresses, comedians, tightrope walkers, whatever you wanted. They were all there in the afternoon, talking show business and perfecting their plans for conquering the world. There were many colorful characters there, but we all agreed that the most colorful character was a guy called Tootsie." Rodney explained that Tootsie won his moniker "because he was always singing an impression of Al Jolson, 'Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye.' Tootsie told everybody he was a big, big agent. He would sit down at your table, open a large portfolio and show pictures of his big clients. The first one was a publicity shot of Van Johnson ... Next would be Clark Gable. He'd say, 'Oh, what a guy. We've been together over thirty years.' Often he would walk up to a comic and say, 'Are you available on September 24 for two weeks?' The guy'd say, 'Yeah.' 'Okay,' Tootsie'd say, 'I'll get back to you. I think I got something good for you.' He never got back to anyone. But that was okay - everyone knew that he was out of his mind."
Hanson's was a far more desperate world than its hangout brethren. Albert Goldman observed, "Hanson's was a regular show-biz scene, like Lindy's or Chandler's or Reuben's - only sleazier, for the losers, the schleppers, all the bottom dogs. A nothing place." The Hanson's comics didn't care. Sure, look down on the bottom dogs! Who needs you? The Grouchos of the world didn't want the respect of the Margaret Dumonts anyway. Fuck 'em. Let's hang out. "Everybody hung around Hanson's Drugstore because a lot of us weren't working at the time - so we had nothing to do in the afternoon," says Lou. "We'd all hang out there. I'd be there with Rickles. Shecky [Greene] would hang out there too. We all hung out there. Everybody. Everybody." Everybody that was out of work.
When you're out of work you might not have money, but you always have time. For kicks the bum comics would meander next door to the B-G Coffee Shop. Dangerfield recalled the B-G having "handmade signs advertising their food Scotch-taped all over their windows. To have a few laughs, we'd make up our own signs and tape them over the real ones. Ours would say, BEST FUCKIN HAMBURGER IN TOWN! or OUR SOUP WILL KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS! Then we'd stand on the corner and watch the tourists' reactions." There was another game that helped pass the day. "There was a back entrance to Hanson's," says Don Sherman. "If you came through the back, that meant you were coming out of one of the agent's offices. Every Friday, any act that came in, you knew whether he got booked that weekend or didn't get booked that weekend based on the look on their face." Joey Adams, veteran club comic and decades-long voice of the Friars Club remembered, "Hanson's was wall-to-wall showbiz. Sure, you could get your prescriptions filled or pick up Dr. Scholl's foot plaster, but this corner was different because it was within one block of everything - the Winter Garden Theatre, the Capitol Theatre, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, Radio City Music Hall - and Hanson's was a theatrical emporium. Its customers were chorus girls and chorus boys and its goodies were toupee glue ... and the other etceteras of the trade." Furthermore, if you were sick and tired of bombing all the time - you could go to Hanson's and buy new material. Adams called Hanson's "a supermarket for gags. There you could swap two Milton Berle parodies for one Red Skelton Guzzler's Gin routine or twelve Bob Hope jokes for a Willie Howard sketch." However, there was one source of sure-fire material that outshone the rest. And it came from the trunk of a beat up old car with Jersey plates. Two chronic pot smokers sat in the front seat waiting for you to come by.
WE SELL ALUMINUM SIDING (AND JOKES). JOE ANCIS AND JACK ROY.
"We'd all meet at the drugstore in New York," says comic turned character actor Dick Curtis. "They'd all say, 'Look, I gotta go. Gotta go out to Jersey. I'm selling siding." Joe Ancis, unlike his contemporaries, never had an 8x10 glossy on the wall of a New York restaurant. He never had an 8x10 glossy at all. Even more notable is that he never gave a fuck. Yet he alone is responsible for the shape of modern stand-up comedy more than any other personality. Will Jordan and Buddy Hackett were early disciples. Rodney Dangerfield was transformed by him. Lenny Bruce was created by him. "Ancis was not made for clubs," said Phil Berger. "The Brill Building - any place there were comics/hipsters/wise guys around - was perfect. He couldn't have played to commercial audiences in the late forties - the material was too outrageous. It had the twisted insignia of the man on it, a personal touch not often seen back then ... Ancis worked out of a head full up with fear and confusions." Dick Curtis stood in awe as Ancis held court on the corner. "Joe Ancis was startling he was so good," he says. "But he had no courage. He couldn't go onstage. He had stage fright so bad. He and Lenny Bruce roomed together. Lenny developed that style of his from sitting around with Joe Ancis. Joe talked about art and literature like a hoodlum and he was wonderful! He entertained on the sidewalk in front of Hanson's and he was just terrific." Buddy Hackett said that from Ancis came Lenny's "whole way of thinking of things," while Gerald Nachman feels, "Ancis gave Bruce his Jewish soul, the Yiddishkeit that he was denied as a boy growing up in a marginally Jewish family. To hear Bruce you would think he came from a family of rabbis." It was the Joe Ancis influence from which "Lenny got the flavor of the Jewish lower classes." Berger hammers the point home. "Joe's far-out comic configurations were of a submerged soul he dared not try out of fear drummed in him by love oppressed. [His material] was what de Sade might have done had he knocked around Bensonhurst."
Ancis was a sheaf of neurosis. "Joe was very much into music and singers," said Roy. "He went to see Nancy Wilson in concert in New York. Halfway through her act, he noticed some empty seats way up front. During the applause for Nancy's next song, he walked to the front, around the third row, and took one of the empty seats. Then his head went to work. Joe started thinking, 'What if someone shoots Nancy Wilson? They'll think I did it! I'm the only white guy in the place. They'll say, it's him! He even changed his seat to be close and get a better shot! He wasn't even applauding for Nancy!' For the rest of the performance, Joe sweated it out, hoping that Nancy didn't get shot. Joe kept applauding heavily for Nancy and making sure people sitting near him would see him smiling. That was Joe's head. It was tough for him to relax." According to a close confidant, "People always wanted to meet Joe. He was famous among hipsters and comedians who'd heard so much about him, but he didn't want to meet them." If he couldn't bring himself to meet people, let alone go onstage, then obviously Ancis could never make a living as a comic. Then again, neither could someone who went onstage as often as possible - the imposing Jack Roy.
Jack Roy was a habitual pot smoker who relied on streetwise Joe Ancis and his 52nd Street jazz connections to supply him. History tells us that Lenny Bruce was the era's primary pot smoking comic, but it was a common ritual for many in the Hanson's crowd. "All those Brooklyn guys were big pot smokers," says Jack Carter. Lenny Bruce, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Kannon, Jackie Miles, Jack Roy. God, how they loved to smoke pot. If you didn't have a gig, you could always get high. It heightened the laughs. It enhanced the jazz. Roy recalls his Manhattan marijuana revelation. "One night in Kellogg's Cafeteria ... I was sitting with a couple of show folk - a comic named Bobby Byron and my friend Joe E. Ross. We were sitting and talking, doing what we were doing, and Bobby and Joe E. decided that they wanted to get high. They invited me to join them. So we walked back to the Belvedere Hotel." Up until this evening, Roy had always been considered a hostile character onstage and off. "He had a reputation for being angry," says Bobby Ramsen. "They called him Angry Jack. When Jack Roy was working it was with an edge." Pat Cooper explains, "He was very depressed. And angry. He had a family [he could barely] support." His evening at the Belvedere was one he never forgot. "Bobby took out a joint. He and Joe E. took a couple of hits off that joint, then offered it to me. I felt relaxed, peaceful, everything was okay. That night I found a friend for the rest of my life."
Show business was still a harsh go. He seemed to struggle more than others. "It was rough," he said. "Even then, with hundreds of clubs in New York, no one would take a chance on a kid ... All day I walked around in the heat, going from agent to agent trying to get a job in show business ... My act was a lot of jokes, some impressions, and a few songs." Jack Roy, struggling to make it, flop sweat in perpetuum, watched his home life unravel. He was a failure. "I needed a steady income. So I went into the home improvement business. I sold aluminum siding and paint on a commission basis at a place called Pioneer Construction in Newark." He'd drive into Manhattan, get high with Ancis, drive back to Jersey and continue the life of a nobody. A real professional schlepper. Roy had struggled onstage, but the comics always had the utmost respect for his material. When Roy left comedy Stan Irwin saw it as an opportunity to bolster his own act. "I said, 'Your act fits mine. I'll rent it from you for fifty dollars and put it with mine." Fine. No problem. Take my act - please. Tired of driving back and forth to score reefer, Jack Roy got his pot dealer a job at Pioneer Construction. The two funniest guys had vanished from the Hanson's scene, consumed by a world of working class drudgery. Lunacy. Jack Roy and Joe Ancis. Heroes of Hanson's - Nothings in Newark. But funny people don't suddenly cease to be funny. The two devised gags while riding around in their rust-bitten vehicle, dodging Jersey paperboys, hustling siding to the picket fence crowd. "Ah, what the hell's the difference, hey Joe? We're our own boss and making real money at the same time!" The difference was that Jack Roy couldn't shake it. He still had it. The hunger.
Will Jordan had replaced Ancis as the number one performer on the corner. Jordan, a mastermind mimic, was a passable substitute. "Of the working pros, he regularly cracked them up in Hanson's," says Berger. "In Hanson's it was not with his act he got laughs, but with the material he made up on the spot, riffs that packed the tables at the back of the place. Jordan got crowds - comics like Orson Bean, Milt Kamen, Jackie Gayle ... Even the guys who used a safety pin and wire to make free calls on Hanson's toll phones came over to have a listen. Will didn't disappoint them. He was, in the comic term, a good table man." Jack Roy made his money while the other kids enjoyed themselves, but he hated the idea that he and Ancis had been replaced. Reflecting years later he said, "I sold aluminum siding for twelve years. I made a decent living... but I wasn't living." The two siding schleppers started transcribing some of that between-sales banter. It evolved. They slowly started ghosting material for the comedians, lending their lines to the Hanson's crowd... for a fee. Jack and Joe. Joe and Jack. Silently shaping American comedy from the shadows. Their influence would be exemplified in the decades to come. Ancis and Roy drove into Manhattan after work and parked as close as possible to Hanson's. Suddenly they were salesmen on both sides of the Hudson. Stan Irwin explains, "Jack would have a file of jokes in the trunk of his car that he would sell to you for five dollars a piece."
Sales were swift. The comics were scoring big. One of their best customers was a new kid with a swelled head; the rabbinical Jackie Mason. Alright. Enough. Jack Roy decided to get back in the game. It was killing him inside. "I remember walking into the Golden Hotel in Pleasantville, New Jersey," says Bobby Ramsen. "And it said, 'Appearing Tonight: Bobby Ramsen. Late Show: Rodney Dangerfield.' When I saw that I thought, 'My God! What a great name!' And then when I stayed to check out the show, it turned out to be Jack Roy! He put together a bunch of new stuff and he talked about changing his name. It took him a while, but he got rolling. He was very ambitious."
Jack Roy was dead. Rodney Dangerfield was born. With his new found success Rodney put Joe Ancis on the payroll. Salaried inspiration. "I knew Joe for over fifty years," he explained. "In fact, he lived with me for eighteen of them. Most of Joe's best stuff was of the 'you-had-to-be-there' variety, but I will try to lay some of his things on you. When Joe lived with me, I had a miniature poodle named Keno. One time I was talking to Joe, but I was distracted because I noticed that the dog kept looking at me. After a few minutes, I said to Joe, 'What's with the dog? He keeps staring at me.' Joe said, 'Man, you're a star." People often asked Joe Ancis why he never showcased his brilliance onstage. He answered, "I couldn't blow in front of just anybody." One-time roommate Lenny Bruce chided him. "Joe, you've got incredible material. If you don't do this stuff onstage - I will." Joe wouldn't. Lenny did.
THE DEALERS. THE SHPRITZERS. THE NUDNIK.
Lenny Bruce was a Hanson's Drugstore regular. He stood on the corner trading impressions back and forth with Will Jordan. In the late nineteen forties Lenny Bruce was not the stuff from which biopics are made. Before Joe Ancis rubbed off on the man turned legend, "He looked like an Arab pimp!" says Jordan. "Very pale. Moustache. Big white coat and everything." Rodney Dangerfield concurred. "He became the man in white - white pants, white shirt, white jacket, white shoes, white socks, white underwear, [but] even then - young, smart, and at the top of his game - he had a bad heroin habit." The influences that lead to Lenny's drug-addled demise may have been seeded at the round-the-clock Hanson's lunch counter. "Hans Hanson wasn't the warmest guy in the world," says Bobby Ramsen. "He was running a business. It was also a pharmacy. He had a license to sell prescriptions at the same time." And sometimes the prescriptions were beyond mere ointment.
Lenny enjoyed his first national exposure on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in 1949. The gig lead to better bookings including his engagement at the China Doll. "The Taft Hotel was directly across from Hanson's. The China Doll was also across, but on a side street at the Havana-Madrid," says Ramsen. "The Taft was where Phillip Loeb, who played the husband on The Goldbergs, committed suicide [after being hounded by the McCarthy blacklist]. The China Doll had two big dragons in front of the entrance. It was upstairs. They had smoke coming out of the dragon's mouth. Gene Baylos would perform there and close his act saying, 'I can't go on any longer as I now must go upstairs and blow smoke out the dragon's mouth." Lenny Bruce did fine at the China Doll with a roster of uninspired impressions. Sally Marr, his famed mother, purchased space in Billboard to brag about his stint.
Lenny's association with the China Doll may not have been worth bragging about. It seems the China Doll was one of Lenny's earliest sources for dope. Shortly after the purchased advertisement ran in the trades, Time Magazine indicted the China Doll and Hanson's Drugstore as preeminent fronts for heroin trafficking.
New York's traffic in drugs - $100 million a year in street sales - was the nation's worst ... alarming increases in dope consumption ... an astonishing picture of a strange new city: New York as it appears to a "junkie." It is a city where "pushers" peddle their wares almost as casually as sidewalk balloon vendors, where children sniff heroin even in classrooms, where an innocent looking drugstore or cafeteria may be an addicts' hangout.
Heroin Hunting. The most startling description of the addict's New York came from a talented 25-year-old, who had made up to $245 a week as a musician, composer and arranger, but had turned to prostitution for extra money because her "habit" demanded 50 to 60 capsules of heroin a day. In her endless search for drugs, almost every corner of the city had become a hunting ground; she named scores of drugstores, bars, restaurants, hotels, schools and nightclubs from the Bronx to Coney Island where she had purchased a "fix."
The famed China Doll nightclub off Broadway was a good spot: "Two or three peddlers hang around there... on a quiet basis." So was Hanson's Drugstore at 51st Street and Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan; so was the Garden Cafeteria across from Madison Garden. "You just walk in... get a cup of coffee... put your money down, pick up the drugs and leave... In the B-G Coffee Shop - cocaine buyers hang around there."
- Time Magazine, June 25, 1951
The China Doll, Hanson's and even the innocent looking B-G Coffee Shop had been outed. They catered to New York's most desperate types: comedians and drug addicts. Berger wrote of other nefarious elements on the corner. "Izzy the loan shark was that type. Izzy would see some rube out-of-towner wander in off the avenue and before the startled fellow knew what, Izzy was on his knees before him. Upside the guy's fly he'd jack a thumb that he'd suck on, just as the whipped cream he had in his mouth came spilling out. With Izzy, it was a dead-end. He hadn't the look or twinkle of a real comic." The life of the desperate comic was often all over the place. Marijuana. Heroin. Poverty. But most of all - jokes. No wonder so many of these low-renters loved to hang near 52nd. It was a similar lifestyle. Marijuana. Heroin. Poverty. Jazz.
Late forties jazz periodical Metronome gave the scoop. "When you leave a musician and say, 'See you on The Street tonight,' he doesn't have to ask you which street you mean. If you flagged a taxi in NYC and asked to be taken to The Street, you would be driven, without giving a number or avenue, to 52nd between Fifth and Sixth avenues." The stretch of bop clubs seemed cool even if the music was beyond mental comprehension to someone like Buddy Hackett. "What's the big deal? I don't get it. All that..." and here Hackett would do his amusing impression of an abstract Ornette Coleman squawk. The bit was a sure-fire laugh-getter. Hackett spent hours loitering on 52nd, waiting for Joe Ancis to return with a promised cache of marijuana. "Just wait out here. I'll score us some tea and be right out." Ancis was never "right out." He'd sweet talk his way past a cover charge, cop a free drink from Chico or Tatum and get the lowdown. After thirty minutes of rapping Ancis would remember, "Oh, hey, before you start the next set - can I grab some dope?" Out of someone's hardshell case would come a small box of pre-weighed pot. Ancis would slap a small roll of bills into the hepcat's palm and split. "Jesus, what took you so long!?" Buddy would shout, upset and hostile. "Sorry, man, the heat, y'know? Had to make sure there was no heat!" "Jesus Christ, Joe!" Buddy would shout through that impish grin stapled on one side of his face. "I was dis far from taking up a room at The Taft!"
52nd Street was home to Leon and Eddie's, an enduring venue where Will Jordan and Lenny Bruce lost themselves in improvised routines on "Celebrity Night." The atmosphere was more communal and more relaxed than other joints. It treated the comedians and strippers like family. In fact, it even encouraged families to attend. Featured stripper Shelley Britton remembered, "I used to strip down to an itsy-bitsy G-string and nothing else. Not even pasties. I did so even during the dinner hour when lots of children were in the audience... but my body was so perfect ... that no one ever thought of complaining." Leon and Eddie's had the unique distinction of being one of the only nightclubs in Manhattan, or even America, not controlled by the Mob. Legend goes that the Mob did try to flex its muscle one evening. Sitting down with owner Eddie Enken, a mobster explained, "It would be for the best, Eddie, if you let 'the boys' take over." But Enken was severely hard of hearing. As they threatened it became clear that his small-talk responses were not done out of brazen defiance, but total aural cluelessness. They left. "Forget this clip joint. These comics stink."
Here you could find Ed Sullivan, Louis Sobel or Robert Benchley drinking and scribbling on any given evening. There was Winchell too, of course, and it was at Leon and Eddie's that he picked on the overtly Jewish Myron Cohen whom he found distasteful. "Myron Cohen is comic with a V," he wrote in his column. "Vomic!" Ed Sullivan didn't find Cohen that funny either, but he found Walter Winchell intolerable. Winchell and Sullivan had been trading vicious barbs for years. When Sullivan was granted his own television show, he booked Myron Cohen as often as possible for one reason: to annoy his nemesis. Myron Cohen appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show so frequently that he eventually became a national star - all thanks to Sullivan's hatred of Winch. Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, sharing a bachelor pad two doors away, were regulars at Leon and Eddie's until Brando was finally barred for refusing to adhere to dress code. Plenty more along The Street included Club Samoa. The Spotlite. The Downbeat. The Onyx. The Three Deuces. There was The Famous Door, which The New Yorker said was "one of the smallest and smokiest places on 52nd Street. But, then, it's practically impossible to be a devotee of hot music and fresh air at the same time." It was a highly concentrated block of music, fun and madness. Indulge in any sin you wish. The Mob greased the palms of local officials to make sure you could. "Crazy days, they were!" said jazz promoter Joe Helbock. "You stayed in business only if you had enough money and the right connections. I had a couple of pretty good connections. One was a deputy police commissioner, an old friend from the Bronx. With the right connection, you got the word of whom to pay and how much." Woody Herman relayed the night "when a cab came roaring down the block and braked to a fast stop in front of the Onyx. Two guys hopped out, threw the ignition keys to the doorman, and ran into the club. It was [well-known jazz musicians] Charlie Barnet and Lucky Millinder. They had stolen the cab! Those were crazy days." The low-rent comics and the black jazz giants engaged in all-American debauchery in the "upholstered sewers" of Manhattan. "Fifty-second Street was a mother," said Dizzy Gillespie. "I say mother - and I don't mean motherfucker... though it was that too." The mother that nurtured every vice you could name.
BS PULLY: WILDER THAN LENNY BRUCE
Soon the pulse of jazz gave way to the pulse of the groin. Peelers permeated on 52nd Street and bebop moved elsewhere. The comedy that complimented jazz would soon flourish in the Village. And the comedy that appealed to your friendly neighborhood bump and grind connoisseur came in the form of BS Pully - a man that Milton Berle deemed "a legend in the annals of raw filth."
Pully was a king of Florida strip joints and a regular on the Catskill roadhouse circuit.1He also enjoyed a run, directly across from the Onyx, as house comic at Club Carousel. While Lenny Bruce was struggling to master the hip vernacular of Joe Ancis, BS Pully was decimating audiences with a machine gun patter of profanity; something quite unconventional for the time. Lenny Bruce is often credited with breaking the four-letter barrier of public performance, but the gruff-voiced Pully was offending pious ears long before Lenny entered the biz. Gerald Nachman says, "BS Pully rose to underground fame using filthy language - in some cases wearing a Yiddish fig leaf." At Hanson's Drugstore one learned that Pully's onstage persona and offstage demeanor were identical. Just as fast as he got rolling, he'd abandon his shpritzing and let Gene Baylos amuse the boys. He had more important matters to attend to - like groping the ass of a woman buying a soda. Freddie Roman, current head of the Friars Club, remembers seeing BS Pully "do something horrendous one night. There was a young girl singer. Obviously one of her first jobs. He walked up behind her and put his arms around her and started grabbing her breasts while she was singing. He thought this was hilarious. The audience was laughing. The girl burst into tears and ran off the stage." Rodney Dangerfield shared the stage with him early on. "I'd heard plenty about BS Pully before I met him. People said he was a low-class, filthy, dirty maniac. When I met Pully, I learned that they had all been too nice. I was eighteen, hanging around New York at night trying to learn about show business. I can't remember how it happened, but I wound up in an amateur contest in a nightclub on 52nd Street. BS Pully was the master of ceremonies. I entered the contest as a singer. When it was my turn to go on Pully said, 'Our next contestant is gonna sing for us. Give a hand to Jack Roy.' I walked onto the stage and stood next to Pully who, in a voice that sounded like someone shoveling gravel, said, 'Whaddaya gonna sing kid?' I told him, 'You Are Always in My Heart.' Pully said, 'All right, kid. I'll be in your ass later."
Along with his straight man HS Gump, Pully appealed to the lowest brow. The initials, as everyone implicitly knew, "stood for bullshit and horseshit." Chic Eder, heroin provider to Lenny Bruce in Miami, often sold stolen goods to Pully. "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 BS Pully in a few nice stones I'd recently acquired. Seated at the table [was] HS Gump, the dwarf comic who sometimes worked with Pully. Pully once pissed on Gump right onstage." One can imagine Lou Gostel and Stan Irwin, who recently shared this anecdote separately, trading the story back and forth in Hanson's Drugstore.
Lou Gostel: There was nobody wilder than BS Pully.
Stan Irwin: It's unusual he didn't spend more time in jail than in nightclubs.
Lou Gostel: He was wilder than Lenny Bruce. He was dirtier, wilder and he would say anything onstage.
Stan Irwin: One very raucous thing he would do... he would come out with a cigar box...
Lou Gostel: He used to walk around with a cigar box down by his crotch.
Stan Irwin: At his crotch... approach a table...
Lou Gostel: He'd say, 'Would you like a cigar?'
Stan Irwin: Hey, lady! Are you a smoker?
Lou Gostel: His dick would be in there with the cigars!
George S. Kaufman, cynic savant of the American theater, became one of BS Pully's biggest and most unlikely boosters. Kaufman was known for his erudite wit and not someone to whom the lowbrow Pully would generally appeal. Kaufman was in the process of readying Frank Loesser's Guys n' Dolls for its initial Broadway run. Cy Feuer, the show's producer, was exasperated that they had yet to cast a part so "crucial to convey Damon Runyon's cartoon view of Broadway hustlers ... It was a role that called for someone who combined menacing size with comic balance in a way that was ultimately endearing ... we auditioned a hundred actors, but found no Big Jule. There was either a detectable nastiness to the interpretation, or else they lapsed into a coy burlesque of a tough guy. [Powerhouse agent] Marty Baum said he had someone who was perfect for the part, but we'd have to wait a few weeks because his client was temporarily unavailable. 'Where the hell is he?' I asked. 'In jail. He'll be out in fifteen days."
Bail posted. When Pully walked into the theater, someone else was onstage reading for the part. It happened to be the clown prince of Hanson's - Gene Baylos. "Gene Baylos came in cold looking for work," said Feuer. "He was telling some jokes onstage when we heard a rough, growling roar coming from the wings. It could have been someone trying to encourage Baylos. A friend, no doubt. On the other hand, it could have been someone laughing, or coughing - the sound he made was so gruff and meaty that it was impossible to tell. I yelled up to the stage manager to bring out whatever creature was making that terrible racket, and he let out onto the stage this refrigerator-sized character who announced in a gravel-pit baritone his name." Press agent Eddie Jaffe remembered. "Pully had arrived at the audition. As soon as he croaked out, 'Hello, pal,' Kaufman immediately snapped to attention. He asked the comedian if he thought he could handle a role in which he would have to play dice. Pully's response? He pulled out a pair of dice from his pocket!" Pully accepted the part of Big Jule and was forever cemented as a memorable character actor. Plucked from bawdy obscurity, his success shocked the Hanson's crowd. "We're busting our ass trying to come up with ten minutes of TV-friendly material, cutting the words 'navel' and 'pregnant' from our act and he's getting all the work!? There's no fuckin' justice in this goddamned business!" Nat Hiken, a great fan of Damon Runyon types, gave Pully some high-profile work on the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You and The Love God, a motion picture starring Don Knotts as a pornographer. Pully moved to Hollywood where he remained until his death. He didn't even bother to work. "He was loved by Hollywood producers," says Stan Irwin. "They found him to be very humorous. Sort of a jester to their social community. He didn't have to do too many stand-up gigs after that because they took care of him and then he just... disappeared."
FUNNIER OFFSTAGE - GENE BAYLOS
No one person better exemplified the pathetic life of a New York comedian than Gene Baylos. He was adored by every working comic, but their endorsements meant little to the crowds or the critics. He was what they called a table comic,2 a schlepper that specialized in milking laughs from the guys at Hanson's, Lindy's and the Stage. Gene was a creature of the Bronx. He ventured into the Catskills with routines purchased from the back pages of showbiz periodicals. This was common practice for a new comedian. But unlike his fellow comics, Baylos relied on stale generica long after he was established. The fact that he never made it big is generally chalked up to his fear of new material. "Nobody was funnier than Gene Baylos," says Pat Cooper. "But when Gene Baylos got onstage - he didn't change a word in fifty years!" He was and always would be - a table comic.
Freddie Roman: Gene Baylos. A legendary Friars comedian. Used to hang out at Hanson's.
Sammy Shore: Oh, shit. He was just... he was one of the funniest.
Jack Carter: A cute little guy.
Lou Gostel: He was hysterical.
Shecky Greene: I loved Gene.
Stan Irwin: Very funny.
Larry Storch: Gene Baylos, to me, was one of the funniest guys you ever saw.
Lou Gostel: He was one of the funniest guys - offstage - in the world.
Woody Woodbury: He was funnier offstage than on.
Pat Cooper: Onstage he wasn't that funny.
Steve Rossi: He was actually a lot funnier when he'd come to your table in the delicatessen. A delicatessen comic.
Norm Crosby: He was the comic's comic.
Freddie Roman: You know, there's no rhyme or reason to it. I can't really put a finger on it. Offstage, to the comedians, he was the funniest guy. He'd do shtick at your table and you walked away screaming. It just didn't transfer to the stage, but I don't understand why.
Norm Crosby: He was more interested in making his fellow comics laugh than he was with the audience.
Pat Cooper: You sat with him at a table, he'd put you to tears.
Lou Gostel: I used to fall on the ground from Gene Baylos.
Norm Crosby: He never did become a big success. He was never known by the public.
Steve Rossi: He never worked the big rooms.
Woody Woodbury: He was hilarious. Rickles and I used to meet him at the old Wolfies, which was a popular diner in South Miami Beach. He would have that place in an uproar. All the comics loved him. He'd get onstage and say, "I just started a new business. I'm in the lint business. The lint business. Just started this business. The lint business." And he'd just keep saying that!
Don Sherman: Gene Baylos was an amazing guy. He was just naturally funny. He woke up in the morning and he was funny. He didn't know any other way to do it. That's what a comedian is.
Yes, Gene Baylos would do anything to get a laugh from the guys. He walked from table to table at the delicatessen pulling a favorite gag. He'd grab a porkchop and shove it in his pocket. It never failed to break 'em up... but Gene was swiping porkchops for a reason. "He was the cheapest guy I ever met, but a wonderful guy," says eighty-seven year old Jackie Curtiss, one half of forgotten comedy team Antone and Curtiss. "He made a little rubber pocket. He always wore a vest. He made a rubber insert to put into the vest pocket and he'd go to the automat. He'd walk through and pick up used teabags and put them in there. Then he'd go over and get water - he wouldn't even buy a teabag!" Gene Baylos was considered cheap, but that was hardly unique to the Hanson's scene. That's why the comics that were there were there. They were cheap. They were broke. The Hanson's archetype. A place where hacks and failures would fight over stolen material. Joey Adams once said, "I'll never forget the battle at the Hanson's roundtable when Gene Baylos grabbed Lenny Bruce and yelled, 'You bum, you stole my Bob Hope routine!"
Baylos had been around a long time. He had an elaborate collection of bad reviews to prove it. He had played the big movie palaces like The Roxy and The Majestic in the late thirties, sharing the bill with whosit danceteams and girl singers. To the unsuccessful young comedians at Hanson's he was a sage. A veteran failure. To the star comedians at Lindy's he was an old friend. He was one of very few to transcend the delicatessen class system. King of every Delicatessen. A bum on every stage. "There was a class system of comedian hangouts in Manhattan," says Bobby Ramsen. "There is no doubt about it. As you moved up the line it was Lindy's. It was a more upscale place and packed with the upscale acts like Jack E. Leonard and Milton Berle. When Milton came in, they cleared a table right in front. Milton was the king of Lindy's." Baylos could barely get through the door before Jack E. Leonard started yelling, "Heard you stunk it up at The Capitol, Baylos!"
Columnist Hy Gardner was one of many critics to give Baylos a negative notice. "His slovenly attitude is typical of the fringe-comedians who linger at Lindy's complaining that they never get a Big Break," wrote Gardner. "When the Big Break looms they're too blind to recognize it and take the leap gracefully from the Small Time to the Big time." However, Baylos was so popular with his fellow comics that when a critic criticized, the comedians fought back. Gardner received so many complaints this particular time that he had little choice but to follow up. "Many readers took umbrage with a recent editorial in the Herald Tribune, in which I spanked comedian Gene Baylos." Gardner quoted from an anonymous letter. "Why pick on a comparatively little guy like Gene? Have you the guts to say [the same thing about] Bob Hope? Groucho Marx? Are they too big for you to tackle?" Gardner responded with the same critique that plagued Baylos his entire career. He never bothered to prepare anything fresh - if at all. "Baylos made no more preparation for his showcasing than his viewers did," wrote Gardner. "In failing to do so Gene further demonstrated that he was more interested in making a few bucks today than shooting for a lot of bucks tomorrow." Gardner was willing to toss one compliment at Baylos to deflect further scorn. "Gene Baylos is potential major league caliber. A comedian's comedian."
Gene Baylos was one of those comics who, as the saying goes, played to the band. And Baylos was popular on 52nd Street where there were bands galore. "You know 52nd was not the Broadway kind of street they showed in that corny movie named after it," said horn player Bud Freeman. "It was really an esoteric street, even if some of the joints were owned by questionable people." An esoteric street was perfect for an esoteric comic like Baylos. The Onyx was an esoteric jazz spot losing a great deal of money as the nineteen forties came to a close. The Mob unloaded what they considered dead weight. Sammy Kaye became the new owner and wanted to change the vibe. The trades reported the news first, and every comic in Hanson's reported it second. Comedians in Hanson's were shouting like a Frankie Darro newsboy in an old movie:
The Gene Baylos Room never came to be. "He didn't have the presence and a lot of the stuff he did was very inside," says Ramsen. As the years passed his dummy pockets worked overtime. "He was always broke. He always said that his biggest fear was paying his rent... and then dying in the middle of the month." Jack Carter remembers Gene Baylos at the Friars Club. "At the Friars they finally had to bar him from running table to table and annoying people," he says. "They used to feed him for free because he didn't have any money. He blew all his money on his wife. He gave her a mink coat - then he tried to get it back so he could sell it!" Gene Baylos would never be a star and initially he didn't care. That changed when he watched a gawky kid ascend to superstardom. A gawky kid whom he used to encourage. A gawky kid that had idolized Baylos. A gawky kid that made it to the top basing much of his physicality on the Baylos motif. In later years, as the rubber pockets wore holes, Baylos cussed at the mention of former Hanson's chum Jerry Lewis. "That motherfucker stole my body."
GO HOME, YOU BUMS!
Hanson's never evolved beyond its status as "the hangout of the lox-jocks and the bagel benders," but Albert Goldman captured it for what it was. "Hanson's specialized in Max Factor No. 5 pancake makeups, BT-Downs, burgers, seltzer, and formaldehyde green pickles that set the teeth on edge. It was one of those places with a lunch counter up front, a tobacco and toiletry stand to one side, and a one-step-up gallery in the back with tables, booths and phones. The grilled cheese tasted like Duco Cement and the cream always turned your coffee gray. Looking cold, hard and crusty, the customers seemed turned up at the edges. Running around the ceiling, like a black-and-white frieze, were dozens of 8x10 glossies of old dance acts - the guy with his leg up on a chair, the chick corkscrewed into his arms, smiling - all taken by Boris Bachey. The air was full of bad music blasting from the jukebox in the rear, which was filled with terrible records by the lady singers who hung out in the joint all day, listening to the sound of their own voices."
By the early seventies the superficial glamor of Midtown - the famed allure of places like The Stork Club, The Latin Quarter and The Copacabana - was done. The hangout spots were sad shadows and gutted ghosts. The corners that once housed supperclub glitz now contained twenty-five cent peep shows. Former vaudeville houses showed round-the-clock screenings of Deep Throat. The pancake make-up world once dominated by Louis Sobel, Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen had been replaced with an atmosphere to make Travis Bickle snap. The Great White Way was covered in a Great Grey Soot. Esquire magazine observed the situation in 1973. "The last show is over and most of the tourists and out-of-town buyers are back in hotels. And small-time comedians are criticizing big-time comedians in Hanson's Drugstore. At four a.m., after the bars close, you see the drunks come out - and also the pimps and prostitutes who take advantage of the drunks." Changing tastes turned places like the famed Copacabana into a discotheque. The generation growing out of the late sixties protest movement rejected the Post-War tuxedo crowd as hopelessly out of date. Automats became anachronisms. And with the death of supperclubs came the death of the delicatessen hangout. The white colored lunch counters turned yellow and the rye bread went stale. "I do not know exactly what happened," says Ramsen. "It all fell apart. It just got lost. The food was not the same. The people that hung out there were not the same."
Delicatessen culture was once the centrifuge of American comedy. It might seem pretentious to compare these comedian hangouts to the cafe culture of nineteen thirties Paris, but they served the same purpose. They were a gathering place for the artists to talk shop and belong. Comedy was and always will be the world's most disrespected art form... but it is an art form. This was its renaissance. The era lingers on for Lou Gostel. It's never far from his mind. "That was really the most fun time of my life," says Lou. "As far as fun with comedians and the business... there was no time more fun than struggling in New York at the Stage Delicatessen and Hanson's Drugstore. A bunch of guys with a little talent. We didn't know where we were gonna go. Some of us did great. Some of us didn't. But we all had the hunger."
Lou (Gostel) Alexander, Interview with author, September 2011
Jack Carter, Interview with author, September 2011
Pat Cooper, Interview with author, September 2011
Norm Crosby, Interview with author, October 2010
Dick Curtis, Interview with author, September 2011
Jackie Curtiss, Interview with author, September 2011
Shecky Greene, Interview with author, April 2011
Stan Irwin, Interview with author, September 2011
Will Jordan, Interview with author, April 2011
Bobby Ramsen, Interview with author, February 2011, September 2011
Freddie Roman, Interview with author, June 2011
Don Sherman, Interview with author, February 2011
Life Magazine, November 1944
Time Magazine, June 1951
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Alfred A. Knopf, 1939)
52nd St: The Street of Jazz by Arnold Shaw (De Capo Press, 1971)
The Last Laugh by Phil Berger (William and Morrow Company, 1974)
Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman (Penguin, 1974)
Here's to the Friars by Joey Adams (Crown Publishers, 1976)
Seriously Funny: The Rebels Comedians of the 1950s and 60s by Gerald Nachman (Pantheon Books, 2003)
Rodney Dangerfield: It's Not Easy Bein' Me by Rodney Dangerfield (Harper Collins, 2004)
I Got the Show Right Here by Cy Feuer (Applause Books, 2005)
Rickles' Book by Don Rickles and David Ritz (Simon and Schuster, 2007)
ARCHIVE OF ARTICLES BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
1When people speak of the Catskills and the Borscht Belt, inevitably it is the mammoth resort hotels like The Concord and Grossingers that come to mind. However, one overlooked aspect is the handful of nightclubs and bars nearby that weren't attached to any hotel or resort. These venues catered to the true drunks in the pastoral region. Bawdy Miami favorites Belle Barthe and BS Pully were regulars at these Catskill roadhouses en route to the big resorts. Many fringe acts found solid work spewing blue material on this circuit, an aspect of showbiz history that has seemingly evaporated into obscurity.
2Another "table comic" who sat in Hanson's was Lenny Gaines. "Lenny Gaines is an interesting story," says Ramsen. "There is always somebody who hangs around on the fringes of show business. He hangs around the Friars Club. He hangs around Hanson's. He just hangs around and he is loved by the people he hangs around with. He told great stories. He went to Hollywood once." Berger wrote, "Lenny Gaines was a whiz at table bits. Lenny would palm a salt shaker and invert it smack up against his face so it'd spill. 'Nurse, nurse. Nosebleed,' he'd scream and swing to another bit." Salt shakers also feature heavily in the tales about Baylos. Rarely do the anecdotes ever translate to a contemporary laugh, but no matter. The consensus is in. A table man lauded by all the greats is good enough. "Gene Baylos became a show business icon because of the longevity of his career," says Ramsen. "He was in the business for so long and played all the little joints and then the more important clubs." Gene Baylos and Lenny Gaines; The table comics of Hanson's Drugstore. The men who never had their glossy on the wall because they couldn't afford the photographer's price. The comics loved them, perhaps not merely because they were funny, but because they were the only comics from whom they had nothing to fear, nothing to be jealous of. The downtrodden being entertained by the downtroddenest. "Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis will never forget Lenny Gaines," read one news report. "The lovable jester makes Hanson's famous Broadway drugstore his headquarters. Whenever they go on tour they send Lenny wires and souvenir presents from cities far from Times Square. Lenny was their first booster. They've never forgotten that he used to laugh at their jokes when they Weren't That Funny." in the end, Baylos wins distinction as the most beloved table comic. Lenny Gaines is forgotten not just by the public, but by the comedians themselves. As the news piece noted, he made Hanson's his headquarters. The simple reason lies not in his love of cheap grilled cheese, but because, unlike Baylos, he wasn't welcome at the other joints.
Tommy James of the Shondells came to New York for the first time in 1966. He briefly recalls his first experience with 1650 Broadway for the first time. "The first thing you noticed coming off the elevator was the pungent smell of marijuana," says James. "The whole place smelled like dope. I was impressed."