"A lot of people didn't like [comedian] Jackie Kannon. They didn't like his toughness." - Sol Weinstein, Gagwriter
"Then there was Morris Levy's endless supply of special girlfriends and his passion for gambling and prostitutes." - Tommy James, Lead Singer of The Shondells
The Mob ran the record biz. During the height of America's nightclub abundancy, the ruthless owner of New York's Birdland and Peppermint Lounge was one of the most powerful men in the scene. Morris Levy used his clubs to promote the acts on his record label and he used his record label to exploit his clubs. Immersed in these two worlds, it was natural that Morris Levy would encounter every stand-up comedian in the business.
As television became common in the early nineteen fifties, the majority of radio programming moved to the visual terrain. The scramble to fill radio's dead air gave birth to the disc jockey and the pop music hustle. Morris Levy ensured that his label, Roulette Records, was there to fill the void. Radio became pop music's round-the-clock infomercial, dictating which tracks would sell in record stores. Morris Levy was a master at ensuring his artists got airplay. That mastery involved a faculty of full-time thugs and their impressive collection of bedraggled baseball bats.
Joey Dee and The Starlighters were one of Levy's most profitable acts. "I'd get in the limo with George Goldner, an employee," says Joey. "He'd drive. It would be a couple ladies of the evening, hookers, in the back of the limo and we'd drive to these towns. They'd meet with the deejays, give them an envelope with cash in it, allow them their way with the girls in the car, and then go on to the next town. And the next town. And the next town. Our records were played. God forbid they took the money and didn't play the records. That's when the baseball bats came out... and worse."
Between 1960 and 1966 the biggest fad going in the LP world was comedy records. Labels big or small, comedians hopelessly funny or just downright hopeless, pressed albums. Levy thought nothing of giving a disc jockey an envelope full of cash and yet, he denied his recording artists the same courtesy. Major acts like Buddy Knox or Jimmie Rodgers found themselves nearly broke while their names were at the top of the charts. The Roulette comedians didn't fare any better. Unlike the musicians that signed a slanted contract, Roulette's comedians had no contract at all. Many had their act recorded clandestinely - and released to the market without permission. Any other record label would have faced a major lawsuit. Roulette Records was different. You got a problem with us? That's fine. Soon you're gonna have a problem with your legs.
THE TOILETS OF DETROIT
Detroit, Michigan, 1947. Jackie Kannon stands alone in a piss-stenched alley, flipping through a book, quietly mouthing the words as he reads them. "I took a ride on one of these new commercial airliners. It's a bumpy ride. If you're a stewardess the first thing you learn to say is, 'Coffee, tea or yipes!' I've had so many drinks spilled on my lap - I get fan letters from urologists." Jackie slams the book shut and repeats to himself, "Coffee, tea or yipes. Coffee, tea or yipes. I get fan letters from urologists. Coffee, tea or yipes." The book he holds has a verbose title. Patter Parade - A Book of Complete Comedy Routines Designed to Keep the Modern Performer Well Supplied With Usable Laughs. Kannon impatiently paces the alley, waiting for the manager of the Club Gay Haven to arrive. The manager always parks his car in the alley. Jackie is ready to accost him with his sure-fire material. Kannon wants a gig. He's never had a real show business job, but he thinks he has what it takes. "Coffee, tea or yipes. Coffee, tea or yipes." Kannon stares at an old advertisement pasted to the backdoor. "Rajah Raboid returns to Detroit - Club Gay Haven presents an Impressive Mentalist Act." Suddenly the door swings open. A man with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lip walks out. Kannon recognizes the man as local dancing emcee Andy Rice. They nod at each other and Rice lights up. Kannon gives the dancer his pitch. I'm a comedian, I'm looking for a gig, can you put in a good word to the manager and so on. Rice, uncomfortable, explains he would if he could, but he can't. "Kid, Club Gay Haven is not for you, no good for a beginner. Club Top Hat is your speed. Go there." Jackie Kannon blurts out the "coffee, tea or yipes" routine. Andy Rice nods as he flicks the butt into a puddle. "Like I said... Club Top Hat." The dancer goes back inside.
"Club Gay Haven," explained Jackie Kannon, "wasn't as gay as the billing might indicate." The Top Hat and the Gay Haven were roughshod, working class barrooms desperately trying to emulate the posh joints. Violence always negated such designs. A couple weeks back a pair of bandits entered Club Top Hat and knocked a bartender unconscious, swiping fifteen hundred dollars from the till. A ventriloquist act in the Club Gay Haven, according to a police blotter, was held at gunpoint - his dummy stolen. A month later Club Top Hat's manager, Russell Trilck, was the victim of a stick-up and his wife kidnapped.
They were not random occurrences. Russell Trilck was an inept and unpopular underworld figure. He was arrested trying to bribe the police, asking them to overlook state gambling laws. A Senate Investigating Committee examining "organized crime in interstate commerce" charged him with contempt. Trilck was later busted for using the Detroit Red Wings as a beard for smuggling whiskey across the border. But perhaps Trilck's most dubious crime was laughing uproariously at Jackie Kannon's "coffee, tea or yipes" bit. On that basis alone he hired Jackie Kannon to be the house emcee at Club Top Hat. Over the course of a two-year run, Kannon evolved into a passable comedian. He made a decent living. And the "Censorship Division" of the Detroit Police put a stop to it.
Michigan's Liquor Control Commission dispatched a lieutenant to inspect a Jackie Kannon performance on June 19, 1948. They intended to build a case against the so-called filth presented at various Detroit nightspots and in particular, Club Top Hat. Kannon angrily defended himself, explaining his material came directly from a generic drugstore joke book. The press explained, "Criticism is directed at comic gags, double entendre and dance routines. The clean-up may mean the end of the Detroit emsee [sic] routine, which has become a fairly familiar standard in show business over the past five years." Club owners insisted they always kept a clean show. If there was any blame to be placed it was squarely on the shoulders of two-bit comics with "objectionable ad-lib material." A booking agent said he "in general welcomed the crackdown" believing it would "help to clean up an undesirable situation ... a good master of ceremonies has trouble getting a job around Detroit unless he goes in for smut." Thinly veiled references to Jackie Kannon. Club Top Hat had to choose between their liquor license and their comic. Kannon was fired.
Miami Beach in the late forties was described by Time magazine as "a prime destination for Americans on the make, on the lam, or on a pension." It was also the prime destination for comedians. The Beach was a place where total nobodies like Jackie Clark, Danny Crystal, Artie Dann and Frankie Scott could make a good living reciting their joke book bullshit. At the same time they could brush shoulders with the giants like Milton Berle, George Burns and George Jessel. Everyone did The Beach. South Florida had the largest concentration of live comedy in the United States. During the winter of 1950, the region had an incredible three hundred and sixty-four hotels in operation. The number of hotels operating in Las Vegas at the same time was four. Long-time Miami Beach resident Sheldon Miller remembers that the area "was full of hookers. Just full of them. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. Fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, tall ones. Most were call girls, high-class acts that weren't controlled by pimps and didn't walk the streets." Miller explains that for many of the tourists, prostitutes were the primary appeal. "Whatever a guy wanted was here - and the bellhops at all the hotels knew how to get it for them. While their wives were out shopping, guys staying at the big hotels would have a hooker come to their rooms. Some would hire a hooker for an entire week."
In Miami Beach a comedian could do a show at midnight, seduce a stripper at three, wander into The Five O'Clock Club and get drunk at dawn. "It was a wild place," says Shecky Greene. "The place was full of amyl nitrate sniffers." Upstairs was the invite-only Club Collins, a gambling den where high-stake card games between wealthy politicians and high-profile mobsters took place. The common perception of nineteen fifties America, cultivated by reruns of Father Knows Best, is quickly debunked by Miami Beach's Mexicana Bar, which featured "transvestite bartenders and waiters" or the nearby Club Ha Ha "where the men wore makeup and sang dirty songs to the customers."
The Five O'Clock Club gave untested comics a chance. The venue was a crapshoot and it could go either way depending on the room's temperament, how high or how drunk. Kannon was booked sight unseen. The crowd was a vastly accelerated version of what he was used to - an amalgamation of tourists, drug addicts, visiting celebrities and mafia toughs. A writer from the Miami News was impressed enough to give him an impromptu mention. "On the current bill was a surprise act in Jackie Kannon, comic making his initial Miami Beach bow. Cannon [sic] has a sock presentation, full of fresh (at least for this area) material and kept the crowd laughing from the moment he walked on until the finish."
Also hanging around Miami Beach was a teenage runaway named Morris Levy. Levy had been a transient ever since assaulting his fourth grade teacher. Years later he still defended his childhood actions. "She had no business teaching school," he said. "Must have been seventy-five years old, never got fucked in her life, probably. She looks at me and says, 'Levy, you're a troublemaker.' And I got up - I was a big kid - took her wig off, poured an inkwell on her bald head, and put the wig back on her fucking head. Walked out and said, 'Fuck school.' This bitch had no fucking humanity."
If you wanted to become friendly with the Mob, Miami Beach was a great place to do so. Levy was hired by the Mob to develop photos in their nightclub darkrooms. "I became a darkroom boy," he explained. "The camera girls would go around clubs taking flash photos. You were in a room in the back of the club and you got the negatives and you developed 'em and had 'em ready in fifteen minutes for the customers ... I became good at the darkroom. I advanced with the people I worked for and became a head guy, setting up darkrooms around the country ... in Miami there was places like the 600 Club, the Frolics Club and the Five O'Clock Club." Irving Miller says, "The most interesting aspect of Miami Beach in the 1950s was the golf courses. They were full of guys in the Mob - tough guys from New York or New Jersey who talked out of the sides of their mouths and played high-stakes gambling. They had strange names that you didn't ask any questions about; Joey Blue Nose, Ice Pick Willie. There were a lot of real hustlers around. It was a tough crowd out there. You had to be careful."
Jackie Kannon went on the road. He played major supperclubs like the Town Casino in Buffalo and the Chez Paree in Chicago. He scored an early television appearance on New York's This is Show Business and played his first West Coast gig at Ciro's. NBC hired him for a couple stand-up shots on a summer replacement. There was talk that if he did well, he'd be signed to a multi-year network contract. In anticipation Kannon shelled out for a nosejob, but NBC's interest waned. Jackie returned to nightclub obscurity.
THE LULLABY OF BIRDLAND
Morris Levy set anchor in New York. Darkroom headquarters were placed in the back of the Clique Club, soon renamed Birdland. "It was at Birdland that Levy began his phenomenal rise," says Steve Kurutz. "Levy was approached by a representative for ASCAP and told he must pay the publishing company a monthly stipend for the privilege of booking live music." Levy explained, "A guy comes in from ASCAP and said he wanted money every month. I thought it was a racket guy trying to shake me down. I wanted to throw him out. And then he came back again and said he's going to sue. I said, 'Get the fuck outta here.' I went to my lawyer and I says, 'What is this guy? He keeps coming down, he wants money.' My lawyer says, 'He's entitled to it. By act of Congress, you have to pay to play music.' I said, 'Everybody in the world's gotta pay? That's a hell of a business. I'm gonna open up a publishing company." Morris formed Patricia Music and acquired rights to all songs first performed in Birdland, including the venue's soon-to-be-famous Lullaby of Birdland. Morris amassed his royalty money and received a substantial loan from Thomas Eboli of the Genovese crime family. He used the money to start a vinyl label called Roulette Records. Always the confidence man, Levy's publishing company had a propensity for ludicrous claims. When Roulette artist Jimmie Rodgers recorded an album of Christmas songs, Morris Levy was listed as the composer of Silent Night.
"Morris Levy, a lean, muscular New Yorker who some five years ago was operator of the hatcheck concession at Birdland ... now heads a music empire of staggering proportions," wrote jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason. "He is the personal manager of various artists, including Frankie Lymon, the rock n' roll sensation who has had numerous hit records." A jazz-themed issue of Playboy underscored, "He is called Moishe by friends - and other one-syllable names by enemies."
December 1958, a man was gored to death with a piece of broken glass in the Birdland doorway. No culprit was identified and the crime went unsolved. Two weeks later, "Morris Levy's older brother, Irving, was fatally knifed at Birdland while minding the store, and the Broadway grapevine, as grapevines will, linked the death with rumors of Moishe's dubious business connections." The suspects were described as "a balding former convict and his wife, who has been convicted of prostitution. The two were held without bail Saturday in the slaying of an assistant manager at Broadway's Birdland. They were charged with the knife death of Zacariah (Irving) Levy, 36, at the Birdland club last Monday night." A few years later during a heated argument with a client, Morris intimidated his opponent, lecturing, "Do you know what I did to the bum who killed my brother? I fucking took a knife and stuck it in his fucking stomach - and I twisted it. I stuck it in his fucking stomach until his guts fell out."
THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD
The roster at Roulette Records featured names that were created, cultivated and manipulated by the vehicle of radio. "Morris was one of the first entrepreneurs to market and sell rock and roll to teenagers," says Tommy James. Roulette's stars were sent on package tours across the country with regional disc jockeys as host. Impressed with the demeanor of Cleveland's Alan Freed, Levy persuaded the charismatic champion of rock and roll to come to New York. Levy arranged Freed's high-profile gig at Radio WINS and together they formed a partnership. The tacit agreement had Freed grant heavy airplay to the latest Roulette sides. In exchange, Morris made Freed a star. "In a matter of months," says James, "Freed was the number one disc jockey in New York and, therefore, America." The line around the industry was that George Goldner made them, Alan Freed played them and Morris Levy paid them. Goldner had produced records for Little Anthony and the Imperials and The Shangri-Las on his own label. He was successful, but soon ruined by the combination of his gambling addiction and Morris Levy's loan shark usury rates. Morris confiscated Goldner's company. "He liked horses," said Levy. "He always needed money. Any degenerate gambler needs money all the time."
"Roulette Records was just off Broadway," says Tommy James. "The sound of phones ringing came out of every office and people were constantly moving in and out. It had an immediate, visceral excitement that reminded me of being out on a New York street. The walls were lined with framed gold records by pop artists like Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen and Joey Dee and the Starlighters." Joey Dee remembers the atmosphere. "I would usually go up there by myself. I'd sit and I'd see a bunch of characters around and I knew they were Mob guys because I'm from Jersey. I've been around and I came from the streets. So I knew the guys. They were always nice to me. I knew that when they were around there was money around. They took care of business."
The FBI began scrutinizing the deejay racket. An internal memorandum from December 1959 said, "We have been informed that record companies engage in the practice of paying disc jockeys, as well as program directors, to play ... records owned by the record companies. [We recommend] the investigation reach Freed ... and Morris Levy." Joey Dee was always miffed that Morris would hand cash to deejays, while the star singer got nothing. "The number one record in the country was Peppermint Twist," says Dee. "I got a royalty check - and it stated that I owed Roulette Records eight thousand dollars. I just couldn't get over it. Here I thought I was going to be become a millionaire." Hy Weiss, a record producer and Levy associate, defended payola his entire life. "I was the payola king of New York. Payola was the greatest thing in the world. You didn't have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here's the money, play the record, fuck you."
AT THE ROUNDTABLE
At the end of the decade Levy opened a new club called The Roundtable. Monitoring its evolution, the police concluded its primary bankroller was Frank Carbo, "the so-called underworld commissioner of boxing, a convicted killer with ties to Murder Incorporated." The Steve Allen Show did a remote from the new nightspot and Roulette released an album, Steve Allen at the Roundtable, to coincide. Levy considered it a mutually beneficial promotion, dismissing claims from Allen's manager that compensation was due. Levy was, at the same time, screwing over Milton Berle. Berle recorded an album of maudlin tunes called Songs My Mother Loved and agreed to partake in the promotional tour Levy demanded. Berle would "visit deejays and meet local distributors and pressmen at Roulette-sponsored cocktail parties." Levy closed the deal behind Berle's back, candidly admitting, "We made a record with Milton Berle and gave him to department stores for nothing, on a personal appearance tour, if they'd stock our records." Berle was a mere pawn in a department store payola game.
Comedy writer Bill Dana was on staff at The Steve Allen Show and frequently appeared onscreen as his impish dialect character Jose Jimenez. Kapp Records had released a pair of Jose Jimenez comedy albums, both enormous hits. Suddenly a Roulette album titled My Name... Jose Jimenez appeared in stores. "They actually did that without my permission," says Dana. "It was a bone of contention and it got a little heavy. I was having these voices call me saying it would be good for me to cooperate with them. It was like a scene from The Sopranos. They just compiled airchecks of [my act from] The Steve Allen Show." Rather than put himself in danger, Bill Dana negotiated with Levy. In exchange for Roulette's destruction of the masters, Dana would not pursue royalties or his initial claim of $175,000 in damages. The settlement was a pittance, but with Roulette's reputation it was likely the safest solution. "These people can open doors for you or they can put you in a box," says Joey Dee. "Simple as that. Back in the seminal days of rock n' roll and doowop music, wherever there was money to be made, the Mob was not far behind. These guys would eventually rule the recording business. What Morris Levy said was done. Morris was a tough guy. Anybody who got in the way of this money making machine was hurt - some even killed. I know of a couple of guys I had done business with - I would see them one day and I knew they had some words of disagreement. A couple of days later they were dead."
Comedian Don Sherman had an experience similar to that of Bill Dana. "I got up one bright day in Manhattan and walked downtown feeling happy that I was in show business," says Sherman. "I walked by Colony Records, a record store, and I saw this window full of Don Sherman at the Playboy Club albums. And I had no album! I had no deal! Someone said to me, 'Well, go talk to them.' Then I heard that they were people that you don't fool around with. I built up the guts. I went up there - in an elevator that opened in the back. That got me nervous right off the bat. He said that a friend of mine had taped some of my shows somewhere and eventually they were sold to Roulette Records and they put it out. They didn't even bother getting in touch with me." Tommy James recalls the activity around that backward elevator. "The flow of Genovese crime capos in and out of the office was astonishing, each with his own private deal controlled or financed by Morris. Morris had his own private back exit accessible through a secret door in his office - in case he ever needed a quick escape. It seemed like once a month Morris would grab Nate McCalla1 and a few baseball bats, which were always in his office, and take off for somewhere in New Jersey or upstate New York. It was a ritual. 'Karen!' he would yell out to his secretary. Baseball bat in hand. 'Call my lawyer.' And off they would go."
The first comedy act booked into The Roundtable was Pearl Williams, known for her risqué songs and Yiddish cussing. It didn't take long for the cops to shut her down. "The bawdy ballads of Pearl Williams, who recently started an engagement at the Roundtable, New York balcony room, were halted abruptly last week when police called the management and voiced displeasure at the verbiage in her songs." Levy rarely buckled to frivolous demands, but at the same time he was making such a killing at another new club - The Peppermint Lounge - that he couldn't afford the trouble. He terminated Pearl's engagement and booked comedienne Belle Barth in her place. That didn't last either. Barth quit in anger. Levy released a comedy record, Belle Barth at The Roundtable, which subsequently became a best seller. "They screwed Belle over terribly," says Rusty Warren. Barth received nothing for the album. She tried suing for royalties, but dropped the case after receiving threats. Levy, exhausted by the hassles, took a comedy respite and turned the Roundtable into the "Citadel of the Bellydance."
THE HOODLUM COMPLEX
Jackie Kannon was on the road playing the typical spots; the Elmwood Hotel in Windsor, the Knights of Pythias Lodge in Utica, the Las Vegas Flamingo and replacing an intoxicated Jackie Miles at the Copa. Kannon was subsidizing his income with an exceptionally profitable mail-order novelty business.2 Kannon took the newfound income and invested in some gagwriters. "I was looking for clients," says comedy writer Sol Weinstein. "I remember driving all the way out to Brooklyn to a place called Ben Maksik's Town and Country Club. That's where I met Jackie Kannon. Ben Maksik - I don't know if he was a mobster or just dealing with mobsters." Maksik was, in reality, the nightclub frontman for Joseph Gulmi of the Gambino crime family. Jackie Kannon flourished in the atmosphere. "Jackie Kannon had a hoodlum complex," says Shecky Greene. "He would have been good for The Sopranos." Sol Weinstein didn't share Kannon's affection for the Mob, but he understood it. "Mobsters are very awesome to a lot of people. Here they are, they exist in a world of their own, they don't have to follow rules and they do what they want - and they do terrible things. Some people get off on that." Much of Weinstein's career was in the employ of Mob-connected comedians. "I ended up working for Joe E. Lewis from about 1956 to 1970," he says. "Obviously I knew about his Mob connections and the story about having his throat cut. I wrote for Jackie Kannon for years - and I worked for Allan Drake. So if just by osmosis that makes me a member of the mafia, then perhaps I am." Joseph Gulmi heard about Levy's trouble with Pearl Williams and Belle Barth. He suggested Levy use the kid with the hoodlum complex. "You really think he's good? Okay, tell the kid to come by the office."
Jackie Kannon and Morris Levy hit it off immediately. It was one fast-talking hustler to another. "No foolin, Moishe. I sold 250,000 copies of this JFK coloring book. Real on-the-cheap novelty stuff. Making a killing. Got a new joke book coming out. Wall Street Guide to Stocks and Blondes. Instead of bonds, it says blondes. See? You heard about Poems for the John? Oh, it's a riot. Second printing already and I just purchased a manuscript from Lenny Bruce. His first book. Gonna be colossal. Oh, sure." Morris was impressed. How about that. A joke hustler. "Forget Lenny Bruce, kid. Whaddaya say you and me make a comedy record?" The suggestion gave Kannon an immediate idea. He had been receiving letters from an inmate at Jackson State Prison the past few months. The prisoner had been feeding Jackie jokes. Sol Weinstein explains, "He did an album in prison. He was always looking for ways to shock. Odd things. Eye-catching things. That's the way he worked."
PRISON SONGS, COMEDY SKITS SOURCE OF NEW POP RECORD
Billboard, September 1961
New York - Southern prisons have long been a source of rich material for folk albums, and now prison wax is beginning to move into the pop field. The inmates of a Southern Michigan Prison have recorded a comedy album with Jackie Kannon, 'Prose From the Cons,' on the Roulette label. The Roulette album is a double fold package, featuring pictures of the convict-entertainers during a show presented by them and Kannon.
Kannon and writer Eli Basse helped the most talented prisoners polish up their comedy material in advance, the best of it was taped for this album during the live show. Each convict received $100 for his contribution as writer-performer, and in addition, a donation was made to the Prison Fund. Kannon's book, also titled "Prose From the Cons" will be published shortly. The album acknowledges ... convict-comedians - listed under name and number on the LP include Hugh Dillon, 91494; Walter M. Noth, 75558; Samuel Norber, 74828; Samuel J. McKinney, 68776; and H.O. Wilson Jr, 191505. Titles include 'Rehabilitation,' 'Happy Inmate' and 'Insurance.'
MUGGINGS AND MERCY KILLINGS
Morris Levy wanted to use Jackie Kannon in his club, but the dancing girls at the Roundtable proved so successful, so profitable, it made no sense to change the format. Instead Morris asked Kannon if he'd be interested in starting something on the empty second floor of the Roundtable. "We can renovate, turn it into an intimate little joint. Hey? You do whatever you want, say whatever you want, book whoever you want. Right? We'll back you up. We'll do it on a percentage basis. You and me, hey? Okay, kid. Knock off for today. I want you to think of a name for the joint."
"More evidence that it's a sick, sick world we live in. Jackie Kannon, invading the nightclub field, is calling his place the Rat Fink Room." - Dorothy Kilgallen's Voice of Broadway, September 19, 1963
Down a narrow stretch of East 50th, a long line of well-dressed people chatter with anticipation. The line weaves toward an old brick building, through the door, stalling on a staircase. A woman digs awkwardly through her purse, scrambling for a coupon she clipped earlier in the day. Squinting on the staircase is her husband, trying his best to get a glimpse inside the Roundtable where semi-nude gyrating is advertised. The folks crowding the length of the stairwell, about twenty of them, are informed by a bouncer at the top, they might not get in. "You'll just have to wait. I don't know. I'm sorry. No, I can't say for sure. I just told you - I don't know." The hopeful collective can hear the sound of one hundred and thirty patrons laughing above. The muffled sounds of a comedian are mostly inaudible, but a few folks on the stairs shriek with excitement as they recognize the word "fuck." The coupon finally emerges from the handbag only to flutter to the ground. It promises 2-for-1 admittance and reads, "A New Experience in Social Decadence. Continuous entertainment, muggings, mercy killings and mental breakdowns by unpaid professionals."
Jackie Kannon is onstage inside the Rat Fink Room. After seventeen years in show business he finally seems to have found his stride. Kannon attacks his audience as much as he entertains - losing them with verbal assaults - only to win them back a few minutes later. There are plenty of familiar faces in the crowd. David Susskind. Ingrid Bergman. Jack Cassidy. Marty Allen. Juliet Prowse. Enzio Stewart. Incongruous among them is an intoxicated Ray Bolger. Kannon delights with a parade of inside references. Kannon's lexicon of impressions would never work in the Vegas act of Frank Gorshin or Rich Little. Kannon's voices are wildly esoteric. His interpretations of Danny Stradella of Danny's Hideaway, Max Asnas of the Stage Delicatessen and Jules Podell of the Copacabana bring howls of recognition from the show people. Even the ignorant laymen are infected enough to laugh. Kannon cues the small Herbie Strizik Trio and sings a song called Rat Fink, a parody of Rag Mop written by his friend Allan Sherman. As he sings, Jackie spots Joey Adams in the crowd. Adams, a cockamamie comic by any estimation, is a publishing rival of Kannon's. They're both in the business of joke books - and they possess a mutual contempt. Adams finds Kannon excessive and disrespectful. Kannon finds Joey Adams just plain unfunny.
JOEY ADAMS SINGS
"Ah hah!" shouts Kannon. "Ladies and gentlemen! I direct your attention to a big, big star in our audience tonight! No, please, Mr. Bolger, not you. No, this man doesn't need silver skin to be a star. No, sir! Ladies and gentleman, please, a round of applause for Joey Adams - a man who teaches workshops on how to bomb. Please, a round of applause for this great man! This man is prolific. No other author of our day has produced so many lousy books. Joey has made a lot of money, yes sir, a ton of money... investing in the construction of discount bins. Conflict of interest you say? Perhaps, it is. Yes, perhaps it is. May I plug your current projects, Joey? Ladies and gentleman, this great man, Joey Adams, has a radio show that can be heard all the way to 59th Street! What a treat to have him with us tonight. What a fucking treat. Ladies and gentleman, you must understand that Joey Adams has done more for show business than anyone since John Wilkes Booth." Huge laughs. The room shakes with applause of encouragement, endorsement and agreement. Jack Cassidy is wheezing, violently pounding his table, sending a glass candleholder crashing to the floor. People crank their neck to absorb Joey's reaction. Adams sits with an ashen, blank look. Underneath it is an all-encompassing rage.
Jackie Kannon was no novice when it came to upsetting fellow performers. During ten years of ceaseless road work, Kannon had adopted the persona of an insult comic. However, his agent at the William Morris office told him it wasn't marketable. "In order to sell you, Jackie... as an entity... in clubs, on television, wherever... you gotta be likeable. Drop this insult shit." Kannon appeased his agent for a spell, but now the Rat Fink Room granted him complete autonomy and full creative freedom. "Jackie was out to challenge the audience," says Sol Weinstein. "He liked to bait the audience. He liked to upset them." Six nights a week, he spilled the id and unleashed his inner cad. Kannon carried on vicious feuds with showbiz figures Val Anthony, Lou Holtz and Jerry Lewis. He had no qualms about ripping a fellow performer if he felt they were lousy or full of shit. "Frank Sinatra Jr. is the greatest talent since Gary Crosby," was a mere throwaway line, but it lead to an angry call. "Mr. Levy? Frank Sinatra is on the line."
The next morning Joey Adams walked to Roulette Records. Morris Levy could be heard shouting from behind his office door. When the door opened a parade of impeccably dressed goons walked out and Joey Adams, who had been waiting for a half hour, was invited into Levy's den.
"Yes, Mr. Friars Club, how the hell are you?"
"Moishe, I spoke with my lawyers this morning and we intend to sue Jackie Kannon and..."
"Whoa, Joey, whoa! What is this?"
"...to sue the Rat Fink Club for defamation of character. Last night Jackie was way out of line and..."
"Defamation! Defamation? You write joke books and you can't take a joke?"
"It's not just a joke. He made a laughing stock out of me."
"You're a comedian, you idiot! You get paid to be a laughing stock! Of all the bullshit..."
"Moishe, I have no other option. My lawyer is drafting up..."
"Shhhhh, listen. Okay. Come on now, Joe. Listen. Listen. Listen. You want a fuckin' comedy album? Hey? Huh? They're real hot now, the comedy albums. Real hot. This Newhart shit makes a ton of money, you know. We'll put out a comedy record by Joey Adams! Right? Hey? Forget Jackie Kannon. Forget your lawyer. Let's get to work on this fuckin' thing. Your record is gonna be a smash. Right? Come here, bubala." Adams conceded. Unfortunately for the milquetoast comic, he wasn't strong enough to sustain a comedy album. One month later Roulette Records released Joey Adams sings Jewish Folk Songs.
THE DEATH OF A RAT
The Rat Fink Room was extremely profitable. "This is a place for swingers," wrote Cue Magazine. "Squares may suffer malaise. Jackie's been making it swing every night. He's wild, sharp, irreverent, libelous, naughty and insulting - and audiences lap up every syllable." The resourceful Kannon continued to branch out. In 1965 he opened the Rat Fink Barbershop "equipped with a pool table for waiting patrons." He expanded his joke book imprint, marketed rubber halloween costumes and published a Rat Fink magazine. Kannon started scouting the country for further locations, envisioning a chain of Rat Fink comedy clubs. While Jackie cashed in on his recent success, complete strangers attempted the same. An unauthorized Rat Fink Room appeared in Gary, Indiana, the owner trying to instill a Kannon-esque anything-goes policy. Instead the Gary City Council revoked the business license, citing "public exposure of the breast." A Rat Fink Room knock-off also opened in San Francisco. Levy heard about it. A week later the club was slammed with fourteen health violations and shut down forever. The Mob could fix things right proper.
The Rat Fink Room was hot for six steady years. Its demise was sudden. Mob boss Vito Genovese died in 1969, sending Morris Levy and his holdings into flux. Morris told Jackie the Rat Fink Room needed a break - just for the summer. The draw wasn't as strong as it used to be. The books weren't looking good. Kannon disagreed and the two argued. Levy reassured him. "Come on, it's just a break, Jackie! Okay? Right? Go cash-in on your popularity! Go make some money! Hit the big rooms around the country and we'll see you in the fall. Right? Okay? Come here. Atta boy."
Kannon took his berations elsewhere, but he forgot what life was like beyond his home room. The material that made the Rat Fink Room so popular was still enough to get one fired anywhere else. What was meant to be a month-long engagement in Las Vegas ended after only two nights. "Jackie Kannon [encountered] starchy souls who get turned off with Jewish humor and inundations of indelicate words," reported Variety. "The diminutive and explosive comedian is the boldest yockmonger of lurid wordage to play the Strip. Kannon's almost total immersion in sex descriptions got him an immediate triple-X rating and X'd him out of the Riviera Lounge after a couple of ear-popping nights." Kannon left Las Vegas feeling like he'd been bounced by the Detroit Police Censorship Squad.
By the time Kannon returned to Manhattan, the Rat Fink Room was padlocked forever. What was, arguably, America's first comedy club, closed without fanfare. Tommy James remembers the chaos in the halls of Roulette. "After Vito's death, Roulette almost stopped being a record company. Business wasn't getting done. Morris was in and out of the office and nobody could talk to him. Guys I had never met before, and didn't want to meet, suddenly descended on the building - going into Morris's office and then leaving as if on a mission." The death of Vito Genovese marked the death of Kannon's career. "When he stepped out of his club it didn't happen the same way," remembers Pat Cooper. "When that club closed... he closed." From his personal pulpit, Kannon had ruthlessly attacked big name show people. With the closing of his club, Kannon had nowhere to go - and those he had insulted for six straight years enjoyed watching him fall. Few friends remained. The Friars Club held a roast for Jackie Kannon, but they struggled to find anyone who would participate. Roastmaster Eli Basse welcomed lounge singer Linda Gerard and a hopeless string of nothing comics like Dick Lord, Freddie Roman, Gene Brenner and Larry Best. Moishe was nowhere to be seen. "I would always watch Roulette's head of promotions, Red Schwartz, at times like this," explained Tommy James. "He always seemed to know what was going on, especially when things got weird. I took my cues from him. He [was coming] to work as little as possible and the few times he showed up, he barricaded himself in his office with the door shut. When I finally got in to see him, he had his head buried in his hands. 'Nobody fuckin' knows what's going to happen, if there's going to be a powerplay or what. Anything could happen with these fuckin' guys."
ARCHIVE OF ARTICLES BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
Billboard, June 9, 1945
Billboard, June 26, 1948
Billboard, November 2, 1963
Variety, October 30, 1957
Variety, January 28, 1959
Variety, February 2, 1963
Variety, March 18, 1964
Variety, March 12, 1969
Variety, March 11, 1970.
Playboy, November 1959
World Telegram, October 15, 1964
Lexington Dispatch, March 26, 1969
Stardoms Highs and Lows; Bruce Fessier; Desert Sun
All Music Guide; Morris Levy Bio; Steve Kurutz
Sol Weinstein, Interview with author, Feb 2012
Pat Cooper, Interview with author, October 2011
Shecky Greene, Interview with author, April 2011
Don Sherman, Interview with author, January 2011
Bill Dana, Interview with author, October 2010
Joey Dee, Mafia Doowop, YouTube
Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (Simon and Schuster, 1985)
Hit Men by Fredric Dannen (Vintage, 1991)
Miami Beach Memories by Joann Biondi (Globe Perquot, 2006)
Me, The Mob and The Music by Tommy James and Martin Fitzpatrick (Simon and Schuster, 2010)
1Nate McCalla, bodyguard at Roulette Records died in 1980. Red Schwartz explained, "They found Nate's body in a bungalow in Florida. He was strapped to a chair and had been shot in the face. The body must have been there for a couple of weeks."
2Kannon and a gent named Alex Roman devised a series of memorable vinyl records with no vinyl involved. Their series of gag albums were sold in the greeting card section of drugstores. Their first, Songs for Swinging Mothers, featured a photo on the cover of six pregnant women standing on a playground swingset. The pretend record label was called High In-Fidelity.
3Jimmie Rodgers found instant fame with the hit song Honeycomb on the Roulette label. He says he sang the composition for producer Luigi Creatore. He was asked to perform it again a few days later for Roulette staff. They liked it and said they'd get back to him in a few days. They didn't. Instead Jimmie turned the radio on and heard his song. "I got to know Morris real well," says Rodgers. "One of his sayings was 'If you don't get hits, you get hit.' I made six gold records in a row and I never made any money." After two years of incessant Roulette recordings, Rodgers walked away from Morris Levy and the label. However, he remained under contract to Roulette for two more years, under conditions that forbade him from recording with anyone else. In the interim he worked in the A&R department at Dot Records. When his contract finally expired, Roulette settled the score. Rodgers says he was driving home late one night. "I was driving my car and my musical conductor, Eddie [Samuels], was driving his car. I started off across the Valley going toward my home in Granada Hills. I drove across the San Fernando Valley. I turned off the freeway ... I was about two miles from home. Somebody pulled up behind me and started blinking their lights. Real bright. I pulled over to stop [because] I thought it was Eddie. I rolled the window down. Someone hit me so hard, he broke the skull on my side. I put my arm up and he broke my arm. I remember lying on the street. He was kicking me and I knew I was hurt real bad. He ran his foot down my leg and took all the skin off my legs. He dragged me around by the belt. Face down in the mud. I couldn't move. He drove back and dumped me on the road. This black-and-white pulls up. I could see feet and I knew it was cops. I could hear one guy say, 'You've killed this guy, Duffy. You've killed this guy!' Then they took off." Rodgers sued the Los Angeles Police department "which admitted an off-duty cop was involved in Rodgers' injuries. The Rodgers family feels the Mob hired the off-duty cop."