For fifteen years the corner of Beverly and Fairfax in Los Angeles had a comedy club before the phrase existed. Billy Gray's Band Box was many things to many people; a watering hole to Billy Wilder, a nuisance to the librettists of My Fair Lady, and a source of evidence for the FBI's case against mobster Mickey Cohen. It was also where showbiz insiders went to see an unconventional gimmick: multiple stand-up comedians on one show. In the opulent era of American supperclubs - the 1930s through the 1950s - a comedian shared the bill with a singer, a dance team and an orchestra. Billy Gray's Band Box broke the rule. As many as five comedians performed on the same show at the Band Box, something that had never been done before.
Comedian Billy Gray hosted every show at the Band Box. He frequently delivered punchlines in Yiddish just to annoy those who didn't comprehend. Elderly comedian Dick Curtis says, "Billy was a funny little guy with a bald head and the star of the evening. The place was jam packed every show. Billy Gray's Band Box was this whole other world." The Band Box line-ups are mostly rosters of obscure and forgotten names: impressionists Dave Barry, Don Corey and Arnold Dover; comic novelties Billy Barty, Mickey Katz and Bert 'the Mad Russian' Gordon; future stars Dick Van Dyke, Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett. Comedians did twenty minute sets, the headliners forty-five and the patrons were passionate comedy snobs. Variety called it “one of the country’s heppest comedy crowds.” Comedian Leo DeLyon played it. “Ah, man, you talk about a hot room! It was small, but that’s what made it. You’d just wiggle a pinkie and you’d be getting screams. Billy Gray was hysterical. He was a riot as the host and emcee - and it was a great club.”
By 1966 Billy Gray's Band Box was an empty relic of showbiz past. The entertainment industry was changing like everything else in the 1960s and old school nightclubs were dying. In its final year Billy Gray stepped down and the hosting duties were taken over by a beleaguered road comic named Sammy Shore. He took note of Gray's multiple-comedian idea and decided to implement the concept at a nightclub of his own called The Comedy Store.
Slapsy Maxie's and The Board of Equalization
Most of the major players from Billy Gray's Band Box were initially involved with Slapsy Maxie's, a venue that suffered chronic harassment from state officials and ultimately became a nightclub martyr. Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom had been a prizefighter. In the 1930s the pugilist became a Hollywood character actor and his cauliflower ears appeared as comic relief in hundreds of movies. In 1937 he took his film income and invested in a small space at 7165 Beverly Boulevard. Slapsy Maxie’s Cafe was mostly patronized by the performers themselves. Comedians Ben Blue, Joe Frisco, Ben Lessy, Cully Richards and Benny Rubin drank together, surrounded by forty-five empty seats. Fellow performers Sammy Lewis and Patti Moore gave Rosenbloom some much needed capital and he used it to purchase an adjacent storefront, expanding capacity to more than two hundred. Shortly thereafter they were raided by corrupt state officials who demanded cash payoffs. It was a typical shakedown. Former Los Angeles club owner Maynard Sloate says, "Los Angeles at that time was as corrupt as you could get."
The State Board of Equalization handed out nightclub licenses and enforced bylaws. William George Bonelli was in charge of the Board and it was believed he gave liquor licenses to mobsters in return for their using strong arm methods against his political adversaries. Likewise, if one of Bonelli's Mob allies had a problem with a rival outfit, they could give Bonelli a call and he'd shut them down. Maynard Sloate says, “The corruption was unbelievable between the police and the State Board of Equalization. I was scared to death of going to jail. We paid off everyone in town including a Catholic priest."
The Board shut down Slapsy Maxie's under the auspices of "an obscene performance.” They claimed comedian Ben Blue had done an act that was “beyond the limits of decency.” It was a strange charge. Ben Blue was a pantomist who seldom said a word onstage. When pressed for specifics by a defense lawyer, State Commissioner Al Cohn conceded there was "no positive evidence that the show was dirty.” But a lack of evidence was irrelevant in the face of state power and the charge stood. Slapsy Maxie’s had its operating license revoked. Lewis and Rosenbloom searched for someone they could join forces with, someone that could help them fight back. Mickey Cohen was the point man in Los Angeles for famed mobster Bugsy Siegel. When Lewis and Rosenbloom asked him to help defend their nightclub interests, Cohen happily agreed.
The new Slapsy Maxie's opened at 5665 Wilshire Boulevard on November 3, 1943. They invited state commissioner Al Cohn as their guest opening night. It wasn't until Cohn arrived that he learned the man whom he'd accused of an obscene performance was the night's headline attraction. The newspaper scoop said, “One of Hollywood’s biggest nitery openings jammed to the rafters Sammy Lewis’ new Slapsy Maxie’s. Opening last night, house has been sold out for days in advance, with many turned away at the doors. Inside decorations are socko with colors blending to soft-heartedness and light-headedness. Music headed by Phil Harris and nineteen sidemen was augmented in the Rio Room by Martinez’s combo playing Latin American tunes. Floor show features Benny Rubin and Ben Blue booked for opening night. Among those who caught the first show were the Jack Bennys, Mervyn LeRoys, Eddie Buzzell, Alice Faye, Rudy Vallee, Pete Smith, Abe Lastfogel, Xavier Cugat and Al Cohn.”
The massive turnout carried over in subsequent weeks. Blue and Rosenbloom were thrilled with the crowds and in particular the good looking women among them. Sammy Lewis however, the one with the actual business sense, was concerned about their female distractions. One of the venue's frequent bandleaders, Milton Delugg, explains, "Slapsy and Ben were very busy entertaining the ladies so Sammy Lewis bought the club from them [outright].” Slapsy Maxie's earned a reuptation for booking comedians on the precipice of fame. Jerry Lester and Phil Silvers were frequent performers and it was the first club on the West Coast to book the stand-up acts of Phil Foster, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas and Martin & Lewis. It was successful enough that Sammy Lewis was soon asked to package shows at the Flamingo and Riviera in Las Vegas. He also took over a tiny jazz club a mile and half away.
The Band Box was a jazz joint located at 123 North Fairfax. It did not have the stature of Slapsy Maxie's although it advertised itself as the “Biggest Little Madhouse in Hollywood.” In the early 1940s it was known for its onstage jam sessions. George Tibbles and his Orchestra were participants and they often used a smalltime comedian named Billy Gray as an emcee. The club was initially run by Pete and Billy Snyder, a pair of minor character actors turned cafe owners. When they enlisted in the Coast Guard they sold the Band Box to Lou Costello of comedy team Abbott & Costello. Costello held the Band Box lease for a couple years until the Board of Equalization drudged up an old law that forbade entertainers from owning nightclubs. It was yet another shakedown attempt.
Costello handed ownership of the Band Box to Charles and Sy Devore, famed Hollywood clothiers. In 1945 the Devores traded the club as if it were a baseball card to Sammy Lewis in exchange for Slapsy Maxie's. Sammy Lewis took charge of the Band Box with a businessman named Max Gold. "Max Gold was in the scrap metal business and made a fortune,” says Band Box performer Peter Marshall. “He was connected to the Mob and worked as the frontman.” Mickey Cohen provided the Devores with money before relocating to the Band Box with Lewis. “When Charlie and Sy Devore [took over Slapsy Maxie's], I gave them a little money to start up with," said Cohen. "I wasn’t really a partner, see, but every time they needed some cash to bring in some act, they’d borrow fifteen thousand or twenty-five thousand.” Shortly after the transfer the bullies from the Board of Equalization returned and in June 1946 Slapsy Maxie's was raided.
The Comedian's Comedian
Depleted by Board shakedowns, Slapsy Maxie's closed forever in mid-1949 and was replaced with a bakery. Sammy Lewis hired several former employees at the Band Box and lured many of their regular comics. The Band Box had been a jazz club for a decade but now Lewis rebranded it, put Billy Gray's name on top, and launched it as the primary comedy venue in Los Angeles.
The neighborhood where Billy Gray's Band Box was located was affectionately known as the Bagel Belt, a Hollywood equivalent of the Lower East Side with a succession of kosher shops. Across the street was a state-of-the-art facility just about to open called CBS Television City. Billy Gray joked from the stage, “CBS? That stands for Corned Beef Sandwich. You know how to tell you’re at CBS? You walk down Fairfax... the first window that doesn’t have a chicken hanging in the window – that’s CBS." Gray was a comedian's comedian and he encouraged comics to take risks on his stage. He wanted comedians to try new things, to experiment in ways that traditional supperclubs did not allow. Despite Gray's own penchant for cornball material, hacky stuff could get a rookie comic ostracized from the club. Gray's endorsement of offbeat comics became known throughout the industry. Comedians that may have been too weird elsewhere had a supportive mentor on Fairfax. According to Peter Marshall, a comedian named Jimmy Ames was one of the strangest Band Box acts. “I was hoarse from laughing at Jimmy Ames. He came out with a rusty saw and he would start screaming at everybody. He’d make a woman stand up, take her chair and saw the leg off! I don’t even know what the act was. He would tummel for an hour. At the end, he would play the saw. He would hit it and the saw would go clunk - and then he would go, ‘Wooo-wooo-woooo!”
Buddy Hackett played the Band Box for the first time in 1953. He was a true comedian's comedian. He convulsed the audience, but a reviewer from Variety wasn't sure why. "Hackett is a strange character. To the Band Box partisans he's the apple in their strudel. In any other spot on the nitery run he'd click as vigorously as a cricket scraping his hips. Material, schmaterial."
The act of Ben Lessy and Patti Moore was another unique favorite. Moore would stare at the audience with a frozen deadpan while Lessy played the piano with his face. Old timers give various descriptions of their act, but none of it makes sense. "Ben Lessy was a very funny guy," says comedian Slick Slavin. "It was a weird, weird act. Patti Moore would say, ‘Dance for Mama!’ And Lessy would twirl like a five year old.” Peter Marshall says, “Lessy was the funniest man - he’d have a pocket full of that white styrofoam stuff they use for packing. He'd flip them in the air and try and catch them. It was hilarious, but it's hard for me to explain.”
Showpeople entertained showpeople at the Band Box. MGM studio chief Dore Schary would bring his screenwriters for a night on the town. Novelty artist Mickey Katz would drop in unannounced and force his lanky, young son - Joel Grey - to go onstage and dance. Milton Berle would storm the room, heckling Billy from the aisles, and the two would convulse the room with an onslaught of Yiddish cusswords. Billy Wilder was a regular. He ended up casting Billy Gray and Band Box comic Dave Barry in Some Like it Hot.
Gray made the comedians laugh the hardest when he was offstage. Onstage he was charming, but offstage he was sardonic. Comic Jackie Curtiss recalls one conversation. "He called me backstage and said, ‘Jackie, you know that one little joke that you do there? That’s not for you. You got more class than that. Take that one joke out.’ I said, ‘Sure, Billy. No problem.’ So I took it out. Next show – he did it in his act. I said, ‘You told me I had more class than that!’ He said, ‘Yes, Jackie. But I don’t have any class.”
Billy's Big Chunk of Balls
The club's relationship with Mickey Cohen had its perils. Gangster Tom Dragna mapped out a plan to assassinate Cohen in the Band Box doorway. Gun sites were aimed, but Cohen received an anonymous tip-off and managed to escape. There were rumors that William George Bonelli was behind the set-up. If that were true, Cohen would never have to worry about it again. Bonelli's reign at the Board of Equalization collapsed in 1953 when The Los Angeles Mirror published an eight-part expose called California’s Saloon Empire. It revealed the shakedowns, kickbacks, courtroom bribery and Bonelli’s extensive Mob connections. As a result the Board of Equalization was disbanded. Bonelli fled to Mexico to seek asylum, but was arrested.
Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom was booked at the Band Box in 1955 in a fullscale revue that was tailored for him. It was a parody of the variety series Shower of Stars that was done across the street at CBS Television City. Capitalizing on Rosenbloom's status as a former boxer, the parody was called Shower of Scars and written by Sid Kuller, a comedy writer who had worked for the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny. The show was a success, ran several months, and Bagel Belt parodies soon became a club staple. The Band Box actually overhauled their line-ups in the service of the Kuller parodies from then on. The Band Box shows were now split in two halves. The first half had comedians like Gene Baylos and Buddy Hackett doing their regular stand-up acts. After an intermission each person booked on the show participated in the parody, a series of blackout sketches and satirical songs. They spoofed the hit television show Dragnet and its lead character Joe Friday. Fagnet featured Gray as Sgt. Joe Shabbos in pursuit of Ben Lessy, "a molester on the lam.” Kuller followed it up with a series of Jewish take-offs based on blockbuster films. The Caine Mutiny became The Cohen Mutiny. Ben Hur was turned into Ben Hurowitz. And the Burt Lancaster film Trapeze became Trapeza. “It was jammed during the run of Trapeza,” says comedian Jack Carter. “Billy came out wearing a trapeze outfit like Burt Lancaster in the movie, a jumpsuit with Billy’s big chunk of balls poking through.”
Their parody of My Fair Lady was by far the most successful. My Fairfax Lady ("From dialectician to delicatessen") premiered July 1956. It ran for a full year and was resurrected several times whenever business was slow. The original run was so popular that the media reported, only half-joking, that tickets for the Band Box version were as hard to get as the actual My Fair Lady on Broadway. The club mounted new versions of the show in 1958, 1959 and 1960. An original cast album of My Fairfax Lady was released by Jubilee Records. That was a step too far for My Fair Lady creators Lerner and Loewe. They filed a lawsuit in New York Federal Court and the album was recalled. Buoyed by its local success, Sammy Lewis packaged My Fairfax Lady for the Riviera in Las Vegas, but the local references were lost on the goyim and it folded immediately. From the heights of success to the depths of failure, it was an unfortunate mood swing that the Band Box was about to experience often.
The early 1960s saw a change in comedy that adversely affected the Band Box. Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters were succeeding with a new style of stand-up at the Crescendo, a popular nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Comedy's new coffeehouse stars did not look to Billy Gray as any kind of mentor. The comics still paying homage to Billy were mostly down on their luck and in need of a handout. Harvey Stone, a tragic comedian whose career was botched like the nosejob on his face, was booked out of sympathy. The veteran vaudeville team of Smith and Dale were booked out of nostalgia. They weren't the type of acts likely to draw a crowd when Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart were making headlines in nearby Hollywood.
Gray decided to take a break from his club and tour the nightclub circuit with Ben Lessy and Patti Moore. He leased the space to producer Joe Landis who put in an old school mimic named Arthur Blake and changed the name to Blake's Band Box. Blake and Landis had a fast falling out after Blake "used four letter words and material that was in poor taste." The club went dark for over a year while Gray fulfilled his engagements around the country. When he returned to Los Angeles he reopened the Band Box with a new version of My Fairfax Lady and for the first time it failed to fill the seats. Sid Kuller went to work writing a new parody, a James Bond take-off called Goldfinkle, but nobody cared. My Fairfax Lady and Goldfinkle were presented as a double bill and Gray even eliminated the cover charge, but the seats remained empty. The Band Box sputtered. It was clearly incapable of appealing to a new generation more interested in seeing rock groups like The Byrds.
Life Went to Shit
Shortly after midnight on October 16, 1965, Billy Gray was finishing up his Saturday performance while, unbeknownst to him, his thirteen-year-old son was stealing a car. Cary Gray was going for a joyride through Beverly Hills and a police pursuit followed. Young Cary stepped on the gas and sped through a residential neighborhood at eighty miles an hour, losing control and smashing into another vehicle. The car exploded and Billy Gray's son burned to death.
Billy Gray was naturally devastated. Fellow comedians took turns checking in with him and running the ailing club on his behalf. Two weeks later he returned to hosting, but remained ashen. Gray soldiered on for several months until finally hiring road comic Sammy Shore to take over. Shore had been a longtime fan of the multi-comic template that the Band Box pioneered, but playing to an empty room for the next six months bummed him out. Shore figured there must be a way to get people to come see stand-up again, but he wasn't sure what it was. The Band Box suffered through a few more shows and in August 1966 it closed forever.
The FBI moved in quickly. They were building a tax evasion case against Mickey Cohen and seized every file in the Band Box office. When they entered the building they found Billy Gray's lawyer Jerry Weber rifling through desk drawers in a panic. They held him for questioning, but when Weber offered them several thousand dollars if they would let him go, he sealed his own fate. He landed in prison, convicted of bribery.
Billy Gray never recovered from the emotional duress of his son's tragic death. Mickey Katz brought him along for a handful of tours in 1968 and 1969, but he lived out the 1970s in a catatonic state. He sat in front of his living room television, staring at the comedians he'd given breaks to - Dick Van Dyke, Alan King, Buddy Hackett, Peter Marshall... they were millionaires. Gray was on welfare, depressed, spending what little money he had on medical bills. “When I became an entity and was making a lot of money, Billy would call me," says Peter Marshall. "He was always broke. You’d send a few dollars here and a few dollars there, but I was trying to raise four kids. It was sad. His whole life went to shit.”
Variety, November 30, 1942
Variety, November 4, 1943
Variety, May 4, 1955
Variety, August 14, 1956
Variety, August 15, 1956
Variety, October 31, 1956
Variety, July 17, 1957
Variety, October 19, 1965
Jack Carter, Interview with Author
Dick Curtis, Interview with Author
Jackie Curtiss, Interview with Author
Leo DeLyon, Interview with Author
Peter Marshall, Interview with Author
Slick Slavin, Interview with Author
Maynard Sloate, Interview with Author
Milton Delugg, Interview with Author
Joel Grey, conversation with Author
Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1965
Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1998
Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2002
The Last Mafioso by Ovid Demaris
Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words as told to John Peer Nugen
Namedropping by Alan King with Chris Chase
B.S. I Love You by Milton Berle
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe