Outtakes
I chronicle entertainment history by going directly to the source; the stars and performers who were actually there. Those who were actually on the stages and in the audiences of such iconic nightclubs as the Persian Room, the Copacabana, the Playboy Clubs, the Algonquin, Stork Club, and so many others.
This is the place where you’ll find short interviews, chats, and excerpts from some of my longer conversations with the stars. I look forward to your comments, contributions, and requests. Whenever I have the opportunity, I’ll also spotlight one of our contemporary entertainers, as well as Cabaret and Broadway luminaries. If you have someone you’d like to hear from, please let me know.

Lana Cantrell

MI0003615738

 

The Australian songbird Lana Cantrell first came to the attention of American audiences when her cousin persuaded her to sing for the manager of the New Orleans Playboy Club. Although she was a virtual unknown without much “stage presence,” her singing more than impressed the talent booker, and she was soon entertaining the Playboy audiences on a regular basis.

Once she established herself as a contender at the Clubs, she was booked to play nightclubs across the country and appear on the various TV variety shows of the 70’s.  But even though she had a recognizable name—with a voice to match—occasionally she got into trouble. Lana told me about how, “One time I was appearing at a casino in Las Vegas at the same time Shecky was there.” (Which isn’t hard to do because in those days, Shecky was always in Vegas!) “Shecky was predictable at that time. He could always be counted on for causing trouble and getting arrested on a regular basis.

“Well, very late one night—or early is probably more accurate—I was driving down ‘the Strip’ at about three or four in the morning, in my little blue Volkswagen, and I was stopped by the police. I can’t say whether I was speeding or jumped a curb or what, but the police pulled me over. The officer said, ‘Got your license?’ ‘No, but you know its me,’ I said, shaking my head and pointing to the marquee. I may have had a few drinks, so I’m not ruling out the fact that I might have been a little sarcastic.

“They took me down to the police station, and the next day it was in the newspaper headlines that I was arrested for speeding! And Shecky, funny guy that he is, sent me a note saying, ‘What are you trying to do, steal my thunder?’ Shecky was nuts in those days but great—a sweetheart when he wasn’t tipping over tables. I got to be very friendly with him, Sinatra, and all the Vegas regulars. Nobody really understands what we entertainers go through to get on that stage. It’s a difficult road—but a great ride when you do.”

The last concert Lana gave was at Carnegie Hall. Lana said, “There were a hundred kids from an Australian choir that happened to be in New York at the time, and my band and I had the kids up on stage. It was just magic.”

 

81F7IcuCyHL._SL290_

 

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Duke Hazlett

Duke Hazlett as Bing Crosby

Duke Hazlett as Bing Crosby

Duke began his career as a Sinatra tribute artist at the Le Bistro in Atlantic City. He told me that when he sang there, the club would put a sign outside saying “If you like Sinatra, you’ll love Duke.” Sinatra also played in Atlantic City, but when he did, it was next door at the 500 Club and he’d often quip to his audiences, “If you like Duke, you’ll go cuckoo over me.” Duke continued, “Frank, on occasions when we’d meet was always nice to me and would kid me by saying, ‘Just remember, I’m still the Chairman of the Board—but you can be the Vice-Chairman.’”

Dukes voice wasn’t the only similarity to the famous Rat-packer; he was also synonymous in appearance. And he was so convincing and his performance such pure fun that he was invited as a guest on the most popular variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show and Jack Parr Show. He was also induced to take part in an entertaining subterfuge. As Duke tells it: “I was working at a club in Chicago and Hef [Hugh Hefner] would come to see me because he was a Sinatra fan. Well, this one night he told me that he had been looking forward to having Sinatra perform at his upcoming Jazz Festival, but Frank’s plan changed and he couldn’t make it. However, he had an alternative that he needed help with. He wanted me to appear and do a few of the songs I usually did in my show. I told him I’d be overjoyed to do it just because it sounded like so much fun!

“The night came—August, 1959. The search lights were crossing in the sky as I walked down the aisle with a brigade of twelve police officers escorting me to the stage. I had a trench coat flung over my shoulder and a straw hat with a white band cocked on my head. As soon as I hit the stage, Count Basie’s Band started up and I swung into “Come Fly With Me”—and the crowd went wild, just wild! I received a standinDuke Hazlett

g ovation and Mort Sahl—the MC—introduced me afterwards by my real name, saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Duke Hazlett.’ But people hear what they want, and the next day one of the Chicago newspapers reported that Frank Sinatra had appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival and did a fantastic job! I’ve appeared since at many prestigious clubs and engagements and been on some wonderful shows, but that’s the one time I relive over and over.”

After waiting this famous clip from the Steve Allen Show let me know if you would have been fooled into thinking you just saw Frank Sinatra at the first Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Andy Williams

Andy Williams

Andy Williams

President Reagan proclaimed Andy William’s voice a national treasure. I’m not about to challenge that assertion, but Andy wasn’t always the suave crooner that most of us love and adore.

 

At the tender age of eight, while in the third grade, Andy joined his three brothers singing in the church choir. They were an instant local hit and started to perform regularly on the radio in nearby Des Moines, Iowa, as the Williams Brothers Quartet. Bob, Don, Dick, and Andy were on a roll, and by 1944, they found themselves backing up Bing Crosby on his hit record “Swinging on a Star.”

 

Soon, the Williams Brothers hit the road, touring the country with Kay Thompson, and it was with her, in 1951 and again in September 1952, that they performed at the Persian Room. Reviewers called the act “trendsetting.”

 

Speaking with Andy, the first thing I wanted to know was, what was so unusual about that “trendsetting” act.

 

“Well, first of all, we moved around! That probably doesn’t sound so groundbreaking, but believe me, it was. Prior to us, nightclub entertainers had traditionally stood in one spot and performed. If there was more than one singer, you all clustered around the microphone the best

you could.”

 

“We actually had a choreographer—Bob Alton. So that we could move around more easily, we hung the mikes from the ceiling, and I mean we hung the mikes. We actually got up on ladders ourselves and put them where we wanted them, and then we were able to move all over the stage, making our act sort of like a mini musical revue.

 

“Kay was an enormously dynamic performer. The act she put together was very fast and sophisticated, with high energy and lots of dance movements and singing. Two of our signature numbers were ‘It’s a Jubilee Time’ and ‘Pauvre Suzette.’ In ‘Suzette,’ Kay sang, and my brothers and I were at the four corners, harmonizing and dancing around her.

 

“We all stayed at the Plaza for the duration of the run, and it was there in the lobby that I was introduced to Stanley Marcus—you know, the cofounder of the Neiman Marcus department stores? He suggested that I take advantage of all the art and culture New York City had to offer,

that I should walk and explore and learn from its many galleries and museums. I took his advice—mainly because the next time I saw him I didn’t want to have to tell him, that I hadn’t. As I result I forged a deep appreciation and love for modern art.”

 

That experience clearly set something in motion: Prior to his death Andy Williams was considered a major art collector.

Andy Williams

Andy Williams


You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

Polly told me that she felt the Plaza Hotel was a selective venue, and The Persian Room—in that hotel—the most beautiful room in the world to work in. When I asked which talent she enjoyed the most, she replied singing, even though she became a household name through her numerous and varied stage appearances. Polly won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of singer Helen Morgan in The Helen Morgan Story.  She also costarred with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the very dramatic Cape Fear and again with Mitchum –almost twenty years later—in The Winds of War and “War and Remembrance” (garnering Emmy nominations in the process). Then Polly’s career took a comic turn in Kisses for My President, where she portrayed the first female president, and Move Over Darling with Doris Day and James Garner.

Polly attained star status when barely out of her teens when, just after studying math in community college, she caught the interest of legendary producer Hal Wallis. Mr. Wallis is best known for producing and winning an Academy Award Casablanca, but that is just one in a very extensive line of significant movies he produced. “I was playing a small club,” said Polly, “and I didn’t have an agent or manager or anybody at that point. Well, Clarence Freed came in, heard me sing, and said he’d like to handle my career. I said, ‘Great. Fine.’ And he sent a picture of me, along with a recording of me singing a wild hillbilly song—“Honky Tonking”—to all the well-known producers in Hollywood. The photo he sent was a very glamorous shot of me in a low-cut dress with my hair swept to one side to revel long rhinestone earrings. It was quite a combination—this very sophisticated looking girl and this honky-tonk song.

“One of the producers Clarence sent it to was Hal Wallis, and he was kind of mesmerized and asked me to come in. I met him, and he signed me that same day. He put me in my first three movies with Martin and Lewis.” Those films were At War with the Army, That’s My Boy, and The Stooge.

“I adored Dean Martin more than life itself, and I always played his wife or girlfriend.  But I had a very hard time with Jerry. He wanted to screw everybody he worked with, and that was just the way it was. Jerry made my life a living hell, because I wouldn’t play ball with him. Every day on the set was so horrendous that I finally walked away. He would not take ‘no’ for an answer!”

Sadly, we lost Polly on September 20, 2014,  but she lives on in her friends and her work.

Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Jack Jones

Jack Jones

Jack Jones

I’ve been longing for an opportunity to talk to Jack Jones – one of the most popular vocalists of his time—for over a year, but his busy schedule didn’t ease up until recently. It was worth the wait.

Jack, born John Allen Jones, is the only son of actress Irene Harvey and singer/actor Allen Jones – best remembered for acting the straight man in the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races , as well as his chart topping hit song The Donkey Serenade.

After signing a recording deal with Capitol Records while still a teenager Allen invited his son to join him on stage for his engagement at The Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. This was Jack’s first professional gig. They sang duets, including “Donkey Serenade” and then Jack sang a solo – his first in front of such a sizable paying audience— and he liked it.

Capitol Records and Jack soon differed on the direction his music should go and they parted. He found that the progressive record label Kapp was a much more compatible match. The first song they recorded together, “Lollipops and Roses” snared Jack a Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance. This was swiftly followed by “Wives and Lovers” earning him another Grammy and a spot at the table with the big boys, an engagement at The Persian Room!

Jack entertained sold–out audiences many times at The Plaza, starting with his first in December of 1964 and until October 1975. “That was my debut” says Jack. “I was scared to death and excited at the same time, I had hit the big time and had hardly paid any dues at all.”

“John Doringer was my PR guy. He was the top PR guy in New York, and he handled the opening—did a marvelous job. Everyone was there. Lesley Caron was going with Warren Beatty – they were both there – and of all the people in the room: I forgot to introduce them. Warren was a friend and he kiddingly gave me trouble over that for a while.”

“Ethel Merman was there—and yes, I remembered to introduce her. She was a good friend of mine throughout the rest of her life. So many people were there it was a real star-studded audience. That entire time surrounding my first successful opening at The Persian Room was so exciting. Just prior to that I was playing a tiny club called The Living Room, so it really happened quite quickly.

“Funny story about that initial success: Peter Leverson worked for John Springer, my PR guy. One day we were sitting around my suite talking on the phone, doing PR stuff, and Peter called the hotel operator for something – I don’t remember what – but I hear him say, ‘Operator …enough, enough…I’m talking to you from Jack Jones’ suite and I want you to XYZ….’ When he hung up I said to him, ‘Peter, it appears to me that my new-found fame has gone to YOUR head!’ And we both had a good laugh.”

“I remember another time there,” Jack continued. “I got a call in my suite, from the matri de, John, who was a real character—very European, and he knew what to do and how to handle everything. One of his tasks was to keep tabs on who was coming to the show. So this particular night he calls and very excitedly says, Mrs. Kennedy is coming in! ‘It’s wonderful’ he says, and I agreed, it was great. So they pull out the best china The Plaza has to offer. There are amazing flower arrangements. Her table is especially beautiful and the staff is polished right down to their last button.”

“Then John starts calling me saying, ‘Jack, you have to hold the show, she hasn’t shown up yet.’ ‘Okay I say, but let’s hope it’s not for too long; I don’t want the other people getting mad at me.’ ‘No, no, no, it will be fine,’ he assures me.’ He calls me two or three more times with updates – basically to say she’s not here yet! Okay, but I can’t hold the show much longer, so I leave my room and go downstairs to just wait and keep a lookout from behind the kitchen’s swinging door.

“Finally, he comes and tells me she’s cancelled. ‘How can she do this to me?’ he moans, ‘Oh me, oh my’ and so on and so on. “I say, ‘You? How can she do this to you?’ Even though I never had a chance to meet her, she was reportedly a big fan. The show was delayed about 45 minutes by this time, but I went out and made some kind of excuse and began the show. It was fine. These things happen – you hope they don’t, but they do and you just roll with them.”

“My ex – wife, Jill St. John, might have been there at some point when I played that room…wait a minute …she was! I remember this because we used to go around the corner to the jewelry store Van Cleef and Arpel!” Just like a man to have his memory jogged by that! “We also enjoyed the Palm Court.”

During the 60’s and 70’s, Jack was a staple on all of the popular TV variety shows, as well a guest star on the most widely watched TV shows of the day. One of his most recognizable songs is the catchy theme song for Love Boat.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

 

Roslyn Kind

Roslyn Kind

Roslyn Kind

In 1969, Roslyn was booked for an engagement at the Plaza Hotel’s legendary Persian Room—an accomplishment on any level but especially for an unknown eighteen year old. “I celebrated my nineteenth birthday during my Persian Room run,” Roslyn told me. The critics wrote that ‘she brought a youthful essence that was never known to that room.’ “I did songs like ‘Promises, Promises’ and ‘Hair’ because I was young and wasn’t going to do older songs. I was a little out of whack, with a whole different energy than they were used to. I was determined not to do stuff someone else was known for.

“There was a huge amount of pressure on me at the Persian Room because it was not only my New York debut, but also my first major introduction to both the public and the critics. The plan was for me to go out and make a big splash on my own, without the mention of Barbra Streisand—my mega- superstar sister. I needed time to develop as a performer without that attachment and comparison. Then I did The Ed Sullivan Show, and someone from my record company leaked it to the media. So then I had to evolve in full sight of everybody. On top of that, the Persian Room wasn’t like the little clubs—the ones in the village where you started without the rigamorole. This was major press and major people wanting to come and see and gasp. I had to live up to a lot of things I wasn’t ready to live up to.”

Roslyn Kind and Barbra Streisand

Roslyn Kind and Barbra Streisand

Ros told me about what it was like, working out of town to prepare her show for the big New York Show. “One night, while I was working at a club called the CopaHavan in Oklahoma City,” she began, “a big fight broke out. These drunken guys had stayed for both shows, and when they heard the same songs in my second show they got very pissed. We told them we were trying to break in a show for New York, and we had to do this material as much as possible.  They were just not having it, and a big Western-style brawl broke out. I swear, people were flying over the banisters and over the bar, and my musical director signaled me to leave the stage by a different route. These guys were so rude and out of control the police had to be called in.

“Afterward, I saw my manager. He had been hit in the nose and his glasses were broken. He told me not to tell his wife. I had to laugh and replied, ‘You won’t have to say a word. She’s going to look at your nose and face, and she’ll know!’ That was my experience, in some of the towns in Oklahoma and Texas on the road leading up to the Persian Room. Thank God in New York you had maitre d’s to keep the weirdo’s at a distance.”

Roslyn went on to sing at other major settings around the world, seasoned by her early experiences—both on the road and at the Persian Room. “Someone once asked me,” she said, “‘What’s the difference between working a small room and a major venue?’ I said the trick is to make the humongous room feel like a small, intimate room. That’s my job. That’s why I’m here.”

Roslyn Kind and Barbra Steisand

Roslyn Kind and Barbra Steisand

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

 

Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll

In 1962 Diahann was the first black woman to win a Tony Award for her roles in Richard Rodgers and Samuel A. Taylor’s Broadway musical No Strings. This was a show created by Rodgers specifically for her. In 1968, Diahann was again a pioneer, becoming the first black actress in television history to star in her own series, Julia, which reached the top position on the Nielsen Ratings. In addition to being controversial because of its African-American leading lady, Julia was also innovative for chronicling the challenges of a single mother—whose husband was killed in Vietnam—having to balance a career and family life. In 1984, Diahann joined the cast of “Dynasty,” starring as the scheming Dominique Deveraux—a show I tuned into just to see what fabulous Norman Miller creation she’d be wearing. This led to another first for both Diahann and television: the first time a black actress held a leading role in a primetime television series.

All of these accolades weren’t accomplished overnight. Diahann’s journey began at ten years old when she received a scholarship to study at the renowned High School of Music and Art in New York. She continued her education at New York University, majoring in sociology with the intention of becoming a teacher. While there, she earned extra money by modeling and singing in local clubs.

It was while singing at one of these clubs that Lew Walters, the owner of the “Latin Quarter,” noticed her and assisted her in securing one of the highly coveted spots on the television talent competition, “Chance of a Lifetime.” Each week’s winner won $1000, the opportunity to return and compete again the following week, plus a week’s singing engagement at a trendy nightclub. After winning three weeks in a row, Diahann left with $3000 and an engagement at “The Latin Quarter.” She was only seventeen years old!

Due to the attention she attracted, she was persuaded to audition for television and Broadway roles, eventually garnering a Broadway part in House of Flowers. In the midst of this, she continued to appear at top drawer nightclubs such as The Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room.

I asked Diahann what it was like to be called a role-model for later day women of color, as well as what she experienced playing in nightclubs like The Persian Room—where she had a predominately white supper-class audience.

“I remember having my first meeting about the possibility of my appearing at the Persian Room,” she told me. “I think there had only been one other Afro-American female singer prior to my arrival, but I really didn’t think about that too much. From the tinkling glasses and the china in their beautiful room, I was just excited on so many levels.  I was a young girl, recently married to a very caring person who was interested in the work I was learning to do. It was a thrill to stand offstage and hear the orchestra strike up the band, knowing it was time to go on and do my show.

“I was fortunate that so many people were helpful to me. Phil Moore and Peter Matz—to name just two—were incredibly important in helping me grow. Phil taught Dorothy Dandridge and Marilyn Monroe how to sing on screen. He also put together acts for amazing people, including Lena [Horn]. He was a major influence on me. Peter came on board about the same time as Phil, and I was very lucky to have him in my camp. He only worked with singers of the highest caliber—he did the arrangements for Streisand’s Happy Days Are Here Again. He was a great help. Most people will tell you, that as a youngster, I’d ask an awful lot of questions. I would seek help from anyone if I felt I needed to learn something. I had the best in the business as my teachers.”

“I loved playing in the glamorous nightclubs we used to have around the country. When I was at The Persian Room in New York, the audience sometimes sparkled more than I did. That was just the way it was. Ladies dressed to the nines to go out and so did the celebrities who came to watch. I’ve had Josephina Baker, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Jule Styne and even John F. Kennedy in the audience—and many came together. As the nightclubs began to disappear, we all felt like it was the death of a glorious era. I think one of the reasons they vanished was television; the industry changed, and we were searching for television ratings rather than quality live entertainment.”

I had the honor of seeing Diahann at the nightclub Feinstein’s in March 2007. It was amazing! I can only image what it was like to see her in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the audience dressed for the occasion and elegance was the theme.


Diahann Carroll from the opening credits of Dynasty

Diahann Carroll from the opening credits of Dynasty

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm in All About Eve

Celeste Holm in – All About Eve

Celeste is one of the main stars (if not the principal character) in one of my all time favorite movies Letter to Three Wives [1949]—and yet you never see her glamorous face during the entire film, not even once. We only hear her distinctive voice purring seductively as ‘Addie Ross.’

Luckily for us, Celeste starred, face and body, in numerous Hollywood roles, including her Academy Award winning portrayal in The Gentleman’s Agreement [1947] with Gregory Peck, The Snake Pit [1948] with Olivia de Havilland, All About Eve [1950] with Betty Davis, The Tender Trap [1955] with Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds, and High Society [1956] also starring Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Bing Crosby—as well as many, many others.

Despite all of the accolades she received from film and movie roles, Celeste garnered more satisfaction from live theater productions. Her most recognizable role was introducing ‘Ado Annie’ in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma. The show was a tremendous success, but she told that she treasured the opportunity to work with the musical team of Rodgers and Hammerstein more. She was equally adept and in-demand at prestigious nightclubs and on television, and she shared some of her many adventures for my book The Persian Room Presents.

Sadly, Celeste passed away July 15, 2012, just days after she and her opera-star husband, Frank Basile, shared tea and visited with me at The Plaza Hotel in the Palm Court.

Whenever we got together, the conversation invariably swung towards reminiscing about her illustrious career in show business—what better way to spend an afternoon? It was then that Frank pointed out that she was in George M. Cohen’s last production. “That’s right,” said Celeste, “The Return of the Vagabond. I played his last ingénue. The film was a sequel to The Vagabond— and not well reviewed at all. But he gave me some advice that I carried throughout my career. It really helped solidify and define my acting and how I approached performing in general. It was simple, really but it felt like an epiphany to me. He said, ‘My dear, the audience will never have fun unless they believe you are. Give ‘em a good time.’

“Before that, I’d go backstage after a show and moan and groan about this or that not being perfect. George made me realize that the audience doesn’t recognize what didn’t happen exactly as you planned. They don’t sit in the audience and judge you. It’s only the critics who do that— and even they want to be entertained. They want to see you succeed and that makes all the difference. They want to see a good story play out, and it was our job to give them a good time. I seriously took his advice to heart and I’ve been passing it on ever since.”

Celeste found her passion at the very impressionable age of three when her grandmother and aunt brought her to see Ana Pavlova dance. “Even at that young age I saw that she transported the audience and I said, ‘Oh, I want to do that!’ I studied ballet for eleven years. By the time I was fifteen, I realized that the verbal language had more impact, so I started getting involved in my schools theater. I took drama classes in high school and that was the extent of my formal theatrical education— despite the fact that some schools claim I studied with them.”

I’m sad knowing that I won’t be able to learn more from her wonderful stories shared  over a cup of Darjeeling tea, but feel blessed to have had the opportunity to hear tales from the golden days of both Hollywood and Broadway told by such a legend.

 

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Don Dellair

Don Dellair

Don Dellair

During his college days, Don Dellair had no thoughts of being in show business. He was going to be a dentist just like his father. “My father and brother were both dentists with nice lifestyles,” Don told me, and I decided—at 18—that I was going for the easy life. Dad had a great practice and was well-respected in the field. I figured I would go to college and eventually take over my father’s practice when he retired.  Well, it didn’t work out quite so smoothly. I attended college with pre-dentistry as my major—and flunked every course the first semester.

“After getting that report, my father immediately called and told me to come home, that he wanted to talk to me—and not over the phone. When I got there he asked, ‘Who is paying for my tuition?’ I answered, ‘You dad.’ ‘Then I think I have a right to say something to you,’ he said. He told me that I shouldn’t live his life, that dentistry was something he was good at and enjoyed, but that I should go back to school and try to enroll in theater courses. I did and ended up graduating with honors in theater. My parents couldn’t have been prouder. I was very lucky to have parents that understood their children so well.

“Out of school, I thought I was getting a big break when I met a couple of old-time gangsters through some show business people. I didn’t know they were in the mob—how would I? They were just some guys who said, ‘Hey kid, you wanna make an album?’ I couldn’t say OK fast enough! ‘Take this money,’ they’d say, ‘and go buy yourself a tuxedo, because we’re giving you a spot.’ They got me music and a band, and put the whole thing together for me.

“Once again, my dad came to the rescue, noticing right away what I had gotten myself into. He said, ‘You need to get out of this thing.’ I was crushed and argued that everything was fine, and you know what? It really was. The mob was great to show business people. Gangsters always treated us with respect. Sure, we had to kickback a little from what we made in the clubs or recordings or wherever, but I wasn’t complaining. But he was firm, so I had to come up with an excuse the mob couldn’t argue with.

“It was while I was working in Montreal that my father forced the issue, I had to go to my boss at the time and tell him that my father wanted me to go back to college and study law. My boss said, ‘Your father said that?’ It was like they knew, but they let me out of my contract anyway. By that time I was already known in the recording world, so I immediately got another contract with people who weren’t gangsters. But it was really the mob that started my career.

“It wasn’t long before the agent Carmel Myers invited me to one of her famous soirees at her Park Avenue apartment in New York. She was well-known during the silent film era, playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in All Night Long, and starring as Iras in Ben Hur—as well as making a successful transition into sound movies such as Svengali and The Mad Scientist  both with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh. From there she segued into business creating and marketing a very successful perfume line, but she couldn’t stay away from show business. She eventually worked as a talent agent and became known for brilliantly putting people together— which is what she did when she introduced me to Tommy Wonder and Margie Banks.

“She was right. We made a great team with Tommy dancing and me singing. Tommy danced with a life size doll. After awhile—as this dance routine became popular—we wanted a very special doll made, so we went to our friends the Westmore Brothers who did the make-up for Warner Brothers Studio’s and many others. The doll we had had a cartoon face, and we explained to the Westmore’s that we wanted a doll who looked more human, so that when the lights were dimmed the audience wouldn’t know she wasn’t a real girl. They immediately said, ‘We’ll make you one with Ann Sheridan’s face.; They said that because they hated her! ‘We can’t stand her,’ they told us. ‘She’s annoying and she yells and screams at us constantly. We’d love to see you drag her around every night.’ They didn’t even charge us! That doll is now in the Smithsonian Museum.

“We had such a wonderful career and met so many life-long good, good friends. Our act became famous the world over. At one point, Josephine Baker saw us and brought us to Paris. The French loved us and it was a fabulous life. We had a nice apartment that we didn’t even pay for—the show producers paid the rent. Ingrid Bergman and Michele Morgan were our neighbors and had apartments on the same floor we did. The French were lovely—I can’t stress how they embraced us. During the second year we were there, President Kennedy was shot, and our European friends rallied around us as if we had a death in our own family.

“This was around Thanksgiving and we were missing home, so we decided we would have an American Thanksgiving dinner for everyone. Well, what a production that was! You couldn’t go to the corner store and pick a turkey. We had to go to the south of France to a turkey farm to pick out a bird then return later to pick it up. When we went back to get it, Monsieur Matta and his wife presented the turkey to us as a gift and a token for the president that we just lost.

“Try as we might, we had trouble learning the language. Tommy only learned the dirty words from the chorus girls, and I just didn’t have an ear for it. The dancing girls would try to get Tommy into trouble by pretending to teach him some French words, and then tell him to practice by asking the stage manager for something. Well, of course what they taught him was the equivalent of, ‘Fuck you, you asshole.’ I kept telling him not to get sucked into their games, but he always fell for it.

“I can’t blame the chorus girls for this, but once Tommy thought he could go to the vegetable store and order all of the groceries in French. He wanted some beets, so he said what he thought was correct to the Madame about beets and she slapped him. He couldn’t understand why. Fortunately for us, Ingrid Bergman was also in the shop and came to our rescue, saying, ‘Tommy, what did you say?’ He explained he didn’t know what he did wrong and was just trying to buy some beets, then he repeated what he said. Evidently, something very close to the pronunciation of the word ‘beet’ is obscene, but the great Irigid Bergman apologized and set it all right for us with the Madame.

“We were getting ready to renew our contract to work the club in France for a third year when our agent from William Morris told us that we were being forgotten at home and had to come back. So we reluctantly went home and, luckily, we had as many bookings as we could handle. As great as it was in Paris, it was so good to be back home with all of our friends like Hildegarde and Liberace.

“Liberace was a dear, dear soul. No matter what trouble he got into, he was always the kindest, most loving—just an angel of a man. He took care of his mother, and both she and his sister Angie lived with him at his beautiful house in the Valley. His mother was a bit overbearing. One time when we were working the same town, we decided to go out after our shows ended. Well, he said, he had to go home to change first. This is a funny story—when we got to the house he said to give him a minute to change from his TV clothes. We spent the time chatting with Mrs. Liberace, and when he came downstairs she said in her heavy polish accent, ‘Ladislow, you can’t leave me, Ladislow, you can’t go out, you stay here.’ The three of us—Marge, Tommy and myself—just stood there watching this drama play out. He said, ‘Mom I’m just going to dinner with my friends I’ll be back soon.’ But still she said, ‘No, don’t leave me.’ And with that she falls to the ground in a heap! We thought it was a heart attack for sure, because she just went phew and dropped. But Liberace said, ‘Just step over her body and wait for me outside. I’ll be right behind you.’ She apparently did that all the time. He was out in a few minutes ready for dinner.

“Rock Hudson was another dear friend—only we never called him Rock; to us he was Roy. His real name was Roy Fitzgerald. That was the time in show business history when we had so many wonderfully talented people to work with and get to know—Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Johnny Ray, Julie Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Lee Philips, Jules Stein, The Ziegfeld Follies—I could go on, but I’d never stop. It was a great time to work, and I’m lucky to be able to look back and remember how I was a part of it.”

Don Dellair

Don Dellair

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


Constance Towers

Constance Towers

Constance Towers

When visiting Connie at her Beverly Hills home, she looks every inch the star that she is. However, her manner is the antithesis of what one usually thinks of as diva behavior. Not only did she proudly give me an extensive tour of her gorgeous home, but she also invited me for an intimate peek into her closet, showing me the famous Mitch Leisen gowns that she wore in performances during the ‘60s, at major New York nightclubs such as The Persian Room and The St. Regis. They were referred to as ‘string’ or ‘fringe’ gowns and cost around $10,000 in 1961! Connie explained that each piece of string had to measured and placed just so to conform to the shape of your body. The dress and all of the draping was done with pieces of silk string. She still owns two—originally three but when a struggling singer didn’t have a dress to wear for a gig, Connie let her have one of the Leisen’s. They are really the most stunning gowns I’ve seen.

Constance began her career singing at top nightclubs while still studying drama in New York City. While singing at the Maisonette, she dazzled Max Arno, the head of casting for Columbia Studios, and was off to Hollywood with a studio contract. Her first movie being Blake Edwards, Bring Your Smile with Frankie Laine. Other quickly followed including; Marty Rackin’s The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne, and John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. Her Broadway credits soon added to her resume when she portrayed Anna opposite Yul Brenner in The King and I. But wait, there’s more! In addition to movies, theater, and nightclubs, Connie appeared in countless television shows, playing leading roles on Capitol and General Hospital.

Connie mused with me about her very early days and some of the first venues she ever performed. “The first place I appeared in New York was a little show where Gena Rowland’s and I were the two ingénues,” she told me. It was called ‘All About Love’ and was at a restaurant called the Versailles—Edith Piaf also performed there, but not with us. This was a place where you could dine and watch a show and this was absolutely the first thing I ever did—ever—so I was terrified the whole time. We were such a hit that they kept us on for over a year. Both our careers went up from there because we had a ton of exposure and were taken to other things.

“I don’t think that even today there are many people that know Gena Rowland’s was a singer. Well, she wasn’t really a singer, she spoke her songs. She came out with a holder and a cigarette and looked very sophisticated. She knew so much more than I knew. She did this whole…not narration but monologue on sex, which I thought was very racy but today it really wouldn’t be anything. I was still in drama school so this was the ‘50s.

“When I began at the St. Regis, I met Julie Wilson and all the ladies who were already established there. I remember a small lady, also named Julie, who was an ex-Ziegfeld Follies girl. Her job was to help us younger newbie’s along. She’d follow me upstairs at night and tell me, ‘you were too close to the microphone tonight, Connie,’ or ‘You did this’ or ‘Try that.’ She was really wonderful and I actually consider her my mentor.

“Mr. August, the matri de of the St. Regis, also looked out for me—maybe a little too much. One night Errol Flynn came in with some people I knew, and Mr. August was so appalled that Errol Flynn came to see me perform that he called my father at home, and said, ‘Mr. Tower’s you have to come pick your daughter up tonight. Errol Flynn is here in the audience and has his eye on her.’ He was really concerned about my reputation. My father responded very well. He said, ‘She’s old enough and can take care of herself. I’ll meet her at the subway like I always do.’ And he was there when I got off the train.

“It’s interesting, New York has changed so much since those times of the St. Regis and The Plaza. In fact, Julie Wilson and I talk about it sometimes when we’re together. It was such a wonderful time. My parents lived at 36th and Park, and they could walk home at night without any fear at all. You would be out at shows and clubs until at least 1 or 2 in the morning, then run into Ed Wilson and the other columnists that were covering all the things going on. It was just a different time. My parents always went to the El Morocco on Saturday nights—it was such a big spot to go. Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club was also an extremely popular place. That’s where I first met Yul Brenner, but he didn’t remember me when I told him about it. Sherman had a television show at the club, and Yul directed it while I sang. Of course, we later worked together on The King and I.”

Connie married John Gavin, the former Mexican ambassador, in 1974, and they are both still actively involved with a multitude of charitable organizations.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents