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.

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



Julie Wilson

Julie Wilson

Julie Wilson

Julie’s become a cherished friend, but I must admit I felt a bit intimidated, when we met over lunch at the Russian Tea Room, for the first time. I say we met for lunch, but show-business people keep their own schedules. “Even though its 1 p.m., it’s breakfast time for me,” Julie pointed out. “After so many years of working till the early, early hours and then sleeping until the afternoon, rising late has become a habit.”

Looking every bit the gently aging siren, Julie informed the waitress that she needed black coffee, right away.

“Are you serving breakfast?” she asked.

“No,” the waitress replied,  “but we have a very nice vichyssoise—cold soup.”

“My dear,” Julie replied, delighted with the opening, “I like my men and my soup hot!”

I believe Mae West delivered a version of that line, but Julie’s performance was uniquely her own—sweet yet haughty, accompanied by a coy flutter of eyelashes for maximum dramatic effect. The waitress paused, and then gave a good hearty laugh, as if she couldn’t believe the innuendo came out of the grande dame seated before her. She also knew she’d have a good story to tell later.

It only took a little encouragement from me to persuade Julie to share how her showbiz journey began. “I was born in 1924 and my baptism name is Julia Mary. For some reason, I fell in love with a popular song of the time, ‘Mary Lou.’ One day, my mother went to a PTA meeting at my grammar school, and the teacher told her that Mary Lou was a very good student, helped the smaller children, and was just a well behaved little girl. At this point, my mother stopped her, said she was sorry, but the teacher must have mixed her up with another mother—her daughter was Julia. The teacher informed her that, from day one, I had told them my name was Mary Lou and the school had only ever known me by that name. My wonderful mother replied, ‘Well, if she wants to be Mary Lou, let’s let her be Mary Lou!’ Mother knew I loved show business and that she wouldn’t be able to keep me off the stage. Somewhere along the line, I went back to being Julia—or Julie actually.

“I attended college in Omaha in 1942, and I remember the tuition was only $64.00—a big difference from today! I dropped-out before graduation because I received an offer to hit the stage.  What happened was that my favorite aunt, Aunt Nori, bet me, she actually dared me to answer an ad to replace a sick performer in this tour that was going through our town. The tour had been put together by a big producer from Hollywood, so it was getting a lot of attention. I found out he was also looking for actresses to train and take back with the show to California.

“When I called the number listed in the ad, the girl who answered told me that Mr. Carroll had already started his return trip. But I asked if there was anyone else I could speak with and she was kind enough to connect me to the manager, Joe. By the time his gruff voice finally came on the phone, I don’t know where I found the courage to ask him if they were still looking for replacements, but I did. Of course, he asked me, ‘What do you do?’ To which I replied, ‘What do you want me to do?’What a leading line. I was so young and naive that I could have gotten myself in trouble, but he was very professional and told me they were looking for singers and dancers. So he told me to come down so he could take a look at me.

“All he asked me to do was a simple tap-step and then he sent me upstairs to Minnie the wardrobe mistress. Minnie picked out an outfit for me and had to put five layers of falsies in the bra. When I went back downstairs, Joe said, ‘Well, you don’t have much on top and you’re a little hippy, but you’ll do.’ I started the next day at $50 dollars a week, which was an awful lot of money in those days–the Depression was still going on. That was my start and I loved it. Show business was what I was made for!”

In her day, Julie has had a Sultan follow her around the world vying for her favors. She told me, “He always bought me huge magnums of champagne at the best night clubs and wanted me to marry him—even though he already had a few other wives.” She was dubbed the Queen of Cabaret more years ago than she wants me to mention, and still attends as many cabaret shows as she can to encourage and support emerging new talent.

Julie Wilson and Patty Farmer

Julie Wilson and Patty Farmer


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



Tony Sandler

Tony Sandler

Tony Sandler

Tony’s smooth, romantic voice rapidly endeared him to European and English audiences alike. But, Tony said, it was the Café Roma, on the Italian Riviera that he called home for five years. While working at the club, the American producer Frederick Apear persuaded Tony to team-up with the American singer Ralph Young. The next stop for Tony and Ralph and their mainly European cast was the Casino de Paris show at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.

Ultimately billing themselves as Sandler and Young, they caught the attention of Phil Silvers, who told his audiences in the main room, “I don’t know what the rest of you are doing now, but I’m going to the lounge to listen to that hot new duo, Sandler and Young.”

“Almost around the same time, Polly Bergen saw our show and asked us to flank her at the Desert Inn,” Tony told me.  “In 1965, we traveled with her when she took her show to the Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel. That was a big deal to us. By this time, Ralph and I had performed in many places, separately and as Sandler and Young, but the Persian Room had a wonderful reputation of class.”

When I previously asked Polly Bergen about the fact that Sandler and Young were the only performers she ever shared a stage with, she said, “They were definitely not backup singers. They were very talented guys. I saw them and felt I just had to have them with me. So I brought them on, and they were a big asset. I thought of them as part of the act and used them as such. They did their own numbers, and then we did some together, like duets or trios. They were wonderful.”

“We had a fabulous time in Polly’s show,” Tony continued. “Alan Livingston was in the audience, and after our performance Ralph and I were at the Oak Bar having a drink, when all of the sudden he popped his head between the two of us and said, ‘Boys, I want to sign you with Capitol Records.’ We didn’t hesitate, and that was the jump-start of my career.  After that, we toured on our own, and a year later, in 1966, we were back at the Persian Room—but this time it was starring Sandler and Young in sold-out shows!”

I commented that I had heard his early years were influenced by jazz. “Absolutely,” Tony replied. “Mostly Yves Montand—although he is most widely recognized for his acting, I glamed onto the cabaret style and intelligence in his singing. Simone Sinoret guided his career and chose his material, but it was his style, presence, and command of his voice that moved me.”

Sandler and Young were quickly recognized as international stars, appearing in top drawer clubs and venues around the world, including headlining at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. “Back in the 60s’ almost all the performers in Vegas knew each other. The Rat Pack guys were right next door at the Sands Hotel, so we got to know them—Sammy best, but also Frank and Dean. One time, Ralph and I were hosting ‘The Kraft Music Hour in London’. We did a whole season—13 shows. And Frank called both me and Ralph because Nancy was one of our guest performers. That was when she did “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Frank called –if not every day—at least every other day to find out how she was doing. He was always well informed about everything that touched him—definitely engaged and very well informed in business and what was going on, that’s for sure. Especially when it came to his daughter.”

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




Patti Page

Patti Page

Patti Page

In the 1940s Clara Ann Fowler began her career singing traditional pop tunes at radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma—sponsored by the Page Milk Company. Thinking it a smoother flowing and memorable name, she quickly assumed the stage name Patti Page—she told me she just liked the first name of Patti. After a brief stint as a singer with Benny Goodman’s band, where she incorporated jazz melodies into her songs, as well as an occasional country element, she secured her first recording contract with Mercury Records in 1947, and her first record with them was a smash.

“Confess” is significant for its instant placement as a Top 15 hit with Billboard Magazine, but even more fascinating was the overdubbing of Patti’s vocals, creating the illusion of harmonized background singers. Necessity may be the mother of invention, and in this case the saying is accurate. The whole process came about because of a strike in the studio that left Patti without her standard complement of singers. In 1950, Patti repeated the harmonizing technique on her first million selling song, “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming.” An early credit actually listed the artist on the recording as “The Patti Page Quartet.”

“The Tennessee Waltz” in 1951 became the most prodigious selling record of her career. It sold ten million copies and was a #1 hit on the charts for 30 weeks—and contributed, along with her 1953 novelty tune “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window”, to making her the best selling female vocalist of the ‘50s. Patti’s version of “Tennessee Waltz” is widely considered to be the first hit to cross-over the musical genres, spending time on the country, pop, and Rhythm and Blues charts.

During the 1970s, Patti’s career veered much more towards country music, yet she never completely abandoned the music that started her career.  Live at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert won a 1999 Grammy Award for best traditional pop vocal performance. Patti was posthumously honored with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2013.

During my numerous visits with Patti we talked about her lifelong career in music, but she also shared many personal memories with me—as well as reflections on Vegas during its neophyte years and entertainment in general.

“I met my second husband, Charlie O’Curran, through Betty Hutton. Yep, it’s all her fault.  In the early ‘50s, I went to see Betty’s show at the Palace Theater in New York, and I just loved it. Of course she sang like an angel, but what impressed me the most was the staging. My agents at that time were GAC and William Morris, and we all felt that I should give people more than just standing there and raising a hand while I sang.

“So I said to her, ‘I’d like to meet whoever put together your show.’ She told me it was her ex-husband Charlie O’Curran, and when we met we had a nice rapport. He started by coming to one or two of my rehearsals, then it became every day and he’d throw matches from 21 or Ciro’s or other great New York clubs at me. I know it must sound strange to you now, but it was flirting in those days. He did agree to choreograph and stage my act, and we opened with it at the Fontainebleau in Florida. He was vying for my attention, and it worked—we fell in love and were married for sixteen years.

“My act wasn’t anything like Betty’s; she was a fabulous dancer in addition to being a singer. I didn’t dance at all in my act. Charlie had me wear white gowns almost exclusively because he explained that, no matter what kind of lighting a club has, white gives you the most to work with.  He also had a humungous mirrored ball incorporated into all of my shows. It sounds simple compared to everything singers do today, but it was effective.”

“Charlie traveled everywhere with me. Once when I was doing a show in Arkansas, we adopted our two children.  People always wanted to know why Arkansas—why couldn’t we adopt in New York? There’s no reason other than we wanted to have a family—and I was working at a little place there and, during the course of the show’s run, we met two gentlemen who ran an adoption agency. You just never know what life has planned!

“Everything today is so rehearsed. Not much at all is ad-libbed or spontaneous. Today’s shows are choreographed and strictly repeated night after night. I look at today’s big singers and they go out for a 54 day tour every other year. Whereas, in the old days, you worked all the time—more or less every day. We were booked for four weeks at a time with two shows a day, and then we’d do it all over again in another place—straight through. Also, in those days we didn’t have huge staged shows with 50 dancers and fireworks. We just sang or danced or told jokes, but we sure knew how to entertain a crowd.

“When we were in Vegas, all the entertainers in town got together  and traveled from one club to another, catching each other’s shows until the late show. Say Don Rickels was working a late show at the Riviera—well, I’d finish mine and go see someone else, and when they finished we’d move on to collect the next one, and by Don’s show we’d have a little group of 5 or 6 entertainers. And then we’d include Don and go for drinks or breakfast or whatever—of course, by this time it was about 4 in the morning.

“Elvis was a good friend of Charlie’s, and if we were working in town at the same time we’d pal around together. He used to tease me by saying I was his mother’s favorite singer. Competitiveness wasn’t a problem at that time. We just all had the same job. The business as it is now is so secluded. The stars today are so much more aggressive and plotting than we ever were. It was a more innocent time with our jukeboxes.

“Rosie Clooney and I were good friends. We met in Cincinnati when she was a band singer and I was doing my solo act but we became fast friends. We both lived in New York and she was always at my apartment or I was at hers. This was many, many years before she met Jose and moved to California.  Even then, she was always over at my place. We eventually drifted apart for awhile because it was two different worlds—New York and Hollywood. Plus we were both so busy we didn’t get a chance to do much more than work. But when I came to Los Angeles, we’d hang out together at her house. We were all friends, Rosie, Betty, her brother Nick, the whole family.”

Speaking of Hollywood, I remembered that Patti was also in movies. “Just three,” she said. “The first one was quite a picture Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster. Then there was a cute picture called Boys Night Out with Kim Novak and Tony Randell. The other one was with David Janssen called Dondi, based on the comic strips. That one was immediately sold to television. Those were my only forays into Hollywood. I would have liked to have done more, but my agency didn’t make the money off them that they made when I worked in nightclubs and Vegas.”

While I was loafing with Patti, I asked who she liked listening to and she quickly answered, “Anne Murray is a favorite of mine and a dear personal friend. Also people like Ella and Frank—sadly they’re gone. We still have Tony Bennett and I love him. I saw him perform here not too long ago. Nowadays, I listen to a lot of country music.”

What about new, young up and coming country singers, I pushed. “There’s so much room in this world for singers and talent. People should hear it. I’m very happy with the way some country singers have made their name. The music is classier than it ever was and more accepted in the mainstream. People relate to country. I’m also partial to jazz singers like Ella. To me, Ella personifies everything jazz means. She was so laid back and didn’t really know what she had. It was just there. Lena also; she was the first glamorous singer I ever saw. I saw her in London and it blew me away.”

We sadly lost Patti January 2013. I consider it an amazing gift that I was able to visit her up until just a few days before she passed. Even while sick, she was gracious and generous in sharing her life with me.

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




Marge Champion

Marge Champion

Marge Champion

In 2011, Marge Champion shared a few of her memories with me from the ‘40’s when she and Gower opened for Liberace at The Persian Room (as a newlywed couple and in place of a honeymoon) and more stories from a year later— this time  headlining at that esteemed nightclub—for my book, The Persian Room Presents. During our many visits, she also revealed how her career developed and what she’s up to now.

For most of the 1940’s and ‘50s Marge was half of the illustrious dance team Marge and Gower Champion. As such, they performed in many of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals, including: Showboat [1951], Everything I Have Is Yours [1952] a remake of the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers’s movie titled  Lovely To Look At [1952], and Give a Girl a Break [1953]. They also entertained TV audiences in 1957 with their situation comedy series, The Marge and Gower Champion Show. Additionally, the dance team graced the stages of most of the prestigious nightclubs and showrooms throughout the country.

Marge, however, was marked for stardom long before getting together with Gower. Her father, the well-recognized ballet dance master, taught her dance technique as soon as she could walk, and she became a ballet instructor in his studio by the time she was twelve. Marge told me, “Cecil B. DeMille built a studio for my father and sent actors and actresses to us to teach how to dance. At first I was his demonstrator, but later he gave me small jobs. Once when I was fifteen, he asked me to instruct a very beautiful thirteen year old girl from Amarillo Texas named Tula Finklea on ballet. I did, and she later changed her name to Cyd Charisse. Not only did she became a great actress, but she was a lovely dancer and danced with Gene Kelly and many other great partners. There were so many other famous faces that came to us to learn how to move—my father even worked with Shirley Temple.”

A few short years later, Marge was hired in 1937 by Walt Disney Studios as the model for Snow White. “I auditioned for this animated movie the studio was making and there must have been two or three hundred other girls trying for the same part. So much time went by without hearing anything that I forgot about it, but they finally called and I was hired as the live dance model. That film was eventually regarded as the groundbreaker of all groundbreakers—which was totally unexpected because at that time the animators openly named it ‘Walt’s Folly.’

Because I was so young, Walt Disney was very protective of me. I always called him ‘Uncle Walt.’ I wore a short black wig, put on a special pinafore, and danced around while the animators sketched every movement I made. Opening night, it was a smash hit!”

Walt Disney’s animated films are enthusiastically appreciated worldwide today because of Snow White’s enormous success. The Disney artists used Marge as the prototype for the blue fairy in Pinocchio [1940], and Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia [1940]. “They even had me prance around in an oversized floopy coat for scenes in Dopey,” said Marge.

Marge and Gower were often referred to as the Irene and Vernon Castle of the ‘50s. “There was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelley and whoever he was dancing with, and then there was Marge and Gower.” Marge told me. “We were the only married couple, and that made us kind of unique.”

During one of our visits, Marge mentioned that she smoked during the height of her career. Somehow this surprised me, maybe because I think of dancers almost as athletes. Seeing my incredulity, Marge explained,” Gower smoked a lot, and I smoked a little because everyone did. It was the grown up think to do. But I never smoked before breakfast and never after dinner. I was never one who had to have a bedtime cigarette or any of that stuff.

“My son was very, very much against my smoking—so much so that I eventually took a cue from Richard Rodgers on how to stop. When Gower and I were doing Hello Dolly, Richard and his wife came to our apartment on Central Park South for dinner one night —we had the entire twentieth floor and it was gorgeous. Well, his wife and I lit up cigarettes in the dining room and Richard got upset at us both. ‘I’ve tried to quit,’ I told him. I really have tried many times, but then I get a role in a show where the character smoke and I start up again.’ Well, he was firm and insisted I could do it. He told me that the most effective method to break a particular habit, such as smoking, is to change as many other habits as possible. He said, ‘If you bathe in the morning take a shower at night instead. Move your pencils to the opposite side of your desk, move the phone, rearrange your clothes closet, switch bed sides’—all these things he told me to do. ‘That way,’ he explained, ‘your mind is so busy processing new different things that it isn’t obsessing over just one change, like not to smoke.’

“You know what? It worked! I was so busy trying to remember where I moved my slippers to that I forgot to smoke! It really works.”

Marge is 95 and when we last spoke, she had just returned to New York after a visit to Walt Disney Studios in California, where she demonstrated some of her signature dance moves. She continues to work, training and choreographing New York dancers. She concluded by saying, “The only form of show business I haven’t done is burlesque.”

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



Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez’s recording ofIf I had a Hammer in 1963 catapulted to the number one position in thirty-eight countries. It sold over a million copies and garnered him a gold record.

While still a teenager, Trini caught the attention of the influential rock-n-roll pioneer, Buddy Holly, who introduced him to a music producer, who in turn signed Trini and his band, The Big Beats, to Columbia Records.

Trini eventually left The Big Beats to go it alone as a solo act. Around the same time he was invited to Los Angeles to fill Buddy Holly’s position with The Crickets following the tragic 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly—along with Richie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—who was traveling to a tour date during a snowstorm.

Singing with ‘The Crickets’ never came to actually happen, but Trini enjoyed the California lifestyle, and decided to stay in LA, supporting himself singing in various clubs—including the Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills. He would hit the stage without a backup band and only a guitar as accompaniment. “I used to do five shows a night and I never repeated a song. I memorized all of those songs and the audience would clap and sing along. Everyone had a great time and I started getting a big following. All the young Hollywood gang hung out there—Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall,” Trini explained. “None of us were what we’d become back then—we were just starting out at the same time. The engagement was for two weeks, but the audience liked me so they kept extending my contract. I was there for a year.”

After that gig, Trini began singing at P.J.s, another club in the same area. “I was hired by another little place making a little more money” Trini continued. “I think I remember it was $175 dollars a month. Then one night Don Costa, the famous record producer, came in and told Frank Sinatra about how impressed he was with me.”

One night not long afterwards, Sinatra came to see and listen to Costa’s latest discovery, and immediately signed Trini to an eight year contract with his own record label, Reprise Records. His first album on his new label—Trini at P.J.’s—became a number one album on the charts. It was from that album that “If I Had a Hammer was selected for release as a single


Album Cover

Trini Lopez at PJS – Album Cover

“I thought I was going to die when Don Costa was interested in me,” Trini said.”I was that excited.”

“I never wanted to work a lounge, but Sinatra put me to work singing in one in Lake Tahoe. He had a place there called the Cal Neva Lounge that he owned with Sam Giancana and the boys from Chicago. I told him I really didn’t want to play there but Frank said, ‘if I have to play it, so do you. So I worked there an entire summer while he was in the main room with the Rat Pack. After his show ended, he would come over with Marilyn Monroe and all the guys to listen to me. It ended up being a very good summer.”

“After I finished my contract at P.J.’s, I never went back—not even for breakfast. I started playing at larger and more prestigious spots. This was 1963 and my career really took off. That was my ‘big time.’

“One time a few years later, I did a big show in Forest Hills Stadium New York. It held fifteen thousand people and I packed it. They had to build the stage because it was a tennis stadium and they had the big search lights called spotlight troopers—really huge, bright lights, and there were eight of them. With the lights you really couldn’t see very well at all as you come out. Well, Woody Allen opened the show for me. In those days he wore glasses an inch thick and when they introduced him, he came on stage—which was about fifteen feet high—and he went right over the edge because he couldn’t see. He miscalculated the stage but he was so good that he got his glasses together and got back on stage and did his full thirty minutes. He was great—and he still is!”

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




Tony Butala

Tony Butala of The Letterman and I share a hug.

Tony Butala of The Letterman and I share a hug.

For anyone who wasn’t around—or paying attention— during the ‘60’s, the Lettermen were a music vocal trio popular for their close-harmony pop songs. Their unique sound was a blend of big band vocal groups and R&B rock groups. The ‘60’s and early ‘70’s saw the Lettermen scoring over sixteen Top 10 records, including their chart toppers “When I Fall in Love,” “The Way You Look Tonight”, and the “Theme From A Summer Place”—all that while also garnering eighteen gold records and five Grammy nominations.

The original group, founded in 1958 before it was called the Lettermen, included a merry-go-round of singers, beginning initially with Tony Butala, Talmadge Russell, and Mike Barnett. By 1961, the group was officially named the Lettermen and, after many changes, consisted of Tony Butale, Jim Pike, and Bob Engeman. Other singers however continued to rotate in and out; when Engeman left, Jim’s brother Gary Pike took his position, and when Jim Pike departed another brother Don filled the gap.

Despite the early shifts in talent, the group consistently released hit after hit, including: “Going Out of My Head Over You/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” “Graduation Day” “Hurt So Bad” “Smile” “Come Back Silly Girl” and a myriad of other memorable tunes. In 2010, the Lettermen—still including the group’s original founding member, Tony Butala, as well as Bobby Poynton and Donovan Tea—observed their 50th Anniversary.

It was June of 2010, while I was collecting stories for The Persian Room Presents, that Tony Butala invited me to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for an afternoon of chatting about his event-filled career.

“While I was still attending Hollywood Professional School in the mid ‘50’s, I actually put together the first singing group called The Fourmost. There were three guys—two of my former Mitchell Boy Choir friends and my buddy Concetta Ingolia. We started to get known, and had a pretty good reputation performing around town. Then Concetta was cast in a new TV show called Hawaiian Eye andleft the group to pursue an acting career. She also changed her name to Connie Stevens. She was my good friend, and because she was on her show every week we couldn’t go anywhere without her being mobbed. Although the Fourmost disbanded at this time, it laid the foundation for the group that became known as The Lettermen.

“My satisfaction has always come from producing our records, writing songs, and singing on stage while not being a star.”

I broke in to mention that the Lettermen were the recipients of an unvarying array of accolades and awards and were definitely stars. In 1962, they were named Best New Group and Best Vocal Group by most pollsters.

“Of course it’s great when people recognize us after a show, but we were and still are a singing trio. I remember when Freddy D’Cordova came to me the first time we did the Tonight Show and asked which one of us was going to sit on the couch with Johnny. I said, ‘what do you mean which one? All of us are going to sit on the couch with Johnny.’ We are three singers—I had most of the leads but we all sang. He said, ‘There’s no room.’ I shied away from being the front man and avoid it whenever possible

Tony had a knack for drawing attention from an early age—even if unintentionally.

“I was five and a half years old and didn’t want to go to the first day of school so I skipped it. My parents couldn’t find me for the longest time, but they eventually caught me at the top of the tallest tree two fields away. When I finally started attending school, I disrupted class. My mother decided I had too much energy and enrolled me in dance class. In the ‘40’s, going to dance class was a sissy thing and I got teased by the guys for doing ballet. I thought these guys were stupid because I was in heaven—thirty little girls and me!

“The dance school ended the year with a recital, something to show the parents what their 25 cents a month went to. As the only boy, I was the production singer, and my opening number was ‘Johnny Jump Up”. Well, I stopped the show—literally. They had me repeat it three times. When we got home, the phone was ringing off the hook. The Moose Hall, The Elks, The Eagles, the ROTC, and the Knights of Columbus—all asking for little Anthony to do their Christmas Party or 4th of July bash. The only drawback I found was that there was an aversion to paying kids money. They’d pay my piano player five dollars but gave me cuff links or a watermelon if it was summer. I was six years old when my mother looked in my little drawer and saw that I was the only six year old with thirty-five pair of cuff links. We started charging $5 dollars after that!

“My parents had a lot of relatives and we all lived in the same neighborhood. All of us kids were born in the same house in Sharon, Pennsylvania. I now own that house. I grew up with a strong sense of family and still like the feel of having roots.

“During the next few years, my young career progressed and my fame spread. I was now singing and doing impressions on radio shows, and all of the sudden I was getting asked to do shows as far away as Rochester, New York. I was making about $25 dollars then—which was more money than my dad made, and I wasn’t even ten yet.

“I moved from Pennsylvania to California when I was ten years old after I auditioned and was selected to work in the Mitchell Boys Choir in LA,. My mother came with me to the try-outs but had ten more kids at home in Pennsylvania. So, she borrowed a phone from her cousin and called my father for advice.  He knew about the choir and that they had a great reputation. He was also was aware of all the movie credits and television shows they had under their belt, so after a few minutes my Mother handed the phone to me, whereas my father said, ‘Okay, Anthony, what do you want to do?’ Three days later, my mother was on the train back east by herself. Within six months, my oldest sister came out to see what her little brother was into, and she ended up as an executive secretary at Western Electric.

I had a very, very wonderful experience in show business. At ten, I was appearing in commercials, motion pictures, and concerts—concerts in twenty-eight languages, around the world. We learned those languages at the Mitchell Choir school, including Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Greek, and a whole lot of others. The Boys Choir has been in Los Angeles since the ‘30’s and only disbanded in 2000. Bob Mitchell was a wonderful, wonderful human being. He didn’t charge the kids a percentage at all. Whatever we made for a wedding, funeral, concert, or whatever was ours to keep.

“They participated in over 300 motion pictures and television shows. All the kids you see in the movies during the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s, and ‘60’s were in the Mitchell Boys Choir. I was in ‘On Moonlight Bay’ with Gordon McCrea and Doris Day, ‘War of the World’ with Gene Barry, Walt Disney’s ‘Peter Pan’—I was the voice of the chubby lost boy in the skunk outfit. But my biggest thrill was being in ‘White Christmas’ with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera Ellen.”

Today Tony is a young 75 years old and doing an average 100 concerts a year with The Lettermen. He also owns an award winning winery which he started on his California ranch in 1969. Twenty years later, he purchased another farm in Napa Valley and began selling his wine commercially in 1992 under the Castlebrooke label. Tony credits his Croatian grandfather Miko with teaching him the techniques of winemaking when he was five years old.


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



David Brenner

David Brenner

Sadly, David Brenner passed away March 15, 2014, but I had the good fortune to talk with him in August 2013, about the performers who entertained at the Playboy Clubs from 1960 until 1988. David shared many ‘Playboy’ stories as well as other observations he formed during his career. He talks below about his very early years and his thoughts on working for the mob.

“Almost all the guys that started at the same time as I did were friends. We were lucky because there were only about a dozen of us—actually, someone counted, and there were something like 265 fresh comedians trying to catch a break at that time. Which really wasn’t a lot, the last I heard, there were somewhere between fourteen and seventeen standup comedians in America today.  And back in the early 70s’, about twelve of us hung around together.  We were all new faces—Jimmie Walker, Freddy Prinze, Steve Landesberg, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and a few others.

“We were all unique—we couldn’t trade our act. I couldn’t say to Jimmy Walker, ‘Listen Jimmy, I’ve got a sore throat, could you take over for me tomorrow? I’ll give you my act, No! We were all different. That was an advantage. Each one of us had a special personality, but we supported and nurtured each other.  Today it’s dog eat dog. Back then we’d come from the Village or the Upper East Side, and met for breakfast or after our shows, and we’d sit down and feed each other jokes. I remember once saying to Steve Landesberg, ‘I think I have a joke for you Steve, I can’t use it.’ He says, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Jewish duck hunters. There aren’t any Jewish duck hunters.’ And he did this routine on Jewish duck hunters. I laugh to this day when I think of it—what a brilliant thing he did with it. You never see that today. They steal from each other like thieves!

“I’ve had to call a few people for stealing my material. It’s one thing if I give it away, but another if they just take it! One night I was watching an HBO special of a big star, and he did a seven minute chunk of my material verbatim.  This guy is famous for stealing, so I called his manager,  and said, ‘You know, I saw your boy last night on HBO. Funny stuff.’ He said, ‘Yeah, he loves you.’ ‘Yeah okay,’ I said. ‘You know me. I’m a neighborhood guy. We didn’t have lawyers in my neighborhood. We had the Bambino Club. Tell your client that if he ever does one line of anything that’s mine again, I’m going to rip his legs off, shove them up his ass, and he’ll be the shortest living comic around.’

“This guy still runs when he sees me, but lately  I’ve gotten to the point where I try not to get so upset. I have a line that I pop into my head to relax me, and that is, ‘I can create faster than anyone can steal.’ End of that story!

“I was the young kid in the seventies, and was very fortunate that some of the seasoned veterans took me under their wing and opened doors for me. Shecky Greene, Red Foxx, Johnny Carson—all those guys were so kind to me. Buddy Hackett got me a gig in Vegas, and I spent my career making money there in Las Vegas thanks to him. Like I said, you don’t see that today.”

While David was telling me about working Vegas, I had to ask him about working for the mafia because—well, because everyone knows Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas. “Please,” he said. “They were grand! Here’s how it worked. You’d finish your run in the showroom in March, right? And a guy with no neck and a nose that touched his ear would come over and say, ‘Yo, Dave, I wanna talk to you a minute. You’re funny. Very funny. What are you doing the last two weeks in July?’ I’d said, ‘Why are you interested in what I’m doing in July?’ ‘Well, I was wondering if you’d work my joint, you know.’ I, of course would ask, ‘what’s your joint? Which hotel do you run? Sometimes he’d say he was the overseeing chef—but really he was from the mob in Chicago.

“It would continue with me saying, ‘Talk to me, what are you offering?’ We’d work out our deal, how much money, plus a car at the airport—a nice convertible. Sometimes I’d ask, ‘Do you still have the boat on the lake?’ ‘I’m not giving you the boat! Maybe one day, but I’m not promising nothing!’ We’d go through a litany of things like that—the show, specifics about the opening act and on and on. And the last word he’d say was, ’Alright, so we have a deal or what?’ I never knew what ‘or what ‘was, but I’d say, ‘We’ve got a deal,’ and he’d put out his hand and we shook.

“This is the amazing part—along comes the second week of July. Without hearing from him since the day I shook his hand, I’d get my own airfare— because that’s what you did then— and fly to Las Vegas. When I landed, there was a car waiting to take me to the hotel. My name was in big letters on the marquee. I had a beautiful suite with all kinds of stuff they’d put there for you. Everything was exactly like they told you. They never broke one word—nothing on paper—all on a handshake. They treated you like royalty with enough food in my dressing room to feed another country—‘Yo Dave, you never know, someone drops by your room, you want to be able to offer him a meatball!’

“Then the corporations took over, and even with a contract seventeen pages long, you never get everything they promised. Something would be wrong, so my agent would call and say, ‘Wait a minute, we have a contract. it’s in the contract!’ And they say, alright, sue us! Playboy was old school; they treated you like the mob treated you. That’s what was great about them. They treated you right!”

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