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The southern comedian, Lonnie Shorr—whose delivery has often been compared in the tradition of Will Rodgers—worked the Playboy circuit for two straight years. He told us, “I’m glad I did! It was a great learning experience and an opportunity to perfect your act —although you never really reach perfection.
“I found my niche working for Playboy because you did so many shows for them. It was a ‘floating‘ schedule because usually you did two shows a night. But if the last show had an attendance of fifteen percent of the room capacity, you had to do another show! In other words, if the room sat a hundred people and you had fifteen people in the audience—you did another show. So theoretically, you could be doing a lot of shows!
“One thing about Playboy that was different from the way things are today is that you couldn’t use four letter words. Nobody did that. If you did, you had an unfavorable report written about you. This report was sent to the company headquarters in Chicago, and if you received too many bad write-ups you were dropped from the circuit, and no one wanted that. There were guys that were a little suggestive, but no cursing.
“The Playboy Clubs were one of the few places we worked that had standards, very high standards for everyone—the staff, the Bunnies, and the entertainers. The other day, I had a guy from one of our local newspapers ask me about the entertainment scene today, and I told him I thought that the Playboy principle of entertainment was what they needed today in some of these other clubs.
The Playboy Clubs always had two acts—once in awhile they’d have three acts in the bigger clubs. It was a place where you could go and see a show and, at that time the prices were really nominal –then you could go downstairs and listen to some music while actually talking to the person you were with. That’s the kind of place we could use nowadays.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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!”