Two names, one inspired act. That Schmecky, he could imitate anyone. His two-way skit about the Duke of Windsor’s date with Il Duce had them on the floor at Grossinger’s. Sullivan hears about it and Schmecky gets the call. Bathes, gets suit pressed, and turns up for his appearance on time. Wouldn’t you know it, those four mopheads from Liverpool arrive and the crowd goes bananas. Schmecky gets trampled in the mêlée. Last words at Cedars: “Bury me with the borscht—Jennie’s borscht!”
Benny comes over after the war. Applies for a G.I. loan but gets the heave-ho. “I was a veteran!” he wails to the V.A. stooge who nixed him. “But you fought on the other side!” comes the reply. Benny picks up some Indian clubs at a flyspecked gym in Midtown. In no time he’s keeping four of those suckers airborne at the same time. When he combines this with his slightly off-color patter, he becomes a shoo-in for the Sullivan show. The thing is, Benny starts experimenting with wooden rings, and at the audition the CBS censors hit the roof when the finale had the rings all ending up on Benny’s famously large you-know-what. Nowadays that sort of antic would get him an advisory job in the White House. Back then it was verboten—with a side of sauerkraut!
Pesto the Clown
Had the same agent as Topo Gigio, the talking mouse. Pesto’s name was fine in his native Bulgaria. Didn’t work so well with Bill Paley and the stiffs upstairs at CBS. Pesto switched to Presto, but still no dice. It was his manufactured Bulgarian-English-Spanish accent that wouldn’t fly with audiences. When bandleader Ray Bloch tells Sullivan that Pesto looks like him in clown drag, Ed blows a gasket. No Pesto. Not now. Not ever.
As a ventriloquist, Willie Wankoff got the talking-without-moving-his-lips bit down pat. Thing is, he forgot he needed to have something to say. Kids were creeped out by the look of Little Willie Wanker, as Big Willie named his sidekick. (Everybody remembers that time when Little Willie’s jaw fell to the floor—literally.) Network censors objected to the dummy’s name—not to mention his trademark gag line: “Hands off my Willie!” So, no Sullivan. The two Willies wind up doing The Joe Franklin Show instead. But Little Willie yanks Joe’s rug off during his interview with London Lee. Joe, thinking quickly, says the ventriloquist and his dummy gave him the “Willies.” Audience loved it. Rim shot!
He didn’t really have an act. Didn’t need one in those fading days of vaudeville. A light shuffle and a winning smile and the bookers for Keith’s would sign you. Those were the days. Mashy perfected the down-on-his-luck drifter. It worked big in the sticks, but didn’t translate so well to television. “Too Dust Bowl!” the critic for the Herald wailed. And you know how sensitive Sullivan was to his old chums in the press box. Mashy was exiled to Newark. Handled fan mail for Professor Irwin Corey till the bitter end.
Hector de la Cortuna
Cugat got Charo and the north-of-the-border acclaim, but it was Hector de la Cortuna who brought the bandleader aesthetic into the boudoir. Musical, funny, and sexy, that Hector. Ends every routine with his catchphrase, “Tell me about it!” Audiences collapse each time. Guys love the routines. The ladies swoon every time he moves his lips—or his hips. Trouble is, the former gets him into hot water when he’s eyeballed backstage at a Friars shindig giving Monty St. Clair a good tongue-lashing, as wags of the day put it. It’s Hicksville from there on. Hector ends up living out his days as a greeter at the HoJo’s just off Times Square. It’s the free clam rolls that do him in. Gets so fat he has to be airlifted out of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Cedars was closer, but the medics figure they’ll save a trip and take him right to Frank Campbell’s. They wheel him into the funeral home and the undertakers all shout in unison: “Tell us about it!” Hector dies laughing.
Monty St. Clair
Monty St. Clair was everybody’s favorite storyteller. Better than Myron Cohen, they said. And he was! But when word got out about him and Hector, all bets were off with Sullivan. In those days this sort of manly friendship was a no-no. Monty was a broken man. Got to hand it to those Friars, though. They take care of their own. Monty’s still there at 91, busing tables and kibitzing with the guests.
Fluffer the Happy Duffer
Boy, the censors had a field day with this one, once they found out that Fluffer had done precisely that in the adult-entertainment industry. Woohee, what a mess! Kilgallen gets her teeth into that one and won’t let go. Fluffer sees the writing on the wall—ditches the outfit and returns to his farm near Sofia. Good ending to the story, though. He noodles around in the barn with some marshmallows and butter and comes up with, you guessed it, everybody’s favorite breakfast confection, Fluffer Butter. Rest is history. Lives out in Oyster Bay, married to Charo’s younger sister. Big house. Big boat. He’s living the life!
The Italian Scallion
Nick Apollo Fermé had it all. Looks, muscles, mustache, the ladies—the whole lot. A cinch for Sullivan, what with that voice. What happened? Easy. Nick worshipped at the foot of Monty St. Clair, but didn’t have his flair—or his slim 48-inch waistline. As the wiseguys said, he had the jacket—but not the class. Still worked, though. Sullivan goes to check him out at Tony’s Nut House on Mulberry one night in a double bill with Señor Wences. Wences and his talking hand killed it! Sullivan signs him on the spot. That was it for Nick. It was a one-way ticket to Bumpkinsville—with no stops along the way!
The Wasp Richie Rich, the bookers called him. Randy told stories about Oyster Bay, Locust Valley—and made them funny! (Who knew watercress sandwiches could be a punch line?) Randy knew everyone on the Social Register and everything about them. Mix all that with his disheveled-professor look and he’s a natural for Sullivan, right? Wrong. What kills Randy’s chances with Ed? Simple. When his pop goes six feet under, Randy feels flush with cash. He heads up to Connecticut to buy a spread befitting a man of his stature. He looks at the first place the agent shows him and screams it’s a dump! Trouble was, it was Sullivan’s hideaway and he was trying to sell it. London gets sidelined to working tables at Bailey’s and the Knickerbocker.
This was a ripe one. Under General Francisco Franco, the Colonel helped destroy the Brigades in ’36. Franco used to crack up at the Colonel’s banter. What does he do after the big war? Goes into showbiz. Ed catches him at the Corral de la Morería in Madrid in the 60s. He loves the Colonel’s deadpan delivery and is about to book him, but then the bodies start turning up on his estancia. Those pick noses at the Times get wind, and the hoo-ha is all over the front pages. Sheesh. As the general said in his broken English, “You can’t make an omelet without brutalizing a few eggs!”
Godfrey Daniel is the author of The Mouse That Roared: The Life and Times of Topo Gigio and Northern Magic: The Times and Life of Wayne and Shuster