It was the summer of Watergate. The Senate panel held forth from every television. Sam Ervin: “That’s not executive privilege, that’s executive poppycock!” Howard Baker: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” But for me, it was the summer of that other dais, the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.
On the air since ’64 and heading into its ninth season, Dean’s one-hour variety show was fraying – and not just at the edges. At 58, Dino was no longer sliding down a fireman’s pole or hopping onto a piano. Rat Pack era jokes about booze & broads were past their shelf life. The only thing sliding down a slick pole was the Nielsen rating.
At the first production meeting in June, a new format was revealed.
Make that a few new ones. Half the show will now be a Friars Club-style celebrity roast. The other half, called Dean’s Music Country, will have the singer in blue jeans, crooning country hits amid bales of hay. Or sometimes, half the show will be a roast, and the other half will be the old variety show, with guest stars and comedy sketches. Or the roast will take up a whole hour. Or ninety minutes if you’re roasting Don Rickles.
But week after week, for the next six months, there’s going to be a roast.
When you have to pay tribute to a new person each week, for 25 weeks – everyone from Aaron (Hank) to Zsa Zsa – things get a little desperate. You honor anyone available: Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall, TV’s Cannon William Conrad, and consumer-advocate Ralph Nader. You even honor the unavailable: President George Washington, with an actor playing him.
What did we know?
Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1973. Jim Mulholland and I are piloting an Avis rental car through the San Fernando Valley. Jet-lagged and squinting, we’d just flown in from New York on three days notice. To hell with physics, the heat wasn’t rising in Burbank on this day. We parked in front of a structure more suited to a discount dentist than a glamorous TV show.
Dean’s producer proffered a hand the size of a mature flounder. He nodded at a couch: “Sit.” Dragging a chair deep into our personal space, he straddled it backwards, and seemed to pick up an argument at midpoint. “Harry Crane is here for one reason and one reason only. To get Dean up. If there is any conflict, whatsoever, between you and Crane, you go, Harry stays. Got it?” We nodded. “Now get outta here, I’ll see you after the holiday.”
Harry Crane was the show’s head writer and responsible for us being there. We’d worked with him on the 1971 Emmy Awards telecast hosted by Johnny Carson, for whom we had been writing. Harry had written for Jackie Gleason on the DuMont Network’s Cavalcade of Stars, Martin & Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, Abbott & Costello, and even Laurel & Hardy. He seemed then, to a writer in his twenties, to have been around since the dawn of comedy.
“When I say to you I worked with everyone in the history of show business, you laugh, right?” We laughed. “Name anyone.”
“Uh, John Barrymore?”
“Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, 1932. My first writing job. Name another.”
“Roomed with him. Fastidious, always washing his hands. When I hear a name today like, uh, Mac Davis, I have to laugh. I saw Jolson in person. I’ve been to the mountaintop. When they throw the dirt on me, I saw the picture.”
Harry’s stated philosophy of life was, “Don’t start up.” Working on an Andy Williams TV special, the guest singer’s name came up:
Harry: “Her? She’s fat, looks like Jake LaMotta, can’t carry a tune.”
Andy: “Harry, I booked her.”
Harry: “You didn’t let me finish.”
A comedy writing team, like partners in the garment trade, is often made up of an Inside Guy and an Outside Guy. The Inside Guy keeps his eye on the books and the Outside Guy peddles. On the Caesar show, the writing team of Neil & Danny Simon fit that mold – Neil at the typewriter, Danny, the more gregarious, improvising. Jim and I were an exception –- two introverts. In a pitch meeting, we’ll double-team you to sleep.
What we hadn’t known until we got to LA (aside from the roast thing) is that we were there to be Harry’s Inside Guys. We reported to him, took our assignments from him, handed him our finished work. At the end of the week, he’d sell it to Dean. And one day soon, he promised, he would take us over to meet the star that had heard such good things about us.
Harry Crane arrived in Burbank each morning in a tweed Ben Hogan cap and calfskin driving gloves, as if stepping from a British roadster. In truth, he drove a late model Caddy at well under the speed limit. Anyone encountered on his way into the building got a rolling, “Hey, pal,” as he hurried to his office.
Bald, with a thinning apron of white hair, Crane was slim and straight. He had the fluid moves and rubbery limbs of a vaudeville dancer; you thought he might break into a soft shoe. At 19, he’d done standup in the Catskills. Now, at 63 (59, if you buy the obituary), he wore heavy-framed eyeglasses with square, gray-tinted lenses the size of bar coasters. His face was patchy and reddish as if he’d shaved too close. When he spoke, he revealed a raw, stubby line of bottom teeth that looked to have been chain-sawed flat like a row of hedges.
Hesh wore Italian horsebit loafers and a Sy Devore sport coat, his pencil-thin legs draped in custom flannels with a knife-edge crease. “Feel these, like butter. Go on, feel,” he insisted, until you felt the goods. Then, with a pointed glance, added, “If you want to make a hundred dollars a week, you got to look like a hundred dollars a week.” Presumably, he was referring to a time when that figure meant something; either that or he knew what the show was paying us.
They gave us an office next to Harry’s. It had a pair of back-to-back desks, two chairs, two manual typewriters, and a window facing Riverside Drive. The wood door had a jagged hole through its center, the precise size of our producer’s fist. It was the result of creative differences the previous season.
The three of us would meet in Harry’s office every morning. He liked to tell stories about the old days and we liked to hear them. It was preferable to writing. We sat in chairs facing his desk.
He swiveled his neck to loosen an arthritic kink. “When I say the name Jack Entratter, does that mean anything to you?” “Runs the Sands Hotel?” one of us ventured. He loved that we got his references: Jimmy Van Heusen, Al Boasberg, Sherman Billingsley, Gallagher & Shean, Skinny D’Amato, Sliding Billy Watson. Harry flattered us as the only other hip ones on the show: “Thank God for you, boys. If you weren’t here, I’d die.”
He’d reenact bits from long-forgotten vaudeville and burlesque sketches. One, called The Upper Berth, was set in a train’s sleeper car. The comedian Ben Blue, perched in an upper sleeping berth, reacts to the conversation of a fully clothed couple in the lower berth. From his vantage, he can’t see them. The woman, in a fox stole, says to her man, “Go ahead, touch it. It’s so soft and furry.” Blue, hearing only the sexual connotation, takes it big, eyes bulging. It went on in that vein.
Harry did Smith & Dale’s “Firehouse” sketch, nailing the vaudevillians’ Yiddish accents: “Firehouse! Chief speaking. Canal Street? Why didn’t you have that fire yesterday? We were there yesterday!” Harry’s laughing, we’re laughing. “What’s that? Your house is on fire? Did you throw water on it? That’s all we do!” We were a great audience, laughing and repeating, “That’s all we do!”
“Harry,” I say, “you ought to write a book.”
“I wrote the book. It’s up here. When I go, the book goes.”
Then, serious: “All right, we gotta do this.” This being Senator Birch Bayh’s remarks for the upcoming Monty Hall Roast. My attention drifts. I sneak a glance at the Watergate story on the front page of the Herald Examiner. “You’re not gonna find it in there, Mike.”
Harry Crane, who always saw himself as the hippest guy in the room, spoke in a unique patois. He had as many words for the unhip as Eskimos have for snow. Waterhead. Flood victim. Stale guy. Poor Soul. Mother Fletcher guy. (The last two borrowed from Jackie Gleason sketches.) To Harry, the planet was populated with poor souls and Mother Fletchers. He preferred the hipper company of his pals Alan King, Steve Lawrence and Jan Murray.
“Step in here for a second will you, darling?” Harry would beckon the receptionist, whom he deemed a typical TV viewer, into our office. “Read it to her,” he’d say. I’d read a new joke aloud. She listened. “I don’t get it.”
“Thank you, darling.” He’d shut the door on her and the joke. “Kill it.”
Harry avoided the poor souls who congregated daily in the break room with their sad-looking brown bag lunches. “Wanna go for a cup a soup?” he’d ask, which was Harry-speak for a bite to eat. We’d climb into his Coupe Deville for the slow eight-block drive – past Lakeside Car Wash, past Bob’s Big Boy – to Paty’s diner in Toluca Lake. He ordered a tuna melt. When the weary-looking, zaftig waitress departed from the table, he’d remark, “How’d you like to pick up her tab for life?”
Sometimes we’d eat at Chow’s Kosherama in Burbank – a combination Jewish deli and Chinese restaurant. You could get lo mein with your lox, or pork fried rice with your pastrami, a million crazy combinations from the 4-page menu. What you couldn’t get at Kosherama was anything kosher.
Friends and relatives asked, “What’s Dean really like?”
I wanted to say that Dino was the same fun-loving charmer they saw every week on their living room screen. In truth, Dean Martin was an offstage character, never seen. For all I knew, he was unaware of the location of his own show’s production offices. And since the writers were not allowed near NBC’s Studio 4 it was doubtful any would ever encounter Dean in the flesh. In-the-Flesh Dean played golf six days out of seven as his co-stars rehearsed with a Dean-sized stand-in. He would drop in for the Friday taping. The standard explanation was that Dean wanted to maintain the off-the-cuff, devil-may-care, joie de vivre he was famous for. Another explanation is he didn’t give a shit. Didn’t matter. It worked.
One writer did have access to Dean. After all, he was there to get Dean up before every show. He was protective of his turf. “I told Dean all about you boys,” Harry said more than once. “He loves your stuff. You’re gonna meet him.”
Among many other roast tasks, the three of us were responsible for Dean’s opening remarks. As permanent master of ceremonies, he would begin the proceedings. This gave him first crack at all the target areas. His monologue called for – what else? – drinking jokes, zingers, and the kind of wordplay writer Goodman Ace called single entendres.
Dean could deliver a joke. He was rumored to be funny in person. We had no way of knowing. But Harry promised to introduce us. Soon.
Sending us off to write Dean’s “mono” on Jack Benny, with his tightwad persona, Harry would say: “You can hit him on cheap.” Then, machine gun-style: “So cheap he sits with his back to the check… So cheap he’d give you the sleeves off his vest… So cheap he soaps up in the rain… So cheap he’s got a handicap – he’s hard of spending… I’ll give you cheaps as fast as I talk.”
Harry would duck into his office to work on Dean’s spot, leaving us alone to do the same. Then, without warning, he’d throw open our door with his school teacher bit: “Time’s up, give me all your pages!” He’d laugh. We’d laugh. It was funny. The first time.
On occasion, when the variety format kicked in, we would get to write a sketch. First, we’d pitch Harry a premise. He’d ask, “What’s the denoomin?” Using the Brooklyn pronunciation of denouement.
Writing a sketch for Dean meant writing around Dean. His part couldn’t involve movement that required blocking at rehearsal. Dean didn’t do rehearsal. Stage directions for him usually read, DEAN IS BEHIND THE DESK. Or, DEAN AND GIRL ARE ON THE COUCH. It didn’t get more complicated than DEAN ENTERS, CARRYING GOLF CLUBS.
As we searched for a way to kick off, say, Hugh Hefner’s rebuttal on his roast, Harry would say: “You need a neutral here. You know, I need this evening like. I need this evening like Yul Brynner needs Head & Shoulders… I need this evening like Hermione Gingold needs the pill… I need this evening like Van Gogh needed stereo. Fast as I talk.” Then adding: “If you haven’t heard it, it’s new.”
Toward late afternoon, Harry’s face sagged with fatigue. He looked his age, whatever it was. Staring at a deadline, he was ready to go with what we had. He’d shrug and give the day a positive spin: “Hey, nobody said shit, nobody got hurt.”
And he liked to remind, “No one’s gonna remember you for this, boys. Nobody’s gonna be at dinner at Chasen’s, look at his watch and say, ‘I gotta get home for the Ralph Nader Roast.’”
Harry had made peace with his life’s work. “Plays? I could write plays. You’re not gonna find me on the road with a comedy in New Haven in February. Snow, twenty below. What pain!”
He dismissed our notion of returning to New York. “You wanna play ball, you gotta be in the ballpark.” Then added, “Zippity doo-dah.” The first time he said it, we just looked at him. Zippity doo-dah, it turned out, was Harry’s mantra. Shorthand invoked on any day we had to swallow too much.
He elaborated. “Friday, when I’m heading home on the four-oh-five, I look to my right, see some poor soul driving an old pick-up with the tail pipe dragging, sparks flying … it’s tied to the bumper with a piece of rope, black smoke pouring out. He’s fuckin’ sweating, no air conditioning. That’s when I take out my paycheck, put it up on my sun visor where I can see it, step hard on the gas … And as I pull away, I sing, ‘Zippity-doo-dah … Zippity-ay…’”
In earlier, Gleason-era photos, Crane is unrecognizable, heavyset. But 20 years on, the air had gone out of him – whether the result of illness or design, I don’t know. “When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize that old man,” he’d say. “Life is a three act play. Act Three: a Polack with boots kicks dirt in your face.”
The argument over Shakespeare’s authorship is a dustup compared to who created Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. But Harry claimed credit, let you know about it, and could be defensive if anyone raised an eyebrow.
Although we didn’t challenge him – frankly, I didn’t know what part he’d had in it – Harry sensed doubt. He promised to bring in proof, and one morning he did. He pulled a yellowing stack of “Honeymooners” scripts from his briefcase and, with a hint of Captain Queeg, said, “See? That’s my typing. You know my typing.”
Harry first met Gleason at the bar of Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub in Hollywood in 1950, where Gleason was performing. Harry would break up Jackie every night by giving him his stage call: “They have just fired on Fort Sumter!”
He joined Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars for the second, 1951-52 season. Jackie wanted to do his own version of The Bickersons, a long-running radio comedy about a battling husband & wife. But he wanted it rougher, more like his own alcoholic parents’ domestic warfare. A raw eight-minute sketch dubbed, “The Beast,” then “The Lovers,” and finally “The Honeymooners,” was born. A year later, Audrey Meadows replaced blacklisted Pert Kelton.
Halfway through the show’s third season, Crane left to do Colgate Comedy Hour in Los Angeles. LA is where he stayed. “It’s not my New York anymore,” he’d say. Harry wasn’t around for the 39 half-hour Honeymooners in ’55. In those, the characters were fleshed out, the stories given room to breathe. But he was present at the birth.
During the last season of Dean Martin, Harry’s world was changing, as it was for the roast comics most likely to buy a joke from him – Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Don Rickles, Jackie Gayle, Buddy Hackett, Corbett Monica.
Newer comedians were getting laughs with personal material. George Carlin. Richard Pryor. Robert Klein. Soon, Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman straddled the line between comedy and performance art.
The Harvard boys were taking over – real WASPs, not Alan King with his Savile Row suits and Rolls Royce. Harvard Lampoon alums founded the National Lampoon, a wellspring for much of 70’s comedy. Two years after the launching of the Dean Martin Roasts, the takeover was official. A young comedian of privileged class looked into a camera and said: “Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase… and you’re not.” It was the comedy of the haves. You might have even called them The Aristocrats.
The denoomin of The Dean Martin Comedy Hour was the George Washington Roast in January, 1974. It was a dreamlike event: Steve Lawrence and Nipsey Russell shpritzing the Father of Our Country.
I slipped into NBC to bear witness…
Outside Studio 4, Audrey Meadows emerges from makeup as Martha Washington. She’s in a poofy ruffled skirt and black lace shawl, her head cocooned in a white bonnet. I spot Harry, gliding down the hallway. He stops for a moment to exchange a few words with Audrey. They are a long way from 328 Chauncey Street.
He’s startled to see me. “Hey, Mike.” “Harry. Thought I’d check out the final show.” “Beautiful.” Then, Harry, full of surprises: “Would you like to meet Dean?”
I follow him down an intersecting corridor. He raps twice on an unmarked door, and without waiting for an answer, enters. “Hey, pal,” he says, as he motions me in.
It is a small generic changing room of the type assigned to any onetime guest: bright, white, and windowless. Nothing personalizes it, save the crooner sitting to the left, looking at the floor, in thought. His forearms rest on his knees. The smoldering cigarette cupped in a meaty hand appears miniscule in his bulky fingers. He looks up. It is almost too much. The sheen of his vinyl black hair matches the satin piping on his perfect tux. There’s the deep golfer’s tan, big butterfly bow, blood-red pocket square. Black velvet Albert slippers embroidered with a gold crown.
Removed from any familiar context – a celebrity dais, Matt Helm movie, kibitzing with the Golddiggers, bookended by Frank and Sammy, even, eons ago, clowning with Jerry – Dean, in bold relief, in a tiny, all-white room, is like an African lion in a holding pen, waiting to be placed in a zoo’s jungle habitat.
Harry breaks the spell. Harry: “Dean, this is Mike Barrie, one of our writers.” Dean, friendly: “Hi, Mike.” Mike: “Hi, Dean.” Harry, to me: “That’s enough.”
The door swings open and I am once again in the backstage hubbub of agents and comics and actors in eighteenth century dress.
Tomorrow, I will be on a plane back to New York.
All photos by Michael Barrie.
Michael Barrie was a writer for the Late Show with David Letterman until May 20, 2015. He also wrote for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. His screen credits, with Jim Mulholland, include Bad Boys, Oscar, and Amazon Women on the Moon.