Friday, January 23, 2009

Moms Mabley

The first time I saw Moms Mabley I was 15 on a date. She was the opening act for The Temptations at Madison Square Garden.

It was also in the middle of the famous 1968 New York City garbage strike. We were sitting on the top level at The Garden, and Moms walked on stage to a thunderous cheer. Then she told this joke:

"I have the solution for this damned garbage strike. I want all you brothers and sisters out there to go to the hardware store and buy some white spray paint. Then go spray all your garbage white. When you've done that let me know and I'll call Governor Rockefeller and tell him to get all this white trash outta here".

Less than I year later, I am working at the David Frost Show. A group of us are outside the studio, and a brand new Rolls Royce pulls up. Out comes most elegantly lady I had ever seen. She was wearing a full length mink coat and a very large diamond ring with a pearl necklace. I had no idea who she was. At 16, I was still a few beers short of a six pack. At first, I assumed she was going to Sardi's, but she turned and walked into the studio.

My assignment that night was the dressing rooms and make-up. I was to escort the stars to their positions on stage. I loved that part of my job, because I got to hang out with two incredible women, Franny Barbero and Bobbi Armstrong. Franny was the wardrobe mistress and Bobbi was the make-up artist. There are some really interesting stories to tell about them, but we'll save that for another time.

Anyway, I go into the dressing rooms; and there is Franny, Bobbi and the woman who drove up in the Rolls Royce. They're all old friends and just talking away. They sat down to play cards. They introduced me to "Jackie" Moms Mabley. The expression on my face was: 'no way, impossible...can't be. I just stood there and watched as these three old show biz friends played cards and enjoyed each other's company.

She told them about the Rolls, which was a gift from Tom Jones. I just could not believe that this elegant woman with the jewels, fur and Rolls Royce was Moms Mabley.

Franny gave her the 30 minute warning, and she went to her dressing room. The elegant lady with the fur coat, diamonds and pearls emegred a few minutes later.

She was transformed...and there was Moms Mabley standing right before my eyes. She took out her dentures, took off the rings and was sitting there in her housecoat and slippers while Bobbi did her make-up.

She went on stage and had the audience in the palm of her hand. I don't think David knew what to do, but he tried his best to interview her. It was obvious who was in control of the audience that night.

The world needs more performers like Moms Mabley.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dinner at Spago

This is a true story about a PR stunt for the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun that seemed more like a fire drill than anything else.

And I was driving the fire truck.

New World Pictures was a ‘mini-major’ with very high visibility in the industry. A great team led by Harry Sloan (who is now running MGM), Larry Kuppin and Bob Rehme bought it from Roger Corman two years before. The studio was releasing 20 films a year. The TV group had projects with HBO and the networks, and we had just started a Home Video Division. It was a busy place.

We were putting together the final PR and promotion plan for the ‘soon to be’ cult classic, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, when Tony Angelotti and I were called to Co-Chairman Bob Rehme’s office.

Bob was at Spago for dinner the night before and noticed that there was construction across the street on Sunset. He looked at Tony and me and said, “Guys, we should try to get a banner for Girls Just Want to Have Fun on that new building…everybody at Spago will see it”. We nodded our heads in agreement, because you just never said no to Bob.

Spago was ‘the’ place in Hollywood. And it sounded like a good idea. We left the office and Tony looked at me, and with a twinkle in his eyes said, “Now what?” Roger Armstrong from our PR agency had the bad luck to be in the office for a meeting.

How do you get a banner on a building that is under construction? Money. We certainly didn't want to go back to Bob and tell him that it was too we brainstormed and came up with what we thought would be a less expensive solution.

A big balloon with the logo on the side… like a baby Goodyear blimp. Roger was on it, and found the balloon. And we cut a check. He got the permission from the building owner. And we cut a check. Roger worked out the details with the construction company. And we cut a check. He went out to the site and worked out the logistics with the foreman. And we cut a check.

We were set, and naturally over budget. We called Bob and told him the good news (but we left out the budget part). He was happy. Roger called from the building. He had good news and bad news. The balloon is up, but no one can see it because there are no lights on the building, and by 6 pm it’s dark.

Oy! We make an executive decision, and rent a big Kleig light. Roger rents three parking spaces, and we park it in the Tower Records parking lot across the street and shine it on the balloon. More checks to cut.

Perfect… now the Hollywood ‘A’ list at Spago can see Girls Just Want To Have Fun while they enjoy their goat cheese pizza and wine.

Well, almost. Spago was right on Sunset Boulevard… in the heart of the ‘Sunset Strip. To the south lay the Los Angeles basin with its incredible views of lights stretching to the Pacific Ocean. But to the North, were the Hollywood Hills.

And that was the problem. As soon as the spotlight went on, the shots started. Some of the more 'colorful' sharpshooters of the Hollywood Hills were using the Girls Just Want to Have Fun balloon for target practice.

After three days and nights of trying to patch and repatch that damned balloon we had all enough and took it down.

And if that wasn't enough. Bob never went to Spago.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Count is in Town.

Unless you’ve spent way too much time watching Sesame Street, The Count can only be one person.

Count Basie.

He was in a class by himself, and I was fortunate enough to work with him twice in my career. The second time was for a benefit in Los Angeles a few months after our first daughter, Rachel was born. We were in a Lamaze class and our coach, Sandra Jaffe asked me to help put a benefit together. The Count Basie Orchestra played at our fundraiser and it was a great success.

But one of my favorite stories happened a few years before that, when I was working as a production assistant for Sammy Davis Jr. on his talk show Sammy and Company. There are some great stories from those days, which I will recount at a later date. For now, let’s me tell you what happened when I met Count Basie.

It was the morning of what was certainly going to be an amazing day. Mr. D and his team had booked an all star list of some of the greats in jazz music to appear together on his show. There was Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, and Count Basie.

My job was to pick up ‘The Count’ at the airport. Now, before you get ahead of yourself, I picked him up without mishap. With his pick-up information in hand, I headed out to the National Airlines Terminal at LAX to meet his flight from Miami.

It was a hot day in LA, and I was dressed in my usual attire, jeans and a t shirt. I was 23 and that was about the extent of my wardrobe. I parked the car and went to the gate to meet The Count and his group.

The plane was on time and we managed to get the luggage and everyone into the station wagon without a hassle. The Count decided to ride shotgun as I started back to the studio.

He was quiet for a few minutes. Then he looked at me and said; ‘How’s the weather?”

“Hot” I said. And with that came a line that only Count Basie could deliver.

“Well, it’s cool now”, he said. “The Count is in Town!”

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gene Kelly Danced!

All she said was "I want Gene Kelly to Dance".

I had just booked Gene Kelly at two mall appearances, and that along was tough enough. Dance? I don't think so. Besides, dancing wasn't part of the deal.

He had already approved the schedule and signed the contract. His first appearance would be at the newly opened Omni Center in Atlanta (now the CNN Center), and then by private jet for the opening of the Greenville Mall. And he was making more than we had paid anyone else.

The chances of Gene Kelly agreeing to dance on a portable stage in the middle of a shopping center in Greenville South Carolina, was hard to imagine. Really hard to imagine.

But, I picked up the phone and called, Mort Viner who was Gene's agent. We got along well, and I told him what my client wanted. He laughed for 5 minutes. And then, as only a good agent did, he stopped laughing and said..."He'll do it for an additional $100,000 + plus expenses".

Now, I was between a the proverbial rock and hard place. I called her back and gave her the 'good news'. I told her what 'dancing' involved, knowing full well that Mort didn't expect to negotiate...or for me to even come back with a counter offer.

Then I the asked her what she really wanted. "I just wanted to see him dance a little", she said.

Ok, that's different. I had a plan.

The first appearance at the Omni Center was a big hit. They got great local coverage, and the place was mobbed. He did advance phoners (although he did call the papers collect), and was every bit the professional that I knew he would be.

His next appearance in Greenville went off exactly as we planned.

I told them to place the entrance to the 'stage' as far upstage right as possible, and then place the microphone as far downstage left as possible. He would have to walk the full diagonal of the stage, some 50 feet. The instant his foot was on the stage, play the soundtrack from Singing in the Rain.

I was banking on the fact that it would be hard for a dancer to just 'walk' 50 feet on stage in front of an audience.

As soon as he was on stage, it happened. Gene Kelly danced.