Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Comedians, The Mob and the American Supperclub by Kliph Nesteroff

From WFMU's Beware of the Blog:
Screen shot 2012-01-25 at 10.25.07 PM"The Mob was an integral part of everything." - Comedian Jackie Curtiss

"I worked for a lot of gentlemen of that persuasion over the years. I learned a long time ago when I worked for Frank Costello in New York - don't ask questions." - Comedienne Rusty Warren

"Don't feel sorry for me." - Comedian Allan Drake

Las Vegas inevitably comes to mind when people think of America and the Mob. The era of patent-leather crooners, blinding neon, schmaltzy comedians and feather-laden showgirls is constantly romanticized - but Las Vegas was merely the apex of a trend. From the nineteen thirties until the end of the sixties every city in America had at least one glamorous supperclub, if not four or five, featuring the top headliners in every showbiz genre. Furthermore, it didn't matter if these clubs were in Cleveland, Portland, Corpus Christi or Baton Rouge - if it was a nightclub - the owners were the Mob. For a good forty years the Mob controlled American show business.

Back in 1933, when President Roosevelt gave Americans the okay to get drunk, speakeasy proprietors scrambled to stave off irrelevance. The bootleg profits amassed during the dry years gave rise to the Mob. When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the Mob was left with hundreds of useless venues furnished with every conceivable liquor serving accoutrement. They salvaged their investments by retrofitting the speakeasy for legitimate nightclub use. Without the draw of clandestine liquor a new gimmick was needed to lure customers. The bait was entertainment; elaborate, lavish entertainment at a hitherto unseen scale. The explosion of Mob-run nightclubs created a huge circuit of well-paying jobs for singers, dancers, acrobats and comedians. Goons that had stood at speakeasy doors demanding secret passwords were now supperclub frontmen acting as the buffer between Mob overlords and the public. The American supperclub was born.

Screen shot 2012-02-03 at 12.59.42 AM What became the Las Vegas business model was fine-tuned in these venues; Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia - all across North America, every city had a taste of it. The true petri dish was Miami Beach where the big hotels, big shows and big gambling flourished long before Vegas was conceived. The performers that worked for these men held no illusions. "The clubs were owned by bootleggers and even a few killers," explained actor George Raft, who worked as a dancer in New York supperclubs. "In my time I knew or met them all. Al Capone, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Lucky Luciano, Vinnie Coll - most of them were around. That didn't bother the patrons. We all worked the same places. The clubs were fun and a proving ground for talent. They're part of the history of this country." But somewhere along the way things changed. Remarkably, the Mob would lose its grip on show business. The Mob was once an untouchable entity and friendly with politicians. A revolving door of money and handshakes ensured cooperation. With the advent of the nineteen seventies, a paradigm shift occurred. Soon it was corporate America that proudly held the mantle of being above and beyond the law. A new kind of criminal exchanged money and handshakes with the political establishment. The Mob was replaced.

After a successful decade as Joey Bishop's protégé, comedian Lou Alexander observed the power shift. "When I was working Vegas the Mob ran Vegas," he explains. "Then it became corporate. Today it's corporate! Today it's like Disneyland! But in those days all the people that ran Vegas loved show people. They were great to us and they would give us everything - whatever you wanted." Despite the fact comedians were often surrounded by Mob violence, today's survivors are steadfast in their preference of Mob dominance over corporate rule. In many ways this is astonishing. Comedians ran afoul of the Mob more than other performers, inevitable, as a comic's vocation was ridicule. Every comedian of the era has a hairy story. Comedian Jack Carter managed to escape Mob hitmen in four separate cities. Shecky Greene was relentlessly beaten by contract killers. Sammy Shore and Rusty Warren managed to power through their respective acts while a Mob hit took place in the club during their shows. And yet, despite such bloodletting, Shore conforms to the opinion of his peers when he says, "Working for those guys, you knew they were the Mob... and they were just the greatest guys in the world."

Screen shot 2012-02-09 at 9.54.42 PMMISTER PATHETIC
The Lotus Club in Washington, DC is a good example of an average nineteen fifties nightclub. It's a place for MCA to try to develop a new client, work out the kinks and get them polished for the big time. If they fall flat on their face - so what? A bomb at the Lotus Club will never get mention in the columns of Earl Wilson or Jack Eigen. The local reporters are busy covering the political beat, not the district of tuxedo. Maybe Art Buchwald will wander in to grab a drink once in a while, but that's it. Nobody goes to the Lotus Club expecting much. Not the audience, not the press, not the performers. The comedian definitely doesn't expect his wife to be murdered while he's onstage.
Maybe he should.:...MORE