An Excerpt from Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons

We are so honored to be able to excerpt some passages from David Pollock’s  new book about the iconic comedy duo Bob and Ray. If you are a student or fan of comedy, you will love this book.  Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons is published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group. Used with permission of the publisher.

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He reached over to the shelf in his cramped dressing room and, with a little tap, launched the handcrafted wooden Italian clown into another round of perpetual somersaults. The mesmerizing, brightly colored figure, a gift from his wife, Lee, had done all that Bob Elliott could ask of it to keep him nicely distracted from the anxiety-filled realities of that sweltering, September 24, 1970, opening night of Bob and Ray—The Two and Only.

The large, brightly lit make-up mirror he seated himself in front of symbolized the alien world in which he now found himself. Elliott had been informed by the conventions and rhythms of broadcasting—radio guys did not slap on make-up and become Broadway actors; they performed comedy bits mocking Broadway actors, a responsibility he never shirked. Could tonight, he wondered, be some kind of cruel payback?

In AM radio’s twilight decades, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were snapped up by every major network still standing, some stretches on the air seven days a week. Their comedy, said Groucho Marx, reminded him of Robert Benchley: “They have that same Alice in Wonderland philosophy. . . . I’m just crazy about them.” Johnny Carson called them “two of the funniest—and most influential—humorists of their time.” But that was history now, as was their original nightly fifteen-minute NBC television series. Only some of the Broadway first-nighters in the John Golden Theatre would remember that Elliott and Goulding had been TV pioneers, on NBC five nights a week.

Next door, in equally Spartan quarters, separated only by a common bathroom, sat Ray Goulding, mindful of his voice—all of his voices, in fact. As there were no understudies, if he had a cold, all of his characters had a cold. “It becomes an epidemic,” he liked to say. And he was in a  constant state of worry that he might catch one. According to his widow, Liz, “He lived on Vitamin C.” For Goulding, it would take more than a somersaulting toy clown to allay anxiety.

Like every New Yorker that night, he and his partner were victims of the fiendish Indian summer heat wave. Johnna Levine, co-producer of the show, had advised the two that if it got impossible to keep the theater comfortable, “Take off your goddamn jackets and tell everybody in the audience to do the same.”

The usual opening-night angst was peppered by the fact that the two were not used to the theater, Johnna pointed out. “They were full of trepidation about this new milieu. It was not something they had ever done before and they were very uptight, but friendly and malleable, let’s say, in terms of what had to be done.”

Johnna’s co-producer husband, Joseph I. Levine, the salesman of the two and a longtime Bob and Ray fan, had initially written them years earlier, proposing “a most exciting and delightful evening in the theater.” It was an overture that most performers only dream of, plopped in their laps by the co-producer of a recently successful two-man show, At the Drop of a Hat—a point Levine was careful to slip in. The warm, emphatic producer, when teamed with his equally enthusiastic wife, was not an easy man to say no to, especially when he was lavishing praise. But Elliott and Goulding managed to do it.

And they persisted in their refusals throughout seven years of armtwisting by the Levines. They were “disinterested or apprehensive,” Johnna said, with the idea of performing on stage. “They had never been and didn’t want to try.” In truth, disinterest masked apprehension. Following a disastrous nightclub engagement in Buffalo a decade earlier, Elliott and Goulding had intuitively avoided placing themselves in harm’s way. Removed from their radio studio comfort zone, insecurities lurked. “They had to be dragged to Broadway kicking and screaming,” Johnna said.

“Jeez, we can’t memorize two hours of stuff,” Goulding had repeatedly told the two producers in a series of yearly meetings. “We never do the same thing twice.” But his partner knew that was not necessarily true. Elliott had not exactly leapt at the opportunity either, though the idea had secretly intrigued him.

In the end, however, it was not the Levines’ persistence that did the trick. The guys had a change of heart, Johnna said, “but I think the change of heart realistically was the fact that nothing else was happening. That’s the reality. They didn’t have a specific radio outlet; there was no show. It was time to try another venue.”

The stage manager, Don Koehler, stepped to the bottom of the narrow stairs leading to the second-floor dressing rooms and shouted, “Five minutes, gentlemen.” He, too, was anxious over the evening’s outcome. This was his first job in nearly a year.

Elliott and Goulding, in sports jackets and ties, headed down the long, straight stairway to the Golden’s drab, forbidding backstage. The theater on West Forty-Fifth Street, they had been told, had been selected because of its rich history of intimate two-person revues. But force-fed tales about the successes of A Party with Comden and Green, Flanders and Swann’s At the Drop of a Hat, and An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, did not particularly put the two at ease. Nor, for that matter, were they reassured when they learned that the Golden’s biggest smash was a 1929 hit called Rope’s End, based on the team of Leopold and Loeb.

Near the wings, the two spotted Bob Hodge, who had been featured in a playbill ad proclaiming The Two and Only as “the only funny comedy on Broadway in years.” Though grateful for the endorsement, they knew what the public did not: Hodge was the show’s stage doorman. Barely thirty-one, Hodge harbored dreams of becoming a comedy writer and was seldom without a note pad for jotting down ideas. Neither Elliott nor Goulding, however, could ever recall seeing anything actually written on the pad.

Crossing behind the cyclorama they could hear the expectant murmur of the audience, infiltrated by a platoon of critics, including Ted Kalem of Time, Jack Kroll of Newsweek, Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, Richard Watts of the New York Post, and John Simon of New York, each and every one a potential knife thrower. There were also reviewers from the wire services, plus Leonard Harris of WCBS-TV and Edwin Newman of WNBC television.

But most feared of all was the powerful New York Times man, Clive Barnes, who, in the opinion of playwright and two-time Academy Awardwinning screenwriter William Goldman, was “the most dangerous, the most crippling critic in modern Broadway history.” Elliott and Goulding knew that any sort of pan from Barnes would mean The Two and Only would fold faster than their fictional Mary Backstayge disaster, Lament of the Locust.

As unnerving as Barnes’s opening-night presence could be, an even worse fate was the stigma of his non-presence. It could slam the brakes on advance sales. How good could a thing be (so the logic on the street went) if it was not even worth Barnes’s time? And that was his original reaction to The Two and Only. In his defense, by 1970, Elliott and Goulding had only been in the game for a quarter of a century. They would ultimately be teamed longer than such enduring comedy twosomes as Laurel & Hardy, Burns & Allen, Abbott & Costello, and Martin & Lewis.

In 1970, in fact, Barnes did not even know who Bob and Ray were. “It was some kind of vaudeville act as far as he was concerned,” Johnna said. “He was not going to come; he was going to send a second-stringer.” Only when the producers unleashed the show’s terrier of a press agent, Leo Stern, on him, was Barnes finally convinced the show was a full-scale production and agreed to attend.

Clive Barnes was unpredictable, but his pieces could be scathing and were frequently laced with acidic asides. In a then-recent review he had written, “One sure gauge I have of telling whether a play is boring me is when a telephone rings in the last act and I start in my seat and hope it’s for me.”

Also adding to opening-night jitters was the fact that Barnes was, first and foremost, the paper’s dance critic. Only in the last few years had he also been assigned the Broadway beat. The charm of Elliott and Goulding’s identifiably American characters lay in their sheer ordinariness. Exposing them to the whims of a British ballet reviewer with a known English bias struck at a fundamental reality of the entire enterprise. Bob and Ray, clearly, were not for everybody. Their humor existed in its own selfcontained universe, a product of a unique, on-air chemistry that even they never seemed able to explain.

During previews, Johnna had commented to Lee Elliott about a woman who had approached her at intermission. “Look,” the woman remarked, “this isn’t going to go because not everybody gets them. But I adore them. I think they’re the greatest thing in the world.”

“That’s the story of our lives,” Lee responded. “Everybody thinks they adore them and nobody else will get it.”

As their friend Andy Rooney would later observe, “Fortunately, there are a lot of people who think, as I do, that they appreciate Bob and Ray more than anyone else does.”

Only minutes from now, there would be no call from Koehler for “curtain up!” There was no curtain. William Ritman’s set, already visible to the audience in the semi-darkness, depicted the cluttered “attic of America,” as Johnna put it, “the United States’ collective consciousness of radio and what had gone before.” As the theater filled, objects in the attic began to take shape, triggering outbursts of happy anticipation.

Slowly, lighting director Tom Skelton’s inventive placement of “spots” and “pins” focused on a bookcase, numerous pieces of furniture, a canary cage, an antique Philco radio, and a trapeze hung from somewhere above. There was a Flexible Flyer, a glass-domed stock ticker, some canoe paddles and skis, and a microphone bearing the call letters of NBC’s original New York flagship, WEAF. A coat rack held several bits of costume pieces, topped by a gray fedora with a press card in its band.

Director Joseph Hardy, balding much too early for his forty-one years, had already begun to pace at the back of the house. Next door at the Plymouth Theatre, Child’s Play, for which he had earned a Tony Award, was in its sixth month of sold-out performances. And a few short blocks away, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, which he also directed, was an off-Broadway smash.

Hardy had been hired, Johnna said, because she and her husband “most emphatically” had concerns as to exactly how spontaneous, frozen moments-in-time radio sketches would play on the stage. Transposing the material into script form was “very difficult,” Johnna said. “All we had was their renditions of it.”

As Goulding would later describe the process, “We had to transcribe it onto paper from tape so that eventually we had to memorize what we had originally ad-libbed.”

“It became a question of how you presented this on stage and made it theatrically viable,” Hardy said. “It had to be a piece of theatre, not a piece of radio . . . not a static kind of recitation piece. . . . Otherwise you’re doomed.” He had confronted similar challenges with another revue, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and, the previous season, grabbed a Tony nomination for bringing an imaginary Humphrey Bogart to life in Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam.

Gore Vidal, with whom the Levines were involved on another project, was one of the producers’ opening-night guests. The three took their seats, fifth-row center. “Johnna, stop fretting,” Vidal had been telling her all day. “They’re going to do wonderfully, just wonderfully.” His words had not been comforting to Elliott and Goulding. If critics could be brutal, they feared, the insular theater community was worse when it came to petty jealousies, and hardly could be expected to embrace a couple of ex-radio-announcersturned-Broadway party crashers. Yes, there had been an exception: Bumping into Elliott on Madison Avenue, Tony Randall had enthusiastically flashed two tickets just purchased on the strength of the show’s early buzz. But at Downey’s, an actor’s hangout around the corner from the theater on Eighth Avenue, James Coco, then riding the crest of his Last of the Red Hot Lovers Tony nomination, spotted Elliott and walked past his booth with a dismissive glance.

A few rows behind the producers were the stars’ wives, Lee and Liz, and their families, numbering eleven children between them. Given the longestablished freeform nature of the team’s comedy, Liz’s concerns centered on their being able to adapt to the confining routine of The Two and Only, calling it “one of their most rigid adventures.”

With all these imponderables swirling, the duo headed down another set of stairs to a room directly under the stage, essentially a musicians’ bullpen just off the orchestra pit. The Two and Only would begin with the audience hearing Bob Elliott’s familiar voice (as Wally Ballou) reporting on some of the last-minute, backstage “color and excitement.” They then would appear coming up into the “attic” in which, the Saturday Review’s Henry Hewes later reported, “The distinguishably undistinguished comics seem just a couple more leftovers.” It was high praise.

At a microphone stand was assistant stage manager Richard Thayer, waiting to cue them into the opening Wally Ballou bit, after which they would scurry up a small, circular staircase, entering the set through a trapdoor. At the last second, as they stepped to the mike, Elliott heard his partner say something that sounded to him like “house in Boundbrook.” He had no idea what it meant; nor would he the following night, nor the night after when Goulding would repeat the exact same words. Over the following months Elliott would consult a few books and ultimately piece together that Goulding was trying to say “hulse im brücke,” German for the theater’s traditional good luck wish: “Break a leg” (originally, in German, “Break a neck and leg.”) This was not something Goulding had known on his own—just miscellaneous information he had picked up from the show’s production assistant, Iris Merlis. Goulding had assumed that Elliott, having spent time in Germany during the war and having mastered some of the language, would understand. But Elliott did not. And, furthermore, he did not want to let his partner know that he did not. And Goulding was not about to ask him if he knew. Such was the complex offstage, personal relationship of Bob and Ray.

When not working, the two rarely saw each other. Perceiving themselves more as businessmen than personalities, they resisted even being labeled comedians, and never considered themselves an “act.” Upon meeting Elliott and Goulding, a first impression was their total lack of show-biz swagger. On the streets of Manhattan, they could easily have been mistaken for two Wall Street portfolio managers or out-of-town-buyers on their way to the garment district. Their four-decade partnership was that of two introverts trapped in an extrovert’s business.


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3 thoughts on “An Excerpt from Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons”

  1. Bob and Ray are the pioneers of comedy teams! There humor is still fresh and funny! Can’t wait to read it!

  2. I never appreciated them as much as I should have when they were active. I think a second look at them now will show me how much missed.

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