This is the second excerpt from Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons which focuses on the iconic comedy duo Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. For the first installment, go here. 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. http://bobandray.halleonardbooks.com/
Nomads with Earphones
By nature, Bob and Ray were cautious when not on sure ground, trapped between ambition and insecurity. They were not dynamic, Elliott said. Despite all the success, “We lacked confidence a lot of the time.”
In spite of their apprehensions, the two were not immune to influential forces at GAC, who, in their desire to increase their young comedy clients’ exposure—not to mention commissions— instinctively turned to a two-man act’s natural haunt: nightclubs. Immediately, the boys had foreseen one conceivable hurdle: They did not have a club act. But Art Weems, the slim, sandy-haired head of GAC’s nightclub stable—and brother of famed bandleader Ted—was not about to let that stand in his way, especially after hearing John Moses rave about the boys’ two SRO engagements at the Somerset in Boston. So what if Moses never actually saw the act?
Nevertheless, playing it safe, Weems decided on a trial run at a midtown spot, concluding—for reasons known only to him—that Elliott and Goulding first had to break in the act in New York City, before being booked in, say, Altoona.
Fortuitously, the GAC stars had been in alignment. A major client, Peggy Lee, who had done a couple of guest-shots on Inside Bob and Ray, was soon to headline at La Vie en Rose. It did not take much to sell her on sharing the bill for one night, given that Lee’s personal agent and Weems’s boss, Tom Rockwell, also happened to be the president of GAC. As for the club’s always nattily turned-out owner and operator, Monte Proser, there would be no resistance. Always covetous of GAC’s impressive talent roster, Proser knew when to do a favor.
The chic, intimate East Fifty-Fourth Street club—with its plush, red interiors— was primarily known for name singers of the day, such as Mel Torme and Joni James. This only added to B&R’s anxiety. Suddenly, their deadpan approach was about to be thrust into the uninviting domain of the traditional straight man/stooge template of nightclub and saloon comedy teams. As the two waited offstage they could see Peggy Lee in the middle of her playful version of “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” during which she brandished a prop gun. The audience’s laughter lifted their spirits, but only for a moment.
With Eddie Fisher sitting ringside, along with the inevitable cabal of GAC suits, and introduced by Lee, Bob and Ray performed an updated version of their Somerset act. They lampooned some popular shows of the era, including their Dr. O.K., John J. Agony, and the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, the latter with Bob sporting bandaged razor nicks all over his face, and Ray as a grizzled baseball vet harboring total contempt for the game’s younger players. But, again, the biggest laugh-getter was the old Somerset standby, Ray blowing smoke rings as the man behind the Camel billboard, this time at “Times Square.” The response was exhilarating. The GAC suits were thrilled, none more so than John Moses. Now, when promoting the team’s club act, he would actually know what he was talking about.
Bob and Ray’s nightclub career, such as it was—success in Boston, and then New York—was clearly ascending. Where next? Miami? Las Vegas? Hollywood? The answer was swift in coming: Buffalo. The pair was booked to headline for one week, two shows a night, at the Town Casino.
If Buffalo was a strange choice, an even greater one followed. Inexplicably, Weems talked the team into scrapping their entire act. The comfortable Somerset bits—now La Vie en Rose-tested—were suddenly history. Weems prevailed upon a writer (a GAC client, of course, the name now long forgotten) specializing in cabaret acts to supply the pair with shticky, zinger-laced stand-up routines, even including hokey vocal arrangements. “I remember it now as being completely foreign,” Elliott said of the material. “It was like a bad dream.” Moses tried to be supportive, but he was under Weems—“the instigator,” Elliott called him—who could be formidable, especially when confronting two naïve, young, Boston radio guys not given to making waves.
The morning of the March 16th opening dawned with reports of a snowstorm due to hit that evening. The club’s newspaper ads also set off alarms. Hyping the St. Patrick’s Day-eve kickoff, the blurbs proclaimed: “Bob and Ray—those laugh-happy sons of old Erin!” An afternoon rehearsal of the newly conceived musical score with Moe Balsam, a “bandleader out of a thirties movie,” in Bob’s words, left them feeling even more unsettled.
Predictably, the snowstorm arrived; the audience did not. In contrast to the cozy La Vie en Rose, the Town Casino was a cavernous edifice of tufted-fabric walls draped with dramatic burgundy swags, and its cabaret tables surrounded by tiered rows of semi-circular booths. Greeted by sparse applause, B&R could spot only a few scattered patrons among a sea of empty white tablecloths. “There was only an ashtray on them,” Bob said, and “no people sitting at them. All you could see was white.” Ray thought he was “suffering from snow blindness,” he remarked afterwards. “We plowed through whatever it was we had,” Bob said. “They didn’t dig it at all. . . . I can’t remember what we did. It’s such a bad experience that I’ve apparently blanked it out.”
Following the first show, the two quickly sought refuge in Moses’s nearby hotel suite, where they happened to be joined by Oscar Levant, a friend of the agent who was appearing locally a day or so later. Levant did his best to be encouraging. At that point, given the events of the day and evening, looking to the acid-tongued Levant for cheering up did not strike anyone as surreal. “It’s such a funny picture,” Elliott said, “but then we were devastated. . . . We were crying to John, ‘Jesus, we can’t do a week of this!’”
For Levant’s benefit, they then started to repeat the material. “It wasn’t Bob and Ray,” Elliott went on. “It was just awful.” After five minutes, Levant cut them off. “Go back to the stuff you know,” he advised. His reasoning, though hardly inspiring, was hard to argue with: “It can’t be worse,” he told them.
Incredibly, the second show was packed. Plugs during their previous week’s NBC Colgate shows had apparently paid off. But midway through their first bit, it became painfully evident that the excited throng had not come to see them, but rather the other headliner on the bill, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, a premier R&B group of the day. Screaming fans, particularly females, could hardly wait to shriek and faint at the passionate voice of lead singer Clyde McPhatter, whose sensual “Sixty-Minute Man” was a monster hit. This was not a crowd that had ventured out in a snowstorm to see Steve Bosco routines and Arthur Godfrey impressions.
“Nobody knew who we were,” Bob said. “It wasn’t our kind of crowd. It wasn’t for the whole week, but we managed. . . . We got through it.”
Closing night, the two gifted Moe Balsam with a pair of cufflinks, only to discover that the custom was cash. Then, after being ushered into the club’s dreary basement office by “two bruisers,” Elliott recounted, the manager was “very hesitant when he gave us the check. . . . I mean, this was real mobsterville. . . . He wasn’t happy with what we had done. He was happy with Billy Ward and Dominoes. . . . GAC gave up pursuing nightclubs at that point. That wasn’t our field, and we knew it.”