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Several entertainers booked to co-host "The Mike Douglas Show" arranged to spend their evenings performing at a local club. So it was that comedian Jackie Mason did double duty in Cleveland in July, 1964. "Douglas" turned out to be an easy gig; not so his night job.

When I interviewed him over lunch after his second day on the TV show, he seemed upset by what had happened the evening before when he performed before an audience that was much smaller and less receptive than he anticipated.

"I guess I'm not known in Cleveland," he remarked. "I have a feeling that if I went up to someone here and said, 'I'm Jackie Mason,' the guy would answer, 'So what?' "

He spent the last half of our interview trying out new material and asking my opinion. He was polishing a routine about a baby's first day in the world, and while it was funny in spots, I found myself squirming, not laughing. I felt like a one-person focus group. And I hate focus groups.

Mason originally followed his parents' desire that he become a rabbi. He said he tried the religious life for about 18 months before announcing he was going into show business.

"You can't imagine what a difficult decision it was. All my life my parents had pushed me toward being a rabbi. I never had a choice in the matter. I tried to be a good rabbi, but I just wasn't suited.

"My decision to quit shocked my parents. Suddenly they didn't know me. They didn't trust or respect people in show business, so when I became a comedian it a was a family disgrace. I was a black sheep."

Mason quickly discovered stand-up comedy wasn't for the faint-hearted. In the early '60s, comics often were used as warm-up acts for strippers.

"The only guys who go to those dumps," said Mason, "go to see the girls. The only comedian they'll sit still for is the one who tells dirty jokes. The dirtier the better. I had a clean act – and it just didn't go."

He claimed that one nightclub manager fired him in the middle of his act.

His salvation was the Borscht circuit in the Catskills. The former rabbi was a big success before a predominately Jewish audience. Steve Allen heard about him and booked him on his TV show in 1961. Ed Sullivan followed.

Mason and Sullivan would have a falling out in the mid-'60s. It wasn't long after I interviewed Mason that his career went into a long slump. He bounced back big time in 1986 with a one-man show "The World According to Me." That title pretty much summed up the attitude Mason assumed during a performance where one of his signature lines was, "It's such a pleasure for you to be seeing me."

 

Cleveland interviews were often conducted over meals at the Theatrical Restaurant (aka Theatrical Grill), a popular local nightspot, though I was there mostly for lunch in the mid-afternoon. I loved the Theatrical, but was oblivious to the mob connection mentioned in the recent Cleveland-based movie, "Kill the Irishman."

I really enjoyed my meals at the Theatrical, though my two favorite memories of interviews there are rather odd, food-wise, and one of those memories still makes me gag.

The first memory involves Don Adams. who proved to be a bacon-lover after my own heart. He was operating on California time and ordered breakfast instead of lunch. I think he wanted bacon and eggs; whatever, it was bacon and something and he emphasized he wanted the bacon well done and crisp. For emphasis, he instructed the waitress, "Just tell 'em to burn the bacon. Seriously."

And what he was served was bacon just the way he liked it. Fried to a crisp, but not burned.

Adams was in Cleveland to promote the spy spoof sitcom, "Get Smart," which became a big hit. He first attracted attention as a stand-up comedian, but his career took a turn when he was featured on "The Bill Dana Show" as Glick, the inept hotel detective. With just a bit of fine-tuning, Adams turned Glick into Maxwell Smart.

Adams told me he thought he had done more guest shots on television that any other stand-up comedian. "But I never really wanted to be a comedian," he said. "I always thought of myself as an actor.

"Two years ago (1963) I finally got my chance in a Broadway show — "Harold" — with Tony Perkins and Larry Blyden. At our first rehearsal, I noticed the other actors just mumbled through the script while I belted out my lines. I thought, 'God, Adams, you're great. If those other guys ares supposed to be actors, then you must be one of the five best actors in the world!'

"A few days later the other actors began coming alive. They were developing their roles. Me? I was still belting out my lines the way I had the first day.

"That's when I panicked. I realized I had a long way to go. On opening night in New York I actually threatened not to go on. You can't imagine how scared I was. I couldn't remember my lines. Oh, I went on all right — somebody pushed me, I think — and people told me later I didn't flub my lines. But, honest, I can't remember anything I did on stage that night."

Adams said reviewers were kind to him. "Most of them didn't mention me."

He added that the reviews also were kind to the show, and then in a reverse of the usual Broadway story, said, "It was the word of mouth that killed us. We folded after three weeks."

Adams made his publicity trip by train because he didn't enjoy flying. At all. (Years later football coach-turned-TV football analyst John Madden would become known for the same thing.) I couldn't help think when I re-read my story that if Don Adams didn't like flying in the 1960s, he'd absolutely hate it today. Which, besides his preference for crisp bacon, is another thing Adams and I had in common.

 

When I joined the Beacon-Journal's feature department I was 23 years old going on 14. I was naive in the ways of the world, especially when it came to dining and drinking away from my mother's kitchen. How sheltered I was really came home in September, 1964, when I had lunch with Bill Dana.

This is how my story set up and described the experience.

A few weeks ago a date accused me of being too critical. I disagreed, of course, and we teetered on the edge of an argument, which prompted her to offer this piece of wisdom:

"Loretta Young always used to say, 'Never criticize an Indian until you've worn his moccasins for two weeks. Or something."

She had mangled the message, but I know what she meant. I should keep my mouth shut until I put myself in other other person's place to understand his point of view.

Last week I attempted to wear the moccasins of Bill Dana when he was in Cleveland to promote his television program.

I had to put myself in his shoes or else it would have been one of the shortest interviews on record. Even a person who isn't normally critical can be overly critical of "The Bill Dana Show."

Thus it was necessary to understand that at least one person – Dana – must think the program [about a hotel bellboy] is funny and that at least one person – Dana, again – still breaks up over those four well-worn words, "My name . . . Jose Jimenez."

In this agreeable frame of mind I even ordered the same meal Dana did – steak tartare, which is a fancy name for raw hamburger. He finished his; I quit after one bite. Obviously it wasn't going to be easy wearing Dana's moccasins.

We talked about the miracle of his series being renewed, a miracle arranged by Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard, a powerful duo who owned the show. But even they couldn't prevent NBC from finally tossing in the towel three months after my steak tartare fiasco. (Trivia note: Don Adams was a regular during the first season of "The Bill Dana Show" playing hotel detective Byron Glick, a character not unlike Maxwell Smart.)

Dana had started as a writer, becoming a performer when he worked on "The Steve Allen Show." The Jose Jimenez character grew out of a Christmas skit which featured a Spanish Santa Claus who said "jo, jo, jo" instead of "ho, ho, ho."

Dana milked Jose Jiminez for all the character was worth, and then some. He mouthed his famous catch phrase for the last time on a Smothers Brothers specil in 1988. He dropped out of sight a few years later after playing a recurring role as Uncle Angelo on "The Golden Girls." His last television appearance was on "Empty Nest" in 1994.

Dana was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, and his real name is William Szathmary, which he enjoyed explaining this way: "I'm a Jungarian Hew."

 

 

Also . . .
Don Adams Patty Duke Ricardo Montalban
Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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