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WOODY WOODBURY was known throughout the land for his "fun, foolosophy and a frantic piano for frisky adults only." His exploits from "Ft. Liquordale" to Hollywood (and in the skies over Europe and Korea) are the stuff of legend. His albums (soon, he says, to be converted to CD) pop up on rare occasions in thrift stores, having sold like vinyl hotcakes. His Booze Is The Only Answer Club membership cards were were a part of our mid-century culture back when drinking was... fun! With Don Rickles, Rusty Warren, Jackie Gleason and others, Woodbury turned South Florida into the hip place to be-- the first time! He was present at the birth of Lounge Culture. We are proud to present The SHECKYmagazine Interview: Woody Woodbury!
In the 1960's you were the king of "cocktail comedy." What exactly is cocktail comedy? Does it differ from traditional standup? Who comes closest to doing something similar today?
Whoa, Guys... Hang on a minute. This is a three-parter!
I'll take on the first: Back in the '20s, '30s, '40s and even the '50s, there were nightclubs. They were all the rage back then. There was no television. None. Nada. The comedians, vocalists, jugglers, acrobats, magicians-illusionists, and any number of variety acts were the "in" and hot entertainment values of the day. People would flock to see these performers in person, at these nightclubs. To entice even more customers, the club owners poshed up their clubs, made them spiffy, charming and up-to-date. The very best and talented of these show-stoppers were the most highly paid. The public devoured these entertainment scenes and sometimes had to wait an hour of more after arriving at a nightclub for the next stage show. It didn't take long for the club owners to convert that "waiting-for-the-next-show" area into a sit-down and "have a drink or two" while waiting.
And so the waiting room was plushed-up to become the "lounge" and of course, then the "cocktail lounge." The stronger, more popular acts drew in the best and wealthiest clientele. Now the owners strove to keep these patrons happy in the "COCKTAIL LOUNGE" so what better way than to initiate song and laughter? Thus was born the "COCKTAIL LOUNGE." In time, those lounges became bigger money winners than the main showrooms! Examples: Louie Prima and Keely Smith at the Sahara Hotel Lounge in Las Vegas, Don Rickles at Murray Franklin's in Miami Beach. The list goes on.
In my case, I sort of "caught on" in St. Paul, where gangs of kids would flock around my piano while I played, told jokes, and made general fun and nonsense with them. I had been in Florida prior, while in the Marine Corps. A private club owner there head said anytime I wanted a job entertaining, to return, In the Marines, the same thing happened for me in Los Angeles/Hollywood. I opted in favor of Florida, leaving St. Paul, which was my hometown, Daytona Beach was a garden spot and terrific for my particular brand of audience-involved entertaining. Some nightclub owners from Jacksonville saw my antics, and offered me a huge salary to come to their place on So. Phillips Highway, called the Peacock Club. Talk about plush! This place had it all!
All the while, I was making new friends, cultivating every avenue and trying to learn as much as I could about this up-and-down career called show business. As things turned out, and luckily for me, the Daytona Beach Club had to close for internal and private reasons so there was no problem in moving the 90 miles north to Jacksonville. It was there where I first worked with the great stars of that era: Frankie Lane, the DeCastro Sister, The Ritz Brothers, all of whom became "teachers" for me as well as friends. There were countless others, too numerous to name here.
Barely a year in Jacksonville when I got an offer from the then world-famous Clover Club in Miami, to entertain their lounge. It was a dynamite move for me, so I gave notice in JAX (much as I loved everything about that city and it's folks) opened at the Clover Club and it became a dynamite hit.
I guess I honestly and actually was not made aware of how much the customers liked my nonsense behind the piano. (Which, by the way, was a 36-inch high, 'Spinet-Type' piano with a full 88 keyboard, and today is still my favorite working posture.)
At the Clover Club I was soon emceeing and announcing all the Main Room shows and working with, and learning from stars such as Lena Horne, Dick Haymes, Alan King, Spike Jones plus myriad others. "My" lounge did a land-office business and pretty soon the big agencies and bookers asked me about working in New York City. That never appealed to me. I was happy at the Clover Club.
An act came in from San Francisco consisting of four guys who called themselves "The Vagabonds." They were a sensation. An overnight smash hit of a nonsensical, variety-spiced hour of mayhem onstage. Two guitars, and accordionist, and a stand-up bass fiddle player. Danny Thomas, Milton Berle... all the great nightclub stars wanted these four on their stage shows... and The Vagabonds taught me more about pleasing an audience than anyone. I credit them, Rose ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") Marie, Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Jackie Miles, Gene Baylos and a slew more. I watched them all onstage, like a hawk. What great teachers!
Cocktail Lounge entertainment differs from traditional "Main Room" stand-up comedy in that lounges are a more intimate venue. Patrons were crowded together. Audience by-play and kibitzing were very often employed. It was a "cozier" arena.
There are still many great cocktail lounges around. And plenty of lounge entertainers ready to work them. Drawback is the decency fence that has been trampled and wrecked. The politically-correct, the do-gooder, and greedy, fast-buck bums, slithered onto the scene.
Girlie clubs, "Pick-Up Joints", and seedy "Comedy Clubs" open up, flourish, fade and maybe re-flourish in this crazy back-and-fourth business. Then " Sports Bars" came along, with TV sets crammed in every available space. Satellite and cable TV offered 20 million channels, cold beer, cute girls, and then they went topless, the 20 million channels were forgotten. Goodbye, classy supper clubs.
You spent quite a bit of time performing in Fort Lauderdale-- or "Fort Liquordale" as it was affectionately known. How did Lauderdale become a hotbed for comedy and what was the scene like at that time?
Before Fort Lauderdale, I had been at the Clover Club. The Vagabonds had a falling out there and built their own super-snazzy supper club and it was an immediate hit. They invited me to work their lounge. The Clover Club owner became involved building the Riviera in Las Vegas so I gave notice and went into the new Vagabond Club. It was fantastic. But tragedy struck without warning. One of the Vagabonds died. Everything went into disarray. It was a sad time. But I had a new family to feed and had to work. Out of the blue my agency, MCA (Music Corporation of America), booked me into Fort Lauderdale. At first I was furious... it was such a tiny place! Who would ever drive from Miami and return the same night? It was crazy. But Sonny Werblin, the top gun at MCA was crazy like a fox. It turned out to be a stroke of genius on his part. And amazingly lucky for me. If I "caught on" back in St. Paul, that was nothing such as what came down in Fort Lauderdale. It seemed that every night was standing room only. But let's face it: at that time I was just about the only comic in town.
Who were your cocktail comedy contemporaries?
Kaye Stevens, Bill Carty, Rusty Warren, The Stan Nelson Trio, The Punchinellos, The Tunesman, Nino Nanni, and Bill Barner, were a great mix of musical-comedy performers and did very well in Fort Lauderdale. All this before TV's onslaught. Supper clubs were still all the rage. However, television was on the march to destroy the clubs and it made couch potatoes out of most Americans.
Socializing with your nearby neighbors, beginning in the '60's, became a lost art. The boob tube eroded just about all of that. Today, as we speak, we can thank TV for the total lack of civil communication between and among both businesses and neighborhoods. Nobody knows how to converse anymore nor how to tease, cajole, joke with, or even maintain lighthearted chatter. Television has robbed the nation of these good and neighborly values. Of course, those in television will deny all of this. Why? Because that's the way they make their living. Most of us can recall the two housewives as they spoke: "Hazel, do you ever read the 'National Enquirer' or the 'Globe' or 'Star'... those tabloid papers you can buy in supermarkets?" "Are you kidding me, Wanda? I wouldn't have that filthy trash in my home for a minute!" "Well, do you ever watch '60 minutes'?" "Oh, good Lord, Wanda, I wouldn't miss it for the world!" Go figure.
What is "60 Minutes"? What is "20-20"? They are nothing more than tabloid yellow journalism, set to film. It stuns the mind that supposedly knowledgeable people will rave about tabloid TV. I guess in today's world it's the "cool" thing to do. But it remains trash tabloid television any way you cut it. Network News has not been news or newsworthy in 30 years. Accounts for and is to blame in huge part, for the pitiful breakdown in American children's education. It's a shame above all other shames that such a very few people control TV and the content of TV, to the detriment of an entire population. The skull and crossbones now hang over the front door of the print media. Newspapers are on the way out. In just 25 years, New York alone slid from five newspapers to one. Makes no difference how or why anymore. They're gone for good. Soon there will be none. By the way, this is no soapbox oratory. It's just the facts ma'am.
Where, other than Florida, did you perform on a regular basis?
I did shows in just about every state as well as in Canada and England. When the snows were coming, I'd head posthaste to Florida.
How did you get started in the business?
Started when I was a Boy Scout, forming an 8- or 10-piece band. We must have sounded awful. But it was fun. And it was a start. I did keyboards (not well I might add) and played many grade and high school functions, discovering my tomfoolery at the piano made people hang around to see what I'd do next. A sinister thing told me to maintain this ridiculous behavior as part of my "career." It came so easily so why not? From school I formed a trio and soon we were playing rural roadhouses around St. Paul-Minneapolis. As in school, my "comedy" overtook the music so I clowned with jokes, disruptive dance music and shenanigans. All fun and nonsense. The folks liked it.
World War II came along in December, 1941. None of us could wait to get into the military... not going meant you were yellow. Back then our political leaders were men of integrity and backbone, a far cry from the unqualified, mealy-mouthed lawyer-politicians who stumble around Washington DC today.
Home from war's end and still a Marine Reserve Pilot, I restarted my comedic agenda. Now I had Daytona Beach, Jacksonville and Miami in my budding showbiz life. Oops! The Korean War broke out in 1950 and all Marine pilots were called back to duty. I flew jets there through some scary times and returned to Miami. It was 1954, the year The Vagabonds opened their own club and I joined them.
You released your recordings during the Golden Age of comedy albums. At the risk of sounding crass and/or rude, did you make a nice chunk of change from them?
My comedy record albums originated in Fort Lauderdale. A man, Fletcher Smith, came in one night, waited until I finished my show then asked what I thought about recording those goofy hunks and bits, then selling them. I told him that I thought he was nuts. He said he'd foot the entire cost and give me a fair royalty for each sold. Now, of course, I knew he was nuts. But I said okay and proceeded to make him a very wealthy man. And I didn't do badly myself. Fletcher and I became fast friends; he was a motion picture special effects producer in New York. He knew just about every motion picture head in Hollywood. Through him I did a few motion pictures for which I received no Academy Award nominations. Television had already beckoned when Don Fedderson saw me at work and asked if I'd like to replace Johnny Carson on daytime TV as he was going to host the "Tonight Show". So the films, the TV, and comedy albums hit whack-whack-whack... all of it wonderful.
The "B.I.T.O.A." ("Booze Is The Only Answer") Club was the foundation for your act as well as your empire. You know that there are some folks today who would deem such an approach to alcohol as "politically incorrect" and we know it was tongue in cheek, bud did anyone take it too seriously back then? Did anyone protest? How do you feel about it now? Could you get away with it now?
B.I.T.O.A. (Booze Is The Only Answer) was a fun idea and another of Fletcher Smith's brain-children. It really clicked. Soon we had over a million "members" in this silly-fun club. We issued "Booze Is The Only Answer" cards to all who requested them. Priests, attorneys, housewives, bible students, truck drivers, college kids, as well as professors... you name it... everybody wanted one of those plastic cards. You couldn't buy a damn thing with it.
Yet, we had a true tale of a stranded motorist out in the sticks in Nebraska. He ran out of gasoline and hiked more than three miles until reaching a gas station. Then he discovered he left his wallet at home, some 70 miles away. But wonder of wonders! He had his B.I.T.O.A. card and be damned if the gas station owner didn't have one too. The gas guy not only drove the motorist back and helped start the automobile, but gave him a tankful of fuel... all because the two of them were bonafide, card-carrying member of our goofy B.I.T.O.A. club.
It was like the hula hoop and the "Booze Card" phase faded. And of course, it was helped into quietness by the ever present do-gooders who complained these cards were leading the nation, and the world in general, to it's demise. These kinds of square pegs trying to fit into a round hole find fault with everything and everybody but they themselves have no credibility. They blame our country for their own inadequacies, shortcomings, and sheer stupidity. They should not be allowed to breed. And believe me, they are still out their in today's world. It was a fun thing and a very clever marketing tool for Fletcher Smith... all those multi-thousands of potential comedy record album purchasers. Mr. Smith was no dummy. And oddly enough, and now into the 21st century, we still get inquiries about those BITOA cards!
In the late '60's/early '70's the emphasis in entertainment and pop culture shifted to the nation's youth. How did this affect you and your act, if at all?
I loved new young talent and faces coming into show business. The audience who enjoyed my palaver and act always stuck by me. Heck, I was still young myself. The human course thorough life is an age thing. If you are 30 years old, you, by and large, run with people in that relatively same age area. If you have a three-year-old child, he has little interest in what you do. But put another 3- or 4 year-old child in the same room and they instantly gravitate toward each other. You're 30 and you don't really have much in common with an 88-year-old person (unless he's a relative), but then again, the old guy does not much care for your slant on things. He may figure you're still kind of a young know-it-all... just as you feel a 13-year-old loudmouth school girl is a total airhead. It's an age thing.
What do you think your strengths are as a performer? Any weaknesses?
My strengths, if I have any at all, seems to be that I get along pretty well with most people, both in and out of showbiz. There are some performers who, sadly, do not. And to me, that's too bad. I see it happen but do not have or know the cure if there is one. My weaknesses are plentifold I'm sure. But like most, I guess I just don't know what they all are. Trying to get along with everybody and trying to be fair and honest guy can sometimes backfire... and there'll always be someone who'll walk all over you as he takes advantage of your friendship. We all go through that and probably more than once.
How long was your talk show on the air? What were some of the highlights?
When I replaced Johnny Carson on "Who Do You Trust?" as he went to the "Tonight Show," we stayed on the air sometime over a year and had been promised by ABC television we'd be there a long time. But somebody pulled the rug out from under us. The network executives decided to convert the radio soap-operas to TV. All the daytime comedy and game shows were swept off the air in favor of the sex-starved tear-jerkers. That move hurt a lot of people in those early TV days but in my own case, I was lucky in that I still had my Fort Lauderdale hotel along with some terrific Hollywood motion picture connections. In a way it was disappointing but when I thought of all the thousands of guys Don Fedderson could have chosen, I felt pretty darn thankful.
"Trust" highlights actually were every day's shows. Believe me, it was non-stop hilarity. I had marvelously talented writers, two of whom went on to true greatness in comedic writing, Roy Kammerman, who wrote many top notch shows such as "The Love Boat" series, and Woody Kling, who has a stupendous track record as a script writer in both comedy and drama. Other writers contributed to "Trust" as well. It was another mirthful time in my life.
You were a Marine Fighter pilot. Have you entertained the troops?
The U.S. Marine Corps and I still retain a fierce loyalty to each other. I flew fighter planes in World War II and also in Korea. And yes, I "entertained" doing military-oriented comedy for the most part, in both wars.
Your website features some wonderful photos with some show biz greats. Which associations mean/meant the most to you?
Once more, I say I was, and still am, a very lucky guy in show business. I loved the "Laugh-In" cast and many of them came on my daytime "Woody Woodbury" show in Hollywood. I have myriad opinions relative to the as-yet untapped talent of so many stars. M*A*S*H's Jamie (Klinger) Farr is a superb actor. But those with no eye for talent are the ones who run both motion pictures and television. Jamie was "typecast" and that's as far as most producers see. What a shame. Dave Madden, a "Laugh-In" regular, and also a "Partridge Family" cast member, is as bright as a new penny, yet Hollywood let him slip away. Dozens more. Thank God that Tom Poston connected well and his great ability still shines, as well as Don Knotts. So all of my associations in Los Angeles, as well in New York, and south Florida, are too numerous to mention. In Gotham, I think that "Guiding Light"'s Kim Zimmer (daytime TV) is simply multi-talented and should be starring in blockbuster films. Maybe somebody with some smarts will see that... and soon. In South Florida, there were two people among many greats in entertainment who had much to do with my life. One was the late Perry Como and the other, the much-missed Jackie Gleason. We can't have them back with us but the fun times I enjoyed in the company of those two makes for marvelous memories.
Who made you laugh back then? Who makes you laugh now?
Not necessarily in this order but the people who really made me laugh "a few years back" were Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee & Molly, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Shecky Greene, Gleason, Groucho, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles and so many others. While I work clean onstage, today's comedians continue to knock me out; I love George Carlin's glittery wit. The newest kids on the block are Scott Record, Chris Rock, Jack Mayberry, Dick Hardwick, Michael Finney, Lance Montalto and others who, thus far, are slated to hit the top. Lonnie Shorr deserves special mention. He simply destroys an audience; he is so funny.
Do you still perform?
I still perform. And often, but mostly, at private country clubs, yacht clubs, and in-house corporate after-dinner shows. People are forever asking why I do not list on my website the cities, towns, and clubs where I do shows. The answer is because they are private clubs, not open to the public. Sometimes I wish they were but that won't occur in my lifetime. Club members buy their privacy with their friends and acquaintances and they desire to keep it that way. That's life. Freedom of choice. That's as it should be. And is.
What is daily life like for you these days?
Lots of golf squeezed in between show dates. Love that game, and in case anybody is still reading this, I'll take three shots a side.
What made you want to get into show business in the first place?
I guess the first indication was when people used to encourage me to "do more" jokes and more keyboards, that I guessed there might, somehow, be at least a flicker of a spark somewhere in my makeup.
Have you accomplished all that you wanted to?
No, I've not accomplished nearly what I wish to do. Presently I'm trying to finish writing a book of all (or most) of the comedic things and events that have transpired over the years.
Any upcoming projects we might want to know about?
I am converting more of the old albums to CD's, juggling show dates, trying to complete my book writing and mostly, maybe, how to lower my golf score without ruining the eraser on the scorecard pencil.
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