Monday, June 15, 2009

Cuthbert and the Roosevelt

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 4:37 PM

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Around the start of our marathon interview, David Cuthbert relayed to me a warning: “Ann Landers [once said], ‘Please watch Mr. Cuthbert. He has an ear like a phonograph needle.’” And so it began. Of all the people I spoke with for this week’s Gambit cover story, Cuthbert was probably the most excitable — and doubtless the most entertaining. Over the course of two hours (and three rounds) on the Columns Hotel veranda, the former Times-Picayune reporter divulged nothing less than a detailed life history and its repeated entanglement with the Roosevelt Hotel, in a series of skits and accents second only to the performances themselves. What follows is the first half of our conversation.

The overwhelming feel I had about the Roosevelt was always one of glamour, stepping into someplace special — whether I was getting a haircut as a kid, schlepping my father’s dummy cases around for club dates, going to see a disc jockey or radio personality at WWL, going to the Sazerac (Bar) for their special little mix of stuff on the tables, eating scrambled quail eggs in one of the restaurants. But especially going into the Blue Room was like stepping into a movie. It was someplace special, and I think it’s someplace special for just about everyone in New Orleans who ever set foot in it.

(Blue Room booker) Marilyn (Barnett) was friends with Pearl Bailey and played tennis with Ginger Rogers. She had a character based on her — Arthur Hailey, when he was doing research for Hotel, Marilyn provided him with entrée to all the hotels. So in his next book, Airport, he made Marilyn a character, Tanya Livingston. She was played by Jean Seberg in the movie of Airport.

That hotel has played such a big part in my life. When I was a little boy, my father would take me there to get a haircut. He would get his haircuts and shaves there. It was downstairs on the first level, below the lobby. They seemed to me to have like 20 chairs. I have no idea how many there were. There were endless barber chairs, endless shoeshine guys, endless manicurists. It was so glamorous to me — it looked like a 1930s musical where Shirley Temple lived in a hotel and she knew everybody.

Later, when my father played club dates, there was a great big room called the International Room. My father was a ventriloquist and a comedian. His dummy was an ape named the Great Gangrene, and he had on military regalia, because he was in guerilla warfare. I carried that goddamn thing all over the Fairmont — it was still the Roosevelt then. For a while it was the Fairmont-Roosevelt, and then it was just the Fairmont. You had to keep the style in your head when you’re writing for the newspaper. But it’s always been the Roosevelt to me.

Up on the mezzanine floor was WWL radio, and [it] broadcast every night, all over the country. “From the beautiful Roosevelt Hotel here in downtown New Orleans, this is so-and-so … ” Leon Kelner was there in the ’50s. I did a package of stories in the ’90s on the [150th] anniversary of the Grunewald/Roosevelt/Fairmont. I interviewed Leon a lot.

I went to the Blue Room when I was a little boy, because on one night of the week they would set up little chairs, and kids could sit up there. Because almost nobody worked blue. Sophie Tucker, she would work a little blue. The only guy who really worked blue — and not that blue — was Joe E. Lewis, the comedian. He’d come here every year when the Fairgrounds opened up. And he’d do the same entrance every time he came in: He’d tear up all his losing tickets and throw them all over the stage. And he’d say, “It is now post time!” And what he’d say about the kids, he’d say, “Don’t worry about ’em. They’re all drunk.” [Laughs] Sophie Tucker used to sell copies of her autobiography, Some of These Days, outside the Blue Room. She’d set up a table: “What’s your name, honey?”

I was about 7 or 8 (when I first went to the Roosevelt). We moved back and forth between New Orleans and Michigan, where my mother’s people were. But we always kept coming back to my father in New Orleans. He liked New Orleans because he could always find steady work. He had three boys to support. We lived in a house on Peniston Street.

I was a city desk reporter in the late ’60s, early ’70s. One of the perks was, they only had one guy covering amusements. They knew that I was knowledgeable about show business, so whenever Frank Gagnard didn’t want to go to something — movie, play, whatever — he would give it to city desk, and my nights editor would usually give it to me. I covered fires and murders and everything in-between.

The first time I went to the Blue Room was to see Carol Channing. On assignment — you just signed for it. It was the great era of freebies. I think 1970. And she was fantastic! It was an hilarious act. She sang her songs from her shows, from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” to “Little Girl from Little Rock.” She did Hello Dolly! at the end of the show. She played Carmen Miranda. Her funniest impression was (Marlene) Dietrich. She came out in a [nude-fabric gown] and she’d say, “Vat do you think of this dress? Is too flimsy for a grandmozza?” She’d sit down on her chair and she’d start singing: “Fallink in love, never vanted to …” And the spotlight would move over, and she’d move her chair: “Vat am I to do …” It was very funny.

I went to do an interview with her (the next day), and she’s in her famous white bathrobe, which is what she usually received people in. I had pages of questions. I must have interviewed her seven, eight times. She taught me so many things about show business. She said, “You don’t just play a room. You play a venue. You play the town.”

Pearl Bailey roamed the stage. She sang, told stories. I asked her about that, and she said, “That comes from vaudeville. You want to give everybody a little taste of yourself.” I was the only guy to interview Marlene Dietrich. She came here twice. The first time, she would only allow written questions, to which she [provided] written replies. The second time she came here, the audience wasn’t quite as big. The Roosevelt — the Fairmont was set up with tables. But when big acts came, they just lined the tables down. Then there was this surrounding area of banquettes, and there were tables up around there. Then there were tables in back of the banquettes. They could get a lot of people. (Drawing) Here’s the bandstand, entrance from the kitchen. There was a little door off here, where the musicians would go to take a smoke, or have a drink, or blow a joint.

I came full circle with the Blue Room. I had a show I wrote play the Blue Room, called Silver Scream. We put our name on the door, too. The stage was here. There was dancing before the show. And then the stage rolled out. So, sometimes, for not-so-great acts, they had tables. But for big acts, they did long tables straight to the back. The great acts, like Channing and Dietrich and Pearl Bailey and Tina Turner and Sonny and Cher. Sonny and Cher started their act here. It was at the Fairmont. They copied Louis Prima and Keely Smith. When they came to the Fairmont, they needed an act. And they didn’t quite have an act. Dick Stabile, who had been the orchestra leader for Martin and Lewis, helped them put together this act. And it was Cher making fun of Sonny. And Cher singing beautifully, and Sonny … She’d tell him, “Sing your little heart out, froggy.” She would insult him. It was just like Louis and Keely. In essence, they appropriated their act and brought it up to date. Stabile helped them do that at the Fairmont.

Dietrich was fabulous. The second time she came, she didn’t do quite as much business. They had a 9 o’clock show and an 11 o’clock show. Her 11 o’clock shows weren’t doing good business. I went to see Dietrich every night. I went to see Bette Midler every night, when she played there, and Barry Manilow was still her piano player. This was the early ’70s. She wore the same thing I always saw her wear to rehearse: a polka-dotted white and red halter top and jeans rolled up to the knee, and sky-high platform heels. She came down every day to rehearse with a pile of music this big. She said, “You wanna come hear me rehearse?” When she first started out, very small audiences. By the time she finished, they were flying in from everywhere. There were people standing on chairs. It was amazing. She was so funny. I would hear some of the music of hers I would later hear on Broadway.

Dietrich, I saw her between shows. She wore a blue jean denim suit and a silk voile blouse. She looked wonderful. I said, “Why do you still work?” And she said, “It is the supply to the demand.” Tape recorder. “Vill you turn it off ven I ask you to?” She said, “They say my voice is shot. I vas never a singer.” “Nobody knows the things I saw in the war.” She was right up in front, like Patton’s mistress. She sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and the Vietnam War was still going on. Her favorite movie of hers was Touch of Evil. “I vas never as good in anything as that.” I said, “But you only have like three scenes in it.” She said, “The number of scenes doesn’t matter. It’s vat you do in it.”

Two times she asked me to turn off the recorder. I said, “Are there any acts that you love?” She said, “Liza Minnelli. I vent to see her at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris. I sit down front. I applaud. I rush backstage. I towel her hair off. I help her get into her costume. I rush outside again.” And I said, “Did you see in the paper the other day? She says she’s in love with Peter Sellers, and she’s going to marry Peter Sellers?” She said, “Turn off the recorder. I told her, ‘Honey, screw him, do vatever you vant vith him. Don’t marry him! You got to sign papers. You’ll never get rid of him.” (Laughs)

The next time, I said, “The best piece I ever read about you was Peter Bogdonovich’s, in a book called Pieces of Time, where you’re both flying out to Kansas. Did you read that?” She said, “Turn off the recorder. Did you see that movie that just came out? He’s promoting that girl?” It was At Long Last Love, a musical starring a bunch of people who couldn’t sing: Ryan O’Neal, Cybill Shepherd. [Dietrich] said, “Cybill Shepherd — the poor man’s Grace Kelly.” (Laughs)

But she was so nice. She offered to fix me something to eat — she had a little refrigerator. I asked about her dress that everyone said was padded. She said to her secretary Bernard [Hall], “Bernard, bring the dress.” And she said, “Put your hand in there.” I was floating on a cloud when I left her suite.

Peggy Lee did the most perfect act I’ve ever seen. She had oxygen backstage. The acts who didn’t give a shit, they’d just come out the kitchen door. But they had a baffle built between the kitchen for Peggy Lee, Marlene Dietrich. Pearl didn’t care, Edie Adams didn’t care. Peggy Lee cared because she had a guy back there who put an oxygen mask over her face, because she had emphysema. When she sang “Is That All There Is,” there was a hush in the house.

Edie Adams did a wonderful act. It was like vaudeville, a revue of '40s and '50s songs. A lot of people came there with imitations of Ann-Margret’s act. Ann-Margret’s act was the standard. [She] did an act in Las Vegas, and every girl who came to the Blue Room did an act sort of based on [that]. Connie Stevens came to the Blue Room. She was kind of scuzzy; she had fingernail polish on, but she had dirt under her fingernails. And she looked kind of dirty. Her roots hadn’t been dyed yet. But she was fabulous when she came onstage.

Sid Caesar played the Blue Room with Imogene Coca. It was wonderful. I was enraptured. It was “La Bicicleta,” a takeoff of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Her solo bit was something she did in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1934 — she stripped an overcoat. She told me, “It’s the same overcoat I used in 1934.” It was hilarious. Red Skelton came there for a week. The Mills Brothers, I took my friend Ty Tracy, who was the director of NORD Theater. Ty fell out of his seat. He gave a standing ovation for every song. They started singing to him.

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