Image: Listening to the radio, Oct. 28, 1945.
This is Part 6 of James Curtis’ 1975 interview with Dick Lane. In this segment, Lane discusses Jack Benny, roller derby, professional wrestling and Gorgeous George.
James Curtis’ interview with Dick Lane Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
DICK LANE:The next best thing were the Roller Games. This runs on 52 weeks a year, too.
JAMES CURTIS: And quite an audience for it…
DL: Ohhh yeah… When we began, they used to send out two teams, come out barnstorming. They’d play four weeks at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, two weeks at the Memorial Stadium–outdoor–in Long Beach, and two weeks in the closed end of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. That made a good season. And we did that–1947, 1948, ‘49, and in 1950 we talked ‘em into staying here. We’d book them in the armory in Exposition Park. Went on 52 solid weeks. And as a result, it’s run 52 weeks a year [ever since].
JC: And you’re still doing them.
DL: You betcha… You know, I’ve had a very varied experience. The experiences I’ve had in the various branches of show business that I’ve been in have all been wonderful. There are little things I could write a book on.
JC: You should.
DL: I was with Jack Benny for ten years.
JC: What did you do with Jack Benny? Were you on radio with him?
DL: I was his press agent. I was engaged first to be his press agent for one reason: They put on a write-in campaign on radio. You write in “I can’t stand Jack Benny because… ” in 25 words or less. Well that campaign… I was the press agent for this. Fast talking. I used a kind of funny delivery: “I’ll plaster your name all… [voice rising] all… over the world!” Like a rocket going off. And as a result we took in thousands and thousands and thousands of letters.
After the first week or so, they became a little alarmed that we might get a lot of anti-Semitic letters. But, you know, there was not one. There was a $10,000 cash prize, and a man in Iowa won it. And the letter he wrote, he should positively have won it. He said: “I can’t stand Jack Benny because he’s so very much like myself.” I’m cheap, I’m stingy, I’m this and I’m that. He reminds me of the unlovely things I find in my own personality. That was the gist of his letter, but he got the $10,000 and he was worth it.
JC: That was the secret of Jack Benny’s success, I guess. He was always the butt of the jokes.
DL: He was a wonderful man to work with. And he was easy to work with. He expected people to be “sight” readers.
A lot of people can read, but they read a little laboriously. They declaim each word as they see it. Mary-Had-A-Little-Lamb–those things. You’ve got to read four or five lines ahead of where you’re articulating, like a man playing music. So he hired people who were good sight readers.
And on Saturday mornings we’d have a rehearsal, say ten-thirty. We’d sit around a long table and they’d hand us our scripts. And we’d sit around and read, and when you came to your lines–you know which character you’re playing–you read your lines. The writers would sit along the wall, and whoever laughed, well, you knew that was the guy who wrote the line. But nobody ever stopped you. You read straight through. They were not timing or anything else; they just wanted to see if you had any idea what the show was all about.
Then they’d take the scripts away from you, and they’d call you back Sunday morning at ten-thirty. They’d hand out scripts again. Now sometimes there might be some minor changes, but they’d never scratch anything out and write something in. You’d have fresh pages, and you’d sit down and read this again. Then they’d take the scripts away from you. Then you’d go to lunch. And we used to go over to the Brown Derby, and we’d have fun over there, come back, sit around, get dressed up (because you’re working before an audience), and you’d say, “Well, the scripts… ?”
Sometimes there may have been a change. If so, the writer would call you over and say, “Now look, here you’ll say this instead of that… ” And I’d scratch it out. Some minor change. But they’d leave you alone. And five minutes before we’d go on–while the warm-up was on–they’d put us out on the stage, seated diagonally in rows of chairs with the orchestra behind us and the audience in front, and you’ve got your script.
Now, he doesn’t want you to memorize anything. He wants you to read it. You’d sit there and turn your pages until you come to your turn, and you’d walk down to the microphone. Now he had two microphones; he had one for himself and another one over here where two of us could work, one on each side of the mike. That’s the way he worked. When he got through, he’d take those scripts away from you. And he’d never want you to read it often enough so you’d think you’d memorized any part of it.
JC: Why would that be?
DL: He wanted you to read it. He wanted everything to sound spontaneous. He didn’t want you to try any new nuance–he wanted you to read exactly what was written. And he prayed every show that you’d make a mistake.
JC: Why was that?
DL: So that he could have some fun with you. He could [go], “Well!” Use that great line of his, or that pose that he used–to put his hand up to his face, look at the audience and flick his cigar.
I’ve got to tell you one, because the girl is no longer with us. Louella Parsons was one of our guests, and her opening line in every instance was, “My first exclusive… ” If you remember; maybe you never heard her.
Jack Benny Program with Louella Parsons, Dec. 16, 1945. (Real Audio file)
JC: Never heard her.
DL: She was a columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner.
DL: Well, as a special guest, she was seated not in the regular hard chairs that we had, but they’d given her an overstuffed chair. And we all took our pages and we’d turn them over because they were clipped at the corner. She never did; she’d take those pages loosely and put ‘em around back. You’d sit there, turning your pages, ‘til you come to your line, and then you’d walk down to the microphone.
Well, she’s getting ready to come down to the microphone. She got up, and she’d been sitting in this overstuffed chair with a green taffeta dress on. And when she arose, instead of walking down to the mike, she turned her back to the audience and walked up toward the orchestra, probably to cinch her dentures or something, but as she did, sitting in that soft chair, this taffeta dress was caught in the cleft of her seater.
And it was hiked up in the back. Well, the audience started to titter and giggle, and it started to spread. Now she hears her line coming up that she’s got to go down [for], and she turns to go down to the mike. And as she passes, Don Wilson very obligingly reached over and caught the dress and gave it a little pull, and she went “Woo!” and dropped her script. Now it was loose-leafed and it was all over the floor. There isn’t a solitary thing you can do. Don Wilson was down there trying to pick up these pages; he couldn’t even get them to match.
Five-six-seven-eight-nine pages, and she’s standing there wildly… I never saw a woman so livid, so mad. She ran off stage. Well, that audience started to scream and yell. Benny can’t tell the audience at home what’s happening; he just stood there. And they laughed, and laughed, and you could hear the director calling to us–“Cut to page 13… Go to 14… Go to 15… Dennis, sing… Dennis, Dennis–put Dennis on!”
Well, they called Dennis Day, he sang his song, and they laughed right through his song. After the thing was over they were still laughing. Nobody would ever know what that big laugh was, but I’ve never heard one that stayed in that theater–it wafted back and forth in that room like a stink. It would stop and then start again. But that was the first and last appearance of the lady on our show. But Don Wilson–she could have drawn and quartered him, I’m sure. Oh, brother.
JC: Getting back to wrestling again… Your approach to wrestling initially, I guess, was out of necessity as much as anything. When you got to working with a live audience in wrestling, would you play to the audience or the camera still?
DL: No, no. Playing with an audience at the arenas, they never heard what I said.
JC: You were always up in a little box somewhere?
DL: It was always away. It was for television viewing, listening only. The people in the arena never heard what I said.
JC: Would you pre-arrange any of your confrontations with the wrestlers?
DL: Oh, no, no… I’d never want to know because it would make me nervous. I don’t want to know what I’m going to do.
JC: So they’d come on up… Did you know any of these people who were coming into the booth, or were you seeing them for the first time?
DL: Some of them I’d see for the first time, but I’d always try to find out something about ‘em if I could. Probably the best hold they’d use, or maybe I’d get the impression he’s a nice guy and he’d turn out to be a stinker, or vice-versa. I never wanted to be in on any of their confidential things.
JC: How would you handle a wrestler? Say someone you hadn’t met before?
DL: Well, if I didn’t like him, I’d try to bait him into saying something or doing something unlovely. And I usually succeeded.
JC: Did they ever get out of hand?
DL: Oh, several times they got a little rough. One fellow took my glasses off and dropped them and stepped on them. Things like that. I think the funniest man I ever interviewed was a fellow by the name of Wild Red Barry. He was a veteran wrestler and a very nice person, but he was a stinker in the ring.
He’d been at it a long time, and one night in an interview–on camera–I said, “Red, what are you doing in this thing? Are you going to stay in this all your life? Why don’t you retire? Take the place of eminence you’ve earned and settle down among our other important senior citizens?” Well, that was the worst thing I could have said. He said, “Don’t you talk ‘old’ to me. You’re older than water! You’ll never live long enough to be as old as you look right now!” That’s the kind of fellow he was.
Image: Gorgeous George and Sander Szabo at the Olympic, Feb. 4, 1948. Credit: Los Angeles Times.
JC: Let’s take Gorgeous George. He was probably your most famous sparring partner.
DL: Oh yes.
JC: When did you first meet him?
DL: Well, I knew him first as George Wagner before he became Gorgeous George. He was a good journeyman wrestler. He and his brother Bobby began wrestling together in Houston, Texas. They used to scuffle around on a sawdust pile near a big sawmill down there. And became professionals.
He was a quarter breed Cherokee Indian; he had black hair. He wrestled under the name Elmer the Great at one time. They all wanted an identity other than their own, you know. And he finally fell in love with a girl by the name of Betty Hanson. She was a ticket girl at the box office in a Eugene, Oregon wrestling arena.
Later they were married, and she didn’t like that black hair. In television, in close-up, if your hair is all black, it’s not good. You need highlights in it; many times a henna rinse will do it. So she talked him into letting her just put some highlights into his hair. So she got a henna rinse and she put it on–you know, packed this stuff on. First you put the peroxide in with it, then the henna goes in with it. And she wrapped a towel around it and went up to another apartment to play bridge. And she thought, “Oh, my God, he’s had that thing on 45 minutes!” So she called down on the phone and said, “George, you can wash out your hair now.”
So he washed it out and he it was orange–the wildest color you could imagine. Well, he wanted to kill her, but she said, “Oh, come on… Wait a minute–that might be great.” She said, “But your hair’s so straight. Why don’t you go and have them put some kinks in it?” He said, “Oh, no. You’re not taking me to any beauty parlor.” So the looked in the telephone book and they found a beauty parlor–Franc and Josef. Allegedly men. He said, “I’ll go there. But no dames–I won’t go where there are any dames.”
She took him down there, and they said, “Your hair is very coarse, very heavy. Why don’t we put a little permanent in it?” Well, they tried a cold wave, but his hair was of such a texture that a cold wave wouldn’t take. They said, “No, we’re going to have to go to the electric.” And you know those electric things? Where you put about 40 of those things on your head at one time? They said, “What are you going to do with it?” He said, “Change the color.” They said, “No, no. Don’t change the color. That’s the color just now that Lucille Ball is affecting. He said, “Well, if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. So… put a kink in it.” So they put this thing on.
Meanwhile, she–Betty–called the Sports Department of the two newspapers at that time, and they came out with a camera. They opened the curtains and took a picture of him with these things, all these electric wires, in his hair. Talk about a bull in a china closet, he couldn’t get out of there–he was tied in. But they snapped some pictures, and when they took those wrappers off his head and combed it out, he had an Afro–a fiery red Afro hairdo. Well, they trimmed it a little bit and tried to put a part in it, and they did the best they could. And she said, “You are gorgeous, George.” Well, from that moment on, he was Gorgeous George.”
“Beautiful music?! You dang kids with your Gene Krupa and Betty Hutton and beat-me-mama-eight-to-the-bar! Now, John Phillip Sousa, THAT’S beautiful music.”