Category Archives: Showbiz Stories
The Steel Curtain
One of my most gratifying accomplishments in comedy was when I was booked at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Playing Vegas was the pinnacle of my career, inasmuch as it was always defined at the entertainment capital of the world. Even as a child I knew Las Vegas was where the great ones performed.
So in 1984 I was opening for Paul Anka at Caesars, and I was in shock and awe as I stood on the Las Vegas strip and looked up to see my name on the huge iconic Caesars Palace marquis. It was thrilling to know that in a few hours I would be walking out on the same stage that Frank Sinatra had been on one night earlier.
On opening night I stood in the wings, minutes before my introduction, when something totally incredible happened. The stage hand told me there was a problem raising the main curtain. You see, the pre-show curtain at Caesars was actually a heavy steel corrogated contraption, which had to be opened hydraulically to get to the main regular curtain. And the mechanism apparently had broken. So I was given a choice.
“You can either enter through the main showroom entrance, and come down the center aisle and onto the stage from there,” the stage manager told me. “Or we can have several guys lift the steel curtain by hand about a foot off the ground and you can crawl under it.”
That was it? I could not believe what I was hearing. I was about to make my debut at the most famous theatre in the world and they couldn’t get the curtain to open! I was not about to come in through the showroom entrance and prance down the aisle to the stage. This felt to weird for me to do, running down toward the stage and climbing up on it while the crowd watched silently. So I chose the crawl method.
The lights went down, and a voice boomed, “And now, Bobby Kelton.” The crew hoisted the steel curtain up about a foot, and I crawled under it in my suit and tie, like a marine crawling under fire in a war. I got up, dusted myself off, and did my act. The crowd was laughing before I said a word, so essentially Caesars Palace provided me with my opening joke. When my act was over I turned and crawled back under the curtain.
Of course, it was all fixed by the time Paul Anka came out minutes later. But for me I’ll always remember it as the grandest entrance and exit I’ve ever made in my career.
A Most Dangerous Heckler
Every comedian remembers his worst heckler experiences. In my early years in comedy, due to the fact that I had to work many dives, bars and clubs, I had more than my share.
One event that stands out occurred during my first big nightclub engagement, back in 1977. I had only been doing comedy a few years, but I felt like I had hit the big time when I got asked to open for the iconic Staple Singers. It was at a well-known Philadelphia nightclub called the Bijou Cafe.
Probably because they were a Motown soul group, the audience that night was predominantly black. This didn’t faze me at all, and I went on stage and easily moved through my white suburban middle class material. I was doing a bit about the different candy we ate as kids, and I held up some candy buttons, a popular candy which consisted of a piece of paper with small candy dots glued to it.
I asked the audience if anyone wanted to try some, and a voice yelled out, “Where’s your hand been at?” The audience yelled and laughed, and I knew I had to respond cleverly.
“Ask your old lady,” I replied. The audience screamed their approval. But suddenly it got serious. The man stood up in the middle of the room and started screaming at me, to stunned silence.
“Your career’s over!” he bellowed. “It’s over, man. You done!”
I stood frozen. I had no idea what to say or do. Was he going to run up and attack me? And I wondered whose side the audience would be on, their brother or mine. After all, even though I gave him a real zinger, he started it, and normally crowds are with the performer in these situations.
Before I knew what to do or think next, a bouncer came over, grabbed the guy, and carted him out of the room — leaving his lady there by herself, and she actually stayed and watched the rest of my show without him! The crowd cheered at his removal, and was right with me for the rest of my act. After the show I slithered out the back door, making sure I would not be confronted, if he indeed was still in the area.
So I dodged a bullet, or a heckler as it were. But I did what I had to do. As a line in the Staple Singers hit song “Respect” goes, “If you don’t respect yourself ain’t nobody going to…”
Carson’s Famous Pencils
It was around my tenth Tonight Show appearance and I was at the point of being totally comfortable walking out on that iconic set and doing my act, as comfortable as one could be, that is, with Johnny Carson sitting fifteen feet away.
One of the routines I had prepared for that show involved the idea that they could have TV dinners designed after specific shows. One of them could be, I brazenly chirped, a “Tonight Show TV dinner: you open it up and there’s a substitute entree!” I was alluding to the fact, of course, that Johnny so often took a night off for a guest host. And I felt at home enough to risk doing that joke.
The audience howled, especially because I was dishing it to Johnny with him sitting right there, and the laugh was explosive. I looked over and saw Johnny laughing, along with Ed McMahon, and as I turned back to the camera, I felt something hit my right shoulder. And then boom, another object hit me! I looked around, then down on the floor, and I saw two of Johnny Carson’s pencils, the ones with an eraser on both ends which he used to fiddle with at his desk, lying on the ground. He had thrown them at me after I did the joke and both hit their mark! I picked them up and looked over, and he was doubled over laughing. I put the pencils in my coat pocket, and once the crowd simmered down I completed my set.
I didn’t get to sit on the couch that night as they ran late, but afterward Johnny saw me in the hallway and congratulated me on a funny spot. He didn’t ask for his pencils back, and I still have them, tucked away in a bank safe deposit box.
It was a magic moment from a magic day in a magic era for me, and I’m glad I still have those pencils that helped me bond with Johnny Carson, the greatest host in history.
“If There’s Any God!!”
I once got a booked in Atlantic City opening for the singer/talk show host Bert Convy. A very nice guy and a true gentleman, Bert and I hit it off and were hanging out the entire weekend at the Playboy Casino where we were performing. One thing we noticed was that every time we got in an elevator, after the doors closed a voice would come on and announce, “Tonight, in the main showroom, it’s BERT CONVY!”
Now, this was fine and unnoticeable to us the first time, even the second. But after days of getting on elevators, by ourselves, and hearing the droning pitch over and over saying, “Tonight… BERT CONVY!” it began sounding quite monotonous, because we heard it dozens of times. He especially was tired of hearing his name.
Finally one night we get in an elevator, and along with us steps a gorgeous, statuesque blond woman. The elevator began going up, but for the first time all week, there was no announcement! Just when Bert wanted one, with this beautiful woman who might realize who he is…nothing!
Right at that moment Bert turned to me and whispered, “If there was any God…” The elevator stopped, the woman got off, not knowing for a second whom she was standing with. And as the doors closed and it began going up, what do you think happened?
“Tonight…in the main showroom…BERT CONVY!!”
The Playboy Club
One of the better circuits for a performer in the 1970′s and 1980′s was The Playboy Club nightclub circuit. Among the ones I worked at were the resort in Great Gorge, New Jersey, along with Los Angeles and New York City.
My booking at the New York Playboy Club happened at the most inopportune time. It was the winter of 1978, and one of the biggest blizzards ever recorded hit the New York area. Somehow I was able to make my way from my parents’ house on Long Island into Manhattan for the show, despite the fact that all rail service and bus service was suspended. But when I got backstage at the club, I was informed that there were only 6 people in the audience. This was in a 1000 seat theatre. And my good fortune included the fact that the 6 were non-English speaking Japanese businessman.
On stage I went, as usual, through snow and sleet and ice and hail or whatever that thing is. And there, in about row 30 in a sea of emptiness, sat my 6 Japanese fans. I figured I was done for, but unexpectedly, they began laughing at every sentence that came out of my mouth. They had no idea what I was saying, but they laughed anyway, perhaps because they understood I was a comedian, and they were supposed to laugh at me. I did my 40 minutes, steady laughs throughout, and walked off to the biggest ovation you’ve ever heard from 6 people in a 1000 seat theatre. I think I even saw a few cameras flash.
To this day I’ll never know how or why, but I do know that I was never a bigger hit. Thank goodness they didn’t understand me.