If money was not important there were three ways for a young man to get into the movie or TV business in Hollywood. You could start as an usher at one of the TV networks, get a job in the mailroom at one of the two big talent agencies (MCA or William Morris) or have a relative in the business.
I came in through the side door, so to speak. Sure, I had a relative, but he was in Chicago, and his company represented a very indirect route to big-time Hollywood. Also I must say that I was not overly impressed with a lot of the people I came across in the business, from the “What Makes Sammy Run” hustler to the inflated ego types overflowing with self-importance.
At my level, contact with the “stars” was limited. However there were a few people I worked with in the business that deserved that accolade in ways not necessarily associated with their box office appeal. Whereas Art Linkletter was a class act, Arthur Godfrey was, as I mentioned above, a womanizer. Ernie Ford, Ernie Kovacs and Frank Sinatra were real gentlemen, as was Ralph Edwards. Bing Crosby was mean spirited and Tony Martin was a stuffed shirt. I knew three of the four Marx brothers. I worked on “You Bet Your Life” starring Groucho Marx. The wit he exhibited on camera was clever, however that same wit off camera was deprecating. His brother, Harpo Marx, however was a first class gentleman, whereas brother Chico had a checkered reputation.
I met Harpo and Chico Marx during the filming of a series of home permanent commercials at the Desilu Studios. The commercials were for another Toni-owned product named Prom. The commercials were originally written for Harpo. However Harpo insisted that we also cast his brother Chico, the family ne’er-do-well. As a condition of the deal Chico was to receive payment equal to his own. Chico did the sales pitch while Harpo danced across the stage posing with beautiful models and, with simple gestures and facial expressions, did more for that product than any hard selling pitch man. Throughout the filming; through take after take, the Marx brothers never complained, often insisting on another take, assuring us that they could “do it better the next time”, and they invariably did.
Harpo was a wealthy man who had invested wisely, supported many charities and had an excellent reputation. Chico on the other hand was a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer and what people in the business called a deadbeat. He had long since lost his license to drive a car. The shooting took three days. Harpo’s chauffer picked up Chico at his Beverly Hills bungalow every morning and brought him home safely every evening.
On the final afternoon of the shoot, after the “wrap” as they call it, Harpo took me aside and asked if I could do him a favor. It seems that Harpo had to be at a dinner in his honor in Palm Springs and needed to leave with his car and driver directly from the studio. Would I be kind enough to give Chico a ride home. “NO STOPS,” insisted Harpo.
“Of course,” I replied.
He turned to Chico and explained about the dinner and his time problem and told his brother that I was going to drive him “directly home… NO STOPS”. Chico, with a sleepy nod, confirmed his understanding of the arrangement. With that Harpo took my hand, gave me a warm hug and with his other hand, stuffed a $100 bill into my jacket pocket.
Watching Chico out of the corner of my eye I got my gear together. I thanked the crew, set up a time to see the dailies the following morning, headed for the parking lot and drove off with my famous companion in the back seat.
We hadn’t been gone two blocks when Chico said that he “had to take a leak”.
“No problem,” I said. “We’ll go back to the studio, it’ll only take a minute.”
“No, no,” said Chico, “I know a place. It’s right on the way. It’s very close, right here on Santa Monica Blvd. It’s just up the street”.
I knew where he was pointing. He intended to relieve himself, or so he said, at the Formosa Café, a famous hang-out for some of Hollywood’s old show business lushes.
“I can’t,” I said. “I promised your brother ‘no stops’. The Formosa was exactly the type of a place Harpo was talking about.” I knew if Chico went in there, I would never get him out.
“You better stop now. I can’t hold it,” he groaned. “Do you want me to pee all over your back seat?”
“I can’t do it, I promised your brother!” I was thinking about the $100 bill in my pocket, not to mention my job and who knows what could happen with this crazy guy.
Chico groaned again. “Screw the hundred bucks,” I said to myself as I pulled into the Formosa parking lot.
“Boy, just in time kid,” sighed Chico, “I was just about to let loose. I owe you. You’re saving my life.”
Our entrance was greeted by a cheer from the dozen men lounging at the bar. I recognized some of their faces, not their names really, just the faces, Hollywood western faces and screen hoods out of black and white film noir crime flicks.
Chico really did go to the men’s, room and so did I. But afterward instead of heading directly back to the car he allowed himself to be swallowed up by a couple of his buddies at the bar where he proceeded to hold court. He was charming. Everybody loved him. Maybe he snacked on a few appetizers between bourbons, but he never even got so much as tipsy. When I eased him out of the Formosa and into my car an hour later he was just pleasantly juiced up.
We weren’t three blocks from Rodeo and Wilshire when Chico said he was hungry, and I should let him off at Frascati’s, a well-known restaurant in Beverly Hills.
“Come on,” he said. “Come with me. We’ll have a couple of drinks and some dinner.”
“Nah, Chico” I replied. “I’m already in trouble. I was supposed to take you directly home, “no stops”… Your brother insisted.”
“Look kid, have I been a problem?” asked Chico.
“Not really,” I thought to myself, “at least not so far.” It was now 7:00, and I had been with him all that time, and he really hadn’t caused me any trouble, and besides I had to eat dinner.
So… I drove into Fascati’s lot, gave the attendant the keys to the car, and we walked into the restaurant. We were met by the Maître’ D who looked long and hard at Chico who was still dressed in his TV commercial outfit. He directed us to a table and whispered something to the waitress. It appears that Frascati had a long history with Chico Marx for whom they had a one drink on an empty stomach rule. I suggested we order dinner with our drinks, explaining that it had been a long day, and I still had to stop at my office.
Dinner was great. Chico ordered several Italian dishes I had never heard of along with a wonderful wine. When the waitress appeared with check in hand, he waved in the direction of the cocktail lounge where Frascati’s had a piano bar and asked her to bring us two grappas. I had never heard of “grappa”, let alone tried the drink. With a name like grappa it must be made from grapes. However, it was colorless and must have been 200 proof if there was such a designation. When he saw us coming the fellow at the piano bar stood up and introduced Chico to his patrons and said, “I think we are in for a treat.”
And a treat it was. Chico put on a show. He played standing up, sitting down, lying down and gathered a crowd around that piano that filled the cocktail lounge. Between grappas Chico sang in Italian, French and Spanish and a number of popular songs, improvising with his own slightly off-color lyrics.
The grappas kept coming and the crowd kept asking for more. I looked at my watch. It was after 10:00, and we had been in Frascati’s for over three hours. I thought about what Harpo said, “No stops… take him directly home.” I went over to the Frascati piano player who had given his job over to Chico. I suggested he take over, which he did, much to Chico and fans’ disappointment. Chico literally danced his way through the crowd toward the exit, where we were intercepted by the Maître D with our check. Chico danced past him and pointed in my direction.
The bill came to roughly $90.00. Then if you figure in a $10 tip… well fortunately I just happened to have had a $100 bill in my jacket pocket. How about that?
Don’t miss the Marx Brothers’ classic piano duet from the movie “The Big Store.” Click play below.