The death of Jonathan Winters a while back sent me slipping into a reverie of memories of when there were comic giants walking the streets of North Beach. Winters was such a giant. I met him once in the 1950s. He was appearing at Enrico Banducci’s hungry i, and one night at Enrico’s Coffeehouse on Broadway, the boss himself introduced me to the master comedian. Winters fixed me with an evil glare and stuck out his hand for me to shake. I shook it.
“Oh my god, call an ambulance. Call an ambulance,” Winters yelled. “He crushed my hand. And it’s my good hand too. The one I use to …” (and he made a loose fist and pumped it up and down.) Funny man!
In 1959 while on stage at the hungry i, he apparently went bonkers. Later he wound up in a psychiatric hospital. The Chronicle reported that he climbed the rigging of the three-masted cargo ship, Balclutha at the Hyde Street Pier. He wouldn’t come down. The police said he was “disturbed.” That didn’t strike me as disturbed — I always wanted to climb that rigging.
As I said, there were giants among us then — many in town to appear at the hungry i, where as a Banducci buddy I liked to hang out. Here are a few recollections.
The funny piano player
Don Asher was the house piano player at the hungry i. He played the acts on and off stage and accompanied them with a little background music during their routines. He was a funny man himself.
He told me once: “For some reason comics always think the piano player is funny. Frequently they direct parts of their acts at piano players. So I became a funny piano player. When he played the hungry i, Jack E. Leonard thought it was open season on me.
“‘What key are you in sonny boy?’
“‘And you certainly are.'”
Asher recalled: “One night after playing intro music for Mort Sahl, I slid off the piano bench and made my customary exit up a side aisle on the way to the bar. Sahl’s voice knifed over the speakers and stopped me cold.
“‘Mr. Asher, have you ever contemplated another livelihood?’
“‘No, have you?’ I yelled out.”
The hip monologist
In 1953 Enrico Banducci hired Mort Sahl for $75 a week. He came out on stage and began delivering a hip monologue on Senator Joseph McCarthy. He talked about something called the McCarthy jacket. He said it was much like the popular Eisenhower jacket except it had “an extra flap to go over the mouth.”
Later Sahl could command $7,500 a week but he knocked the price down to $5,000 a week at the hungry i for his mentor, Banducci. “Enrico saved me from selling used cars in Los Angeles,” he said. Time magazine called Sahl “the first notable political satirist since Will Rogers.”
She called her husband Fang
In 1955 Phyllis Diller quit her job at an Oakland radio station and opened at the Purple Onion in North Beach, which Banducci co-owned. She talked about her relationship with her husband. She called him Fang. “I’m a housewife with five children. You may call me the girl with the seersucker tummy. I made varicose veins into an erogenous zone.”
The world’s foremost authority
Then there was professor Irwin Corey — self-styled as the “World’s Foremost Authority.” He walked out on stage and stared at the audience without saying a word. Finally, after stretching the silence to the breaking point, he said “However …”
The audacious hipster
Banducci booked Lenny Bruce into the hungry i early on. Bruce, an audacious hipster, demystified verbal taboos by delivering them publically on stage. He unleashed long monologues on sexual hypocrisy. Time magazine called him “… chief among the sick comedians” and he was frequently busted for obscenity. Banducci recalled that when Bruce would unload zingers in his act, some in the audience would storm out and demand their money back. “We had a $5 door charge in those days — I gave it back to them.”
Cosby, Gregory, Pryor, and Cambridge
Banducci was one of the first to headline African-American comics. “Dick Gregory had been doing church socials. I got Godfrey Cambridge early in his career. Richard Pryor was always hanging around wanting a chance, so I finally put him on. I got Bill Cosby from Philadelphia for $400 a week. He was unknown in San Francisco. He stayed at my club 26 weeks the first time I booked him.”
As I said, there were giants walking the streets of North Beach then. And now to end this column with a word from the great Professor Irwin Corey: However …!