Monday, July 02, 2007

The Lou Holtz Laugh Club

Lou Holtz is one of those "footnote" kind of comics; not exactly unique, far from brilliant.. Simply good enough to get noticed, make a nice living, and work with some of the top talents of his day. Lou's shtick was Yiddish dialect humor and telling funny stories. He ran hot and cold, capable of raising up a few belly laughs at his best and downright grating at his worst. His easy, conversational style and borderline blue humor made him a Catskills mainstay for decades. He was also a shameless gag recycler. In the 1940s, author Robert Bloch happened to meet Holtz and asked him about the source of his material.
In response he summoned his dresser, who was a mute, and asked him for "the book." The dresser nodded and pulled a small black notebook from his jacket-pocket, handing it to Mr. Holtz.

The comic held up the little black notebook and nodded.

"Here it is," he said. "My material."

"For this show?" I asked.

"For all my shows," Holtz responded." Including the radio programs, the revues, the nightclub acts. Over the years I've used maybe fifty, sixty stories. What more do I need?"
Lou Holtz shared the stage with Ed Wynn in Manhattan Mary as the smooth-talking agent Sam Platz and was on hand when Paramount's Astoria studios on Long Island filmed the musical as Follow the Leader in 1930. Between a couple of editions of George White's Scandals and a starring role in You Said It, a 1931 college-themed musical comedy that played for 192 performances, this was Holtz's peak both as a comic on Broadway and in film. In 1934, he was one of the first comics to appear in Columbia's Musical Novelties, the studio's first "official" two-reel comedies, doing his dialect shtick in School for Romance and When Do We Eat?. These two shorts marked the end of Lou Holtz's film career, although he's one of an endless number of writers who contributed gag material to MGM's bloated Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Holtz's storytelling abilities were put to their most effective use on radio where he most notably clowned for Rudy Vallee through the 1930s. At some point in the early 50s, Holtz starred in a syndicated series entitled The Lou Holtz Laugh Club, a daily series of five-minute programs (3:30 without the ads) that featured Lou, "America's favorite storyteller", as "the chairman of the Laugh Club". The format was effective and simple; the show opened with a one-liner followed by a bit of crosstalk between Holtz and his Southern-accented assistant "Ginger", a story, and a final bit of crosstalk with Ginger. Lou would then "adjourn the meeting" with the whack of a gavel. The shows were recorded before an audience of perhaps ten or fifteen people who, only rarely, seem not to be forcing their guffaws. The Lou Holtz Laugh Club was syndicated by Laffaday, Inc., which I have to assume was Holtz's own enterprise, and I can't imagine he didn't make a healthy return on this little program. I've uploaded a zip file containing 68 episodes, all with excellent sound, to this link. Any information as to the identity of "Ginger" would be greatly appreciated, you-all.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lyla Budnick, the kid sister of Larry Fine of The 3 Stooges told me that Holtz offered to let Fine develop an act from Holt's material. She told me Larry was honored, Holtz had said something to the effect that Larry's charm and gentle nature was perfect for delivering the material, etc. Larry considered it, but he and Moe really wanted to keep the Stooges going if at all possible.

I'd have to check my materials to see when she said the offer was, but I think it was during the Stooges' down-time after Columbia dropped them, and Joe Besser quit, but before they added Joe DeRita and enjoyed their phenominal comeback. So, 1957-59. If not it may have been when Shemp died and the Stooges' futrue was unclear.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Detroiter said...

Holtz also appeared in one the early Fox Movietone shorts, ON THE BEACH AT ATLANTIC CITY, which might have been made in 1928.

Do you have any scans or links to any of the Holtz Columbia films? Can't get enough of those handsome Columbia title sequences.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Oh, of course! He'd HAVE to work for Fox, the black hole of film comedy. Greg Hilbrich has "School for Romance":

As for Larry doing Lou Holtz's storytelling routines, I think he could have been better at it than Holtz. Larry's gentle, self-effacing attitude might have put a better spin on these stories than Holtz's brash assuredness.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the son of Lou Holtz. I am quite familiar with my dad's entire career, including strengths and weaknesses, and it's clear that you guys are not. To say that Larry Fine, who I loved in the Stooges, would have been better at delivering Holtz' stories than Holtz himself shows that you know little about comedy. It would be like saying that Harpo Marx would have been better delivering Milton Berle's material or visa verse. The skills of a famous MC and storyteller are completely different from what Larry Fine was doing with the Stooges, which was terrific. Search the internet all you like (which is clearly how you threw together your poor understanding of my dad) and you won't find anything about Larry Fine ever delivering a lengthy joke as himself while onstage solo. It simply wasn't what he did. My dad, on the other hand, did it to packed houses for many years and influenced a huge # of comedians (as you will see below).

Though you referred to my dad as simply "good enough to get noticed," how would you explain that Milton Berle listed him as one of his influences who Berle stole from (you can check that online)? Berle told me personally that my dad was among the greatest storytellers and monologists that he had ever seen. George Burns called my dad, and told me many times, that my dad was his favorite comedian after Jack Benny. Same with comics like Alan King, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, and Myron Cohen who cited my dad's storytelling as the best. None of these famous storytellers listed Larry Fine as an influence whatsoever, though Fine certainly may have made them laugh in Three Stooges short films and was great in them. Similarly, nobody ever said that my dad was funnier than Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, because no one would be foolish enough to compare a monologist/MC/storyteller to comedic film actors who did not appear live and did not tell jokes/stories whatsoever. I find it very hard to believe that my dad ever met with Larry Fine regarding developing an act. I am sure that it didn't happen. Why? Because not only did my dad never mention it to me, but he would often see me watching 3 Stooges shorts when I was a kid and teenager. It would have made great conversation if it were true. We discussed the Stooges and everyone else in the business, and there is no way that he wouldn't have mentioned it if it happened. We discussed everyone he had ever met practically. I have stories about everyone...but never about meeting with Larry Fine. Combining that with the fact that my dad would not have thought that his act was Larry's strength makes it extremely unlikely.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to your listing of what my dad's peak was in show business, here is a lesson for you: The pinnacle of live comedy and vaudeville in the 20's and 30's was the Palace Theater in New York. You probably did not know that, since you didn't mention it. My dad not only headlined the Palace, but he broke the record there by playing 10 weeks to SRO. He did this twice in the 1920's and 1930's. His Manhattan Mary performance was much smaller than his other roles and far from a career highlight, but it's clear that you're only emphasizing my dad's performances that were on film and radio, which were NOT the pinnacles of my dad's career, because you have no independent knowledge of anything else besides recorded performances. They are just what pops up more when you do a Google search. My dad had huge live hits all over the country (Broadway, Chicago, Florida) and even around the world during the 20's and 30's and 40's. His show "Laughter over London" at the London Palladium ran for over a year. You also failed to mention another hit on Broadway in 1942 (Priorities of 1942), which he also produced along with his other shows. As for you calling my dad a mainstay at the Catskills, you are dead wrong on that and are simply applying other comedians' career highlights to my dad's. My dad did not perform much, if at all, in the Catskills. Due to several bad marriages, my dad lost his desire to work in radio and tv and went into semi-retirement in the 1940's (when he was in his 50's), though he still performed high-end club dates (Las Vegas) into the 1950's. As for your description of my dad's conversation with Robert Bloch, which you again got off the internet, you failed to understand the conversation or even the context, which was reported in the Bloch book as second-hand information remembered years later. The substance of the conversation with Bloch (who was not a close friend of my dad's) was simple: My dad used to explain to everyone who would listen (and to me) that when he was doing live shows in a theater, only a thousand people were seeing him at a time. Accordingly, a certain routine could last for years because so few people see you on a given night compared to hearing you on a radio show or tv. 50 or 60 jokes (which were normally 3-5 minutes each and contained multiple jokes within each story) could last for years. Accordingly, my dad would lament that all of his material (which he kept in a book - though I highly doubt that he walked around with it) would get used up very quickly in tv or radio. I have heard successful modern comedians lament about the same thing.
As for the "Lou Holtz Laugh Club," this was at the end of his career. He did not take pride in it whatsoever nor was it considered to be his best work. As for the huge financial compensation that you mentioned, my dad made much more money in live theater where he owned the shows. The "Lou Holtz Laugh Club" did not pay a lot. Most big stars in vaudeville and Broadway took a pay cut to do radio originally. It was not a pay raise.

2:11 PM  
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1:55 AM  

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