Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Clark Kent's got nothing on me

THE PHONE BOOTH--152 East 55th Street (between 3rd and Lexington Avenues). One of several East Side discotheques to emerge in the mid-'60s Go-Go boom, the Phone Booth had previously been the site of a '30s supper club called the Cafe Life, and most famously housed the Blue Angel, a swank cabaret with a long lifespan and an exceptional talent roster. As John Gavin writes in Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (New York: Backstage Books, 2006):

The Blue Angel's formality challenged guests to rise to the chicness of their surroundings...From 1943 to 1964, dozens of future stars took career leaps at the Angel's red-carpeted entrance, including Barbra Streisand, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Johnny Mathis, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, and Woody Allen. The list proved [co-owner Herbert] Jacoby's unsurpassed eye for unique talent with commercial appeal. But the club was a star in itself. "You've got to go to the Blue Angel before you leave," said many a New Yorker to visiting friends.

Other notable performers include the Revuers (with Judy Holliday and Comden & Green), Yul Brynner, Dorothy Loudon, Kaye Ballard, Bobby Short, Barbara McNair, Diahann Carroll, Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell, Vaughn Meader, Don Adams, and Peter Paul & Mary. The book discusses these and other more obscure but beloved-by-cabaret-cognoscenti figures in great detail, along with vivid descriptions of the decor and atmosphere of the room...but I'll stop here, since such minutiae is appealing only to the hardcore old time showbiz hound/theater queen division of NYC nostalgians (who, like me, probably have a well-worn copy of the book on their shelves already...).

Alas, due to the combined effects of "TV, the New York World's Fair...the fact that people weren't staying out as late as they used to," and with entertainment tastes now leaning more towards rock & roll, the Blue Angel closed its doors in May of 1964. "[Co-owner Max] Gordon sold the club to hotel entrepreneur Ed Wynne, who planned to convert it into a restaurant." It seems Wynne decided to go more Go-Go instead, for about a year later the Phone Booth emerged--not unlike Clark Kent's alter ego from the confines of said enclosure. Oddly enough, the joint's emcee happened to be named Kent, as reported in the New York Times on June 1, 1965:

The most elaborate is the Phone Booth, a large and luxuriously appointed room...The owners of the Phone Booth seem to feel that if people are staying home to watch Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin preside at a table on television or to listen to telephone conversations on radio, why not combine both features with the added allure of live, physical presence? This is the approach of the nightclub. The resident phone respondent is Lenny Kent, a short, round man with a well-flexed larynx who also serves as a leering variant of the Carson-Griffin host-type. There are cream-colored telephones at every table (103 in all, including the lounge), which can be used to order drink or food or to bandy words with Mr. Kent. They can also be used to call anyone anywhere--provided you have joined the Private Phone Booth Club, which costs $5.

Lenny Kaye's "New York in the Sixties" article from The History of Rock states that the table phones could also be used "to dial your intended dance partner." However, a blurb in the January 1, 1966 issue of the KRLA Beat noted that the club had no phones, leading me to wonder if the whole phone gimmick was abandoned at some point.

Apparently the Booth's early booking policy was rather similar to that of the Angel. The Times article notes that the opening week's performers included a comedian named Morty Storm, "a singer with curly black hair and dimples" named Michael Allen, and a Brazilian singer named Eliana Pitman, accompanied by her saxophonist father Booker. Various articles in the Billboard Google Archives mention engagements with Arthur Prysock and Lynne Lipton in July '65 ("The 'Tonight Show' format of the club was not personally enjoyable, although the audience seemed to enjoy it," noted reviewer Claude Hall), Joe Williams with Laura Lane and Vaughn Meader in August '65, Chris Connor in August-September '65, and Gloria DeHaven in September '65. Still, there must have been a little bit of rock & roll mixed in by that late summer, for there's also a report on an August engagement with the Boys Next Door, "five clean-cut undergraduates from Indiana University" with a Cameo-Parkway contract and a Beach Boys-esque sound. Since I've come across no jazzbo references after September '65, I'll assume the club went completely rock & roll by that autumn...and I imagine they might have dropped the "talk show"-style presentation around that time as well.

When I ponder the Phone Booth, the first band that comes to mind is inevitably the (Young) Rascals. The be-knickerbockered b'hoys already had a solid local following, the management services of Sid Bernstein, and an Atlantic contract under their belts by the time they were booked for a two-week residency there starting on October 28, 1965. But the Phone Booth was where all those elements coalesced into stardom--not to mention an eight-week holdover. As the January 1, 1966 issue of the KRLA Beat reported, "The group recently broke records at New York's Phone Booth Club (which incidentally has no phones) like they were going out of style. Seen applauding in the audience opening night--the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Herman's Hermits, the Lovin' Spoonful, Barry McGuire and Lesley Gore." A brief bit of footage from the gig was included in a 1965 TV program called "Anatomy of Pop: The Music Explosion." [I once saw their segment on the old Internets long before the youtube era...and sadly haven't seen it since. You can find Gene Krupa's segment from the program on there though if you're so inclined.] Here's a picture scanned from Tony Fletcher's All Hopped Up and Ready to Go, and a Getty archives pic of Brian Jones and Bob Dylan in the audience digging them (with nary a table phone to be seen, natch).

[By the way, the original members of the Rascals recently reunited for a one-off charity performance. I won't hold my breath waiting a full-fledged reunion tour, but will cautiously allow such hopes to simmer on the back burner...]

[UPDATE 5/12/2010: Well after the fact, the July 2, 1966 issue of KRLA Beat published a fun look back at the Rascals' opening night at the Booth.]

A mixture of local talent and hit touring acts played the Booth in the Rascals' wake through 1966. Here are the references I've found thus far.

The Rahgoos (later known as Gandalf) were one of the locals. As Peter Sando told Ugly Things honcho Mike Stax, the Rascals proved to be a heavy influence on the scene: "Most of the uptown Discotheques were dominated by Rascal-clone bands like the Rich Kids, the Vagrants, and the Pilgrims. We were not immune to that as we converted to a B3 sound when we played at the Rolling Stone and Phone Booth--you might hear that influence on "Me About You" on our LP--but as the band progressed, we were falling into the Rascal sound too much."

From Billboard, October 23, 1965: "The Highwaymen are set for an engagement at New York's Phone Booth from Nov. 15 to 28." They're not to be confused with the '80s country supergroup, and I wonder if and how they were actually squeezed in during the Rascals' residency.

Billboard, January 15, 1966: "The Goldberg-Miller group drove teenagers wild recently at the Phone Booth." They began their four-week stand on December 16, 1965, mining a vein similar to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Blues Project. They were also on Epic, and though this article states that member "Barry Miller" was the son of the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., a helpful and knowledgeable reader informed me that organist Barry Goldberg may not truly be related to said diplomat, and that the Miller in question was actually Steve Miller--yes, that Steve Miller! (I was completely clueless about this portion of Miller's career, but then I never really investigated him beyond his "classic rock radio" hits.)

Barry McGuire and the Grass Roots opened on January 14, 1966. The January 29, 1966 Billboard reported, "The dance floor looked like a tableau from Mad magazine--vested Madison Avenue types dancing with girls whose attire resembled that of World War I Alpine troops." Louise Criscione's "On the Beat" column in the February 19, 1966 KRLA Beat dished, "Barry's in New York appearing at the Phone Booth, and reports say that the hippies love him but the rest of the population is avoiding the spot like some sort of plague."

The Turtles did a ten-day engagement starting on March 2, 1966. Once again, I'll turn things over to Louise's "On the Beat" from KRLA Beat, March 5, 1966: "This Phone Booth date had them a little worried. To begin with they had heard all sorts of horrible things about New York clubs, and then some helpful soul informed the boys that the Phone Booth was next to Arthur's, which made the Turtles really scared!...They asked Joey [Paige] to name the three grooviest places to play in New York, and without knowing that the Turtles were scheduled to appear there, Joey promptly named the Phone Booth. Hearing that, the Turtles are now ready to tear the place up!" As it turned out, Bob Dylan may have (good-naturedly) torn them a new one...after hearing their live rendition of "It Ain't Me, Babe" at the Booth, he is said to have quipped, "That's a great last song, it should be a record." The April 2 KRLA Beat further gushed, "They are currently in New York at the Phone Booth playing to houses packed with the cream of New York society because, you see, the Booth has become the 'in' place for all socialites."

[UPDATE 5/12/2010: Check out the Turtles article in the June 25, 1966 issue of KRLA Beat for a lengthy Howard Kaylan anecdote about his bout with tonsillitis during the Booth residency.]

[UPDATE 5/27/2010: Found this neat teen mag photo on cheapocheapo's tumblr.]

I haven't found any exact dates for the Shadows of Knight's Phone Booth stint, but it gets a mention in a KRLA Beat article about them from the May 7, 1966 edition, so I venture to guess it was sometime in April. In this interview, Jim Sohns claims they broke the Rascals' attendance records, and that they and the Doors (performing at Ondine--nearby but not across the street as Sohns recalls) would check each other out intimidatingly and macho-like between sets. "The owners were smart enough to keep one band on while the other band was off, and alternate so you could keep the people in block, 'cause there were many places of entertainment in New York City. They used to come in and stare at us and give us this hard stare when we were on. And we'd go across the street when they were on and look at them like they were nuts. After about the first week of that, I was walking through the crowd and Jim Morrison grabbed me by the arm and goes 'You're quite insane you know.' I said 'Well, thank you. I've seen your act and you wouldn't know insane.' Then we laughed and had a few drinks and talked about music." [I'm not so sure about the veracity of this tale, as I haven't seen any records of the Doors playing at Ondine prior to November '66...but perhaps Jim is remembering another Phone Booth engagement for the S.O.K. of which I'm ignorant.] Billboard's August 20, 1966 issue reports that some live audio from one of these shows wound up on an Italian radio program called "New York '66."
The Toys played a week there beginning on May 2, 1966. Billboard May 14, 1966: "The girls showed the results of their hard work, proving they can perform under the most demanding conditions. Handicapped by the club's small stage, which restricted their dance movement, and by a backup sextet unfamiliar with their arrangements, the trio still managed to present a pleasing program that highlighted their own hits."

Billboard June 4, 1966: "The driving dance beat heard last week at the Phone Booth discotheque was the product of a wildly garbed sextet known as the New Order. The Warner Bros. group has a sound to match their Emilio Pucci outfits, with three electric guitars, drums, and the voices of Billy Barberis and Bobby Weinstein."

The Bobby Fuller Four did a two-week stand starting on June 13, 1966, but sadly it was a bit of a bust since most of the hipoisie were investigating the newly opened Cheetah across town. In rare spare moments between co-running the Norton Records empire and pounding the skins for the A-Bones in various far-flung locales, my idol Miriam Linna is busy putting the finishing touches on I Fought the Law: The Authorized Biography of Bobby Fuller. This will be a book-length expansion on her already stupendous "Bobby Fuller Story" article from Kicks #6. I won't steal any of the Fuller Phone Booth anecdotes she has collected (buy the book!...and the soon-to-be-released El Paso Rock Vol. 3 while you're at it!!!), but I'm compelled to scan these two images from the article. I hope she'll understand I do it not to be a thief, but only because there are precious few Phone Booth images out there and my readers demand visual stimuli. If you have any recollections of seeing Bobby Fuller at the Booth (or Ondine for that matter), drop her a line pronto! (I noticed her asking about that on the Steve Paul Scene facebook page.)

I knew about the Blues Project's appearance (July 25 to August 8, 1966), but I didn't know about Dion or a Rascals return! Jon & Lee & the Checkmates from Toronto (forerunners to Rhinoceros) were regulars as well. Unfortunately, that's about all the acts I've been able to find so far! I could have sworn reading elsewhere that the Knickerbockers and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels played there, but now I'm having trouble finding evidence so I'm probably misremembering things. Also, at the time of this writing I've only gotten up to the mid-June '66 issues of KRLA Beat...their database isn't searchable, but I'll definitely update things here if I come across any more references there, or anywhere else.

I don't know exactly when the Phone Booth became as obsolete as real phone booths are today, but I have not yet found any references beyond the summer of '66...and I have no idea what businesses took its place until the eventual demolition of the building. The luxe Carvi Hotel now stands on the site.

EDIT 9/2/2011:  Dig this recently unearthed '60s TV documentary on the Magicians, including some phab Phone Booth phootage.  Huge debt of gratitude to my great buddy Flipped Out Phil for the links.

EDIT 5/24/65:  Here's an ad for the Phone Booth from the 6/17/65 issue of the Village Voice.


Karate Boogaloo said...

Incredible work as usual. Funny that you mention Bobby Fuller. I just posted something on Stupefaction this morning with him:

Corry342 said...

The usual fantastic job--I feel like a regular, and a little while ago, I didn't even realize the Phone Booth existed.

Al Kooper mentions the Blues Project's stand at the Phone Booth in his book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards (p.79). It seems Al had a case of mono and only made it through the first night before passing out (on an Army cot backstage prepared for that purpose).

Kooper friend and session ace Paul Harris filled in for Kooper for the remainder of the engagement, "saving the gig" in Kooper's words.

Signed D.C. said...

Thanks Cory...I did check Kooper's book for details earlier, but somehow my eyes bypassed the mono/cot anecdote!

Gramercy7 said...

Outstanding post on this little-remembered venue. One correction: The Goldberg-Miller Band featured Barry Goldberg (keyboards, vocals) and Steve Miller (guitar, vocals), not "Barry Miller." Also, I know not to put full faith in Wikipedia, but the entry for former U.N. ambassador and U.S. Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg states that his only son's name was Robert.

Signed D.C. said...

Big oops on that one--not only did I put too much faith in a Billboard article, but I failed realize Mr. "Time Keeps on Slippin'" was involved!!! Thanks so much.

Las Vegas Rose and Bruce said...

I worked there as a waitress in the 60s. a real blast.