I Was a Mouse in the Rat Pack
The bit Joey Bishop had worked up was this: Peter Lawford, the actor whose brother-in-law, JFK, had just been elected president of the United States, would dress up as a busboy, pick up a dish in the audience and announce: "Can you imagine what I would be doing if he didn’t win?" But Lawford wouldn’t deliver it correctly, and when Joey approached him between shows at The Sands one night to offer advice, Lawford shot back: "Don’t tell me how to deliver a line." It was at this point that Frank Sinatra walked up and told Lawford coldly, "Do it how Joey says or get the fuck off the show."
To appreciate how huge the "Rat Pack" was back in the ’60s — and how big Little Joey from South Philadelphia once was — consider this: When Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop strolled on stage to perform, it was as if Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Jerry Seinfeld teamed up to do an act today. With Sinatra as the star attraction, the Rat Pack convened before sold-out houses in Las Vegas and elsewhere and became a running item in the world press, which chronicled their splashy exploits in cover pieces and gossip columns. Court jesters to the White House and that era of the American presidency that we remember as Camelot, the Rat Pack created such a popular sensation that even the strippers at the Pink Pussy Cat in Hollywood were advertising themselves as … uh … hmm … Fran Sinatra, Samya Davis Jr., Deena Martin and Peeler Lawford. (Sorry, no Josie Bishop.) Show business has not had a more colorful era.
Far older than we remember him, but still light on his toes as he springs from an antique chair to act out a sudden inspiration, Joey Bishop, at 76, connects us with a time both in the entertainment industry and in Philadelphia that has passed into the ages. Raised in a poor but loving home in South Philadelphia ("We lived at 332 Snyder," he remembers. "Until the rent was due"), he worked the clubs for close to two decades as part of a trio, "The Bishop Brothers," and then as a single when stardom found him: When Sinatra caught his act at the Latin Quarter in 1952, it led to appearances on the Jack Paar show, acting roles in films such as The Naked and the Dead ("I played both parts," Joey says), his own sitcom on NBC and then a late-night talk show on ABC, where his announcer happened to be the obscure TV talent Regis Philbin. The signature phrase Joey used was "son of a gun," and when it came to ad-libbing, he was just that: a pistol.
Joey shares his cozy Newport Beach townhouse with Sylvia, his wife of 53 years, and keeps photographs of those days-shots of himself with the Rat Pack, JFK and others-up in his secondfloor "trophy room." Only occasionally seen in Philadelphia these days, Joey is content enough to sit at home and ponder the stunning view his living-room window affords of the Pacific Ocean- this "postcard that God sends me each day." Even as the world he once knew seems to be deteriorating with each passing yearboth Sammy and Peter are dead, Dean is ridden with lung cancer and Frank collapsed during a performance this year-the report on Joey could not be better. So, it is true then, that laughter can keep a person young?
"NO!" Joey Bishop boomed. "Not laughter-a sense of humor. If laughter kept you young, do you know how old hyenas would be?"
SPARKLING UNDER A CLOUDLESS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA sun, the calm ocean is speckled with sailboats as Joey peers out his window and remembers the old days back in Philadelphia — how he and his buddies would strip off their clothes and dive from Pier 98 into the Delaware. Even in the 1930s the river was discolored with pollution, but no one could have enjoyed himself more as the South Philadelphia summers closed in on the claustrophobic bedroom Joey shared with his four siblings.
Joey Bishop was Joey Gottlieb back then. The son of Central European immigrants, Joey weighed just two pounds and 14 ounces when he was born in February 1918 at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx. ("I told Buddy Hackett what I weighed and he asked, ‘Did you live?"’) Still just 12 weeks old when his parents, Jacob and Anna, packed him up with their other children — Claire, Morris, Freddy and Betty — and settled in South Philadelphia, Joey remembers that the Gottliebs were the poorest people on the block. Jake Gottlieb earned $21 a week at the old Fidelity Machine Co. in Northeast Philadelphia and also operated a bicycle shop. Anna was a homemaker and suffered from partial blindness in one eye, the result of an encounter at age seven with a deranged street cleaner in Romania. ("Jew?" the street cleaner asked Anna as he towered over her in his horse and wagon. When Anna said "Yes," the street cleaner cracked his whip and caught her in the eye, leaving a scar that curled down the side of her face forever.) Joey says of those days on Snyder Avenue: "We were poor, but how can I explain it? We were happy."
Show business always held a strong attraction for Joey. Growing up on the same South Philadelphia streets that spawned Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Eddie Fisher, Jack Klugman, Mario Lanza and Bobby Rydell, Joey remembers the old Philco radio that sat in the living room and how it introduced him to the enthralling routines of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and scores of others. Educated at Furness Junior High and South Philadelphia High, Joey schooled himself in comedy at amateur shows. At the Grand Theatre at 7th and Snyder, at the Colonial Theatre at 11th and Moyamensing, and at the Admiral Theatre at 5th and Lehigh, he picked up extra cash with a repertoire that included impressions of George Arliss, Al Jolson and Harpo Marx. He remembers that he was also a superb tap dancer.
"Of course, everybody in South Philadelphia could tap dance — ’cause when it was cold outside, it would keep us warm," he says. "Our group at 4th and Snyder were considered excellent dancers when it came to the jitterbug. I remember when we used to travel over to Strawberry Mansion or West Philadelphia, the girls would say ‘Oh, the South Philadelphia guys are coming …’"
Even as Joey was winning the "Benny Goodman Jitterbug Contest" in 1936 — which entitled him to passes that year to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City — the comedian inside him had escaped. He worked up an act with a couple of pals from the old neighborhood, Morris (Rummy) Spector and Sammy Reisman (who soon dropped out because of illness and was replaced by Mel Farber), billing themselves as "The Bishop Brothers"- borrowed from one Glen Bishop, who used to drive them to auditions. The trio specialized in sendups of Morton Downey Sr., the Ink Spots and old radio programs, and followed the sound of laughter through an unending cycle of sparse hotel rooms, lunch-counter food and echoing train depots. From Philadelphia — where Frank Palumbo gave them a break and booked them into his club — the trio toured the Eastern burlesque circuit. Joey became a solo act when Rummy entered the service, but before the draft claimed Joey too, he found himself working a Spot in Cleveland called the EI Dumpo.
"You know who the bartender there was?" Joey says. "Remember Leo Gorcey in Dead End Kids? His father. He saved me from getting killed there one night.
"Out in the audience was a guy named Game Boy Miller, who — unbeknownst to me — was one of the top-ten most wanted men in America," Joey explains. "Here he is with five other guys and some broads, and just as I was preparing to step on stage, the owner of the club came up and whispered to me, ‘Game Boy Miller is here celebrating his birthday. Wish him a happy birthday.’ So I say ‘Okay.’
"I walk up on stage and say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have the celebration of a birthday tonight.’ And I start singing: ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Game Boy …’ No sooner did i get out the words Game Boy than a bottle flew past me. The guys he was with grabbed me and were taking me into the washroom when Joe the bartender stepped in and said, ‘Listen, the kid did not know.’"
You are either a "draw" or an "act" in show business, and Joey was still the latter back then. Married in January 1941 to the former Sylvia Ruzga — who had been in the audience during a club date in Miami Beach — Joey, discharged from the service in August 1945, was working the Casablanca Roadhouse in South Jersey when thieves wielding tommy guns entered through the rear of the building. One of them ordered Joey to "keep taLking," and Joey did just that, even as one of the intruders cracked a woman in the jaw with the butt of his gun. "She spit a ring out on the table," says Joey, who remembers that he stood up there on the stage and "did the same Edward G. Robinson impression 35 times." Happily, he escaped the Casablanca Roadhouse unharmed and was soon opening in New York at the Greenwich Village Inn. That led to a booking at the Latin Quarter at 47th and Broadway, and it was there, on an evening in 1952, that Frank Sinatra happened to be in the audience to "discover" him. He invited Joey to open for him at Bill Miller’s Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and told him that night "What you got is your own. Don’t change it."
TRUE STORY: JOEY BISHOP HAD JUST SETTLED INTO HIS room on the seventh floor of his Miami Beach hotel while Frank, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford had been checked into suites. When Frank asked Sammy where Joey was, and Sammy told him the seventh floor, Sinatra called down to the front desk and told the terrified hotel manager "Unless Joey Bishop gets a suite, there will be no show tonight." Immediately, Joey heard an urgent rap at his door.
"I open it and a team of bellhops come running in," says Joey. "One removes the clothes from the closet, another one packs up the bathroom and a third even slides the drawers out and takes those. One word from Frank and I had a suite."
Originally, the group called themselves The Clan, but adopted the Rat Pack in deference to Sammy Davis Jr., who was black and had converted to Judaism. Growing out of each other’s unexpected appearances in the audience-for instance, if Dean was doing a show, Sammy would show up and interrupt him-the Rat Pack act "officially" launched at The Sands in the early 1960s. Conceptually, each performer was supposed to take a night (which led one Las Vegas visitor to grouse"My goddamned luck, I end up there the night Peter Lawford does it"). But no sooner had Joey hit his stride on opening night than — surprise! Out comes Sammy … and then Dean … then Peter … and then Frank.
In the pictures from that era Joey has a close-cropped haircut, narrow lapels and that inevitable dour countenance. While he concedes he was "never a full-fledged rat," Joey dipped into that deep well of cleverness he possessed to distribute lines to his partners. In his 1961 book Sinatra and His Rat Pack, author Richard Gehman observed that Joey "holds the other members together," and Frank himself concurred. At the end of the performance each night, Sinatra would ask the audience "Did you like the show?" Then, as the crowd applauded and cheered, Frank would point to Joey with a theatrical wave of his hand and say "Well, this is the guy who put it together … son of a gun." Joey glances up at a photo on the wall of the Rat Pack standing in a loose row outside The Sands and adds with a quiet wistfulness: "We were inseparable."
Still are … if only in a wealth of fond memories:
• FRANK — Even during the height of the Rat Pack days, Joey Bishop always knew his place. Whenever Sinatra and his crowd would sit down to eat, Joey would join his table only if he was invited — never before. Frank used to roar with laughter: "Goddammit, how long does he have to be with me before he knows he can eat with us?"
Joey explains: "Maybe he was discussing business, or he was angry at something. I never, ever imposed, or thought I was his equal. He liked me, he hired me, and that was that."
He remembers a show he did with Sinatra on Miami Beach. "Frank, Jackie Gleason and Joe E. Lewis — remember Joe E. Lewis? — were up on stage in Miami Beach and were so drunk that the owner came up and said, ‘Joey, do something!’ I walked out there and said, ‘This is the first time I have ever seen a stationary stage and revolving performers.”’
Joey pauses. "Never once in the 17 years I was with him did I do a line that he either objected to or did not laugh at hysterically."
• DEAN — "I gave Dean one of the funniest lines he ever had. The whole world knew that Sammy had converted, so I told him to walk out, pick up Sammy and say ‘I would like to thank the NAACP for this trophy’ a nd then wa I k off. You never heard such screams."
Contrary to the public image of Martin (which is to say he was an incredible boozer), Joey claims it was part of the "act" — that whenever he appeared on stage with a J&B bottle, the contents were "nothing more than apple juice." Joey also remembers shooting the film Texas Across the River with Dean. "The director wanted us to do three and four takes on a scene and Dean told him ‘Joey and I are not actors. We are performers. ‘"
• SAMMY — "We were in this Rolls Royce doing 90 mph when a cop pulled us over. The cop says, ‘Jesus, Sammy, Joey, you were doing 90.’ I said, ‘Officer, this man has one eye. Where do you want it, on the speedometer or the road?’"
Joey remembers another incident involving Sammy that occurred in a restaurant. "We were sitting there and some Southerners were leaving," he says. "One of them shouted ‘Nigger!’ Sammy stood up and said, ‘Where?’"
Joey pauses again, then adds: "So sensitive … No one could have a better friend."
• PETER — Joey remembers a phone call he once received from Lawford. Lawford told him that he understood Joey was looking for a new manager and that he had someone in his living room who would be perfect for the job. So Joey hopped in his car. Lawford had a place on the beach, and when Joey got there, he discovered that the "manager" Lawford had recommended was JFK, for whom Joey ended up serving as the emcee at the inaugural ball. Joey also did some jokewriting for both John and Robert Kennedy and remembers how a reporter from Time once called to ask him if he had written a particular line that JFK had used the previous evening. Joey replied, "If it got laughs, I wrote it."
What Sinatra provided Joey was a "stamp of approval," and it led to a wide range of opportunities. He was a regular on Jack Paar in 1957, and instead of being just a club entertainer, became a recognizable face in American homes from Maine to San Diego. Movie pans were soon to be had, and from 1961 to 1965, he had his own sitcom, The Joey Bishop Show, in which he portrayed a publicist, then a talk-show host. Quite popular in real life as a substitute host for Johnny Carson-he still holds the record at 207 appearances-Joey landed his own talk show in April 1967 on ABC. With Regis Philbin on the end of the sofa as his sidekick — back before Regis had ever heard of Kathie Lee — the show remained on the air until November 1969, when ABC replaced him with Dick Cavett. Philbin, who has not spoken to Joey for close to a decade for "no particular reason other than we drifted apart," says today: "Joey had a fabulous run."
Philbin pauses and then asks, "Did he say why he stopped?"
JOEY BISHOP SORTS THROUGH THE old books and videotapes on his living room shelves at length before finally saying "Here it is." Years ago, he received a cassette tape from the biographer of Stan Laurel, and when he heard it, Joey remembers, it overwhelmed him with pride. Carefully — for this is indeed a treasure — he slips the tape into a recorder on his cluttered coffee table and presses PLAY.
There is static.
My favorite today is Joey Bishop, Laurel tells the interviewer on the tape. I think he is terrific. Bishop has a great style, very natural, not loud. And he is very, very witty. He has a nice personality, pleasing, not the least offensive.
Joey presses STOP.
"From one of the greats," Joey says.
"When I heard it that first time, the hairs actually stood up on my arms."
He pauses and adds, "I wish I had met him."
When Joey Bishop was just starting out in the burlesque theaters, he would pass the old comics backstage and think to himself: The poor bastards. Look at them in those clownish pants and false noses. Joey told himself he would never allow himself to become "old-fashioned" or to do projects in which he did not believe. Consequently, he has worked only sporadically since ABC dropped his talk show more than two decades ago: Back working the clubs again in the 1970s, he has popped up in the Broadway production of Sugar Babies, has appeared in occasional films (including the Chuck Norris action vehicle Delta Force) and has participated in a broad range of charities, including his 50-year-plus dedication to helping handicapped children. Astute investments through his career have placed him in a position to be able to say "I only do what I want to do."
Seated at the dining room table one day opening a fan letter as a singer on the radio croons "Lovvvvvve … is … a … maaaa-aaany splendored thing," Joey is living the life he remembers he dreamed of as a kid — which is to say, he is no longer poor and in need. He begins each day with a cryptogram word puzzle, does some light exercises and then heads to the golf course. Occasionally, he sees some old show business friends, but only a few of them: He has not seen Frank in "a couple of years" (Joey still knows his place), but he has spoken to Dean. ("I sent him a picture of the the Rat Pack the other day that a friend needed autographed. ") Still an avid follower of comedians, TV and the late-night talk wars, he has high praise for the work of Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Robin Williams, but concedes he does not "understand" the program Married … With Children. Of the latenight talk hosts, he "loves" David Letterman (but wonders if his Top Ten lists are not sometimes "out of order"), enjoyed Jay Leno ("before he started tearing into Clinton") and had hopes for Conan O’Brien (but adds that he has "blown it"). Irritated when Time magazine grouped him in a 1994 article with the host of pretenders — Dennis Miller, Pat Sajak and others — that have passed from the scene, Joey replied with a letter to the editor that said I was on for two and a half years!
"Why would Time pick on someone who was finished in 1969?" he asks.
"Obviously, the writer had a hard-on for me."
Joey pads into the living room and slides an episode of his old sitcom in the VCR. He settles in a chair across the room as the score comes up — "Joey, Joey, Joey" — and adds a funning commentary as the plot unfolds: Joey — who stars as TV talk-show host Joey Barnes — has to intervene in a squabble between the guest star that week, Dodger coach Leo Durocher, and bellowing Phil Foster, who has never forgiven the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn. One scene has Joey telling his "wife" in the show, Abby Dalton: "The last time I asked Phil to do something, we had a tremendous fight."
Abby: "What did you ask him to do?" Joey: "Soak his head."
"Whenever I see one of the old episodes," he says, "it always surprises me how up-to-date we are."
Does he hope to come back in rerun, say, on Nick at Nite?
"The show would be back — not me," Joey corrects.
Do you draw a distinction?
Joey pauses and replies, "Do you draw a distinction between being dead and eulogized?"
Up on the bookshelves in his bedroom are biographies of his old pals-even the ones with passages that strike him as salacious. When Kitty Kelly wrote her controversial book on Sinatra, His Way, Joey remembers that he even appeared on Donahue to defend him. (On the charges that Frank was a womanizer, Joey told Phil: "And all this time [thought he was gay.")
He also frowned on the portrayal of Dean Martin, Dino, by Nick Tosches. When Joey was approached to do an autobiography himself, which he planned to callwhat else? — I Was a Mouse in the Rat Pack, he ultimately declined when it became clear he would be asked to "dig up dirt." Deadpan, he says, "The raunchiest story I could come up with was when I saw Frank and Sammy nude in the steam room. I said, ‘When I saw Frank, he became my idol. When Sammy saw me, I became his idol.’"
Content to remain with Sylvia at their house in Newport Beach, Joey seldom returns to Philadelphia these days. While he did come East to help Bill Clinton campaign in South Philadelphia — "I liked him. He reminded me of Kennedy"- he has not been back since his sister, Betty, died in 1993. Joey still has nieces in the area and a grandson who attends Dickinson College, but the old neighborhood is not what it once was, back when South Philadelphia boys used to tap dance to keep warm on cold winter days. South Philadelphia was a singular place then, with the grocer, the dry cleaner and the baker within a few small steps of each other, and Joey — if he has a regret regrets moving his parents from there as the neighborhood changed and retiring them to Miami Beach. But Jake and Anna never raised an objection, except when Joey would invite them to one of his performances and the emcee would announce "And here he is … Joey Bishop." At which point Anna would stand up and shout "No … Joey Gottlieb!"
WHEN JOEY FIRST SAT DOWN to be interviewed, he announced that he had "total recall." At the end of the day eight hours later-a day in which he indeed did not forget a date, name or place-he proved just how sharp he still is as he sat down for a dinner of spareribs and french fries. On the portable TV in the corner of the kitchen is the quiz show Jeopardy.
"I love this show," Joey says. "This and Wheel of Fortune."
Joey picks at his spareribs as Jeopardy host ALex Trebek tosses out the questions. Quickly, Joey seems to get them all — and well before the contestants do. Chances are he would have been up $3,000 or $4,000 when Trebek asked, "Name the weapon the U.S. General George S. Patton taught the French troops to use in World War II."
The buzzer sounds.
"No one?" Trebek asks. "The answer is tanks."
"You’re welcome," Joey says.
Originally published in December 1994.