From the Vaults: That Wild and Crazy Guy
Elvis hit the nail on the head back in 1971. He told Steve Martin, “Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor.” Oblique can be added to the long list of words used to describe Martin but the one at the top would undoubtedly have to be ‘funny’. One does not become a stand-up comedy superstar if ‘funny’ isn’t part of their repertoire. That Martin could project ‘funny’ to basketball arena size audiences more commonly assembled for rock concerts is telling. As one would expect, not every one embraced his form of over the top comedy, but let us note one of his books (Steve Martin – Born Standing Up – A Comic’s Life – Scribner Press) came out in 2007, the same year he was a Kennedy Center Honoree.
Incredibly, Martin put pen to paper twenty-five years after he walked away from stand- up comedy. Steve worked hard and was certainly no ‘overnight success story,’ but he was still surprised to find the flip side of becoming wildly popular was a deep well of loneliness. As he states in the book’s foreword (here called ‘Beforehand’), “In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.”
A native Texan by birth, Martin was five when his mother, father, and big sister moved to Hollywood. Frequent road trips to visit back in Waco provided plenty of family time they spent listening to Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, and what Martin describes as, “the now exiled Amos ‘n’ Andy.” It proved to be one of the few things they did as a family. Steve always thought they had moved west so his mother could pursue acting, but it was actually his father who had the show business bug. The urge waned as the need to support his family took top priority, first by sorting fruit at a supermarket and later selling real estate. Martin remembers seeing his father in one small role at the Callboard Theater in Los Angeles, but soon after they moved to Inglewood, California. Glenn Martin’s acting dream was left behind in Hollywood.
Highland Elementary School, where Steve got his first taste of the greasepaint, was just across the street from their small bungalow. Lured by the prospect of wearing a red ping pong ball nose to play Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in kindergarten, he was a little disappointed when that prop was replaced by his own lipstick covered nose. The family bought their first TV around this same time so the five year old Martin absorbed a steady diet of westerns and comedy shows. He found he preferred the gentler Laurel and Hardy comedy to the more violent Three Stooges. One of the things he learned from Jack Benny would follow him for the rest of his comedy career: “[Laurel and Hardy] is where I got the idea that jokes are funniest when played upon oneself. Jack Benny, always his own victim, captivated me. His slow burn – slower than slow – made me laugh every time. I would memorize Red Skelton’s routines and perform them the next day during Wednesday morning’s “sharing time” at my grade school.”
The magic bug first nibbled at young Steve when they were still living under the LAX flight path in Inglewood. An uncle gave him a few store bought magic tricks and when he received a Mysto Magic set one Christmas, Martin says, “My meager repertoire of tricks quintupled.” He spent hours in front of a mirror practicing the Linking Rings or the Ball and Vase illusions. Recalling my own third grade piano performance, it seems grade three must have been the universal ‘show us your talent’ year back in the day. Steve recalled his third grade showcase: “I can still remember the moment when my wooden billiard balls, intended to multiply and vanish right before your eyes, slipped from between my fingers and bounced around the schoolroom with a humiliating clatter as I scrambled to pick them up. The balls were bright red, and so was I.” Ah yes, we musicians, magicians, and comics all had to start somewhere.
Around home, Martin’s mother was ‘mom’ and the frugal one while his dad, called ‘Glenn’ at home, was generous but distant. Steve speculated later that Glenn’s increasing volatility toward him (but not toward his wife or daughter, Melinda) stemmed from the subconscious realization that his dreams of being in show business had been supplanted by the needs of his family. Young Steve was spanked or paddled for his worst behavior. On one occasion, the belt treatment he was given was severe enough he had to cover the welts with long pants and sleeves. This unexpectedly brutal punishment only happened once, but his father’s moodiness left a wall between them. Steve later described the relationship: “I was incurring psychological debts that would come due years later in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrong-headed quest for solitude.”
His mother avoided Glenn’s temper by becoming more timid and submissive. Steve’s sister was four years older than he and attended a different school. Though they did not form a tight sister/brother bond then, she contacted him decades later and declared, “I want to know my brother.” She got her wish. As they discussed the past, Steve realized she had observed the same things about their father and coped by keeping her head down and out of the line of fire. Martin summed up his early life: “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts, I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”
One of the last times they visited, his father was gravely ill (he passed away in 1997). Glenn expressed sadness because he had been unable to “return all of the love I was given. You did everything I wanted to do.” Steve could not tell him the truth, that he had accomplished what he had in show business mostly to get away from him. Glenn had little good to say about his son’s career and it had hurt Martin deeply. Steve simply said, “I did it for you.”
When the new San Diego freeway was built, the Martin’s Inglewood neighborhood was leveled to make way for it. The family landed in Orange County, CA just as a real estate boom (created by the sprawl of Los Angeles) hit the urban fringe areas. It also put Steve on the doorstep of the recently opened Disneyland. In the summer of 1955, the ten year old Martin got a job there selling guide books for twenty five cents each. Dressed in his uniform of candy-striped shirt, garter on his sleeve, vest, and a straw boater’s hat, he turned his two cent per sale commission into a two dollar pay day out of the gate. When the guidebook sales ended at noon, he was free to roam the property like it was his own fantasy neighborhood. Steve did more than rubber neck, however. He observed and learned tricks he would one day incorporate into his act.
From Frontierland cowboy, Eddie Adamek, Martin learned how to twirl lariats and do rope tricks like the Butterfly, Threading the Needle, and the Skip-Step. After his guidebook selling days, Steve worked as Eddie’s trick-rope demonstrator. He enjoyed working at Disneyland more than he enjoyed school where he was a straight C-average student. Another regular stop was at Merlin’s Magic Shop to see Jim Barlow who demonstrated and sold magic tricks. Barlow was also funny, greeting store browsers with, “Can I take your money – I mean help you?” and punctuating sales by saying loudly, “This trick is guaranteed! . . . to break before you get home.” Martin’s introduction to juggling came from a character at Fantasyland named Christopher Fair (who could juggle five balls while riding a high unicycle).
At the Golden Horseshoe Revue, Martin would see his first live comedian (as opposed to a dead one? – sorry, that just slipped out) in person, Wally Boag. Steve’s description of Boag’s act helps explain where many seeds of Martin’s future bits were planted: “[Boag] plied a hilarious trade of gags and offbeat skills such as gun twirling and balloon animals, and brought the house down when he turned his wig around backward.” Martin knew the act so well, he was watching one performance and mouthing all of Boag’s lines in his head when he passed out cold. Further investigation uncovered a heart murmur from a prolapsed mitral valve. The condition went away as he aged, but another seed was planted by this event; this one left Martin with reoccuring bouts of hypochondria later in life.
Working with Jim Barlow at Disneyland’s two magic shops was never dull. The hours spent demonstrating tricks served as practice for his side gig as a magician. Shop owner Leo Behnke (a master card and coin manipulator) was the first person to explain the inner workings of some of the tricks of the trade. Occasional performances for Cub Scouts and the Kiwanis or Rotary Clubs had the aspiring magician leaning toward a career in show business. Steve wondered why, “[These clubs] comprised of grown men, would hire a fifteen-year-old boy magician to entertain at their dinners. Only one answer makes sense; out of the goodness of their hearts.” The man who wrote a mimeographed in-house newsletter for Disneyland, Claude Plum, also wrote jokes for Wally Boag. Steve paid Plum five dollars for some dialog to use with his magic tricks.
Disneyland was a great training ground to absorb a variety of tricks to use in his magic act, but transferring to a new school in 1962 had the biggest impact on his future. At the first day assembly, Martin found himself seated in the Don Wash Auditorium: “The interior narrowed like a funnel to focus all eyes on its polished hardwood stage. The proscenium was framed by heavy velvet curtains, and the acoustics were – and still are – brilliant and sharp, making microphones unnecessary. I sat in the audience looking up at the stage, surrounded by high-energy adolescent chatter. The house lights dimmed dramatically, and when the crisp ice-blue spotlight illuminated center stage in anticipation of parting curtains and grand entrances, I knew I wanted to be up there rather than down here.”
Claude Plum asked Martin if he would like to be in a vaudeville type review with Wally Boag and he jumped at the chance. Ironically, the program listed his first performance as Mouth and Magic (it was supposed to be Youth and Magic) but perhaps it was a glimpse of what was to come.
Steve continued to learn from those he worked with at Disneyland. Alex Weinter (aka – Aldini the Magician) taught him Yiddish words they would use as code for customers at the magic shop. Dave Stewart (aka – Lord Chesterfield and later, Dave and Company (reasoning it sounded like two people meaning he could charge more for gigs)) taught him the art of being the ‘bungling’ magician’. Stewart’s hero, Carl Ballantine (who went on to wider fame as Lester Gruber the PT-73 Torpedoman’s Mate on McHale’s Navy), provided a deadpan joke-trick both used for years: “[Stewart] walked from behind the counter and stood on the floor of the magic shop, announcing, ‘And now, the glove into dove trick!’ He threw a white magician’s glove into the air. It hit the floor an lay there. He stared at it a while and then went on to the next trick.”
Upon high school graduation, Steve matriculated to Santa Ana Junior College. He enrolled in some theater classes and found to his own surprise he was interested in English poetry, “from Donne to Eliot.” While attending Santa Ana JC, he learned that Knott’s Berry Farm was looking for performers with short acts (and by his own admission, his magic act could not have been much shorter). From eighteen to twenty one, Martin worked at Knott’s Bird Cage Theatre. It was a wooden theater with a canvas roof and a five foot high sign at the entrance that declared ‘World’s Greatest Entertaiment’ (no one seemed to note the missing ‘n’). Steve recalls, “The actors swept the stage, raised and lowered the curtains, cleaned the house of trash, and went out on the grounds pitching this show to visitors strolling around the park. I was being paid two dollars a show for twenty-five shows a week. Even in 1963, the rate was considered low.”
The twenty-five minute melodramas were staged, followed by short olio segments where the actors displayed their specialties in five minute segments. It was at the Bird Cage where Steve honed his six minute magic act and learned the art of ad-libbing when actors missed cues or blew lines. The work and troupe were an enjoyable escape from his less than happy home life and Martin describes the Bird Cage Theatre as, “A normal theatrical nuthouse.” A girl friend from the Bird Cage got Steve interested in philosophy, necessitating a transfer to Long Beach State as SAJC had no courses in the subject. He toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher. In the meantime, he began injecting elements of comedy, rope tricks, balloon animals, and old jokes to extend the length of his magic performances. Folk clubs and coffee houses were in their infancy then but they did offer an opportunity to perform beyond the canvas roof of the Bird Cage.
Martin admits he had no real talent. He could not sing and had only learned some rudimentary banjo licks from his high school friend John McEuen. McEuen would become a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Martin’s lifelong friend. McEuen’s older brother Bill would later serve as Steve’s manager, but stardom was still a decade or more away.
At twenty-two, Steve Martin set out on a journey to forge a career in show business. It would not be easy as this description of a typical gig illustrates: “The Coffee and Confusion Club was in San Francisco on a street dotted with used clothing and incense stores. I nervously entered the club, and Ivan Ultz, the show runner, slotted me into the line-up. In the audience of about fifteen people was a street poet dressed in rags like a bearded yeti. He had a plastic machine gun he used to shoot ping-pong balls, which he unloaded at performers he didn’t like.” This was a Monday night, the night performers like Steve Martin did their act for free in hopes of getting a paying gig later. “The club owner, Sylvia, was no brain trust. She one time told a ventriloquist to move the dummy closer to the mic. She was savvy enough to post a sign saying, “Anyone who gives Janis Joplin her money before her final set is fired!” She hired Martin but after an act of desperation on his part (he put his iconic ‘arrow through the head’ prop on to salvage a banjo solo that was not well received), she told him to ‘lose it’. We will see how the ‘arrow through the head’ became one of his most famous props in Part Two of That Wild and Crazy Guy.
Top Piece Video: Proof Steve Martin can play the banjo…but so can Kermit The Frog!