Sunday, November 15, 2015

Special Guest Star: Joey Bishop

As I sat next to my parents in an upper section of Stockton Civic Auditorium that late winter evening in 1969, only half-listening what was transpiring on the stage below, I focused my attention on the main attraction. After all, he was the real reason the majority of this capacity crowd attended this event in the first place. What he was promoting took a backseat for regular folks like me and my folks next to feasting our eyes on a gen-u-ine Hollywood celebrity. I clutched the contents of my coat pocket, handwritten pages of a document as valued to me as a treasure map. Once I presented them to the man on that stage, he'd have my whole world in his hands, he'd have my whole wide world in his hands and my destiny would be at the end of a paved, golden road to the fame and fortune my destiny had decreed for me. The miracle man who would soon make this fantasy a vivid and valid reality was...
comedian/talk show host/ Rat Pack member Joey Bishop.

No. Really.

When evoking the sacred name of the legendary show biz group known as The Rat Pack, the name Joey Bishop isn't the first face that immediately springs to mind. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and even to a lesser extent, the modestly talented  Peter Lawford stand far above Joey in the zeitgeist pecking order. Yet, Joey was an integral member of the group, serving as MC and ringmaster for their Vegas shows that built their legend and even writing special material that tied them altogether, no matter how loose that appeared. As a RP member in good standing, he became the fifth member  of OCEAN'S ELEVEN.

While Joey's stand-up act was much like his demeanor, low-key to the point of being almost non-existent at the outset, it proved to be subtly deceiving when he'd switch gears and win the crowd over with sharp timing and old fashioned showmanship. Bishop parlayed his deadpan persona into a career that spanned nearly four decades with a sit-com bearing his name that lasted five years on the air and a talk show that went head-to-head against Johnny Carson's TONIGHT SHOW. Joey had been Carson's frequent substitute host prior to this, but Johnny never held a grudge against Bishop as he had Joan Rivers when she dared to challenge him. Maybe JC didn't see Joey as much of a threat or he didn't dare piss off a friend of Frank's. This is a moot point at best since THE TONIGHT SHOW regularly trounced THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW.

For some inexplicable reason, Joey's show was my mother's late night choice, thus becoming the household's as well. Mom found Carson "tiresome", an atypical Phyllis Cherney dismissal and a view I never shared. Maybe it was an East Coast vs West Coast state of mind with Carson representing New York, his base of operations at that time, and Bishop the West in Hollywood, USA. My mother always sided with the home team. Even with my pre-adolescent sensibilities, I recognized the superior show, but since I wasn't allowed to watch any show at all, this beggar couldn't be a chooser. .I had no say so in this matter given my age, barely into my second decade on the planet and that pesky school night clause. (But when there's a will, there's a way...)  My dad didn't have a dog in the fight since he usually shuffled off to bed around eleven o'clock each and every evening to read himself to sleep with a spy novel.

Ma would  sprawl out on the couch and nod out usually during the news, but if not, no later than the middle of Joey's opening monologue. I'd delay my bedtime as long as I could to watch the opening salvo, then feign my way down the hall to my room. At the last second, I'd make a hard right into the kitchen and out into the dining room with a clear view of the TV at the far end of the living room, out of sight from my dozing mother. If I saw her stir, I'd dash out long before she'd catch me. A couple of times, my pop would catch me when he got up to take a midnight leak and upon seeing me in the shadows, he'd bellow, "TO BED!"
Mom would awaken with a start. "Jesus Christ, Adam! What the hell's the matter with you ?"
"It was the boy."
"Well, did you have to scare me half to death?"
"Aw, blow it, would you?" he'd grouse and slam the bathroom door behind him..
This confrontation proved distracting enough for me to scamper off to the safety of my bedroom unscathed, pondering if I could sneak out again to catch Pat Morita's stand-up set or whoever later in the broadcast.

Even though I might have preferred THE TONIGHT SHOW, I still ate Joey's program up with a big ol' spoon. This was the swan song of old time show business, all covered with schmaltz, glitter and cheese. On one hand, I recognized the jive, but on the other, it worked its chintzy hocus pocus over me mainly because I allowed it to happen. I found the whole charade comforting, inviting and extremely appealing. Hell, in those days, the life of a carny seemed to be a glamorous lifestyle.

But this type of entertainment was on the wane because the times they were a'changin'. The latter part of the Sixties had caused the world to hit the fast forward button and this razzamatazz had one foot out the door. Some elements of life outside this bubble crept in and, through the gauze, manifested into uncomfortable, yet innocuous absurdity as when Joey, his boy sidekick Regis Philbin and Sammy Davis Jr. modeled the latest in Nehru jackets with optional love beads. But in the worst of times, the pretense had to be dropped entirely such as the double whammy of the MLK/RFK assassinations. Bishop's post mortem programs seemed to be earnest attempts to help ease the pain of the times, though they were placebos. At least he didn't try to sweep it all under the rug. I'm not sure what Carson did on his network, but I don't imagine he dealt with these issues in the same manner.

Soon after, Joey Bishop became an advocate and unlikely celebrity spokesman for lowering the national voting age, 21 at that time, down to 18. He used his talk show as a forum to promote this cause, something Johnny wouldn't have touched with a ten foot Libertarian. This movement, which began at Stockton's University of the Pacific, was known as L.U.V., the acronym for Let Us Vote, using the hippie-dippy colloquial spelling of the the word love in attempt to appeal to the young 'uns. To promote L.U.V. further, Joey, as the National Honorary Chairman, would turn his entire show over to this one topic and televise from the city where it all began: Stockton, California.

Upon learning this, I heard a knock at the door. Why, look who's's Opportunity! Yes, I saw Joey Bishop's Stockton sojourn as a means of self promotion, a lofty ambition at best, a shot in the dark at worst, but if there was no denying that it was certainly the stuff that dreams were made dreams, anyway.

I had been writing stories for a few years, ever since I learned how to put a sentence together on paper. This was a fairly prolific period for me, cranking out short stories left and right. I had built quite a collection by 1969. In my young head, the sure volume of these alone qualified me to try my hand at writing a screenplay without knowing a damn thing about the process whatsoever.What was to know? I like movies. I could write. Pish posh. I'd fill in the blanks later. It's magic time!

Many big screen comedies of this era were based on the IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD formula, a simple situation with an all-star cast such as THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES and to a lesser extent, IF IT'S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE BELGIUM. Bishop had just been featured in an even lower-rent knock-off called WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? Not wanting to create a heist story, I took my story from the day's headlines. The skyjacking of airliners had been occurring on a fairly regular basis, so much so in fact that the world had actually become blase about the whole enterprise. I found this to be excellent fodder for my movie, the title of which being DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAY OUR PLANE WAS HIJACKED TO CUBA?

I even "composed" a theme song that was to have a bossa nova beat and these lilting lyrics:
Do you remember the day our plane was hijacked to Cuba?
That was the day that I fell in love with you.    

Tasteful, no? No. But in retrospect, what the hell did I know from sensitivity at my age? In my defense, Neil Simon must have felt the same way, ending his own screenplay for THE OUT OF TOWNERS with a hijacking. (I wonder where he got that idea. Hmmm... )

My "full-length" screenplay resulted in nothing more than an elongated comedy sketch, lots of dialogue with a fair amount of slapstick action,  probably fifteen to twenty pages altogether. But as far as I was concerned, this was my ticket on a rocket to stardom, destination: Hollywood. All I had to do was present this potential cinematic blockbuster to one Mr. Joseph Bishop, Esq. and the rest would be history.

The Friday night Joey Bishop and his crew hit Stockton, Mom, Dad and myself all shuffled off to Stockton Civic Auditorium. The folks weren't exactly supporters of lowering the voting age. Being good Republicans, they were probably opposed to it. Their reason for going, as I would say the majority of this Stockton audience, was simple: It was a FREE SHOW. As I said, my mom liked Joey, but my pop couldn't have cared less. Neither one of them had a clue what I had up my sleeve that evening...or in my coat pocket either, the hee-lary-ous script of DYRTDOPWHTC? (Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?) That's okay, I told myself. When I became the youngest and most highly paid writer in Hollywood, I'd take care of my parents. That was a guarantee. I'd even let them visit me in my palatial Bel-Air mansion once in awhile.

The show, such as it was, started without much fanfare. Joey Bishop took the stage to thunderous applause, but this was a real bare-bones production because I don't recall bandleader Johnny Mann, his orchestra or even Regis Philbin accompanying their boss to Fat City USA. Joey told a few jokes to soften up the crowd, but other than that, there weren't any deviations from the issue at hand. This was all L.U.V. all time. As a result, what a snoozer.

The only entertainment value, other than the chance to see an honest to goodness TV star in Stocktonia, was provided by the singer/songwriter team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart ("Last Train to Clarksville", "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight"). At the end of the program, they performed an acoustic version of the L.U.V. anthem they had written. In true 1960s fashion, they encouraged an audience sing-a-along with the chorus.

Talkin' 'bout you and me
Changes made peacefully
So let us vote

My song was.better The audience must have thought so as well if that halfhearted ad-hoc hootenanny was any indication. I admit to singing a little under my breath, but as I did,  I had to sneak a peek at my pop who sat stone-faced waiting for this whole painful ordeal to come to an end. Mom might have hummed along though, just to be a good sport.

When the show came to its logical conclusion, I asked the folks we could go behind the auditorium when Joey left. Mom asked if I wanted to get an autograph. "Sort of," I replied. I'm sure my dad sighed in exasperation as this night not only got longer for him, but now he had to contend with cold and damp weather conditions because his dopey kid was star struck. To make matters worse, it began to sprinkle out in this dimly lit loading dock, a film noir scene if there ever was one. As for me, I was burning hot with anticipation. my adrenals were pumping into the red zone as I waited for The Man himself to appear, standing poised and ready along with several other onlookers.

Fortunately for all involved , it wasn't long before the back doors flew open in  and out popped Joey Bishop, looking rather dashing and dapper in his off-white trench coat flanked by a couple of what I assumed to his handlers, but could have been his goons. I propelled myself forward, ignoring these mugs and headed right for Joey, my nerves causing to move at a rapid pace. His eyes widened at the approach of what could have been a skinny underage lone gunman and almost popped out of his skull when I removed the contents of my coat pocket and thrust it toward him, now all rolled up. Was it the barrel of a gun? Worse. Look out! That kid's got a script!

My voice quavered and cracked as I uttered my one and only line.

"Joey, this is something I wrote and I want to give it to you."

Suddenly relieved but no less dour, he stammered, "Uh...okay...uh..thank you...."

He took my script rather unceremoniously and strode away with his guys double-time to his waiting limousine, undoubtedly chewing them both out once inside for not stopping this punk kid from scaring the crap out of him. I must have seemed like Jack Ruby's nephew to him,  popping up the way I did n the dark like that, ready to take out Joey Bishop in the name of Johnny Carson, NBC and opponents to lowering the voting age everywhere.

My ma asked if I got my autograph and I told her no.
"Why the hell not?" she demanded.
"Can we go now? I'm freezing my nuts off out here," Dad interrupted and off we went. Ah, nothing like another night out with the folks.

My job here was done. Now, all I had to do was wait for Monday's next show. I wondered if I should start packing or wait until Tuesday morning.

At eleven thirty Monday night, I perched myself front and center before the TV, all primed and ready for the latest edition of The Joey Bishop Show. I didn't have to hide out in the back of the dining room this go around since I had gotten permission to stay up from my mom even though it had been another school night. Earlier that evening, I pleaded my case before her, telling her that Joey would certainly bring up his trip to Stockton (the braggart) and, on the off-chance, might even mention me. She had no idea what I presented to him since I had kept my cards close to my chest from the word go She accepted my rationale for reasons unbeknownst to me. Perhaps Ma was patronzing me or in her case, No matter. I had a reserved seat this night. It's too bad I didn't rent a tux for the occasion.

Alas, as if that word isn't enough of a clue, it had been all for naught. From the opening monologue to the final sign off, I hung onto every word, syllable and gesture as if I would fall into the abyss. When the credits rolled, that's exactly what I did. Joey mentioned Stockton on in passing and never said a word about the creepy little snot-nosed bastard that popped out of the darkness to hand him some wadded up pieces of paper containing some illegible drivel scribbled in some demented childish scrawl. So, no, he didn't even say that. I didn't let the absence of this shout-out of this get me down. Maybe Mr. Bishop hadn't gotten around to reading my script yet. After all, he was a very busy man, the host of national talk show, his charitable responsibilities and we can't forget about his personal life. Give him time, I told myself and I did.

Then came Tuesday's show. And Wednesday. Thursday came next. Followed by Friday, exactly one week later. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Then the next week. And the next. And....oh, never mind. Three weeks turned out to be my limit, so I gave in and stopped monitoring his broadcasts.

In my haste to submit my work to Joey, I neglected to put any contact information upon it. No phone number. No address. Just my name. Without that pertinent data, there would be no way for the Bishop organization to find me. I had put all my chips on a personal on-air message that would never come. At that age, I sucked at gambling. Without telling anyone what I was planning to do,  I relied solely on myself for not better, but for worse. Therefore, I had no backup or anybody to make sure all the Ts were crossed, Is dotted and perhaps a way of getting a hold of me just in case. In effect, it wasn't Joey Bishop who disappointed me, but myself because I didn't think it through.

But even if I had put my address and/or phone number on my script, would that increased my odds at all? Unlikely, though I might have gotten a copy of Joey's country and western album or even a signed 8 x 10 of he and the gang that would read:

Scott-Your script sucks. Better luck next time, you son of a gun-Your pal, Joey Bishop

One can only assume he tossed my script in the trash as soon as he could. I like to think that he at least perused it, however briefly. Maybe he even gave a little smirk as he did. Yeah, I like to think that alright.

So began a series of unrealistic expectations in my life fueled by dreams of sugarplums dancing in my head, chronic naivete and a standing reservation in Neverland as Peter Pan's personal assistant. In essence, I suppose this could be my origin story, a stowaway on a rocket to stardom. But while my delusion of grandeur can be written off as immaturity, it sure as shooting wasn't the last time it occurred.

Not to be so hard on myself, I should forgive the error and applaud the effort.. It never felt like a gutsy move to confront a major celebrity in this manner, but more of instinct. At this key point in my formative years, I aimed for the stars. The fact that I used a BB gun is beside the point. As I reflect on this time of my life, who's to say that I really missed?

THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW came to an end at the end of that year. On his last night,  Bishop walked off the program right after the monologue, leaving Regis to host the rest of the program. Joey never achieved that major star status again, though he continued in show business for next thirty odd years. He outlived his fellow Rat Pack members, passing away in 2007 at the age of 89.

In March of 1971, the 26th Amendment to United States Constitution lowering the national voting age to 18 was passed by Congress.

For the next several years until I left Stockton in 1974, I would scan the weekly edition of Variety at the Stockton Public Library for any mention of a film in production entitled DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAY OUR PLANE WAS HIJACKED TO CUBA?