Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Uncle...Duke Mitchell, aka Dominico Miceli

Recently I got an e-mail and it said, "I just love to spaz out and watch "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla." It's my favorite spaz out movie. I have seen it drunk, I have seen it stoned, and I have had a natural high watching it. I rented it for my school in 16mm and ran it backwards. On DVD now, I freeze frame and I can spaz to just a freeze frame. I might make a face like Sammy and hold it. Or I freeze on Duke Mitchell and sing his entire song. It's the spaz film of the milennium. More than "Plan 9." Wherever your uncle is, I hope he is proud."

Well, of course, I'm sure he is. But there is more to it than that, there are also movies he was in without Sammy Petrillo his comedy co-star, and music he made, so here is a blog that will no doubt get bigger as more people contribute their memories.

Another e-mail I got said, "You must forgive. Learn to be forgiving. Your uncle died in 1981, and he did not abandon you, it was God's will. I have been consoling members of the Petrillo family about their losses and their heartaches, and I am only too willing to help you any time you need it, for I truly believe the greatness of God can be found not only through me, but through the lessons each one of us can read in e-mails and blog comments." And really, that is just so sweet, when someone has nothing better to do than think of others.

So let me start off with a few facts about the "Dean Martin look-alike." Yes, it's true, in a way, they are soulmates. Dean loved to sing and had a great sense of humor. So did Duke Mitchell. Dean came from the tough coal mine area of Ohio, and Duke (Dom Miceli) came from Pennsylvania which is noted for its coal mining. But let's remember, Dean Martin was born in 1917, On June 7th. Duke was nearly a decade younger, born in 1926, on May 9th!

Both were great romancers. Both eventually broke away from their "trained monkey" partners and had other careers. But there, the similarity ends. Duke Mitchell was his own man, and along with nightclub work, strove to be a serious movie actor and director, and from what I've been told, tended to distance himself from the man who played "straight" in the classic "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."

He and his wife Jo were already on the road in the late 40's, and he got some work as a singer in Florida hotels, but as hot as Florida is, he was told, "Go West, Young Man," and arrived in sunny California in 1950. Ironically, he played a corner man for Jerry Lewis the boxer, in the movie "Sailor Beware." Such is fate. A few years later, and he would team up with the greatest Jerry Lewis imitator of all time!

Sammy Meets Duke and They Are On Their Way

What some people don't realize about any straight man, is how important he is. Did you know that Sammy Petrillo originally worked with somebody else? This was George DeWitt, and according to Freddie Bass, who was a well known club booker on the Coast, "this was not an act destined for greatness. George didn't have that great timing that you need. It's in the timing. The great comedians have it. The funniest joke is nothing without timing. Timing can't be learned. It can't even be explained.

"Another thing is the set-up. Remember, the difference between a straight man and a comic. A comic says funny things. A straight man sets up so the comic can say things funny. If you forget to remember this, you go nowhere. Who ever heard of George DeWitt?

"George was a quiz show host on "Name That Tune." He didn't look like Dean Martin or anything like that, and so he'd let Sammy roam around doing all kinds of undisciplined things. One of Sammy's big things was to break out in song like Johnny Ray. He'd do the whole manic Johnny Ray bit, and George would just let him go. It was when Sammy hooked up with Duke, God rest his weary soul, that the greatness began to sweat through the fabric."

"As I remember it, they made their own breaks. Sammy was very aggressive, Duke was more of a gentleman. Before Sammy ever met Duke, he used his Jerry Lewis imitation to break the ice. He once turned up backstage and put a headlock on Milton Berle, and for a minute, Berle thought it was actually Jerry. He was yelling, "Jerry you asshole, I'll kill you...I'll kill you," and boy was he surprised when he put Sammy at arm's length and realized it wasn't Jerry at all. Was Miltie mad? No, he was in awe. I forget his manager. Herb somebody. He called this Herb somebody, and I think it was Herb who arranged for Sammy and Duke to meet Jerry and Dean, who were at the top of their game. Jerry used Sammy in a skit, with Sammy playing Jerry's baby in a baby carriage. But when the reviews came out in Variety praising Sammy's genius, Jerry became livid. Then Jerry became crafty. He had Sammy sign with an agency, and ordered the agency to never get work for Sammy. That put Sammy out of the way! Finally Sammy got wise. Then Sammy re-started his career and got his revenge by joining Duke in becoming rivals to the great Martin and Lewis!"

The Glory Years

Erna Besser remembers it well: "They were two boys full of energy. They were headed for the top. This was around the time my husband Joe was working with Bud and Lou on the TV series. Joe played the character of "Stinky," (a name I never quite liked for Joe) and Joe actually mentioned the team and suggested they appear as, will you believe this, Bud and Lou's nephews! Bud didn't mind, but Lou became very angry. Lou actually yelled on the set, in front of Joe and Sid Fields, "They're like Dean and Jerry! You want us to start a feud? Things are bad enough!" Bud and Lou took pains to be gentlemen about this new comedy team that were having so much better movie success and all that. Bud and Lou did not want to be rivals to them, and here was Joe suggesting Sammy and Duke appear on Bud and Lou's show, which would make it seem like Bud and Lou had their own Dean and Jerry working for them! I told Joe he should never have brought up such an idea, and should've been more concerned with getting the "Stinky" character on the show more often, perhaps with a "Stinky" girlfriend, played either by Joe himself, or by Joe Kirk, a close friend of Lou's, and a fine actor."

I asked Erna if she recalled seeing the team in a nightclub. "No, Joe and I were not much for the clubs, or nightclubs as we called them back then. We were stay-at-home types. What you'd call homebodies. We did see them on Spade Cooley's local television program. Joe hated that music something awful, and would go in the kitchen and drink a quart of milk while the singing was going on, but he liked the rest of it. I'm sure it was on the Spade Cooley show, where they did their Dean and Jerry thing. At first I thought it was Dean and Jerry. You know, Sammy would mug right in front of the camera and block the view, and Duke was trying to calm him down and sing a song with Spade, who looked like he wanted to kill them. Not that Spade was anything but a gentle man. But those crazy kids got him going, with their zany antics. Oh it was wild, it was just wild."

Soon the boys were in the movies. The film was done in 9 days, by William "One Shot" Beaudine, who had worked with the East Side Kids. Martin and Lewis's manager threatened a lawsuit, which was good publicity, and Variety even mentioned how Sammy and Duke were "cashing in on M&L's thunder." Little did anyone know, but Sammy was so hurt that Jerry would be so mean, he vowed to do the best impersonation of Jerry of all time. Did he ever! Dean was much nicer, saying, "Let the kids make a buck," and years later, he met Uncle Duke and smiled and said, "If you need anything, let me know." Duke appreciated the kind words but was too proud to ask for any favors.

The budget on the movie was low, so they wore their own clothes. Sammy liked flashy shoes. If you look closely, you'll notice Sammy's flashy boots and footwear, not in character with the person in the film. Uncle Duke was a better dresser. This was all a sore point with their co-star, Bela Lugosi, who was very dignified, and believed in dressing up properly. Mr. Lugosi was appalled at the lack of a strong wardrobe department, and it was perhaps for this reason that he kept to himself. He would smoke a cigar and wait patiently for his moments, and then retreat again.

The film was a huge success. To this day, it is talked about constantly. I got an e-mail from a guy who told me, "On Public Access, there is a guy who mentions that movie every week in one way or another. Either he references it, or talks about Sammy and asks if anyone can please contact Sammy to be a guest on the show. Sometimes he shows a treasured original still he bought on eBay and reminds people how expensive it was, because it is truly rare. Sammy is the uber-schlemiel, Jerry's evil twin, comedy's Dark Knight, the quintessential id run amok, and Duke? He is the Lounge Lizard King, God's martini olive, the Smoothie to which us mortals merely shake and stir, and gabba gabba hey!"

You just have to love fan enthusiasm. I truly believe the people who blog, and have Public Access shows, and are currently tracking down Sammy Petrillo, are laughing with Sammy and Duke, and not at them. They "get it." I know for sure, Sammy can't hide forever. If only he knew what it would be like to have a table at a SuperMega show, and see the outpouring on him.

People compared the new team to Martin and Lewis, and when you think about it, Sammy and Uncle Duke were far more daring because they were willing to work with Bela Lugosi, and with a chimp. That's two scene-stealers. But they were young and confident! PS, here is a bit of trivia. If you look very closely in certain scenes, you will notice that "Ramona" the chimp is not a girl at all, but a boy!

Uncle Duke: Director-Actor-Composer

Uncle Duke and Sammy could not get work after "Brooklyn Gorilla," mostly because Martin and Lewis were powerful and intimidated club owners. It wasn't wise to book Mitchell and Petrillo. Martin and Lewis broke up, the craze for their kind of comedy was over, and so Uncle Duke became an actor again, uncredited ("Blackboard Jungle") and doing a kind of Marlon Brando-type gangster role ("Crime in the Streets.") He also worked on "The Duke Mitchell Review" which played many gigs, and he tried to start a singing career. He signed with many labels, including Liberty, Dot and Imperial, but the sessions yielded only a few actual singles that got released. It is possible "Duke Mitchell" was a name too similar to "Guy Mitchell," and this caused, as they say, "Heartaches by the Number." The singles he made are collectors items, with eBay bidders snipering each other like rival Sunnis and Muslims.

One of the proudest achievements for Uncle Duke was "The Executioner," made in 1974, and clearly a forerunner to the Scorcese films such as "Goodfellas." For example, in this Mafia movie, there are scenes where happy Italian music plays while people are executed. Obviously Uncle Duke knew the irony of the contrast, and this contrasting irony was later used in "Goodfellas." Another key moment has a man told to go down on his knees and cross himself and beg for mercy, only to be killed. In a poignant way, it speaks volumes of Uncle Duke's frustrations in his film career. Another key scene had a man being served his own pet poodle, but as "The Godfather" had a horse's head scene, the bigger movie prevailed, and "The Executioner" (original title "Murder Mafia Style") was withdrawn, and not shown for several years until all that false "The Godfather" hysteria died down. That's why some sources show the release date as 1978, but that simply isn't so.

He was not only the director of the film, which would be his last, but he co-starred using the familiar last name of Micelli! Yes, mitchell-i. This was of course a tribute to his real name, and an honor for the family. Jimmy Williams was in the film, and he said, "Things were very professional on the set. Your uncle was a great guy and we had fun, but when it was time to film, it was no nonsense. Every frame had to count. He used to say film costs money, and he was right. You can't argue it. There was a key scene, I'll never forget. I watched them film it. Your uncle and his henchman come in, and put tape across the mouth of a man in a wheelchair. I think this was an homage to that Richard Widmark film. Anyway, they had this old gaffer's tape or something, something a key grip handed them. It might have been key grip tape. It was so old it would not stick in place and every time they began, the tape came loose! They must have done it six or seven times. If you look very carefully in the finished film, you'll see they slap the tape on his mouth and roll him in his wheelchair out of camera range very fast, because they were afraid the tape would come loose again."

The film was made for $27,000 and you can see several family members in it. Duke's wife Jo has a brief moment, his daughter is a bride, his son-in-law Ted Schneider is in it, too, and all fans of Uncle Duke will recognize Vic Caesar, who was a drummer for Duke "way back when."

Uncle Duke was a true Chaplin in this case, as he wrote the script (but was modest about taking credit for it), contributed key music, and of course was so very busy acting and directing. Cara Salerno, who you recall played "Liz" in the finished picture, could not be interviewed by me, but Angelo Paone, a friend, told me she said this: "Think about who else acted and directed their own movies around that time. Jerry Lewis." Is that a coincidence or what? I'm not saying my uncle was trying to compete with Lewis, but he no doubt had it in mind, that if he could pull this off, he'd be up there with Orson Welles and Jerry Lewis, as among the very few to dare to act and direct at the same time. Welles never composed a bit of music, so toss him out of the equation.

Janet Waldo Discusses Uncle Duke

As most of you know, it was Uncle Duke who used his unique talents to provide the hip singing voice when Barney Rubble broke out into "rock" songs. The contrast between the singing voice Duke provided and the normal voice of Mel Blanc was the subject of a ten minute segment on Nerd Grant's public access show. I am not sure which city it is, or when it aired, and am trying to track it down, but I am told Nerd had clips of Uncle Duke from "Brooklyn Gorilla" and showed Garage Band illustrated "vocal finger prints" comparing it to the "Flintstones" clips he played. I'd love to have a copy of this. I am so shocked it is not yet on YouTube.

Janet Waldo, who played one of the female characters on the show, Betty Rubble, I believe, granted me a phone interview. This was before her death, and she was very much lively, and sounded exactly like the kooky character you know and love from the show. She could not stay on the phone long, but she said this: "Your Uncle Duke was a genius. It is not an easy thing to sing like a prehistoric Elvis. Always remember that and take it with you." She was a lovely woman and believe me, she will be missed.

Uncle Duke worked quite a bit in the Palm Springs area, and the older folks enjoyed the old style of music quite a bit. Just before he passed away, he achieved a great dream, starring in "A Tribute to Jimmy Durante," doing a fantastic impression of Schnozzola, while Mike Connors supplied the gripping narrative that traced the beloved entertainer's life. Uncle Duke's son Jeff produced the soundtrack album, which, another crushing defeat, never got beyond promotional copies, which today are not only collectors items, but good investments. Many who grew up loving "Brooklyn Gorilla," and are now in their 50's or 60's (in terms of actual age) are still young at heart, and wanting to relive their childhood, which means buying up memorabilia at any cost, so when you see a Duke Mitchell single or album, or movie stills...just imagine what a member of Antique Roadshow would say: "It would be a privilege to own this. Do you have any idea how valuable it is?"

Favorite Uncle Duke Photo

Here is a really nice photo from "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."

So many people have told me that the absolute highlight for them is not Sammy Petrillo's clowning around, but the times Uncle Duke gets to sing. I think it's true. How often can anyone watch a Jerry Lewis imitator, but a good singer and a good song is a joy forever.

You probably know that "Deed I Do," featured in the film, was written by Walter Hirsch and Fred Rose, a great, neglected combination. They are a combination that should be up there with the greats. I think, when all is said and done, all you can say is that they are a great combination, and it's a shame they aren't as well known as Mitchell and Petrillo.

I am searching for relatives of either man. I think this an important reason why we should not have abortion in this country. If there are abortions, there are no children, hence no relatives that will keep memorabilia or be able to talk about the achievements of family members.

Nick Therry was the composer of "Too Soon," and several fans of Sammy Petrillo vow to add relatives of Mr. Therry to their list of people to track down and demand answers from. I am told that Leo B. Gorcey Jr. is willing to publish a possible book on Mitchell and Petrillo if and when all surviving members of the "Gorilla" cast, or their relatives, have been captured on audio or video tape.

Here's a tantalizing fact. Although they had tunes in the same movie, Nick Therry and the team of Hirsch and Rose never met.

Interview with Joey the Dip

You probably know Joey the Dip, who had his own podcast for a long time, where he would play outsider music, and talk about Korla Pandit and Merrill Womack, and of course, he'd play Uncle Duke's 45's. He stopped the podcast because it was not making money, so he goes to record conventions to sell bootlegs. At his table you can get the complete Dr. Murray Banks on a single CD via mp3 files, and he also has the world's largest collection of cover versions of Burt Bacharach songs, each a separate volume with hot-stamp drawings of Burt on the CDs. Sometimes he offers his hour interview with Vampira discussing James Dean on eBay. He shared these memories:

JOEY: "I have your uncle's music on one of the CD compilations I sell: "Croony Tunes Vol 3." I am such a fan. I think what I do is a great tribute. I'm really sincere."
ME: "Did you ever meet my uncle?"
JOEY: "No, before my time, snookums. I spoke about him to Joe Franklin once."
ME: "What did he say?"
JOEY: "He never met Duke Mitchell either. I haven't met anyone who did. But I did spend an hour in a Times Square Tad's Steakhouse with Sammy."
ME: "What did he say about Duke?"
JOEY: "He said your uncle had a lot of nerve fucking his wife."
ME: "I thought they parted amicably."
JOEY: "That was strictly for the press. You don't want to get a reputation for being difficult. It could make it tough to get work."
ME: "But Sammy didn't get much work."
JOEY: "There you go."
ME: "Duke did. Is Sammy's wife still alive? Would she talk about how she succumbed to Uncle Duke's charm?"
JOEY: "How she sucked cum? Now now, snookums, I don't think she'd talk about it! She must be near 70, too. She's got four grown children to think of, and her community and church!"
ME: "You know I didn't say suck cum, I said succumb. And please turn the music down."
JOEY: "That's Afrikaan Beat. The theme for the Sandy Becker Show. Dig?"
ME: "I never heard of Sandy Becker. Uncle Duke is a legend all over the world, not this Sandy Becker. Why don't you play some of Uncle Duke while we talk?"
JOEY: "Can't break open a sealed CD, snookums. I sell 'em sealed. I have a machine at home that shrink wraps. That's pro, snookums. The CD opens with Ronnie Deauville. Dig?"
ME: "No. Never heard of him."
JOEY: "Sweet cakes, you are understandably hung up on your uncle, but there are so many others who have a cool story. Ronnie was in a wheelchair! Heh heh heh heh heh."
ME: "What's so funny about that?"
JOEY: "Dunno, it always slays me. There's something really funny about it, if you think about it. I mean, it's not as good as the Womack story, but don't get me started! Why do I have to hip people like you? Why don't you get it? Most people who come to a convention like this, just want Blondie or something. They don't value the old stuff I'm trying to sell. They don't think outside the box."
ME: "Do you know anyone else in this convention room I should talk to?"
JOEY: "Here? Rudy Ray Moore. Nope. There's this guy Fredd, spells his name with two D's, and he had his own blog for like, three years. But I don't see him. Bingo the C...he's got bootlegs of old Shindig episodes but I guess your Uncle didn't do that show. Kliph, who spells his name Cliff when he gets published, isn't here this time around. He's depressed because he never gets published. Moogy Sponge just walked by, but he's the prez of the Skiles & Henderson Fan Club. So Fuhgeddaboutit! Are you sure you're not in touch with Sammy, and simply aren't telling me?"
ME: "No. I really don't know where Sammy Petrillo is."
JOEY: "Sammy if you're out there, listen to me. Here is my cool idea of the day. Book yourself on Public Access on the Labor Day Weekend and have your own telethon, raising money for harelips! No, get this, not to cure harelips, but to give harelips to people who deserve it. Like Tony Orlando! Tony was not the singer Duke Mitchell was! Wink wink! Gonzo! Hi-yo!"
ME: "Anything else you can tell me about Uncle Duke?"
JOEY: "No, there is nothing else I can tell you. Read between the lines. Got it?"
ME: "No."
JOEY: "Then you never will. Heh heh."