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Jack Smith

It will be a sad day for variety arts if the graveyard of old jokes has to give up the ghost

July 07, 1987|Jack Smith

I don't know where old comedians go when they die, but I know where their jokes go.

They go into a large gray steel card file in the library of the Variety Arts Center, on Figueroa near Olympic.

The center, which occupies a handsome five-story building in the Italian Renaissance style, was built in 1924 by the Friday Morning Club and sold in 1977 to the Society for the Preservation of the Variety Arts.

The club's staunch motto is still engraved over the entrance:

In Essentials Unity . . . In Non-essentials Liberty . . . In All Things Charity.

We entered the other evening and turned left into the W. C. Fields Bar, where, surrounded by Fields mementos, we toasted the old misanthrope himself.

We had dinner in the roof garden, looking north to the new skyline of the downtown financial district.

Our host, Milt Larsen, unsalaried president of the nonprofit SPVA, told us the center (which is open to the public) is in jeopardy. It has defaulted on a loan from the Community Redevelopment Agency, the CRA has foreclosed, and the center has filed bankruptcy. There it stands. The center needs big help.

We got our salads from a long, curved, gold leaf bar that had been the Harmonia Gardens bar in the movie "Hello Dolly!" Larsen said: "Barbra Streisand danced on that bar."

A five-piece orchestra was playing vintage music for dancing: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Little Brown Jug."

A girl of about 10 was dancing energetically with an older man; he retired and she came out with another older man; then a third. She was wearing out her partners.

"That's Stan Laurel's great-granddaughter," Larsen said.

After dinner Larsen took us on a tour of the building. It was stuffed like a steamer trunk with memorabilia of the variety arts, which include standup comedy, mime, juggling, animal acts, acrobatics, tightrope walking, ventriloquism, magic, tap dancing and other unnecessaries. "Everything," Larsen said, "that went out of style with the Ed Sullivan Show."

We went up and down hand-operated elevators, along Gothic corridors and into chambers, salons, bars and museums, all festooned with theatrical artifacts and posters.

To raise some money, the 1,158-seat theater downstairs had been let out for the night to a rock group. It was almost full. It reverberated to the shriek of amplified music and the screaming of the dedicated.

Upstairs in the quiet of the library I examined W. C. Fields' trick pool table and crooked cue and looked into the card file containing tens of thousands of jokes. They were filed in alphabetical order by subject: Girls, marriage, taxis, apartments. When Eddie Cantor's writers needed a laugh, this is where they went for it.

Under "age/dumb" I found this one.

"They tell me that the Colonel is a sexagenarian."

"The old fool . . . and at his age, too."

Well, it probably sounded funny on "The Red Skelton Show."

The library holds thousands of films, books, songs, recordings, scrapbooks and other memorabilia from vaudeville, radio and early television.

Larsen opened a book as large as an unabridged dictionary. It was the daily returns book of the Hockney Empire Palace in London for the early 1900s. Each page, opposite that day's bill, had hand-written notes by the chairman, or master of ceremonies.

One entry was a note on Charlie Chaplin: "Mr. Chaplin is Mr. Karno's best artist, and should be made first or second comic. His body even shows his intent as well as his face."

A slightly later entry was just as prescient about a new comic named Stan Laurel: "Stan Laurel is outstanding. Should be given more to do."

One corridor led to an unfinished salon with a 22-foot heroic-style mural on the wall. "That came out of Charlie Skouras' board room," Larsen said. "See, it shows how the young Greek immigrants, Charlie Skouras and his brothers, were responsible for civilization."

Through one window loomed a 52-foot scale model of the Italian cruise ship Contessa di Conte, which M.G.M. used in the 1947 movie "Luxury Liner." Larsen bought it at the M.G.M. auction, renamed it the USS Variety Club and had it raised to a dry dock on the building's roof. It is said to be the biggest model ever built and it probably is the world's biggest toy, unless you count Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose as a toy.

We looked in on the Masquers Bar, which the SPVA acquired from the defunct Masquers Club in Hollywood. Larsen apologized for the voluptuous nude oil paintings on the back bar. "The members were all theatrical gentlemen, you know."

We sat in the Music Hall Theater upstairs for the evening's entertainment--an old-fashioned London music hall show.

"It's all nostalgia, ladies and gentlemen," said Tony Hawes, the chairman.

It was that.

The pretty soubrette, Michele Summers, and the young leading man, Lloyd Pederson, sang an innocent duet:

"You are my honeysuckle."

"You are my bumblebee."

Elmarie Wendel came out in a black leather miniskirt, a long-sleeved black knit shirt, a long red scarf and a red beret, and did a delicious sendup of Edith Piaf.

Between the acts we occasionally heard a thump from the rockers down below. Mr. Hawes read an imaginary message from them: "Please try to hold it down."

The center echoes with memories of Laurel, Hardy, Fields, Cantor, Skelton, Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Durante, Hal Peary, Spike Jones and the others who kept us laughing before television tranquilized us.

As the ladies of the Friday Morning Club said, "In nonessentials, liberty."

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