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No People Like Show People, Especially of Old

July 09, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Jordan Young conducted his first celebrity interview in 1969 when he was on the staff of the Fullerton College student newspaper.

Young, a show business buff who cut his teeth watching "Burns and Allen" reruns and listening to Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor records, had written a fan letter to Burt Mustin, the veteran character actor best known to members of Young's generation as the fire chief on "Leave it to Beaver."

To Young's surprise, Mustin wrote back a three-page letter and someone at the college said, "Why don't you interview him and we'll put it in the paper."

Young did the interview and wound up becoming friends with the 85-year-old actor, who occasionally would invite his 18-year-old fan to the Masquers Club in Hollywood where Young would watch Mustin play poker with his show business cronies.

Over the years as a free-lance writer and author, the 1973 Cal State Fullerton communications graduate has done about 500 interviews, mostly with movie and theater people.

But while the Anaheim resident has enjoyed talking with the likes of Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson, it has been his interviews with the old-timers--people like comedian Doodles Weaver, composer Eubie Blake and silent screen star Laura LaPlante--that Young has found most fascinating.

"I guess it's because show business then was more interesting," said Young, 37. "It's been their whole lives: They've got 60 or 70 years in show business to talk about, and some of them just have endearing personalities, like Mickey Katz and Jester Hairston."

English-Yiddish parody record star Katz (the father of Joel Grey) and choral conductor and arranger Hairston (best known for his song "Amen," which he dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the film "Lilies of the Field") are among the eclectic cast of characters in Young's latest book, "Let Me Entertain You: Conversations With Show People" (Moonstone Press; $9.95).

Most of the interviews in "Let Me Entertain You" are based on edited transcripts of taped interviews Young conducted for articles he wrote for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. For the book, Young wrote brief introductions and then let the performers tell their stories in their own words.

The Burt Mustin interview is not included in the new book, but Young's 1970 interview with English character actor and MGM stock company player Reginald Owen is. So are such recognizable names as Jack Nicholson, Red Skelton, Marcel Marceau, Donald Sutherland and Peter Sellers.

But it's the dozen or so not-so-recognizable names that are the most intriguing. Several of those interviewed, including Katz, Blake and comic-eccentric dancer Clyde Cook are now dead.

"The book is a way of kind of bringing them back to life," said Young, seated in the large living room of his 1915 Craftsman-style ranch house set incongruously amid rock-roofed '50s tract houses in Anaheim. ("I never wanted to live in a house that looks like everybody else's," remarks Young, whose wife, Pam, is an insurance company claims representative and is, he said, "a great source of support.")

The foreword to "Let Me Entertain You" is written by another longtime show biz buff, Leonard Maltin, who first met Young a few years ago at--appropriately enough--a Hollywood party hosted by the Texas-based Nostalgia Channel where the guest of honor was Spanky McFarland. (Young has an interview with the "Our Gang" star in a section of the book that features Huntz Hall (the former Dead End Kid and Bowery Boy), Ray Johnson (a member of the Foursome, a popular vocal quartet in the '30s, who is now in retirement in San Juan Capistrano) and George Rock (the trumpet player and one of the lead vocalists with Spike Jones and His City Slickers).

"Let Me Entertain You" is the fourth show business book Young has written for Moonstone Press. The others are "Spike Jones and His City Slickers" (1984), "Reel Characters: Great Movie Character Actors" (1986) and "Beckett Actor: Jack MacGowran, Beginning to End" (1988), a critically acclaimed biography of the world-renowned Irish stage and screen actor who is considered the foremost interpreter of playwright-novelist Samuel Beckett's work.

Although he doesn't go out of his way to publicize it, Young is Moonstone Press.

He formed the publishing company in 1980 to publish a collection of his poems, "A Night at the Hard Rock Cafe," named after a bar on Skid Row in Los Angeles and not the latter-day, trendy restaurant. His second book, before turning to his string of show business tomes, was "How to Become a Successful Freelance Writer."

When it comes to the subject of self-publishing, Young offers an analogy: An actor who produces his own films and a recording artist who produces his own albums, he says, "do it because it gives them control."

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