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Almost Famous

Celebrity interviewer Skip E. Lowe basks in the low-wattage glow of Hollywood--public access style.

June 13, 2001|CHARLES CASILLO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Skip E. Lowe was born Sammy Labella and grew up in Rockford, Ill. From the beginning he felt "peculiar" and "isolated." At an early age he escaped into the fantasy world of Hollywood movies. Like many lonely youths, he developed a yearning to be noticed, to excel. He loved to perform and, borrowing clothes and makeup from his mother, he would entertain neighborhood children in his backyard with imitations of the stars, alternating among Carmen Miranda, Jimmy Durante and his favorite, Betty Grable.

Although the kids enjoyed his performances, they still treated the young Sammy as an outcast. He liked to wear short pants and show off his legs, much to his father's chagrin. "Kids come in two styles," Lowe explains, "boys and girls. I wasn't either, so I became the brunt of terrible jokes."

The ostracism took a violent turn when, at age 9, four of the neighborhood ruffians beat and raped him. It became a scandal in Rockford and, rather than have Sammy face the neighborhood's scorn (and his father's rage), his mother fled with him to Hollywood in the hopes of turning him into a child star. Although he never became one, he did land bit roles in "Best Foot Forward," "Song of the Open Road" and a number of the "Dead End Kids" films. He hasn't been out of show business since.

He tells of his time in vaudeville after his stint as a child actor. His mother decided to return to Illinois and shipped him off to live with his aunt, who performed in clubs in Manhattan's Bowery. "She was a Sophie Tucker type, and she really taught me how to sell a song," Lowe says.

From there he honed his comedic talents as an emcee in the tough burlesque houses of the 1940s. "I went to Chicago and I got involved with the Mafia working as a master of ceremonies in strip joints. I learned about show business by doing everything: singing, dancing, emceeing, comedy. Dangerous as anything, but I loved it!" Eventually, as a comedian, he toured the world, appearing in a USO show in Vietnam alongside Bob Hope and Martha Raye.

Back in Hollywood, Lowe had roles in the Gene Wilder film "The World's Greatest Lover" and "Black Shampoo," an exploitation film that spoofed Warren Beatty's "Shampoo," but mostly he made his living as an emcee for talent shows.

It was all good experience for his current role. "There's nobody who loves this business and cares about its people more," says actor Morse. "He has a special affinityfor many of the greats who still have so much to talk about."

Stacks of Videotapes Crowd His Living Room

In his apartment the phone rings and Lowe tells someone from "E! True Hollywood Story" he'll have to call her back. "They probably want to use clips from one of my shows," he explains, negotiating his way back to the couch. The floors of his apartment are stacked with videotapes of past shows: interviews with Lynn Redgrave, Pat Boone, Eartha Kitt. Most of the boxes are undated. "Well, that's the whole thing about Skip E. Lowe," he sighs. "I'm very confusing. I don't keep anything in order."

Amid the disorder are piles of faxed and mailed invitations. Theater openings, movie premieres, press parties. Lowe is invited to things partly because he is a recognizable personality who adds color and partly because there is a chance that an interview might be set up.

Lively as ever, Lowe still tapes two shows a week, which he does without pay. He continues to earn his living with his talent showcases for up-and-coming entertainers, most recently at Cafe Roma in Beverly Hills. He stays in contact with his younger viewers through Internet chat room discussions and his Web site (http://www.skipelowe.com).

He also continues to attend glitzy functions, often on the arm of Mamie Van Doren, the 1950s sex siren. Platinum, satiny, ageless, Van Doren is the perfect companion for Lowe. She understands glamour. "Underneath his facade there really is a sharp, sensitive person who knows exactly what people are thinking," she observes. "He's so much fun to be with because he has the guts to say what I keep in my mind while I stand around and smile."

In spite of the nutty image he sometimes projects, there is a tremendous feeling of genuine warmth and affection from the people he surrounds himself with. "He's a one-of-a-kind original," Shelley Winters says fondly. When any of Lowe's friends talk about him, it's like a verbal hug, as if they want to protect the 9-year-old boy who still resides within him.

His greatest pastime is playing the lottery and the Daily Three numbers. He can spend hours each day deciding which numbers to play and then, invariably, loses. "Could you believe 978 came in?" he'll exclaim. "I was going to play that!" He then faithfully records the winning numbers on his calendar to help with the next day's picks.

"Darling, listen," he declares, "I'm having more fun than I ever had in my life! I'm active, I have wonderful friends, and I still get a kick out of everything." And when asked what type of man the boy with the Betty Grable legs has grown into, he mulls it over for only an instant. "Are you kidding?" he deadpans, "I walk all over town. I may not wear the short pants anymore, but I still have the Betty Grable legs." And then he cackles devilishly.

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