I’m currently reading a book recounting the history of the world-famous club THE IMPROV. And when I came upon an anecdote about an old Catskill comedian named JACKIE VERNON, I just had to stop reading and start writing. Ya see…I saw Jackie on one of my gigs in the mountains and it brought back bittersweet memories from my summer at THE BROWNS HOTEL.
It was a burning hot/melt-your-face mid-July day in 1981 when the call came in. The lounge band at the Browns Hotel needed a replacement for their guitar player who was leaving for what reason I cannot remember (probably boredom). Granted, I felt the gig was a little bit beneath me. In the past year, I’d played behind THE MAIN INGREDIENT and STEPHANIE MILLS. And even though I’d also driven a cab in between to earn back gambling losses, I’d also produced a couple of records which though stiffs, had been released by real labels and critiqued favorably by musicians I looked up to.
Still, the job at the Browns had two things going for it. First, it would bring me to the mountains during the hot summer months. And second, my $350/week compensation would be on the books – and end promptly after Labor Day. These two realities were presented to me apologetically by the band leader who feared I might turn the work down based on the fact that part of my salary would be withheld and the employment would end 6 weeks after it began.
But what he didn’t know – and I did – was that his job would effectively give me 21 weeks of covered employment for the year and thus, put me on unemployment insurance after it ended. Having endured all manner of musical employment during which I felt like a total whore, I figured this particular adventure wouldn’t be all that painful given the payoffs. So I was in – and on my way up Route 17 to Sullivan County.
The band itself was superior to most of the outfits with whom I played in the Borscht Belt. But that wasn’t saying much. The backups had some talent – but were decidedly provincial suburbanites with no real studio experience. They rehearsed new tunes slowly, read charts poorly, and were the kind of musicians who were better at copying parts off hit records than actually playing hooky musical figures on their own.
But worst of all was the leader, a full-of-himself loser named ALAN C. Alan could have been an all right guy if he just didn’t think he was much more talented than he really was. He couldn’t really sing. He couldn’t really play any instrument. And though he was a self-professed “great songwriter,” he really wasn’t. In short, Alan was a never-was who was never gonna be. With Stephanie and Cuba (Gooding Sr.), I’d worked for band leaders whose talent blew me away. The only thing that impressed me about Alan was his mediocrity.
While the next six weeks could have been worse, I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Browns. For starters, we were housed in a trailer a mile or two away from the hotel. So I lived in close quarters with the piano player (who was equally uninspired – like Alan) and awoke every morning to the beeping and banging of a back hoe! Construction crews were digging telephone lines right next to our palace. Rural and pastoral the vibe clearly was not!
Rock band notwithstanding, groupies were few and far between. While Alan did have a homely girlfriend to amuse him while his wife stayed back in the city, nobody else got any action until almost the end of the summer when it was too late anyway. Plus, the pickin’s came from brain-dead waitresses who worked at the Browns while they attended (drum roll) Sullivan County Community College. Wellesley girls they weren’t! Mostly, the guys complained about how bored and horny we were. Stardom was not ours playing the lounge at the Browns Hotel.
Well anyway…one night after our first Saturday evening set, word came down that uncharacteristically, the lounge where we played would be hosting a comedian. And that comedian was Jackie Vernon – complete with his trademark trumpet.
Now back in those halcyon Catskill days, the Belt boasted some pretty fucking funny comedians. In fact, the mountains was one of the few places a stand-up could make a living just 20 years before. And the area still had some cachet when I worked there. I don’t know exactly what it was (probably the intimate setting), but Jackie was just hilarious that night. And I remember thinking “Mark this one down in your mind. This was a bull shit summer defined by me chasing dollars and a little financial security. But right here is the silver lining: a wonderful show presented in an intimate setting by a comedian you’ve seen on ED SULLIVAN.”
It was shortly thereafter that Labor Day arrived and I was on my way south to the city, sharing a limo with three other tourists at $25 a piece to get back to Hipsville (NYC). I got my unemployment insurance and a boring summer at the expense of six weeks of my life. But in metaphorical terms, I can say that as I lay flat on my back to earn a buck that summer, I had one trick who turned me out. And that was Jackie Vernon who so entertained me that evening in the lounge.
I don’t think I’d thought about that night from 37 years ago for the last decade or two until I picked up the book about the history of the Improv. Kind of cool now that I think about it. Like I’m a primary source on a piece of history. The ‘Skills…the lounge…and Jackie Vernon and his trumpet. Somebody pass me a rocking chair! I’m a geezer with a story. Go figure.
As for Alan and what I called his jewgrass band (Alan was jewish and into country music), I did one job with them at the Bottom Line after we got back and then quit in favor of another outfit whose name I don’t recall. My replacement was a guy you might have heard of: JIMMY VIVINO. No doubt, he left with the same haste I did though honestly, I have no idea. It’s not like I stayed in touch with any of the band.
Five years later while I was backing THE BELMONTS (whose members were constantly changing), I arrived at Warren’s apartment in Pelham Bay Park to discover that one of the counterfeit Belmonts for that night’s performance was (drum roll) Alan C. All I remember from that night was Alan declaring “I’m a great songwriter.” It gave me about the same feeling I got when I heard DONALD TRUMP declare himself a “stable genius.” And I don’t have to describe that feeling I’m guessing.