By Steve Cash / Detroit
Los Angeles was the premier destination in the 1970s for young would-be comics
It was a September morning in 1977. My girlfriend Donna was leaving my home when she made this memorable remark, "Steve, I want to start dating other people.” I was devastated, totally blindsided. After a night of panic, I went to her house to beg her to reconsider.
She left the room and I started snooping. I saw a Hallmark card on her dresser, a picture of two people kissing at sunrise. The inscription read, "When the morning breaks, I think of you,” Love, Henry. Her comment that she wanted to "start" dating other people came to mind. Obviously, she had already begun.
To add insult to injury, she didn’t leave me for a doctor or a lawyer; she worked at a Chatham supermarket and left me for the produce manager. It was that moment I decided to move to L.A. to try and become a stand-up comic.
I have always been able to make people laugh and thought I would give it a try. A few days later, I got in my 1974 Gremlin and took off for fame and fortune. I arrived in Los Angeles on September 20th and moved in to with my cousin Larry. I hadn't seen Larry in many years, but he was kind enough to let me stay there.
Larry was a lot different than me. I am hyper, fast- talking and fast-thinking; Larry was laid-back, philosophical and for some reason had an empty coffin in his living room. Because I was not paying to stay there, I was unable to question the reason for the coffin.
Not knowing how to start my career, I decided to pick up a copy of Variety magazine, the “Showbiz Bible" at the time. A small ad caught my eye. Chuck Barris, the creator of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, was holding auditions for his new program, The Gong Show. I called and set up an audition for the following day, in the same Burbank Studios that housed The Tonight Show.
That night, I wrote a five-minute comedy routine based on looking young and my diminutive stature. When I arrived at Burbank Studios, I performed my act for Mr. Barris. He was a fun-loving, middle-aged Jewish man, with a charismatic personality. After I finished my act, he praised me with the following words: "A man after my own heart!" He told me I had made the cut and would be taping The Gong Show on the following Friday. I had only been in Los Angeles for two days, and already I was going to be on television.
I arrived at the studios for taping on Friday. I stood backstage in total fear. I hadn’t really performed live since my sixth grade talent show, where three friends and I had lip-synced "All My Loving" by the Beatles, and I was about to go on stage with a live audience of 500 people and millions more on TV.
The Gong Show was a talent competition, much like America's Got Talent, but you could be "gonged" by the judges if they didn't like your act, and you would be disqualified. The curtain opened, and instinct took over. I raced through my jokes without being gonged.
My competitors were a belly dancer, a singer and a mime. The judges were Jamie Farr from M*A*S*H*, Artie Johnson from Laugh-In and singer Jaye P. Morgan. When the competition was over, they voted me the winner. I won $500 and flatware. As the crowd cheered, I basked in my glory. I had only been in L.A. a few days and doggone it if I wasn’t in show business! At least that's what I thought.
The author enjoyed a glorious victory on "The Gong Show" in 1977
When the show was over, a writer on the show stopped me and said he enjoyed my act. He was from Southfield, Mich., close to my hometown. We had an immediate connection. He advised me to go to the Comedy Store–the elite comedy club at the time–and ask Mitzi Shore, the owner, if she would hire me as a doorman. The idea was to work as a doorman initially and hone my act until I was ready to go on to the main stage.
After working there for three weeks, my plan was working perfectly. I had built-up my act into a 10-minute comedy set. After much begging and pleading, Mitzi finally agreed to put me on the schedule. My excitement and anticipation could not be measured.
But as I waited to go on, my worst nightmare occurred. Taking the stage right before me was budding superstar David Letterman. Letterman brought down the house with brilliant jokes and split-second ad libs. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to follow. To say I bombed was an understatement. Not only was no one laughing, but I heard harder breathing from my uncle at his funeral.
I walked off stage with my confidence totally shot. In an act of what can only be labeled as severely self-destructive, I asked Mitzi her opinion of how I did. In a whining and annoying voice, she responded, "You got a long way to go, I mean a looooong way to go". Mustering up all the courage I could find, I said, "Maybe I do Mitzi, but I am going to make it.”
I thought she would admire my determination and moxie. I was proven wrong when I showed up the next day for work, and my timecard was missing. I didn't know then, but later learned that Nobody Disputes Mitzi's Opinion. In one day, I had gone from the being a rising star (in my mind), to being an out-of-work doorman.
The next year-and-a-half were spent trying to work my way back into the Comedy Store. I had convinced myself that the only way back into the world of comedy was through Mitzi's good graces.
I worked several other clubs during that time to try and improve my material and stage presence
During the day, I worked for ABC Deliver Service, delivering scripts and other items to studios and stars’ homes. My client list included Kenny Rogers, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from Mission Impossible, Betty Davis ( I delivered flowers to her from the studio on her 70th birthday), Marshall Brickman, co-writer of Annie Hall with Woody Allen, and my childhood crush, Natalie Wood.
To pass the time, I hung around with two other showbiz hopefuls from Oak Park, Mich., my hometown: Doug Fieger, who later became the lead singer of the group, The Knack and co-writer of the classic rock hit, "My Sharona,” and David Weiss, member of the funk ’80s band, Was (Not Was), who later proved himself as a prolific writer and music producer.
I continued to visit clubs to watch and learn from the very best, comedy greats such as Jay Leno, George Miller, Michael Keaton, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. Although I enjoyed their acts and brilliant takes and observations, it became crystal clear to me that I was not in their league. Although I was a good writer, I never mastered the stage presence that they possessed. Being lonely and without a support system, I seriously thought of going home to Detroit.
Then an unexpected thing happened.
While taking a trip by train to Las Vegas, I saw a beautiful girl standing with her family at the station. When I got on the train, she was sitting right behind me. We started talking and spent the rest of the train ride to Vegas together. By the time we arrived at the station in Vegas, I was in love. Her name was Mary, and she was from L.A.
We made a plan to meet when we got home to Los Angeles and began what was to become a 10-month relationship. She went club to club with me as I tried to work my way back onto the stage at the Comedy Store. I called Mitzi Shore several times, but to no avail.
In June of 1979, I made a decision that changed my life. The plan was to come back to Detroit for three months, work in my old job in real estate, make some money and then come back to L.A. and Mary to continue following my dream. The night before I left (in what I believed an effort to keep me there), Mary said the words that most men would die to hear, "Only you know how to make love to me.”
With those words of encouragement ringing in my ears, I left for Detroit, fully intending to return. After returning to Detroit, I attempted to contact Mary numerous times. Finally, after two weeks, she answered and informed me that she had moved in with a downstairs neighbor in my apartment building.
I had come full circle. I went to L.A. because of a lost love and returned to Detroit only for it happen again. I thought of Mary’s words, "only you know how to make love to me,” and can only surmise that the new guy had been a quick learner.
Don't feel bad for me, because as they say, "it’s always darkest before the dawn.” I never became a stand-up comedian, but was able to continue and thrive in my career in real estate. I met a wonderful woman, had three children and 40 years later, am living a pretty wonderful life. Although I did not achieve fame and fortune, for what it's worth, I’d like to think that I’ve used this talent to make people laugh and bring some joy into their lives.
If I could give any advice to someone trying to get into show business and not make the same mistakes I did, it would be the following:
In my mind, the only way to succeed was through the acceptance of a single person, but as singer Jim Croce wrote in the song, "I Got a Name":
Like the fool I am, and I'll always be,
I've got a dream, I've got a dream,
They can change their minds, but they can't change me,
I've got a dream, I've got a dream.
Stay true to yourself.
Steve Cash is originally from Oak Park, Mich. He is a longtime real estate agent who used to do stand-up comedy in L.A. His claim to fame was winning The Gong Show in 1977, and working at the Comedy Store with such greats as David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Michael Keaton. After watching those brilliant comics perform, Steve realized he’d better make a beeline back to Detroit and get back into real estate. Steve has had articles published in a number of publications and enjoys writing and trying to make people laugh.