Saturday, March 14, 2015

Yankee Songbird

My wife and I spent an enjoyable few hours Wednesday afternoon, at San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club. The occasion was a lunchtime presentation by Medea Isphording Bern, author of the just-released photo memoir, San Francisco Jazz. (I discussed this book at length in a previous post.) Medea included us on her guest list, and I must say that the club prepares an impressive lunch spread. Her talk covered the background and creation of her book, accompanied by nifty PowerPoint highlights of the photographs within.

Although we arrived with the expectation of enjoying Medea's presentation, the event delivered an unexpected bonus. We were seated next to veteran jazz chanteuse Pat Yankee, 87 years young, who has mischievous eyes and an impressive memory for details stretching back more than half a century. (That's Pat on the cover of Medea's book, by the way, in an award-winning 1962 publicity shot by photographer Emilie Romaine.)

Medea, who knows of my interest in All Things Guaraldi, had orchestrated the seating arrangement for a reason; this became obvious the moment we were introduced to Pat.

"I knew Vince quite well," she said, "and he accompanied me once."

Do tell, I encouraged her.

"This was when I was working at Goman's Gay '90s, which would have been from about 1952 to '56," she continued, settling into the story.

[Goman's Gay '90s operated from 1941 to 1967, initially at 555 Pacific Avenue, in the old Barbary Coast. In 1956, the club moved to 345 Broadway, where it remained until it closed.]

"Everybody knew everybody back then. Enrico Banducci — he owned the hungry i, you know — he had a television show at the time. This was when the Keanes had all their paintings up in the little gallery room. Vince had his piano there, and he'd be playing when people came out of the big room."

[That would be Margaret and Walter Keane, who became famous in the late 1950s and '60s for her wildly popular paintings of wide-eyed, often gloomy-faced children; they're the subjects of Tim Burton's recent film Big Eyes.]

"Enrico used this space for his television show. He'd interview people, before they performed something; he was quite a character. So he said, 'Come on over, and be on my television show.' So I did. And Vince played for me.

"Now, it wasn't Vince's thing to play something like 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' but he did, and he was just wonderful.

"That was the only time I worked with him, but Vince and I were friends for many years. After I left Goman's and teamed up with Turk Murphy's band, Vince used to stop in at Earthquake McGoon's, to hear us."

[Trombonist Turk Murphy, a beloved San Francisco fixture, opened Earthquake McGoon's at 99 Broadway in 1960. The club was named for the then-popular Al Capp cartoon character, from the newspaper comic strip Li'l Abner. Turk's club moved to 630 Clay in 1964, and then to the Embarcadero in 1979, and subsequently to Pier 39 in 1983, before closing in 1984. Pat sang with Murphy's band for five years, beginning in 1958.]

"After we all were done for the night, we'd get together: me, Vince, Turk, Mort Sahl and others. We'd all go to Joe's for hamburgers.

"And that's how I knew Vince."

The lights dimmed at that point, and Medea began her talk. After she concluded, Pat greeted some friends in the audience, and shared a few more anecdotes of days long gone by: enough to suggest that somebody definitely should write her biography. (Medea, are you listening?)

I returned home, delighted by the lunchtime conversation, but already chewing over a hitherto unknown detail.

Enrico Banducci had a TV show? Broadcast live from the hungry i?

News to me.

But true, as I learned after several hours' worth of research.

The half-hour program aired at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Stockton-based KOVR Channel 13. It was a new station at the time, having debuted September 6, 1954, from the California State Fair. KOVR began as an independent station; thanks to a transmitter on Mount Diablo, its signal reached the greater San Francisco Bay Area. The call letters reflected this fact, since KOVR "covered" all of Northern California. It became an ABC affiliate in 1957, and switched to CBS in 1995.

Banducci's show was called, simply, "hungry i." It debuted September 21, 1955, and appears to have aired 11 times, with the final broadcast on November 30. Occasional TV log descriptions were brief:

• September 28: "Another half-hour of live television from the hungry i in San Francisco will be seen tonight on KOVR at 8 p.m."

• October 5: "hungry i: Faith Winthrop, Irwin Corey, Pat Yankee, Don Pippin and Stan Wilson, on KOVR at 8 p.m."

• October 12: "Faith Winthrop, Wally Hose, Phyllis Diller and others will highlight the 'hungry i' show."

• October 26: " 'the hungry i,' the live show seen from the famous night spot, will be seen on KOVR at 8 p.m."

By a delightful coincidence, the October 5 show was covered by columnist Bob Foster, writing in the October 7 issue of the San Mateo Times. I've reprinted that review in its entirety:

From the reports coming our way, the first session of the KOVR "hungry i" television show, seen Wednesday nights at 8 o'clock, was a pretty miserable job, production-wise. We didn't get to see it on its opening program three weeks ago, because the family had already decided to watch "Disneyland." 

Last Wednesday night, however, we adjourned to another television set and caught what we'd call the best locally produced show on television. KOVR and its crew can take a neat bow for the fine job they did on this affair, and it was highly entertaining, to say the least. Although we have often intended to drop by the "hungry i," we've never done it. For that reason, we had to appraise this show strictly on the merits of its television worth - which, after all, is the only honest way to do it. True, there is room for improvement, every show can stand that, but on the whole "the hungry i" turned out to be a delightful half-hour of top entertainment from one of San Francisco's most unusual clubs. 

Enrico Banducci, the owner of the spot, did a most creditable job as master of ceremonies, and wore his ever-present beret. Introductions of the top talent were made with minimum of pomp and stuff. 

The show opened with Pat Yankee, who has a lot of voice, and a lot of everything ... in fact, there's just a lot of her. Miss Yankee made with a terrific rendition of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," with which she always wins. Pat was followed by a fine young pianist by the name of Donald Pippin. This number was photographed in straight-away fashion, with his hands the center of attraction. This was good direction, which not only made the presentation more enjoyable, but showed that KOVR director Bel Lange realized the center of attraction. 

Faith Winthrop struck us as being a rather unusual young lady, when she was presented. When she started to sing, we were treated to one of the most delightful voices we've heard for a long time. 

We've never had much use for the average comedian who appears in the average San Francisco night spot, but we'll have to change our mind after spotting a real "unusual" lad in Irwin Corey. Corey was brought in by Banducci from the east, and we'll bet the next time he's around this way, he'll be headlined in one of San Francisco's top clubs. A real character, Corey clowned at the piano but never played a note, made with some Gobel-like humor, combining it with a little Marxian. We certainly hope he'll be around for a while. 

Stan Wilson, who has been seen on television off and on, wound up the show and was a real attraction to fill the final spot. Stan's the possessor of a fine voice, a dramatic appearance and lots of know-how. It's no wonder he's headed for a top New York spot shortly.

The whole show did KOVR proud, and it must have improved drastically if what people say about the first show is true. We have only last Wednesday's show to go on, but it looked mighty sharp. KOVR is developing more and more local shows, and it appears that perhaps the Channel 13 outfit may bring a local revival.

So ... how 'bout Pat's memory, eh? As cited above, she definitely sang "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." And while the review doesn't mention Guaraldi, it's safe to say that he was there, since it's known that he and his trio — Eddie Duran on guitar, Dean Reilly on bass — were booked at the hungry i from September through December, in 1955. Guaraldi also backed Faith Winthrop during this period.

It seems logical to assume that at least Guaraldi, and perhaps his entire trio, were caught on camera during every one of those 11 episodes of "hungry i." Which simply means 11 more television appearances that almost certainly weren't saved — probably couldn't have been saved — and which we'll never see.

More's the pity...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Where oh where are the missing tapes?! As we continually find, this jazz world that we've entered becomes smaller and its circle tighter with each new connection we make. I believe, then, the pieces we seek will emerge somehow, someday. Thank you for another captivating and enlightening post!