Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
It’s no Branson or anything, but the sleepy little burg of New York City certainly doesn’t lack for legendary venues. And even by those heightened standards, few can compete with The Village Gate in terms of cultural impact. Flashy nightclub impresario Art D’Lugoff transformed an erstwhile flophouse for transients stinking up the crossroads of Bleecker and Thompson Sts. into a veritable nexus of popular culture, hosting an incredible—and incredibly diverse—array of talents that came to define Greenwich Village for nearly four decades. In his years there, D’Luguff booked shows for some of the biggest names in jazz, rock, and comedy, though perhaps most important was his willingness to provide asylum for artists at the height of controversy. When civil rights progenitor Paul Robeson and protest-folk singer Pete Seeger found themselves blacklisted in the 1950s, for example, D’Lugoff gave them main stage slots without hesitation; later he gave Lenny Bruce a high-profile gig despite knowing (or perhaps even hoping) that the cops who were watching his every move would likely turn up to arrest him. Later, he threw a legendary benefit show for Timothy Leary that featured performances from Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Allen Ginsberg, cementing its standing as a counterculture haven well into the 1970s. Of course, he didn’t always bat a thousand: One of the most notorious D’Lugoff stories involves him turning down Bob Dylan, who nevertheless briefly crashed in the Gate’s basement and churned out a little ditty called “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” while slumming there.
Despite his beatnik background, D’Lugoff wasn’t just about sticking it to The Man. He was primarily about putting on a good show, and mostly Village Gate was a place where he could book all the musicians that he wanted to see out of his own selfish desires, which is typically how some of the best clubs operate. The list of greats who played The Gate is seriously staggering, an alumni that includes Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone (so many of those people cut albums there that the Live At The Village Gate appellation appears dozens of times over in the collections of any serious aficionado), as well as Aretha Franklin, who made her New York debut there. The club also had a fantastic record of hiring comedians and one-of-a-kind variety shows: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor all did stand-up there, while in the early ’70s, it was home to the National Lampoon Lemmings revue, featuring Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Christopher Guest It was also the first to stage the long-running show Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, and it was where the world first met Wayland Flowers’ saucy Madame, who debuted in Kumquats, The World’s First Erotic Puppet Show.
Of course, that eagerness to cater to New York’s more prurient interests—and even right at the height of “porn chic”—almost backfired when the popular, all-nude Let My People Come: A Sexual Musical had its run, resulting in a protracted, high-profile legal battle with the state after it got its panties in a twist over the lack of panties and rescinded D’Lugoff’s liquor license. (He persevered, got his booze back, and the show ran successfully for two more years.) And it wasn’t just the talent on stage that D’Lugoff was giving an early helping hand to: He also hired a struggling playwright named Sam Shepard to bus tables, and later took on a young unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman as a waiter—though he eventually fired him when Hoffman started neglecting his tables to watch the show. Throughout his career, D’Lugoff maintained that his defining goal was to help to keep New York’s counterculture alive, and few would argue that he accomplished that. And although the Gate was eventually undone by a series of bad investments coupled with rising rent in the early ’90s, D’Lugoff never entirely left show business. He produced Off-Broadway shows for many years, helped to co-found the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and was even mulling over opening a new club in SoHo as recently as this week. Unfortunately it looks like that will never happen: A hip-replacement surgery earlier this year left D’Lugoff feeling seriously ill for several months; this Wednesday, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 85.
Variety was also the spice of life for Carl Ballantine, who gave up on an early career in magic once he realized his illusions were fairly amateur hour compared to his contemporaries, then made himself over as a magician-comic hybrid whose transparently lame tricks were the whole point of his act. It worked: Ballantine’s more vaudevillian, slapstick-y style became a huge hit, landing him gigs on shows from Milton Berle to Ed Sullivan to Dean Martin to Steve Allen, and eventually netting him a high-profile slot in Las Vegas, where he became the first magician to headline Sin City on a bill that also included Betty Grable and Sammy Davis Jr. He later parlayed his nightclub notoriety into a successful TV and movie career, most famously as “Lester Gruber” on McHale’s Navy, and turning in memorable roles in films like The Shakiest Gun In The West and opposite Elvis in Speedway. In the ensuing years, he turned up in dozens of TV guest spots, most often playing some variation on his famous magician character: He was “The Great Zachariah” on Fantasy Island, Harry’s childhood idol “The Fabulous Falconi” on Night Court, and returned as “The Great Ballantine” on The Cosby Show, who bored Rudy and the rest of her ingrate little friends to tears when Cliff dragged them all to see a special vintage vaudeville act. Ballantine also continued to do his act for a live audience, most recently putting on a well-received final performance at L.A.’s Kodak Theatre in the fall of 2008. Sadly, it proved to be his last: Ballantine died this week at the age of 92.
With his bulldog build and a rough-and-tumble demeanor ingrained from years of service as a police sergeant, Ken Kerman was a natural for playing characters who didn’t take shit from anyone, i.e. security guards, coaches, and especially cops. Kerman got into show business thanks to his fearless command of a motorcycle, starting out as a stuntman on Highlander. Suddenly very interested in moviemaking, he left his native New York behind and moved to Hollywood, where he immediately began racking up bit parts as a tough son of a bitch in 60 films and television shows—again, primarily as someone wielding a badge. Of those 60 credits, more than half of them are credited simply as “Guard” or “Cop.” But even though the parts were small, Kerman’s résumé was enviably far-ranging, comprising sitcoms like Perfect Strangers, Night Court, Newhart, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and Seinfeld, TV dramas like Melrose Place, 7th Heaven, NYPD Blue, and Medium, comedies like The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear, and even a small part in The House Of Sand And Fog. Chances are you’ve seen his face (or his wheelies) without even realizing it. Kerman’s most recent role was as yet another coach in last year’s The Sensei, and unfortunately, he’ll never be able to turn in the guest role on Sons Of Anarchy he seemed tailor-made for: This week Kerman was out doing what loved most—riding his motorcycle—when he had a heart attack and drove right off a cliff. He died at the age of 73.
Have a super weekend!