Rolling with Life’s Punches
Gus Mollasis Interviews Entertainer Arnie Ross
How does a man named Armand Rosenblum become Arnie Ross? The answer? It wasn’t easy. He took one fight, one piano key and one joke at a time, and managed to punch, play and joke his way through any and all situations life threw at him, standing up and smiling throughout. As an entertainer, he’s a utility man. He plays some brilliant piano, tells some jokes and sings some songs. As a human being, he’s just as diverse. A fighter? Absolutely. He’s answered every bell. A survivor? For sure. His comedy has helped ease the pain. A role model? Hell yeah! He’s rolled with all of life’s punches. This man has lived one heck of a colorful, hectic, eclectic and big life. The evidence? Joe Frazier taught him how to throw a good left hook, Liberace tickled the ivories with him as they performed duets, and Lenny Bruce shared punchlines with him in late-night diners. Quite a life for a man who left home at 16 because of a strained relationship with his father. But you won’t ever hear him complain. He’d rather tell you a joke instead. He’s grateful for what he has and where he’s been on the very entertaining road that’s been his life. So, when this man from Philly named Armand, discovered Sarasota’s St. Armands, he knew he’d finally found a home. Now in his 70s, he shares his wonderful life with his wife Jill and their loving cats, and still makes time to perform his unique act around the state. He’s also writing a book titled “King of the Faux Pas,” and hosting a new radio show during which he shares his wisdom as ‘Coach Ross” – coaching folks to make the best out of the bright side of their lives – every single day of it! As I sat down with him, I couldn’t wait to get in the ring with Arnie Ross, knowing he wouldn’t pull any punches and only lead with his heart, as he shared some stories, jokes and some very musical scenes from an interview of his life.
Where were you born?
Please paint me a picture of your childhood.
Well it wasn’t what probably anybody would have wanted. My parents should not have been parents. You can’t really be angry with people who were picked for a job they couldn’t handle. They had a great desire for a little girl for my older brother, who was 10 years older than me, so he could be a big brother for her. But I came along for the ride as a twin to my sister and they never got over it.
How did you deal with that?
Instead of becoming a nut and letting this fester and bother me, I took out my resentment as a teenager, by taking up boxing at the local Police Athletic League (PAL). At the same time, I showed talent for playing the piano.
You got to know one of Philadelphia’s favorite sons. Tell me how that happened.
That came much later when I was on WPVI, Channel 6 in Philadelphia. Joe Frazier was on same show with his group, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. They were terrible! (Laughs) It was so bad. I was smiling at Joe and he was smiling at me while he was performing, and then I walked over to him, and with a lot of courage said, “You know Joe, in the ring you have such rhythm. You move so beautifully. Dance beautifully. But you know what pal? In here you ain’t got no rhythm.” Joe laughed like hell. We proceeded to play around, do some shadow boxing and he said to me, “You move pretty good yourself.” When I told him that I boxed at PAL, he told me, “Don’t go there. There’s a great gym on Broad Street.” So I went to Broad Street and he gave me some pointers. “You know how I win all these fights?” I said, “No.” Joe said, “You ever watch my left hook?” I said I sure do. And he said, “Well, here’s how you throw it.” He showed me the whole secret of how you can beat a guy who’s twice your weight, just by the transference of power moving your hips the right way and with the right follow through. Turn your hips, get low and follow through and you can drop anybody. You know what? He was right about his left hook.
Why did you end up having to leave home at such a young age to make a living?
I was as a teenager, around 18 years old, when I started doing all this to support myself, because I left home at 16. When I was child, we had a summer home in Atlantic City, and every summer my parents would pack up the old Dodge and head for the shore for the summer. My father was a lawyer for the city and he would come down on weekends. I was seven years old and they had the car all packed up with everything. My sister, my brother, and a lot of pots and pans. My father said, “Armand go up to front door (which is five steps up to our row house in West Philly) and make sure the door is locked.” And I went up to lock the door and they left. They left me there. I didn’t see my father until the following night. He had to come back to go to his job on Monday. It rained that night, but we had an old peach tree that I climbed and slept under. When I got up from my nap, it was now Sunday morning and nobody was around in the neighborhood. It was so close to the end of World War II and with the talk of the atomic bomb, I thought to myself, “Did something happen?” “Was it the end of the world? Did someone drop a bomb?” All the houses, all the cars, the street was empty. The truth was, that it was summer and all the neighbors got away for the summer.
How devastating was this incident to you as a child?
Look. It was good and it was bad. What happened was that it set up the resentment. When it set up the resentment, even as a kid, I analyzed that this resentment is not going to do me good at all. Why did I go to PAL to box in the first place? Because the fights were on Wednesday and Friday nights in the early years of TV. I remember on Wednesday night my mother was out playing canasta, and my father was in the dining room working. While he was sitting there and while I was watching the fights, my eyes kept turning toward the dining room and my rotten father, who had physically pushed me around pretty good. I said to myself, “Don’t do it.” Because I had the temptation, the following day I went to the Police Athletic League. There was another incident that spurred me on. It was summer and my mother would pull up all the winter rugs, clean them and hang them on the back line in our backyard. I would take out my aggression by punching the hell out of those rugs. Our next door neighbor was the eye doctor for the famous fighter Gil Turner. I didn’t know that they were standing in the backyard. The doctor yelled, “Armand, come over here! Boy can you punch.” And Gil Turner said, “That boy is a natural.” From there on, I knew what was going to be. I knew that it was time to leave home and I had a combination of how to make a living.
Who taught you how to play the piano?
My parents took my twin sister and me to a neighbor’s house when we were five. They had a piano and I sat down and I played it. Not well. But they discovered that I was born with absolute pitch, which means that if I hear something, I can play it in any key.
How did you break into show business?
My mother played canasta with a woman whose husband was a booking agent. One day he needed a favor. “I’m going to lose an account that I have. There’s a wonderful night club and my piano player is sick, can Armand come and play?” She said, “What are you crazy? He’s barely 16.” “It’s a wonderful supper club,” he pleaded. It wasn’t a supper club. Finally I conned her into letting me go and play. I got on a trolley car and found the place. It was called “Irv’s Hideaway.” The sign said, “16 Girls!” It was a strip joint. I was a kid and I played the piano. What did I know? I was playing at this strip joint and I was boxing, making a living that was quite substantial. While I worked there, some people in town told me I was too good to play there, so they moved me to another one of their nightclubs where Lenny Bruce was the headliner at that time. I was in the piano bar upstairs with various unsavory types, but for a kid at that age, it was fun. They had given me toothbrush with a piece of fur on the end. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but I did a bit with that and that’s where I started to develop comedy into my act. Lenny Bruce would come up between shows and kibitz with me and we would go out after work. He was so brilliant sitting on that stool in the main room. I would sit on the steps and listen to both of his shows and be amazed at what an incredible mind he had. It’s so sad how he wasted it.
So you used your street smarts and talent to turn lemons into lemonade in your life as you boxed and played the piano?
At this age, I’m taking professional fights and I’m hoping, because I go on at 11 o’clock at the club, that I can drop the guy early and get to work on time. (Laughs) I would show up with a mouse over my eye and a cut over the other eye. And when you take the tape off your hands from boxing, your hands swell. So when I would sit down and play it was terrible. I sang and was so funny that nobody noticed it. Let’s face it, the crowd was all, how should we say it, Mafia.
Where does your comedy come from?
Comedy comes from pain. It’s as simple as that. Comedy, being able to laugh, it’s a big reason as to what I am today, and that is a survivor. A survivor.
What is the hardest part about opening for a headliner?
Understanding them. When I opened for Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie (Gorme), I couldn’t believe what they could do and how talented they were, but what I realized was that they were a team. That’s what made them special. They were warm and the kind of couple that you wished were your brother and sister. Regarding playing with headliners, I had it made because if it was a comic, I went on as a singer or a piano player. If the headliner was a singer or piano player, I went on as a comic. That’s why Merv Griffin loved what I could do. You know what I was? I was a utility infielder. I could play any position.
Name the first thing that comes to your mind when I mention the following entertainers and places.
Fabulous. One of the most talented, generous, honest and direct men that I ever met. I worked for him for a long time at Resorts International Casino in Atlantic City and in Beverly Hills. The best. He was my friend and mentor. I have a pair of gold cufflinks with Merv’s crest on it that he gave me.
Frank Sinatra Jr…
What amazed me is that he captured his father’s phrasing, if not his voice. But I felt he was so frightened by wanting to be accepted in his own right and on his own merit. How could he not when his name was Frank Sinatra?
Dynamite. What amazed me with him, and I just saw him recently, he that he sings as well today as he did then. What surprised me is one afternoon I heard him rehearsing and somebody was joking with him and he sang opera! He had that kind of delivery and power. One of the most incredible talents I’ve ever seen.
I was doing a show at Resorts International and in the middle of the show I heard “Where did they get you from? You can’t play and you can’t sing.” It didn’t bother me. I like hecklers. But I had lights in my eyes. During the show, the manager handed me a note that said, “Red Buttons is in the audience. He’s the one who heckled you.” So I covered my eyes, looked into the audience, and said, “Hey Red, you got some great lines. Too bad they’re all in your face.” I walked down and talked with him and he asked me to open for him on Broadway for his show, “Buttons on Broadway.” It would be Red Buttons who eventually proposed me for induction into the New York Friars Club.
What does the Friars Club mean to you?
I don’t consider myself a comedian. First of all, I am a fine pianist, impressionist, and singer who also does comedy, but it is not my main forte. But if called on, I can do three hours. I’m a utility man. The Friars Club is extremely clique-oriented. You go there and you are a novice. Thank God Alan King made me feel comfortable my first day there. I thought, “Boy I’m in the Friars Club. This will help my career. Incredible.” It did nothing. It’s not like the old days when Eddie Cantor ushered in Eddie Fisher, and onto a wonderful career. It’s now me for me and dog eat dog.
What was the best and worst part of opening your own club called Fingers in Philadelphia?
The best part of it was saying, “This is my place. Give that table a drink on me.” Honest to God. I worked so hard. You go through all that aggravation for that one moment. (Laughs) The hard part is the rest of it. After a night of hosting, hollering at the chef, trying to get the food out, and sitting behind the piano, the chef cut his finger. No problem. Nothing to it. I had printed recipe cards up. Wrong. That didn’t mean you could cook. I took off my tuxedo jacket and walked into the kitchen where I had something stirring on the pot. I started to cry. I sat on top of the beer box behind the bar after everyone had left at 3 a.m. and said to myself, “What have I done? All of this money, time and one rotten partner. I need to get out of this and I did.”
Tell me about your work in TV.
I was on air talent at WMAL in Washington and also in Philadelphia. I created a show called Mr. Music and the Rascals, a kid’s show that played in the afternoon and I was Mr. Music. It was the most fun I had other than my nighttime radio show. I loved and preferred live TV over taped shows, because it gave me a similar sensation to doing my live act.
Tell me about your love for radio.
I prefer radio because my imagination works better there. I had a show in Philadelphia that went on the air at 11 at night and ran until 3:30 in the morning. You can’t imagine the people who called in. I called myself, “The Night Badger.” Someone would call in and say, “Mr. Badger, I just saw a UFO.” And I would say, “I just saw it too.” (Laughs) My listeners were diner waitresses, cooks, nurses, construction workers, and bartenders. Night owls. The calls that came in were so inspiring and it was absolutely nuts.
Was that the most alive you felt in the business?
No, the most alive I felt was working in a stadium to so many people. You get up there and you can’t see them, but you have the courage to act like they’re in front of you, like a night club.
You also had a career in advertising and wrote commercials and jingles.
As a teenager I was writing jingles and a little bit of advertising. A neighbor took notice of what I could do and asked me to help with an account called Michael Felder’s Sausage. I gave him a jingle, “You don’t have to be hot to be a sausage.” And it went like this. “Michael Felder’s swelters over hot smoky embers, just to bring a sausage that is succulent and tender, now remember kids or elders, reach for Michael Felder’s.” It got to the point where kids wore buttons at school that said, “You don’t have to be hot to be a sausage.” That eventually led me to becoming Vice President of advertising for two companies.
What was your most challenging job or gig?
It had to be Rubes Cocktail Lounge in Allentown. It paid peanuts but I wanted the gig. So I went to Rubes and asked the bartender where the piano was and he said, “Look up.” And I said, “Where’s the piano?” He said, “Look up!” I did and that’s when I saw the winding staircase that led 12 or 15 feet up to a piano. Now I have acrophobia and I looked up at this platform and there wasn’t even room for a stool. I would have to stand up there while everybody in the place looked up at me. I looked up and finally he said to me, “You want the gig or not?” “Alright,” I said, as I started to climb the stairs. This was the time when Jerry Lewis was big and pounded the keyboards. So I was up there pounding the piano, and there was no fallboard which meant that the strings are breaking and hitting my leg and it hurt like hell. Anyway I’m pounding away and screaming like hell and the piano was rocking back and forth. And finally it rocked right off the platform and fell to the ground! It took out the back bar, the icebox, and most of the front bar. People were running for their lives. Stools were flying. Finally the Italian owner who was in the back came out and looked up at me and said in his thick Italian accent, “Hey what did they send-a me from-a Philadelphia? A King-a-Kong-a.”
What was your favorite performance?
That had to be when Liberace invited me to join him on stage. I toured with him for a one summer for a couple of weeks. I was 23 and playing at the brand new Latin Casino on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. Liberace was the third act ever to play there after Paul Anka and Phyllis Diller. He was incredible. The greatest act I had ever seen. Here I was playing the lounge and one night, I get a note from his manager, stating that Liberace wanted to see me after the show. I knocked on his door and his larger than life soft voice echoed back, “Come on in. The door’s open.” I walked in and got the shock of my life. There was Liberace reclining on a chase lounge, wearing a Beethoven sweatshirt and on his lap were two of the most beautiful chorus girls I had ever seen. I was shocked, you know with what I had heard. So I said, “Mr. Liberace, what’s this?” He said, “The best of both worlds.” (Laughs) Then he said, “I heard you playing. You’re a marvelous pianist. They’re going to put another piano on stage tomorrow night.” I asked, “What do you want me to do?” He shot back, “I already know about you. I listened, you have absolute pitch. When I do something, just play something that works with it and we’ll see how it works out.” Well it worked out beautifully. He asked me to go on tour with him. We were in the middle of this show and he says in his incomparable Liberace voice, “Ladies and gentleman, I’m going to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and my little friend over there is going to play anything he wants to compliment Beethoven.” He knew I could do it. I knew the key that he was in and I played the theme from Love Story and it fit beautifully because it’s in a minor key. It worked beautifully. Now years later, I do that duet by myself and I tell the story and the audience that I’m a schizophrenic. (Laughs)
Do you consider yourself more a writer than an entertainer?
These days I enjoy writing as much as entertaining and I write mainly from midnight until dawn. I always did. When I wrote Live and Let Love, my musical that played at the Golden Apple in Sarasota, I wrote at that same time. I have talent as a writer and entertainer, but I am the world’s worst dancer. One night I’m up trying to time one of the dance numbers, so I’m dancing and writing the number, and I hear my wife’s voice, “Hey Fred Astaire, go to sleep.”
Finish the followings sentences:
When I play the piano I…
For a joke to be funny it…
Has to be honest.
A good story is one that…
Embodies the truth and holds your interest.
The honest art of expression.
The one thing I will always promise my audience is…
The best show that I can give them no matter if there are two people or two thousand in the house.
Making someone laugh is…
The hardest part about show biz is…
Worrying about the next show.
The most gratifying part of show biz is…
What is your advice to people who want to make a life in show business?
Become as good as you can be in everything. Acting. Dancing. Singing. Don’t say I’m an actor who also dances. Get good in all of them so that you don’t have to prioritize.
When did you first discover Sarasota?
I was freezing in Philadelphia, when an agent called and asked me if I would like to go to Sarasota. I said the (race) track is closed, why would I want to go there? He said, “No you idiot, not Saratoga, Sarasota.” I said, “What? I never heard of it?” He told me it is on the Gulf of Mexico. I asked, “How long is the gig?” He told me a week. I told him I would go. It was September 1966 and I drove down in my 1962 Cadillac Coupe Deville. I turned on to the causeway and went over the second bridge when I saw the sign “Welcome to St. Armands.” I parked my car at the gas station, which is where Foxy lady is today, and called my sister in Philadelphia. “Barbara sell my furniture. I’ve come home.” The gig was one week. I stayed and played two years at the Elbow Room, which was then across from the Columbia Restaurant.
Do you find it to be true that Sarasota is a great town because of its array of talented and giving people?
Absolutely. Years ago, I came back to town wanting to get off the road for a while. I took a job playing at the old Colony Beach Resort on Longboat Key and worked for a true Sarasota legend, Murf Klauber. He’d walk past the piano and say things like, “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll get this thing tuned.” So many great people have opened their arms and hearts to me in this town like Jeffrey Kin, artistic director at The Players, and award-winning theatrical director Bob Trisolini, who directed a musical comedy I wrote that opened at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, which was owned by the wonderful Bob Turoff. Sarasota is all about its fabulous people.
Tell me about your new book “King of the Faux Pas.”
They are all true stories about every screw-up I’ve ever done. (Laughs) There are so many of them. I don’t like politically correct. If you do that, you can’t do comedy. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.
Tell about your upcoming new radio show “Coach Ross” and your keys to being a life coach.
Being able to laugh at yourself, that’s the key to how I life coach. The ability to laugh at yourself and understand that you’re not putting yourself down, but you’re understanding the humor in life and all situations. Self-deprecating. Everything has an element of humor in it. If you can look at what you did and laugh, it’s healthy. That’s what I will do on radio with Coach Ross. It’s in the works now and I plan on opening the show with six bars of Peggie Lee’s “Is that all there is?” My theme focuses on how people exaggerate their problems. And I will say, “Is that all there is?” It will be a call in talk show and I’ll also be offering private coaching, as well as sharing some of my own faux pas from my book with my listeners.
The secret to a good marriage is…
Honesty. Don’t fight. Reason. Work it out.
Many years from now, how do you want to be remembered? Through music, a joke or a song?
I want to be remembered as the guy that tried to make everybody happy.