Mort Weiss: Paul Whiteman's TV show, and spending New Year's Eve with Ella Fitzgerald

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I was quite active in the early days of live television, most of which was shot in Hollywood, California. Sometime in the latter part of 1951, I got a call from the director and producer of many teen-oriented TV shows.

His name is Al Burton, and he went on to become a mega-dude in the industry. I’ll just give one credit from many: He was the executive producer of the show “Charles in Charge.” (A friend of mine from school and social functions was a drama major named Burt Metcalf, who became the executive producer of TV series “M*A*S*H.” But that’s another story.) Burton told me that RKO Pictures was releasing a new movie called “Two Tickets to Broadway” in late November of that year, and they wanted him to put together a music combo made up of young guys. (Sorry, ladies, it was 1951.)

They wanted it to sound something like George Shearing’s group, who was very hot at the time, and have it ready to go to New York City by sometime in December to do the Paul Whiteman TV show. We were then to go to Philadelphia, make some appearances with the stars of the movie and do his radio show. This was to be done in conjunction with RKO’s publicity campaign to promote the movie, which would star Janet Leigh, Gloria De Haven and Tony Martin. Al already had the piano, bass and vibe players set and, since I had done some shows with him, he wanted to see if I could make it work. I was eager to do the gig, so we all met at a rehearsal to see if there was any chemistry: There was. The cats took care of business, and Al called some RKO suit from the hall and told him that he had a group. (There wasn’t any name for the group, come to think of it.)

We proceeded to get down two tunes: “S’Wonderful” and “September in the Rain.” On the latter, the clarinet, vibes and piano would all play in unison with Gordon on the piano — using big Shearing-esque block chords. Damn, I bet it sounded sweet! Cut to late December. We all met at the Los Angeles County Airport. (It wasn’t LAX yet. That was air-traffic controllers talk; it hadn’t worked its way down to the mainstream public yet.) I had never flown before — that is, on an airplane. As I recreate this, I can see the aircraft. A big TWA super constellation with the tri-tail. I asked the ground attendant if by any chance the pilot and co-pilots names were Orville and Wilbur, to which he answered “yes” and assured me that they just installed a huge rubber band that ran the length of the cabin and would get us many miles before we had to land and rewind it again. We all said: “Cool!” Yes, it was a special night. Just before take off, going to the Big Apple to be on TV and radio — playing jazz in the waning days of 1951. To be young and brave and cocky, knowing and believing that nothing could hurt you and that you were never going to die!

The trip was good. We all got to know Al Burton better, and his brother — who at the time worked with him. I can’t remember his first name, but I’m sure of his last name. I remember Al, all five-foot-three-inches of him, being a very nice and personable fella. An OK guy! We arrived in New York, and taxied to the Tudor Hotel. We jokingly referred to it as the Two-Door Hotel, inferring that RKO (owned by Howard Hughes at the time) was too cheap to get us musicians lodgings in at least a four-door hotel. The Tudor was located just off Broadway, right in the heart of the action. I don’t remember the time lines too clearly, but there wasn’t any time for sightseeing. We were either rehearsing or setting floor marks for the camera shots in the ABC TV studios when I first Mr. Whiteman, my mind flashed to Oliver Hardy. There was a similarity. During our spot on the show, I only have the vaguest memory of things. I remember the red lights indicating what camera was on at the moment, and the intense heat from all of the lighting that was required back then. I had to assume that all went well, as Al seemed happy and so did his brother.

OK, stop! Seventh-inning stretch or, for those of you in Poughkeepsie … intermission. If you, the reader, have come across any names and or places that you’re not familiar with, it would bode well for you to Google them. That would provide for a better understanding, so that you could better absorb what the hell I’m talking about, not only in this contribution but in all of the pieces I’ve done for Something Else! Reviews.

OK, time in. Play ball! It’s New Year’s Eve in the Big Apple. (Another good name for a song.) We find our young gentlemen back at the hotel, talking with Al. He would like us all to accompany him to this lavish New Year’s Eve Party being being given by some of the RKO and ABC executives at a posh penthouse overlooking Central Park West. (I just thought of something: They probably wanted a band. Oy!) Any way or, at any rate (neither works for me), there were to be movie and TV stars and starlets, the whole ball of matza! To which we responded as one: Are you kidding?! We’re going to Birdland! Al’s response was — and he was serous: The zoo is closed now. A nice cat, as as we sent he and his brother on their way to the big doings on Central Park West. You know, as I write this and think back over the years, 61 to be exact — I can’t help but wonder how and if my life would have been any different had I gone to that party? That’s the problem in doing these articles, going back through all of the years with a mental microscope and looking for interesting things to write — and at the same time massaging my ego.

Onward to Broadway and 52nd Street, New Year’s Eve 1951: Yeah, man! As we descend the steps leading to the Mecca of Jazz, I notice movement at the bottom of the staircase. It’s dark and I really can’t see down there very well. As we descend further, I see that it’s a little cat dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo. Unbeknownst to us, Birdland had a greeter — a door person, emcee and musician/hustler — by the name of Pee Wee Marquette. After checking our draft cards and IDs (one could drink at 18 at the time in New York), we were shown to our table — which was, much to our delight (to quote Tadd Dameron), very close to the stand. Yes, there we were, as in all of the film noir: The ubiquitous girl walking around with a tray tied on to her person, repeating her mantra (“cigars, cigarettes! Cigars, cigarettes!”). After the bar hop took our orders and left, the next person going from table to table was the camera girl. And now, I’m happy she came to ours: Left to right in the photo above are the vibes player, then Gordy McGinly, the piano player and our titular leader; and then Tommy, the bass player; and yours truly.

We didn’t know who was going to appear that night. A trio of piano, bass and drums played a few tunes (the bass player was Ray Brown), and then Pee Wee jumps up on the stand and gives this great verbal build up — speaking two-and-a-half octaves up from a normal voice, he says: “Let’s give a great big hand for Miss Ella Fitzgerald!” Then Ella goes into the first tune, as only Ella could. I wasn’t and still am not into singers, but it was cool. I really would have preferred Sarah Vaughn, Irene Kral or Helen Merrill. Looking back, Tony Bennett did it for more more than Frank Sinatra. (Dig Mark Murphy, and dug Chet Baker.) But the group was cooking. The audience was in to it, and we were having a great time in Birdland!

So, you’ve got the picture, right? That was Birdland, Broadway and 52nd Street, New Year’s Eve 1951 at about 11 p.m. (Then … cut the lights, stop the sound: You’re looking at an empty stage. A guy comes walking out of the wings, stage left, carrying a sign. Look closely at the wording: Oh! There, see it? Ella and Ray get divorced three months later.) The crowds of people on the Great White Way have increased tenfold since we arrived earlier — all seemingly heading towards Times Square. We’ve got the address to that party; we could hail a taxicab and be there in 10 minutes. Quick vote! We could be at Times Square at midnight? Yeah! And we were. Some snowflakes were falling, and it was cold. The Pepsi-Cola sign was in full bloom, and the guy blowing real smoke rings about five stories up was doing his thing on the Camel cigarette billboard, as well. The cacophony of voices were rising and rising! There was no ball drop, however, in 1951. The scene that I just described was brought back to me in a startling reality in the Woody Allen movie “Radio Days,” when they all went to the rooftop to bring in the new year. Writing for me is physically difficult; equally difficult is doing one’s own “This Is Your Life”! (For those of you in Del Rio, Texas, it was a very popular TV show back in the day.)

The next day, it was off to Philly, where we were put on a large float with a sound system so we could play “S’Wonderful” and “September in the Rain” over and over again for about two miles in the cold. In front of us in a roadster (yo Del Rio, that’s a convertible) were the stars of the movie “Two Tickets to Broadway” — smiling and waving to the crowds. And there were crowds along the curbs, about three- to five-folks deep.

The caravan swung into a large indoor covered arena and there where several thousand people already sitting there waiting for our procession. (Dude, you gotta remember this was way before iPhones and Twitter, ya dig?) Our float pulls up to the front of the arena, positioned directly in front of the grandstand. After some very loud and garbled speeches, and introductions that were equally loud and garbled, we started to play “S’Wonderful” and “September in the Rain” on cue. During my eight-bar solo, I remember someone shoving a microphone up the bell of my horn and a half-a-second later hearing another garbled sound spilling out of the house speakers thousands of feet away. We finished playing and the people went wild — applauding and cheering us with great vigor. Hey, we were from Hollywood!

It was about 4 p.m. and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We were to leave for home the next morning. What to do? Well, I remember that we went to see the Liberty Bell. (It wasn’t what is was cracked up to be.) In that part of town, the streets were all cobblestone. Well, we did the next logical thing: We went to a burlesque show. My first! What spoiled it for me was that I kept thinking that one of the ladies might be someone’s mother. (No, I was never a Boy Scout.) The next day, we flew back home to Los Angeles, California.

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End of story — except for a few after shots: The Paul Whiteman radio show in Philadelphia was called “The TV Teen Club.” Remember, the word teenager didn’t even exist when I was one. Bill Haley and Allen Freed helped to give it status, especially when Madison Avenue discovered that kids 13-and-up had access to their parents’ cash — and hence, buying power. … The staff announcer reading a Tootsie Roll commercial that day was a very young Dick Clark. … As for Pee Wee Marquette, I don’t know if being three-foot-nine-inches qualified him to be called a midget, but that’s what all of the musicians that worked the room called him — usually preceded by the words “that fucking little.” You see, Pee Wee used to shake down the cats playing at Birdland by deliberately mispronouncing their names when announcing them to the people or on live recordings dates at the club. No one, but no one, was exempt from Pee Wee’s wrath. … There has been some speculation as to whether he was, in fact, a she. … Terry Gibbs has told me many stories about playing Birdland, and about Pee Wee. The best was when Lester (Prez) Young said to Pee Wee: “Get away from me, you sawed-off half-a-motherfucker!”… Al’s brother’s first name: Was it Tim? Naw, I don’t think so.

Be cool to one another, and take care. Until next time — I remain, MORT WEISS

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at
Mort Weiss
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