Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The standard-bearer of old Hollywood: Deceased Artiste Skip E. Lowe

On the East Coast we have the icon Joe Franklin, talk show host extraordinaire, “Memory Lane” expert, and all-around quirky NYC character. The West Coast equivalent of Joe was surely Skip E. Lowe, whose show may have begun 25 years after Joe’s (and was done on access rather than commercial TV), but he was another idiosyncratic talk-show host, a devoted fan of Golden Age Hollywood in all its manifestations and quite a character as well.

Skip E. died this week at 85 after having done his L.A. access show Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood (also carried in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and here in NYC) for the last 36 years. Skip’s show was fascinating, even if you’re not a student of Hollywood’s past or the many lower levels of cabaret entertainment. The show was done against a stark, black background, and both Skip and his guest would be shown primarily in close-up.

Skip plastered on his “sincere listening face” throughout the program (I do believe he was interested in what his guests were saying, it was just the expressions he made while they spoke that were mind-blowing). If he wasn’t being seen, he was heard — verbally assenting, repeating what the guest had said, or merely rushing into the next question.

He had a broad knowledge of show-biz history, but occasionally his mind worked faster than his mouth, and he would ask questions like the one repeated in an L.A. Times article about him, "Now, Marilyn Monroe went back with Joe DiMaggio after she committed suicide, didn't she?" (He explained that away by saying he was referring to her previous failed suicide attempts.)

Skip’s life up until the talk show is covered in his two autobiographies (one of which, Hollywood Gomorrah, was just released). Born Sammy Labella, he was a child actor (seen at right at 16) who worked onstage and in film, after a traumatic event in his personal life — it is noted in the same L.A. Times article that he was raped by a group of boys when he was nine years old. He bragged often on his show about his years as a nightclub MC, where he appeared between vaudeville acts and strippers, doing jokes, songs, or merely commenting on the crowd.

Lowe was a show-biz “insider,” who had strong connections to older stars and those who were on the nightclub/cabaret circuit. He proved his connections over the years by getting a very impressive roster of guests for a cable access show. Everyone from Orson Welles and Bette Davis to the individuals highlighted below came by to pass a half-hour chatting with Skip.

In a New York Times article written with love —and a rather glaring mistake in the opening and closing paragraphs that confuses Skip E. with Mickey Rooney (right) — Harry Shearer noted, “His obsessions with show business has [sic] nothing to do with grosses or ratings and everything to do with big breaks and comebacks and wonderful evenings in the theater. That is, it’s a fairyland reading of an industry that has become crueler and greedier than it was in its Golden Age, whenever that was.”

The most “press” Lowe received on a national level was when Martin Short revealed that his fat-suited character Jiminy Glick, the clueless show-biz interviewer, was based “in part” on Skip. I’ve never been a fan of the Glick character (fat-suit humor leaves me completely cold), but I did love Short’s earlier, more wonderfully “inside” material, which included a bizarre moment on The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (1988-89).

For some reason known only to Short and his crew (perhaps to entertain themselves), in one of the Count Floyd segments (with Joe Flaherty reprising his classic no-budget horror-host character), Short came out as a schizophrenic horror folk singer named “Skip E. High,” doing an impression of Lowe but making him a rather strange guitar-playing folksinger. The character struck me as very funny, and this was a few years before I found out about Lowe and realized exactly who Short was paying tribute to (and abusing, let’s be honest).

Two channels on YouTube have some good examples of Skip’s show. The earliest interview that has surfaced is this chat with the ever-feisty Eartha Kitt:

The Kitt interview is so early on that the customary black background hasn’t been introduced on Skip’s show. Here’s a classic Lowe segment, with him interviewing the late Eric Douglas. Skip gets up in arms when he discusses how poor Eric has been worked over by the press! (No, I don’t have any idea why the show is in b&w — that old-movie feel?).

As you can imagine, kids of celebrity parents can be found by the barrelful in L.A. Thus, Skip had on Arthur Marx, and here he has both Christina Crawford (who doesn’t say much in this segment) and the late Christian Brando. At this point (before the murder trial and the spousal abuse court cases), Christian was working as (no shit) a tree surgeon:

One of the most interesting sides of Skip’s career was his connection to the periphery of show biz. Here, from one of the many shows he hosted at an L.A. nightclub is a 98-year-old woman comedian woman doing an “adult” song. Here Skip takes a limo ride with Warhol/Morrissey superstar Holly Woodlawn.

And here, because tribute acts are *everywhere*, is an episode Skip devoted to a pair of impressionists touring as Martin and Lewis (whom he interviews as if they were Dean and Jerry, then as themselves, then again as D&J). At the 5:00 mark of this clip, they do an agonizingly long version of “the Announcer’s Test” (already discussed in this blog entry):

Tony Curtis recounting stories of his youth to Skip:

You can see the full opening of Lowe’s show in this segment featuring Skip’s interview with Milton Berle, discussing his experiences as a child actor:

Shelley Winters was a good friend of Skip’s (although it was more likely the other way around). Here she is on the show:

And here she is celebrating her 85th birthday at an outdoor party. She is sadly unrecognizable due to health problems, but she seems to be having a great time with guests Terry Moore, Rip Taylor, Jackie Stallone, Nanette Fabray, Kaye Ballard, and Rip Taylor:

Skip returned to his first career, acting, with small roles in several films in the Seventies and Eighties. On his website he claims to have appeared in “La Dolce Vita (Award-winning French [!] movie),” but that doesn’t appear anywhere else online. He did, however, play an uncredited doctor in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976) and had a supporting role as a hairdresser in the Blaxploitation movie Black Shampoo (1976). He can be seen at the :54 mark:

Skip did a PSA message about bullying that I’m sure reflected his own past problems. The interesting thing here is that he doesn’t seem to be working from a script (rarely are PSAs ad-libbed, but this one seems like it was home-made):

Skip’s moment in the national news spotlight came in September 1991 when he assaulted businessman (and crook) Charles H. Keating Jr with a powdered blonde wig (taken, an L.A. Times article notes, from an MGM movie travel bag”). Skip apparently lost a great deal of money (close to $80,000, he claimed) because his former business manager invested in Keating’s unsafe “high-yield, high risk” bonds.

Skip is quoted in the Times piece: "’This is for America,’ Lowe said as he took a swipe. ’And this is for the senior citizens you ripped off…. I hated [Keating’s] grinning face and attitude,’ Lowe said. ‘I did something I had to do. It was not just for me but for all senior citizens and for all American people, who have to pay for what he did.’"

In 2008, when John McCain was running for president, Skip did a mock “interview” with a picture of McCain, bringing up the politician’s ties to Keating (Skip calls McCain “an old, grumpy bad man!”). This is cable access at its finest:

When I found out that Skip had died, I immediately flashed on the single most amazing video clip I’ve seen of him (discovered by friend Rich Brown), It’s called “Skip E. Lowe’s Star Sweep.” It consists of Skip walking down Hollywood Boulevard and then settling down on Britney Spears’ star, which he proceeds to clean with a whiskbroom. (The title is blessedly literal.)

He tells young Britney to put her panties back on, to stop getting arrested, to stop being such “a dirty bitch” (bleeped out). I wish he had done more of these segments. Skip, we’re gonna miss ya!

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