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Send in the Clowns

[whitespace] Joey Bishop At a time when American society was separating like a jar of mayonnaise in the sun, Joey Bishop refused to heed the blowing in the wind. His towering inoffensiveness put him on a different level than the Rat Pack, and yet he was the medium in which these different talents could react.

My funny Valentine
Sweet comic Valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favorite work of art
"My Funny Valentine" (Rodgers/Hart)

By Richard von Busack

JOEY BISHOP USED TO have a sign over his Beverly Hills house that said, "Our House is Open to Sunshine, Friends and God." Sunshine, Friends and God--this is the tripod that supports the kettle of Joey's success. And hard work. OK, hard work is the fire that keeps that kettle simmering. Didn't Joey's hard work pay for that house, all the dues he paid, as he's said, at joints with stages "smaller than my cuff links"?

According to the best interview with him yet written--a 1994 piece by the palindromic Mark Kram of Philadelphia Magazine--Joey was the youngest of five kids in a poverty-stricken South Philly family. Joseph Abraham Gottlieb was the son of a father who worked in the Fidelity Machine Company and also ran a bicycle shop on the side. His mother had a scar on her face from being hit by a Jew-hater's whip when she was a 7-year-old girl in Romania.

Joey, a noted comic impressionist, won local talent contests and went on to Steel Pier at Atlantic City. After three uneventful stateside years in the Army, he played everywhere: the cutthroat gangster clubs of Cleveland, mob-run dives in the Jersey sticks, summers at fly-by-night Poconos resorts.

Discovered by Sinatra in the Latin Quarter in New York, Joey was signed on to open for the mercurial saloon singer. Almost a full decade of TV (1961-5, 1967-9) followed, along with the occasional movie appearance. Joey has been in 11 pictures in 40 years.

Joey--80 years old this year--outlived all the rest of the punters, even the seemingly unkillable Dr. Sinatra. He accomplished this through a serious regime of moderation. Comfortably well-off today, Joey does as he pleases: a little golf, a lot of charity work. He made a rare visit to the old Philly neighborhood, shaking hands for a campaigning Bill Clinton--unlike Dan Quayle, Joey knew JFK, and Clinton reminds him of JFK.

In the past 10 years, he's stuck his head into a couple of movies--he was one of the celebrity hijackees in Delta Force (1986) reading the line about how "Beirut used to be the Vegas of the Mideast." Joey also did a role in his son's Tarantinoid picture, 1996's Mad Dog Time.

What is the legacy of this man, born to emcee? As a relaxed comedian, Joey won the praise of Stan Laurel himself. Certainly Joey's exquisite timing and laid-back delivery taught Sinatra a thing or two about how to look calm without losing face, and how to deliver a joke without looking like a psycho.

At a time when American society was separating like a jar of mayonnaise in the sun, Joey refused to heed the blowing in the wind. Check what Esquire writer Arthur Steuer once said about him: "He avoids controversy and is careful to offend no one to amuse someone else." And this, from the angst-ridden Jack Paar, who once described Joey as having the face "of an untipped waiter": "In contrast with the crop of sick comics, Joey's humor is in excellent health." Joey's towering inoffensiveness put him on a different level than the Pack, and yet he was the medium in which these different talents could react.

So, when designing a bar for this oft-overlooked cadet member of the clan, this self-described "mouse in a Rat Pack," consider what he'd like--lavish amounts of sunlight, friends and Godliness. At this imaginary bar, the Bishopric ... no, that's an awful name, how about the Cross Keys, the symbol of bishops' domains in medieval days? Plenty of pubs are named that. It's an English name and it has class.

The Cross Keys would be a sky-lit supper club with retractable roof, a la Santa Cruz's swank Sun Room. An ocean view or a swimming pool adjacent would be de rigueur. His present location, a town-house in Huntington Beach, overlooks the Pacific: He soaks up views that are a "postcard God sends me each day." (Joey is a great lover of the water. In his youth he would even swim in the notoriously unclean Delaware River.)

There should be lots of nonalcoholic beverages. Let's face it, Joey doesn't drink. Good food--nouvelle Catskills cuisine, no skimpy portions. Quiet music--are Ferrante and Teicher still around? And restrained, murmured conversation ("Talk shows shouldn't be heard, they should be overheard," opined Joey).

There could be a C&W lounge at the Cross Keys, preferably named "Heartbreak Avenue" after one of the country & western tunes on Joey's much-sought-after LP. Maybe Joey could be induced to sing a few numbers on a stage significantly larger than a cuff link. He could toddle in, tell a few stories about the carrying on backstage at the Sands and tell some jokes--but no blue material. If there were any catcalls, the diminutive comic could spear hecklers with his time-tested one-liner: "That's why they don't send mules to college. Nobody likes a smart ass." The night would offer old showbiz class for a hip new audience--an audience realizing, almost too late, that good taste doesn't go out of style.

A Joey Bishop Kind of Place

Alma Bowl
355 W. Alma Ave., San Jose (408/294-8825)

Big Lil's
157 W. San Fernando St., San Jose (408/295-7469)

Blue Pheasant
22100 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino (408/255-3300)

Britannia Arms Almaden
5027 Almaden Expwy., San Jose (408/266-0550)

The Cats
17533 Santa Cruz Hwy., Los Gatos (408/354-4020)

Coconut Willie's
1099 W. San Carlos St., San Jose (408/971-1737)

3428 El Camino Real, Santa Clara (408/985-1223)

Dinah's Poolside Restaurant & Bar
4261 El Camino Real, Palo Alto (650/493-4542)

Gaslighter Music Hall
7430 Monterey St., Gilroy (408/848-3488)

Golden Oak
16695 Condit Road, Morgan Hill (408/779-8085)

Hochburg Von Germania
261 N. Second St., San Jose (408/295-4484)

Horseshoe Club
2655 El Camino Real, Santa Clara (408/248-4100)

Left at Albuquerque
The Pruneyard, 1875 S. Bascom Ave., #550, Campbell (408/558-1680)

Opry House
21350 Almaden Road, San Jose (408/268-2492)

Rooster T. Feather's Comedy Club
157 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale (408/736-0921)

The Saddle Rack
1310 Auzerais Ave., San Jose (408/286-3393)

The Sports Page
1431 Plymouth St., Mountain View (650-961-9104)

Teske's Germania
255 N. First St., San Jose (408/292-0291)

10343 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino (408/257-9600)

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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