Vic Caesar is a show-biz legend in his own living room. I know. I sat in it for hours, surrounded by piles of yellowing clips, write-ups in columns of yore, framed shots of Vic with the great and the less than, stacks of scrapbooks covering 40 years of laughs, love and action, baby.
You know how you see a photograph of a famous person at a party or some function and one of the people in the frame looks like someone, but you're not sure exactly who that someone might be? Chances are, that's Vic Caesar!
But I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
Maybe Vic didn't claw his way to the top, but he purred his way onto a thousand guest lists and chafed his elbows to the bone rubbing them against those of countless A-list celebs. And during those hours I spent in his Phoenix living room, I heard stories.
Fabulous stories, insane stories, crude stories, hard-to-believe stories. Stories that began with chicks and cats someplace at midnight in 1959 and segued into a sweaty '70s session in Hugh Hefner's grotto that jumped somehow to a tear-jerking moment in a Phoenix club nine months after that and ended up in the front room of a three-story Chicago walkup in the early '40s.
This man Vic, he's done a thing or two.
Caesar holds the top score in Donkey Kong at the Playboy Mansion--785,000 or so--where he more or less lived for ten years. He was opening act on the opening night of Caesars Palace in Vegas, back in '66. What'd he sing? "Born Free," and you better believe he came out swinging! Frank Sinatra once grabbed his ass. Vic wrote Richard Nixon's campaign song in '68. And Nixon won! Vic partied with John Belushi in a rented Mercedes. Smoked cigarettes with Marilyn Monroe in Japan. Shared a big fat joint with a certain late Kennedy. Used to call Dorothy Stratten "Cookie." And he cried with Hef--man to man--the night she got killed.
Mr. Caesar is a lover of beautiful women. Just ask him: "Compared to what, ugly guys?" Also, Vic told Tony Curtis the best place in L.A. to buy wigs.
I could go on and on. But so can Vic, so let's let him do it. Go fix yourself a highball, take the phone off the hook and we'll begin.
In Depression-era Chicago, Ward One, 830 Miller Street, a child is born to the Cesario family. He is named Vittorio. The mother is an Italian American, the father is an Italian immigrant, a baker, a maker of "the greatest pizza known to man" and, more important to the future of Vic Caesar, a lover of music.
"I was in the crib, all I remember was Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, opera. And my father raised canaries, so we had canaries singing. I absorbed it all like a sponge," says Vic in a voice that is all resonance and rasp.
"We had a player piano, and I used to put my fingers down on the keys as it played. I started playing piano when I was 3." That led to drums and, skipping a few years of no formal training and a lot of listening, to show business.
"When I was 15, I got a gig working a strip joint called the Club 19 playing drums and piano; the place was owned by the mob, like every club on Rush Street. I couldn't be seen there, obviously; I was 15. We played behind a curtain," Vic recalls.
"Sometimes the coppers would come in; they heard there was a 15-year-old kid playing drums. So I'd go into the women's bathroom, and I would sit with my feet up high on the toilet seat behind one of the waitresses or strippers, so when the cop walked up he'd see a woman's legs. I remember one time the woman said, 'Since I'm sitting here, do you mind if I tinkle?' I said, 'No, go right ahead.'
"My folks thought I was working in a nightclub, they didn't know it was a strip joint. I'd come home at five in the morning and throw my money on the dresser. My mom would say, 'Vic, can I have $20?' I'd say, 'Take it all, Ma!'"
But Vittorio was no bonehead. He won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago (a classmate was future Playboy art kingpin LeRoy Neiman). The young Vittorio kept the music up on the side, and graduated with a major in art and a minor in acting. Figured he'd be a commercial artist. It was not to be.