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.
"It was around 1951 and the Korean War was going crazy, and I knew I was going to get drafted. I just knew it," Vic says. "My uncles had been in the Army, and I didn't like the way they looked when they came out, and I didn't want to live in a foxhole, and I didn't want to eat that shit they feed you.
"So one afternoon I had nothing to do, and I went to see Anchors Aweigh primarily because Sinatra was in it. If you're Italian and you're a singer, you automatically love Sinatra.
"I saw it, walked out of the theatre and saw a sign for Navy, Army, Marine recruiting--whatever it was. The guy watches me walk in like a fuckin' vulture on a tree. He had a sharp uniform on, red hair cropped really short, neck was red, he was a Marine. Looked like a martinet, and I didn't want to be with no martinet. I wanted Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra. I said, 'Oh, shit, I don't wanna join that fuckin' outfit.'
"I said, 'Where's the Navy guy?' 'Oh, I can help you,' he said. 'You don't look like Navy to me!' 'I'm not!' he says. I mean, the anchors on his collar looked like a skull and crossbones. That whole fuckin' uniform looked like Gestapo. And the Navy had that collar opened up with that white shirt and that sissy little fuckin' tie that I really liked.
"Just then the Navy guy walked in, and the Marine says, 'I got a customer for ya.' And I says, 'I'm not a customer, I'm a volunteer.' I had a great sense of humor in those days--I thought I did, then I found out you better not have a sense of humor in boot camp. So that's how I joined the Navy."
Despite a boot camp not filled with laughs, Vic wound up as a dental technician happily stationed in Iwakuni, a tiny Japanese town. Once he "accidentally stole" a general's Jeep to go buy Christmas decorations, stopped off at a whorehouse "for 15 minutes and got lucky. It doesn't take long when you're young." Vic got in trouble, but what the hell? And when he wasn't working on molars, he was pounding the ivories, performing at the officers' club, the enlisted men's club and a Japanese nightclub in town.
Now here's a good one:
"I heard Marilyn Monroe was coming into town and I said, 'Yeah, yeah, why would she be coming to this little dump of a town?' 'Because she's on her way to Korea,' the commander said. 'Anyone wants to go to the airport and see Monroe, she's landing here in half an hour.' So I go. She's with [Joe] Di Maggio, and he gets out, and the crowd roars. Then she comes out, and it's like the king and queen of America. Everybody's camera went crazy.
"So I went back to the dental clinic, and I get a call from the special-services officer. He says, 'Vic, can you play a couple tunes on piano? Come on over here.' It was a special room on the base he was talking about. I go over, he takes me into the room and he says, 'Vic, this is Marilyn Monroe.'
"God, my fucking knees were shaking. She says, 'Can you do 'It Had to Be You' and 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend'? I knew 'It Had to Be You,' and I kinda knew 'Diamonds,' 'cause I'd seen the movie. So everybody left us alone to rehearse, and I said, 'Miss Monroe, can I take your picture?' She says, 'Okay. You realize you've got the only picture of me in a babushka with my hair in curlers and a cigarette?' Anyway, I played for her, and she let me take the picture. You don't think much about taking pictures, they're going to live forever, right? Who the hell knew?"
I ask Vic what kind of cigarettes she was smoking.
"Who was looking at the cigarettes?" he asks back.
Vic got home in one piece. Figured he'd become a dentist. It was not to be.
"I thought, 'No, I don't want to look into people's mouths.'" The stage could not be denied, and he began working Chicago clubs on drums and piano and stopping by for early-morning breakfasts at Hef's Chicago lair. A happening place to be in the late '50s. Next came gigs in Reno and Vegas.
Speaking of Vegas . . .
"One night at the Sands Hotel, I was playing drums for the Chet McIntyre Quartet, and I sang maybe two songs in the set. One night, after we finished our show, I walked around to the bar, got a drink and walked over to some friends. Just then somebody grabbed me by the ass, and almost ripped my pants--it was a mohair suit and that stuff rips easily--and I turned around and said, 'Hey, man!' It was Frank Sinatra.
"What're you gonna do, scream at him? Next to him was Jack Entratter, owner of the Sands, Tony Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Frank says, 'Was that you up there singing and playing drums?' The other guys are making cracks, but he ignored them. Frank ignored what he didn't want to hear.
"He says, 'Are you Italian?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He says, 'You don't have to call me sir. You sing good; get the fuck off the drums, and get yourself a little group, and get out there.'"
Thus, heeding the order from on high, drumming, piano-playing Vittorio Cesario transformed himself into singing, swinging Vic Caesar. And he did get out there.
Now, it's the early '60s, and one of the guys Vic's running with is Lenny Bruce.
"I had an apartment at 20 East Delaware in Chicago, and when he was in town, he would take an apartment at 25 East Delaware. And sometimes he would stay with me to get away from the broads and phone calls and other junkies who wanted to get his dope," Vic reveals.
"He would leave some dope at my apartment, and he'd come over and give himself a fix. I'd hold his vein; he had what you call a rolling vein."
Let me interrupt Vic for a second to let Vic interrupt himself to clarify his personal level of drug use.
"I'd describe it with a passion, probably. When I get involved in something, it's passionate. I never shot up, can't stand needles. When I was doing coke, I did it for two or three years passionately, then stopped. There's no addictive genetic code in our family. I never liked to drink, and with pot, it got to a point where I hated the smell of it."
Now, back to Lenny.
"I was in the kitchen writing a lineup of what songs I should do that night, and he comes out of the bathroom and says he's leaving to go to his gig. I looked up and said, 'Wait a minute. You can't go anywhere with your mouth looking like that.' He says, 'What's wrong with my mouth?' 'It looks like you ate a blueberry pie. Go look at yourself in the mirror.'
"So he does and, sure enough, he starts laughing, saying, 'Oh, man, oh, man'; every other word was always 'man, man, man' with him. He says he's going to go to the gig like that, but I was thinking, 'Where the hell did that blue shit come from?' I go in the bedroom and, sure enough, I had a little, thin blue-suede belt, and it was all wet with his saliva and tooth marks."
In 1960, Vic was one of the opening acts at the first Playboy Club in Chicago--natch, he was pals with Hef. This brought him to Phoenix for the first time when Playboy opened a club here a couple of years later. Tireless Vic also worked the Mountain Shadows, a Scottsdale resort, driving back and forth like a madman to make the spotlight of each set.
Then Vic went to the Bahamas to open a big hotel club; that's where he met Cheri, his wife-to-be. Gorgeous lady. She ultimately dumped him "like toxic waste" for his best friend, "a snake," but that was five years in the future. After the Bahamas stint was over, they took off for her hometown, New York City. It was 1964, and more stuff happened.
"I got a phone call from Jim Marshall, who was one of the Kennedy speechwriters, and he asked if I would like to do some Christmas parties for Senator Robert Kennedy. I said, 'Are you kidding? Definitely!' There was no pay, it was to benefit underprivileged kids.
"So they told me to be in front of my building at six in the morning and, sure enough, a limo pulls up and inside is Bobby Kennedy. He was a little guy; that impressed me because he comes off as very powerful.
"We shake hands, I get in the limo. He's telling me how much he appreciated me doing this in that voice that's like an 18-year-old Walter Brennan. So we're driving to pick up Sammy Davis Jr. on Park Avenue where his apartment is. We get him, then Bobby says we got to go get Irving Berlin's daughter, I forget her name. So there's me and Sam and Bobby. I'm nothing, I was just there! We're driving to Queens and Sammy says, 'Come on, Bobby, what are we waiting for?' Bobby says, 'I don't know.' They're looking at me. I say, 'Don't worry about me.'
"Sammy rolls up his pants leg, and he's got this garter on his black sock. He pulls a joint out of his sock. He lights it and hands it to Bobby. He hands it to me. I'm not going to say no. I inhaled! They inhaled! We all inhaled! Great fuckin' pot. Sammy says, 'Bobby, you're going to love this stuff, it's really dynamite shit!'
"I'm wasted, and Senator Kennedy gets on the phone to the chauffeur and tells him to pull over so he can open the door and air out the car. Finally, he says, 'All right, let's go pick up Irving Berlin's daughter.' She looks exactly like her father, short and ugly. She gets in, and she's in between Bobby and Sammy. These are the three skinniest people I've ever seen in my life.
"All of a sudden, she says, 'Bobby, you've really got to do something about this limo.' He says, 'Why?' She says, 'It smells terrible! I didn't want to say anything, but there's really something wrong.' So he says to the chauffeur, 'Henry, when you get the car back to the garage, have it checked out. Miss Berlin says it smells back here, and I can't tell 'cause we've been driving around for so long.'
"Sammy starts to crack up, he's slapping his knee, it's very infectious, and Bobby's giggling. I'm trying to hold it in, I'm almost splitting my sides. I wanted to pee! But I'll never forget that."
Vic and Cheri decided it was time for a new town. They got in the car, destination Vegas or Phoenix. Cheri nixed Vegas. Upon arrival in the Best Run City in the World, Vic nailed gigs at the Executive House in Scottsdale and the Colony Steakhouse on North Central and released two albums over the next couple years, Vic Caesar (recorded in "groovy stereo") and Vic Caesar Sings, now available at the more exclusive thrift shops.
In case you're wondering, this is no kitsch joke; the records are monsters. Vic throws his bodacious, Tom Jones-cum-Sinatra tenor into truly impressive versions of "The Joker," "Going Out of My Head" and a swaggering take of "Norwegian Wood" that simply must be heard to be believed. All backed by a power-packed, 15-piece band that burns, Charley.
In fact, Dick Van Dyke saw Vic and company at the steak house, loved him and ended up writing the liner notes to Vic's second release: "After listening to this album, you'll know why I'm such a fan."
In '66, Vic took a gig in Vegas opening a new joint called Caesars Palace, warming up for Andy Williams and the Ritz Brothers among others on the bill.
"My God, it was like being in Hollywood, four spotlights hit me. It was August 6, 1966. My wife's birthday. They had a fountain going in front of the stage, so I walk out and say, 'Hold it, cut the band.' I say, 'Would you mind turning off the water, I gotta go pee!' So that cracked the audience up and broke the ice."
Two years later, Vic became a partner in Caesar's Forum in downtown Phoenix. Though the place was short-lived, Vic says it swung.
"There was a ten-day wait for a table reservation. I brought in Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Louis Jordan; all fantastic acts."
It was a great ride for a year or so, but then the backhand of history struck the nation. And when the backhand of history strikes the nation, it strikes Vic Caesar.
"We were doing fine until the Tet Offensive," Vic explains in somber tones. "In '68-'69, something happened. They were bringing them home in body bags in droves. The convention in Chicago went bananas. They burned down Watts. Nobody wanted to go out anymore." Vic took more random bookings in Phoenix, more in Vegas, and, of course, with them come more stories. Here's a short one:
"I met Elvis in Vegas. A dynamite guy, a little overweight. We went up to his room and watched a James Bond movie."
In April of '68, the Forum was in its death throes, and Vic's "chief counsel" was one Richard Kleindienst, future attorney general under Nixon. Kleindienst told Vic that Dick was coming to Phoenix to throw his hat in the ring, and invited him to perform at the event. He also revealed that Nixon's campaign slogan was "Nixon's the One."
The rest, as Vic will tell you, is history.
Setting aside his staunch Democratic loyalties, Vic wrote the simple, seven-word tune in 20 minutes, and when Nixon heard it at the rally (after some idiot came on before Vic and sang "The Impossible Dream"), he loved it. Life went on, Nixon won, and just days before the Inaugural, Vic got a telegram demanding his performing presence at an Inaugural ball. A Nehru-jacketed Vic and band made the scene, drove the crowd wild with "NTO." And then:
"All of a sudden, people are parting, and here comes Nixon with all the heavyweights--Agnew, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Kissinger," says Vic. "He hugged me, and he says in my ear, 'You're a hard son of a bitch to get a hold of.' Then he says, 'Here we are because of your song.'" Pro trouper that he is, Vic allows a perfect, pregnant pause. "Because of your song. He loved me. He would have given me Delaware. He would have made me an ambassador."
I ask him if Nixon had bad breath.
"No, he talked to me two inches away. But you know who did have bad breath? Sidney Poitier. Wheeeeew! But Nixon? No, God, no."
Let's follow Vic into the '70s, one hell of a Caesarian section. His marriage, which produced Caesar spawn Bobby and Julie, is over. He "bullshitted my way into acting," doing sex-and-violence romps like Alice B. Goodbody, Gosh, Massacre Mafia Style ("The most violent picture ever made"), Bare Knuckles (he played a gay bartender) and The Executioners.
"We killed 48 people in that. The Hollywood Reporter said it was worth ten Godfather look-alikes," which I guess is a good thing.
Vic's got one of those rough, devilish, seen-it-all faces; you can imagine him easily in character roles. One night, he was at a party over at George Hamilton's place.
"Ryan O'Neal grabs me by the face and says, 'If I had this face, I'd be a superstar.' I grab him by the face and say, 'If I had this face, 'd be getting laid every night!'"
Caesar took a hiatus from the constant nightclub circuit and, though he always had his own place to live, pretty much moved into the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, California. It was a life of backgammon, parties, ladies, fine food. He stayed for about ten years.
"There were some things that went down over the years," Vic clarifies. "People schtupping broads in the Jacuzzi. But mostly it was like a big family." Things happened, all right. Vic reels off tales: Hef accidentally swallowing a Ben-Wa ball (figure it out for yourself); Vic hanging with the late Dorothy Star 80 Stratten; Vic handing Hef a Pepsi-Cola while the boss was the sole male in a five-way adult situation. ("It was like giving spinach to Popeye.")
But there was work involved, too. At one point, Hef hired Vic to lead the Singing Playmates. That's something. By '79, one of Vic's Mansion pool-shooting buddies was legendary actor and Kennedy bagman Peter Lawford. Our man was "between houses." Guess what happened?
"Pete said, 'Why don't you come stay with me?' I said, 'I'd like that, 'cause I happen to love you very much.'" "Bachelor high jinks" were the watchwords at the Cole and Sunset pad, which also had some interesting furniture.
"In the corner of the living room, there was a little tiny chair, it was a rocking chair, and once Lawford says, 'You know which chair you're sitting in?'
"The way he said it, I said, 'Your brother-in-law's.' Yeah. That was his chair from Hyannis Port. I was sitting in the president's chair. I loved John Kennedy. But you had to sit with your back straight up. I hated that fuckin' chair."
Eventually, Vic landed back in Phoenix. He worked on one project or another, wrote a screenplay based on the life of wrestler Gorgeous George, lived for a while with his dear friend, millionaire nice guy Geordie Hormel. Vic says that once Geordie--"a beautiful human being"--gave him a check for $10,000 as a Christmas gift.
These days, Vic says he "doesn't think about my career anymore" yet has various new plots up his sleeve. Last year, he released a charming album of standards with pianist Jessica Williams, as well as a reissue of "Nixon's the One."
"I'm on the verge of making a lot of bread right now with the Nixon record," he claims. "They expect to sell 50,000 at five bucks apiece for me. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how much that is." He also plays piano and sings every Sunday during brunch at the Wrigley Mansion, crooning the standards, as he has for decades, in a voice that has aged wonderfully.
And now we're at the end of the story, the no-regrets, what's-retire, I've-been-retired-all-my-life part. I ask Vic how he managed to pull off all of this stuff.
"I was never a threat. I don't look like Tom Cruise. And my upbringing I got from my father, he used to say, 'If you want to be better than you are, you hang out with people better than you are, and you climb to their level. Then you move on to people better than that.' It sounds cold and callous, but not really, if you do it with charm and finesse and some knowledge. We all want to be loved, but if you're a singer or a musician, you want to be loved a little bit more."
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN--LET'S HEAR IT FOR VIC CAESAR!!!!!!!
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