With the encouragement of the great American magician Channing Pollock, I interviewed Naomi Brookes, his first wife and partner in their world famous magic in the 1970s. Their son, Russell, who was in his early 30s, was also present.
How Channing Pollock, A Shy Kid From Sacramento, Became The World’s Most Sophisticated Magician
June: I heard that as a young man, Channing was an introvert who was trying to draw himself out and a friend suggested he try playing with cards. Tell me about you & Channing.
Naomi Brookes (NB): We lived in Sacramento. Met in high school. The first I saw him he worked in the cafeteria. And he was just a little fellow…probably 5’7″. He used to wait on me as I went through the line. I’d hide and shake all over and then one summer he grew to be 6′ and then he gained a couple more inches.
NB: And when I was 17 he and another fellow, a good friend of his, used to come over the house and we would play Glenn Miller records, Tommy Dorsey records, etc. And Channing sat on the couch and wouldn’t say a word, he was very, very shy, very quiet.
NB: I think, with the growth, tallness and everything was a shock to his system. He ws so small and then growing terribly tall, he was gawky and clumsy…he used to stumble around on his feet. So I didn’t pay too much attentio to him and apparently he ws sitting all this time looking at me thinking, isn’t she something.
NB: this is true, I’m not…when you are that age, 17—so we started…I can thank one girl, he’d laugh if he evers hears this, this girl called Carol Chenowith…and she wanted him to go to a dance with her. She ws a plain, freckle-faced, blonde, straight up and down, no figure. He did not want to go out with her, so he came over one day and said, will you go steady with me? So I won’t have to go to the dance with Carol Chenowith.
NB: I said, no, that was a heck of a thing, I’m not going out with you if that is the reason. So, he said, jus go steady with me for two weeks so I can tell her I’m going steady and I don’t have to go out with her. So that’s how it started. We went together for all the rest of high school. Then when we were 18 and graduated, we decided we wanted to get married.
NB: Of course, that shocked my father who was terribly proper and wanted me to wait ’til I was 30 to get married…and I should marry a man with money. So secretly we were engagted at 18. …We looked at diamond rings but he couldn’t afford them. He was selling shoes at Leed’s store then. Then the war came along and he enlisted in the navy. He knew he was going to get drafted so he enlisted to be a marine. I don’t know whether they wouldn’t take him or he…didn’t push it too much, so he joined the navy.
NB: And he left on his 18th birthday, probably within a week he left and we were secretly engaged. He went off to the service for two years. 20 years old, we got engaged officially. He gave me a ring and that was a funny story. I don’t want to put that on tape. Tis is my side. I don’t know if this is what you want.
June: No, this is fine.
NB: My father is tremendously strict…he was a Baptist minister, then he became a Congregational minister. The Baptists were terribly, terribly proper-so you didn’t marry the first man you met. You didn’t marry a man who had not gone to college and didn’t have a degree and didn’t have a house to put you in. He was terribly, terribly against our marriage. We kept it cool for some time and I was up at ? Camp, up near Sonora. I was a Girl Scout counselor. I had stomach problems and the mail came in and there was this little package. It was near my birthday, in July.
NB: and up in the mountains…this has always been a family joke. Everyone in the whole camp had stomach problems, you know what I mean? Probably from the water. Anway, I went into the ladies room and I was sitting down and I opened this little box and there was an engagement ring and I went “aaahhhhh” and all the counselors came running, and said, what’s the matter, are you sick?
NB: I said, no. Look, what I got! It was an engagement ring. Everyone in camp said, isn’t that fantastic, and we were officially engaged. I was 19…no, I can’t really remember. 18, 19, 20. I think I was 20. That’s how we got engaged. Then I went away to college for two years….When I came back we had a big engagement party and we planned to get married when we were both 21. I’m a month older than Channing. So I had my birthday and he had his birthday and then we were engaged. We waited one more year ’til we were 21, then we got married.
NB: About two weeks before we got married…our wedding was on September 7…the fair came to Sacramento and we were just strolling around and there was a man standing at a counter…a concession booth and he had a card deck which they call a magician’s deck of cards which you can use to play tricks on your friends.
NB: Channing bought one for $3 and took it home and that’s it.
Man: Isn’t that the one where all the cards can be the same card, you can fan it one way so all the cards look like a fan and then you do it another way and it looks like a regular deck. It’s very, very basic…but a beginner’s type of thing, a novelty.
NB: He took that home and he would just sit there and look at it and I would wonder what is going on, he had never shown any interest, as far as I was concerned since I had known him…and I had known him for four years before I married him. He had never shown any interest in magic.
NB: You can imagine if your husband came home and said, “I want to be a magician,” you said, well, sure, well, what else is new,you didn’t believe it. So we went away on our honeymoon, we went to Yosemite for ten days and he was playing with this deck of cards and I said, hey, look at me, I’m your wife, but he was busy with this. When we came back…on our honeymoon he was playing with this deck of cards…and I couldn’t understand it…And that is how it truly started.
NB: As far as shyness and introversion, yes it did help in that way because he didn’t have a personality. He sort of lacked…he would just sit for hours just in a corner and not say much, he was very shy. And he had an older brother who was a bit more…he had two older brothers, one older brother has moved…was not around because he was about 15, 16 years older.
Man (Russell Pollock?): Isn’t Norman my half-brother?
NB: He’s his half-brother. But the older brother was was 1/1/2 years older was a little more talkative. Little more outgoing, Bob. Channing just was not a person to take over the conversation. So, we came back and Channing went to college in Sacramento and he started buying books on magic. Then he would buy coins and he started teaching himself. Everything he did he taught himself.
NB: And we would go to a movie and I’ll never forget this because he would get a 50 cent piece and in those days 50 cent pieces were very common. We would be watching the movie and suddenly I would hear “clank”, and down the coin would fall on the floor. He was practicing everywhere. He would practice night and day on everyone and everything.
NB: He was doing tricks for everybody. We would have company and guests would come over and he would say, take a car, pick a card, and they would go, oh no, not again. He had the talent and if you want to look at Russell’s hand (Channing Naomi’s son who was present at the interview), they look identical. If you want to compare the two, they have the same long, slender fingers and then the wideness…see the wideness here…this is Channing’s hand…and right in here is where you do all the moves with all the coins, this is where you hold them, this is the way you hold them in here. And thimbles can hold coins….Billiard balls…the billiard balls are the round balls you hold and multiply and divide…
Man (Russell?): Ball and cups, the cups face down and this little rubber ball and there is the ball and the cups are holding it.
NB: The billiard balls are the ones…you produce one ball, then two balls and three balls and then four balls in your hand…then you make them disappear down to one again. So, then he developed in here the biggest muscles you ever saw, because he was always doing this, you see. Everywhere we would go…I can just see that, his hands were always active because he just practiced and practiced.
NB: He was in college about a year and he said to me, somewhere or other he had read…you have probably heard this story…he had read where there was a college of magic in Hollywood, run by a magician, a Spanish man, Mexican man named Ben Chavez. What was Ben Chavez’s wife’s name? Anyway Ben Chavez and his wife did a magic and they toured all over America and Europe. They were a wonderful, wonderful magic team. They were very well respected and when they retired from touring they opened up this magic school on the corner of Highland and Sunset Blvd in Hollywood.
NB: It’s a real estate office now. This had never happened before…magic wasn’t anything but a form of entertaining your friends…and not terribly well respected. People really enjoyed it but it was nothing special.
NB: Ben Chavez and his wife ran a very elegant school. They did not teach magic first. They taught a man to be an entertainer first and foremost. Taught them how to walk on the stage…you know it is very difficult to walk on a stage in front of people and be relaxed. An actor has to learn this, what to do with your hands. Do you stand straight? What do you do?
NB: So, they taught first and foremost how to be an entertainer because that’s what they wanted to produce. Magicians who could entertain and a quality magician who could do so all over the world.
NB: Channing read about this in some magic magazine. There was one magic shop in Sacramento where he got all of his equipment. You won’t get names of anything out of me because I don’t remember. He went in there and found this school and he could go to this school under the G.I. Bill because he had been in the service. Then he had to talk his wife…I think I was pregnant, or on the way to being pregnant…I can’t really remember. He worked on us for probably six months, his family, my family and me, telling me this was what he wanted to do in his life.
June: What was he doing at this time?
NB: He was going to college and he wanted to be a forester, he wanted to work in the mountains and be a forest ranger. I said if you want to do it, let’s see, but talking his folks and my folks into it, I mean they thought he was out of his mind. He had a little baby then, you can’t leave school, my father insists you must have an education. My father was completely against it. He didn’t speak to us when we went off in our trailer to seek our fortune. This will come later. He thought he was a fool. He didn’t really like him that much anyway because Channing didn’t have that much to say to him. My father scared him to death.
Man (Russell?): Your father was a very dominating presence, not only strict, but…
NB: He was old-fashioned.
Man (Russell?): In every way you had to be very proper.
NB: Absolutely. He still feels this way. He is 97, by the way. My father is sgtill alive. We finally went and we took our little boy, who was nearly one year old, we took him down [to Hollywood]. Channing went first, found a flat, an apartment. We lived in North Hollywood, on Whipple Street. We lived in a little house, we had a room and it was a cute little place. I had not left home before and here I was with a baby and a husband and we are living on $150 a month which is what they used to give ex-servicemen.
NB: So Channing went to school with Ben Chavez and three or six months later, he was so good that Ben made him a teacher. He was so good he waas a teacher…not a student. I can tell you that when they would have a show every two or three months, they’d ask all the relatives of the students to come.
NB: I came and I was sitting in the audience and I had not seen him perform except at home in the living room. He came out on that stage and performed and did jsut a few little tricks with cards…and my heart was pounding, and I couldn’t believe it, he was just beautiful. He was a natural and that’s how it came to be. He was a natural.
NB: Up ’til then I had been very dubious…you know, you go along with your husband no matter what he is interested in…if he is interested in sky diving, you go sky diving, if he is interested in sheep farming, you go live on a sheep farm. Here he was and he was superb. Really beautiful. We stayed about a year and he taught and he got a little salary and then he said, ok, now is the time for me to go out on the road. I’m going to perform.
NB: And I said, OH NO. And you are going to be my assistant. No…no way, absolutely, no way you are going to get me up on the stage. I’m scared to death. It was very fortunate that an old relative of mine, my grandfather’s second wife, died and left some money to her husband’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This was my great-grandfather. His name was William Fisk and he died and his wife Hattie Fisk didn’t leave it to his children who were well provided for but she left it to the grandchildren…and I was one of them.
NB: My brothers and sister and cousins got $10,250. I got a letter from a lawyer and everything just fell into this money. So we out with an Oldsmobile and we bought a trailer which was an 18-foot trailer with no toilet, just a bedroom, kitchen and so forth. Off we went with our little boy who was maybe 3 by then and we went up to San Francisco. He would go in and say, I’ve got this magic act and it is very good. Would you use me?
NB: Magic act? You must be kidding. We went around and did shows for people like the Masons, Shriners and the Doctor’s Associations. They had conventions and needed some entertainment. He would go out, I wasn’t in the act then. He would entertain for these private functions and he would make $15 or $25 and that would make him feel good because he was making money. Then he said to me, you are going to be in the act. What I want to do is take you to the house of Westmor in Hollywood and they will show you how to put make-up on and how to fix your hair.
NB: See Channing is very, very smart about things like that. He knows showmanship, and everything because he wanted this so desperately. He knew, in order to look good, he had to create this beautiful thing on stage. Then he could do his magic and it would be perfect. He didn’t do it in an amateurish way ever. It was always done in the most beautiful way.
NB: He went out with the money we had and bought himself a set of tails, the best. Was it at first a tuxedo? It seems it was a tuxedo. Then he took me out and he said, now you have got to buy the most beautiful dress…so we went to very elegant shops in Los Angeles. You’ve got to get just the right dress.
NB: My very first dress was strapless, white, full, if you remember, but you’re too young…the skirts came in nipped at the waist and then flaired way out. You wore tons of petticoats to make it stick way out. My first gown was white. I went to the house of Westmore and they put my hair back just like they do the film stars…they put your hair back and then they make your face up and they do it just like they do Hollywood stars. Here I was, 23 or 24-years-old, a movie fan from the word go and I was thrilled to death to even be in the House of Westmor. They make up all of the movie stars. Kirk Westmore and Mark and Percy.
Man (Russell?): They go back…did fashion design way back in the 1930s. He started out as just a make-up artist, then created his own designs, then went off and by the time you came along…..
NB: Max Factor and the House of Westmore were the two big make-up firms. They tried different wigs on me, too. Channing said, I think I’d like her blonde. They tried a blonde wig on me and I looked just ghastly. Really terrible. They worked with me and they said, red, how about red…brown, brunette, I was always this color, maybe a little lighter. Then all of a sudden they said, let’s just leave her like she is. Because that is the way nature intended. They didn’t work on my hair although they did set it.
NB: First, they put on my face and I must say I looked beautiful. The could take the most dreadful looking woman and make her look beautiful. I sat up…they lie you down and two people work on your face. They give you a facial first, then they put all of this stuff on. Channing was out in the waiting room. Then they did my hair.
NB: I walked out and he just went Ahhhhh…because I wasn’t his little mousy wife anymore. I was glamorous. I’ll never forget..we were riding home on the Hollywood freeway and there was only one freeway in L.A. and people would look at me as we went by in the car. They wondered who is she. I didn’t take the make-up off for two days. That was probably 1951. Because Russell was around two.
NB: They taught me how to put lipstick on. You were supposed to make it look like a bow. Everyday Channing would say, I want you to sit in front of the mirror and put your make-up on everyday. So everyday I’d get the mirror out and I’d sit there and I had all of these brushes…and you don’t wipe it on…you brush it on with these beautiful sgtrokes.
Man (Russell?): Back then it wasn’t common knowledge.
NB: Everyday I’d practice make-up. I couldn’t do it. The eybrows had to be a certain way and the eyelashes, oh, everything. I couldn’t do it. For weeks and weeks I worked on it. Then finally he thought I was ready.
June: Before you went on stage, you had to learn this?
NB: I had to learn how to do that. It was very important to him. Then he got his set of tails and we bought the dress. I was terrified, absolutely terrified. But we did a few shows at various little clubs around town first. We had a friend named Don Brown and he was a doctor. He said we are going to have a convention and all my friends are going to be there and would you do a show?
NB: Channing said, sure. I don’t know if you know the experience of your knees knocking together but they did under that dress. I was terrified. When you are frightened you can’t smile, your mouth gets all dry. I had all of his make-up on and that was before my false eyelashes. They came later. I started wearing false eyelashes when we got to Atlanta.
NB: First we went to San Francisco and what Channing would do, he would look in a phone book immediately when we got to town. He looked under theatrical agents and he would write down their names and addresses and he would visit them all. They didn’t want to see a magician in San Francisco at all. So we moved on and went to Seattle. In Seattle we did get work. We worked at the Pheasant Club. That’s the first club I eve rworked in and we worked there about a week.
NB: The nice thing about it…it was just across the road from where we parked our trailer. Very convenient. Channing hates this, he just hates those days, we lived in the trailer and they were not like now, they were in the worst parts of town. They were awful. He would never tell anyone we lived in a trailer. He’d say we lived out on the road but he never mentioned the trailer.
NB: We were working for $10, $15 or $50, $60 which was ok, we were fed. We had enough to eat and living in the trailer cost about $10 a week. Then he got restless and thought we had better move on. We had a dear friend who lived in Victoria, Canada and he came to Seattle. Carl Hemian. He’s now working and doing a magic act in Victoria.
Man: A very big Channing supporter.
June: He has all of Channing’s memorabilia?
Man: Oh, yeah, because Channing didn’t want it. He’s almost too much of a fan. He really idolizes Channing.
June: How did they meet?
NB: Probably in 1950. There was a magician’s convention in Portland, Oregon. I should tell you this because it’s very important. At magician conventions people come from all over the country, all over the world. I don’t know how many, maybe 500-1,000 magicians. There is a club called the Pacific Coast American Magicians….They had a convention in Portland, Oregon and Benny Chavez said to Channing, I think you’re ready and I’d like you to go to the convention and perform. So he was “on call”…they have shows all during the week. It lasts five or six days. Everyday there’s a show during the day and in the evening.
NB: The last show on the last night of the convention, that’s the big show. That’s where the top acts perform. Channing had never performed in front of a group of musicians before and nobody knew who he was. Nobody. He performed and he was the talk of the convention. They stood up and cheered him. Here’s this kid, 23, 24 and they cheered him. Everybody came up afterwards. We had a party in a hotel room and everyone said Channing’s act was incredible, fantastic. He performed alone…I didn’t perform. All he did was stand there for seven or eight minutes and do nothing but cards. Producing cards out of the air, sleight of hands, they call it.
Man: He didn’t have his full act, all the changes and turns.
June: He was doing the fanning, that sort of thing?
NB: Right. It was his showmanship, walking out on the stage. Channing has a way…have you seen his movies?
Man: Have you seen his films?
June: No, I haven’t but I see how he carries himself.
Man: You’ll have to go to S. California to see the films.
NB: I can give you the name of a man who can…Don Brown…I’ll give you his address. He” give you the films.
June: It isn’t Bob Brown?
NB: No no. He is a doctor. He loves magic, loves juggling. He tried to do magic juggling…he’s just a real wonderful man. He has some films of Channing doing the act. They’re priceless. Carl has some, too. Carl Hemian. I’ll give you both of those names and addresses. They can both give you an awful lot of help. They’re both fond of Channing. In the early years his staunchest supporters and Don would take pictures. I don’t know if there’s one of me or not. There’s one of me somewhere. Where we both were doing the act. They would be great to have.
NB: Also Don and Carl would be able to help you with some of the early things. Channing was the hit of the convention and they gave away trophies and Channing got two or three trophies. One for the best newcomer and one for the best sleight of hand. They were gorgeous trophies. There are pictures of that and I think Channing might have pictures of himself holding the trophies.
NB: That was his first smash hit. That is where we met Carl and Lottie Hemian and they came down from Victoria and we got to know them at the convention. We went up to Victoria and Carl said i can get you into a club in Victoria where you can entertain. We said great. So we did a show there and I can’t remember the name of the club…it had something to do with the stars. Aquarius? I can’t remember.
June: Were you on stage with him then? [another question mumbled]
NB: Yes. That I have forgotten.
Man: What club was it?
NB: Sirrocco Club. The magicians all came to see the act. Some friends of Carl Hemian, some friends of Joe Labrusso, others interested magicians. They approached Channing and asked if he would teach them sleight of hand and card tricks…because doctors and professional men are interested in magic. It is a form of relaxation that they like to do when they get home from the office. They like to do this to entertain their friends.
NB: Channing stayed three months, the summer, in Vancouver. It had to be 1952 because by 1953 we were on the road again. Every day one or two men would come and he would show them tricks, how to fan cards. Fanning cards is to make a fan out of cards, just what it sounds like.
NB: They paid him very well for this…we hated doing shows for children because children are the worst audiences because they will say, oh, I can see the cards. I know where you hid that. Always yelling, very hyper and they are not easily tricked. They are fun to work with because they scream and holler…
NB: We were in Seattle when we tried to get across to Bremerton, the agent we were working for had us do it. Let’s sasy we didn’t have the $3 or whatever the bridge cost to go over. We drove up and here’s this toll booth. We looked at each other. What are we going to do: we have 50cents in our pocket. We turned around and went back to the gas station and we charged, we did this a lot when we were poor, we charged a tire on our credit card because we knew later we would have the money but we didn’t right now. We would always find a nice gas station man and we would say this is our problem, we hav to go across, we’ll be entertaining, we’ll make $25 over there but we can’t across the bridge. Will you help us out? The man would say ok. They would put it on our cred card, 1 tire, whatever, and they would give us the money, not the tire.
NB: Then we’d get on the bridge with all this money and do the show for the cildren who hated it. Channing would mumble and groan. We had to do a lot of things we didn’t like. We did a lot of shows that were in terrible places but we had to make the money in order to keep going to get to the big money.
NB: We went through extreme poverty. We left my folks’ home, my father stayed up in his room and wouldn’t even come out and say good-bye or good luck. My mother was hugging and kissing, saying everything was fine…not my father. We would not go to them for money or anything…we would not write and say we are broke, please send us money. We wouldn’t because of our pride.
NB: So this is how we got along. We stayed in Vancouver, rent free with this man who was very kind and had this big house and had plenty of room. We entertained all summer long, magicians and their friends and it was a very pleasant time. Russell had a yard to play in, instead of a trailer park. When the summer was up we had to move on, Channing’s dream was the ultimate, getting to New York and getting an agent…a big agent who would recognize the quality of this act and put him in the big time. From the beginning he knew he was going to make it…he knew it.
June: There was a change in his personality? From an introvert?
NB: No. I wouldn’t say so. I think it is the case of any actor…an actor becomes someone else and then he can go out on the stage and perform. Channing was still himself, quiet, very shy but when he was on the stage he was doing what he did best and he was doing very well. I knew it when I saw him walk on the stage that time, that he was a quality act. He was good, he was excellent and I was astounded.
NB: He had times of discouragement, like what am I doing and what am I doing to you and Russell. Russell took the brunt of it, I think, because we always had to get babysitters. Whenever we got to town I would go to the owner of the trailer park and say, is there someone here who babysits and they would say….However we were with him all day long. We would go out in the evenings so it was a lot better than having two parents who worked in the daytime. We were always there until he went to bed.
NB: We moved on, we towed our little trailer up over the Grand Tetons down into Idaho. We were aiming for Denver because in show business you get these little hints. They said go to Denver. There are a lot of shows, you can get work there. So we did, we got to Denver. Got a nice trailer park. Channing again got in the car and went downtown, went to see all the agents and gone one of the top agents. I think his name was Jack Blue.
NB: Yes, ok, I’ll come and see the act and we’ll book you…and he booked us. We were there 5-6 months, through the fall and winter. We spent Christmas there. Jack Blue booked us and we worked hotels. We worked at the Park Hotel and we worked in a restaurant at the top called the Top of the Park, like the Top of the Mrk. We got good money…maybe $200 a week. We worked for the Masons, conventions like the American Legon Convention in town and the whole show would include jugglers and girls who sang and an MC would do the show and then a magician would come out.
NB: Channing was still itching to get to New York. It must have been about 1953. The only problem was that we had to spent the money we made. When we left Denver we didn’t have a lot of money so we only made it as far as Cleveland. In Cleveland we almost froze to death. We didn’t have heat and we didn’t have much money and we didn’t get much work.
NB: We did work in Cleveland at a place on a lake. Lake Ontario…Let’s say it’s Ontario, I’m really not sure. About 20 miles from Cleveland there’s a town called Astabulah and we got a show there in a place called The Cave. We used to joke about this…The Cave was the bottom, it was the bottom. On the show with us was a girl named Juanita. They had it billed in huge letters, Juanita and her boa constrictor snakes. We had to dress in this room with this girl and her basket full of snakes. It smelled to high heaven and every once in a while she’d open the basked and these dreadful things would come out with their tongues sticking out.
NB: By this time Channing had worked the doves into the act. This was strictly his own creation, he did not copy anybody. There was a man who was superb, and Englishman named Cardini. He had a monocle, a typical Englishman, short…and he and his wife, her named was Dove, they were known throughout the world. In those days Channing idolized him. He did beautiful sleight of hand with cards. When he wanted to fool you he’d drop his monocle, you would look at the monocle, and he would do things.
NB: I”m not sure exactly when the doves came into the act. When we were in Seattle he was working non something to add to the act besides cards because the cards got boring. Magicians liked it but the audiences needed more. He decided to introduce the doves. There were some magicians who would occasionally produce a dove. When we were in Denver we had the doves.
June: Did he start with the double dove trick?
NB: No, no. That was the very last one…that was the epitome, the biggest thing.
June: He was using handkerchiefs at this point?
NB: Yes…I remember now. We did buy doves in Hollywood, when we lived in north Hollywood. Across the street from where Universal Studios was there was a little pet shot. We bought our first dove there. We call the dove “Blueback” and the dove lasted throughout our career and that was beautiful because it was very docile. You can get a flightly dove just like you can get a flightly cat and dog. That dove was in the fantastic trick where he disappeared the dove at the end of the act.
June: Why seven decks of cards? Was there a reason for that number?
NB: That was about as many as he could carry….This is what I think was so great about the hwole act…he created it himself, he created the moves, he didn’t copy it from anyone. He knew what he wanted, he wanted a beautiful act, something beautiful to look at and yet something that would astound everybody. What more could you want?
June: What motivated him to do that? No one in his family had a background in entertainment.
NB: No, but this is interesting. This is why it was so surprising and why we all thought this is a childish whim he’ll get over. We were married when he was 21 and he still wanted to fool people. I really think it was because he was so shy…and, in some ways, everybody was so against him that he had to prove to them that he was the best. He wanted to make a lot of money and he didn’t want to work for anyone else.
NB: I suppose we both were stage struck. When he worked for Ray Milland…it was thrilling…it was a USO tour up to Alaska. They had a big party afterwards. I was invited and Linda Darnell was there. There were other big actors there. In fact I’ll never forget this story: Ray Milland was at the party, slightly drunk. I didn’t know what to say to him and Channing said, this is my wife, Naomi, and what do you say. Half-an-hour later I looked out on the patio at a gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills. Ray Milland was out there. I didn’t drink in those days. Ray Milland was out on the patio and I opened the door and barged out and said, How are you? And he said, I don’t feel too well. He said, I think I am going to be sick, and to myself, I said, this is Ray Milland. I was completely delighted to meet all of these people
June: Was Channing drinking?
NB: Yes, he didn’t drink an awful lot but Channing is the type of man who can drink very little and it goes right to his head. He’s always had a problem with that. He could have two or three drinks…maybe because he was always skinny, I think it went to his head right away. He started drinking beer in high school like we all did. He drank to overcome his shyness. This is m y feeling. And I understand that.
June: Were you in the act in Alaska?
NB: No. I don’t remember who got him that show, I think it was agent he tried to get in with at the William Morris Agency. They own half of television and book all of the big stars. I think they sent him on that. It was Christmas time and I went home to mother and father. They were in Sacramento. Russell and I spent Christmas with them. That was the first time we had been apart and it was awfully hard. He came back and that was quite a feather in his cap to have performed with someone big. He was on his way up, he thought.
Note: Some of this is confusing. I apologize.
June: After the USO, yoi went to the Sirrocco?
NB: That was in Vancouver, and after that we went to Denver. We went to the Top of The Park and we worked for…this was an experience I haven’t described yet…When we had to start working for the American Legion…and I would say the American Legion was the crumb of the groups we worked for. They would always have strip tease girls on the show and if you have ever followed a strip tease act, it’s pretty darn hard to top that. But we did.
NB: A ministers daughter, I was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and here I am working in a show, sitting in a dressing room. In some cases we would be in a dressing room, just the two of us, which was great, we could lounge around and spread out. Sometimes they would put the men in one room and the women in another room and in this case there was nothing but women.
NB: Here I was, one night, putting my make-up on, there were three or four other women and this strip teaser was sitting next to me. She’s taking out all her equipment. You see what they do, they start out with nothing and they put a lot on and then they go out on the stage and take it all off. I’m putting my make-up on and trying not to look and she is putting on these pasties…they are little things…things you pur your false eyelashes on, the best thing is Johnson’s Medical Gum or Glue or something. It’s fantastic. It comes in a little tube…have you ever used false eyelashes?…yoiu put it on and it comes right off and it doesn’t pull your skin off. So she put a little of the Johnson’s, what do they call that? I can’t remember, it’s kind of gummy. She’d stick one on there and one on there and all she on was her G-string, stark naked sitting there. She put this on and then she put some tassels on and then she’d put another filmy thing on, then something else on and then a dress or skirt. I was absolutely fascinated. This was my first experience with it.
NB: Later on Paris we worked with nudes and everything else. So I sat there and watched that. Afterwards, I said to Channing, you wouldn’t believe what I saw and he said, what was it. He was as naive as I was.
NB: Channing was born in Cement (?), California and his family was very chrch minded as was mine so we were these two kids living in this dream world. We were both agog at everything and we would just sit backstage and say, look at that girl, she is going to go out there and take all her clothes off in a minute. The funny thing was we got to know this girl because we worked with her quite a few times and I don’t remember her name. She was a very nice girl. She was working to raise her little boy and her boyfriend was always there helping her. I couldn’t believe her boyfriend would like for her to go out there and strip. He would come back there. She came off the stage and she was always so shy back stage, she always had her bathrobe on or dressing gown, she was so shy back there.
NB: She would go out there and take something off and the men were screaming because it was basically a stag party, no women and they would be hollering and screaming, “take it off”, “take it off”, and she would be dancing across the stage and little by little, she’d take it off and swing it around and throw it in the audience and they’d scream. It was delightful. She’d run backstage and throw on her robe and go off like this and hide everything she had. I couldn’t believe it.
NB:That was one of the very first experiences of that kind. We had to do that…we didn’t like it…but we always had to follow the strip tease act. Can you imagine this beautiful, elegant act coming out after all the men were screaming and everything. They were subdued men. The best audiences in the world are men. They love to be fooled. Women…some like it…some don’t…some are sitting there putting on their lipstick and looking around the room and don’t pay any attention. Children are the worst. But men love to be fooled and they love magic. As soon as we walked out they could see it was an elegant act. They would calm down and it was quiet and they would watch. Some of them would shout, that was the American Legion. We worked a lot of them in Denver. Then we went to Cleveland and worked at The Cave in Astabula.
NB: Juanita danced to the tune of Temptation. I will never forget that tune. Everytime I hear that, that’s all they ever played. She had aon a little outfit, a bikini, I guess you’d call it now. Leopard material. Leopard skin. She would take the snakes out of the basket and wind them around her…Now boa constrictors kill people by suffocating them, squeezing them, they don’t bite you. And every now and then one of them would squeeze too tight and Juanita’s manager was always standing there. He would come over and pull it and it would relax.
NB: Occasionally one of the snakes owuld get away and start slithering towards the audience. And we’re on this dance floor and there are people all around. And that’s another thing. We worked in a lot of places where we were on a dance floor with people behind us, and, of course, everything magicians do is behind. When you are doing a card trick, you have the cards hidden behind your hand and we hated it. There were lots of times when that was very very difficult.
NB: If we were in a theater in London, they were out in front, perfect. Sometimes they were behind us. The stage at The Cave was circular and everybody behind us saw the whole thing. Channing got quite upset and I didn’t blame him. He’d say, look at the conditions here, it’s terrible for magic and they were. We had to deal with that. That was the worst, The Cave in Astabula. We stayed there a short time and almost froze to death because we ran out of heat.
June: And you were using the doves?
NB: And we were using the doves.
June: Did the doves do anything strange during the act?
NB: Yes. At the Sirroco Club in Victoria. Carl Hemian was helping us backstage and he was so nervous for us. We did the act. Suddenly one of the doves decided to take off and flew and left Channing’s hand and circled the room…..It killed the dove….By this time we had spare doves in case one got sick, so we had a couple of extra doves. This dove was very nervous and whenever he was in a strange place…when he took off that night we didn’t use him anymore.
NB No you cannot train a dove. Doves are beautiful, I love them. I’ve had some of my own since, I love them so. I took care of them, that was my job. They are stupid, no brain at all. They eat and sleep and that’s it. If they’re frightened or nervous they won’t sit still at all. He would be standing backstage and I’ll never forget this because it happened every night. He stood there trying to calm them down because they would wiggle….
NB: Each dove had its own peronality. Some were sweet, almost affectionate. I want to tell you about Blueback, the first dove we had. Channing put a little bit of blue paint…
Man: It was eyeshadow
NB: To mark them so he’d know which one…because doves all look alike.
Man: Each one had their own talent.
NB: Yes, each one had his own talent. …..We had to find the right kind of bird seed for our doves because they had tyo have nourishing food. We wanted to keep them healthy, we love our doves, they were family. The only thing with the doves was they tend to coo a lot. When we gave the trailer up and lived in hotels we had to take the doves with us. We had to talk the hotel manager into letting us take this box, a dog carrying box with a perch inside…We carried the doves in that box in airplanes, hotels, everywhere. They were part of our act and they had to come with us. We wouldn’t let them be put down in the baggage compartment.
NB: We wanted them to be quiet so they wouldn’t disturb the hotel guests. In the trailer they used to wake us up as soon as the sun came up. They’d start cooing. In the back of the trailer, Channing rigged up a bell with a long string to our bed so all he did was pull the bell and ring it and that would quiet them for a minute and then coo, coo, coo. We had to work nights and wanted to sleep mornings.
Man: Life was always accompanied by the sound of those birds.
NB: They make a beautiful sound but not when you’re trying to sleep.
June: And you took care of them?
NB: Well, I cleaned their cage. They always need fresh water. They’re tropical birds, they like warmth…can’t stand cold…but I always had to trot out and get the bird seed, scour the town for the right mix. They needed a little bit of corn, a little bit of millet and a little bit of this, it had to be a dove mix. And you know we traveled, how many, many states of America, in different cities, different small towns…sometimes you would run out of bird seed. We used to buy it in huge 10-pound bags, we didn’t want to get a lot of it because we wanted it to be fresh. So, I had to keep them fresh, the water fresh, the feed fresh and their cage fresh…I got to know them all.
NB: Doves are sweet because you can put your finger under their little tummy and they will jump on your finger…My job was to carry the perch. We didn’t have an ordinary perch, first he put glue on it, then he painted it black, put glue on it and sprinkled it with silver glitter. So even the perch was beautiful. After a while the dove’s feet would wear it out and we would re-sprinkle it.
NB: …occasionally we would go out and buy a new dress [for me] and it had to be just the right dress. That was my job…to keep my side of the act. Channing was always in the bright spotlight…he was the star and I was always in a pink spotlight so I wouldn’t show up too much. Every now and then I would come into the bright spotlight. A lot of people said ‘I don’t even know what his assistant looks like’. I was beginning to get terribly big headed by then, I wanted a little attention by then.
Man (Russell?): You got fan letters.
NB: I got one fan letter. I should show you my one fan letter, I got that in London.
NB: We left Cleveland and got onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and we had so little money. We left Astabula. Suddenly we are getting onto Turnpike and it’s a toll road. If you are going 100 miles on the road you have to pay something like $7.50. And we’d left with something like $125, and we had to eat, we’d stop for meals, or we’d cook meals. We ate an awful lot of potato soup, which was easy, you get a couple pounds of potatoes and make soup with milk. We ate a lot of corn meal mush, didn’t we Russell?
June: You did all the cooking?
NB: No, not then. Channing was always a good cook. His speciality was spaghetti in those days. Now I hear from Russell he’s a gourmet cook. He always loved to cook. And he was a smoker then, he smoked a pack a day. Some days we only had a dollar and we had to budget our money. We would have a dollar spend a day, until we got a job.
NB: When we got to Pennsylvania we were down to $10. We had ten days. We couldn’t stay in New York because there weren’t too many trailor parks there. We stayed in a place called Langhorn, which is halfway between New York and Pennsylvania. New York was his dream, that was where he wanted to be.
NB: We had $1 a day and 25 cents went to cigarettes. Cigarettes were 25 cents then. I had to cook on 75 cents a day. I had to buy milk because I had a little boy growing up then. We had a lot of corn meal mush which I’d cook and fry and we put syrup on it. We would have meat patties and I’d make spaghetti and make it last three days. Somehow we got by, the only sad thing, and this is a terribly sad thing. One day we ran out of food for the birds and we couldn’t afford to buy them any. We lost one. He died of starvation.
NB: We opened the cage one morning and he hadn’t eaten in two or three days. We couldn’t even afford birdseed and here we were again–we wouldn’t ask our folks for money. When, ahh, one time I was sick, deathly sick, I had bronchitis and a very high fever. Channing went out. He said, “i’m going to get some food.” We dcidn’t have any food in the house. None whatsoever.
NB: He said, “I’m going to go out and get some money.” I thought, oh my word, he’s going to rob a bank. He came back with two bags of groceries and he said, “Don’t worry, I bought another tire.” (Laughter). So we ate on that. We ate all those groceries we had. He even bought some T-bone steakers, our joy in those days, with onions. And I had been so sick. I think it was probably because we hadn’t eaten. We always fed Russel. He always had his oatmeal and whatever. So we worked in Philadelphia. We got some really good agents. I think they were called Taylor and Young.
Man: You mean? I never knew–
Naomi: That’s what comes to me. If that’s wrong, I don’t know. They liked the act so they used us and we worked steadily. We sometimes had to go to Harrisburg in the middle of the winter on the turnpike with the snow pouring, I mean sleeting.
Man: Harrisburg, huh?
NB: It was about a 100 miles and we would drive over and see if they would give us our check after we performed. We would drive over, we knew how much we needed for the turnpike and we would get there and we would perform, do the show and then they’d give us our money. Our salary was either $25 or $35 a show and we thought $35 was fantastic. $35 was wonderful. $25 doesn’t buy you much, especially if you just made $25 a week and that’s what we did for the first weeks in Philadelphis until they found out that they liked us. And then Russell can remember that we met some wonderful people. We met–
Man: The trailer park was next to a drive-in movie that I remember.
NB: Yeah, yeah, that was a kind of nice experience.
Man: We could watch the movie from your trailer.
NB: Right, we couldn’t see it but we could watch it.
Man: We couldn’t hear it.
NB: We had a little television set which alway kept us going. We had a Magnavox set that we got in North Hollywood that was our entertainment. We didn’t feel too bad but we had a winter in Philadelphia and we worked quite hard and we worked some really good shows. We did a Bar Mitzvah which I thought was interesting because the food was everywhere and this was where we would eat. We would go to these shows and maybe we hadn’t eaten all day but they would spread out the food and so we would just very casually go up and help ourselves.
NB: And we, oh this beautiful food, because Bar Mitzvahs are incredible. They have all, you know, this wonderful food. So we were working there and doing well and Channing said, “All right. Now I’m going to New York.” He thought he was ready. This was it. We had finally gotten close enough.
NB: And it was about an hour’s drive to New York. And I’ll never forget to my dying day the excitement of going to New York. I’d never been in such a big city. Never seen anything so thrilling. As you went on this Highway 1, I think, there was no freeway then, to New York—yes, there was, I’m sorry. There was a freeway but you went on Highway 1 and then you got on the freeway to New York and all of a sudden, there, you know, the hill, was like this and here was the Empire State Building. It was one of those optical illusions because you could just see the top of the Empire State Building sticking up. Nothing else, no city, nothing.
NB: But it was so tall that that’s all you could see, just the top, probably the top ten floors, and I went with him. He said, “You come with me.” And we drove up and in New York you know you shouldn’t take a car but we did and we had to pay something like $12 or $15 to park our car and we just didn’t have the money. The agent we wanted to see–the agent that everyone talked about all over America–all the acts said you’ve got to see this man. He is the best agent in the country. His name is Mark Leddy. He was a Damon Runyon character. A wonderful sweet guy. In those days I think he was in his seventies. Did Channing say he’s still alive?
Man: Yeah. He went down to see him on the trip to the Caribbean.
NB: He was a wonderful man. He booked the Ed Sullivan show. This was our dream to get on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was the epitome, to be on that show because everybody in the country saw it including your parents.
Man: Sunday night variety show and Ed Sullivan broke the Beatles and he broke all of the acts in the states. He went out. His talent searches went all over the world. They just, you know, they got Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse. They got all the big hits.
NB: Bob Hope, everybody was on that show.
Man: Yeah, Sunday night. It was always number one.
NB: So he went to see Mark Leddy. And of course it’s a big–you have to go up into this building, up to the sixth floor or something and you get off the elevator and you go down the hall–it was Leddy and he had a partner. I can’t remember, he had a man who he was going to give us. So Channing walked in and he thought right away that everybody was going to sit up and say, “Oh yeah. Right. Great.” You know. So he walked in and he went to several other agents and they weren’t interested and he said, “Ok. I’m going to do it.” And I said, “Do it, do it, do it. You’ve got to do it.”
Man: This wasn’t the day you drove into New York, though?
NB: We drove in, the two of us.
Man: And you went to see Mark Leddy the first day?
NB: Yeah. And he was out and were so disappointed so we staggled back to Pennsylvania in our trailer and oh we were so disappointed. So Channing–we went on working in Philadelphia–he was so depressed. And this was, I’d say the only time I think he really got depressed and he said, “Well, if I don’t make it this time, I’m going to go back home with my tail between my legs. Ok. We’ve tried.”
NB: You know, OK, because everybody said, you know, you’re going to do it. You’re going to do it. And we got so many people pushing us all along. Other acts saying you’re fantastic. You’re going to make it. Go see Mark Leddy. You’ve got to go to New York. So we got very depressed and he was just about at the bottom. Really the bottom. And he said, “No, I’m not going to make it. I’ll go back and become a social worker. I’ll be a teacher.” There was a joke that my father wanted him to be a minister. And he said, “I’ll go back and I can be a minister like your father wants me to.” And I said, “Look, one more time.” So went in by himself. He said, “Ok, I will.” And he was mad. Mad, frustrated, depressed.
June: He had never been that way before?
NB: No, really no. He knew he was going to make it. But this time he was just at his lowest low. He went to New York. He went in and he said, “Is Mr. Leddy in?” Yes. “Tell him Channing Pollock’s here. He’s got the most fantastic magic act in the world and I’m going to see him or I’m going to sit here until he sees me.”
NB: Five minutes went by and Mark Leddy opened the door and he says, “Come on in. Sit down. What’ve you got to tell me?” And Channing said, “I’m the greatest magician alive today.” “Ok, tell me about it.” “I’ve got this act and it’s a beautiful act and I think I’m good.” And Leddy said, “Ok, I’ll come and see you. Where are you playing?” And he called Channing “baby”. He called everybody “baby”. “Where are you playing, baby?” Channing says he’ll be at the big hotel in Philadelphia, it’s on the tip of my tongue. We were doing a show that night.
June: The Barbizon?
NB: No. I’ll think of it in a minute. At the place they had the Shriner’s Flu or whatever it was. We played there by the way. We did a lot of shows in hotels and we were doing the show there. So Channing came back that night and he says, “You will never guess. Sit down. You’ll never guess.” I said, “What?” He said, “Mark Leddy’s coming to see us tomorrow night.” I said, “Ahhh, you’re kidding me. He’s coming all this way?” And he said, “He’s coming on the train.”
NB: Mark Leddy got on the train. Came ot see us. Saw the show. Came backstage and said, “You’re fantastic. You’re great. You’re in. You’re going to make it, baby. I’m going to bring you to the top. Your first show will be at the Palace Theater, the Ed Sullivan Show, and you’re in. Don’t worry.”
NB: That’s all he said and I’m sitting here listening to this and after he left we went (long sigh) it’s gonna happen but we didn’t believe it. It happened. It happened exactly as he said. He got us on the Paladium Show. We went into the Blue Angel which is a very intimate little spot.
June: The one that has a postage stamp–
NB: A little postage stamp stage. Channing had the cage built by a man in Brooklyn, New York and that cage was a beautiful piece of art.
June: The metal one they have now?
NB: No, it’s made of wood.
Man: It’s not metal, no. This was the stage magic act.
NB: It was made of–
Man: No, that’s essential.
NB: He designed it.
June: Channing designed it?
NB: Channing designed it and had it built by a man in Brooklyn–and this is interesting because his father was from Brooklyn. He grew up in Brooklyn and there was an uncle there, I think his name was Uncle Albert (Pollock), Channing’s uncle. A real character. I wish you had met him. A real old time character. Beautiful. He almost looked–he looked British. Channing’s father was a Scot and his name was Robert Burns Pollock. And a terribly true Pollock–
Man: A Scottish man.
NB: A Scottish man, yeah. We went to Brooklyn and found this man who was a cabinet maker and he built the cage out of the best wood and it stood on–
Man: Three legs.
NB: Three legs and the posters–
Man: Carved, and you know–
NB: Carved legs….[secrets here…]
NB: ….The finish. All the doves are produced. And as they were produced they were put on the perch inside of the cage and then at the very end of the act he would come up to the cage, put this black velvet–everything had to be velvet and gorgeous–velvet cover over it and then he would pick it up and carry it across the stage. So here’s the cage and then he would flick this cloth and the cage and the doves are gone. Beautiful!
Man: Exquisitely made. It stood about this high.
NB: It was a beautiful piece.
Man: He still has it, I’m sure.
NB: Does he?
Man: In pieces or something. He must have that.
NB: This was Channing’s.
Man: Well Frank Cooper in England has a duplicate.
NB: But that cage cost something like $450 and we made it on the Ed Sullivan Show. I think we made $750. That was the most money we had ever made in our entire–
June: For one night?
NB: One night.
Man: And in those days that was triple–
NB: We had to give our agent 10%, so right off the top went $75. I think we gave him $100. Then we had the cage built for $450 and we really had nothing left but a thrill. We were on–the horrible thing was00we were supposed to be on the first night but Red Skelton was on. Do you know Red Skelton? And he took too much time. We called our folks, my brother, sister, his family, everybody in the whole country and said we will be on the Ed Sullivan Show Sunday night. It was always on Sundays.
NB: And we stood backstage and we didn’t go on. We were all loaded up and we did not go on. It was ahh, what a disappointing–
NB: Devastating. But we were on the next week so nobody saw us but we were on. Our families didn’t watch. But anyway another thrilling experience is htis: We were on the very first color television show–
Man (Russell): Broadcast in color from coast to coast.
NB: Broadcast from coast to coast in the country. We were on with Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey and their band. They had combined. Jimmy Dorsey wrote Channing’s introduction and I can hum it for you. Music. We were on with some really great stars —
NB: Colored television show. They sent me to this fantastic showroom and I was to pick out a dress. It had to be a dress that had lots of color in it because it was going to be a colored show. In those day you had to wear color. You couldn’t wear white shirts.
Man: You couldn’t wear reflective things. You couldn’t wear white shirts if the spotlight bounced off when there was too much white or too much sequinned dressed and those little flashes clame, you couldn’t do that. They didn’t have lenses that could cope with that. They do now but it would have to be just right and they made everybody’s faces up in sort of harsh colors so they would look right through the color.
NB: They made us up particularly.
Man: It was primitive in those days.
NB: Yeah, they had to make us up with all this makeup and Channing’s face was, you know, very dark. Usually he wore tan number two. Max Factor makeup always. But you had to have lighter makeup. You couldn’t wear that dark.So they put on this makeup and he looked ghastly. Then they made him wear a light blue shirt and it was all crinkled, crumpled and he was very proud of his appearance and it looked awful. On camera it looked great.
NB: And I was put into this dressing place and I had to pick out a dress. Any dress I wanted. In those days there was this dress designer and I’ll be darned if I can think of her name. She designed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s dresses.
Man: Edith Head?
NB: No, it was a dress designer. But anyway that’s the dress I got and it was fantastic. It fit me, tight waist, strapless–I always wore strapless, and full skirt. It was black with colored sequins. They didn’t think it would be good but it was beautiful….You see, I had two little rosettes here that he used and they were red scarves.
Man: Red scarves wound up–they looked like a little pinball kind of thing. They looked like two roses but Channing would—
NB: He used a pencil–
Man: And pull it from her and it would be this sort of magical thing. Just to get his next scarf to produce another dove he would get the scarves from Mother and pull it through. It was just two little roses on the dress and–
NB:Yeah, the first one–
Man: It was just part of the whole flow of things that came out that way and it was dramatic.
NB: He had a boutonniere. He always, he rolled up a whie sccarf on his boutonniere.
Man: Just a white silk scarf.
NB: Just like a little white rose and it was a white scarf. The first thing he did when he came out was to pull this off and here was a white scarf and he’d dangle it.
Man: Really elegant.
NB: And all of a sudden a bird appeared. Then I’d come over and he would pull a red scarf off and then out came a, you know, and he’d lfip that and then he’d pull a dove out of that. Then he’d take the other red scarf, pull it off my waist and there was another bird. It was beautiful. Very pretty. There were those three scarves and the other dove was in the hat. He came out with one dove in the hat too, nobody knew that, but there was a little dove sitting there that was crouched down in there.
Man: See, he went through so many phases of developing the act…The candles–
NB: That was after New York.
Man: That was? Oh, I see.
June: How long was the act?
NB: Between seven to nine minutes and quite often we would go to a place and they’d say, look, we want 15 minutes. So he’d say, “I can’t do 15 minutes” and they’d say, “You’ve got to.” So he would try, as Russell said, to add something like the candles.
Man: And the zombie?
NB: And the zombie routine and everything and it wasn’t the same. This act as it was–
Man: Was a tightly cut act–
NB: With the cards and the doves. It was beautiful, that was perfect. There was nothing more you could want. And people were surprised. I think it was nine minutes. And he would stretch it out if they said we want 12 minutes. He would say, “Ok, fine, sure.” And he would stretch it out, take longer at things and do more cards and look at the, and he always, maybe you heard, he painted one eyebrow that went up a little because he would raise his eyebrow. See, he would walk out–we could work anywhere in the world because he didn’t say a word, he would walk out on the stae and he would look at the audience and he had a saying. The only way he could get himself to relax was to think to himself–“You’re a bunch of so-and-sos, you’re nothing. You’re noboody.”
NB: He would think this to himself and he’d raise one eyebrow and looking so superior that everybody would go, “Ohhh.” In other words, he was scared to death but he would be terribly calm and suave.
Man: He had a presence and when he came onstage he had this sort of sideways glance that was very much like Mother described.
NB: It was Channing. It was him and he was the only one that could do it.
Man: It was very, ahh, commanding. You have to command the stage when you’re doing something like that, like magic. Because everybody has to be watching every little thing …
NB: Yeah and he learned that. Benny Chavez taught him to walk on and look, look, you had to be in command of yourself. If you are nervous or shy, you drop things, and the audience gets nervous. He had to act superior and this was his whole thing of complete elegnc: tails, being six-foot-four, handsome, debonnair. Everyone likes class and it was a class act.
June: Was he into the health food thing then?
NB: No. Oh no, that didn’t happen until his second marriage.
June: He said he put mayonnaise in his hair.
NB: Well, see, the trouble with his hair. He always had trouble with his hair. He had fine, thin hair and it could flop in his face so he used to grease it with vaseline and try to make it stay up and look, you know, in the pictures you’ve seen of him. It would just glisten because it was soaked down with vaseline hair tonic, that’s what he used.
NB: The worst time–and I think anybody can tell you this–is if anybody you know is in the audience–a relative, another magician, and then he’d be nervous, really nervous because magicians are very critical. But as far as –I wasn’t in the spotlight and if I was–I wasn’t frightened for me. By that time I was relaxed. I was afraid something would go wrong. And every now and then something did go wrong. There were, ahhh, this was later on after we did the Ed Sullivan Show. We got in with the Hilton chain and that was the top. The Hilton Hotels–at that time vaudeville was very very big.
NB: All the Hilton Hotels had a show. The biggest place you could play was the Plummer House in Chicago. We did a show there. After we played the Blue Angel, we played with Burl Ives and a fellow named, ahh, a guy who became a real good comic and he’s still playing around–but I can’t remember his name.
June: mentions name?
NB: Oh, no, that was an English comic. Haven’t gotten to England yet. Good grief. England’s another story.
Man: He was still–actually we haven’t gotten to the Palace–
NB: Oh, the Palace was wonderful. An old theater. The dressing rooms are old. You have steam heat that comes out and we lived–we moved to a place called Wanaque, New Jersey, across the Hudson River. You couldn’t live in a trailer–there’s no trailer parks in New York City at all, of course. We had to live in this swamp, is what it was, in Wanaque, new Jersey. We parked our trailer there and then we would commute and we would drive to New York. Or we used to take the bus, didn’t we, honey?
Man: Uh huh.
NB: And Russell would come with us and at the Palace you had to play four shows a day and five on Saturdays. That was hard work. But to play the Palace where Judy Garland played and all the biggies was thrilling. After we played the Blue Angel, which was terribly suave and elegant, we went to the Palace. Maybe it was just backwards, and it was in the wintertime, and we would get on the bus and we had to do a show at 12:00, 4:00, 8:00 and what would it be? Not 12:00 again. Something. There were four shows. They would show a movie and then they would have the vaudeville acts, then show a movie and then have the vaudeville acts. We would take Russell. We would get on the bus and I can remember those days so well. We would get off at the Greyhound bus depot–
Man: Oh yeah. And we would have hot chocolate in the morning. It was freezing cold. I still remember the smell, the diesel smell of those busses and the hot chocolate–
NB: Then we’d take our taxi probably or a bus, I can’t remember, to the Palace and go in and go into our dressing room and it was very cold, winter. We had–it was snow everywhere, beautiful. We just spent the day there because we to do four shows and sometimes you’d look out and there was nobody there because on a Monday or Tuesday there was nobody watching you, you know. That was hard, hard work and we only made $125 a week. But it was the Palace, and believe you me, that was a thrill.
NB: And about 8 o’clock at night–there was a couch on the dressing room–we’d put Russell down, put him to sleep. We had tuna sandwiches. We couldn’t afford to go out and eat. So we would put him to bed and we’d all have tuna sandwiches. Do you remember? Put him on the couch and then at midnight when the show was over, we’d wake him up. Channing would pick him up, put him on his shoulder, and we’d go back, get a taxi to the depot, to the bus depot and go back to our trailer. The bus stopped right outside our trailer park which waas nice.
NB: And we would walk across the street. Poor Russell, was sound asleep. We put him to bed, we’d sleep, get up, go back to the Palace, do another, and i odn’t know what it was–two weeks probably–but it was a thrill to play, to tell everyone we played–but hard work, very hard work.
NB: It wasnt’ a lot of money and it wasn’t the case where we got a lot of notoriety. We got really good clippings and I think you’ve probably seen the clippings. And wherever we went we usually got pretty–we always looked in the Variety and there was always a little squib in Variety. And we would look at Palace Theater and then they’d have so-and-so and so-and-so and Channing Pollock, one of the most elegant magicians we’ve ever seen and this and that. It was thrilling.
NB: Then they sent us to Boston. That was a wonderful experience even though we had to pull that trailer in the fog up from New York. We left when they had one of the biggest snow storms of the year and our trailer was completely snowed in and we had to dig the trailer and our car out. Then we tried to start the car and the wheels skidded and we couldn’t get the trailer to pull..finally we got on the road and it was socked in fog from New York to Boston. Terrifying. I was frightened.
NB: We had a bigger trailer by now, with a bathroom and it was more comfortable–and it was swaying behind us. We would look back and this thing was just swaying and we couldn’t see more than, oh, 50 feet ahead of us. You’re pulling and don’t know where you’re going because we had never been to Boston.
NB: We worked in a place called The Vienna Room. Steubbens Vienna Room in Boston, which is no more. A year ago John and I went to Boston and it’s no longer there. It was a dinner theater. People would be watching the show and it was a lot like Las Vegas but not with the showgirls. The thing about Boston was some places are really special. The only trouble is we had to work in the Vienna Room which was beautiful and elegant and all the nicest people came, and then we had to work in this little green dive next door. That was in our contract and it was awful because there were drunks sitting there and they would say, “Unhuh, I can see where you get that.” We worked in the Vienna Room and then we had to work in this little tiny room which they owned. But they gave us presents and they were so kind to us and we got very friendly with the emcee and his wife and Channing played golf in the snow. Boston was beautiful. We loved it there. Then we started traveling. We did shows in Atlantic City and then the thrill came, our first thrill. We were going to do a show. The press assocation, what do you call it?–
Man: Press International?
NB: Press Association–
June: White House Correspondents?
NB: White House Correspondents. And that was wonderful. We went to Washington and we stayed in the Statler-Hilton. It was the Hilton Hotel and we did a show for President Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, ahh, what’s the name of the man who caused all the trouble?
June: Edgar Hoover.
NB: No, not Ed—I think he was there. The man, ahhh, McCarthy.
Man: Oh yeah?
NB: McCarthy was there, the stinker. And we did a show with a group–a couple and I can’t think of their name–they were very big in the theater at the time. Mary–
June: Mary Lynn Hayes?
NB: Right. Mary Lynn Hayes. Right. Peter what’s his name and Mary Lynn, right. We had to be screened and fingerprinted before we did that show and in order to get into the hotel we had to have a pass and we felt very big. Afterwards they took us all into this room and we met the president and Ricahrd Nixon and Earl WArren who was then Secretary of State. My father was a minister in Sacramento and he went to our church. I said to him, “I’m Naomi. My father is Torrance Phelps and I’m his daughter.” “Oh, I’m glad to know you. Yes, I know your father very well.” I went to school with his daughter, Viriginia Warren, too, so I knew her and it was a thrilling experience, of course. Everybody asked us how we did it and where the birds were.
June: What did President Eisenhower say?
NB: He said “I’m glad you’re not in my cabinet. We would have to have you investigated.” That’s what he said. Nixon was there. He was in the background, he was the vice president then. And that was a feather in our cap.
NB: Mark Leddy would say, “This is good for you, baby. Every little thing you do is good for you. You’re never going to work in toilets again.” And he says, “You’re going to work at the top.” Then we did some Hilton Hotels and had a wonderful experience at the Palmer House in Chicago, that was exquisite. And that was where, I might add, my father and mother went on their honeymoon. When my father found out that we were going to play the Palmer House he changed his tune. We got them in and they had dinner there.
NB: We were doing the act and I could hear my father sitting in the front saying in a whisper, “That’s my son-in-law up there. That’s my son-in-law.” That’s the first time he accepted the fact that my husband was a magician and was doing very well. That was a beautiful experience because we got to go and see where I was born, and we had the day off, Sunday, and we drove to Kalamazoo where I lived and looked around. And then we did a big hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. Then we just worked around–
Man: Well, ahhh, I think this might be (sound of papers shuffling)
Man: We’re not to any of that yet.
NB: Another wonderful experience was the Jack Benny Show. Leddy said, “You’ve got to go out to the coast now. Jack Benny has seen you on television and wants you to be in his traveling show.” On the way we did a show in Atlanta and in Louisville, Kentucky. In Louisville we stayed in, a, what they call a theatrical boardinghouse type thing where all the acts were theatrical people and it was a lot of fun. It was a big old house and one night they said, “There’s a really good comic and he’s playing across the river in a club. You’ve got to go see him.” We had the night off and we went over to see him. It was Andy Griffith..and we sat there and watched this virile, what-do-you-call-it–
NB: Down-home type comic and then we met him. Later on he became a big star. We saw him when he was really nothing. He was doing a show and there were just six of us at a table and another table and he was doing his act and it was very clever. Then we came to California and we left Russell with–was it Channing’s parents or my parents? Anyway we left the–
Man: What year?
NB: Both our parents lived in Sacramento so we left Russell there and flew to San Francisco and from San Francisco we flew to Dallas, Texas and joined the Jack Benny Show. We flew to Los Angeles first. Jack Benny had always been one of my idols when I was a little girl. I got his autograph and everything.
Man: And she does have quite an autograph collection.
NB: He was so sweet. He didn’t want anyone to know who he was but he would walk around the terminal, Los Angeles airport just looking at people. Because he loves people. He loved people and he loved to watch them. Then we got on the airplane and we’re sitting in the plane and Jack Benny is up in first class–and suddenly he comes down the aisle and he stops where we were sitting, leans over and said, “I’m so glad ot meet you. You are so fantastic.” He shakes Channing’s hand and he’s saying, “I’m so glad you’re joining my show.: We had a wonderful tour. Giselle MacKenzie was on the show. I don’t know if you know who she is. She was very big then. And Sammy Davis and his father and his uncle.
Man: The Will Masten Trio.
NB: The Will Masten Trio. He was first starting out. He was a little boy when he joined the act. In those days Sammy Davis was incredible. He played the drums. He played the trumphet. He played every instrument and he sang and he tap danced. He did everything, he was so talented. He was just this little, teeny, tiny guy and I used to look at his hips. His hips were this big. He was just a little tiny, slight–ten-inch across. And he was so funny. We toured with him and we had our own private train section on the train.
NB: We stayed two weeks in Dallas and then went up to Portland and played two week and we went to Vancouver and played two weeks and then two weeks at Seattle where they finished. Channing’s parents drove to Seattle and met us and that was such a plum.
NB: In those days everybody came to see Jack Benny. He came to Channing one day and he said, “Will you teach me just one trick?” He would come on and talk a little bit and then an act would come on and he’d come out and tell some jokes and then another act and then we would come out and do our act and then Jack Benny would walk out, and, you know, he’d walk out and he’d look at the audience and then all he did was just produce a whole fan of cards. He said nothing and everybody screamed. And I always had the privilege of being on the same side of the stage as he was. Channing came on at the right and I always came on at the left and we came together.
NB: The cage was carried on. By that time, we’re so big that instead of me carrying the cage on, they carried it on for us. So we both came on and joined in the middle of the stage. Jack Benny would stand back there and he would be a little nervous and he would look out and he would ask, “What’s the audience like out there? Do you think they’re any good?” And I would say, “Sound pretty good to me tonight, Jack.” “Do you think we’re going to go over tonight?” And I’d say, “Yeah, Jack. Fine.” He would always give me a big kiss–grab my face and give me a big kiss. He says, “You’re just a real pretty girl, you know.”
NB: And after the Jack Benny Show, I think, we were in San Francisco. At Bimbo’s in San Francisco which was a good club.
Man: Yeah it was.
NB: Yeah, it used to be, with the girl in the fishbowl. All our family–my brother and his wife–lived there adn they came to see us. That’s where Russell broke his arm.
NB: Fell off a slide and broke his arm. From there we went to Puerto Rico and played two weeks at the Cariba Hilton Hotel–it was like being paid to go to a goregous place to work.
Man: I got to go along.
NB: Yeah, Russel came with his big cast and everybody was so sympathetic, poor little boy.
Man: Was that before the cruise to Jamaica and Cuba–
NB: I think it was. Then the following winter, Puerto Rico–
Man: Puerto Rico–
NB: Puerto Rico. We were in with the Hilton Hotel group so we played the Hilton there. The weather was wonderful and we spent Halloween there. Russell went trick-or-treating.
Man: Where? Puerto Rico?
NB: Do you remember? In Puerto Rico. Nobody knew what he was doing. He was dressed up in a little ghost outfit and we’d go knock on the door and “Que, que?” They’d say, “Que” which is “what” and he’d say “twick-or-tweat”–you know, little guy. They didn’t know so they’d slam the door in his face because he had a jack-o-lantern and it was funny. But we’d swim and snorkel.
NB: We went on a cruise in the winter and spent Christmas–we got on the ship at New York and cruised down to the Bahamas and went to Tahiti.
NB: Not Tahiti, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba. Cuba, then, of course, was safe.
Man: And Nassau.
NB: We did one show aboard ship and one show on the way back aboard the ship. That was all. We stayed in Nassau for two weeks and did a show in a brand new hotel called the Emerald Beach Hotel. This was their first show. Air-conditioning flooded the whole hotel. The British Colonial Hotel was the beautiful hotel–big, old hotel but ours was brand new. I learned to water ski there.
NB: However, on the way down on the ship, Russell was just at the age–and this is not motherly pride–but he was a charming boy at that age. He was about five and everybody liked him and he was playing with these two little British children and I looked at them and they had all these terrible red spots all over their faces. They didn’t look well. I said to Chaning, ” I think those children have measles.” They had a nanny and their mother and father were off in the club drinking. I said to the nanny, “Are they sick?” “Oh, they’ve had chicken pox but they’re all over it now. They’re ok.”
NB: Chicken pox takes 21 days to incubate. 21 days later guess who came down with chicken pox? This little fella. If we’d told the ship’s officials they would have quarantined us so we kept Russell down in our cabin in the ship. By this time everybody liked Russell and they’d ask, “Where’s Russell?” “Oh, he’s got the flu.” “Aww, well, I’ll go down and see him.” “No, no, no, no.”
NB: We didn’t want anyone to go down in case they hadn’t had it. He was so sick. Luckily there was a man aboard who was a doctor and on his vacations he used to go on these cruises and perform as a clow. That was his bit of fun and he’d completely let himself go–nobody was there that knew him. And he did this clown act. So when Russell got sick, I said to him, “My son has got this terrible fever and he’s got these funny spots.” He came to our cabin and took one look at him and said, “He’s got chicken pox. Don’t let him come up.” So he stayed down below. Do you remember that, honey?
NB: And then we covered him up–
Man: The thing is how–how did you keep them from–
NB: We just didn’t tell them. We didn’t tell anybody. The doctor didn’t tell anybody because it would have been terrible. Then Mark Leddy said to us, ” Ok. I’m working with the Lewen, Lesslie, Graden office in London. Well, Lewen, Lesslie, Graden are the best–the biggest–well Lew Graden is now Sir Lew Graden. He has been knighted.
Man: They’re still–ahhh, they bought out all the Beatles. Lew Graden bought all the old Beatles songs, the publishing rights.
June: He was the English manager and Leddy–
NB: Exactly. And he said, “You’re going to London.” That was like saying to you, “Where would you most like to go in the world?” That was where I wanted to go. I always wanted to go to England.
NB: We got our passports and we sold our trailer. We said goodbye to everybody and we flew to London. Up until then we’d been–see, in America, it’s such a big country that a magician could never make a dent. I mean, Ok, he was well liked and he was doing well in the Class A dining rooms and theaters but nobody in America knew who he was. And by then Channing was getting a lot of confidence.
NB: He still had his greasy hair. He still had his shy, quiet nature. And we went to London. We were booked into the two biggest places in London, the Savoy Hotel which is the most elegant hotel in London for two weeks. We worked there for two weeks and then we went into the Paladium. The Paladium is “the” place in the world. It still is. It is just IT.
NB: We were so thrilled we could hardly stand it. We got to London–they met us at the airport–the Graden office met us with a private car and took us to the Cumberland Hotel, one of the really nice hotels. They wouldn’t allow our birds up in the room so we stayed there a few days and then moved to a little place called Ollivelli’s, a theatrical boarding house, a charming old place and we walked our feet off every day looking at London.
NB: Then we did the Savoy Hotel. We met Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Laurence Olivier was my dream man and he came backstage and he said, “Would you tell the magician to come out. We’d like to meet him.” So Channing came backstage and said Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier want us to meet them. So I said, “Oh, come on!” And we met them and I sat across the table and stared at him and he lit my cigarette. Channing was always trying to quit smoking and I never smoked. Never smoked. But I was so nervous I was like this and he lit my cigarette. I talked to Vivian Leigh just like i’m talking to you. She was lovely. We got fairly good reviews. Then we went to the Paladium. And I don’t know whether it was just the time was right or what but they went crazy over that act.
NB: We were with Rosemary Clooney on that show. She was the top act and we were the second. But see Mark Leddy said, “You can’t have Channing unless you put him second on the bill. No way.” They said, “Oh, we don’t want him. We don’t even know who he is.” “Just take it from me, he’s exquisite.” He was marvelous, that man (Leddy). Sometimes you could kill him because he said, “You’re not going to work now for a month because I don’t want you to work in any toilets.” And we’d sit there with nothing, no money and we wouldn’t work. I used to get so frustrated, you know, we had no money. I’d say, well, you know, “What does he think we are?” But he knew what he was doing. He did not ever want us to step backwards, not one step back. So we went into the Paladium and the reviews were fantastic.
NB: Rosemary Clooney looked sweet and little Miss Sunshine but she was a tough lady, very tough lady. She talked tough. She came on and said, “Well, you know, here I am and everything.” But when you met her backstage she was–well speaking of chain smoking–she smoked constantly and she was just tough. She was married to Jose Ferrer at the time. He was such a gentleman. And she never really spoke to us. She was always sick as I recall. Always sick, always had an upset stomach. So she didn’t socialize with the other acts very much.
NB: But there was a man who owned the theater, his name was Val Parnall, and he always took his stars out to dinner the last night of the show. A Rolls Royce pulled up at Ollivelli’s and picked us up and took us to this intimate little private club. We had dinner there with Rosemary Clooney, Jose Ferrer and Val Parnall and his wife. In England Val Parnall was Mr. Showbusiness because he owned the Paladium and he owned some theaters. He was a showman himself and then he retired and he was a very elegant, handsome man. And we sat there thinking, “What’s happening to us.”
NB: In fact I was talking to a friend of mine in England recently and he was telling me about Val and how he got terribly ill and all the things that happened…The Grade family were –they were Russian Jews. There’s Bernard Delfont who’s now in the music–is he in the music or in the theater line? Lew Grade does nothing but movies now and Leslie does all the vaudeville type of thing. They’re still going very sstrong.
NB: And then Channing got a fan club, his own fan club. And he was mobbed at the stagedoor. When we used to leave the theater–
Man: Did you get to how you got to go over there? I stayed in Los Angeles–
NB: Russell stayed. Yeah. Russell–we thought we were only going to stay four weeks, two weeks at the Savoy, two weeks at the Paladium. So we left Russell in Mojave with my mother and father. My father was then retired and he loved the desert and he moved to Mojave. Imagine. So we left Russell there and he ahd a horrible time, I think–
Man: Oh, it was bleak.
NB: Bleak and isolated and Mummy and Daddy were in England–
Man: These sent me these little toy men that were like those English guards that guard Buckingham Palace with fur hats, black fur hats–and I’d get these and pretty soon I was there six months and I felt L.A. to London all by myself at the age of six.
NB: Put him on a plane. And some friends of ours, they were magicians, met him in New York. We started working in the theaters around London, the Chissick Emprie, Finsbury Park Empire and then we went to Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and we’d work two weeks…Hippodrome.
June: There are different Hippodromes in different cities?
NB: Yes, that’s right.
June: I didn’t quite understand that….
NB: Yes, yes. They’re all run by the same….they were the top theaters. There were the Empires and the Hippodromes. We played the Empires in London and then we played the Hippodromes in, ahhh
Man: Chains of theaters–
NB: They were chains of theaters and they are all vaudeville theaters strictly.
Man: Just like United Artists here and Fox–
NB: They would have two shows a night at 6:15 and 8:30 every night, the same show. English people love the theater.
Man: They still have the greatest audiences in the world.
NB: They were marvelous. They would cheer you. When we came out it out–it was like a thunder of applause when you finished. They loved vaudeville and it was just superb. They would just love you.
End of Interview