By Stanley Paul
Suddenly, everything was moving so quickly. When the McGuire Sisters’ stay at Basin Street East came to an end, the management informed me that my trio would be opening act for the next headliner: Miss Peggy Lee! The year before, she’d had a huge hit with a live recording called Peggy Lee at Basin Street East, but then she came down with an illness and dropped straight out of sight. Rumors were that it was emphysema or something equally serious, and so her opening night being back was the most packed the club had been in ages. Everyone who was anyone came to see her… and even people who weren’t!
Miss Peggy Lee.
I walked onto the stage and started playing, looking around the room to see if I recognized anyone. And seated right there in front of me was the legendary composer Richard Rodgers with his daughter Mary. (I was nervous from that point on.) I finished my twenty-minute set to polite applause, but everyone was just glaring at me, viewing me as the one person keeping Peggy Lee from appearing sooner! I couldn’t wait to get off!
When I got backstage, all was chaos! Pandemonium! People were running all over as though the place had just caught fire. “Get some oxygen in here!” someone screamed, and almost immediately two guys carrying a tank plowed their way through the onlooking crowd. (As for me, I just stood there with my mouth hanging open until I felt someone begin to shake me.)
“What the hell’s the matter with you!” he was screaming at me. “Get back out there and play for God’s sake!”
“I can’t go back out there,” I tried to explain… but I could feel myself being steadily pushed back onto the stage.
“She won’t be ready for at least another twenty minutes yet!” someone shouted. “Just play something!”
As my feet made their way back to the piano, I could hear a groaning sigh come from the audience. “What’s he doing back?” someone said, offering what was probably the most icy performance welcome of my life. I tried to pretend I didn’t hear and launched into some Gershwin, but the crowd paid no attention, murmuring and sighing louder and louder. And this continued for twenty agonizing minutes. But, just as I imagined a lynch mob would be forming, she was finally ready!
“And now… Miss Peggy Lee!” the announcer shouted, and the house erupted into cheers. (I’d never heard such a roar, and so I scrambled off the stage to get out of the way).
After her recovery that evening, there were no more emergencies or delays, and for the next two weeks, each performance was magic.
Peggy Lee and me.
She was so nice; she’d call me by name as I walked by her dressing room (and she was like that with everyone)… as opposed to the McGuire Sisters who barely acknowledged my existence.
Around that time, I was contacted by Dr. Nuland: “Coral Records [a subsidiary of the larger Decca Records] is going to sign you to a contract.” I was to record the title song for a movie about to be released entitled My Geisha, starring Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand. “A movie!” I kept repeating excitedly!
I was given the music, my choice of a Steinway piano to record on, and then proceeded to practice the song until I could play it backwards and forwards. When I entered the studio, I was completely prepared.
Henry Jerome, a well-known band-leader with Decca Records, was there to conduct what looked like an entire symphony orchestra; I was petrified, but somehow got through the session with no retakes.
The Basin Street East gig ended, and my trio was promptly booked at the Mermaid Room of the Park-Sheraton Hotel, a well-known room of the day.
In Good Company in the summer of 1962.
As my time at the Mermaid Room continued, the My Geisha record was finally released, and I was sent to every radio station within hearing distance to visit the disc jockey and give them free copies so they’d play it. Decca set up a promotion schedule for me, and there were notices in Variety, Billboard and Cashbox saying wonderful things about the record.
Soon enough, the movie was ready to open at the DeMille Theater on Broadway, and I was instructed by Decca to distribute some records to the first hundred or so people who showed up. (I almost had to force them to take the records though.) The people who came to see the movie couldn’t have cared less about the record… they had never heard of Stanley Paul, and the title song didn’t mean anything to them either.
My Geisha couldn’t hold a candle to the popularity of the scandalous film Lolita, starring Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, and James Mason, that was opening down the street at the Loews Theater the very same night. (It was the talk of the town, all I’d been reading about in the papers for days.) Disappointed by the tepid reception, I concocted a plan.
“I have a wild idea!” I told Dr. Nuland.
“You always have a wild idea, Stanley,” he responded dryly.
Unfazed, I proceeded, “Could you call a few talent agencies and see if you can hire us a geisha? She doesn’t have to be authentic, just someone who can play the role.”
“Why? What are you planning to do?” he asked, instantly suspicious.
I replied, “Don’t worry about it. Just trust me. Oh, and by the way, how much would it cost to rent a Rolls Royce?”
Next I called his teenage daughter and asked her to bring all the girlfriends she could round up to the theater.
“Forget it!” she said, but quickly changed her mind when I offered them a dollar apiece to mob me when I got out of the Rolls at the Lolita opening.
I ran back to my apartment, grabbed my oldest of the three tuxedos I now owned, and made a visit to my friend Bella, a Hungarian tailor. (I asked her to take the suit apart and put it back together again in such a way that it would be very easily ripped apart.)
“But vhy you do it?” she protested.
“Please do it! Will you? I really need it!”
“Vhat’s going on sveetheart? You do some trick in show?” she said, eyes wide open and glaring uncertainly.
“At once!” I responded. “But hurry, I only have a few hours!”
I ran down the block to the local art store and bought some paint, brushes, and cardboard, proceeding to put together some signs announcing “STANLEY PAUL FAN CLUB!” or “STANLEY IS OUR IDOL!”
I ran back to Bella’s, who handed over the tux and charged me $20… “goot luck dalingk” she yelled as I scrambled out the door.
Thirty minutes ahead of schedule, Dr. Nuland’s daughter – with about a dozen of her friends – arrived to pick up their signs. And even better, Dr. Nuland informed me that he knew the announcer of arrivals at the Lolita premiere (and that he had promised to make a big fuss when I arrived).
Everything was set. I was walking around like Frankenstein, afraid to even sit lest I burst a seam in my tux. The Rolls Royce, which cost $50, arrived with Dr. Nuland inside, and the geisha was waiting curbside in full costume. (On the way to the theater, I tried to explain every detail of my plan to her. She merely smiled sweetly and nodded her head… I never realized that she was the real thing until Dr. Nuland told me she spoke no English!)
At 46th and Broadway, I stuck my head out of the car to gauge the size of the crowd. Not enough people had showed up yet, so we turned around, killed another twenty minutes, and then came back around for another pass. And by that time, the place was mobbed!
The Rolls pulled right up in front of the red carpet that had been laid out for the movie stars’ arrival, and as we slowed to a stop, I heard the announcer’s booming voice exclaim, “He’s here! The teenage idol, STANLEYYYYY PAUL, with his new hit record, MYYYYY GEISHA!”
“Teenage idol?” The last time I was a teenager I was still living at home with my parents in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As I got out of the car, all my paid fans began to scream.
They were waving their painted signs, crying, yelling, and mobbing me as I tried to make my way to the microphone. When I started throwing out records, the girls all jumped on me and began tearing my tux to shreds! The news photographers were going wild by now, bulbs flashing everywhere fans screaming in a chaotic frenzy, and everything going according to plan. (The only hitch in the plan was with the poor geisha girl, who had had no idea what to expect. As soon as things began to get crazy, she bolted back to the car and stood there, completely frozen. Her beautiful almond eyes were the size of Brazil nuts as Dr. Nuland stood beside her, trying to calm her down.)
Someone from Seven Arts, present to help promote Lolita, kept asking, “What the hell is going on? Who is this guy?” But his words were drowned out by the crowd as someone shouted to one of the stars of the film, Shelley Winters, “Go stand with Stanley Paul!” And she did!!
“Who’s Stanley Paul?” someone said from the far edge of the crowd.
“I don’t know,” another responded, “but everyone else sure seems to!”
Sue Lyon, James Mason, and Shelley Winters made their way through the crowd and into the theater, and I was ushered in after them, then out a side door and into the waiting car. (I never even got to see the movie until years later on TV.) We dropped the geisha off at the spot we had picked her up at, and I changed into my non-shredded tuxedo as the car sped to the curb of the Mermaid Room. This evening’s performance was fifteen minutes late, and I sat down at the piano completely out of breath (and thanking God I hadn’t been fired).
The movie My Geisha did not exactly thrill the critics, so after no more than a few weeks, my record was hardly getting any airplay. Decca did say, however, that they were very pleased with my performance and that they’d find something else for me to record soon. Though the movie and record hadn’t done particularly well, my publicity stunt had had excellent results. I was starting to get noticed, and soon received an offer to be part of a program that was being sponsored by the Junior Achievement Society of New York: I was going to perform at Carnegie Hall!
Coming up next in Stanley Paul’s This and That Series Getting My Start My Start in New York: From Carnegie Hall to the Pump Room.