Enrico Banducci's Legendary hungry i Lives Again!
hungry i Memories 5
Producer, director and screenwriter DAN BESSIE, son of the “voice of the hungry i,” ALVAH BESSIE, shares some vignettes about life around the club.
“While raising a family and working in film in Los Angeles during the years that my father Alvah Bessie worked the lights and acted as backstage announcer at the hungry i, I unfortunately had little chance to visit him there. Only twice, perhaps, and the visits were rather rushed. I did catch Irwin Corey, however, as well as a couple other acts. So most of the color I know about was passed on via Alvah, and from my sister Eva Bessie Wilson - organizer and first president of the Kingston Trio Fan Club.
My father, however, regaled me with stories; of the night Jonathan Winters suffered a breakdown on stage; of writing two screenplays on spec for Lenny Bruce (which never sold); of Bruce phoning Western Union from backstage to send a telegram. "You have the most beautiful pussy in the world," he asked that it read. When Western Union replied that he couldn't say that, Bruce said, "OK, make it, 'you have the most gorgeous pussy in the world." (The comedian was simply being outrageous.); of Woody Allen promising that "When I make it big, Alvah," I'll get you back into writing screenplays for Hollywood." (It never happened, but Allen did contribute $500 toward publication of Alvah's 1982 short story collection and novella, THE SERPENT WAS MORE SUBTIL.) And then there was Barbra Streisand, who, on leaving the club after a two week run in 1963, presented her announcer with an antique necktie box, and a note saying, "Alvah, without you I am a myth."
In 1980 Alvah's novel ONE FOR MY BABY was published, a fiction drawn from his own life experience and from his days at the fabulous hungry i. Anyone who remembers those years will find many of the characters remarkably familiar.”
Dan Bessie moved from California to southern France in 2006. His most recent book is Reeling Through Hollywood; How I Spent 40 Fabulous Years in Film and Never Made a Nickel. In addition to teaching and book publishing, he's currently working on several others, including one on the Hollywood Blacklist. His website is www.bluelupinpress.com, and he can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ROGER P. KOVACH, whose blog at http://rkovach.wordpress.com/ is indispensable reading, tells the following story about two particular visits to the hungry i.
"Starting in 1955 or '56 my first wife, Terry, and I started going to the Hungry i, perhaps to see Irwin Corey who was a favorite of ours in our Greenwich Village days. Corey was a regular at the Village Vanguard which we went to on occasion.
Without doubt on this occasion we went to hear some comic, perhaps Corey, perhaps Mort Sahl. There was a new “folk music” quartet performing between sets by the featured performer. I put the quotes in because we folk song cognoscenti turned our noses up at these nightclub acts, they were faux folk, too slick, lacking the authenticity, the grittiness, etc., etc. This group, called the Gateway Singers, was, nonetheless, very entertaining and the comic patter by their bass fiddle (!) strumming leader, Lou Gottlieb, showed that they were not taking themselves too seriously which was disarming. One of the pieces they sang that night was Lead Belly's Midnight Special.
Enrico Banducci required his performers to go to the bar and mix with the audience in the intermissions - a nice idea. So, in the first intermission I approached Gottlieb and Jerry Walter and asked them about that song, offering some background. there was a young, quite drunk Beat sitting on the edge of his barstool next to us, eavesdropping on the whole conversation. He then started on the line “What difference does it make? The audience won't know all that crap” and so on. When I protested that the singers at least should know and understand the meaning, he started getting hostile. Gottlieb stepped between us and that was the end of the whole affair.
A few months later we went to the Hungry i again. There were three aisles in the auditorium, one down the center from the entryway, and two coming in at right angles from the sides ending at the front edge of the stage. The performers entered from the right side of the house. I was sitting on that aisle with Terry to my right. The Gateway Singers were announced, the house lights turned down and as they entered Gottlieb gave me a firm pat on the left shoulder. When they were in place their first selection was Midnight Special and when they got to the Houston verse the instruments were silenced, Gottlieb sang the stanza as I gave it to them a capella while looking at me. A nice gesture."
GEORGE HARNICK, now living on the opposite coast of the United States, describes the scene at the hungry i when it first got started.
”Our window for The Hungry I must have been 1952-56. (We moved away from the Bay Area in 1956. As I lived abroad for several years, I did not get to San Francisco until after The Hungry i closed. I looked for it, unsuccessfully, in April
of 2005, my last time in The City.)
we were not there weekly by any means. It seemed to be the time when the North Beach area started to sprout places of entertainment as well as eateries.
Located at the bottom of Columbus Ave, The Hungry I was more part of North Beach than of Montgomery Street and the Financial District.
The setting was a brick lined basement with wooden chairs in a semi circle in front of a small stage. If I remember correctly, the chairs were the type we had in college, with the right arm wide to support a notebook. There it was used to hold the drinks. I don' think food was served in the theater, only drinks.
Mort Sahl, a witty stand up comedian got his start there, he had many local and national political jokes an never had to use vulgarity to be funny. He was usually dressed in a sleeveless sweater, shirt sleeves rolled up. In his hand there was always a rolled up news paper, presumably the source of his stories.
It must have been in the early Fifties when the Purple Onion got started, practically across the street, with Phyllis Diller,a very funny female comedian. I think it was The Hungry I's first competitor.”
Prof. PAT McCASKY, an entertainer in his own right appearing around Pennsylvania, was a teenager during the heyday of the hungry I, but he was regularly in the background around the club and environs when his father, STAGG McMANN served as emcee and performer on its stage.
” There were several clubs in the San Francisco area that employed my father. They included the hungry i, the Purple Onion and the 365 Club. There was also a place that I believe was called something like the "black ball" (however in French). I remember the period in funny little snippets. I was at most a high schooler.
I do remember Alva Bessie running the sound and lights at the hungry i. He was the
famous voice that said on so many recordings, "Good evening ladies and
gentlemen. The hungry i is proud to present ... “
There was also Morgan Montague who worked as the house booking agent for a bit, and was my dad's personal manager for a while as well. Morgan and Enrico Banducci were partners in a couple of Clown Alley hamburger stands. One was right behind the "i". Another was on Divisidaro and Lombard. Morgan had one that I believe he alone owned in Berkeley. I worked at the two in San Francisco one summer.
I remember one great night when the Smothers Brothers were hanging around Clown Alley in between shows. They were playing at the Purple Onion. Enrico never hired them because he didn't think they were funny (as my
dad related it).
Enrico was at the counter, eating chili and Tommy just came up and sat next to him to bug him.
I remember dad saying once that Enrico always under paid his help because he
was sure they were "stealing" the difference from him in free drinks, and drinks that they never rang up.
One night dad came home to tell us about this great girl singer working in the lounge at the hungry i. He said she had "great pipes". Her name was Barbara Streisand.”
[Pat McCasky refers to himself as a “folk singer from the old school.” To be treated to some samples from his CD, “McCaskey,” check out ttp://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mccaskey.]
KEITH REEKIE, now resident in Washington State was part of the college set who frequented the hungry i.
”I was a Stanford student in the late '50s. Like so many Bay Area college students of the time, I considered a visit to the hungry i the enterpiece of an evening in The City.”
The HUNGRY I is legendary.
When I moved to the Bay area from Westwood, California. I was advised by Bud Dashiell, (of BUD & TRAVIS) to contact Mr. Bud Steinhoff right away and try to get an appearance at the hungry i.
And it happened. I think it was 1979 or 1980 that I got a 2 song set for the tour buses. It was a night I won't forget. People were generous, wonderfully supportive and everything you could hope for in a night on stage.
Unlucky for me, this was before artists could cut an inexpensive cassette or CD. People asked if I sold anything and I was so bummed that I had nothing. All I have now is the wonderful memory of that night. Oh and I have kept a canceled check for payment of my services!
Former Beverly Hills deejay NORM HUNTER of radio station KCBH hit the hungry i before he went into broadcasting.
I remember going to the Hungry i on occasion in the North Beach section
San Francisco while I was stationed at Travis AFB in 1955 & 1956. I'm not sure whether I got to see Travis Edmonson and the Singers while attending the shows but I do remember Professor Irwin Corey...a very, very funny comedian of the time.
Experience your own hungry i reunion with the wonderful DVD featuring commentary by Enrico Banducci and performances by The Kingston Trio, Limeliters, Mort Sahl, jonathan Winters, Stan Wilson + rare Lenny Bruce footage. Just click the icon to order direct from Amazon!