It’s Jersey legend Floyd Vivino, pictured in his familiar “Uncle Floyd” get-up and (inset) as his sophisticated, king-of-showbiz self.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit May 12, 2009)
“This is Floyd Vivino, returning your call,” said the instantly recognizable voice on the answering machine. “You can try me at this number later on, but to tell you the truth I can be a little hard to get hold of sometimes. I’m in show business, you know.”
Even when he’s not particularly trying, Floyd Vivino can make us laugh — in this case, with the absurdity of having to remind anyone that his is anything but a life spent completely immersed in show business. The fact is, from the moment that he first tapped onto an Atlantic city stage with a child dance act, the man known as “Uncle Floyd” has arguably not spent one second of his life outside of the Business of Show.
For people of a “certain age” and temperament, the eternal touchstone in this saga is The Uncle Floyd Show, a purely Jersey phenomenon that appeared (sometimes just barely) in various permutations, on various lowball UHF stations and local cable systems, for over 25 years. A zero-budget amalgam of 1940s production values, hipster-undergound public access and eternal oddity Joe Franklin, the throwback to the classic kiddie shows of TV’s infancy struck a chord with just about everyone who had anything to do with the regional music scene — bringing musical nostalgicist Floyd a fervent following at such regional rock clubs as the old Fast Lane (where his live band included brothers Jimmy and Jerry Vivino, now of the Tonight Show’s Max Weinberg 7), a following that included the likes of David Bowie.
At its peak, Floyd fever resulted in a short-lived national TV show syndicated to NBC affiliates; an equally short-lived major label recording contract and acting gigs in high-profile films like Good Morning Vietnam (he’s at 7:45 in this clip). Since he hung up his porkpie hat in 2001, Vivino has seen his brothers become nationally recognized figures from network TV, while he’s maintained a steady pace as a radio host and constantly working performer of comedy routines, Italian songs, burlesque tributes and occasional revivals of “the Uncle Floyd character” with his assorted people/puppet pals. He’s a man who will work just about any venue, any live audience scenario — from a Bar Mitzvah to the Borgata — with one exception.
“I won’t do those things anymore,” says Floyd when asked about an appearance a few years back at the Red Bank Street Fair. “To me, that’s literally putting show business in the gutter.”
On Friday night, May 15, Vivino takes the famous stage of The Brighton Bar in Long Branch, in a comedy gig arranged by veteran booking agent and radio personality Randy “Now” Ellis and ostensibly tied in to this weekend’s TriCity Arts Tour — though we’re sure this would come as news to the talent. Red Bank oRBit spoke to the master entertainer, who had some interesting things to say about both his business and ours.
RED BANK ORBIT: Well, I have to say that to somebody my age you’re a personal hero — the old shows continue to resonate. And I know you’re always gigging around somewhere, but I do have some great memories of the old personal appearances at places like the Fast Lane in Asbury Park; your brothers Jimmy and Jerry would be there with all the guys from the show, and each time you’d pass this way you’d have a new one of those great 45 records…
FLOYD VIVINO: We used to knock those things out in ten minutes — one take! It cost us eighteen cents to make a 45; we’d sell ‘em for a buck. My brothers did some of their first work on those records; now they’re successful — they’re making $22,000 a week; having a ball. Me, I’m a working failure. I get people coming up to me all the time, calling me “the brother who never made it.” The local audiences can be cruel sometimes.
When you show up at the Brighton Bar this Friday, you’ll be tapping into that thing again to some extent; the place is kind of our local version of CBGB in the city, and your loyal fanbase of aging punks will be there.
You remember Legs McNeil, the original punk? We hung out together, me and Legs and his girlfriend Roberta Bayley. And I knew all the guys from the Ramones; all the old punk bands from those days. It was just like how me and the cast members from the show found each other — we were all street mutts; all the same stripe rebels. Showbiz people, punks, gangsters, cops, doctors — we’re all fringe people. Not 9 to 5. We never belonged to normalcy.
So what can we expect to see at Friday’s show? A piano act? Will you have your puppets with you, or any of your other helpers?
It’s just me this time, doing my standup comedy act. If you do puppets, you need a stage for that — I still do some shows like that, some bigger theater shows, lounge shows, all kinds of things. I’ll play anywhere from a senior village to a bar mitzvah, to a big casino — tonight I’m appearing at a firehouse!
Ever since James Brown died, you’ve gotta be the new Hardest Working Guy in Showbiz.
I do well over 360 shows a year! Sometimes two or three shows a day. I have every Saturday booked through March 2010 — in June I’m opening for Al Martino, then I’m flying to Reno for eight days. Vegas is in trouble, but Reno’s holding steady.
Well, Vegas isn’t nearly as bad as AC these days.
The Borgata, where I play when I work in Atlantic City, is only down around one percent this year — which is amazing, because most of the other casinos are down about 25 percent. The Borgata is 18 blocks away from the Steel Pier, where I started as a kid in show business.
How far afield do you travel to perform these days? Is it confined to the New York, New Jersey region for the most part, or do you book a lot of dates in places where they don’t remember the old TV shows?
I’m going to Providence, Rhode Island; Youngstown, Ohio — I’ll drive from here to Cleveland; seven hours. Six hours to Pittsburgh, three hours to Boston, seven or eight hours to North Carolina. I used to hop on a plane, but now it absolutely sucks. Going from Jacksonville to here, sometimes you’ll wind up sitting in Kentucky for five hours. But, well, you’ve gotta feed your seven kids.
You have seven kids?
Uh huh; the youngest is two. So I’m always working. But I’m old school — like an old country doctor in a way. Years ago a doctor looked at everything; a contractor or a mechanic would be able to build or fix anything. You’ve got to be specialized today.
Some of the old guys were pretty specialized themselves; I mean the old vaudeville variety acts that would show up on the Ed Sullivan show, like a plate spinner.
Yeah, you know, you saw those people in their twilight — those acts were preserved for posterity by Ed Sullivan. And Sullivan died a broken man, you know — before he passed away, he would tell all his friends in show business, we’re losing control of our own business. He foresaw a time when the accountants would start to take over, and, son of a gun, he was right on target.
Tell me about it; I worked for years in newspapers and publishing, and now it looks like I bet on the wrong horse for a career.
I’m a newspaper nut; I have to read the papers every day. But it seems as if the day has come for them — the advertising revenue is way down; the papers are all getting physically smaller, and it seems like only elderly people are responding to them.
Which brings us to our little online publication. Now, Floyd, for a guy who’s so identified with nostalgia and old things in general, you’ve always been there whenever there’s a new technology, a new medium — from cable TV to satellite radio; internet radio…
Well, you don’t necessarily make money or even have much of an impact that way. For instance, I was on satellite radio for five years, on The Wiseguy Show with Vincent Pastore and the other guys from The Sopranos. And to tell you the truth, you didn’t ever really see any excitement on the street from that show— I couldn’t pack a nightclub on the strength of it.
And for 23 years I’ve been on broadcast radio with an Italian show — we’re online with it now, because everybody’s online now, but really, what good is it? It doesn’t make any money online. I wish you luck with what you’re doing online, and I understand the reasons why you need to do it, but a friend of mine; he’s got a website where he just does his thing, going off on rants about people, and he’s telling me he got two million hits — but he can’t make five cents off of it.
I remember you driving around, selling your own local ads for your TV shows. You did what it took to make it work for yourself, somehow.
The shows I did, on the old UHF station and on local cable, were not public access. I ran it like a business. We bought the time, paid the stations, I paid the cast, sold the ads — and in return we got treated like garbage; we would have to reschedule the time we taped sometime to 8:30 in the morning. We froze in the winter and died in the summer inside that little studio, but we did something fun — although none of us have done it since.
It was truly the last gasp of what, back in the 50s and 60s, was taken for granted — the local kiddie show, with the live host, the characters, five days a week of original sketches. Who were some of the old pioneers, the great New York kiddie hosts, who made an impact on you?
Sandy Becker, Chuck McCann were always favorites. But going back to when I was a little kid, I’d have to say Miss Frances of Ding Dong School; Rootie Kazootie —Tommy Seven, who probably went off the air in 1964.
But all those people, Becker, McCann, even Soupy Sales, we were garbage to them; a joke. We were never invited to the party. And you know, probably 4000 of the 6000 shows I did wound up being erased by the station owners.
What I was doing was no different than the little store on the corner, getting crushed by the big corporate chain — there really is no local television anymore. It all ended for me around, well, it was in 2000, when I did a bit where I had my son dressed like a Teletubby — I threw him to my wife, who was standing just off camera, and they were outraged and claimed that I hurled him 40 feet across the room. People were accusing me of child abuse, and on that note, on April 15, 2001, I did my last show.
Yet you persevere. You remain a living legend for a lot of us, whether you choose to see yourself that way. And you’re out there night after night, doing any one of a number of different shows — you must have at least ten shows in your head that you can improvise on the spot at any given time.
I’ve done it all except become a star! But people in America, well, they’re into failure. They love a failure! And my show was a Titanic, that was sinking from the day it was launched. But here I am, with more work than I can handle at any time, still in the business. Show business never went out of business!