Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 31 2019
He’s been branded a menace to the morals of impressionable youth; a living standard-bearer for an all-but-forgotten style of humor and song, and a colorful cultural ambassador for Jersey pride — a human equivalent of pork roll (that’s a compliment) in a porkpie hat, and a LOUD jacket that would give pause even to the late great Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson.
No less a showman/fan than David Bowie (who saluted him in the song “Slip Away“) praised him as “one of the Last Entertainers” — and, in a career that’s taken him from the brink of nationwide stardom to the spaghetti dinner at your local firehouse (and all points between), Floyd Vivino has staked a claim to that mantle like almost no other performer alive.
“Comedy can heal or destroy,” says the veteran vaudevillian best known as Uncle Floyd. “It’s the most delicate form of entertainment, because unlike a music act you have to give the comedian your full attention, instead of hitting the dance floor.”
“You really need to look at the performer.”
For just about half a century now, Vivino has “made ya look” — and not only via those signature mega-decibel duds.
“I have very few checked blazers left…and forget finding porkpie hats anymore,” he says. “They’re in disrepair, but I manage to keep ‘em together, as long as you don’t look too closely.”
More than that, Floyd Vivino has made you listen, through a mastery of early 20th century popular piano styles and an encyclopedic knowledge of joke-book chestnuts, vintage novelty ditties, Italian favorites, singing-cowboy standards, and other Hit Parade paraphernalia from the era of sheet music and wax 78s.
To an entire mildly misguided generation of Garden State boomers, however, the man at the piano will forever be the host of The Uncle Floyd Show, the cheerfully anarchic, low/no budget “children’s program” that aired in various broadcast forums and formats from the mid 1970s to some time in the late 90s.
A throwback to the earliest pioneer days of television in terms of production values — and, for a demographic that grew up on the likes of Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann and Sandy Becker, a cherished echo of the “local kiddie host” era — the show was a madcap minestrone in which Floyd and his stock company of regulars (including Scott Gordon, Looney Skip Rooney, Mugsy and Netto) bulldozed their way through a very loose collection of puppet segments (featuring Oogie, Bones Boy and Mr. Tony), old-school songs, character skits (Eddie Slobbo, Cowboy Charlie and Joe Frankfutter, to name but a few), and viewer-generated “pictures on the wall.”
Somewhere along the line, the Floyd show got noticed and embraced by a burgeoning scene of punk/ new wave artists who jockeyed for exposure within the claustrophobic confines of the modest suburban studio. Lip-sync guests ranged from breakout acts like the Ramones, and NJ-based favorites like The Misfits, Smithereens, and Shrapnel — to downtown NYC avant garde percussionists, and even the occasional visitor from across the pond.
More legendary than lucrative, the TV show inspired Floyd to hit the regional road (with castmates, puppets, and full band featuring brothers Jimmy and Jerry Vivino) for a series of live gigs at nightclubs that included Asbury Park’s much-missed Fast Lane. While that TV heyday is sadly long past, Vivino has remained a frequent returnee to Asbury town — and when the entertainer comes back to the circuit this Friday, February 1, he’ll be taking it topside to the space-age saucer roundhouse of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club.
“I’ve been to McLoone’s several times, opening for acts like The Jersey Boys, but this will be my first time headlining,” Vivino says of the 8 pm solo affair. “And it’ll be an Uncle Floyd show, with the outfit and everything…I do perform in a tux every now and then, but that’s strictly for when I work the Catskills and out of state places!”
“We always had a great time performing in Asbury Park, at the Pony, and a lot of places that aren’t there anymore…the Fast Lane, the Baronet Theatre, Club Xanadu,” he recalls. “I have a lot of good memories of Asbury…in the 50s they’d have burlesque at the old Savoy Theatre..I heard they were bringing that place back?…and whenever my father came down to the area, he’d go to Mom’s Kitchen in Neptune!”
Floyd Vivino can boast of another Asbury Park connection, as his former longtime manager was none other than Pat Schiavino— owner of Art629 Gallery, vanguard downtown developer, and mastermind of the Asbury Underground series of music events. It was Pat who coordinated the myriad musical guest acts who appeared on the old TV show, and Pat who helped book another much-missed area venue —Club Bene in Sayreville — when that Route 35 roadhouse was another regular whistle-stop for Floyd’s traveling carnival.
“At one point we had 17 people in our cast, including the full band with my brothers — and we had our mascot Clark the Wonder Dog,” he says. “One time when we were there, Mr. Bene the owner gave Clark a nice big thick juicy steak for dinner…and when it came to feed the rest of us, he brought us all a tub of cherry Jello to divide up between everyone!”
Even as Floyd continued to sell his own commercials and work a regular gig playing piano at Wild West City in Stanhope, those nightclub extravaganzas were helping to generate a momentum that resulted in a series of sought-after 45 rpm record releases (including such classics as Cowboy Charlie’s “Deep in the Heart of Jersey”) — and by the dawn of the 1980s, Vivino was flirting with mainstream success, with a major label recording contract, a brief stint following SNL on Saturday nights, and a supporting role in the Robin Williams feature Good Morning Vietnam.
At the same time, “I had problems with the TV show everywhere I did it…the old UHF channel 68, New Jersey Network…I was called a loose cannon, and I got fired from every channel.”
“A lot of papers, and a lot of politicians had it in for me…I remember the Asbury Park Press as one paper that stuck up for me…and there were some political guys, like (Assembly Speaker) Karcher and (former Governor) Hughes, who liked me.”
“But you know, my brothers and I come from four generations of show people…we share the same DNA, but very different artistic tastes,” says Floyd. “Jimmy’s into the blues and the Beatles; Jerry’s in California doing the jazz thing…and I came up from the old school, playing Sammy’s Bowery Follies when the whole CBGB thing was getting underway.”
“So I’ve never been worried about where I’m gonna work…because I’ll work pretty much anywhere!”
It’s a declaration that Floyd backs up with rare commitment to the lifestyle and the business of show, as any given page of the calendar can find the entertainer working “corporate dinners…there’s big money there…house parties at big mansions, police banquets, stags, spaghetti dinners…I have more work than I can handle, really.”
“But on the other hand, I’m gonna be 70 years old soon, and I don’t want to fly anymore. I used to work in California; I did Vegas and Reno; I would play towns like Youngstown and Warren, Ohio…when they talk about the ‘Rust Belt,’ those are the kind of places they mean,” adds the performer who handles his own bookings by phone.
“You know, I’m not tech-savvy as they say, and I don’t want to have to go anywhere where I need a card or an app to park my car.”
That said, Floyd Vivino continues to test the outer limits of his tech aptitude, with a long-running internet radio program that goes out live every Monday night on unclefloydradio.com, and the recently inaugurated web series Uncle Floyd’s New Jersey, in which the avuncular ambassador shares scenic sights and fascinating stories of places like Paterson and Bloomfield (find the series episodes on YouTube).
And of course there are the club gigs like Friday’s set up at Mr. McLoone’s, a mix of comedy and music the likes of which you’re sure to find nowhere else between the Turnpike and the Tar Pits of La Brea (“I perform a whole lot of Italian shows, too…almost a quarter of my shows are not in English”). Having outlasted most of the rock acts who appeared on his old show — and still passionately plugging away, long after the big-time showbiz circus moved on — Floyd is at home in his habitat; doing it His Way and adhering to that code of the working comedian: “Defend your territory…but don’t hit first!”