Even as he comes on, in his derby and loud jacket, he gets a big hand. "TELL YA WHAT... I'M GONNA DO!" More applause. He sets up his battered street vendor's kit and rolls back his starched cuffs.
" Now friends, through th' cursey 'n' kine p'mish'n a th Smthsnian..." the words come slurred and fast, in bursts "... I'm gonna offer at this time this handy-dandy potatah peeler... Now its all very simple, ya put the potatah in yer left hand, the potatah peeler in yer right and you proceed to... I heard that remark man, you say yer not satisfied, you say you want mawfa yer money, awright I'm gonna throw in one of my Bowie specials, a combination racing form and insurance policy...."
He slaps the paper with the back of his hand: the slap of truth. The hard roucous voice cuts off each phrase with the urgency of a newscaster.
"If you die before 40... my company will pay off eight to one." (Laugh.) "If yer lucky... you 'n your wife die at the same time... you win the daily double" (Big laugh .)
Sid Stone rode through the Washington drizzle looking for a coffee shop. He was muttering about the hotel he'd been put up at: no restaurant, no room service, surly help. "Not even a stamp machine, for God's sake."
He is a connoisseur of hotels. He has been in show business 54 of his 77 years.
He was here to do his famous Pitchman act for the Smithsonian, the act that made him a national figure from 1948-52 on the Milton Berle Texaco show on TV.
Washington is a special town for him.
"My first date was at the Gayety at 9th and E," he said, "the initial point of my career, such as it is... such as it was." He chuckled.
He was on the very last vaudeville bill to play the Capitol Theater in 1953. "We closed the house. It was different, then. There used to be a spirit of camaraderie among the performers. You don't see that any more."
There would always be a bunch of troupers in a town, playing the burlesque theaters, the nightclubs, the legitimate shows, he said. "We'd all congregate at the same eating and drinking places, stay at the same hotels, and we'd sit in the hotel lobby till the wee hours of the morning, just talking shop. It was a different world."
He didn't like the lobby of his hotel. It was about the size of a minibus. He brightened considerably when he got into the Capital Hilton lobby. "A proper lobby," he beamed. "I tell ya, I been in some scratch houses...."
He was born in New York. Spent a lot of time in Coney Island. Loved to watch the barkers.
"This was my career, I told myself. I'm a kid, what do I know? You know how they'd go: HUR-RY HURRY HUR-RY, YER JUST IN TIME TO SEE THE MOST CO-LOSSAL SHOW, THE MOST SEN-SATION-AL SHOW EVER WITNESSED BY THE HUMAN EYE...."
His jaw moved slantwise in classic barker style. His own speech was not slurred at all, though he did go after those big words.
"I started in burlesque, you know, and every house had a candy butcher, and I started associating with these guys, I absorbed their colloquialisms, their idiomatic expressions. I went around with 'em. I was maybe 19, 20. I lived with these characters, knew what made 'em tick. Just like I know what makes a horseplayer tick."
The long, articulate hands push back the cuffs yet another time and rummage in the tray. A bottle of perfume.
"Toujours L'Amour, Tonight fer Sure. So powerful it's banned by Planned Parenthood. Put it behind each ear, I guarantee yer boyfriend will bite yer ear off. Remember girls, this can only happen to you twice ...."
Stone developed his pitchman act over the years. It goes 17 minutes, 18 if the laughs are good. After he's finished he can go on for another half hour of stand-up comedy. "Good clean material," he said. "Perhaps a little risque line once in a while."
Then in 1948, NBC called him. He was playing the Olympic Theater in Miami at the time.
"They said they heard I had some ideas about making commercials more palatable. So they tried me out on a two-week contract and it turned into a 4 1/2-year contract with graduated clauses. It's 25 years since I went off the air, and you'd be surprised how many people came up last night after the show was over and remembered me and wanted my autograph."
His record for sponsor identification, an incredible 98.5 percent, still stands. The nearest to it is Arthur Godfrey's 66 percent on the Nielsen ratings.
"The real hurt," he mused over breakfast at the Hilton, neatly mopping egg with his toast, "is that I should be up there today playing the top spot and getting top money. But the ad people can't see beyond their nose. I nearly had a hell of a shot three years ago when Texaco wanted me for their goodwill ambassador. But the ad agency had their own ideas. Threw Bob Hope at 'em."
Broadway wanted him for Nathan Detroit in the original "Guys and Dolls" -- as a horseplayer straight out of Damon Runyon he'd have been perfect -- but he was still under contract to Texaco. So Sam Levene got the part.
Stone played the role for 10 years on the road. He came to the Carter Barron Theater in the show, starring the late Dan Dailey.
Now he's got a poster of a woman skinny as a Giacometti. "I want you to notice the bags under the lady's eyes. You see, the blood goes to the lower extremities, takes one look at them big feet and rushes right back up.She's got so much calcium in her, every time she sits down she leaves chalk marks on the chair ."
Next he shows a poster of the woman after she's taken two bottles of his "wonderful hormones." Her breasts are now as big as waterwings. "I want you to notice, the bags are no longer under the lady's eyes ...."
Sid Stone's pitchman act is a work of art, not only for the timing, so masterful you are hardly aware of it, but for his sustained portrait of a specific person. Essentially, Stone is a character actor.
"You used to have to spend years in the business, you'd start as an assistant stage manager and work your way up to maybe a juvenile or dancer in the show, and you watched and you listened and you were taught by the people who'd already arrived, and they taught you the tricks of the trade, they taught you style. And if you observed and had intelligence, plus nascent talent, it came out.
"Timing is almost the most important thing. That, you don't get from a book, of going to acting school, or some college majority in dramatics. That, you got to go out on the boards and learn."
The toughest thing in the business, he said, is doing a single, all alone up there with a live audience.
"You gotta handle 'em. You gotta get on and get off without help from anybody. There are many grand performers who are great, but they couldn't do that."
Today, he added, most comics come up through the condominium circuit in Florida or the borscht circuit in upstate New York. Most of them tell the same gags, he snorted -- kid gags, hotel gags, wife gags -- and probably would never have made it without a lot of videotape editing and canned laughter.
"It's a tough business. You have to hand it to anybody who's made it for whatever reason, talent, nepotism, or being good in bed. It's tough to get to the top. Tougher to stay there."
He paid the check. It was a little over $4. He left a $1 tip.
"Many times you'd just go back to the hotel and look at those four walls and say, 'Jesus Christ, this is rough, isn't it.'"
Ten years ago Stone and his wife lost a daughter, aged 26. There is another daughter and a granddaughter.
Stone spent a couple of years at Fordham University, mainly because it was near where he lived, but his real education came from the likes of Jessel, Cantor, Durante, Bobby Clark and Sophie Tucker. He's a great friend of Henny Youngman, and the two get together when Stone winters in Florida.
"We're on my way there now," he said. "I have a few engagements, and we'll stay down two months or so and grab a little sunshine."
He can't seem to get the hang of being 77 years old: He doesn't even think about retiring. He wants to work.
"I'll work anywhere. If you got a good engagement on the back of a truck, I'll take it."
He was so thrilled at working a real vaudeville show for the Smithsonian that he kept grinning at the laughs he was getting.
He has a stooge from the audience up there with him now. He cuts off the guy's necktie and then smears his face with his patented face cream. "Gotta be sure the sulfuric acid does not get near the optic nerve," he mutters, rubbing the white gunk all over the stooge's head. "It may cause the kidneys and tearducts to act as one. It won't grow hair on a man's head, but it's gonna shrink his skull and make the hair he's got look a lot bigger."
Dismissing the guy who is standing there with the cream on his face, Sid Stone the Pitchman goes into his closer:
"Get lost, will ya kid, the cops are comin', my lease expired and thank you for yer kind attention."
He folds his kit and runs offstage to a roar of applause .