EVERY DAY except Sunday it happens; around noon, around 10 and around midnight. It doesn't matter which day or which time, because it always happens the same way. The fabulous Board Room girls with their fabulous nipples showing through their fabulous sheer negligees stop shaking it and climb down from the table tops as Donna Summer fades out on the line, "Dim all the lights sweet darlin', 'cause tonight it's all the way," and the men at the tables who have been studying the Board Room girls take out their dollar bills -- sometimes a five or even a 10 -- fold them and place them between the Board Room girls' garters and upper thighs, their fabulous upper thighs. And then, wading into the silence, feeling about as welcome as viral pneumonia, the man by the cigarette machine in the Saturday Night Fever suit -- three-piece pearl gray with the black shirt open at the neck and the gold medallion resting on the carpet of chest hair -- takes off his glasses, walks to the platform stage, grabs the hand mike -- knowing he'd better be good, he'd better be strong, because he's cutting off the T-and-A and nobody, not a single guy out there wants any part of what he's selling -- and says, "Hi, my name is Charlie, and we're just gonna have a party."
Yes, swimming upstream, yes, spitting into the wind, yes, riding straight into the valley of flush, Washington's longest-running unknown comic is comin' at you. Comin' on strong. Comin' on REAL STRONG.
Ladies and gentlemen, Charlie Prose.
"Guys, I'm sorry to tell you this. I just heard it on the radio. The annual Washington D.C., march of the virgins has been canceled. One of the girls is sick -- and the other doesn't want to march alone."
Charles Roger Procopio was born 34 years ago, the fourth of five children of an ambitious grocery store owner in Mt. Carmel, deep in the coal country of Pennsylvania. At 13 he thought of being a concert pianist, but after his first teacher died, he chafed under the attack-dog discipline of his second teacher, a nun, and he gave up the piano in favor of the alto saxophone, which he taught himself to play in the family's "banana room." (The elder Procopio, perhaps a visionary, had set aside the basement for banana storage in a attempt to corner the Pennsylvania banana market. Unfortunately, imports were bad; yes, he had no bananas, and young Charles was left alone in the basement to work on his sax appeal.)
"Yeah, I went bankrupt twice. Opened a tall men's shop in Tokyo. Opened a bar in Harlem called Whitey's."
By the time he was 16 Charlie was sure he wanted a career in show business. Since he couldn't dance, and he didn't know he could sing or tell jokes, he took the remaining path -- dance bands. Surely you remember the Bomarcs (named -- great concept -- after a nuclear missile), Joe and the Juniors (you got it, nobody named Joe, nobody named Junior) and the Three Clefs. You don't? You don't remember the Bomarcs?
"Do I see some military men in the audience? Get hold of yourselves -- it looks like war in Europe. Poland just bought 5,000 septic tanks and as soon as they learn how to drive them, they're going to invade Italy and try to rescue the pope."
After graduating from high school, Charlie passed up college and went directly to New York to become a star; he figured it would take -- tops -- six months. Lesson No. 1: You can't believe everything you see in a Judy Garland movie. He bounced from band to band, playing places like Scranton, Pa., Toledo, Ohio, and Lowell, Mass., and finally wound up at Dominic Cervetti's 505 club in Des Moines, Iowa with Ronnie Bock and the Dutchmen. Ronnie Bock had what you call Dreams.
He drove the Dutchmen around in a black Rambler station wagon decorated with hex signs and a handprinted warning -- Ronnie Bock and the Dutchmen direct from Intercourse, Pa. National Tour. He held the band together by convincing them that Ed Sullivan was going to come see them play next week; always next week. The Dutchmen were kids; they always fell for it -- of course Ed Sullivan had nothing better to do than slip in to Scranton or Des Moines to see them gig. Meanwhile the Dutchmen were living on bread and bologna; they bought the bread and stole the bologna.
"Try not to be a total loser. You ask, 'Charlie, what's a total loser?' A total loser is a stowaway on a kamikaze flight; a total loser is a man who mistakes the Ben-Gay for the Vaseline on his wedding night."
Charlie Procopio was willing to go slowly, but Ronnie Bock and the Dutchmen were going nowhere and hungry, so one night, after closing at Dominic Cervetti's 505 Club, Charlie asked Ronnie if he could speak to him; he spoke to him with a short right hand to the mouth, dropping Bock for the count. Then he loaded the rest of the Dutchmen into the wagon and drove home to the coal country. He had been on the road for one year, and the only thing he had gotten was older.
"I didn't vote for Jimmy Carter or for Gerald Ford. I voted for Xaviera Hollander. The Happy Hooker. Her slogan was 'If you're gonna get screwed, at least have it done by a professional.' That's right. She ran as a Democrat. Whoever heard of a nice piece of elephant?"
Seeking discipline, he enrolled in Elizabethtown College and married his high-school sweetheart, Linda McCoy. Within a year they had the first of their two daughters and the three of them were living in a trailer in Reems, Pa., getting by on the $200 a week Charlie was earning playing paino and singing in local college town bars. Oh yeah, by now he was quite passable as a singer. Procopio was out -- Prose was in. Snappier. Better in lights. Less ethnic. He tells people that he changed his name so he could play the Jewish resorts in the Catskills, but soon he will have a funnier story; he would need a funnier story for Carson. The only thing worse than no story for a comic is a dull story.
"Drunk at a party -- drunk walks up to the hostess and asks, 'Do lemons have legs?' Hostess says, 'Of course not.' So the drunk says, 'Then I just squeezed your canary into my drink.'"
The comedy thing, he swears, was accidental; he never intended to become a comedian. It just happened when he began filling the time between songs with what they call, in the trade, "snappy patter." Imagine his surprise when he'd do an ad-lib and they'd laugh; he did lines he'd heard on TV, and they'd laugh; he'd do insults, and they'd laugh; he bought a Redd Foxx album and stole the stories, and they'd laugh. He began to like the sound of their laughter. Pretty soon he was doing more snappy patter than songs. Suddenly, he had an act. Suddenly, he had an agent. Suddenly, he was goint out as a single. Can you believe this? Charlie Prose making $400 a week in 1969 working The Surf Club in Atlantic City, opening for the Four Tops, the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Vale, a nice Italian boy like Jerry vale. What else could you call it but a compliment when Jerry Vale told the club manager to have this Prose kid cut the singing and just emcee and get off the stage? Imagine being a threat to a star like Jerry Vale already, at 24. Look out, world.
"Excuse me [to a man about to help himself at a buffet table], you're not gonna eat that, are you? Must be with a tour group. And to think I bet two dollars on that on Laurel last week."
Hey, it's great to be here Johnny (Mike, Merv, Dinah). Yeah, I just opened in Vegas. Judy Garland time again. Charlie Prose never got out of the small pond. Sure, he wowed them in Wildwood, N.J., and he knocked them on their keesters in the Virgin Islands, and you know that he tears them to pieces at Washington's own Board Room with his bathroom and bedroom jokes. But after a decade as a stand-up he has yet to say anything to Johnny (Mike, Merv, Dinah) and unless those folks come see him gig at The Board Room between now and Christmas he's unlikely to. Three shows a day. And, hey, where else can you get gorgeous girls, a hot buffet and a comic for $3.50 at noon?
"You know the difference between a lawyer and a rooster? A rooster, I say, a rooster clucks defiance . . ."
A couple of years ago when Charlie was driving them bananas in Wildwood, Mickey Shaughnessy -- sure you know him, a character actor, funny guy; take my word for it -- so Mickey Shaughnessy tells him, "You're gonna be a big star someday, but not until you absolutely decide what it is you want to do. When you absolutely decide, and you're proud of it, then they'll stand up and find you. They'll come and get you when you're ready." Charlie's about ready to believe that now. He's about ready to take that stand. Because how far can you go with stuff like this:
"Any homosexuals here? Seriously, any gays here? I guess Anita Bryant scared them all off. You know what she says -- 'If God wanted fags he would have created Adam and Bruce.' But what does Anita Bryant know? She's been squeezing fruit for years."
When Charlie's in town, The Board Room puts him up at 13th and Massachusetts, in an efficiency apartment with a small kitchen, a couch, a bed and some chairs. Even when it's real pretty it's not real pretty, but until Christmas it's home -- every day except Sunday, when Charlie drives back to his family in Lancaster, Pa. "I think I got a Coke in the icebox," Charlie says. "You wanna split a Coke?" He brings the can into the main room and slumps in a chair. He is tired. At least the noon show is history and he'll have nine hours to rest before walking back to work. There are two attache cases in the room, one on the bed, the other on the floor near his feet. Later he will open them to produce his clippings, his book filled with business cards of booking agents and the pictures of his daughters, whom he loves more than anything else in his life. These attache cases are his line. At the moment he opens them, as the light glances off the gray in his temples and his 34-year-old face looks 44 because of all these years stuck in the slow lane, Charlie Prose will resemble no one more than Willy Loman, and his delivery, far from being the strong sell of the stand-up comedian, will be halting and vulnerable, as if caught in a undertow.
What we will learn is that while Charlie Prose may be a funny man, there is nothing funny about being Charlie Prose. Nothing at all.
"What do people usually say to me? You mean people who come up to me after my show? Well, a lot of people say they think I'm as good as those guys they see on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin. They say -- 'How come you're not on TV? What do I say? I say, 'Nobody asked me.'"
He leans back even more, lifts his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose, and pops the $64,000 question.
"Now, why aren't I doing those shows? Why haven't I?"
He has waited for this moment.
He has waited at least five years for this precise moment, to answer the precise question, to unlock the door to this particular place in his subconscious and let whatever was in there finally come out and breathe.
"I think it's my fault. Maybe for a long time I was afraid of it, afraid of failing. Maybe I was really saying -- Am I as good as people say I am? oSee, I never had the BIG dream. Getting a little piece of it always satisfied me enough. To play The Beachcomber in Harrisburg was the big time for me. I was always looking for security for my wife and my daughters. I could get 15 weeks a year in the Virgin Islands, 12 weeks in Wildwood, all the weeks I wanted at The Board Room. Hell, I once did 56 weeks in a row at The Board Room. Part of my problem was that I stayed too long in these places. I took myself out of circulation. But at least I was getting security.
"I got the house in Lancaster, all paid for. And some stocks. And I'm in business with one of my brothers in Arizona in a meat market. I'm not gonna lie to you. I make a good living. I've worked 10 straight years at this, and I'm making $60,000 a year now. It's gotten comfortable for me. It's gotten safe. Sometimes maybe I should have made moves to grow bigger in show business, but I was trying to stay with my family more. I wanted to give them stability. Now I see I couldn't really do it. And my wife, well, she's not what you'd call a show-biz wife. I think sometimes she fears that I'm gonna make it, you know, like 'Oh my God, he's really gonna try this time. He really wants it.'
"Well, I do want it now, and I never did before. Sure I can work Wildwood and the Islands and The Board Room. I can be the Don Ho of the Virgin Islands. I'm a star there. But all of a sudden what happens is that you say -- I can't do this anymore. You get frustrated. So let's go get it. I never called the Carson show, or the Griffin show. That's what you gotta do to get on, but I was scared. Now I'm gonna do it. Now, the frustration of not doing it first class has far overpowered everything else. I'm so tired of telling dirty jokes. I'd like it now. I want it. I wanna go after it with a vengeance now."
Hiw own voice startled him.
"Jeez, will you listen to me? Sorry."
The agent from New York turned the name over slowly.
There was silence on Al Davis' end of the telephone. The press agent for The Improv, the hottest comedy club in the East, was searching through his mental files for a listing on Charlie Prose, P-R-O-S-E.
"What's he look like?"
Five-10, 5-11, maybe 185 pounds, slight paunch, a round face, dark hair, mustache. He looks a little like a lot of guys. Third on the right at the Holiday Inn. Got it?
Al Davis didn't got it.
So, Al, if you don't know him, who does?
"no one. The guy's got a spark, I'll know about him. He's a dead lox, why should I care? . . . Hey, tell you what. I'll ask some people. If you don't hear from me, it's dead."
Davis never calls back and George Schultz draws a blank. Schultz owns Pip's, a New York City showcase that was the first club to find David Brenner, Gabe Kaplan, Joan Rivers and Jimmy Walker. If Al Davis knows all there is to know about comedians, George Schultz taught the course. k
"I never heard of Charlie Prose. He got any credits? He been on TV?"
He says he's been on telethons.
Schultz is not impressed.
It sounds like he has just spit up.
"Forget about it. Look, every day there's a telethon on the cable; they throw you out there at four in the morning just to have a live body . . . The business is all in California. To make it nationally you have to do it on Carson. Carson ain't gonna walk into some little joint in Washington . . . Look, it's a tough business. Even when it's good, it stinks. This guy obviously doesn't know where he's at. He's grasping at straws. It sounds hopeless."
It is one thing when the New York mavens crap out on you. It is quite another when the people in Washington -- the town you have worked for 10 years -- haven't even heard your name, guys like Harry Monocrusos, who owns Garvin's Comedy Showcase on Connecticut Avenue; Paul Brookman, who owns El Brookman, a comedy club in Anacostia; Keith krokyn, who books acts for the Cellar Door.
Curiously enough, Washington's best-known delcared comedian, Mark Russell, had heard of Charlie Prose; he had even seen Charlie work. "He's got a great face, and great delivery. I've always thought he could be a great comic actor. You know, I wonder why he hasn't gone out to California to try it -- you just can't break out of Washington; this is the worst possible town to use as a springboard . . . Catch me up. Where's he playing? Oh no, not The Board Room still. That place has absolutely no Washington identity. [Some] people are embarrassed to admit they go there."
This is not exactly music to Charlie's ears.
Whaddya want me to say?" he asks. "You think I don't know this stuff? You think I'm waiting for Frank Sinatra to come in here and see me? I know that won't happen. So what am I supposed to do? Play the showcases in New York for 50 bucks? I'm sorry. I feel like, dammit, I've paid my dues. Look, I'm a product. I've marketed myself regionally, and now I have to market myself nationally, or find someone who can do it for me and sell him a piece of me. If I bust this thing open I'm gonna be worth 70, 80 thousand dollars a week for X number of years. And I'm telling you, I'm strong. I'm one STRONG performer. I'm telling you that I have the best timing and the best delivery of anybody in the business.I am telling you, right here, right now, that I'm going to be a big star. I'm on the verge."
Now, does that sound like a dead lox?
"Charlie Prose? Sure, I know him. I saw him in Wildwood, and I saw him in Newark. Very nice fellow. He makes a helluva living playing lounges. Unfortunately, that goes nowhere." The speaker is Marty Kummer, the booking agent at Dick Clark's Premier Theater in Westchester, 10 miles north of New York City. A major room. A star room. "All he needs is a break, a singing superstar -- like Englebert Humperdinck or Tom Jones -- who'll like him and take him on tour."
Which brings us to The Big Break Story.
There is not a performer in the business who doesn't have at least one Big Break Story. The central character in Charlie Prose's Big Break is Telly Savalas. The last line in Charlie Prose's Big Break Story is, "Sorry." But you probably guessed that already.
"I was working Frenchman's Reef in St. Thomas, packing the room night after night, making them crazy.It was during the Virgin Islands Film Festival; they have it every year. So, Telly Savalas was down there for it, and one night they bring him in to see me. I brought him up on stage, kidded with him a little. You know, I started singing, 'If a pick-tchuuh paints a thousand woids, then why can't I paint you, baby? Rocco. Book her.' That's the only song Telly Does. I mean, what else can he do? He doesn't do anything on stage. So he really likes me. At the time he's doing a nightclub act, the real major clubs, you know? He's playing Tahoe and Vegas and Westbury Music Theater and Shady Grove. The class circuit.
"Now, for opening acts first he uses Corbett Monica, and then he uses Gabe Kaplan. The thing is -- they couldn't help Telly Savalas. I can. He can play off me. So he says he's gonna use me, take me with him. Unfortunately, they canceled his tour. He wasn't doing any business, and it was hurting his image. But suppose he hangs on three months and I go with him? Whaddya think happens to me when I get that kind of exposure?"
Great story, right? You call Savalas. You can't get to him. You get to his press agent, Mike Manakos. Manakos gets to Savalas. This is what Manakos says that Savalas said about Charlie Prose's Big Break Story: "Yes, I remember meeting him. I'm very enthusastic about his talent. He's a great comic."
The offer, Mike, does Telly remember making the offer?
"Telly doesn't remember making the offer. Look, he's a big star. He doesn't remember everything that happened a few years ago. And let's set the record straight -- Telly's tour wasn't canceled; it just dissolved. He had so many other commitments. My recollection is that the tour had terminated months before Telly met this comedian."
The point isn't that Charlie lied, or Telly lied, or that anybody lied. None of that matters now.
The only thing that matters now is that Charlie Prose is working The Board Room on Vermont, between K and L, and not Vegas, between L.A. and New York.
Why the entire front is solid glass is anyone's guess, since it is lined, ceiling to floor, with drapes the color of bittersweet chocolate and the thickness of lead. The sun intrudes on the Board Room only when the door opens, and then the violation is so dramatic that for a brief moment the young woman who greets you seems almost beatific, bathed with the light. As you struggle to adjust to the darkness, you might even fail to notice that she -- like all the young women working here -- is wearing nothing but panties, garters and a negligee top so sheer as to be almost no top at all. It lasts only a moment though, and sooner than she can say, "Good afternon, can I show you to a table?" you are very much aware what she is and is not wearing and what she can and cannot show you.
The Board Room is a cathedral to soft-core, the anthropomorphic reality of 10,000 farmer's-daughter jokes, from the framed velvet nudes to the fabulous Board Room girls -- all young, all pretty, all clean, presumably all milk-fed. As they mount the table tops to shake it for your pleasure and your tip, they are almost intimidating in their wholesomeness; that could be your sister or your daughter lifting her top with rehearsed innocence to give you a peek. That's the trade-off. You can look, but you can't touch, except to put the bills under a garter, the ultimate in tease.
This is the vision of the owner, Leonard Lowenstein, who says, "In Washington, everyone calls me Lenny Low."
Lenny Low it is, sitting at a table in the back of the room, dressed to the nines; wearing what looks to be a $300 suit and a $7.50 manicure. The pink lighting loves Lenny Low, caresses 15 years off his 56-year-old face. Everything in The Board Room looks so much better under pink lighting. Lenny Low is telling about his own background; how he owned clubs in Tampa, Atlanta and Washington; how, at "Follies" in Atlanta 17 years ago he was the first to institute garters, the first to institute negligee tops, "the first in the country ." Lenny Low is telling about how The Board Room isn't topless go-go, how it isn't nude or lewd, how it is "an executive fun spot, a girlie operation, but class girlie operation." Lenny Low is telling about the crowd he gets, how some people have come in day after day for nine years, how executives from around the world come in, and Pentagon brass and politicians, like Chip Carter, "and I heard -- I wouldn't swear to it -- but I heard the first Watergate conspiracy meeting was held here. They couldn't be taped here because of the noise." And Lenny Low is saying that there's nothing dirty going on, and to prove it he hands over a 13-page, single-spaced typewritten list of rules for the girls to follow, a moral code that conceivably might have been co-authored by Billy Graham, Sammy Glick and Phyllis Scalafly.
All of this is very nice, and you can see from the clientele, almost all of whom are wearing either military uniforms or business suits, that nothing dirty is going on; in fact it's downright upright. But, Lenny Low, talk about Charlie Prose.
"What can I say?" Lenny Low says, lighting a cigarette that will burn down to the filter before he is done. "This kid is great. This kid's got more versatility and more warmth than anybody I've ever seen. He can go hours without repeating. Great ad-libber. Tears the room to pieces and never gets insulting, never gets filthy -- I don't like Filth . You can say the words in here. As long as it's funny a comedian can say the words. But filth? Forget it. The thing about Charlie is that he's always cute. He can do Hackett. He can do Redd Foxx. You take Rickles; Rickles can't follow this man. No way. And he sings too. Yeah, Charlie's got a fine voice, plays a beutiful piano -- but this isn't the place for it, no. You wanna hear a funny bit? Charlie used to sing during his show, so one night -- more of less as a joke, but we were serious too -- he sits down at the piano to sing and my manager and I roll out this 25-foot sign that we'd made that says 'Cut The S---, Charlie.' He loved it. Yeah, this kid is great."
Then why, Lenny, isn't he playing the top clubs?
"You don't think this is a top club? The Board Room's famous all over the world. We get mail from Australia."
Okay, Lenny, so why hasn't he broken nationally?
"That's a different story. Number one [there will be no number two], he hasn't been exposed. This year he'll be exposed, through Wildwood, to the Atlantic City casino market. They'll pick him up. I guarantee you that in two years he'll be a big star. I just hope that when he makes it, he comes back and gives me two weeks a year. As it is now he's into such big money that he only comes here out of loyalty and love."
And he, in fact, does tear The Board Room to pieces. He does it with blue jokes, none of which he could use on Carson, but he does it. Lila says she is an actress --"independent films; Coppola offered me a role in 'Apolcalypse,' but I turned it down." She is working The Board Room because a girl who is willing to shake it so it stays shook can make up to $600 a week; she has seen "Charlie make men and women laugh until they bend." And both Cricket and Vanessa -- this is a first-name place -- say that Charlie is simply the best they have ever seen; he's so cute and so good they can't believe he hasn't made it bigger.
"I guess he carries some resentment dep inside," Vanessa says, "because here he is in his mid-30s, and he has so much more talent than so many guys who have made it before him. I feel for him, I really do."
America, the land of dreams. America, the land of opportunity. America, where Charlie Prose once cleared a gay bar by doing fag jokes. America, where Charlie Prose, trouper that he is, once sang "Fly Me to the Moon" even as a moth flew down his throat. America, where Charlie Prose once went down the tubes doing his bedroom jokes before an audience of Baptist ministers.
He has taken off his pinkie ring and put on his glasses, and he is leaning forward because he wants to make damn sure you don't miss a word of this.
So here we go.
"Ten years in Washington, 10 years, and nobody knows who I am. I'm the best-kept secret in this town.And why? Because of The Board Room. I love this room, but it's not a class room. Class is a tux, a band behind you, a girl vocalist, a spotlight. What can I do here? I can't sing. They won't let me sing. I started to sing once and Lenny rolled out this sign that said, 'Cut the s---, Charlie.' That hurt. I love Lenny, but his whole world is T-and-A.He'll never know how much that hurt. All I can do here is some drug jokes, some sex jokes and get off the stage so the girls can dance -- that's what the people come for. How am I gonna wear a tux here? Wearing a tux at The Board Room is like putting diamond earrings on a pig. I don't want anyone to see me at The Board Room. They're not seeing Charlie Prose. I don't know who they're seeing, but it's not Charlie Prose.
"Look, I'm the most successful act in The Board Room. Big deal. Have you ever seen the other acts in The Board Room? I'm tired of playing this room. I'm tired of doing this crap, these pee-pee jokes. At this stage of my career it's degrading. It gets harder and harder to do this stuff as I get stronger and stronger as an entertainer. And I'm not just a comedian -- I never considered myself just a comedian. I'm an entertainer. I wish you could have seen me in Wildwood. I come out in a tux. I've got the band behind me, the girl singer. I open with 'Tomorrow' from 'Annie.' I play 'Malaguena' on the piano and Dazzle them. I do 'What I Did for Love' and close with 'My Way.' And in between I tell some cute stories about growing up, some cute stories about my mother. Cute stories. I'm not dirty. Where you going with that? You're going back to The Board Room."
Something like a sigh comes out of Charlie's body -- not his mouth, but out of his body, from deep inside. Suddenly there are lines on his face that weren't there before. Suddenly there is a redness around his eyes. As he lights his cigarette his hands are shaking.
"I swear to you that I get standing ovations night after night in Wildwood. Those people go bananas for me."
And so we come, finally, to The Dream.
The Dream that each of us has in our own way. The vision of making it, the tangible sight and sound and smell of success. What will it look like, Charlie? How will we know when you've reached it?
"How will you know I've reached it?
He doesn't seem to understand.
The Dream, Charlie.When you get there, what will you do? How will we know you've made it?
Okay, he's got it. He sees it. "When you see me on TV regularly." More. "When you see me in Atlantic City." More. "When you see me in Las Vegas -- no, no, wait."
Now. Now he's got it. The voice is rising, comin' on REAL STRONG.
"When you're driving on The Strip in Vegas, and there's a sign at The Desert Inn and one at The Sahara, and that sucker stands one, two, three, four, five, six, seven -- about seven stories high, right? And the letters, the letters gotta be as big as this room, right? (He's out of his seat now.) When you drive down that strip and you see 'Charlie Prose' -- or better yet, CHARLIE. Like they do with Sinatra. Awright? That's my postcard to you. That, that's my postcard to you."
And now there is mostly silence.
And the loudest sound in the room is the pounding of Charlie Prose's heart.