Back Story

There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that you tend to forget about.  Tonight I watched David Steinberg as he interviewed two of my all-time favorite comedians, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams.

Jonathan was a great improviser, become different people before your eyes…..I saw him at the Hungry I in San Francisco and within the next few days heard that he was having mental problems; he tried to climb the mast of a major schooner docked in the bay….he mentioned in the show tonight that he was in a mental hospital for 8 months but managed to resume his career.  He is just as funny today as he was 50 years ago.

Robin Williams was so influenced by Jonathan and later became great friends…..Jonathan played Robin’s son (!) on Mork and Mindy and the interplay between them was pretty much left alone by the director.

Steinberg was talking to Robin about how he had played the Boarding House in San Francisco, which of course Robin played also,  and how David did what he felt was a great show.  However, on the plane back to Los Angeles the next day he read a review by John Wasserman of the Chronicle that criticized him up and down for being so self-centered.

Well, I knew John Wasserman, a very talented guy who drank too much and who faced a couple of difficult situations; he became jazz and music critic for the Chronicle after the death of Ralph J. Gleason, one of the best jazz critics ever.  And he was the nephew of Dale Wasserman, composer of “Man from La Mancha” so he felt compelled to succeed.

Photo by nkzs from

John, like all of us, loved David Allen who owned the Boarding House where such great talent as Robin, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and others got their careers going; unfortunately David was terrible at keeping track of money and was about to be shut down.

So John organized a benefit for David at the San Francisco (now Bill Graham) Civic Auditorium in 1976, and lined up Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Billy Crystal, Robin, and Joan Baez, who John was seeing at the time.  Of course, I did the ticketing.  The show was amazing; it was the first time I and a lot of other people had ever seen Robin Williams who was in the unenviable position of following Steve Martin but stole the show.

BASS Tickets was opening in Hawaii in 1977, and I had approached Robin’s manager about appearing for us (for $3000) at Sears where our first outlet would be;  I heard shortly thereafter that Robin had been signed for a TV show and would be playing a space man and wasn’t available for my top-flight gig.

Meanwhile, I had asked Joel Selvin who was John’s protegé at the Chronicle if he wanted to take the trip to Hawaii and cover it from the perspective that BASS was now going to be a major part of the entertainment scene in Hawaii.  Joel said that as a courtesy and as protocol, I had to invite John who he was sure would not be available for the trip. I did and he accepted.  I felt a sinking feeling.

We flew over first class (it was cheap then) and John promptly went through all the free drinks and the little bottles he could find.  When we arrived in Oahu, we were met by Ron Gibson who worked with me, and I turned John over to him, as there was much work to be done on the system and promotion prior to opening.  John could barely stand.

The idea was that John would write a column about how the Bay Area’s own ticketing company was spreading its wings.  Over the next 4 days I don’t think John could have written his name.  He spent the time in every bar and was seen walking up and down Kalakaua shouting “where is kukalakalualaka street and where is the Sheraton Hotel?’.  of course he was right in front of it.

We had the opening; had some local entertainment, the mayor, the head of Sears, but no John (thank God).  And we were flying back the next day and that thought was not pleasurable.

Well, I picked up John at the hotel….he was 100% clean and sober and was a perfect and affable companion on the way back.

When we parted he told me he had enough stuff to put together a good column.  It was never written…..a short time later John was at a party, left suddenly and on his way back to the City drove on the wrong side of the road, killing a young couple and himself in a head-on collision.

My friend Joel got the job he never wanted under those conditions of rock and music critic for the Chronicle and has done such good writing over the past 35 years.  He has written some great books on rock and roll (look ’em up) and cowrote “Red” with Sammy Hagar (Number 1 on NY Times bestseller list).  We are still friends although I never got to take him to Hawaii.

6 comments on “Back Story

  1. You never know what someone else is going through, do you. My best friend in high school was Jonathon Winters niece. Her father was his brother and it always caught me off guard when i went to her house b/c he was the spitting image of the comedian Winters. The recent story on cable about him and Robin Williams (where he sells his art/promotes his art/has his art stolen) was truly funny. He’s a brilliant artist as well as comedian.
    John Wasserman doesn’t sound a whole lot different than many unhappy people. It’s tragic he had to harm others in his self- abusive lifestyle. Success/Fame is a beast that has claimed many lives, not always of those who are on the receiving end,

  2. How about talking about when Joan Weston and Carolyn Moreland appeared with David Steinberg when he subbed for Dick Cavette. That would be an interesting story for us Derby fans.

  3. I was at the Boarding House Benefit referenced here, my first exposure to Robin Williams. I’d kill for a video or even audio tape of this performance, which I remember as being on a par with Lenny Bruce’s Berkeley Concert for comic genius on the hoof. I was also a very frequent flyer at the old Boarding House, a beneficiary of David Allen’s legendary financial ineptitude. My girlfriend worked for Bob Cohen who installed the sound system and was never paid, so Bob and his entourage were at the top of the guestlist any night they wanted to be. Those were sweet nights, Bob Marley, Steve Martin, Rickie Lee Jones to name three standouts. So, any leads on a tape of the Boarding House Benefit? Pretty please ?

  4. John was a brilliant writer with a rapier wit. Like many uber-talents, he was driven by evil chauffeurs. Tomorrow is his birthday — he would have been 74.

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