'Herrrman, I vant to talk vith yyooouuu…!'
By Tom Weaver
There have been other, more notable get-togethers in horror movie annals—the historic confab of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE WOLF MAN, the memorable "Meet"ings of various monsters with Abbott and Costello and others. But for offbeat behind-the-scenes monkey shines, few rival BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952).
In the early 1950s, there was no hotter team in show business than Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, stars of stage, screen and TV. Imitators were inevitable, and Jerry Lewis' was uncanny: A teenage Bronx comic named Sammy Petrillo who once appeared opposite Lewis (as his baby son) on TV. Petrillo subsequently teamed with singer-actor Dominick "Duke" Mitchell, a Dean Martin type who cut his hair to look more like "Dino." Mitchell and Petrillo began making appearances in small Los Angeles clubs while their personal manager Maurice Duke pitched them to various movie producers. Duke finally found a willing partner in Jack Broder, the head of Realart Pictures—but Broder's assistant Herman Cohen had misgivings making a movie with Mitchell and Petrillo. In fact, Cohen says, "I thought they stunk."—
When I got out of the Marine Corps in 1949, I started working for Columbia Pictures, as sales manager in their Detroit branch. I didn't want to stay there, but my mother wasn't too well at the time. When my mother passed away, then there was nothing holding me in Detroit, and that's when I came out to California. I got a job in the Columbia publicity department.
Jack Broder owned theaters in Detroit, but I had never met him. But now that I was out in Hollywood, I was told by many people, "You ought to look Jack up," because he was an ex-Detroiter. He was the head of Realart Pictures, the company that had bought the Universal library. Jack was about to go into production [of his own low-budget pictures] and he was looking for an assistant, someone who would work very cheap. I went to his offices in Beverly Hills, in the Bank of America Building, and had an interview with him, and he hired me. When we started the production company, our first offices were at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City. From Hal Roach, we moved to Sam Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, where we did BRIDE OF THE GORILLA . Then we moved to General Service Studios, 1040 North Las Palmas Avenue—our offices were next to Desilu, who were getting ready to shoot their first I Love Lucy there. We were the only picture company on the lot, it was basically at that time a TV studio.
Jack Broder was a wonderful, wonderful guy and I owe a lot to him. He wasn't too good with the bucks but he certainly gave me all the titles, up to and including vice-president. Oh, he gave me a lot of titles! I was over his sales manager, Budd Rogers, in New York! I was a little pisher [squirt], and I was Budd's boss! I was just out of the service, and at first the job was too big for me. But if I didn't know something, I'd go to the Cinema Department library at UCLA to know what the hell they were talking about. Our first picture was TWO DOLLAR BETTOR , then THE BASKETBALL FIX  and BRIDE OF THE GORILLA and so on.
The way BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA came about is this: Maurice Duke brought these two guys, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, in to see Jack and me. Mitchell and Petrillo were a junior Martin and Lewis, and Maurice had them under personal contract. Maurice was a personal manager for very cheap acts, acts you'd see in small clubs. Maurice was crippled, he'd had infantile paralysis, and so he had braces on his feet and he had to walk with canes. (And he walked pretty damn good!) He'd have a big cigar in his mouth, and he had a wild tongue. He would say anything, he didn't give a shit about anybody or anything because of the fact that he had these medical problems.
Maurice sold Jack Broder on the idea to do a picture with these two boys, Mitchell and Petrillo. They had a cockamamie nightclub act imitating Martin and Lewis, and Maurice took Jack to some little club someplace, Culver City maybe, to see these guys. Jack thought they were hilarious. I thought they stunk. I didn't go with Jack and Maurice, I went to see 'em with some friends. Oh, God, they were terrible! But, hey, I was just working for Jack Broder, you know. I was very unhappy on that film because it was such a piece of shit, at the time we made it. But Jack Broder thought these two guys were funny.
Who had the idea of adding Bela Lugosi to the picture, and why, I don't recall. I can't take credit for it because I can't remember, and I don't think it was Jack who brought Bela Lugosi's name in either. It could have been Maurice Duke. But I can't recall.
At first, the title of the picture was WHITE WOMAN OF THE LOST JUNGLE—Jack came in one day and said, "We're gonna call the picture WHITE WOMAN OF THE LOST JUNGLE." "Jack! That'd be ridiculous! We got Bela Lugosi, you gotta use his name!" I remember we had a big argument about that! Actually, I think Bobby, one of Jack's kids, came up with that title. And Bobby at the time was about ten! Jack consulted Bobby all the time. Anything that was submitted to the office, Jack would say, "Let me give it to Bobby," and he'd take it home for Bobby to read. Then Jack would come back in the next day and say, "Turn it down. Bobby doesn't like it." [Laughs] And that ended that! I became very friendly to Bobby to keep him on my side—Bobby could talk his dad into anything, his dad loved him so much. I had no trouble with Bobby, because I won him over with ice cream! Bobby was the pride of Jack because he was the first and the oldest son. He was a good-looking young kid, smart as a whip, and he actually was the "king" behind the scenes of his dad—his dad would discuss everything with Bobby. And I think Bobby was ten at the time! (But I was only 21, so there you are! We had a very young company!) His name now is Robert Broder, of Broder-Kurland-Webb-Uffner, a top Hollywood talent agency, especially for TV. Bob Broder's turned out to be one of the top agents here.
Jack Broder was a millionaire and he was a member of the Friars Club and he knew [producer] Hal Wallis at Paramount, who had Martin and Lewis under contract. Now, there's a funny story that very few people know: The rumor got around that we were gonna do a movie with these two guys Mitchell and Petrillo. My office was right next to Jack's, you had to go through my office before you got to Jack Broder. Anyway, one day at the office, this guy came dashing in and he said [in an angry voice], "Where's Jack Broder?!" I said, "Well, he's in his office, right there—" It was Jerry Lewis. He came in because he knew Jack Broder through the Friars Club and he was furious about this [the Mitchell-Petrillo movie]. And Jerry Lewis and Jack had a screaming session and what have you. I didn't go into the office, I stayed out. I didn't want any part of it. Then when Jerry Lewis walked out, they were still calling each other names: "You fuckin' asshole," "You this," "You that" and what have you. Maurice Duke had an office on the other side of the lot, but I don't know whether Lewis saw Maurice or not.
On the set, Mitchell and Petrillo were funny guys. Duke Mitchell was much more classy than Sammy, but Sammy was the Jerry Lewis character and Duke thought he was Dean Martin. They were easy to get along with...we told 'em what the fuck to do, they did it. Duke Mitchell had a pretty good voice; in fact, after he and Sammy split, I saw Duke in a small club in Palm Springs where he was singing. Petrillo was a nutty kid. Duke Mitchell was much more serious. Petrillo, as they say in Yiddish, was meshugah, he was crazy. And he was funny. But he was insecure.
I signed William Beaudine to direct—I got him to direct the picture because he did the Leo Gorcey-Huntz Hall Bowery Boys movies at Monogram. We needed somebody who was fast…who was not too bright and intelligent, but who knew film. I went over to Monogram and I watched him work on several things, and I said, "Jack, this is the director for this movie. He knows comedy, he knows crap"—and we got William Beaudine. And he was wonderful. I mean, no prima donna in him at all. You could tell Bill Beaudine to do this, do that, blah blah blah, and it'd get done. I loved that old guy. He just loved the business, he was unbelievable. And the photographer was Charles Van Enger, who I used in about seven pictures. This guy was terrific, and we were lucky to get him. There was nothing he didn't know about lighting—nothing. And he was so fast—God, was he fast! We used him in picture after picture. I loved him too. We hired all these oldtimers, and they taught me a great deal 'cause I'd sit and talk to them about the industry and about what they were doing and this and that and what have you. Now I look at some of these prima donnas today…they don't know what day it is!
I would say we made the picture for about $100,000, including Bela Lugosi—he didn't get paid that much. Bela only worked, I think, four days. Bela was not too well, he looked sick all the time. And I had a tough time getting him on the stage, because I didn't realize, young pisher that I was, that he was taking morphine. Whenever he had to dash back to his dressing room, I thought that he was going to the bathroom or something, and he was getting his morphine shots. But he was a nice man—oh, golly! I used to break up talking to him, because he always was playing Dracula. "Herrrman! Herrrman, I vant to talk vith yyyooouuu…!" I used to break up! But he was difficult to get into a conversation with. (And if you mentioned Boris Karloff, he got pissed off. "Boris Karloff cannot act like meeeee!") He did have some trouble with lines, but…we made the bloody thing in seven days, he couldn't give us too much difficulty!
We also had this little fat broad named Muriel Landers—she was funny. In the picture, she was in love with Sammy Petrillo and was chasing him all around. I remember Bela Lugosi laughing at her, he also thought she was funny. Muriel Landers was very talented, a funny Jewish girl from New York. Ramona the Chimp we got from a company in Saugus that had chimps and apes and what have you. He was smart. The gorilla in the picture was Steve Calvert—what a nice guy. You know where I met Steve? He was the head bartender at Ciro's—I got free booze whenever I came into Ciro's. He was also the gorilla in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA. Years later, I rented Steve's gorilla suit when I did KONGA —we shipped the gorilla suit to London.
Jack Broder would come onto the set a few times during the day. Jack was a very short guy and he had a habit of putting his right hand in his belt—he'd walk like Napoleon. He'd say, "Herman. You tell dem if dere behind schedule, I pool the shwitch. I pool the shwitch!" (Jack had a foreign accent, he was born in Europe.) Then when Jack would leave the soundstage, Maurice Duke would get up and repeat Broder: "Herman! If dere behind schedule, pool the shwitch! Pool the shwitch!" That used to be our running gag every night! Oh, Maurice Duke had a grrreat sense of humor. Did you ever hear of Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals? Maurice was one of the Harmonica Rascals as a kid—he played beautiful harmonica! I liked him and his wife, because he was a bundle of laughs, and he took to me. The night that James Dean, who was a friend of mine, was killed, I was at Maurice Duke's house for dinner. All during the years, I stayed in touch with Maurice.
Maurice had a strident voice. He'd arrive on the lot, wherever I happened to be, if he wanted to see me. No appointment or anything, he'd just come on the lot. I could be in my office and I'd hear [shouting], "Hoiman! Hoiman! It's Maurice! It's Duke!" And I would take him to lunch, 'cause he wanted me to take him to lunch [laughs]. And Maurice had this wonderful guy, Tony Roberts, who loved him. Maurice couldn't drive, and Tony Roberts was his driver and right hand man and he ran Maurice's errands for him. This guy did everything for Maurice—in fact, his name is in the credits of BROOKLYN GORILLA, as "Assistant to the Producer." Maurice treated him like shit but deep down he loved him, they loved each other, and this big, big, nice guy stuck with Maurice for years. Maurice Duke was quite a character. I really enjoyed this man, I really liked him.
BROOKLYN GORILLA was a fun set.There were lots of set visitors, because they wanted to see Bela Lugosi. Not Mitchell and Petrillo—Bela Lugosi. General Service was like a family in those days, so we had Lucy and Desi drop in—in fact, I would bring 'em on the stage. Ozzie and Harriet and their two little sons came on, and, oh God, this one gal I loved, Joan Davis, who then was doing her TV series I Married Joan. She would come on and we would yock with laughs. In those days, everything was fun. General Service is now Hollywood Center Studios—they just built two new, beautiful soundstages there. It's now owned by this multi-millionaire from Canada.
People have speculated that Jack Broder made the picture planning not to release it, that he made it figuring that Hal Wallis would pay him off not to release it. That's not true. However…Jack did have a meeting with Hal Wallis, to see if Wallis wanted to buy the film. Wallis knew Jack Broder, and was pissed off at Jack [for producing it]. Jack figured, "Hey, if he wants to buy the negative, I'll make a lot of money!" Wallis wanted to buy the negative and burn it. I was in on that meeting, but I don't remember how much money they were talking. (We made the picture for three cents!) But Jack couldn't get what he wanted from Wallis, and he decided he was going to release it. [Did Wallis go away mad?] He never talked to Jack Broder again at the Friars Club—that should tell you something!
[Did you think the team of Mitchell and Petrillo was "going" anywhere?] Yeah, they were goin' to Schwab's and see if they could pick up a free meal [laughs]! This was their first movie and their last movie. And I didn't think the picture would be a success…never in a million years. I thought it was so bad, I didn't even want my name on it. I told Maurice Duke, "Look, you take all the credit," and he said, "But you did all the work!" Maurice got the producer credit, but he didn't do anything but bring in Duke and Sammy, because he was their personal manager.
The picture didn't have to do too much to make its money back, we only spent about 100,000 on it. It didn't break any records anyplace, but it did well. Then it became a cult thing because of Bela Lugosi. I've had a lot of calls on it because of Bela Lugosi. Not because of Mitchell and Petrillo. Because of Bela Lugosi.
Tom Weaver is an award-winning author and film historian who has written numerous articles and books on classic horror and science fiction movies and their creators. This interview has been reprinted with the permission of the author.